"So that’s about the long and the short of it," Benson said fifteen minutes later. Complete introductions had been made all round, and the two POWs sat cross-legged under the shade of the same tree with Honor while LaFollet hovered watchfully at her shoulder and Mayhew and Clinkscales stood guard. "I was dumb enough—and also young, stupid, and pissed off enough—to join up with the effort to organize a resistance movement after the surrender, and InSec dumped me here in a heartbeat." She grimaced. "If I’d realized no one else was going to be able to stand up to their goddamned navy for the next half century, I probably would’ve kept my head down back home, instead."
Honor nodded. She had only a vague notion of the Pegasus System’s location, but she knew it was close to the Haven System... and that it had been one of the PRH’s very first conquests. And from the flavor of Harriet Benson’s emotions and the steel she sensed at the older woman’s core, she strongly suspected the captain would have attempted to resist the Peeps whatever she had or hadn’t known about the future.
"And you, Lieutenant?" she asked courteously, looking at Dessouix.
"Henri got shipped in about ten years after I did," Benson replied for him. Honor was a bit startled for a moment by the other woman’s interruption, but Dessouix only nodded with a small smile, and there was no resentment in his emotions. Was it his accent? It was certainly much thicker than Benson’s, so perhaps he routinely let her do most of the talking.
"From where?" she asked.
"Toulon, in the Gaston System," Benson said. "When the Peeps moved in on Toulon, the Gaston Space Forces gave them a better fight than we did in Pegasus. Then again," her mouth twisted, "they knew the bastards were coming. The first thing we knew about it was the arrival of the lead task force."
She brooded in silence for a few moments, then shrugged.
"Anyway, Henri was serving in the Marine detachment aboard one of their ships—"
"The Dague," Dessouix put in.
"Yes, the Dague." Benson nodded. "And when the system government surrendered, Dague’s skipper refused to obey the cease-fire order. She fought a hit-and-run campaign against the Peeps’ merchant marine for over a T-year before they finally cornered her and pounded Dague to scrap. The Peeps shot her and her senior surviving officers for ‘piracy,’ and the junior officers got shipped to Hell where they couldn’t make any more trouble. I guess it was—what? About ten T-years, Henri?—after that when we met."
"About ten," Dessouix agreed. "They transferred me to your camp to separate me from my men."
"And how did the two of you end up at Inferno?" Honor asked after a moment.
"Oh, I’ve always been a troublemaker, Commodore," Benson said with a bitter smile, and reached out to lay a hand on Dessouix’s shoulder. "Henri here can tell you that."
"Stop that," Dessouix said. His tone was forceful, and he enunciated each word slowly and carefully, as he if were determined to make his weirdly accented Standard English comprehensible. "It wasn’t your fault, bien-aimee. I made my own decision, Harriet. All of us did."
"And I led all of you right into it," she said flatly. But then she inhaled sharply and shook her head. "Not but what he isn’t right, Dame Honor. He’s a stubborn man, my Henri."
"And you aren’t?" Dessouix snorted with slightly less force.
"Not a man, at any rate," Benson observed with a slow, lurking smile. It was the first Honor had seen from the other woman, and it softened her stern face into something almost gentle.
"I’d noticed," Dessouix replied dryly, and Benson chuckled. Then she looked back at Honor.
"But you were asking how I wound up here. The answer’s simple enough, I’m afraid—ugly, but simple. You see, neither InSec nor these new Black Leg, StateSec bastards have ever seen any reason to worry about little things like the Deneb Accords. We’re not prisoners to them; we’re property. They can do anything the hell they like to us, and none of their ‘superior officers’ are going to so much as slap their wrists. So if you’re good looking and a Black Leg takes a hankering for you—"
She shrugged, and Honor’s face went harder than stone. Benson gazed into her one good eye for a second, then nodded.
"Exactly," she said harshly. She looked away and drew a deep breath, and Honor could feel the iron discipline it took for the older woman to throttle the rage which threatened to explode within her.
"I was the senior officer in our old camp, which made me the CO," the woman from Pegasus continued after a moment, her voice level with dearly bought dispassion, "and there were two other prisoners there, friends of mine, who both helped me with camp management. They were twins—a brother and a sister. I never knew exactly what planet they were from. I think it was Haven itself, but they never said. I think they were afraid to, even here on Hell, but I knew they were politicals, not military. They really shouldn’t have been in the same camp as us military types, but they’d been on Hell a long time—almost as long as me—and InSec hadn’t been as careful about segregating us in the early days. But they were both good looking, and unlike me, they were second-generation prolong."
One hand rose, stroking her blond braid. At this close range, Honor could see white hairs threaded through it, though they were hard to make out against the gold, and Benson’s tanned face was older than she’d first thought. Small wonder, if she was first-generation prolong, like Hamish Alexander. Now why did I think about him at a time like this? she wondered, but it was only a passing thought, and she kept her eye fixed on Benson.
"At any rate, about—what, six years ago, Henri?" She looked at Dessouix, who nodded, then back at Honor. "About six local years ago, one of these new Black Leg bastards decided he wanted the sister. He was the flight engineer on the food run, and he ordered her onto the shuttle for the flight back to Styx."
Honor shifted her weight, eyebrows quirked, and Benson paused, looking a question back at her.
"I didn’t mean to interrupt," Honor half-apologized. "But it was our understanding that no prisoners were allowed on Styx."
"Prisoners aren’t; slaves are," Benson said harshly. "We don’t know how many—probably not more than a couple of hundred—and I guess it’s against official policy, but that doesn’t stop them. These sick bastards think they’re gods, Commodore. They can do whatever the hell they like—anything —and they don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t. So they drag off just enough of us to do the shit work on Styx for them... and for their beds."
"I see," Honor said, and her voice had the frozen edge of a scalpel.
"I imagine you do," Benson said, her mouth twisting bitterly. "Anyway, the son of a bitch ordered Amy aboard the shuttle, and she panicked. No one ever comes back from Styx, Dame Honor, so she tried to run, but he wasn’t having that. He went after her, and Adam jumped him. It was stupid, I guess, but he loved his sister, and he knew exactly what the bastard wanted her for. He even managed to deck the Peep... and that was when the pilot stepped out of the shuttle with a pulse rifle and blew him apart."
She fell silent once more, staring down at her hands.
"I wanted to kill them all," she said in a voice grown suddenly distant and cold. "I wanted to drag them off their frigging shuttle and rip them apart with my bare hands, and we could have done it." She looked up at Honor with a corpse smile. "Oh, yes, it’s been done, Commodore. Twice. But the Peeps have a very simple policy. That’s why I was so upset when I thought you’d attacked one of the food runs, because if you hit one of their shuttle flights, then no more shuttles ever come to your camp. Period. They just—" her right hand flipped in a throwing away gesture "—write you off, and when the food supplies don’t come..." Her voice trailed off, and she shrugged.
"I knew that, so I knew we couldn’t storm the shuttle, however much the twisted, murdering pieces of shit deserved it. But I couldn’t just let them have Amy, either—not after Adam died for her. So when the Black Legs started after her again, I blocked them."
"Blocked them?" Honor repeated, and Dessouix laughed harshly.
"She stepped right into the bastards’ way," he said with fierce pride. "Right in their ugly faces. And she wouldn’t move. I thought they were going to shoot her, but she wouldn’t back off a centimeter."
"And neither would Henri," Benson said softly. "He stepped up beside me, and then a couple more followed him, and then a dozen, until finally there must have been two or three hundred of us. We didn’t lift a finger, not even when they tried butt-stroking us out of the way. We only stood there, with someone else stepping into the same place, and wouldn’t let them past, until, finally, they gave up and left."
She looked back up at Honor, gray eyes bright, glinting with the memory of the moment, the solidarity of her people at her back, but then her gaze fell once more, and Honor tasted the bitterness of her emotions, like lye in Nimitz’s link.
"But they got even with us," she said softly. "They cut off the food shipments anyway." She drew another deep breath. "You’ve noticed mine and Henri’s ‘accents’?" she asked
"Well, yes, actually," Honor admitted, surprised into tactlessness by the non sequitur, and Benson laughed mirthlessly.
"They aren’t accents," she said flatly. "They’re speech impediments. You probably haven’t been on-planet long enough to realize it, but there actually is one plant we can eat and at least partially metabolize. We call it ‘false-potato,’ and it tastes like— Well, you don’t want to know what it tastes like... and I’d certainly like to forget. But for some reason, our digestive systems can break it down—partially, as I say—and we can even live on it for a while. Not a long time, but if we use it to eke out terrestrial foods, it can carry us. Unfortunately, there’s some kind of trace toxin in it that seems to accumulate in the brain and affect the speech centers almost like a stroke. We don’t have a lot of doctors here on Hell, and I never had a chance to talk to anyone from one of the other camps, so I don’t know if they’ve even figured out humans can eat the damned stuff, much less why or exactly how it affects us. But we knew, and when the food flights stopped, we didn’t have any choice but to eat it. It was either that or eat each other," she added in a voice leached of all emotion, "and we weren’t ready for that yet."
"They were in the other camps—the other two the Tiges-Noires let starve to death," Henri said softly to Honor, and Benson nodded.
"Yes, they were," she agreed heavily. "Eventually. We know they were, because the Peep psychos made holo chips of it and made all the rest of us watch them just to be sure their little demonstration was effective."
"Sweet Tester," Honor heard LaFollet whisper behind her, and her own stomach knotted with nausea, but she let no sign of it show in her face. She only gazed at Benson, waiting, and felt the older woman draw composure from her own appearance of calm.
"We lasted about three months," the blond captain said finally, "and each month the bastards would fly over as if for a supply run, then just hover there, looking down at us. We all knew what they wanted, and people are people everywhere, Commodore. Some of us wanted to go ahead and hand Amy over before we all died, but the rest of us—" She sighed. "The rest of us were too damned stubborn, and too damned sick of being used, and too damned mad. We refused to give her up. Hell, we refused to let her give herself up, because we were all pretty sure how they’d treat her once they got her back to Styx."
She fell silent once more, brooding over the cold poison of old memories.
"I think we were all a little out of our heads," she said. "I know I was. I mean, it didn’t really make any sense for two thousand people to starve themselves to death—or gradually poison themselves with those damned false-potatoes—just to protect a single person. But it was... I don’t know. The principle of the thing, I suppose. We just couldn’t do it—not and still think of ourselves as human beings.
"And then Amy took it out of our hands."
Benson’s hands tightened like talons on her knees, and the only sounds were the wind in the leaves and the harsh, distant warbling of some alien creature in the forests of Hell.
"When the shuttle came back the fourth time, she stepped out where the crew could see her." Benson’s voice was that of a machine, hammered out of old iron. "She surprised us, got past us to the pad before we could stop her, and just stood there, looking up at them. And then, when the shuttle landed, she drew her knife—" Benson jutted her chin at the stone blades still tucked into LaFollet’s belt "—and cut her own throat in front of them."
Andrew LaFollet inhaled sharply, and Honor felt the shock and fury lashing through him. He was a Grayson, product of a society which had protected women—sometimes against their own wishes—with near fanaticism for almost a thousand years, and Benson’s story hit him like a hammer.
"They left," she said emptily. "Just lifted and left her lying there like a butchered animal. And they waited another month, letting us think she’d killed herself for nothing, before they resumed the food flights." She bared her teeth in a snarl. "Eleven of my people died of starvation in that last month, Commodore. We hadn’t lost any up until then, but eleven of them died. Another fifteen suicided rather than starve, because they knew the food flights would never resume, and that was exactly what those murdering bastards wanted them to do!"
"Doucement, ma petite," Henri said softly. He reached out and captured one of her hands in dark, strong fingers and squeezed it. Benson bit her lip for a moment, then shrugged angrily.
"At any rate, that’s how Henri and I wound up here, Dame Honor. We’re lifers, because they dragged us ‘ringleaders’ off to Inferno as an added example to the others."
"I see," Honor said quietly.
"I think you do, Commodore," Benson replied, gazing back at her. Their eyes held for several seconds, and then Honor stepped back a bit from the intensity of the moment.
"Obviously, I still have a great many more questions," she said, making her tone come out sounding as natural as her own crippled mouth permitted. And aren’t we all a battered and bedamned lot? she thought with a flash of true humor. Benson and Dessouix from their "false-potatoes" and me from nerve damage. Lord, it’s a wonder we can understand ourselves, much less anyone else! Nimitz followed her thought and bleeked a quiet laugh from her lap, and she shook herself.
"As I say, I still have questions," she said more easily, "but there’s one I hope you can answer for me right now."
"Such as?" Benson asked.
"Such as just what you and Lieutenant Dessouix were doing when my people, um, invited you to come talk to me."
"Doing?" Benson repeated blankly.
"Yes. We could figure out some of what was going on out there," Honor told her, waving her hand in the direction of the camp clearing, "but you and the Lieutenant had us stumped."
"Oh, that!" Benson’s expression cleared, and then she laughed with an edge of embarrassment. "We were... well, call it bird-watching, Dame Honor."
"Bird—watching?" Honor blinked, and Benson shrugged.
"Well, they’re not really birds, of course. Hell doesn’t have birds. But they’re close enough analogues, and they’re pretty." She shrugged again. "It’s an interest we share—a hobby, I suppose—and yesterday and today were our free days, so we decided to see if we couldn’t spot a mated group we’ve been seeing foraging in the sword grass for the last couple of weeks. You do realize, don’t you, that all native life here on Hell is trisexual?" Her expression brightened with genuine interest. "Actually, there are four sexes, but we think only three of them are immediately involved in procreation," she explained. "The fourth is a neuter, but it’s actually the one that does the nursing in the mammal equivalents, and it seems to do most of the foraging or hunting for the others. And the birth rates for all four sexes seem to be set by some sort of biomechanism that—"
She stopped abruptly, and blushed. The effect looked fascinating on her stern, captain’s face, and Dessouix laughed delightedly.
"You see, Dame Honor?" he said after a moment, "even here in Hell, some people have hobbies."
"Yes, I do see," Honor replied with one of her half-smiles. Then she leaned back against the tree, studying them both for several silent seconds while her mind worked.
Nimitz pressed his chin against her knee, chest rumbling with the merest whisper of his normal buzzing purr. Benson’s and Dessouix’s emotions had lashed him like a whip during their explanation of how they’d come to Camp Inferno, but he’d weathered that storm, and now he lay calmly in Honor’s lap, relaxed in its aftermath.
He was comfortable with these people, she realized. And, truth to tell, so was she. She sensed dark, dangerous currents in both Benson and Dessouix, wounded places deep inside them, and the bleak, unforgiving fury of the berserker lurked somewhere at Benson’s heart. But she had it under iron control, Honor knew. And if she hadn’t developed something like it in over sixty years on this worthless piece of dirt, she’d have to be a psychopath herself.
And the critical thing just now was that Honor knew through Nimitz that every word they’d just told her was the truth. More, she sensed the curiosity they had somehow managed to lock down, the torrent of questions they longed to pour out at her. And their dreadful, burning hope that perhaps, just perhaps, her appearance in their lives might mean... something. They didn’t know what that "something" might be—not yet—but they hungered for the chance, however fleeting, to strike back somehow against their captors. And after hearing their tale, Honor could understand that perfectly.
"Are you the senior officer here at Inferno, too?" she asked Benson.
"No," the captain replied, and Honor shrugged mentally. It would have been asking too much of the gods of chance for her to just happen to grab the camp’s CO for her first contact, she supposed.
"Actually, I suppose I am the senior officer in some respects," Benson went on after a moment. "I was in the second draft of military prisoners sent to Hell, so technically, I guess, I’m ‘senior’ to just about everybody on the damned planet! But the senior lifer here in Inferno is a fellow named Ramirez, a commodore from San Martin." She grinned wryly. "In some ways, I think they built Inferno just for him, because he was a very, very bad boy while the Peeps were trying to take Trevor’s Star. He was the senior surviving officer from the SMN task force that covered the Trevor’s Star end of your wormhole junction while the last refugee ships ran for it, too, and he made more waves when they first dumped him on Hell than Henri and I ever did."
"He sounds impressive," Honor mused, then cocked her head and gazed at her two "guests." "Would the two of you be willing to serve as my... emissaries to him, I suppose?"
Benson and Dessouix looked at one another for a moment, then shrugged almost in unison and turned back to Honor.
"What, exactly, did you have in mind?" Benson asked with an edge of caution.
"From what you’ve said, it sounds unlikely that the Peeps have spies in Camp Inferno," Honor told her. "If I were in command, I’d have them there, or at least listening devices, but it doesn’t sound to me like StateSec has anything like a real security consciousness."
"Yes and no, Dame Honor," Benson cautioned. "They’re arrogant as hell, and God knows Henri and I know they don’t give a good goddamn what they do to us or how we might feel about it. And, no, I don’t think they have any spies or bugs down in the camp. But they might, and they don’t take any chances at all with their personal safety off Styx. Only a camp full of outright lunatics would try to rush one of the supply shuttles. Even if they took it, they couldn’t go anywhere with it, and all they’d get would be a month or so of food, whereas everyone in the camp knows that the Peeps would starve them all to death for any attack. But they come in armed, and they’ll shoot one of us down for even looking like we might be a threat. We need our spears for defense against the local predators—they haven’t figured out they can’t digest us—and our knives—" she gestured at the blades in LaFollet’s belt "—are survival tools. But if even a single blade is within a hundred meters of the shuttle pad, they’ll hose it off with heavy pulser fire and kill every single prisoner inside the landing zone before they touch down." She shrugged. "Like I say, nobody gives a good goddamn what the Black Legs do to us."
"I’ll bear that in mind," Honor said grimly, "and the time might just be coming when some of those ‘Black Legs’ will learn the error of their ways." The right corner of her lips drew up, baring her teeth. "But my point right now is that we can’t take the chance that you and I are wrong about whether or not they have Inferno under observation, and I really need to speak to this Commodore Ramirez. Would you two be willing to invite him to come up here to speak with me this evening? And could you convince him to do it without giving anything away if the Peeps are bugging the camp?"
"Yes, and yes," Benson said promptly.
"Good!" Honor held out her hand, and the captain from Pegasus gripped it firmly. Then all three of them stood, and Honor smiled at LaFollet.
"Hand our friends back their spears, Andrew. They’re on our side, I believe."
"Yes, My Lady." LaFollet bobbed his head in a half-bow to Benson and handed the spears over, then pulled the stone blades from his belt and passed them across. "And may I say," he added, with a confidence born of his faith in his Steadholder and her treecat’s ability to read what others felt, "that I’m much happier to have them on our side than the other!"