Sister Time John Ringo & Julie Cochrane



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Chapter Eleven


Tommy Sunday looked at how badly Papa O'Neal was shivering and was very glad the older man was driving, up near those front heater vents. He might be metabolically an early twenty-something, but that didn't make him immune to hypothermia. The man's next task would be crawling up the back side of a hill on the cold ground, moving slowly enough under his ghillie suit not to get any body heat from exertion. George's real-world experience, like Cally's, was more urban. Papa was a better man in the woods, and was the logical man for the task. He needed to get his core body temperature back up, get thoroughly dried out. His hair was still dark with water from his swim, and that just wouldn't do.

The cyber initiated a pre-set program with his, clean, AID to track their progress and jimmy with the cameras accordingly. The AID would tell him if something unexpected came up, but adding static didn't take much babysitting. He pocketed it, climbing into the back of the car after the unbelievably stacked blonde. Damn, it was a good thing women couldn't read guys' thoughts. He'd be walking around with bright red hand prints on his face all the time. She turned to stow something in her gym bag behind the seat and one of her tits pressed against his arm. Not that it had anywhere else to go. Determinedly, he thought about cleaning out the cat box when he got home. They were Wendy's cats, but it was his week. Sand didn't do nearly as good a job as prewar clay litter had.

Thanks to his wife's hobby of buying and reselling antiques, frequently after a little research and restoration, and the war-pay investments of his they had converted into anonymous accounts before they "died," the Sundays weren't hurting for money. Too many other people were, O'Neal, Bane Sidhe, and strangers. He and Wendy had learned how old money used to feel, back in the northeast before the war. If you were comfortable, you didn't show it. Envy was a dangerous thing, and attracted parasites besides. He didn't mean the first generation O'Neals. He would've gladly helped Cally or Papa, but they wouldn't take it. The Bane Sidhe, though, would have pressured them to strip their assets as surely as fourteenth-century monks had latched onto anyone around their own bailiwick with land or cash. All in a good cause, of course.

It was a good cause. But he and his risking their lives in it was plenty, especially given the lack of results and the lack of down chain loyalty the Indowy had shown towards the operatives and sleepers. Sure, the O'Neal Bane Sidhe was better for the reduction in Indowy control, but not that much better. Father O'Reilly was a good man, but with the vow of poverty and never having married, the needs of families with kids and grandkids to care for sometimes slipped by him. Tommy and Wendy lived almost as frugal a lifestyle as anyone, but he was damned if he'd give up resources they needed whenever one of the young men hadn't come home, and would need again. The kids still needed shoes, and schooling, and braces on their teeth. They needed time with a mom who wasn't worn out from working herself into an early grave. He didn't at all regret working to bring the Darhel down, but the years had nurtured in him a certain bitter wariness about the Organization. They didn't mean to be callous bastards. They meant well, bigtime. They were necessary allies. But the Sundays and O'Neals always made sure they could take care of their own, because for sure nobody else would.

This train of thought always made him grumpy, but at least it had kept him from embarrassing himself until his "clan sister"—who sure as hell wasn't his sister—quit wiggling around. Barely. Friend. Of. My. Wife. Down, boy. Besides being a damned dangerous woman to piss off. Don't be stupid, man. Breathe.

He stared out the window as they bounced their way over the river and through the woods, threading whatever path they could through the trees, using the top of the hill where the building was as a rough guide. Most of the way, the old roads had kept out enough tree growth to let the truck through. Sometimes they had to go off and find their way around fallen trees, old telephone poles or other debris. Fortunately, the ground was hard enough that the truck didn't leave obvious fresh ruts. Not ones that would last very long, anyway. It sent creepers up his spine and left a lump in his stomach to be in Fredericksburg again. It did every time he came back to the place that had once been a thriving town. It had been the most horrible handful of days in his life. Bar none. He'd been scared shitless a lot of times through the war. He would've been a moron not to be. Nothing compared to Fredericksburg.

He lost his dad, his friends, everything. In a single day. Worse was knowing they had been eaten, butchered under the boma blades of the stupid but unstoppable hordes of ravenous tyrannosaurlike centaurs as they swarmed over his hometown like a plague of locusts. They weren't his worst nightmare. They were worse than that. He'd been in the local militia, like all the boys and men. Not that it had helped Fredericksburg, which had the misfortune to be the site of one of the first scout landings in the war. Already a proficient sniper from his prewar marksmanship hobby, he had taken up a position knowing—flat out knowing—that he would not survive the day, but determined to kill as many Posleen as he could before they got him, too.

Somehow, he had ended up with Wendy and handed her one of his spare rifles. Not that he had really expected her to do much with it, not really. She had just deserved the chance to try. What stuck in his mind most from the day was the stench as the smoke from the various explosions on the outside of town blew in on the wind. Faint at first, by the time the horses came in the carrion reek rising from the streets and blowing into their faces had been overwhelming. At the time, the adrenaline had been pumping so hard, with him so focused trying to stay in the zone to make every shot count, he hadn't noticed much. It only came back to him in memory, later. Maybe the memory was enhanced by the smell of the battlefields after, before he was chosen for Iron Mike's Fleet Strike ACS. One of the best unsung advantages to fighting in a combat suit was the way you didn't smell the Posleen.

The yellow scales of the carnosaurs had been covered all over the front, that and all six limbs, with orange smears of mixed human and Posleen blood. More blood had leaked into the gutters as they marched down the street in their usual bunched up mass. All that was the yellow of the hermaphroditic cannibals' own ichor. Human corpses from the hell of the scout wave's landing had long since been consumed or passed back to ranks in the rear for processing. He hadn't noticed at the time; his scope inadvertently swept over the gutter between the horde and the street drain as he came down from recoil to line up his next target. It was only afterwards that every detail of the day stood out starkly in his memory.

When Wendy got hit in the back of the leg, his getting her down to the vaults under the city, quick, had been the only thing to do. They still didn't think they'd live, not really. She had known about the vaults as a town history buff. His plan before he ended up with her had been to move from one firing position to another before ultimately dying in place. With her, he had a responsibility to at least pretend with her that his plan was going to do them some good. Then she got injured and it had been easier to contemplate dying himself than it was for him to leave a beautiful girl, his unrequited high school crush up until The Day, to die on that roof with him. Then under Fredericksburg, one thing had led to another and he and Wendy had ended up making love. At the time, they were both too much in shock for it to feel like a strange thing to do. Since then, he'd gotten used to the horniness inevitably evoked by the near death experience of battle. Some wit, he didn't know who, had once said that the most exhilarating experience in the world was to be shot at—and missed. It was.

As far as he knew, Shari O'Neal, his Wendy, and a handful of kids from the creche they had both worked in were the only women and children who had survived both the Fredericksburg landing and the Posleen eating the Franklin Sub-Urb, where many survivors of Fredericksbug had been sent. What a goatfuck that had been. Disarmed residents, no exits except from the top—the way the Posleen had to come in. They might as well have planted a big, neon, fast food sign on the top of the place. He hated the Darhel more for the deliberate mis-design of Franklin than for anything else. The dying act of the men from Fredericksburg had been to Hiberzine the women and children and stash them underground, stacked like cordwood in an old pump house, hoping they'd hidden it successfully from the Posleen. Those men had acted in the purest tradition of heroism. Many had done as much in that war, but nobody had done more. Only then a lot of the survivors had been sent to Franklin, which had been made a zero-tolerance for weapons zone at the insistence of the Galactics—which meant the Darhel. Designed with no exits. Franklin had been near the Wall, just inside Rabun Gap. When the Posleen broke through, the women, kids, and old people in Franklin hadn't had a snowball's chance in hell. Except that Wendy and Anne Elgars, a woman soldier of the Ten Thousand who'd been recuperating from near-fatal injuries, had gotten Shari and the kids out through the ventilation shafts and a small exit in the hydroponics section. Again, Wendy's habit of finding out everything about where she lived had saved her life. And the lives of the handful of others she'd been able to take with her.

Thank God his mother and sister had gone to Asheville instead of Franklin. They didn't get eaten, but what with the war and all, and the way everybody changed, by the time he and Wendy officially died, he and his surviving family hadn't been close.

He knew he was in Fredericksburg, which brought back all the ghosts he thought he'd laid to rest decades ago, but he couldn't recognize anything. Every once in awhile he'd get a glimpse of something he thought might once have been familiar, but he wasn't sure if he really remembered it or was kidding himself. The woods were anything but a healthy forest. There were plenty of trees, but mostly large patches of weeds and grass. Their roots and the elements had done a job on the rubble and compressed ground, which was punctuated by falling scraps of walls. The rusted spikes of rebar that crested above the weeds in places contrasted sharply with the twisted girders. Between one thing and another, not all of the metal in the ruins of Fredericksburg had gone into the Posleen nano-tanks. Some cities, in the rear of the Posleen occupation, or under more efficient God Kings, had been totally obliterated, so thoroughly had they been scoured for resources to feed the Posleen's infinite needs for war materiel. His home town had been left with its ghosts. He didn't know whether that was good or bad.

With difficulty, he shook himself out of his involuntary review of The Day. It didn't do any good to get caught up in past shit. There was just too much of it. Fuck it, drive on. Going fishing with one of his sons or grandsons was usually how he straightened himself out. Which it would be time to do when he got home, but now was time to have his head in the game.

The Fleet Strike silks threatened to pull him back into more unwanted reverie, of the months he'd spent fighting with the Ten Thousand, after getting dug out of Fredricksburg. Shortly after, he'd been transferred from the U.S. Army to Fleet Strike ACS—where he'd gotten used to wearing silks, in the rare times when he wasn't living in his suit. Now he was back. His conversion away from the system had come at the very end of the war, when to stay alive and keep the Posleen from pouring into the American heartland they had had to hide their moves from their Darhel-issued AIDs. Even back then, he was every bit as good with a computer as he was with a rifle. There was no way for the Posleen to be reading the AID network unless the Darhel had deliberately given them access. Put together with the designed-in vulnerabilities of the Franklin Sub-Urb, that were also too comprehensive to be accidental, nobody had needed to draw him a picture. Now he was back. For an hour or so, anyway.

He checked the blue stripe on the back of his buckley for what must have been the fifth time, reading over Michelle O'Neal's data on the mission that discovered the alleged Aldenata device. On a Crab planet the ACS had nicknamed Charlie Foxtrot, being unable to pronounce the Galactics' name for the place, Fleet Strike had engaged in heavy fighting with pockets of Posleen resistance in areas the powers-that-be deemed too sensitive to be neutralized by Fleet from orbit. According to Michelle, Fleet Strike had received orders to divert some equipment recovered from the Crab equivalent of a museum, and deliver it up the line. The museum was listed in all official Galactic records as a total combat loss. Cally's sister believed, and his experience agreed, that Fleet Strike kept more information in its records than it acknowledged to its Galactic bosses. Especially when ordered to do something it might have to cover its ass for later. He sure hoped the Michon Mentat was correct in her information about what they'd find in the records this time. It would really, really suck to have come all this way for nothing. Not to mention how much longer it would take to come up empty. Finding something was quick. Finding nothing was what took time.

Date, planet, coordinates, unit, commanding officer. If it was there, he should be able to find it. If it was there. He checked the blue stripe on the back of his PDA again.

"You're not nervous, are you?" Cally asked. "That's about the tenth time you've checked that thing."

"No, I'm good. It's just . . . Fredericksburg."

"Yeah, that's gotta suck."

"No shit," he agreed. "On the other hand, it takes my head right back to when I was with Fleet Strike, so it's not all bad."

"I wouldn't have minded being with Fleet Strike," Harrison observed, pouting. "Parts of it, anyway."

"Very funny. Keep a lid on the camp. It wouldn't play well with the target. Stick to the sports," Cally said. "You're checking your notes, right?" From what Tommy could see, he was playing solitaire.

"I've got it. I drilled it until I'm blue in the face. I can talk baseball with George for God's sakes. Don't jostle my elbow, dear."

"You'll be fine," she assured him.

"I know." Harrison winked at her. "Don't worry, I'll keep it simple."

"We've got the fence ahead," Papa said, softly, pulling the Humvee up. He stopped it short of the expanse of chain link topped with razor wire that cut a line through the woods. The woods on this side looked very much like the woods on that one, with nothing obvious about the land to tell why the fence was here and not there.

Harrison was out of the truck first, approaching the barrier with an old-fashioned multimeter and a black leather bag that looked like something an old country doctor would have carried. The fence was probably electrified, but its main purpose was as a simple barrier to announce the presence of a stupid Posleen normal charging through it. It also served to keep out equally stupid humanist radicals, seeking street cred with others in the protester set.

Tommy nodded to himself when the fixer started pulling out assorted wires and clippers. Electrified. He and Cally got out, breath frosting on the air. He put his buckley in the pocket of his silks and sealed it in, patting the other pocket to make sure his emergency field kit was in place, dropping the AID into the seat. Unlike conventional clothing, the pockets on his silks would stay reliably closed until he pressed the top corner again with a finger. They were comfortable as hell. He'd regret turning them back in at the end of the mission. Not that the Bane Sidhe had another operative who would fit silks made for Tommy Sunday. They didn't have anybody else as big as him. Which incidentally also meant Harrison had to cut the hole in the fence big enough for him to get through. The smaller man was used to it by now. Still, it was a good thing silks didn't snag.

Schmidt One looked up at his brother and said, "When we come back out of here, we're going to have to stop for me to patch the hole. Otherwise they'll find it the next time they run their maintenance checks. The idea's that we were never here, right?" It wasn't really a question.

"Cally, you're through first," the fixer said. "Tommy, get the other side. It just wouldn't do for her to get scratched up on all these rough edges."

"Nope. Ruin the whole effect." Papa O'Neal spat neatly out the driver's window. "Through you go. Get moving."

George put the box of coffee supplies, graced by a well-known brand name, on the ground next to his brother. "Here," he said, handing each of them a small data cube. "Terrain updates. That's what the pictures were for. Cross referenced with the hummer's tracking measurements, it should be pretty solid—at least for what I was able to see. I've also marked backup rendezvous points."

Cally took the cube without comment, pocketing it. Tommy and Harrison at least nodded at the smaller man, who smiled faintly before going back to the car.

Sunday followed her through the fence, letting her get as far away as she could without losing sight of her. He began following as she moved in to the southwest. He could hear the faint crackle of leaves under Harrison's feet behind him. Good thing the noisier man would be the farthest one from any unfriendly ears.

They'd walked just over two hundred meters, by his pace count, when Cally raised her hand and stopped them. He echoed the signal back to Harrison. She stripped her camo jumpsuit off and stowed it under a bush, patting the pocket of her black windbreaker, rubbing her ear to make sure the dot earphone was in place. Flesh toned and about half the diameter of a ladybug, it was practically undetectable. Tommy checked his earphone, too, patting the pocket with his buckley.

Once the extremely stacked and tempting blonde was on the road, Tommy could keep pace with her slow jog at a safely increased distance, watching the flash of red from her tank top through the trees that concealed his own muted gray. He listened carefully as he went, waiting for her to find and draw off the guard.

"Hey!" He heard a masculine voice from the direction of the road. He stopped cold, raising his hand to stop Harrison. "Excuse me, ma'am, but this is a restricted area." He heard the voice say, apologetically. Definitely not the tone he'd have taken with some unknown man. He almost felt sorry for the guy. Dangling Cally in front of him was a below the belt hit if there ever was one.

"Oh, is it? I'm so sorry, I didn't see the sign. I got a little turned around, anyway. Could you point me back to base housing? My sister-in-law is going to think I'm such a dummy," she said.

The voices were far enough away that he had to listen carefully, and wouldn't be easily overheard. He started forward again, carefully, beckoning with one hand. Harrison would have to go in first with his box, so he'd be looping around Tommy. The voices were moving down the hill as his female teammate succeeded at drawing the young soldier along with her. Single women on base were in short supply.

"Oooh!" The high feminine squeal of dismay was followed by a pause. "It's my ankle. . . ."

He couldn't hear the rest. They kept moving, cutting in to approach the road. There was a five-yard strip of grass on each side of the road before the gate to the chain link fence surrounding the archive building, and a good fifteen yards between the fence and the building. Where the front of the building jutted out from the hillside, the structure was surrounded by neatly trimmed boxwood hedges. Fortunately, the gate was open, the guard mount a precaution against a theoretically possible intrusion that nobody seriously expected. Harrison crossed the open area at a fast sprint, setting down the box on top of the hedge as he vaulted it with more agility than Tommy had known he had, and pulling the box down out of sight. Too big to try to go over the hedge without either landing in it or hitting the wall, Tommy ducked around the back after covering the gap between the tree line and the building. He barely had room to crouch down below the top of the hedges without scraping himself to bits on the hedge or the brick wall, or lying flat on the dirt. Dammit. The pictures they studied had had a mock-up of a suit and a scale model of a SheVa tank in the courtyard. Someone had moved the damned displays. He supposed they were lucky to have any cover at all.

He thumbed his pocket open and pulled out his PDA, tapping the transmit button. "Dude, I need a beer," he said, and ended the transmission. Seconds later, alarms began wailing across the base, sounding the drill alert. Soldiers all over the base would be grabbing their AIDs and their gear to get their information and execute their movements to set up an appropriate defense in response to the specified "Posleen attack." Over the next few seconds, half a dozen or so men sprinted out of the building and through the gate, disappearing quickly from Sunday's limited view. The activation phrase had been his own idea. He couldn't think of anything less likely to be flagged as a code phrase if it was somehow overheard. Papa had grumbled that it lacked style. Tommy had told Papa that next time he was on the pointy end, he could die with style if he wanted to—again. It hadn't been a fair thing to say. After all, it had only happened the once. Still, without the Crabs' miracle slab to patch up even the dead, as long as there was enough brain intact, they were all being more careful.

They waited another two minutes to make sure as many men as possible were clear before Harrison went in through the front door. It wouldn't do to wait too long and have Cally lose her grip on the attentions of the guard. Yeah, as if that was likely to happen. Getting out of the bushes wasn't fun. Schmidt One had to crawl across the bigger man's back on his knees so he wouldn't leave boot prints all over his back. Silks were stain resistant as hell, but they picked up dirt like anything else. The other man brushed off his back, getting the slightly damp pine chips off him. Tommy dusted off the bottom of the coffee box and handed it back.

The morning was brightening in the way only a crisp fall day could. He was warm in his silks, but could feel the cold against his face and hands and see his breath. As he looked up to watch Harrison around the side of the building, he could see the trees down the slope bending in the wind. In the lee of the hill, he didn't feel much wind, but he was starting to hear it. A quick glance up at the sky showed a line of heavy clouds as a colder front blew in from the northeast. Great. He gave Harrison a full minute before walking around the back of the hedge to the front of the building, PDA in hand.

He opened the door to see Harrison shrug at the counter clerk.

"No coffee maker? I dunno, maybe you're getting one. All I know is this is the building number I got and I need a signature. Hey, even if it's ultimately supposed to be somewhere else, it don't say so. Might as well drink it. Hell, I would."

"If it has our number on it . . ."

"Excuse me, I've just got to finish something up." Tommy waved the PDA at the clerk, showing the blue stripe, and walked past the desk. The clerk barely glanced at him, busy signing for the coffee.

"So, hey, did you see the last game of the series? That homer in the top of the sixth? What a beautiful . . ." He heard Harrison settling in to shooting the shit with the bored clerk.

Down the main hall, at the second intersecting cross-hall he turned left, passed the reading room and walked down to where the terminal plug was supposed to be—and wasn't. The space of wall that should have had a terminal had a door to the head. He looked back along the hallway the way he'd come and saw the jutting lip of the terminal outlet all the way down at the other end—and a skinny, freckled sergeant in silks.

"God damn, you're a fucking tank, aren't you?" The man looked up at him, tapping one foot. He didn't look impatient, just like the kind of guy who couldn't stand still.

"Um . . . hi," Tommy said. There weren't a lot of brilliant ways to answer that even if he'd been somewhere he was supposed to be.

"Sorry, I should have said hi or something first. You're just, damn, I'm surprised the ACS brass came up with a suit to fit you." The man was more a kid, really. He was already starting to remind Tommy of an overexcited cocker spaniel.

"I don't really know what to say to that. I'm Johnson. Bob Johnson," Tommy lied.

"Sorry, I swear to god I'm not weird or anything. It's just that they're running a course right now on early ACS tactics in the war. I didn't think anybody could be as huge as Tommy Sunday, but you must be close. Damn." He shrugged, starting to look uncomfortable. "I bet you get that all the time. So, when did they transfer you in? Johnson, is it? I haven't seen you, and I know I'd remember. Are you here for the course? It just started but I'm on light duty from a strained rotator cuff and thought I'd try to get ahead in the reading . . ."

During the kid's rapid monologue, Tommy had started getting more and more nervous. When he heard his own name, he made a split second decision and started sliding his hand into his right pocket with the emergency kit. He'd instinctively kept that side turned slightly away, so the kid didn't see anything wrong when Tommy started moving.

"Good to meet you," he said, clapping the other man on the shoulder. The spec four's friendly grin glazed over as the Hiberzine from the needle Tommy had palmed hit his system. Strictly speaking, they hadn't finished introducing themselves, but what the fuck. Tommy dragged the now unconscious kid into the head and down to the last stall, propping him on the toilet. This wasn't good. A single glance at the guy's face would show anyone he'd been Hiberzined, and when they woke him, damn. Tommy hit him with a second needle of another drug. If they revived him without knowing to look for it, and no reason why they should, the man's memories of the previous few minutes to hours would be so scrambled nobody would ever make sense of them. Cursing under his breath, he punched up another transmission on his buckley.

"Dude. I ran into somebody I had to deal with. I think I'll still get my paperwork done, but we'll have to rush lunch. See you at the chow hall. Over." He ended the transmission. Yeah, he could probably still get the information they came for, if it was here to be gotten, but getting back out was likely to be anything but clean.

"Roger that," George answered grimly.

This time Sunday was able to get across the main hall and down to the damn hallway terminal without meeting anyone else. Once in, he had to begin the delicate process of convincing the computer that he was surfacing from his deep cover assignment and was authorized to access the files he needed. Getting into the mission files at all proved to be a trick, and then there was an extra level of coding to break to get down to the level of specific planets. After what must have been at least fifteen minutes, with cold sweat beading on his forehead, he pinned down the files he needed and downloaded them to his PDA. He spent more precious minutes covering his tracks within the system as he got back out. Finally, he was able to pull the buckley out of the wall and start back out of the building.

A couple of men passed him, on their way back in, as he walked back down the hall. Harrison had seen him coming and finished off his conversation with the clerk, disappearing out the door. Sunday tossed the decoy buckley in the return bin at the desk on his way out.

"Thanks, man. They shouldn't have let you out of here with one of those the first time."

"You're right. Won't happen again."

As he left the building, it felt like every one of the few men he passed was looking right at him. They weren't, he knew. It just felt that way, like a rifle was drawing a bead between his shoulder blades. He could pick out Schmidt One going down the hill past Cally and the still captivated guard. She was standing now, flexing her ankle experimentally as she laughed at something he said. She had one hand on his shoulder and his arm around her waist. For support, of course. Tommy's adrenaline was pumping too high to be even mildly amused at how easily she'd reeled the other man in. Once he got out of earshot down the hill he hit transmit again.

"Lady, as soon as we're clear, disengage and haul ass. Big time." He didn't wait for a reply. It wasn't good communications discipline, if anyone was listening it was obvious as hell, but he didn't want her stalling to cover for Harrison and him any more than she absolutely had to. Maybe they wouldn't find the kid for awhile, but it wasn't the way to bet. Couldn't hurt to be paranoid.

Down the slope a bit and he was looking for any chance away from enough eyes to make a break for the tree line. By the time he got it he was over a small footbridge and at least a couple hundred meters down from where Cally came in. His sense of direction told him about where the cut through would be at the fence line, and he hurried to get out of sight of the road as quickly and quietly as he could. Fifty meters back out he saw movement off to the northwest. He tensed up until something about the other man's movement identified him as Harrison. The big man whistled softly to catch his teammate's attention, and get him to wait until Tommy could close to within a normal walking interval. They were picking their way northwest as fast as they reasonably could when the klaxons started screaming again.

"Oh, shit. Time to run for it. Damn, that was fast!" Tommy hit the ground flat on his back as Harrison yanking at the collar of his silks dropped him back with his running legs flying out from under him.

"Not that way. The second a real human being, or even an AID, looks at those readouts they're going to localize the hole in that fence faster than we can move—too easy to eyeball, too long to run there. This way." The smaller man led him at a sprint along the bank of the half dried and all frozen stream. Seconds later they were crouched in the stream bed at the fence and Sunday was watching the fixer adhere a downright dinky wire to the fencing with itty bitty alligator clips and bobby pins to hold it up out of the way, at a distance far too close to the ground to accommodate him.

"I hope you're not expecting me to be able to squeeze under that," he said.

"Shut up," the other man mumbled around some weird clips in his mouth, as he took an unfolding multitool and carefully started clipping wires. Something like a penlight shot out a blue beam that he swept across the ground at the based of a largish circle of the creek that turned to a mix of bubbling, steaming mud and chunks of frozen mud.

Tommy was starting to get a bad feeling about this. With the sirens still screaming in their ears, he started swearing again as Harrison dug hands and clippers under the mud, clipping and pulling at the section of fence that extended down into the ground. Quicker than Tommy would have believed possible, the other man had pushed back a doggy-door of fencing that moved enough mud with it that the huge man could see getting through it was now a particularly nasty maybe instead of no way in hell.

"Go," the fixer said. Getting caught wasn't exactly on their list of things to do on this mission. Tommy hit the mud and swore mentally, lips jammed shut, as the mud alternately scalded and froze him as he commando-crawled through the space that was almost big enough. He still probably wouldn't have made it through if Harrison hadn't planted his shoulder against his ass and pushed. On the other side, Sunday was covered with muck, inside and outside his uniform, in a way he hadn't been since the war. The fixer was squirming through the hole backwards, straightening the mud into something that didn't look quite as much like it had been crawled through. It wouldn't have fooled a two-year-old, but the other man pushed the fencing back as close to closed as he could get it, gave the muck a quick swipe with one arm, and took off running. Tommy hightailed it out behind him. Fuck noise and fuck bunching up, too. He pulled his PDA back out and wiped enough slime off the screen that he could see the first go to hell rendezvous point on the terrain map, maybe about two klicks away. Close enough for now. Distance. They were running in more or less the right direction, anyway. A gust of wind hit him full in the face and he felt the first big snowflakes hit his nose.

"Hey! Excuse me, ma'am, this is a restricted area." The guard who challenged her had gray eyes in an angular face. What there was of his hair under his cover was sand-colored and looked like he'd stuck his finger in a light socket. She gave him an apologetic half-smile, letting her eyes linger on his face with the perfect amount of interest to be encouraging but credible. It was blatant false advertising. She ruthlessly squashed the hint of pity.

"Oh, is it? I'm so sorry, I didn't see the sign. I got a little turned around, anyway. Could you point me back to base housing? My sister-in-law is going to think I'm such a dummy," she said.

As he kept approaching her, she moved towards him a bit less than halfway, judging the difference between flattery and triggering paranoia to within a hairsbreadth. A quick look back down the road and a helpless look back at him was enough to hook him and get him to follow her about a few meters down the hill. She made sure she had eye contact when she let her foot turn and took her spill.

"Oooh!" She squealed, arching her back as she turned and grabbed her leg. "It's my ankle. . . ." She rubbed the alleged injury, extending her leg and trying to rotate her foot. She winced prettily.

The guard squatted beside her, arm instinctively going behind her shoulders to support her.

"Ow." She looked up into his eyes, arching just a little more.

His eyes flashed down to her tits, and he released her, standing back abruptly. He looked more nervous than wary. She decided he didn't get out much—more leeway to flirt. Nervous, but trusting. Damn, there was that pity thing again. The team would be in and out without a trace. She wasn't getting him in trouble.

"If there's swelling, I don't see much yet. Do you want me to call you a medic, ma'am?"

"I think I just twisted it a little. Would you mind?" She extended one slim hand for him to give her a hand up. He released it as she stood, so she put it on his shoulder to brace herself as she made a show of testing her weight on that leg.

In her ear, she heard Tommy's voice. "Dude, I need a beer."

The wind had picked up and was whipping her silver-blonde hair around her face. "Oooh, it's getting cold." She rubbed her hands together, coincidentally pushing her boobs forward with her arms. She felt his eyes drop again and smiled inwardly.

"Do you think you're going to be able to get back your sister's house on that leg? If you do, you might want to get in out of the weather, Miss . . . ?"

"Gracie. And it's my sister-in-law," she said, offering her hand to shake. "You've been so sweet, you've got to tell me your name."

"Abrams, ma'am—Gracie. Mark Abrams."

"Well, it's very nice to meet you, Mark. What the hell is that?" She slammed her hands against her ears and looked around, eyes wide and fearful, as the sirens went off signaling the start of a drill. "Is something wrong?"

"Oh, it's just the Posleen alarm."

"Oh my God!" She threw herself into his arms, clinging like a limpet. "Is there an attack? Are they coming in?"

"Oh, no, it's just a drill," he said, awkwardly patting her on the back.

"Are you sure? We're in feral land, aren't we?" She filled the words with terror.

"Real sure. It's okay. They're just about all hunted out here." As seven men came out the doors of the archive building, one of them nudged another and winked at PFC Abrams. Predictable. These men hadn't been hit by fellow humans in so long that security was a ritual afterthought.

She disengaged herself from him, reluctantly. "You must think I'm such a dummy. It's the first time I've been in feral country. It's only my third time out of the Urb."

Cally made small talk with him for a few more minutes, giving a fictional name for her supposed brother and mentally crossing her fingers. At a training base, people were always coming in and leaving. Since Fleet Strike was trying to give a more family-friendly appearance for PR, even short-term trainees brought their families along. Stupid policy, but it helped her out. She wondered how long she'd have to talk to this guy—Mark Abrams—before Tommy and Harrison got clear of the building. She also wondered whether Mark would get around to asking her out before she had to leave.

"Dude. I ran into somebody I had to deal with. I think I'll still get my paperwork done, but we'll have to rush lunch. See you at the chow hall. Over," her earbug announced.

"Roger that." George's answer to Tommy cut off.

Shit. Shit shit shit. Better shift the conversation to something she could keep going longer. She might have to keep Mark talking for a good little while. She glanced at the treeline and started trying to figure out exactly how far she'd have to get down the road to sneak over and risk making a dash into the woods. She'd probably have to go all the way down to that bend.

She suppressed nervousness when she started seeing men return from the drill. She sunk herself deeper into her cover role, almost forgetting it was a cover. By now, she had the private almost thinking they were soul mates. They had just discovered a mutual interest in woodworking. She had briefly dated someone who had a passion for it, and that was sustaining her so far, but she was encouraging him to talk as much as possible. There was no way to spare his career from what she was doing to it, which really sucked.

"Lady, as soon as we're clear, disengage and haul ass. Big time," Tommy said in her ear just after he passed her. Just as if that wasn't pretty fucking obvious.

"Oh, my God." She looked at her watch and back up at Mark's with dismay. "I told Carrie I'd watch the baby! I've got to go!"

"Wait! How do I reach you?"

"I'll call! I'll call tonight!" She lied, remembering to put a limp into her jog as she left the young soldier staring after her.

"But you don't know my number!" She heard him call it after her, after a pause.

"Mark Abrams! Got it!" She called over her shoulder, losing the limp as she got out of his line of sight. A quick glance showed nobody in view; she hit it straight into the woods, zipping her windbreaker over the glaringly bright top as she went. She was maybe ten meters inside the tree line when the sirens went off again.

"Holy fuck!" She poured on the speed, dashing straight for the fence. They'd find the jumpsuit, but to hell with it. It only took about half a minute to reach the fence, but then she had to decide whether she was north or south of the hole. She went north for about two hundred meters before deciding she'd been going the wrong way. Unfortunately, she'd had to slow down to pace the fence line, sirens wailing the whole time so she had to look, not listen. The only benefit was that nobody could hear her moving over them, either.

She stopped short when she saw the movement and heard the voices. There were two of them, but neither of them was Tommy's size. She faded backwards, trying to think of a plan B, fast.

Up. Nobody ever thinks to look up. She shinnied up the oak tree nearest the fence. Pine would have provided more cover, if anyone looked, but the bark would have shown her passage. Perched on a solid limb, she examined her windbreaker, ensuring she had full coverage. Black wasn't camo, but at least it wasn't red. This limb extended over the other side of the fence. She looked down and clung to the tree, dizzily. Whatever the hell had possessed her to think climbing this thing was a good idea? She was going to get caught and shoved in another Fleet Strike interrogation room. She shuddered.

Fuck, fuck, fuck. I am dead whether they catch me up this tree, or on the ground, or I fall and break my damned neck. Move, Cally, move. Besides, this branch must be a good four inches across. Nice, big branch. Yeah. Nice, big branch. She lay down on the limb, clinging to it, and inched her way forward. She shook her head to get the droplets of sweat out of her eyes and tried to ignore the beads dropping on the ground. She hugged the branch for dear life as a hard gust of wind almost knocked her off it, blowing a blast of snowflakes in her face. The wind was the last straw. She scooched forward on the limb as fast as she could go until she got to the other side of the fence, let herself swing down, and dropped to the ground. Her feet slid out from under her and she hit the ground, hard. It was worth it. She was not going to stay that far up in the air in high winds, with snow blowing in her face.

She opened the buckley and looked at the terrain map. It was damned near useless, and she shoved the PDA back in her windbreaker pocket. The cube from George had been in her jumpsuit. She'd never gotten around to putting it in her cube reader slot. She picked a small hill that looked like it might have some likely cover and hauled ass.

In the lee of a lichen-encrusted boulder, she shivered as heavy flakes of snow caught on her eyelashes and melted on her sweats. The fall was heavy—she'd be soaked in minutes. Her hands, already red and chafed from standing talking to the guard, shook with cold as she flipped the buckley back open and punched up a transmission. To hell with radio discipline, she needed an extraction.

She wasn't getting a signal. She tapped the button a couple of times, but nothing. "Buckley, voice access please," she said. Silence. "Buckley?" Oh, goddamn. The fall. One of the falls. She pulled up a menu and selected a self-diagnostic, and put the thing back in her pocket. No telling how much damage there was, but right now it was no good to her.

She couldn't hear any searchers, and the sirens had stopped. There would probably be a small pause while they got a real search together. Twenty more minutes, at most. She stood up and looked out from behind the boulder. Nothing looked familiar. She climbed on top of the boulder. The snow was heavier now. She wasn't even sure she could pick out the right hill of the base behind her. She was pretty sure, from the boulder and the hill she was on now, which direction was away from the base, but that was about it. She evaluated her situation, which sucked, and came up with a plan. She'd eaten a good breakfast, so her calories were good for some more body heat if she moved around. She needed more distance from the base. She needed shelter, because she sure as hell wasn't going to find her way out of east bumfuck Virginia with a broken buckley in the middle of this mess.

She cursed the weather again and took off running in the away direction. She'd run for ten minutes and then rig a shelter with the first cover she saw. At least she could still see the ground. It wasn't yet totally white. She ran, glancing at her watch a couple of times, until she saw it was time to stop. She was on the flats, but off to the right it looked like there might be something besides trees. As she approached, she realized it was an oddly-shaped hill covered in vines. It had no trees except for a vertical branch of a partly fallen tree, its roots half ripped out of the ground. At the base of it, she saw what might be a gap or small overhang, and burrowed into it.

Under the vines and out of the wind it was still damned cold. It was immediately obvious why the "hill" had looked so odd. The line of the roof was straight, although slanted. She was right up against a tread and at the highest side of the opening. The other side wasn't quite on the ground, but the tread had been so smashed up, and sunken into the ground, that the huge SheVa tank shifted at a sideways slant. The treads on her side had also sunken about halfway into the ground, it appeared.

What the hell? What is one of these monsters doing way the hell out here? Then she remembered. Shortly after the war there had been a big political hoo-hah. She only heard of it at all because they covered it in psy-ops class at school. A big nuclear scare had convulsed the remains of the country, about the safety of the SheVa's themselves, and the safe removal of the radioactive pebbles from their fuel systems. Politicians and the machines that owned them, whose districts and interests stood to benefit from the contracts to move the mountainous tanks, had masterfully orchestrated an avalanche of voter alarm. At ruinous cost, contractors transported the behemoths outside Fredericksburg, where destruction was total anyway and Fleet Strike was, at least, willing to have them around. More to the point, Fleet Strike being Galactic and now owning the area by treaty, there had been nobody in the United States Government with authority to refuse parking space to them.

The "dangerous" pebbles from the reactors disappeared off to power plants in the congressional districts of the key swing votes, at fire sale prices. For the rest of it, they recovered remains where profitable, stripping the tanks of easily portable and easily recyclable materials. That hadn't included the huge armored hulls, difficult to cut up, difficult to reprocess, more expensive to manipulate than basic raw materials.

Cally tried to dredge up her memory of the schematics, or anything she knew about them, to help her find a hatch. Off the frozen ground, out of the wind, perhaps with some materials protected from the damp that she could use to conserve body heat, she might just last the night. Without frostbite, even.

She found it, but it was so close to sunken into the ground that once she got it open she had to scrape on her belly to get through the opening. At that, it was like putting her damned boobs in a vise. It would almost be worth making nice with the rest of the Indowy, if that had been possible, to get the slab back and get rid of the things. She had never really appreciated her own body until she'd gotten stuck in the body of Sinda Makepeace. It didn't even help that men went so ga-ga over the things. As a married woman, they didn't even get her laid. All things considered, she was in an extremely grumpy mood.

Inside the SheVa, it was warmer than outside. Maybe about ten to twenty degrees warmer. Her breath wasn't even frosting. Still damned cold, though. She worked her way to the bridge, occasionally having to squeeze through tight spots where battle damage or the effects of time on same had knocked bits, sometimes very large bits, loose from where they were supposed to be. Finally, she made it to the equivalent of the battle bridge, whatever it had once been called. One of the operator chairs was reclined all the way back, but someone had stripped the seats down to bare metal. A red cross over against one wall, the metal outside streaked with soot, caught her eye. The mechanism had a stubborn seal of pure rust. She had to pick up a hunk of scrap and bash the catch to bits to get it open.

Inside, she found antibiotic creams long dried in their tubes, but the adhesive tape was, for a wonder, barely adequate to adhere a sterile gauze pad to a cut on her face she'd picked up somewhere. She pocketed what she thought she could use and proceeded to systematically search the bridge from one end to the other to see if anything useful, anything at all, had been overlooked. Behind a panel and some wiring she found a dented helmet. In a locker, she found a rotted backpack filled with what looked like the remains of some civilian clothes and effects, a yellowed and dog-eared paperback book, and two foil-wrapped bars of U.S. Army iron rations circa 2004. Examination showed that one of the wrappers had been torn, the ration covered, startlingly, by a fungal rind like the one that formed on the outside of cheeses. This was startling because she wouldn't have thought any self-respecting fungus would touch Postie-war-era Army iron rats. The packing on the other bar was still intact. Well, maybe. She couldn't decide whether to wish it was or hope it wasn't.

She looked around at the inside of the mammoth tank, curious. She'd never been inside one before. It was the largest armored, tracked vehicle ever deployed in combat on Earth. The size of a mountaintop, the huge tank had been powered by nuclear fission via its pebble-bed reactor. The main gun had been capable of engaging B-Decs or C-Decs and living to tell the tale. It was the single most impressive cavalry vehicle in the history of war, ever. She knew this because her step-uncle Billy, who was more like a step-brother, had told her about it at eye-glazing length the summer he built a scale model of one out of toothpicks and smooshed oyster shells. This bordered on bizarre since Billy had gone mute in the war from seeing too much, too young. Scratch the young part, it was too much for anyone. Here in Fredericksburg, it was, too. A couple of years after the war he had gotten massively talkative with her, just with her, and had never stopped. He spoke to others, but not enough so you'd notice. Functional, but now a quiet old guy who had settled with a plump, pretty wife to raise four kids in Topeka. They still exchanged Christmas cards under one of her identities.

The round trip back outside to pack the helmet with snow really sucked. Getting enough clean snow to fill it wasn't a problem. The stuff was piling up at an obnoxious rate. The nasty reek of rust and old, funky smoke was starting to be unpleasant enough to overcome her thankfulness for not being so damned cold. She wedged the helmet so that it wouldn't tip over and left the packed snow to start melting. When she checked, the buckley's diagnostic was hung. A partial report showed she should be able to restore limited functionality by raising the AI emulation level, giving the AI access to search some of the damaged areas with the capabilities usually denied it. She set the emulation to the recommended level eight, wincing.

"Buckley?" she said.

"Oh, God, my aching head. Holy shit, what the hell happ—I'm a what?" The glum voice rose on a note of incredulity and near-hysteria. "I just know this is going to end badly."

"Buckley—please just wait a second. I need you, buckley. I need your help very, very badly," she said.

"Cally—you're Cally O'Neal. And I, I can see you. I see you, and I'm a machine," he said. "Well, doesn't that just suck."

"Yeah, buckley, it does. It sucks. A lot of things suck, and not just for you. I'm stuck in the belly of a dead SheVa, in a snowstorm, in hostile territory, they're looking for me, I'm out of contact, and you're damaged."

"It's that last bit that really bugs me. I could have warned you about the rest. Never heard of a plan where so many things could go wrong, except for the time—"

"Buckley! Can you please look and see if there's anything you can reroute to get me a working transmitter?"

"I'm sure I could, with the right repair components. Do you have an XJ431P39 integrated molychip? Didn't think so."

"You didn't even give me time to answer!"

"And?"

"Well, okay, I don't. But you could have at least let me say so."

"Right."

"Is there any way to improvise a transmitter with some of this stuff?" She swept a hand around the bridge area.

"You have some kind of power source?"

"Well, no, I don't. I don't think I do, anyway."

"I hope you're equipped with body nannites. It's hot in here."

"The reactor. Great. Yeah, I am. Should I brave the cold, or stay in here?"

"Doesn't matter. You're gonna die either way, sooner or later. Shall I list the most likely possibilities?"

"Please don't."

"You do want full information, don't you?"

"I'd much rather get help building a transmitter, if possible."

"There's not much point in it."

"Buckley, can you put the pessimism on hold for awhile? I'm depressed enough already."

"Good—at least you're rational. And no, I mean there's not much point in it. You're maybe five miles from the river. That and the landing zone are the two most logical points for them to look for you. You're far better off to get the best night's sleep you can and make for the river in the morning. You're also better off sleeping in here, if you get Galactic-level medical treatment within thirty-six hours. I'd recommend an early start. You don't want to stay here longer than that. If you found anything to eat—don't. Scare or not, I don't think they got all the hot rocks out of this thing."

"You're being very helpful, Buckley." Cally lay down in the reclined operator's chair, setting the PDA on the floor beside her. The bare metal was hard and uncomfortable, but she'd endured worse. There had been worse as part of her training at school, with the nuns, and far worse in the field doing her job.

"You're about to die a horrible death alone in the wilderness. I can sympathize. And me, I'll rust away slowly, slowly falling more and more apart as my battery runs down and down and—"

"Buckley? Please shut up."

"Right." He sounded satisfied, as if something about the end of the exchange had made all right with his world, at least for a few seconds.

She was strapped to the metal table on Titan Base. The bastards were on top of her again, and her head swam watching the unblinking, alien eyes through the imperfectly one-way glass above her. The face of the man on her wavered between Pryce and George and back again, only Pryce was Stewart and his ship was blowing up. They had tilted the table and were making her watch. Over and over and over again. A lifepod ejected from the shuttle and spouted wings, flying back towards the base as the ship and the table pulled her away, away, away. She was up to her elbows in blood, freezing and congealing on the icy metal table as the man slapped her over and over again. If she'd only been a good little girl and killed more Posleen, Daddy wouldn't have had to nuke her again. Herman started talking to her, telling her she had to go swim with the dolphins, but she couldn't go. Doctor Vitapetroni was holding her down, injecting her with something that stung so bad and telling her she had to stay on the table until she could wipe the blood off, but she couldn't because she didn't have a towel, and besides, she was strapped down anyway and couldn't dance anymore. She started to cry.

Cally woke, sobbing, her throat raw. The dream must have been another screamer. She remembered it and shuddered, wiping the tears away angrily.

"Good morning. I have cataloged five thousand, four hundred and thirty-two ways we can die horribly today. Continuing to process. Would you like me to . . . begin . . . the . . . list?" The buckley sounded tinny and maniacal. Dammit, she'd left it on overnight. Not that she'd had a choice. In its condition, she didn't think the PDA could reboot. At least, expecting it to come back up would be expecting a damned miracle. From the diagnostics, it was a miracle it had booted even once.

"Buckley, please calculate, not look up, a prime number with more than a thousand digits for me." At least if he was number-crunching he wasn't thinking of disasters and might actually be able to be useful if she needed him.

"Okay. But even if we do encryption based on it, they'll still break the code."

"Just do it and shut up, buckley."

"Right."

She drank the icy melt water in the helmet before she left, glaring balefully at the nasty iron ration bar she couldn't even eat. Outside, the snow was up to her mid-thigh on average. She'd be avoiding the drifts. She sure would give a lot for a pair of snowshoes, but she wasn't going to stop to try to rig a pair. She wasn't in Harrison's league with that improv shit, and she knew it.

It took her all morning to go those five miles, leaving a trail a toddler could have followed. Half the time she was picking herself up, the other half falling on her face again. The sky was heavy and gray. She hoped it started snowing some more soon. The cold would be bitter, but it would do something about her tracks. At the river, she pulled out the buckley and hoped that it could at least pull up prewar road and terrain maps so she could figure out if she was east or west of the bridge.

"Buckley, I need a terrain map of the area and a street map. Old is okay," she said.

"I'm calculating."

"That's okay, you can interrupt it for this, but then go back to it, okay?"

"I can't display maps. They're all fragmentary. Go left."

"What?" It made the skin on the back of her neck prickle. The buckley's guess was probably better than hers, since she had no idea which way to go. She was good at her job, but she figured she was lucky she found the river at all. Part of being good at her job was knowing when to depend on her tech support. She turned left.

"Not your left, my left!"

She turned the other way and started plowing through more snow. And more snow. And still more snow. Snow that began to fall again. Oh well, skipping frostbite wasn't going to happen this time. Hopefully there wouldn't be too much to regenerate. Be a real bitch if she had to miss the big job over a little snow.

It had to have been about sixteen hundred by the time she hit the bridge. She'd tried to talk to the buckley twice, but he was no longer answering. Either one of the falls she'd taken had knocked something else loose or he'd run out of numbers to crunch and crashed himself. She'd tried to reboot, without any luck. Buckley was well and truly hors de combat. Again.

The bridge was a very welcome sight, since the winds had scoured it mostly clean of snow. The ice would be a stone bitch, but not so bad as the snow. Her adrenaline spiked as she caught movement from behind a snow drift. She dropped to the ground.





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