Sister Time John Ringo & Julie Cochrane



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Chapter Ten


Four men and one woman gathered around a hologram in a stale-smelling Galplas room. Six enhanced information manipulation units sat ranked on ancient folding tables along the walls, hard-wired out through secure data cables that ran through ductwork in each wall. Each machine's buckley port was uncharacteristically empty. Each unit showed signs of recent and regular cleaning, each showed signs of age in black lines of dirt ingrained in the casing's few small seams. Each was still a cutting edge application of Tchpth technology, being between seven and twenty years old. More accurately, cutting edge of what the Crabs had been willing to release to any Galactic anywhere. Human cyberpunks being less hidebound than Galactics, each was still more innovative in small ways than anything Indowy or Darhel had. They made up in creativity anything they lacked in Darhel institutional infotech experience. The cybers presumed, of course, that the Himmit had perfect working copies. The Frogs' espionage capabilities on all fronts were so good that the cyber division of the O'Neal Bane Sidhe had the private opinion that even the Tchpth had no idea how much of their tech the Himmit had quietly stolen. After all, why would the Himmit risk provoking the Tchpth to increase security? One of the cybers' primary and highly covert projects was to find and keep secure a good enough story to buy whatever information the Himmit had acquired on the slab.

They had enjoyed a remarkable lack of success, though not through lack of stories. It was practically impossible to protect a good enough story against penetration by the Frogs—nicknamed for the terrestrial amphibians they resembled. Purplish and bulbous when in the open having a conversation, the Himmit were racial cowards, a trait moderated only by their cheerfully insatiable curiosity. They had an extraordinary ability to reshape their bodies and repattern them to match their surroundings, and to move silently. Their natural camouflage ability was to a chameleon's what a Formula 500 race car was to a little red wagon. They were also so harmlessly amiable that it was impossible to stay angry with one.

The cyber operations security director described the continuing attempt to protect information from the devilishly effective little bastards as "good training."

The walls in the room were a nasty putty color. One corner was glaringly different, the bright purple walls covered with acid green spirals. It hurt Tommy's eyes, but he had to admit that Cassandra was one hell of a cracker. Despite her penchant for collecting desk toys that, together, moved like a set of demented clocks, he'd never seen a system she hadn't been able to poke half a dozen different security holes in. The purple stuff was obviously painted on, since it was already flaking at the uneven edges. Galplas had never been designed to take paint. What would've been the point? It could be tuned to any color you wanted—at least, it could at installation. Galactics weren't much for anticipating change. Sometimes it seemed like they barely tolerated it at all.

Tommy Sunday shook himself and got his attention back on track. Cally was going over the layout of Fleet Strike Operations Training Headquarters. "They put the archival library on this section of the flats. It's not just a machine room tightcasting to the troops' AIDs. Fleet Strike learned a few lessons from the war. All of its more interesting material is secured within the system and accessible only by physically cabled-in terminals. In practice, that means you sit down in a study couch, scan in your fingerprint or swipe your temporary ID, and plug in the buckley you checked out from the front desk on your way into the building. The building is, unofficially but strictly, a no-AID area. The in-house buckleys all carry a bright-blue stripe up the back, just as a reminder not to cross-connect the two. There's a manned desk at the door to tactfully ensure the protocol is followed. Questions?" She paused, clearly knowing the question wouldn't be rhetorical.

"Yeah, I'll bite. How are we getting into their system?" Schmidt Two looked over at Tommy, raising an eyebrow. The male assassin was on the opposite side of the table from Cally, as far away as he could get without being rude. Tommy hoped they could shelve their tension before the run. He didn't like complications within the team.

"Go on." Cally nodded at the big man.

"Fine. When I left Fleet Strike in 2031, I hadn't been approached by the Bane Sidhe yet, but I'd gotten used to having extensive access and didn't want to lose it. It was a big chance and could have gotten me shot if they'd caught me at it, but I fooled Fleet Strike's systems into thinking I was on a long-term deep cover investigations mission. That I was a sleeper." He held up a hand when Papa would have spoken.

"I know, I know, Fleet Strike's mission was and is human versus Posleen, not human versus human. They have almost no cloak and dagger operations, of course. The key word there is almost. They have, rarely, had some internal high drama—investigating misappropriation of funds, diversion of resources, corporate bidding scandals, things like that. There was a billing category for it, a protocol for the systems to deal with such an agent, and that was all I needed. Especially since I told it I was too secret for it to pay me, which let me, after the fact, disable the linkage to the payroll and accounting systems. When I got through tinkering, the left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing. I cross referenced against the standard reports . . . uh . . . your eyes are glazing over. I covered my tracks, okay?" When he talked about computer geeking, it was possible to see the skinny, dark-haired kid from Fredericksburg inside the linebacker's son.

"If they hadn't broken out their own data storage from the Darhel's main AID network in 2019, I never would have been able to manage it. I'm sure it's duplicated in the Darhel's databases somewhere, but there's never been anything to bring one insignificant sleeper agent to their attention. Not that I know of, anyway. I had dumped large chunks of AID code into some harmless-looking duplicate files on a first generation preproduction system right after the Rabun Gap incidents. I was pissed, Iron Mike was pissed, we were all pissed. The plan was to analyze it later and I had cooperation from the rest of the 555th ACS. We did some sleight of hand with partial files I don't need to get into. Anyway, I used the back door I built to dump my files so I could use them in my private sector work. That's the only time I ever accessed it, but I never shut it down. The system should, and I stress 'should,' still think I'm in Fleet Strike if we tickle it right," Sunday said.

He took a chance and stole one of the really yummy smelling brownies Cally had sitting on a napkin in front of her, ignoring the dirty look she shot him. He'd have to ask where she'd found them, since chocolate was one of those luxury goods at one hell of a premium on base since the split. It was far more available on the island, given the proximity for smuggling. Maybe he could get her source to part with the recipe for Wendy. These were good.

"Unless they caught you last time, in which case it will bring all hell down on our asses." The red-haired fireplug of a man spat neatly into a chipped stoneware mug that was missing its handle.

"Papa's got it in one," Cally said. "Our peerless leaders' willingness to play this card should give you some idea of the importance of the mission. You all know we've been skating on the edge of disaster, as an organization, since the split. The take from this mission won't come anywhere near putting us where we were, but it'll make that thin ledge we're on just a tad wider. If the device's existence and location is confirmed, if this isn't some elaborate ruse to give the Darhel a plausible excuse to eliminate Michelle as one more O'Neal, we can't let them get it developed and in production. If they get something like this, we aren't just on the edge anymore, we're out of business. We don't have a defense that would keep a captured agent from spilling his guts under this thing, and all of our agents know way too much. We aren't nearly as compartmentalized as we should be. There won't be anything to stop the enemy from running routine interrogations on all their people, potentially compromising every agent we've got inside." She sighed. "We've been complacent, and it's come back to bite us in the ass."

"Okay, to make the explanation as simple as possible, the plan is a lame duck jenny with a charlie chatter and a right angle fake. Harrison, you're charlie. Granpa, you do the fake out. Tommy steals the ball. George, you drive and babysit the Humvee. Jenny, obviously, me." She pointed to her own chest.

"If nobody's got any questions so far, let's get to the positions and timing." Cally picked up a fiberglass pointer. "The plane comes in nap of the Earth at oh-five-hundred and sets down on the flat behind this hill. I've allowed a generous twenty minutes for us to unload and get into the vehicle. I expect it to take half that. Buckley, start the hummer and the clock."

"Hold that thought, buckley," George said. "I do have a couple of questions." If Isaac's team lead objected to being interrupted, she didn't show it. Not to casual inspection. Tommy knew enough to recognize the slight tightening of her hands after she folded them in front of herself and turned a deceptively open face towards the other man. There was nothing significant to anyone about her closed body language. Cally always kept her arms close in, defensively, when she wasn't in character for a job. He didn't know if George could read her closely enough to catch the Cally-specific facial tells.

"Yes?" Her tone of voice was pleasantly even. If Tommy hadn't worked closely with her most of her life, he wouldn't have been able to tell she was getting torqued. He was starting to wonder how tactful George had been, or hadn't been, in their prior meeting.

"The jenny is fine, but in my experience it's almost impossible to run an obvious diversion on a military base without the senior NCOs, at least, smelling a rat. Not to mention a security lockdown of the base. And Harrison sucks at field work," he said, nodding to his brother. "Sorry, bro, but you do. Tommy's conspicuously huge, and a fucking war hero. What if he gets made? Why not switch Tommy and Papa and send Papa in with a swipe card, since the system takes them. Or a grafted fingerprint. And why do you really need me if I'm just going to be sitting on my ass in the truck? No offense, it just looks like I'm extraneous."

Cally's expression got friendlier. Not a good sign. "Okay, first off, the diversion is anything but obvious. Operations training has a computer randomized Posleen attack drill approximately once a month. It's separate from security lockdown drills because with Posleen that's a waste of manpower that Fleet Strike may need. Don't sell Harrison short. He's charming, and can be made up to look inconspicuous, particularly in uniform. And he's not going to make a fuss about changing his appearance. Right, Harrison?" It wasn't really a question. "Everyone still alive who ever served with Tommy has either been riffed out or deployed off planet. He's huge, no disguising that. His hair, eyes, and facial structure will look nothing like his original identity. Fleet Strike has helped us out, there, by liberalizing the length and grooming standards for hair in the past ten years. Papa can't go in his place. A swipe card triggers a security review automatically, a graft is a dead giveaway under the most casual review, and the access end is the place most likely to need a sophisticated on-site hack. You, obviously, are our go to hell guy."

It was impressive how she could say something like that without overselling or underselling it. It'd be interesting to know if she was fooling George or not with the Miss Friendly face. "You've just demonstrated why. You're better than anyone I know at finding potential weak points in a plan, on short notice—even though we have those specific ones covered. You improvise fast and well even for a field agent. If anything goes wrong, you get to pull our cherries out of the fire."

"Okay, fine. Why is Papa doing the hack for the diversion, and what if that's not smooth?" he asked. "No offense." He nodded to the older redhead.

"Tommy does the hack on the way. He's got half a dozen canned routines set up in Papa's buckley to cover contingencies. The only reason the hack isn't already done is to reduce the chance that it will be noticed beforehand. We hope it won't be noticed at all, but nobody wants a blown op, do we?" She smiled. "That it? Okay, buckley, start the Humvee moving."

"Are you sure? There are at least sixteen more things that could go wrong, you know. Would you like me to list them?" the buckley offered cheerfully.

"Shut up, buckley," she said mechanically.

"Right."

Tommy and Harrison coughed, unconvincingly, as the miniature truck started moving through the hologram. The base buckley's eccentric reaction to Cally O'Neal was a running joke between them. As was Cally's ill-concealed suspicion that Tommy was hacking her system. He hadn't, which just made it funnier every time she accused him. The briefing went on, more quickly now that George had said his piece.

"Right. We want to come as close to the base as we can without ever entering line of sight of the elevated areas of Fredericksburg Base itself. We're landing out here. Technically, it's civilian, privately-owned land. In fact, it's abandoned but not yet reverted to Homestead and Reclamation. It's as safe as it gets, but it means we need to proceed over the Rappahannock here, and do another crossing at the other side of this small island. There's an old road that will have discouraged tree growth and such, but the route might as well be off-road. Harrison, planning for getting the truck across the river is your baby. Who knows what's there now, but undergrowth analysis from the few aerial photos we have suggests that however much bridge there is, that's the one that got the most rebuilding. Both sides of that old road have been used a fair bit, most likely by civilian-type vehicles, on both sides of the river. The bounty farmers had to have been crossing it somehow. Think about contingencies. Get with Tommy, go over whatever information we've got, and come up with a list of what you'll need. Supply needs it by fifteen hundred tomorrow. Earlier if you need anything particularly exotic.

"Obviously, there are security cams out in the area beyond the base. The difference between the cameras on base and the cameras off base is that the cameras on base are hard-wired to the data assessment center. The cameras off base are not. They broadcast or tightcast, using the same transmission protocols as the AIDs. For all that, they're pure Earthtech, which means that we can fuzz them. Enough, anyway. So, our first point of approach is here," she said, touching the pointer to the flashing red dot southeast of the base. "Harrison, Tommy and I un-ass the truck and proceed to the fence. We have fairly recent intelligence that the fence is chain link topped by razor wire. Naturally, we'll take backup, but we should be able to get onto the base itself with nothing more exotic than heavy duty wire cutters. From the fence, we split up. Two hundred meters in from the fence line, there's a guard patrol that covers the secure area containing the archive. I turn onto the road here and start jogging up towards the archive building. Tommy and Harrison parallel me and wait for me to jenny the guard. They break across the line and make their way to the building. Harrison, you're going to carry some package you need the clerk to sign for. Get together with Tommy and figure out something plausible.

"Meanwhile, George and Granpa take the Humvee around to here." She pointed to a second flashing red dot in the hologram. "As you can see, the truck can get closer in here, meaning Granpa will get up the hill before us, overlooking the muster point for the particular Posleen attack drill we've selected."

As she took them through the steps of the brief, Tommy tried to keep his mind on the details. This was a straightforward reconnaissance mission, despite the target, but that didn't make it okay to get complacent.

It was good flying weather, clear and mild, as Kieran Dougherty guided the Martin Safari hybrid jet over the Virginia hills. False dawn threw purple shadows over a landscape barely touched with color in the early light. The pilot grumbled to himself because the Schmidt sitting to his right in the copilot's seat was not, in fact, his copilot—not that he needed one for this. Schmidt Two wasn't any kind of pilot at all and as far as Dougherty knew, hadn't a single hour of flight time to his name. The overgrown kid of an assassin was using the instrumentation of his plane, all right. Using it to control the surveillance cameras on the belly of the plane, taking countless pictures of the ground they were overflying, just as if it was anything more than godforsaken postwar wilderness laced with the occasional cluster of dirt-poor bounty farms.

He came in low, dropping lower, using VTOL to land on a green flat, behind a hill, in a place that used to be called Falmouth. Mere tens of meters away, an abandoned bounty-farmer's shack sat, weathering beneath an encroaching tangle of vines, dry and dormant in preparation for winter. His landing field was an irregular patch of knee-high grass and weeds, its sole virtue that it was relatively flat and not yet overgrown with the scraggly pines eating away its edges. There were, however, signs of abat. The only blessing about this mission to the middle of nowhere was the season. This late in the year, the grat, who, like the Posleen they came with, preferred warmer weather, were already hibernating deep in the ground awaiting spring. The alien insect, which preyed on the hapless, plentiful abat, hunted in swarms. The little bastards' poison sting could kill a grown man with a speed and ease that would have struck a hive of killer bees dumb with envy.

The amateur ecologist in Kieran automatically tracked the signs of change everywhere he got to go—one of the perks of his job. Fortunately, in Virginia the abat were slowly losing the fight to the rabbits and field mice. Once the local owls, foxes, and other night-hunters had learned the abat's peculiar vulnerabilities, the native rodents had gotten a respite and begun to recover. The abat's coloring and movement habits helped it avoid the senses of grat in Posleen ships and fields. Evolution had not fitted them for all terrestrial habitats. Farther south, the story wasn't so good for the natives. Here, abat didn't have any of the peculiar survival habits needed for winter weather. They were conspicuous as hell in the snow, tending to hop frenetically to keep warm. They had swarmed in with the Posleen, along with other pests and hangers-on from countless worlds the Posleen had devoured. The rodentlike herbivores' reproductive rates had made their slide towards extinction in Virginia slow, but the outcome was inevitable.

As for the grat, some local insectivore or another must be pretty damned resistant to the poison, because they were reportedly declining, too. Expert opinions were divided between the black bear and the woodpeckers as the happy recipients of ecologic accident. Lack of resistance worked both ways. For every species that became invasive in a new environment, at least a hundred died out. Invasive success in one environment did not translate to invasive success in another.

In the prewar era, Japanese kudzu had inundated the American southeast, but left Alaska untouched. Rabbits and cane toads had overrun Australia, but bombed out in more habitats than they'd thrived. Felis domesticus had destroyed countless species of birds—but only in places where it had doting humans to go home to. In many other places, top level predators—and not just the Posleen—made short work of the kitty cats after their human protectors were gone.

Ecological destruction from the Posties' hitchhikers had overturned equilibria everywhere—but it was a toss-up which species got a foothold where, and some, like the abat and grat, appeared to have a similar vulnerability to the Posleen's absence as the house cats had to the absence of humans. In the former cases, nobody had figured out why yet.

The key, as always, was that evolution was not an upward path towards some predestined goal. Evolution had no goals—it simply described an observed sequence of causes and effects. Evolutionary fitness in one environment did not translate to evolutionary fitness in another. The Posleen, in their adaptability of diet and environment, were a wholly remarkable, one in a gazillion aberration.

Their hitchhiker species demonstrated more the rule of species transplantation than the horses' own bizarre exception. Any hitchhikers that couldn't eat earth life started dying out as soon as the Posleen were gone. Any hitchhikers that could eat earth life could, as a rule, be eaten by it. It tended to level the playing field.

He sighed and shook loose from the woolgathering that tended to catch up with him all at once whenever he got safely back on the ground.

"Thank you for flying Bane Sidhe Air, please don't forget your baggage, we hope you have a brilliant day. Guys, watch your step on the ground out there. It's an abat field." Kieran busied himself with flipping switches and checking gauges, preparatory to going out and getting his aircraft squared away for the team's return.

"Oh, lovely. Can you give us a second to double check the harness before you drop the ramp? I know it's fine, just exercising constructive paranoia." Cally was first out of her seat and bouncing on the balls of her feet, already buzzing on adrenaline.

"Yeah, secondary to Kieran's constructive paranoia. He checked everything about five times before we took off in the first place." Harrison grinned easily, standing and getting what little stretch was available in the cabin.

"Great. Still, you never know what might have worked loose on the trip." She looked like she was about to jump to the ground. Looking over his shoulder, Kieran could almost see the words "abat field" walk across her forehead before she turned and took the ladder down.

"If it makes you feel better. We've got time." Papa O'Neal yawned and began patting down his pockets.

"Looks good. Drop the ramp. Tommy, you and Granpa get the camo net over the plane. Harrison, help me start disconnecting the Humvee," she called.

"You mean now that we know everything's connected?" Schmidt One had a quirk at the corner of his mouth.

"Exactly," she said.

"Did anybody ever tell you you've been listening to your buckley too much?" George asked.

"She has not. If she listened to me, she'd know that it's not the aggregate failure rate on the straps you have to worry about. Do you know how many field missions have ended in death and mayhem, not to mention blatant destruction of sensitive and valuable electronic equipment, caused by vehicular failures? I've prepared a list of the top twenty-five most likely causes for mission failure resulting in three or more team fatalities. I can recite it if you'd like," the buckley volunteered helpfully.

"Shut up, buckley," Cally called over her shoulder at the PDA still resting in her vacated seat.

"Right."

While they were talking, Kieran had gotten the ramp down and joined Cally and Harrison, rapidly unfastening the heavy-duty harness that had held the mostly mud-colored truck immobile in the belly of the plane. It was amazing what you could carry in a smallish plane when you didn't have to carry large amounts of jet fuel. Cally ignored the door, swinging her feet in through the driver's side window and starting the engine, before backing the vehicle down the ramp. Parking clear of the plane so her team members could get the cover in place, she got out and fished a gym bag from the floorboard behind the driver's seat. The guys were set already. This time of year the gray silks, with Fleet Strike's blue stripe up the leg, would certainly be the uniform of the day. Fleet Strike uniform would be the best camouflage possible on base for Tommy and Harrison. George and Papa were in old-style BDUs and snivel gear. Cally, of course, had a different role to play.

She pulled a thin camo jumpsuit out of the bag and wrinkled her nose at it, looking down at her stylish black and red running togs. She looked good. She was supposed to, but her vanity always amused Kieran for some reason. The black sweats and windbreaker were nothing special, but teamed with a red tank top that was about two sizes too small, it was eye catching enough.

"Cold, Cally?" George said, walking past her to rummage in the back for his camera bag. She spun around and obviously checked the impulse to clobber him, settling for staring balefully at his back. The bra she was wearing was a thin membrane that other than keeping everything elevated might as well not have been there. If ogling was pissing her off, she'd better get her head in the game. Kieran walked up the ramp into his plane to close it up. He'd go over it with his usual fine-toothed comb before taking the opportunity to grab a nap, his own part in the operation finished for now.

* * *

"Get in the goddam truck, George. You've got the middle." Cally stepped into the jumpsuit and zipped it halfway up. The grass crunched under her feet, crisp with early-morning frost despite the mild air. She was the odd woman out for the vehicle, looked like.

"Nope, I need shotgun. Gotta shoot some pics. Besides, Tommy and Harrison'll like it better if you're in the middle. You look better than me and you probably smell better." The camera itself was a good electronic model. His eccentricity was that he used an ancient set of glass lenses with it, and could go on for hours about the inferiority of modern, polymer, zoom lenses. At least, the one time Cally had been present it had seemed like forever.

"At great personal sacrifice, I will sit in back. Cally, you drive," Granpa said.

"Works for me. Hi, Boopsie," George said, opening the passenger side door. It would be bad form to vault the hood and slam her feet in his face. Really, it would.

Schmidt Two's air photos, the jerk, showed a rutted track from the abandoned farmstead to the river, and a crossing point that had once been Jefferson Davis Boulevard.

She got a good look from the side as they drove up, upgraded vision outlining the details for her as sharply as if she'd peered through binoculars. It wasn't much of a bridge. The horses had built out the postdemolition remnants of the prewar structure in the sturdy, functional, clumsy style of Posleen engineering, but never completed it. A ramshackle conglomeration of timbers, patches of salvaged Galtech cargo webbing, and what looked like steel runway planking bridged the central gap of about twenty meters. Cally was about to throttle George over his constant click-clicking of the camera as they drove. She knew the value of good footage, but my God, the man was obsessive. She parked the hummer on the bank and walked out onto the bridge, toeing the material in the gap experimentally. Personally, she wouldn't drive a bicycle across that mess. But she'd walk it, with a belayman.

"Netting bridge gonna work, Harrison?" she asked.

"You bet." He stooped down and fingered the old Posleen surfacing. "This stuff will make a good bond with adhesive."

"Fine, get the netting. Harrison, Granpa, secure this end. I'll make the crossing." She looked at Harrison and waited for his nod before jogging back behind the vehicle. After some rummaging through the other supplies she found rope, harness, and pack, carrying them around front and tying off to the front bumper. The lines for the pulley hooked onto her belt, to unwind as she went.

"What, all of a sudden you don't trust me not to drop you?" Tommy asked.

"You're not belaying me. George is. The process will go faster if you help the others set up on this side." The too-handsome mechanical specialist was working with Granpa to assemble the strips that would become the improvised bridge's base plates. Flat on one side and blessed with a plethora of hooks on the other, the plates could be secured on soft ground with long spikes, affixed to a solid surface, or stabilized in place in any of several other ways. A properly secured set of base plates with several layers of the special netting could create a bridge strong enough to support a small tank in an unbelievably short time. "Properly secured" was always the kicker.

In this case, the bridge so constructed would be roughly double the width of their Humvee, once they snapped together the axles of enough rolls of bridge netting. The bridging had taken up virtually all the cargo space in the Humvee, even though the material was as thin as cardboard and flexible enough to roll very tightly. They had had to carry so much of it because there was no way to tell how much bridging they'd need. At that, George had insisted on carrying more wedged into nooks and crannies in the plane. Cally and Granpa had surreptitiously rolled their eyes. There was paranoia, and then there was paranoia. Schmidt Two had changed since the loss of his wife and team. Among other things, for the first few years he'd been fanatically punctual. Some quirks stayed, others tapered off. Everyone knew what he was going through. Besides, assassins were always strange birds in one way or another. As long as it didn't get in the way of the mission, they tolerated it where possible, and were glad of it when it did support the mission. George had gone from a seat of the pants improviser to an excellent go to hell guy, with an almost prescient tactical awareness.

"Your faith in my competence is touching," the smaller man said.

The slight assassin probably weighed less than she did. He'd know how to brace himself, but no way was she going to let him see how much it freaked her out to step onto the rickety bridge. It would have been just as bad if her belayman had decent body mass. Really, it would. If she told herself that often enough, maybe she could stop the cold sweat she felt prickling on her upper lip. She tried to pretend to be someone who wasn't afraid of heights, but slipping into character was, for this, pretty damned hard.

"No offense. Just don't drop me." She checked her rigging and backed out onto the dilapidated mess, watching over her shoulder and testing her footing as she went. Halfway over, when it was holding up better than expected, she sped up, dancing lightly backwards with only a few muffled curses when her foot slipped through a gap in the webbing. Damned if she was going to show how petrified she was. The adrenaline from her slip drove her heart straight up into her throat. She couldn't help getting a glimpse of the water, so dizzyingly far down. Two missions in a row where she had to be way up in the—she really didn't want to think about it. She yanked her foot loose and planted it on a thicker strip of webbing, her knuckles whitening on the rope in her hands.

"Hey, watch it! Where are we gonna be if you throw a shoe?" George called.

"You're making me sound like a horse."

"Whatever. We should have brought you an extra pair of shoes," he said.

"Well, I'm over here now, so relax. I'm not going to drop a sneaker in the river. Even though I did wrench my ankle for real, just a bit. But hell, if I get a little swelling or something, it just adds realism." She gave up trying to look casual and backed the rest of the way carefully, watching her footing. She had to resist collapsing on the bridge in relief when she got to solid ground again. More solid, anyway. Still far too high, but she wasn't going to think about that.

"You got by with it. Just hook up the pulley," he called.

Oooh, he's pissing me off. "Fine." She brushed the dust and dirt off part of a Postie section in the bridge, more or less in the middle, and opened the backpack. The available section of bridge looked much better for adhesive than trying to drill holes. She sprayed down the clean section of bridge and shoved the back plate of the pulley against it, counting to sixty before unclipping the lines from her waist. The pulley lines were ingenious. Strong sections of line clipped together at intervals to make the length of the loop easy to adjust, but the clips were narrow enough not to make the line jump out of the groove in the wheel. She clipped them in place and rested, elbows pressed in to her sides, tapping her fingers together nervously. Why did they have to build bridges so high? It wasn't as if there was anything wrong with being down close to the water.

It took a few minutes for them to package up the bridging base plates for her side, and attach the package to the pulley so that it wouldn't snag too bad on the way over, then about as much time for her to get it all loose on her side. Setting the roll of bridging to unwind smoothly around its axle as she pulled it across was even more awkward. The procedure certainly gave her bridge base plating enough time for the adhesive to set up before she had to cut the net to fit. Working backward with a boxcutter variant of a boma blade, she eased the mesh of the ultra-strong netting over the hooks on the plate and secured it. The plates themselves were now as firmly affixed to the Posleen section of bridge as if the whole assembly had been cast from Galplas.

Finished, she noticed an infinitesimal tug at her waist. Cally looked up to see that the annoying man had untied her rapelling rope from the Humvee, unrolled a substantial length, and was tying it to one of the ancient steel supports whose remnants stood, twisted and torn, on the human section of the old bridge.

He waved some coils of slack at her and called out, "Pull your end back and tie it off. If we have to dismantle the bridge in a hurry, somebody might need it. We've got more rope; we don't need to take this one."

Damn but he was lucky she wasn't close enough to slap him. She sighed and tied the thing off, grumbling. Just like him to put her in a corner where she had to leave her lucky rope. She couldn't say anything about it without looking stupid.

She didn't look at him as she got into the hummer behind Granpa, who probably would get to drive for the rest of the insertion. Her right front side tingled with the urge to pop George upside the head. If he hadn't been so good at his job, she'd really be regretting asking him now. She hadn't been this pissed in she didn't know how long.

The first section of bridge had moved them across to what was technically an island. The roadway forward was intact up until the small branch that separated them from the mainland. Whatever improvised bridge had spanned that gap had suffered some sort of misfortune. The Postie work was ragged at the edges and wisps of what must have once been another improvised connection hung from both ends over the gap. Naturally, Granpa's drysuit and fins had shifted to the bottom of the pile. Normally, with her natural buoyancy, Cally would have gotten stuck with swimming the gap. She'd gotten to beg off from the task this time since it kept them from having to wait while she redid her hair. Another O'Neal was the logical choice since they swam so much at home. Granpa got the job—he wouldn't be seen by anyone after insertion. That didn't mean he had to like it. Even through a good suit, the water was damned cold and he let them hear about it, drawing a good-natured "quit whining" from Tommy. Still, once he made it across and up to the other side of the gap, setup was routine.

Vehicle finally across, they fired up some self-heating breakfast packs and a pot of coffee. A hot breakfast was nice for the others, but necessary for Papa O'Neal, who was still shivering after he'd gotten back into his BDUs and snivel gear. The temperature was dropping so fast Cally was feeling the chill even through her sweats. She ignored George as he tied off another rope. The problem with overcomplicating mission fail-safes was that the more you did, the more likely it was that something would go horribly wrong when you couldn't keep track of all the balls you had in the air. It was a delicate balance. She preferred to keep things simpler and fly by the seat of her pants when she had to.





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