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Chapter Nine

"You know," Lieutenant Russell Sanko observed, "if these people would just talk to each other every so often, we might get something accomplished here."

"I'm sure that if they only knew how much they're inconveniencing you they'd run right out and start gabbing away," Jasper Mayhew replied with a grin. "In the meantime, we've only been listening for two weeks, and—" He shrugged, tipped his comfortable chair well back under the air return and luxuriated in the cool, dry air that spilled down over him.

"You're a hedonist, Mayhew," Sanko growled.

"Nonsense. I'm simply the product of a hostile planetary environment," Mayhew said comfortably. "It's not my fault if that sort of insecure life experience imposes survival-oriented psychoses on people. All us Graysons get horribly nervous when we have to operate out in the open, with unfiltered air all around us." He gave a dramatic shudder. "It's a psychological thing. Incurable. That's the real reason Lady Harrington assigned me to this, you know. Medical considerations. Elevated pulse and adrenaline levels." He shook his head sadly. "It's a terrible thing to require this sort of air-conditioned luxury solely for medical reasons."

"Yeah, sure."

Mayhew chuckled, and Sanko shook his head and returned his attention to the com console. He and the Grayson were about the same age—actually, at twenty-nine, Mayhew was three years older—and they were both senior-grade lieutenants. Technically, Mayhew had about three T-months seniority on Sanko, and he'd been Lady Harrington's staff intelligence officer before they all landed in enemy hands, while Sanko had been HMS Prince Adrian's com officer. By ancient and honorable tradition, there was always an unstated rivalry between the members of a flag officer's staff and the work-a-day stiffs who ran the ships of that officer's squadron or task force, even when they all came from the same navy. But Mayhew was a comfortable person to work with, and however laid back he cared to appear, he was sharp as a vibro blade and, like most Graysons Sanko had met, always ready to lend a hand. He was also some relation to Protector Benjamin, but he seldom talked about it, and he seemed thankfully immune to the arrogance Sanko had seen out of certain Manticorans of far less exalted birth.

Unfortunately, it didn't really matter how pleasant one's partner was if there was nothing for the two of you to work on, and that seemed to be the case here.

It should have been simple, Sanko thought balefully. After all, the Peeps had a planet-wide com net whose security they trusted totally, for reasons which made perfectly good sense. Not only did the StateSec garrison have the only tech base and power generation facilities on the entire planet, but their com messages were all transmitted using the latest in secure equipment. Well, not the absolute latest, even by Peep standards, but pretty darn good. Sanko was a communications specialist himself, and the SS's equipment was considerably better than any of the classified Navy briefings he'd attended had suggested it ought to be. Not as good as the Star Kingdom's, but better than it should have been, and Camp Charon had received the very best available when it was built.

Fortunately, Hell seemed to have fallen a bit behind on its upgrades since then. The planetary garrison had an impressive satellite net—why shouldn't they, when counter-grav made it dirt cheap to hang comsats and weather sats wherever you wanted them?—but their ground stations were getting a little long in the tooth. And, of course, the people they didn't know were trying to eavesdrop on them just happened to have a pair of assault shuttles which, up until very recently, had also belonged to StateSec . . . and had been fitted with the very latest in secure communication links. In fact, the systems Sanko was using were probably at least fifteen or twenty T-years newer than the Peep ground stations, and they'd been expressly designed to interface with older equipment as well as their own contemporaries. Which meant Sanko and Mayhew—and Senior Chief Harkness and Lieutenant Commander Tremaine, or Lieutenant Commander Lethridge and Ensign Clinkscales, who'd pulled the other two watches for the same duty—ought to be able to open up that "secure com net" like a pack of e-rats.

Unfortunately, the Peeps didn't seem to use the net very much, for aside from routine, automatic downloads of telemetry from the weather sats to Camp Charon's Flight Ops, there was no traffic on it at all. And weather data was completely useless for Sanko's and Mayhew's current purposes.

But I guess it actually makes sense, he acknowledged sourly. After all, they're all parked on their butts up there at Camp Charon itself. They don't need comsats to talk to each other, and they couldn't care less what happens in any of the prisoner camps, so there's no reason to install ground stations at any of them, either. Hell, their CO can probably just stick his head out the window and shout at anybody he actually wants to talk to!

There wasn't much for the eavesdroppers to do under the circumstances. If they'd just had some decent computer support, there wouldn't even have been any need for them to be here at all—they could have left the routine listening watch up to the computers. Well, to be honest they could probably have trusted a simple listening watch to them anyway, but they were talking about Peep computers, which brought the ancient and honorable term "kludge" forcibly to mind every time he had anything to do with them. No wonder Senior Chief Harkness had been able to fry the net aboard that damned battlecruiser! Worse, the shuttles had extremely limited computer support compared to their Allied equivalents. What they needed for flight ops, fire support missions, troop drops, and that sort of thing was adequate—not great, but adequate. But most functions that weren't absolutely essential were done the old-fashioned way . . . by hand, or at least by extremely specific, canned software so limited, and with such crude heuristic functions, it made a man want to sit down and cry. Which meant real live human beings had to sit here to watch over the computers, because their AI functions were so stupid they would have gotten lost in downtown Landing on a night with a full moon if—

"Base, this is Harriman," a bored voice said suddenly, spilling from the com speakers. "You want to give me the count on Alpha-Seven-Niner?"

Sanko's eyes widened, and his hands darted for the console even as Mayhew snapped upright in his chair at the tactical station.

"Harriman, you dickhead!" an exasperated female voice replied in a tone that could have blistered battle steel. "I swear, you are stupider than a retarded rock! How the hell did you lose the numbers again?"

Mayhew's fingers flew over the keyboard of the shuttle's main computers while Sanko worked equally frantically at the communications station. All the information on Hades that Horace Harkness had managed to pull out of Tepes' data bases before her destruction had been dumped from his minicomp to the shuttle's larger memory, and Sanko heard a sound of triumph from Mayhew as something correlated between the overheard conversation and Harkness' stolen data. At the same time, Sanko himself was working with the comsat serving as the relay link for the exchange between "Harriman" and Camp Charon. His equipment might not be up to the high standards of the Royal Manticoran Navy, but it was newer than the opposition's, and his updated software had let him into the satellite's on-board computers without anyone dirtside knowing a thing about it. The tight-beam tap he'd set up had been cut entirely out of Camp Charon's net, which meant the base's traffic computers didn't even know it was there to log, and his eyes glowed as information from the comsat began downloading smoothly to his own station. All the security and encryption data buried in the transmissions' automatic security linkages spilled over the display before him, and his lips drew up in the snarl of a hunting Sphinx hexapuma.

"How do I know what happened to them?" Harriman growled at his critic. "If I knew where the damned grunt list had gone, then it wouldn't be lost, now would it?"

"Oh, fer cryin' out loud!" Base muttered. "It's in your computers, dipshit—not scribbled down on a scrap of paper somewhere!"

"Oh, yeah?" Harriman sounded even more belligerent. "Well I happen to be looking at the directory right this minute, Shrevner, and it ain't here! So suppose you get off your lazy ass and get it to me? I'm coming up on the drop for Alpha-Seven-Eight in about twelve minutes, and I got lots of other stops still to make."

"Jeezus!" the other voice snarled. "You stupid goddamned pilots are so— Oh." It cut off abruptly, and then a throat cleared itself. "Here it is," Base said in a much crisper (and less contemptuous) voice. "Uploading now."

No one spoke for a few seconds, and then a sharp snort came down the link from Harriman.

"Interesting time stamp on that data, Base," he said almost genially. "Looks to me like those numbers were compiled—what? Seventy minutes after I left?"

"Oh, screw you, Harriman!" Base snapped.

"In your dreams, sweetheart," Harriman said with cloying sweetness, and Base cut the channel with a click.

"Did you get it?" Mayhew demanded.

"I think so." Sanko punched more commands, calling up a review of the data he'd been too busy downloading to evaluate and felt his face stretch into an exultant grin. "Looking good over here, Jasper! How about your side?"

"Speculative, but interesting," Mayhew replied. He tapped a few queries of his own into the system, then nodded. "I think it's time we got Lady Harrington and Commodore McKeon in here, and then—"

"Base, this is Carson. I'm at Gamma-One-Seven, and I've got a problem. According to my numbers—"

The fresh voice rattled from the speakers, and Sanko and Mayhew dived back into their consoles.

"So that's it, My Lady," Mayhew said. "We've picked up six more complete or partial conversations during the last ninety odd minutes. Of course, we're only working the comsats that are line-of-sight to our own location, so I suspect we've missed others."

"Makes sense," Alistair McKeon rumbled from where he sat beside Honor. He rubbed his jaw, the tip of his tongue probing at the gaps a Peep pulse rifle's butt had left in his teeth. It was a nervous gesture he'd developed aboard Tepes, and it seemed to help him think. "You send out that many shuttles, you're going to get com chatter. Especially when half your flight crews don't seem to know their asses from their elbows!"

"Now, now, Alistair. Be nice," Honor murmured with a small smile, and Nimitz bleeked a laugh from her lap. He'd finished shedding last week, and the sauna bath of the local climate was no longer the crushing burden it had been, but he was delighted whenever he and his person entered the shuttle's air-conditioning. Now he showed McKeon his needle-sharp fangs in a lazy smile, and Honor chuckled. She gave the 'cat's head a gentle caress, then leaned forward and peered at the map Mayhew had spread out over the shelf-like fold-down desk. The Peep shuttle's only decent holo imaging capability was in the cockpit, but its tactical section was capable of using the same data that drove that display to print out an old-fashioned plaspaper map that was good enough for her current purposes. Now she bent a little closer, trying to read Mayhew's small, neat handwritten notations, and suppressed another stab of regret for the loss of her cybernetic eye's enhanced vision modes.

She finished deciphering her intelligence officer's notes without it and sat back to ponder them. She'd developed a new nervous habit of her own, and her right palm caressed the stump of her left arm in a futile effort to do something about the "phantom pain" of the missing limb. It was more of a phantom itch, really, and she supposed she should be grateful for small favors, but her inability to scratch the darned thing was maddening.

"Well, they don't know their anatomical portions apart!" McKeon insisted with a gap-toothed grin. "Hell, from the sound of this crap," he tapped an index finger on a hardcopy transcript of the intercepted com traffic, "these people couldn't even find their asses without a detailed flight plan, a dozen nav beacons, and approach radar!"

"Maybe so, but I'm not going to complain about it," Honor replied, and Nimitz made a soft sound of agreement.

"There is that," McKeon agreed in turn. "There certainly is that."

Honor nodded and stopped rubbing at the arm that was no longer there to run her index finger over the map while she considered what they'd learned. Actually, most of it's more a matter of simply confirming what Harkness already stole for us, but that's worth doing, too, she told herself.

Contrary to the works of the pre-space poet Dante, Hell had four continents (and one very large island that didn't quite qualify as continent number five), not nine circles. For the most part, neither State Security nor the exploration crews who'd originally surveyed the planet seemed to have been interested in wasting any inventiveness on naming those landmasses, either, and the continents had ended up designated simply as "Alpha," "Beta," "Gamma," and "Delta." Someone had put a little thought into naming the island, though Honor personally found the idea of calling it "Styx" a little heavy-handed, but that was about the limit of their imaginativeness. Nor did she find the repetitions on the motif which had gone into naming the planet's three moons Tartarus, Sheol, and Niflheim particularly entertaining. Of course, no one had been interested in consulting her at the time the names were assigned, either.

Working from the information Harkness had managed to secure before staging their escape, McKeon had grounded the shuttles on the east coast of Alpha, the largest of the four continents. That put them just over twenty-two thousand kilometers—or almost exactly halfway around the planet—from Camp Charon's island home on Styx. Honor had been unconscious at the time, but if she'd been awake, she would have made exactly the same decision and for exactly the same reasons, yet it had produced its own drawbacks. While it was extremely unlikely anyone would over-fly them accidentally here and even less likely that anyone would be actively searching for them, it also deprived them of any opportunity to monitor Camp Charon's short-range com traffic.

But as Honor had hoped, the Peeps seemed to be rather more garrulous when it came time to make their grocery runs to the various camps.

"How many of their birds did you get IFF codes on, Russ?" she asked.

"Um, nine so far, Ma'am," Sanko replied.

"And their encryption?"

"There wasn't any, Ma'am—except for the system autoencrypt, that is. That was pretty decent when it was put in, I suppose, but our software is several generations newer than theirs. It decrypts their traffic automatically, thanks to our satellite tap, and we downloaded all the crypto data to memory, of course." He eyed his Commodore thoughtfully. "If you wanted to, Ma'am, we could duplicate their message formats with no sweat at all."

"I see." Honor nodded and then leaned back, stroking Nimitz's ears while she considered that.

Sanko was undoubtedly right, she mused. However confident the present proprietors of Hell had become, the people who'd originally put the prison planet together eighty-odd years ago for the old Office of Internal Security had built what were then state-of-the-art security features into their installations. Among those features was a communications protocol which automatically challenged and logged the identity of the sender for every single com message, but it appeared the current landlords were less anxious about such matters than their predecessors had been. They hadn't gone quite so far as to pull the protocol from their computers, but they were obviously too lazy to take it very seriously. Camp Charon's central routing system simply assigned each shuttle a unique code derived from its Identification Friend or Foe beacon and then automatically interrogated the beacon whenever a shuttle transmitted a message. All transmissions from any given shuttle thus carried the same IFF code so the logs could keep track of them with no effort from any human personnel.

For the rest of it, rather than bother themselves with changing authentication codes often enough to provide any sort of genuine security, those human personnel relied on an obsolete, canned encryption package which was worse than no security system at all. If anyone ever even bothered to think about it—which Honor doubted happened very often—the fact that they had a security screen in place helped foster the kind of complacency which kept them from considering whether or not it was a good screen. And almost as important as that gaping hole in their electronic defenses, only Camp Charon's central switchboard computers worried about authenticating the source of a transmission at all. As far as the human operators seemed to be concerned, the fact that a message was on the net in the first place automatically indicated it had a right to be there.

Actually, they probably aren't being quite as stupid as I'd like to think, Honor told herself thoughtfully. After all, they "know" they're the only people on the planet—or in the entire star system, for that matter—who have any com equipment. And if there's no opposition to read your mail, then there's no real need to be paranoid about your security or encode it before you send it, now is there?

She raised her hand to knead the nerve-dead side of her face gently, and the living side grimaced. One could make excuses for the Peeps' sloppiness, but that didn't make it any less sloppy. And one thing Honor had learned long ago was that sloppiness spread. People who were careless or slovenly about one aspect of their duties tended to be the same way about other aspects, as well.

And the Peeps on this planet are way overconfident and complacent. Not that I intend to complain about that!

"All right," she said, gesturing for McKeon to come closer and then tapping the map again. "It looks like they're using very simple IFF settings, Alistair . . . and we just happen to have exactly the same hardware in our shuttles. So if we can just borrow one of their ID settings—"

"We can punch it into our own beacons," McKeon finished for her, and she nodded. He scratched his nose for a moment, then exhaled noisily. "You're right enough about that," he observed, "but these are assault shuttles, not the trash haulers they use on their grocery runs. We're not going to have the same emissions signature, and if they take a good sensor look at us, they'll spot us in a heartbeat."

"I'm sure they would," Honor agreed. "On the other hand, everything we've seen so far says to me that these people are lazy. Confident, and lazy. Remember what Admiral Courvosier used to say at ATC? 'Almost invariably, "surprise" is what happens when one side fails to recognize something it's seen all along.' "

"You figure that they'll settle for querying our IFF."

"I think that's exactly what they'll settle for. Why shouldn't they? They own every piece of flight-capable hardware on the planet, Alistair. That's why they're lazy. They'd probably assume simple equipment malfunction, at least initially, even if they got a completely unidentifiable beacon return, because they know any bird they see has to be one of theirs." She snorted. "Scan techs have been making that particular mistake ever since a place called Pearl Harbor back on Old Earth!"

"Makes sense," he said after a moment, and scratched his head mentally, wondering where he could track the reference down without her finding out he'd done it. She had the damnedest odds and ends of historical trivia tucked away in her mental files, and figuring out what had called any given one of them to the surface of her thoughts had become a sort of hobby of his.

"The question," Honor mused aloud, "is how often they make their delivery flights."

"I've been running some numbers on that, My Lady," Mayhew offered. He was to her left, and she turned in her chair to look at him with her working eye. "I'm not sure how reliable they are, but I ran some extrapolations based on the data Chief Harkness got for us and what I could glean from the transmissions we monitored."

"Go on," Honor invited.

"Well, Commander Lethridge and Scotty and I have been playing with the stuff the Chief managed to pull out of Tepes' secure data base," Mayhew said. "He didn't have the time to pay a whole lot of attention to the planet—he was too busy figuring out how to get to the ship's control systems and get us down here in the first place—but there were some interesting numbers in the dirtside data he'd never gotten a chance to look at. As nearly as Scotty and I can figure out, there are at least a half-million prisoners down here."

"A half-million?" Honor repeated, and Mayhew nodded.

"At least," he repeated. "Remember that they've been dumping what they considered to be their real hard cases here for eighty T-years, My Lady. We've got fairly hard numbers on the military POWs they've sent here. Most of them are from the various star systems the Peeps picked off early on, from Tambourine to Trevor's Star. You had to be a pretty dangerous fellow to get sent to Hell, of course—sort of the cream of the crop, the kind of people who were likely to start building resistance cells if you were left to your own devices. Of course, if State Security had been running things at that point, they probably would've just shot the potential troublemakers where they were and saved themselves the bother of shipping them out here.

"At any rate, there weren't very many additions to the POW population for about ten years before they attacked the Alliance, and the nature of the POWs sent here since the war started is a bit different from what I'd expected." Honor raised an eyebrow, and he shrugged. "If I were StateSec, and I had a prison whose security I felt absolutely confident about, that's where I'd send the prisoners I figured had really sensitive information. I could take my time getting it out of them, and I'd have complete physical security while I went about it—they couldn't escape, no one could break them out, and for that matter, no one could even know that was where I had them, since the location of the system itself was classified. But StateSec apparently prefers to do its interrogating closer to the center of the Republic, probably on Haven itself. Instead of using Hell as a holding area for prize prisoners, they've been using it as a dumping ground. People who make trouble in other camps get sent here, where they can't get into any more mischief."

"What sort of 'mischief' were they getting into?" McKeon asked in an interested tone.

"Just about anything you can think of, Sir," Mayhew replied. "Escape attempts, for a lot of them . . . or else they were guilty of being the kinds of officers and noncoms who'd insist on maintaining discipline and unit cohesion even in a prison camp. The troublemakers."

"And they've been skimming them off and dumping them here, have they?" Honor murmured, and there was a wicked gleam in her good eye. "You could almost say they've been distilling them out of the rest of their prison population, couldn't you?"

"Yes, My Lady, you could," Mayhew agreed. "According to the best numbers Scotty and I could come up with, we figure there are between a hundred eighty and two hundred thousand military prisoners down here. It could run as high as two hundred and fifty, but that's a maximum figure. The other three or four hundred thousand are civilians. About a third of those were shipped out after various civilian resistance groups from conquered planets were broken up, but most are the more usual run of political prisoners."

"Um." Honor frowned at that and rubbed the tip of her nose. After a moment, she moved her hand from her nose to Nimitz, stroking the 'cat's spine.

"A high percentage of them are from Haven itself, with the biggest single block of them from Nouveau Paris," Mayhew told her. "Apparently, both InSec and StateSec concentrated their housecleaning on the capital."

"Makes sense," McKeon said again. "Authority in the PRH has always been centralized, and every bit of it passes through the command and control nodes on Haven. Whoever controls the capital controls the rest of the Republic, so it's not unreasonable for them to want to make damned sure potential troublemakers on Haven were under control. It'd probably work, too. 'Hey, Prole! You get uppity around here, and—Pffft! Off to Hell with you!' Except that since the Harris Assassination, they've been sending off 'elitists' instead of 'proles,' of course."

"No doubt," Honor said. "But having them here in such numbers could certainly throw a spanner into the works for us." McKeon looked a question at her, and she made a brushing-away gesture. "I wouldn't want to generalize, but I can't help thinking political prisoners would probably be more likely, on average, to collaborate with StateSec."

"Why?" McKeon's surprise was evident. "They're here because they oppose what's happening in Nouveau Paris, aren't they?"

"They're here because the people who were running the PRH when they were arrested thought they were a threat to whatever was happening in Nouveau Paris at the time," Honor replied. "It doesn't follow that they really were, and as you yourself just pointed out, things have changed on the domestic front over the last eight or nine years. Some of those prisoners were probably as loyal to the PRH as you and I are to the Crown, whether the security forces thought they were or not. And even if they weren't, people the Legislaturalists sent here might actually agree with what Pierre and his crowd have done since the coup. They could be looking for ways to demonstrate their loyalty to the new regime and possibly earn their release by informing on their fellows. Worse, they could be genuine patriots who hate what's happening in the PRH right now but would be perfectly willing to turn in the Republic's wartime enemies. For that matter, StateSec could probably plant spies and informers wherever it wanted by using the hostage approach and threatening the loved ones of anyone who refused to play its game."

"I hadn't thought of it that way," McKeon acknowledged slowly.

"I'm not saying that there aren't political prisoners who truly do oppose Pierre and Saint-Just and their thugs and who'd stand up beside us to prove it," Honor said. "Nor am I saying that there aren't collaborators among the POWs. There are usually at least some potential weasels in any group, and even the spirits of men and women who would stand up to outright torture can be crushed by enough prolonged hopelessness."

For just an instant, the right side of her face was almost as expressionless as the nerve-dead left side, and McKeon shivered. She was speaking from experience, he thought. About something she'd faced and stared down during her own long weeks in solitary confinement. She gazed at something no one else could see for several seconds, then shook herself.

"Still," she said, "at some point we're going to have to take a chance on someone besides our own people, and I'd think military POWs who were captured fighting against the Peeps in defense of their own worlds or parked here to prevent them from becoming threats after their worlds were conquered are more likely to resist the temptation to collaborate. Not that I intend to leap to any sweeping generalizations. It's going to have to be a case-by-case consideration."

She stroked Nimitz again and the grim look in her eye turned into something almost like a twinkle. McKeon regarded her curiously, but she only shook her head, and he shrugged. He wasn't positive how she did it, but she'd demonstrated an uncanny ability to read people too often in the past for him to doubt her ability to do it again.

"You're probably right," he said, "but Jasper was saying something about how often they make their supply runs?"

"Yes, he was," she agreed, and looked at Mayhew. "Jasper?"

"Yes, My Lady." Mayhew gestured at the map on the fold-down table. "The red dots indicate known camp locations," he explained. "They're not complete, of course. Even if Tepes ever had a complete list of camps, her latest data on them was almost two years out of date before Chief Harkness stole it. But we're trying to update, and as you can see, the ones we know about are clustered on Alpha, Beta, and Gamma. Delta's too far into the antarctic to be a practical site, but even with half a million prisoners, they've got plenty of places to put them without sticking them down there. And as you can see, the camps get even thinner on the ground as you move into the equatorial zone here on Alpha."

Honor nodded. Given the climate outside the shuttle, she could certainly understand that. Putting prisoners from most inhabited planets into those conditions would have been cruel and unusual punishment by any standard. While that probably wouldn't have bothered StateSec particularly, the jungle also had a tendency to eat any permanent settlement or base, and that would have been a problem for them. Or something that required them to get up off their lazy duffs, anyway. They could force the prisoners to do any maintenance that was needed, but it would still have required them to provide tools and materials and the transport to deliver both. Unless, of course, they simply chose to let the camps disappear . . . and the prisoners with them, she thought grimly.

But the near total absence of camps right in the equatorial zone helped explain why she and her fellow escapees were smack in the middle of it, where no Peeps would have any reason to venture.

"As nearly as we can tell," Mayhew went on, "the camp populations average about twenty-five hundred personnel, which means they've got approximately two hundred sites in all. Obviously, there are none at all up here on Styx Island—Camp Charon itself is purely a staging point and central supply depot for the other sites—but the mainland camps are all a minimum of five hundred kilometers from one another. That spreads them out too much for the inmates of any camp to coordinate any sort of action with any other camp, given that the only way they could communicate would be to make physical contact."

"I'd be a little cautious about making that assumption, if I were the Peeps, Jasper," McKeon put in. "Five hundred klicks sounds like a lot, especially when there aren't any roads and the prisoners don't have any air transport, but I have a lot of faith in human ingenuity. For example," he leaned forward and tapped the huge lake scooped out of Alpha Continent's northern quarter, then ran his finger down the rash of red dots along its shore, "if they put camps on a body of water like this, then I'd expect the prisoners to be able to build—and hide—enough small craft to at least open communications with the other camps."

"I wouldn't disagree with you, Sir," Mayhew said with a nod. "And perhaps I should have said that the Peeps seem confident that it would be impossible for them to coordinate any effective action, not that all of the camps can be kept totally isolated from one another."

"They could have achieved total isolation on an intercamp basis if they'd been willing to accept larger populations per camp, though," Sanko offered thoughtfully. "That would've brought the total number of camps down, and then they could have put a lot more space between them.

"They could have," Honor agreed. "But only at the expense of making each individual camp a thornier security problem. Twenty-five hundred people are a lot less of a threat than, say, thirty thousand, even if every single person in the smaller camp is in on whatever it is they might try to do. Besides, the larger the total inmate population at any given site, the easier it would be for any small, tightly organized group to disappear into the background clutter."

Sanko nodded, and she returned her one-eyed gaze to Mayhew and gestured for him to go on.

"Whatever their rationale for spreading the prisoners around, and however good or bad their logic," the Grayson officer said, "the point I was going to make is that when this flight—" he tapped the transcript of the first transmission they'd intercepted "—checked in with Charon, Flight Ops sent him the fresh numbers he'd asked for, which tells us how many rations he dropped off at this camp—Alpha-Seven-Niner: just over two hundred and twenty-five thousand. Assuming there are twenty-five hundred prisoners there, that would be enough food for about one T-month, and that checks against this other intercept, which gave us the same kind of numbers for camp Beta-Two-Eight. So it looks like about a once-a-month supply cycle for all of them. What we don't know—and have no way of determining yet—is whether they spread their supply runs out or make them all in a relatively short time window. Given the general laziness with which they seem to operate, I could see them doing it either way. They could make a handful of daily flights and gradually rotate through all the camps, which would let them assign the duty to different pilots every day without overloading any one flight crew. Or they could choose to squeeze all of them into an all-hands operation over just a day or two each month so they could all spend the rest of their time sitting around. At the moment, it looks to me like they've taken the short time frame approach, since we've been listening to their comsats for over two weeks and this is the first traffic we've heard, but there's no way to prove that."

"A month," Honor murmured. She contemplated something only she could see once again, then nodded. "All right, Alistair," she said crisply, "that gives us a time window for any given camp, anyway. And I think Jasper's probably right, that they do make a major supply effort once a month. If so, we've got some idea of the interval we have to work with. All we need to do is figure out what we're going to do with it."

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