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Chapter 24



Washington, DC, United States of America, Sol III
1937 EDT October 2
nd, 2004 ad


Monsignor O'Reilly regarded the small piece of electronics that had mysteriously appeared in his cassock pocket. It looked like a standard flash memory card, but there were no manufacturer's marks on it. Nor were there any instructions. He finally put it in the flash reader attached to his computer and checked its directories.

The chip was apparently named "Religious Documents." The first directory was titled "Rig Veda," the second "Koran," the third "Talmud" and the fourth "The Franklin Bible." He opened up this directory and stared at the single file titled "Install." He twisted his face a few times, took a deep breath and double-clicked the file.

It asked for a password. He thought about it. He had not been given a password. The likelihood was that if the first guess was wrong, the chip would erase instantly. Finally he typed, "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately." The computer chirped and the installation began.

Either the chip had more memory than any flash card should or the file had been hyper-compressed. The tiny file was expanding to dump a mass of files into his computer. If he had to destroy the evidence it would be nearly impossible to track them all down. He nearly pulled the chip in panic, but the file dump finally ended and a text box popped up.

"Welcome," it read, "To The Franklin Bible Complete Study of Human Archetypes And Pre-Historic Myths."

There was a new icon on his taskbar, a tiny blue world with a telephone on it. He drifted the mouse across it and the caption "New Messages" popped up. He clicked it.

"Dear Monsignor O'Reilly," the simple text box read, "in the event that you do not want this program to stay on your computer, simply uninstall it using the uninstall icon on your desktop. Uninstallation will remove all files created with this program, all messages associated with this program and every bit of evidence that it ever existed on your computer. This will take less than fifteen seconds with the system it is currently installed on. You may also do this by simply saying, 'Dump the Post Office.'

"At this time these are the critical messages for the Society of Jesus.

"The Tir Dol Ron is en route to Earth. His first stop will be the United States."

The message that followed was much the same information he had received from Kari. It did, however, include some expansions. Apparently the reason that the Tir was coming to finalize the negotiations was that the humans could not possibly kill this messenger.

The message contained detailed data on requested defensive systems, construction rates for Galactic-supplied weapons and Fleet construction rates. Actual rates were graphed against planned and currently reported rates and the difference was obvious. The bottom line was that less than half the equipment requested for Terran Forces would be available before the invasion. There would, however, be sufficient materials to equip all the expeditionary forces. Those forces, by solemn and binding agreement, came first.

With America asking for more grav-guns and fewer being available, it should be an interesting meeting.

The final piece of information was a note on subsystem suppliers. He nearly overlooked it but a particular note caught his eye. All sixteen Darhel clans were participating in supplying materials for the Fleet and the Terran Defense systems. And all of them were behind on their schedules. However, one particular clan, the Tindar, was farther behind than any of the others.

He narrowed his eyes and wondered about the significance of that bit of information. The list had been intentionally sorted by negative production rates. It was definitely a clue to something. After a moment's introspection and a mental memo he returned to reading the primary message.

"We have no suggestions or requests at this time. The installed software has complete plans for a variety of Galactic systems including descriptions of production and use.

"All messages will completely clear themselves five minutes after reading; there will be no trace of them on the system. The flash card will erase itself in twenty seconds and will dissolve if submerged in water. We are happy to once again be in contact with our human comrades.

"The Bane Sidhe."


Chapter 25



No-Name-Key, FL, United States 0f America, Sol III
0922 EDT October 3
rd, 2004 ad


Mike woke to the to sound of the wind-up radio they had brought with them. It was forecasting four more days of perfect weather to be ended in the season's first severe cold front. Hurricane Janice was proceeding to the north of Bermuda and was not expected to make landfall in the United States. The United States Ground Force command had recently upgraded its forecast likelihood of early Posleen landings. The new forecast called for small-scale landings to begin occurring no later than two months from the date of forecast.

Mike snorted and threw aside the poncho liner he had been sleeping in, flipping a small lizard nose-over-tail through the air. The silky, smooth nylon and polyester blanket was a near-perfect camping accessory. It was the one item that Fleet Strike had eliminated from its inventory that Mike disagreed with. Although he understood that the replacement item was supposed to be better in every way, there was an atavistic thrill to the simple polyester fill product that the newer one did not have. In addition to that, there was also the fact that the GalTech version was virtually unavailable, whereas the South Carolina factory that made poncho liners was running three shifts and had ample supplies on hand. It had recently been moved up the waiting list for Sub-Urb production facilities on the basis of the product being designated "critical warfighting supplies." Not bad for an ersatz blanket.

Mike rubbed the stubble on his face and decided that it was acceptable. One of the GalTech products he had fallen in love with was depilatory cream. The product not only removed hair, it inhibited growth for nearly a month thereafter. Of course it was in as short supply as everything else, so Mike eked out his cache by using razors in between. But he was still in the latter stage of inhibition and could more or less ignore shaving for a few days.

He rubbed his face, looked around the dilapidated room crawling with ants, and shook his head. With a snort at the fruition of their plans for the trip he took the two steps necessary to enter the bathroom. The mirror was losing its silvering, giving an impression of leprosy to his face, and had a large chunk cracked out of one corner. He propped up the seat of the toilet and did his morning business, smiling at the handwritten sign the proprietress had posted at eye level.

With the shortage of water, flushing urine was contraindicated. To point this out delicately the sign stated "If it's yellow, it's mellow. If it's brown, it goes down." There was a bottle of bleach on the back of the toilet and Mike carefully measured a capful and tossed it into the bowl to neutralize the ammonia.

When he came out after a sketchy wash-up Sharon had come back to the room.

"If you hurry you can probably still get some breakfast," she said with a smile. She had a bouquet of tropical flowers that she set on the cracked linoleum table.

Mike smiled and shook his head. "Not exactly what we planned, eh?"

"Not the Ritz-Carlton," she admitted.

Although they had both visited the Keys more than once, it had always been on a shoestring. This time they had looked forward to staying in the best hotels in Key Largo. Not only were they both making as much as pre-war generals, Mike was absolutely flush with prize money from Diess.

The Fleet fell under Federation regulations. One of those complex rules related to property captured or recovered by military forces. It had been enacted, along with a slew of other inducements, when the Posleen had first entered Federation space. The monetary inducements were designed to persuade the chronically poor Indowy to renounce their minimalist and nonviolent ways and enter the Galactic military. The various inducements had failed miserably in their intent, but they had never been taken off the books.

Military equipment abandoned by the Posleen, as thousands of ships had been abandoned on Diess, fell under the category of "salvage." It belonged to the forces that had either captured it or permitted its capture.

This was not immediately apparent to the human forces on Diess. They had simply let the thousands of in-system and interstellar ships sit until a Darhel factor had pointed out that they were responsible for clearing them off the planet. The military had protested that it did not have the equipment to remove the ships, so the Darhel offered to remove them for them.

The commander on Diess was not born yesterday. He decided to put the ships up for bid and was amazed by the response. Both in-system and interplanetary ships were at a premium due to low production rates and war losses. To date, fewer than half the ships had been sold, but the income had exceeded the Federation "payment" for all other NATO forces.

However, the Federation regulations also required "sharing" of the income from the prizes under a complicated scheme. One aspect of it related to "actions of extraordinary nature." Since it was unlikely that any of the ships would have fallen into human hands without the actions of O'Neal and his platoon, a percentage of every ship was detailed to them.

Mike's prize income the previous year had been larger than the Gross National Product of most Terran countries. Not that it did them any good in the Keys.

"Where's breakfast?" he asked, pulling on a pair of multipocketed safari shorts and a light cotton button-down shirt with still more pockets. He tended to get lonely without them.

"Over at the pub," she said, putting the flowers in water. "The locals apparently sell them eggs from free-range chickens. One of mine was . . . a little on the pink side."

Mike grimaced. He hadn't had fertilized eggs since his dad got out of the egg business decades before. He had just opened his mouth to retort when there was a shriek from the direction of the harbor.

Sharon was not sure where the Desert Eagle appeared from, but before she had started to move Mike was outside with the .357 caliber automatic leveled. As she ran out the door she saw him lower the weapon from its two-handed grip and grin sheepishly. Then she realized that the second shriek from their daughter was a cry of surprised delight. It took her a moment to recognize the chittering squeals that responded.

Cally, in the company of Karen the proprietress, was squatting at one end of the closest dock, trading splashes with a dolphin. The small bottlenose was chattering back at her every squeal and she was obviously having the time of her life.

Mike slid the gigantic automatic into the rear of his shorts and stepped out onto the dock. At the creak of the wood, Karen looked over her shoulder and smiled.

"Morning sleepyhead," she quipped and stood up.

The dolphin protested as she stepped away but she just waved and tossed it a handful of fish bits. The bottlenose caught them expertly and went back to charming bits out of Cally.

"Tame dolphin," Sharon commented, squinting against the bright morning sun. "They aren't usually like that, are they?"

"No," Karen said. "I was Shirlie's trainer."

Sharon raised her eyebrows in surprise. "Where? Sea World?"

"No," said the woman, bitterly. "Not anymore anyway. I was at the Marine Mammal Research Facility in Marathon. It was really just a tourist trap for dolphin rides, but I've never had anything against that. I was with Sea World for years as a trainer and really believe that we did good work. Making cetaceans stars kept all sorts of ugly things from happening to them over the years. Heck, if it wasn't for places like Sea World, nobody would care about dolphins and orcas."

"So how'd you end up here?" asked Sharon as Mike walked down the dock to where his daughter continued to converse with the cetacean.

"Well, when the tourists started to fall off, we got a notice from the National Marine Fisheries Board that we were to release all of our specimens. Their reasoning was that there was no way to maintain captive marine mammals in adequate conditions and it was better to release them."

Mike turned and looked behind him. "That's insane!" he stated. "You can't just release a captive mammal and expect it to survive!"

"No duh," Karen said, then smiled sadly to take the sting out of the words. "That was exactly what I said, and two or three dozen other trainers that I kept in contact with. What really pissed me off was that we couldn't even get any press time. The NMFB just shoved the damn ruling down our throats and the press paid no attention."

Mike nodded. "Let me guess. It wasn't 'newsworthy.' "

"Exactly." Karen nodded. "Anyway, I was dating Harry at the time. Instead of going back up north–I'm from Chicago originally–I moved in with him. Shirlie and four other dolphins just sort of 'followed' me here," she concluded with a sly smile.

"Trail of breadcrumbs?" asked Sharon, watching Cally pat the six-hundred-pound sea mammal. She wondered when the inevitable question would hit.

"Something like that," said Karen. "We used to take them out for swims with the boat." She gestured at a well-kept Boston Whaler tied up to the office. Something about it indicated to Mike that it hadn't moved lately. "I just told them to follow me over."

"What happened to all the rest?" asked Mike. "I mean there was Sea World and the Miami Oceanarium and that one in St. Augustine . . ."

Karen's face pinched up at the thought. "Sea World just went over to the coast and released theirs in the Intercoastal Waterway. I don't know about the dolphins and porpoises, but at least one male orca was later found dead. The rest did pretty much the same thing."

"Damn," said Mike. There didn't seem to be much else to say. Then another thought hit him. "Hey, what about all —"

"The zoos?" Karen interjected. "And animal parks?"

"Yeah," Sharon agreed. "What about them? I remember something about Zoo Atlanta only being able to keep the gorillas."

"There are a couple of big parks in Florida that have taken in some of the animals," Karen said. "The herbivores are free roaming and more or less making it. Most of the carnivores have had to be put down. And anything that can't get into one of the reserve parks is getting put down."

"That's not right," Mike said. "We've got an obligation to those animals! They didn't exactly ask to be put in zoos."

"You're preaching to the choir," said Karen sadly. "We've been writing Congress, the President, everybody. But the responses we've gotten have a point. With shortages for humans, where are we going to get food for the animals?"

"Daddy, get real," said Cally, rolling onto her back, then flipping to her feet in the most limber move Mike had ever seen in his life. "It's an obligation, not a suicide pact. Once you kick the Posties' ass, we can gather them back up and recover whatever we find. Until then, we gotta concentrate." She rubbed the small of her back. "Shit. I forgot about the Walther."

"Showoff," Mike laughed. He shook his head. "I suppose you're right, kitten. It still pisses me off."

"Softy," said Sharon with a smile and gave him a thump on the shoulder.

Karen smiled at the byplay then turned to Cally. "You want to swim with Shirlie?" she asked.

"Sure!" said Cally with a grin. "That'd be spar!"

"Go get a suit," Karen said, and smiled as the girl scampered off. "Harry and I don't really think children are a good idea," she commented without looking at them as Cally went around the corner.

Mike grimaced. "I can understand that."

"She carries a pistol with her?" Karen asked, carefully.

"You don't?" Mike snorted. "Yeah. And she knows how to use it. She also knows all about firearm safety. Don't worry about Cally; Dad's turning her into a survivor."

"Our other daughter is off-planet," Sharon said, quietly. She was looking at the dolphin racing around the small harbor. "Could I join you?" she asked.

"Sure!" said Karen. "The more the merrier. The boys'll probably show up around ten, after they're done foraging. Shirlie's just so lazy she'd rather be fed." Karen turned to Mike. "What about you? Want to join us?"

"Maybe later," Mike said. "I think I'm gonna go try to butter Harry up. You guys have got a couple of cases of hooks coming."

Karen exhaled in relief at that the thought. "That would be great. You don't have any idea how bad it's been lately."

"Yeah," growled Mike. "We've got a few things to thank the Posleen for."

* * *

Mike set the case of fishhooks on the counter and smiled. "There's another case in the Tahoe, and the other stuff. I've also got a Number-Ten can of coffee, but you can't have all of it."

Harry shook his head and smiled faintly. "You sure know how to make friends," he said. He opened the case and pulled out a box of hooks. "We've been making them out of nails and tearing up lures. But, believe it or not, we've got coffee."

Mike reached behind his back and extracted a hip flask. "I've got some of this out in the Tahoe, too." He took a hit and passed it to Harry. "I'll even give some of it up for some goddamn explanations."

Harry regarded the clear liquid carefully. "Well, it's a little early," he said, then took a swig. He grimaced and coughed. "Oh! Smooth!" he gasped. "Jesus, what is that?"

"Georgia Mountain Dew," Mike answered with a laugh. "Only the finest. Now what the hell is going on around here?"

* * *

Mike had never had a conch omelet before. He had to admit it wasn't bad, but the thought would take a little getting used to. He scraped up the last of the grits and wiped his mouth with the provided hand towel. The Key did indeed have coffee, and Mike had to admit that wherever it came from it was better than the issue can he had with him. He took another sip of the excellent brew and cleared his throat.

"So let me get this straight. All fuel is rationed. Okay, got that; it's that way all over. Fuel for the boats is rationed on the basis of their production. High-producing boats get more fuel."

"Right-on so far," said Harry, taking a sip of the java as well.

"And power to the islands has been out for months. So you have to have a generator to distill the water and make the ice. And the fuel for the icehouse has to come out of the pool of fuel for the boats?"

"Right."

"And every month the price of the fish has gone down along with the fuel ration."

"Yep," said Harry. "Next month there won't possibly be enough fuel for all the boats and to make ice. If we can't store the fish until the trucks arrive, we might as well give up."

"What about the stuff you've been holding back?" asked Mike, carefully.

Harry was cool. "What stuff?" he said, blandly.

Mike laughed and held up his wrist to reveal the AID. "My AID analyzed satellite imagery of this place for the last year. It says you're holding back about twenty percent of your production."

Harry grimaced and nodded. "Yeah. But that goes to a lot of places. It's not really . . . available."

"Maybe you'd better make it available," said Mike, quietly. Hoarding was becoming a real problem as more and more people reacted to the coming invasion with a panic mentality.

Harry sighed. "If we did that it would take away the only things that make working here worth living." He paused and thought about it for a moment. "The spare isn't just in fish. It's in stuff that's more transportable. It's in dried conch and lobster tails. Shells. Stuff like that."

"What the hell do you use that for?" asked Mike.

"Trade goods, partly," Harry answered, holding up the cup of coffee. "There are small traders who move stuff around the islands and up to the mainland. Conch keeps for a long time. There's a market for it in Florida. The traders get stuff in Miami you can't get in places like Cuba and bring back rum and coffee."

"Oh," said Mike, nodding his head. He was aware that the shortages had created a thriving black market, but this was almost like pioneer days. It sounded like a triangle trade.

"Some of it goes to the dolphins," Harry pointed out. "They do a lot of their own foraging, but we still eke out their feed. And we do a little dealing on the side with the general goods trader that comes through." He grimaced again. "The damn thief."

"That bad?" asked Mike.

"Half the stuff he carries he'll only sell at black market prices. He'll have two cases of corn flour, but officially it's only one case. Once the first case is sold the rest sells at whatever the market will bear."

"Damn," said Mike with a stronger than habitual frown. "That's not the way it's supposed to work."

"There's not enough fuel for us to go up to Miami every week or even every month. So we have to depend on the one 'official' trader or the free traders. But the free traders are totally black market and there's no way to be sure what they're going to be carrying."

"And every month the price of the stuff is going up and the price of the fish is going down," said Mike sourly.

"Right," Harry said with the same tone. He looked like he'd bitten a Key lime.

Mike nodded in thought. He had had a thought the night before but it was firming up now. "Let me ask you this, Harry. What happens if you take the icehouse out of the equation?"

"What do you mean?" asked Harry. "We have to run the generator to keep the fish iced. Besides that, the distiller is our only consistent source of fresh water. We can't take it out of the equation."

"But what if you could not use the fuel for the generator?" Mike asked. "What then?"

"Well, that puts off a reckoning," Harry admitted. "We've thought about a windmill or something. We'd be pretty okay then. Hell, I've got an electric car stashed. We could load up on spare batteries and make it to Miami and back with at least some of the stuff we need." He shook his head in despair. "But we don't have a windmill and they're impossible to buy these days. Even if we had the cash. And it wouldn't produce enough electricity to matter. And the first good storm would tear it up."

"Ay-aaaah-ah," Mike whispered and whistled a scrap of melody.

Harry smiled. "It's not quite that bad. We haven't had a Viking raid. Yet."

Mike smiled. "It's an old memory. Who's your electrician?"

Harry wrinkled his brow in question. "Why the twenty questions?"

"I'm getting to that," Mike said. "Is it you?"

"No," admitted Harry. "It's one of the guys on Bob French's long-line boat."

"Okay," Mike said. "Well we'll have to wait for Bob to get back in to get it installed, but let me show you something I just happened to have brought along."

* * *

Good day, thought Bob French as he navigated the cut up to No-Name-Key. The world might be going to hell in a handbasket, but the lack of tourists, fuel and markets had reduced fishing pressure to the point of recovery. Since the types of fishing that prevailed put more pressure on the upper end of the food chain, the stocks of feeder fish recovered in the first year of the emergency. Since then the increases in catch size across the board had been phenomenal. On ledges where he used to be lucky to get one legal-sized snapper he now was taking dozens a day. Lobster pots were coming in brimming with "keeper" langostino and occasionally had a real monster, the sort of lobster that hadn't been seen in the Keys since the '60s. And he had always thought that the tales the old-timers told of multi-square-mile shoals of herring and sardines were sea-stories until he saw one just this year.

This day he was coming in with a boat loaded to the gunnels with giant groupers and snappers. Unfortunately, the thought of what that meant was disheartening. Every month the price was going down for all the fish, even the best cuts. And the official trade company paid in warbucks instead of pre-war dollars or, best of all, FedCreds. The warbuck was deliberately inflationary, so the cost of everything went up nearly as fast as the price of fish went down. It should have been the other way, but it wasn't.

He suspected, hell, all the fishermen suspected, that it wasn't supposed to be that way. But without any way to communicate with the mainland except mail or driving, nothing seemed to be happening. He had finally used up his hoard of gas tickets and gone to Miami to complain. After two days of getting shuffled from one department to the next at the Marine Fisheries offices he had to get back. If he wasn't fishing he'd find himself on the shore.

And he was better off than most of the fishermen. His boat was free and clear and one of the larger ones still operating. Two of the guys working for him had lost their boats to the repo companies after they couldn't make the payments. He couldn't pay his crew much—hell most everybody got paid in fish or supplies—but it was something. The communities had pulled together so nobody starved and everybody had a little something extra. But nobody, not even he or Harry, had much.

What was going to happen when the invasion finally came was another question. But that was a worry for another day. For today there was gutting a bumper haul of fish that would just put him more in the hole for gas.

He made the cut ahead of the tide race and finally saw something to smile about. John Samuels had made harbor, which was the first bright spot he'd seen in a month of Sundays.

They called Samuels "Honest John" as a joke. The free trader ran a sixty-foot sloop that carried small cargoes from Miami to Cuba and back. He stopped at all the islands, buying delicacies "on the left" and trading at prices lower than the "official" black marketers. He and the other traders were practically the only source of tobacco and alcohol in the islands.

The trader was sitting on the dock of the harbor office with Harry and the "visitor" from Fleet Strike. The little fireplug probably was an actual Fleet officer; his casual demonstration of Galactic technology the night before had been impressive. Before everything went south they had watched the video from Barwhon and Diess. Fighting the aliens was going to be hell. He didn't envy the frowning little bastard his job.

The visitor seemed to have mended his fences with Harry. As the boat took the final turn to the dock the sound of their laughter was clear over the quiet chugging of the diesel. He killed the engines and drifted into the dock; every bit of fuel was worth saving. As Harry and Honest John caught his tossed lines the visitor flicked the butt of a cigar into the waters. Unless Bob was mistaken it was one of John's prized Havana Panatellas. The Fleet guy was making friends fast.

"How's the fishing?" John asked, taking the boat captain's hand as he jumped ashore.

"Oh, it was a hell of a haul," Bob answered bitterly. "For what it's gonna fetch."

"Smile, Bob," Harry said with a grin of his own. "We just got a new set of buyers and suppliers."

The fisherman looked from one grinning face to the other in puzzlement. "You want to explain that?"

"FBI agents just performed raids on your suppliers' and buyers' offices along with the offices of the Miami Rationing Board and the Marine Fisheries Board," the visitor answered for them.

"Why the hell would they do that?" he asked in surprise. "And how did we find out so fast?"

"Well," answered the visitor, with a slight smile violating his habitual frown, "they are required to perform an investigation at the registered request of a Galactic Enforcement Officer. All Fleet officers are also law officers. A second request from the office of the Continental Army Commander just got them moving faster than you can say 'posse comitatus.' "

"That black thing around his wrist is a communicator," Harry added with a laugh. "The FBI has already called him back. They said it was the best black market bust they've made since the start of the emergency. It's gonna make national news."

"Things are gonna be screwed up for a while still, man," Honest John cautioned. "They're gonna have to find a replacement that ain't part of the Cubano Mafia that's been controlling it." He shook his head. "Ain't gonna be easy. The Cubanos have gotten used to having their way in South Florida. One raid ain't gonna stop it."

"Cooperate," said the Fleet officer. "The assets of the companies have been seized. Ask the FBI to turn them over pending the completion of the investigation. They don't need the trucks to prosecute the perps. And you can probably get them permanently as the 'victims.' Get some materials and convert the old Piggly Wiggly to a warehouse so you don't have to base in Miami."

"That takes electricity," said Bob, with his own shake of a head. "Which is something we ain't got. We can't afford the diesel to run a generator that big. Even if we're in a co-op with the whole Keys."

"Ah, well, as to that," said the visitor, with a real grin while John and Harry just laughed.

"What?" asked the captain, as the crew started to unload. The four of them joined in as tub after tub of prime grouper and snapper were unloaded. He looked at Harry again, waiting for him to go on. "What's so funny?" he asked again, heaving a hundred-pound tub to the Fleet Strike officer. The heavyset dwarf caught it like it was a feather and slid it across the dock. He was even stronger than he looked.

"Mike had a little present with him," said Harry with a grin.

"It's not a present," said the visitor, seriously. "It isn't even a loan. One of the things I was doing on my vacation was finding places to plant energy caches. We're seeding the coastal plains with power sources to recharge suit units that get caught behind the lines. When I was on Diess it was a pain in the ass trying to find power. So I came down with three antimatter generators. They've got a finite amount of power, but it's enough to run a small city for a year, so . . ." He shrugged and smiled again.

"Damn," said the boat captain, tossing him another tub. "Thanks."

"Well, the priority is any unit that needs it," Mike said severely. "And, technically, you're not supposed to tie into it. But since you don't have a power grid, it's not like the whole Keys are going to be hooked up to it." He shrugged again and frowned. "As screwed up as it is down here, it seems the least I could do for you. Just don't overuse it. It's like a really big battery and once it's gone, it's gone."

"Well, thanks anyway," said Harry, stacking the last tub on the dock. The three hands were already loading up dollies to carry the fish to the icehouse for cleaning. "This means we don't have to waste fuel for generation so the boats can stay out longer. Hell, we've got a satellite dish, so we can hook up a TV in the pub and even get real news."

"Getting news again will be great," said Bob, with a smile. "Hell, before you know it we might even have telephones again!" He laughed. "And then it's faxes . . ."

" . . . and cell phones . . ." laughed Harry. The electronic impedimentia they had all grown up with was as distant as buggy whips these days.

"Well, enjoy it as long as you can," said Mike grimly. "The first serious invasion will hammer the satellites. And there goes your reception again."

"Yeah," said Bob, "that's true. But it's a hell of a long time since we got any news but radio. I got a question to ask on that, if you don't mind."

"Shoot," said Mike, but there was a hint of wariness.

"You said you were on Diess, right?"

"Right."

"There was this guy that won the Medal. They said he got blown up in a nuclear explosion and lived. What really happened?"

* * *

Sharon squealed and spun around in the water as Herman goosed her.

Karen laughed in return and slapped the dolphin on the flank as it went by. "You have to watch that one. There's a reason we named him Herman Hesse."

The three of them had been dragged off to a tidal pool by the dolphins. Here, on the Florida Bay side of the island, they had been swimming with the big cetaceans most of the day. Cally had stayed firmly attached to Shirlie, who at less than five hundred pounds was the lightest of the four. The other three were males: Herman, who had more or less attached himself to Sharon, Charlie Brown and Ted. Ted had left for a few hours in the midafternoon, but the others had stuck with them.

The day had not been for pure fun. The pool was home to a vast collection of the sorts of rare marine organisms that could be traded for luxury goods. Seven species of anemones, several more types of urchins, two types of lobster and various other items had been gathered. Sharon watched Cally as she rode the small dolphin to the bottom of the pool. There, in about fifteen feet of water, the eight-year-old let go and began plucking at the reef. A sponge, a spider crab and an anemone found their way into her mesh bag before she began to claw for the surface and air.

"This has been great," said Sharon, finning slightly and spinning in place to keep Herman in sight, "but I'm getting worn out."

Karen smiled. "A little different than what you usually do, huh?"

"A bit," Sharon admitted. She could see the dolphin trying to get into position behind her.

"What do you do?" Karen asked. Most of the conversation of the day had been taken up by the tasks that they had been learning.

Karen had prepared well. The dolphins had taken turns toting the three humans and an inflatable boat full of the necessities of the expedition. She had packed a light lunch of cold lobster salad and some cut fruits along with plenty of fresh water. Sharon had been careful to wear a T-shirt and to insist that Cally wear one as well. The hot South Florida sun would still have burned their legs badly, but Sharon kept Cally well covered with sunscreen. In Sharon's case, the same nannites that scoured Fleet bodies for radiation damage would make short work of the sunburn.

Sharon watched Cally line up for another run at the bottom. She was too worn out to even think about making another try, but the energetic youngster seemed as fresh as when they started. "I'm an XO on a frigate," she answered, watching the quick hands snag a passing shovel-nose lobster. Although they were less plentiful than the more common spiny lobsters, they were prized by the oriental community as an aphrodisiac and fetched a high price among the free traders.

"What's that mean? I mean, what do you do?" asked Karen, interested. She had never met a person who had been off-planet.

Sharon suddenly found herself unable to explain. How could she explain the constant strain of wondering which critical system would fail next? When the hull would suddenly breach? How the ship, and herself, would perform when they were finally in combat?

She paused a moment and smiled faintly. "Mostly I wait for the air to run out."

Karen was a kind and empathetic woman. And she recognized that not only was the answer correct, it was also as much as she could expect to get for the time being. She nodded in agreement instead. "We ought to be getting back." She suited action to words, tossing her nearly full mesh bag into the cooler in the inflatable. She pulled a harness out and winked. "If you waggle your hips do you think you can lure Herman over?"

* * *

Mike took another pull on the bottle of beer and a puff from the cigar. The sky was slowly darkening, the famous purple of the Caribbean drifting up from the east as they kept watch over the westward opening. The girls had been gone most of the day and it was about time they turned back up.

"If this isn't paradise," he opined to the trader, "it's within the limits of tolerance."

"It is close," Honest John admitted. "In a lot of ways, life's gotten better. Slower at least."

"Down here," Mike pointed out. "It hasn't been slow for me."

John nodded in agreement. "The margin sure as hell has gotten thinner, though. It used to be there was, I dunno, flex in the system. These days it's sink or swim. Sometimes literally."

"So, how is the Coast Guard these days?" Mike asked with a laugh.

John laughed in return. "Not bad. They keep the pirates in check, at least. But a lot of them have gotten transferred to 'more vital' tasks. So, SAR is spotty." He pronounced the acronym for Search and Rescue "Sahr." It was a military way of phrasing it that caused Mike to cock his head.

"Have you lost many boats?" Mike asked.

"A few. There's two problems. Some of the boats have gone to pirates. Or that's the way it looks. Boats just disappear in calm seas. And the free traders are in a constant low-grade war with the Mariellitos bastards who think they control the trade down here." The trader frowned and looked over towards his ship as if to ensure it was still intact.

"Have you been having much trouble?" Mike asked.

The trader snorted, gave a grim smile and shook his head. "Not . . . anymore." He seemed disinclined to explain the reference.

"The other problem is a lot of the boats, their GPS and Loran is giving out; they're at sea more than the systems are designed to handle. And most of the traders aren't real sailors, guys who know how to navigate by the wind and the stars. So if they lose their GPS, they get lost: really lost. There was one was just making the crossing from Los Pinos to Key West. The crossing's maybe two hundred miles. Stupid fucker ended up near Bermuda. Dismasted, out of water, half mad. How in the hell anyone could completely miss the Bahamas I'll never know." The tall captain took another toke on the joint he held. "Nobody could get that stoned. Hell of it is, he wants to go back to sea."

Mike chuckled grimly. He had his own massive list of screwups that he could detail, starting with the Diess Expeditionary Force. But the situation in the Keys was something of a whole different order.

"I don't understand how it could get this way," said Mike, gesturing around with the beer bottle. "Where the hell is everybody? I can understand the tourists, but where's the retirees?" The whole state of Florida was filled with retirees. Some of them were recalled military, admittedly. But that had to be a small percentage. Where were the rest?

"It happened slowly," Honest John admitted. "Not just here but all over Florida. First, the tourists started trickling off. Then, most of the people who could hold a hammer or run a press without cutting their fingers off went up north to get jobs. The Fisheries Board reinstituted net fishing for the Florida waters about then and there was a small rush to get into that. But when people found out how hard it was most of them moved away too. Then all the young guys got sucked off by the Army."

He smiled and took a big toke. "I was getting recalled my-own-self," he said with a chuckle. "But not only is free trader a 'vital war production position'—and didn't that take some squeeze to a certain congressman—but I convinced the in-process board it would be a waste of perfectly good rehab just to get a drugged-out Petty Officer Three." He grinned again.

"Anyway, before we knew it the entire population of the Keys was below twenty thousand, most of them retirees. The nursing homes and 'managed care' retirement centers started having problems with taking care of their old folks. Some of 'em died cause there just wasn't anybody on duty.

"Then when Hurricane Eloise came through, they took it as an excuse to evacuate all the retirees that were not 'fully capable of self-care.' Down here in the Keys, anyway.

"That meant the only people left, other than in Key West, were the fishermen and their families. There's a federal law that Florida Power had to deliver down here. But after Eloise, they got an 'indefinite suspension' because there was a shortage of parts, or so they said. That was last year.

"So that," the ship captain finished, "is how it got so totally screwed up down here. An' that's the truth."

The trader took another toke on his joint and a pull on the glass of Georgia branch water Mike had supplied. He worked his mouth for a moment. "Cotton mouth. Haven't talked this much in a coon's age.

Mike nodded and took a contemplative puff on the cigar. Papa O'Neal's branch water was awfully smooth. He doubted that the trader had any idea what proof he was knocking back like water. It was eventually going to catch up with him. "Just one thing I don't understand," he mused. "Where'd they put them? The retirees I mean."

"Some of 'em got mixed into the groups up the peninsula. Lots of 'em went to the big underground cities they're building," said John. He took a last puff on the joint and spun the butt into the water. "One nice thing about this war. Not only has it driven the cost of Mary Jane down, the coasties don't give a rat's ass if you're carrying."

"That's crazy," Mike argued, thinking about the first part of the statement.

"Why?" asked John with a laugh. "They've got a real war to worry about. They don't have to worry about the 'War on Drugs.' "

"No," said Mike with a touch of impatience. "I was talking about the Sub-Urbs. The work on them is hardly complete. I don't see them being able to take tens of thousands of geriatric invalids! Who the hell is going to care for them there?"

"Search me," said Honest John, putting words into action as he patted his pockets. "Damn," he muttered, swaying to his feet. "I gotta go back to the ship an' get some more weed." He took one step forward and fell in the water. He came up spluttering and looked around. "Where's those damn dolphins when you need them?" he said blearily.

Mike shaded his eyes against the westering sun and smiled. "Be filled with joy; salvation is at hand," he quipped and pointed at the opening where the group of humans and cetaceans had just hove into view.

"Hey Herman!" shouted Honest John. "Give a poor drunk trader a fin, buddy!" He grabbed a dangling rope and smiled up at Mike happily. "To think I could have been in-processing right now."

Mike nodded in mock soberness. "I gotta agree that might not have been a great idea."





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