The man who followed Benson and Dessouix up the hill just as the sun was setting was enormous. Honor told herself it was only the setting sun behind him as he climbed the slope towards her which made him look like some faceless black giant or troll out of a terrifying childhood tale, but she was forced to reconsider that opinion as he drew nearer. He was over five centimeters taller than she was, yet that only began to tell the tale, for San Martin was one of the heaviest gravity planets mankind had ever settled. Not even people like Honor herself, descended from colonists genetically engineered for heavy-grav planets before humanity abandoned that practice, could breathe San Martin’s sea-level atmosphere. It was simply too dense, with lethal concentrations of carbon dioxide and even oxygen. So San Martin’s people had settled the mountaintops and high mesas of their huge home world... and their physiques reflected the gravity to which they were born.
As did that of the man who reached the top of the hill and drew up short at sight of her. She felt his surprise at seeing her, but it was only surprise, not astonishment. Well, surprise and intense, disciplined curiosity. She didn’t know what Benson and Dessouix had told him to get him out here. Clearly they hadn’t told him everything, or he wouldn’t have been surprised, but he’d taken that surprise in stride with a mental flexibility Honor could only envy.
"And who might you be?" His voice was a deep, subterranean rumble, as one would expect from a man who must weigh in at somewhere around a hundred and eighty kilos, but the San Martin accent gave it a soft, almost lilting air. It was one Honor had heard before—most recently from a since deceased StateSec guard with a taste for sadism. Yet hearing it now, there was something about his voice...
She stepped closer, moving slightly to one side to get the sunset out of her eyes, and sucked in a sudden breath as she saw his face clearly at last. He wore a neatly trimmed beard, but that wasn’t enough to disguise his features, and she heard an abrupt, muffled oath from LaFollet as he, too, saw the newcomer clearly for the first time.
It can’t be, she thought. It’s just— And he’s dead. Everyone knows that! The possibility never even crossed my mind... but why should it have? It’s not an uncommon last name on San Martin, and what are the odds that I’d— She gave herself a hard mental shake and made herself respond.
"Harrington," she heard herself say almost numbly. "Honor Harrington."
"Harrington?" The initial "H" almost vanished into the deep, musical reverberations of his voice, and then his dark brown eyes narrowed as he saw her holstered pulser... and the salvaged StateSec trousers and tee-shirt she wore. Those eyes leapt to LaFollet’s pulse rifle, and beyond him to Mayhew and Clinkscales, and his hand darted to the hilt of his stone knife. The blade scraped out of its sheath, and Honor felt the sudden eruption of his emotions. Shock, betrayal, fury, and a terrifying, grim determination. He started to spring forward, but Honor threw up her hand.
"Stop! " she barked. The single word cracked through the hot evening air like a thunderbolt, ribbed with thirty years of command experience. It was a captain’s voice—a voice which knew it would be obeyed—and the huge man hesitated for one bare instant. Only for an instant... yet that was time for the muzzle of Andrew LaFollet’s pulse rifle to snap up to cover him.
"Bastards! " The voice was no longer soft, and fury seethed behind his eyes, but he had himself back under control. His hatred would not drive him over the edge into a berserk attack, but he turned his head and bared his teeth at Benson and Dessouix in a snarl.
"Just a moment, Commodore!" Honor said sharply. His attention snapped back to her, almost against his will, and she smiled crookedly. "I don’t blame you for being suspicious," she went on in a more normal voice. "I would be, too, in your circumstances. But you didn’t let me finish my introduction. I’m an officer in the Royal Manticoran Navy, not State Security."
"Oh?" The single dripped disbelief, and he cocked his head. Am I going to have to go through this with everyone I introduce myself to on this planet? Honor wondered. But she controlled her exasperation and nodded calmly.
"Yes," she said, "and as I explained to Captain Benson and Lieutenant Dessouix earlier, I have a proposition for you."
"I’m sure you do," he said flatly, and this time she let her exasperation show.
"Commodore Ramirez, what possible motive could the Peeps have for ‘luring’ you out here and pretending to be Manticorans?" she demanded. "If they wanted you dead, all they’d have to do would be to stop delivering food to you! Or if they’re too impatient for that, I’m sure a little napalm, or a few snowflake clusters—or an old-fashioned ground sweep by infantry, for goodness’ sake—could deal with you!"
"No doubt," he said, still in that flat tone, and Honor felt the anger grinding about in him like boulders. This man had learned to hate. His hatred might not rule him, but it was a part of him—had been for so many years that his belief she was StateSec was interfering with his thinking.
"Look," she said, "you and I need to talk—talk, Commodore. We can help each other, and with luck, I believe, we may even be able to get off this planet completely. But for any of that to happen, you have to at least consider the possibility that my men and I are not Peeps."
"Not Peeps, but you just happen to turn up in Black Leg uniform, with Peep weapons, on a planet only the Peeps know how to find," he said. "Of course you aren’t."
Honor stared at him for ten fulminating seconds, and then threw up her arm in exasperation.
"Yes, that’s exactly right!" she snapped. "And if you weren’t as stubborn, mule-headed, and hard to reason with as your son, you’d realize that!"
"My what? " He stared at her, shaken out of his automatic suspicion at last by the total non sequitur.
"Your son," Honor repeated in a flat voice. "Tomas Santiago Ramirez." Commodore Ramirez goggled at her, and she sighed. "I know him quite well, Commodore. For that matter, I’ve met your wife, Rosario, and Elena and Josepha, as well."
"Tomas—" he whispered, then blinked and shook himself. "You know little Tomacito? "
"He’s hardly ‘little’ anymore," Honor said dryly. "In fact, he’s pretty close to your size. Shorter, but you and he both favor stone walls, don’t you? And he’s also a colonel in the Royal Manticoran Marines."
"But—" Ramirez shook his head again, like a punch drunk fighter, and Honor chuckled sympathetically.
"Believe me, Sir. You can’t be more surprised to meet me than I am to meet you. Your family has believed you were dead ever since the Peeps took Trevor’s Star."
"They got out?" Ramirez stared at her, his voice begging her to tell him they had. "They reached Manticore? They—" His voice broke, and he scrubbed his face with his hands.
"They got out," Honor said gently, "and Tomas is one of my closest friends." She grinned wryly. "I suppose I should have realized you were the ‘Commodore Ramirez’s Captain Benson was talking about as soon as I heard the name. If Tomas were on this planet, I’m sure he’d have ended up in Camp Inferno, too. But who would’ve thought—?" She shook her head.
"But—" Ramirez stopped and sucked in an enormous breath, and Honor reached up and across to rest her hand on his shoulder. She squeezed for a moment, then nodded her head at the roots of the tree under—and in—which she had spent the day.
"Have a seat in my office here, and I’ll tell you all about it," she invited.
Jesus Ramirez, Honor reflected an hour or so later, really was remarkably like his son. In many ways, Tomas Ramirez was one of the kindest and most easygoing men Honor had ever met, but not where the People’s Republic of Haven was concerned. Tomas had joined the Manticoran Marines for one reason only: he had believed war with the PRH was inevitable, and he had dedicated his life to the destruction of the People’s Republic and all its works with an unswerving devotion that sometimes seemed to verge just a bit too closely upon obsession for Honor’s peace of mind.
Now she knew where he’d gotten it from, she thought wryly, and leaned back against the tree trunk while Tomas’ father digested what she’d told him.
I wonder what the odds are? she thought once more. Ramirez beat the numbers badly enough just to survive to reach Hell, but that I should run into him like this—? She shook her head in the darkness which had fallen with the passing of the sun. On the other hand, I’ve always suspected God must have a very strange sense of humor. And if Ramirez was going to get here at all—and not get himself shot for making trouble—it was probably inevitable he’d wind up at Inferno. And given that "troublemakers" are exactly what I need if I’m going to pull this off at all, I suppose it was equally inevitable that we should meet.
"All right, I understand what you want, Commodore Harrington," the deep voice rumbled suddenly out of the darkness, "but do you realize what will happen if you try this and fail?"
"We’ll all die," Honor said quietly.
"Not just ‘die,’ Commodore," Ramirez said flatly. "If we’re lucky, they’ll shoot us during the fighting. If we’re un lucky, we’ll be ‘Kilkenny Camp Number Three.’"
"Kilkenny?" Honor repeated, and Ramirez laughed with no humor at all.
"That’s the Black Legs’ term for what happens when they stop sending in the food supplies," he told her. "They call it the ‘Kilkenny Cat’ method of provisioning. Don’t you know the Old Earth story?"
"Yes," Honor said sickly. "Yes, I do."
"Well, they think it’s funny, anyway," Ramirez said. "But the important thing is for you to realize the stakes you’re playing for here, because if you—if we —blow it, every human being in this camp will pay the price right along with us." He exhaled sharply in the darkness. "It’s probably been just as well that was true, too," he admitted. "If it weren’t—if I’d only had to worry about what happened to me—I probably would have done something outstandingly stupid years ago. And then who would you have to try this outstandingly stupid trick with?"
A flicker of true humor drifted out of the night to her, carried over her link to Nimitz, and she smiled.
"It’s not all that stupid, Commodore," she said.
"No... not if it works. But if it doesn’t—" She sensed his invisible shrug. Then he was silent for the better part of two minutes, and she was content to leave him so, for she could feel the intensity of his thought as yet again his brain examined the rough plan she’d outlined for him, turning it over and over again to consider it from all directions.
"You know," he said thoughtfully at last, "the really crazy thing is that I think this might just work. There’s no fallback position if it doesn’t, but if everything breaks right, or even half right, it actually might work."
"I like to think I usually give myself at least some chance for success," Honor said dryly, and he laughed softly.
"I’m sure you do, Commodore. But so did I, and look where I wound up!"
"Fair enough," Honor conceded. "But if I may, Commodore, I’d suggest you think of Hell not as the place you ‘wound up,’ but as the temporary stopping place you’re going to leave with us."
"An optimist, I see." Ramirez was silent again, thinking, and then he smacked his hands together with the sudden, shocking sound of an explosion. "All right, Commodore Harrington! If you’re crazy enough to try it, I suppose I’m crazy enough to help you."
"Good," Honor said, but then she went on in a careful tone. "There is just one other thing, Commodore."
"Yes?" His voice was uninflected, but Honor could taste the emotions behind it, and the one thing she hadn’t expected was suppressed, devilish amusement.
"Yes," she said firmly. "We have to settle the question of command."
"I see." He leaned back, a solider piece of the darkness beside her as he crossed his ankles and folded his arms across his massive chest. "Well, I suppose we should consider relative seniority, then," he said courteously. "My own date of rank as a commodore is 1870 p.d. And yours is?"
"I was only eleven T-years old in 1870!" Honor protested.
"Really?" Laughter lurked in his voice. "Then I suppose I’ve been a commodore a little longer than you have."
"Well, yes, but—I mean, with all due respect, you’ve been stuck here on Hell for the last forty years, Commodore! There’ve been changes, developments in—"
She broke off and clenched her jaw. Should I tell him I’m a full admiral in the Grayson Navy? she wondered. But if I do that now, it’ll sound like—
"Oh, don’t worry so much, Commodore Harrington!" Ramirez laughed out loud, breaking into her thoughts. "You’re right, of course. My last operational experience was so long ago I’d have trouble just finding the flag bridge. Not only that, you and your people are the ones who managed to get down here with the shuttles and the weapons that might just make this entire thing work."
He shook his head in the darkness, and his voice—and the emotions Honor felt through Nimitz—were dead serious when he went on.
"If you truly manage to pull this off, you’ll certainly have earned the right of command," he told her. "And the one thing we absolutely can’t afford is any division within our ranks or competition for authority between you and me. I may technically be senior to you, but I will cheerfully accept your authority."
"And you’ll support me after the initial operation?" she pressed. "What happens then is going to be even more important than the preliminary op—if we’re going to get off-planet, at any rate—and no one can command this kind of campaign by committee." She paused a moment, then went on deliberately. "And there’s another consideration, as well. I fully realize that you and thousands of other people on this planet will have your own ideas about what to do with the Peeps, and how. But if we’re going to carry through to a conclusion that actually gives us a chance to get off Hell, our command structure will have to hold all the way through... including the ‘domestic’ side."
"Then we may have a problem," Ramirez said flatly. "Because you’re right. Those of us who have spent years on Hell do have scores to settle with the garrison. If you’re saying you’ll try to prevent that from happening—"
"I didn’t say that," Honor replied. "Captain Benson’s given me some idea of how badly the Peeps have abused their prisoners, and I’ve had a little experience of the same sort myself, even before the Peeps grabbed me. But the fact that they’ve seen fit to violate the Deneb Accords doesn’t absolve me, as a Manticoran officer, from my legal obligation to observe them. I almost forgot that once. And even though I felt then—and feel now—that I was completely justified on a personal level, it would have been a violation of my oath as an officer. I’m not going to let it happen again, Commodore Ramirez. Not on my watch."
"Then you are —" Ramirez began, but Honor interrupted.
"Let me finish, Commodore!" she said sharply, and he paused. "As I say, I must observe the Deneb Accords, but if I recall correctly, the Accords make specific provision for the punishment of those who violate them so long as due process is observed. I realize that most legal authorities interpret that as meaning that those accused of violations should be tried in civilian courts following the end of hostilities. We, however, find ourselves in a wartime situation... and I feel quite sure there are sufficient officers on Hell, drawn from any number of military organizations, for us to empanel a proper court-martial."
"Court-martial?" Ramirez repeated, and she nodded.
"Exactly. Please understand that any court empaneled under my authority will be just that: a court in which all the legal proprieties, including the rights of the accused, will be properly safeguarded. And assuming that guilty verdicts are returned, the sentences handed down will be those properly provided for in the relevant law codes. We will act as civilized human beings, and we will punish wrongdoing, not simply compound it with barbarisms of our own."
"I see. And those are your only terms?" Ramirez asked.
"They are, Sir," she said unflinchingly.
"Good," he replied quietly, and her eyebrows rose. "A fair and legal trial is more than any of us ever really hoped these people would face," he explained, as if he could see her surprise despite the darkness. "We thought no one would ever speak for us, ever call them to account for all the people they’ve raped and murdered on this godforsaken piece of hell. You give us the chance to do that, Commodore Harrington, and it’ll be worth it even if we never get off this planet and StateSec comes back and kills us all later. But assuming we all live through this, I want to be able to look into the mirror ten years from now and like the man I see looking back out of it at me, and if you let me do what I want to do to these motherless bastards, I wouldn’t."
Honor let out a long, slow breath of relief, for the feel of his emotions matched his words. He truly meant them.
"And will the other people on Hell share your opinion?" she asked after a moment.
"Probably not all of them," he admitted. "But if you pull this off, you’ll have the moral authority to keep them in line, I think. And if you don’t have that," his tone turned bleaker, but he continued unflinchingly, "you’ll still have all the guns and the only way off the planet. I don’t think enough of us will want to buck that combination just to lynch Black Legs, however much we hate them."
"I see. In that case, may I assume that you’re in, Commodore Ramirez?"
"You may, Commodore Harrington." A hand the size of a small shovel came out of the darkness, and she gripped it firmly, feeling the strength in it even as she savored the determination and sincerity behind it.