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Chapter Twenty-Five

A chime sounded, and Honor looked up from the terminal in front of her. She pressed a button on the desk console which had once belonged to Citizen Brigadier Tresca, and the door to the office (which had also once belonged to Citizen Brigadier Tresca, but he was dead and no longer needed either of them) slid open to reveal Alistair McKeon in conversation with Andrew LaFollet. The armsman had left Honor's side long enough to participate in the capture of the vehicle park and picked up a minor flesh wound in the process. But Fritz Montoya had access to a proper base hospital again at last, and LaFollet's injury was responding nicely to quick heal. More to the point, perhaps, his Steadholder had a proper office for him to stand sentry outside of once again, and while he might still be out of his proper uniform, he'd settled back into his appointed role with an almost audible sigh of relief.

McKeon glanced up as the door opened and nodded to Honor over LaFollet's shoulder. He obviously wanted to finish whatever he'd been saying to her armsman, but his expression was grim, and her stomach muscles tightened as she caught the taste of his emotions. Warner Caslet was with him, and the Peep officer looked even grimmer than McKeon.

Nimitz raised his head from where he drowsed on the perch Honor and LaFollet had rigged for him. He'd been napping there a lot over the last five days, and despite her apprehension over whatever had brought McKeon here with such an expression, Honor felt her own spirits lift as she reached up to scratch the 'cat's ears. His buzzing purr and a gentle wave of love answered her caress, and then he rose and stretched deeply but carefully. His crippled mid-limb and twisted pelvis continued to stab him with pain at any injudicious movement, yet he radiated a sense of complacency as he contemplated the change in their circumstances. Not only was Styx much cooler than Camp Inferno had been, but the installations they'd captured from the Peeps even had air-conditioning. And as if that weren't enough, he'd quickly discovered that the huge StateSec farms on the island produced celery.

Actually, it had been Carson Clinkscales who'd discovered that fact. He'd turned up outside Honor's quarters on their second morning on Styx and almost shyly extended a fresh head of celery, still damp with dew, and Nimitz had been in heaven. He'd always been fond of Clinkscales, but the ensign's gift had moved the young Grayson officer into the select circle of his closest friends.

Honor smiled in memory, but then her smile faded. McKeon had finished whatever he'd been saying to LaFollet, and now he and Caslet walked into her office.

"Good morning, Alistair. Warner." She greeted them calmly, allowing herself to show no trace of her reaction to the anxiety they radiated.

"Good morning, Ma'am," Caslet said. McKeon only nodded, which would have been a sure sign of his worry even if she hadn't been able to feel his emotions, and she waved at the chairs which faced her desk.

They sat at her silent invitation, and she tipped back in her own new, comfortable chair to study them briefly. Their sojourn on Hell had given both of them weathered complexions and leaned them downMcKeon, in particular, had lost a good two centimeters of waistline. Well, that was fair enough. Even Honor's normally pale complexion had turned a golden bronze, and she'd actually begun getting back some of her muscle mass despite the awkwardness of exercising with only one arm. Which, a corner of her brain thought dryly, she had just discovered was nowhere near as awkward as trying to operate a console keyboard one-handed.

But the other thing Honor and McKeon had in common was the pulser each of them still wore... and which Caslet did not.

"You look unhappy about something, Alistair," she said after a moment. "Why?"

"We found two more bodies this morning, Ma'am," McKeon said flatly, and Honor winced at the bleak sense of helplessness behind his words. She quirked the eyebrow above her good eye, and his mouth twisted. Then he sighed. "It wasn't pretty, Honor. Whoever did it took their time with both of them. It looks to me like there must have been five or six killers, and some of the mutilations were definitely sexual."

"I see." She leaned back once more and rubbed her face with her fingers. It seemed almost natural after all these months to feel nothing at all from the pressure on her left cheek, and at the moment she wished she could feel nothing at all deep inside, either. But only for a moment. Then she crushed the self-pitying thought under a ruthless mental heel and lowered her hand.

"Any idea at all who did it?"

"I don't think it was any of our people from Inferno," McKeon replied, and glanced at Caslet.

"I don't think it was, either, Ma'am," the Peep said. In some ways, he had become even more isolated since the capture of Camp Charon, for the flood of SS prisoners they'd taken regarded him with the bitter contempt reserved for traitors, while the island's liberated slaves couldn't have cared less how he came to be here. All they cared about was that he was a Peep officer... and that was why he had to be accompanied at all times by an armed guard.

"Why not?" Honor asked him.

"Largely because of the mutilations, Ma'am," he replied steadily. "I'm sure some of the people from Inferno would love to massacre every SS thug they could lay hands on, and, to be honest, I don't blame them. But this" He shook his head grimly. "Whoever did this really hated their targets. I'm no psych type, but the nature of the mutilations certainly suggests to me that at least some of the killers were people who'd been hauled back here as sex slaves. And, frankly," he met her gaze levelly, "I blame them even less for wanting revenge than I blame the people from Inferno."

"I see." Honor frowned down at her terminal, rubbing the edge of the console with a long index finger while she considered what he'd said.

He was right, of course. As Harriet Benson had told her that first day, the SS garrison had regarded the prisoners in their charge as property. Worse than that: as toys. And too many of them had played with their "toys" like cruel, spiteful children twisting the heads off puppies to see what would happen. Most of the outright sex slaves they'd dragged back to Styx had been political prisonerscivilians from the PRH itselfwhich had probably indicated at least a modicum of caution on the garrison's part. Most military services gave their people at least rudimentary hand-to-hand training, after all.

But the wheel had turned full circle now. Two-thirds of the SS garrison had been killed, wounded, or captured, but at least six or seven hundred of them had so far escaped apprehension. And on Styx, unlike the rest of Hell, they could actually go bush and live off the land while they tried to keep on evading capture. Honor and her allies had far too little manpower to hunt them down on an island this huge, and Styx had been so completely terraformed that, except for the warmer temperature and lower gravity, it actually made Honor homesick for Sphinx. Fugitives wouldn't even need to know a thing about edible wild plants, for the planetary farms covered scores of square kilometers.

Unfortunately for the Peeps, however, their slaves knew the island even better than they did. There had been a clandestine communication net between the sex slaves and the farms' slave laborersmany of whom had been playthings themselves before their "owners" tired of themfor decades. In fact, over twenty escaped slaves had been in hiding when Honor attacked Styx. They'd contrived their escapes by faking their own deathssuicide by drowning had been a favorite, given the currents and deep-water predators off Styx's southwestern coastand the farm laborers had concealed and helped feed some of them for years. But escaping discovery had required them to find hiding places all over the island... which meant the liberated slaves were much better than Honor's people at deducing where their erstwhile masters might be hiding now. For that matter, they were better at it than the Peeps were at finding hiding places on the run, and some of them had no interest at all in waiting for the courts-martial Honor and Jesus Ramirez had promised them. Nor were they shy about dumping the results of their grisly handiwork where other fleeing Peeps might find it.

The good news, she thought, is that sheer terror is probably going to encourage the rest of the garrison to turn themselves in before someone catches up and murders them. The bad news is that I never wanted anything like this to happen. I promised them justice, not animal vengeance, and I won't let myself or people under my command be turned into the very thing I hate!

She drew a deep breath and looked up from the console. "I suppose I can't really blame them for wanting to get even either," she said quietly, and saw her friends' eyes flicker to the dead side of her own face. She ignored that and shook her head. "Nonetheless, we have our own responsibilities as civilized human beings, and that means we can't let this pass unchallenged, however much we may sympathize with the killers' motivations. Warner," she turned her good eye on the Peep officer, "I want you to talk to the prisoners. I know they hate you... and I know you hate talking to them. But you're the closest thing we've got to a neutral party."

She paused, watching him intently. His expression was pinched, but finally he nodded.

"Thank you," she said softly. "What do you want me to say to them, Ma'am?"

"Tell them what's been happening. Explain to them that I don't want it to go on, but that I simply don't have the manpower to stop it or patrol the entire island."

McKeon twitched unhappily in his chair at that, and she gave him a crooked half-grin.

"It's not going to come as any surprise to them, Alistair, and it's not like we'll be giving away critical military information! Besides, prison guards are always outnumbered by their prisoners. The whole reason to build a prison is to economize on your guard force, and these people certainly know that if anyone does! And if they get any ideas, all they have to do is look up at the tribarrels in the watch towers around their compound to see why acting on them would be a serious mistake."

She held his gaze for a moment, until he grinned back wryly and shrugged, then returned her attention to Caslet.

"Point out to them that the only way I can possibly guarantee their fellows' safety, even temporarily, is by bringing them in where I can put them under guard to protect them from their ex-slaves. And, Warner," her voice turned much grimmer, "you can also tell them that I really don't especially want to protect any of them, because I don't. But that doesn't change my responsibilities."

"Yes, Ma'am," Caslet said, but he also looked down at his hands for several seconds, then sighed. "I'll tell them, Ma'am, and I know it's the truth," he told her. "But I'll feel like a liar, knowing what's waiting for them."

"Should we just let the guilty walk away unpunished then?" she asked gently, and he shook his head quickly.

"No, Ma'am. Of course not. I've seen too much of what StateSec has donenot just to these people, but to you and your people. For that matter, to people I know were loyal officers who did their very best but" He broke off with an angry grimace. "Someone has to call them to account. I know that. It's just"

"Just that you feel like you're inviting them to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire," McKeon put in quietly. Caslet looked at the broad-shouldered commodore for a moment, then nodded. "Well, I suppose you are, in a way," McKeon went on. "But at least they'll have trials, Warner. And the sentences of the guilty will be in accord with established military law. They won't be capricious, and you know as well as I do that Honor would never permit the kind of horror you and I just finished looking at. The worst they're looking at is a firing squad or a rope... and just between you and me, that's a hell of a lot better deal than some of them deserve."

"I know, Alistair. I" Caslet stopped himself and gave a tiny shrug. "I know," he repeated, "and I'll tell any of the prisoners who ask exactly that."

"Thank you," Honor said. "And when you do, tell them that I would appreciate the assistance of any of them who would be willing to record orders or pleas for their fellows to surrender themselves. Tell them that I will neither ask nor permit them to make any promises of immunity or pardon. If they wish to include a warning that courts-martial will be convened, they'll be free to do so. But you may also tell them, as Alistair just said, that I will not allow anyone under my command to engage in the sort of atrocities which are now being committed."

"Yes, Ma'am."

"And while Warner does that, Alistair," Honor went on, turning back to McKeon, "I want you, Jesus, and Harriet to try to work out some way to keep tabs on the slaves." Her expression was grim. "I'll speak to them again myself this afternoon, both to remind them that we've promised there will be trials... and to tell them that our people will be authorized to use deadly force, if necessary, to prevent this kind of vengeance killing. I hate to come the heavy, but they've been through so much I have to doubt that anything less drastic than that will get through to them. And if you and Jesus and Harriet think it's necessary, I'll be willing to proclaim an island-wide curfew, as well, in hopes of at least cutting down on this kind of thing."

"That may not be a bad idea," McKeon said thoughtfully. "There are almost five hundred of them, counting the farm workers. We've managed to keep any weapons out of their handsaside from anything they may have 'liberated' from Black Legs they've already... dealt with, at leastbut there are still as many of them as there are of us."

"I know." Honor sighed. "I just hate the idea of putting them back into some kind of lock-down after everything that's already been done to them. And I'm a little afraid it may turn us into the enemy, as well."

"I wouldn't worry too much about that," McKeon told her with a headshake. "Oh, it'll piss them off, and it may make some of them hate us, at least in the short term. But there's a world of difference between proclaiming a curfeweven one backed up with physical forceand the kinds of things the Black Legs did to them! Things may be tense for a while, but once they realize you're serious about the trials, I think they'll come around."

"As long as we can hold things together until they do," Honor said with another sigh. "We need more manpower, Alistair, and we need it badly."

"Agreed." McKeon slid down in his chair to sit on the end of his spine while he slitted his eyes in thought. "Any progress on the data search?" he asked after a moment.

"There's a little progress, actually." Honor tapped her terminal, where she'd just been reviewing the latest memo from her computer attack team.

"Harkness, Scotty, Anson, Jasper, and Ascher are having the time of their lives playing with the Peeps' secure data base, and these people were incredibly overconfident. The possibility of someone's taking the place over from the inside simply never occurred to them. It couldn't happen. And because it couldn't, the only people who could purge their files were Tresca or his exec... and they could only do it from the planetary defense command center." She shook her head. "I guess they figured that since the only real threat had to come from the outside, through the orbital defenses, whoever had the duty there would be in the best position to decide when to purge, so that was where they put their central data processing node, as well. But when Jesus took the command center out from the ground before either of the authorized COs could even get there" She shrugged and held out her hand, palm uppermost.

"So we really did get their records intact?"

"It looks that way to our team of burrowers, anyway. And the security measures are even less sophisticated and up to date than the ones Harkness had to crack aboard Tepes. There are a lot more of them, so it's taking some time to work through them, but Anson says it's more time consuming than difficult."

"Do we have a time estimate?"

"Only a rough one. Harkness and Ascher agree that they should be able to generate a complete prisoner list within a couple of local days. How accurate and up to date it is will depend on how well the Peeps did their jobs" her grimace warned her listeners not to get their hopes up on that score "but we should have at least a starting point to begin looking for reinforcements."

"Good," McKeon said with a huge sigh of relief. "And with all due respect to Jesus and his people, Ma'am, I'd certainly like to begin with any Alliance personnel we can dig up." Honor gave him a sharp glance, and he shrugged. "I trust our people from Inferno completely," he said, "but we've had months for all of us to get to know one another and for them to learn to trust us. And to accept your authority. But now we're going to have to branch out, and I'd prefer to build up a solid cadre of people who came from our own chain of command before we start trying to weld people from umpteen dozen different militaries into a cohesive force. Especially since you know as well as I do that some of those other people are going to be as hot for vengeance as anyone StateSec dragged back here to Styx to play with."

"He's got a point, Ma'am," Caslet said with quiet diffidence, and his mouth quirked wryly. "I realize I'm sort of the odd man out on this planet right now, but I'd certainly like to see you with a force whose loyalty and unity you can rely on... if only to protect me from some of the people who want to lump me in with the garrison!"

"Um." Honor swung her chair gently from side to side, chewing on her thumbnail, then nodded. "All right, Alistair. You've got a point. But I want to discuss it with Jesus and Harriet before we move on it. I don't want them thinking we're trying to sneak something past them because we don't trust them."

"I agree completely," McKeon told her, and she nodded, but her mind was already reaching out towards the next worrisome point.

"Have we picked up any more of Proxmire's crew?" she asked.

"Not that I've heard about in the last couple of hours," McKeon replied with a grimace. Metcalf and DuChene were still depressed over the destruction of the courier boat. They knew they'd had no real choice, yet the failure of the boat's fusion bottle had destroyed her with all hands, and they carried a heavy load of guilt. He was confident they'd work through it, and they weren't letting it keep them from doing their duty, but he hated to see them punishing themselves for it this way.

In the meantime, however, they'd picked up seven members of the boat's crew who'd been dirtside when it all hit the fan. Some of them had stubbornly refused to give more than name, rank, service branch, and serial number, but others had been so stunned by the cataclysmic upheaval in their fortunes that they'd started talking as soon as someone asked them a question. Unfortunately, none of the talkative ones were officers, and they didn't really know all that much beyond what their own duties had been. From what they'd told him, he knew there had been eight more crew members on Hell, and he still hoped to pick them upor identify them from among the mass of other prisonersbut it was entirely possible that all eight were dead. Honor's assault force had taken over a hundred casualties, fifty-two of them fatal, including two of the escapees from Tepes. He knew Honor had been privately devastated by the deaths of Senior Chief Halburton and Senior Chief Harris. She'd fought not to show it, yet losing them after they'd come through so much together had struck all of them as bitterly unfair. But StateSec's losses had been at least three times as high as the attackers'. Or, at least, their known losses so far had been, he corrected himself. They were still finding bodies and pieces of bodies in the wreckage.

"Keep on that, Alistair," Honor told him. "Without Tresca" it was her turn to grimace, for Camp Charon's CO had set the standard for his personnel, and his personal slaves had literally ripped him to pieces before he could be taken into custody "or his exec, we don't have anyone who can tell us how much longer Proxmire was supposed to be assigned here or if he already had orders for another station. If he did have orders and he doesn't turn up on schedule"

She shrugged again, and McKeon nodded soberly. The possibility that they would have to destroy Hell's courier boat had always existed, but he knew how hard Honor had hoped to take it intact. It couldn't have carried a fraction of their peoplewhich now included everyone from Inferno as surely as it did his own survivors from Prince Adrianaway from Hell, but it could have been dispatched to the nearest Alliance-held system. The Cerberus System lay deep inside the PRH, but if the Allies knew its coordinates, a convoy of fast transports with a military escort could be in and out again before the Peeps knew a thing about it. The operation would have had to accept a fair degree of risk, but it would have been practical, especially with the People's Navy on the defensive. And the psychological impact of a mass prisoner rescue, both for the Alliance and against the Peeps, would have been enormous.

But without the courier, that possibility went right out the airlock and left them no choice but to fall back on Honor's alternate plan. She'd intended from the beginning to take over Hell's orbital defenses and use them to defend the planet against any SS warships that happened along while they awaited the rescue the courier had been supposed to whistle up. Now she would simply have to use them to acquire her courier in the first place.

Assuming, of course, that she had time to do that before Citizen Commander Proxmire's failure to turn up somewhere else provoked someone into sending a cruiser squadron to see what was keeping him.

That was the real problem, he thought moodily. Massive as the orbital defenses' firepower was, they had serious weaknesses. The biggest was that all of them were fixed, unable to maneuver or dodge, which meant most of them could be killed with long-range, cee-fractional missile strikes by any competent fleet commander who knew what he was up against. McKeon had been enormously relievedand he knew Honor had been, toowhen they discovered that the Peeps had, in fact, at least taken the precaution of putting hardened missile launchers on each of Hell's three moons. It would have made even more sense to put weapons crews up there to operate them under local control if something happened to the central command site here on Styx, but he wasn't about to complain about that. The remotely controlled launchers didn't have much magazine capacity, and light-speed transmission limits meant their fire control was a tad arthritic, given their distances from Styx. Niflheim, the largest and furthest out moon, for example, had an orbital radius of over a light-second and a half, and even Tartarus, the closest, was almost a hundred and fifty-six thousand kilometers out at perigee. But there also hadn't been any Peep gun crews up there to open fire on Styx, and they provided at least some long-range defensive firepower which would be extremely difficult for an attacker to neutralize.

Yet most of Honor's defenses were hideously vulnerable... if the bad guys knew to attack them in the first place. But that was the up side of the destruction of Proxmire's courier boat. Its failure to escape meant it hadn't been able to tell anyone what had happened, so at least the first few StateSec ships to happen along would have no idea that anyone besides their fellow SS personnel now controlled Hell's orbital weapons. As long as nothing happened to make them suspicious, they ought to make their normal approaches to the planet while Honor and her people waited like the spider at the heart of the web. And once they came in close enough and slow enough for the defenses to engage them, the advantage would swing decisively to Honor's side, leaving them no option but to surrender or die.

Which was certainly one way to get their hands on the courier vessel they needed, he thought.

"How many of their communications people did we sweep up?" Honor's question broke into his reverie, and he blinked.

"Uh... I'm not sure," he said, shaking his mind back to the present. "I know we've got some of them, but things are still too chaoticand we're still too shorthandedto really start sorting people out by category yet."

"I know, but we have to get on top of that as quickly as we can, especially where the com people are concerned," Honor told him. He raised an eyebrow at her, and she shrugged. "As well as we've been able to figure out so far, Count Tilly was the only regular Navy ship ever to come here. StateSec seems to have kept the system coordinates completely to itself prior to that. I don't know what's happened to Tourville and his peopleI hope to heaven that with Ransom dead someone with a little sanity decided not to come down on them just for being decent human beingsbut I rather doubt that Saint-Just is going to encourage them to hand their astro data over to the rest of the Navy. Which means anyone who comes calling out here will almost certainly be StateSec."

She paused, and McKeon nodded, but he still looked puzzled.

"The SS doesn't have all that many warships, Alistair. It can't. Which means that those it does have are part of a relatively small force. Their com people may very well know the Camp Charon com people by name, face, and voice, and if they don't see anyone they know on screen when they come in, they may get just a little suspicious."

"Oh." McKeon nodded and rubbed one eyebrow. She'd done it again, he thought. He was still bogged down in worrying his way through their immediate problems, but she was already two or three moves ahead, considering what they had to do next.

"Even if you manage to identify their com people, do you really want to trust them that much?" Caslet asked quietly. The other two looked at him, and he twitched his shoulders. "I don't have a very high opinion of StateSec either, Ma'am, but some of them fought to the bitter end against your people, despite being totally surprised. And quite a few of them did exactly the same thing against LaBoeuf and his Levelers. Some of them might try to warn any incoming ships even with pulsers screwed into their ears."

"They might," Honor agreed. She didn't mention that she and Nimitz ought to be able to sort out the ones likely to do that, but even if Warner had known, he still would have had a point. The unlikliest people could turn on their enemies like lions when the right buttons were punched, and even with the 'cat's assistance, it would be impossible for her to know what those buttons might be for any given person. But she'd already considered that, and she gave him another of her half-smiles.

"They might," she repeated, "but there's some pretty good equipment in the base com center, Warner. In fact, it's substantially better than its software appears to be... and I've got a clutch of very capable programmers to teach it all sorts of new tricks. Once they've had a chance to do that, and once we identify the com people we want, I feel confident we can record enough imagery of them for our reeducated computers to let us fake up an acceptable talking head. Harkness has already found an enormous file of what appear to be conversations between Tresca and incoming vessels. We won't know for certain that that's what it is until we get past the security fences, but if it is, we should be able to put together just about anything we want from its contents. It's possibleeven probable that we'll find similar files for the regular communications people, as well, and I hope we will. But I want to be prepared if we don't, too."

"I see." Caslet looked at her respectfully, unaware that he and Alistair McKeon were thinking very similar thoughts at that moment. Honor felt the glow of admiration from both of them, but she allowed no sign of it to show in her expression as she let her chair come back upright. What they were so busy admiring, after all, was no more than the minimum foresight that duty required of her.

"All right," she said crisply. "It sounds like we're as on top of things as we can be with so few people, so our priorities are, first, to get the StateSec stragglers to surrender so we can protect them." She shook her own head wryly at that one, but continued without pausing. "Second, to convince their ex-slaves to stop massacring them and accept our promise that they'll stand their trials. Third, to get into the personnel records and find out where we can scare up some reinforcementspreferably," she nodded to McKeon, "Manticoran, or at least Allied personnel. Fourth, to locate any additional survivors from Proxmire's crew and try to find out when or if he was due to be relieved. And, fifth, to identify and segregate all of the communications staff we can find. Is that about all?"

"Just about," McKeon agreed. "I would like to bring up one other worry, though." She nodded for him to continue, and he shrugged. "The bad guys hiding in the boonies may already know when they expect someone else to arrive, which suggests two unpleasant possibilities to my nasty suspicious mind. One is that if they do know when someone's coming, they may try to come up with some way to warn them. We control the main communications facility, and we think we got all of their vehicles, but we can't be certain that they didn't get away with a few transmitters with more reach than a hand com. If they did, they may try to cobble up something. It wouldn't have to be very sophisticatedeven a really crude signal could be enough to make someone suspicious. Bearing that in mind, I think we need to start making some overflights. Peep sensors may not be good enough to spot people hiding in the woods, but we ought to be able to detect hidden vehicles or power sources if we look hard enough, long enough, from low enough."

"An excellent idea, Alistair," Honor agreed, nodding firmly. "But you said there were two possibilities?"

"Yes." He scratched his eyebrow again. "The second thing that occurred to me is that, under normal circumstances, even the escapees would have as much reason as we do to keep the farms intactmore, actually, since we have control of all the storage facilities. But for all of us, these farms are the only source of food on the planet."

He paused, and Honor nodded to show she was following him.

"Well, if they know someone will be along within, say, three to five T-months, they might just decide to take a stab at destroying the crops anyway. Think about it. If they took out all of the food supplies, we'd almost have to surrender ourselves to the first Peep ship to come along or starve right along with them."

"That, Alistair, is a very ugly thought," Honor said quietly.

"Agreed," Caslet put in. "And I think it's something we should certainly take seriously. At the same time, I'd have to say I don't think it's likely." Both Manticorans looked at him, and he chuckled humorlessly. "These are StateSec personnel. I know I just argued that some of them might surprise you with their dedication, but that would be acting as individuals. I still don't see them taking serious chances as a group, and any move to destroy their own food supplies along with ours would be a very serious risk indeed. Even if someone out there knows the schedule for the next dozen ship arrivals, they can't be certain it will be kept. And even if it is kept, they have to know there's at least a strong possibility that the ships in question would be either captured or destroyed once they came into range of the orbital defenses, given that you now control them. Besides, I doubt very much that any of them know Proxmire's courier boat was destroyed. They have to allow for the probability that you got it, too, since they obviously know by now that you had at least two assault shuttles. That being the case, for all they know you've already sent for a relief force... and if you have, they certainly know what they'd do in your place."

"And what would that be?" McKeon asked when he paused.

"Sail away and leave them here," Caslet said simply. "In your place, they wouldn't worry about anyone but themselvesprobably not even the other POWs on the planet. They'd climb aboard the first ship to turn up and run for home just as fast as they could... and they might just take out the farms themselves before they left, in hopes that you'd starve to death before anyone else turned up to rescue you."

"You may be right," Honor said after a moment. "In fact, you probably are. Nonetheless, we can't afford to take any chances. Alistair, speak with Harriet and Henri about it. Have them work out some sort of guard schedulethey can use pinnaces and even some of our armored vehicles if they want toto ensure that no one gets a chance to wreck any of the farm operations. And get your low-level recon flights organized soonest, as well. Put... Solomon and Gerry in charge of that. And get Sarah involved, too. Let's keep her and Gerry too busy to beat up on themselves."

"I'll see to it," McKeon promised.

"Good. In that case, I think that just about takes care of everything... except for one other little matter."

"Oh? What's that?" McKeon asked.

"I talked to Fritz this morning," Honor told him. "He's just tickled pink to have decent medical facilities again, and he specifically asked me to deliver you into his hands, Commodore McKeon!"

"I beg your pardon?" McKeon blinked, and she chuckled.

"He's got an entire, semicapable hospital over there, Alistair. They don't have regen capability, and, franklyno offense, WarnerI'm not sure I'd trust myself to Peep regen even if anyone's regen worked for me. But they do have a fairly sophisticated dentistry setup." McKeon's hand rose to his mouth, as if suddenly reminded of the jagged gaps the Peep pulse rifle's butt had left in his teeth, and she smiled. "We can't grow you new teeth till we get you home again, Alistair, but in the meantime, Fritz tells me he's read the handbook and he's just itching for a chance to try out his new knowledge on some poor, unsuspecting guinea pig. He's all ready to build you some truly outstanding old-fashioned bridges, so once you've dealt with the things we've been discussing, I want you over at the hospital for him to take impressions."

"But I've got too many other things to" McKeon began, only to shut his mouth with a click as she cut him off.

"But nothing, Commodore McKeon," she told him firmly. "You and Fritz and Andrewyes, and you, too, Warner Caslet! Every one of you helped Fritz bully me after we got down from Tepes. Well now it's my turn, by God, and you will report to the surgeon. Do you read me on this, Commodore?"

"You're really enjoying this, aren't you?" he demanded, and the living side of her face smiled serenely.

"Darned right I am," Lady Dame Honor Harrington said smugly.


* * * | Echoes Of Honor | Chapter Twenty-Six



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