Sister Time John Ringo & Julie Cochrane

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Chapter Twelve

The first go to hell rendezvous point was roughly one klick north and five clicks east of their entry point to the base. It was good that Sunday and Schmidt One had managed to figure out where they were right away, from the updated terrain features, and orient themselves towards their pickup. It was an especially good thing, since within just a few minutes the snow was falling so hard that visibility for more than a few feet ahead was damned near nil. As the snow started sticking and turning everything white, it got harder to even tell how much visibility they had. They had enough trouble just following the internal compass on their PDAs and putting one foot in front of the other. Heads down against the blowing snow, it was pretty hard not to bump into a particularly sneaky tree now and again.

Getting to the pickup only took maybe twice as long as it would have taken in fair weather. Tommy was grateful for the snow, since it had screwed with the Fleet Strike people searching for them more than it had screwed with them. He hoped Cally made it out, but tried not to think about it too much. Not right now. He'd think about her when he got somewhere that he had a chance to do something about it. He'd only dared try to raise her once on the radio. Getting no answer, he didn't dare transmit again.

They would have missed the Humvee if George and Papa hadn't been smart enough to leave the headlights on. As it was, they barely caught sight of the glow before they passed it. Damned nor'easters. All too many of them since the war. Why was a question for the academics—which they sure did love debating over lunches bought with other people's money. Piling into the warmth of the vehicle was like heaven.

"Anything from Cally?" It was the first thing out of Harrison's mouth. It would have been the first thing out of his mouth, except it came out more of a grunt as he shoved his way into the truck after the other man and slammed the door.

"No," Papa O'Neal said brusquely. "We keep the snoopers active to give us as much warning of hostiles as possible, we keep the lights on, we camp here for the night."

"Not to get in the way of a good plan, but I have cherished personal needs. Like oxygen with low carbon monoxide levels."

"Fans. George brought fans. We take turns on watch clearing the snow from one side of the car outside enough to make a chimney. More snivel gear in the back."

"George?" Tommy said. "Remind me never to complain about you being a paranoid son of a bitch again."

"Bet on it. Just be glad this Humvee is a hybrid," the blond said. "If we were running on prewar chemical batteries, we'd be toast."

"Mmm. Toast. What good does running this beast do that we can't just do on its electric?" Tommy asked.

"Engine heat," Harrison mumbled. "It's not like we've got electric heating coils or anything. We can run the lights, we can run the snoopers, we can run the fans, but every couple of hours, we're going to have to run the engine enough to warm back up again so we don't all freeze. Speaking of not freezing, do you think one of you could see your way clear to passing some chow forward? It's about that time."

"What's plan B if Cally's not here in the morning?" Tommy couldn't help feeling disturbed that of all the team members, it was the girl who was out in the snow.

"She should be here. She had the same terrain and rendezvous data you did," George assured.

"If she loaded it, if her buckley didn't break, if she didn't get caught," Harrison had dry clothes out and was changing, shivering.

"Sounding a bit like a buckley yourself, aren't you?" his brother quipped.

"I didn't see her load the cube. I saw her face when she took it. Bet you fifty FedCreds she never loaded the thing," Sunday said.

"Okay, so if she's not here in the morning, we proceed to the bridge and leave a lookout—Tommy, I guess—then send a pair on foot to rendezvous two. We also alert Kieran that she may show up at the plane. The bridge and the plane are the most logical places for her to go if she somehow didn't get the memo. If she can find them in all this," George added.

"You're not suggesting we try to get the Humvee all the way to the second rendezvous, are you?" Papa clearly considered this lunacy.

"Not if fixer-boy can come up with something for snowshoes—"

"Blow me," Harrison said mildly.

"Anyway, if we can make walking in the snow a little easier, you and I will go to the second rendezvous, and Harrison will take the vehicle to the plane. Get it under cover. It's more conspicuous in this weather than we are on foot. All three out in the cold pack some heater rations and beverages, first aid kits for Cally. If she finds us after a night out, she'll need it. If we don't find her by seventeen hundred, we get back to the plane and take the risk of hitting the radio."

"And if those don't work?" Tommy asked. He would have been trying to offer help, but he was too busy cursing himself for neglecting to bring a change of clothes for himself. It wasn't like anybody else's stuff would fit.

"We leave supplies at what's left of that bounty farmhouse, marked as well as we dare. We figure she's made it back to us from worse than this, and we get the hell out of dodge," Papa O'Neal said. "We plan further search and rescue once we're in the air and can phone home. We need IR and all sorts of things we don't have to mount a search in hostile territory, in inclement weather. We need to move, communicate and coordinate."

"You know our best chance of finding her is in the hours immediately after the incident," Harrison said.

"You don't have to fucking remind me. This is my granddaughter we're talking about. If we don't find her tomorrow, she's either captured, dead, or found someplace to hole up while going to her own plan B. If she's able, she'll get to the LZ. If she doesn't get herself to the LZ within a couple of days, she's captured or dead. If the former, we need a planned extraction, not a half-assed one."

The Schmidt brothers had a rougher night than Tommy or Papa. Former grunts had a special advantage in the combat skill of sleeping anywhere, in any situation, in any position. If sleep was not expressly forbidden by the regs or orders, taking any opportunity to grab a few extra winks was one of the things that separated combat vets from cherries. It helped that the ACS vet's silks were dry again within an hour of getting out of the storm.

The cold light of morning brought no Cally and too damned much snow. Their fixer earned his name by using some of the leftover bridge netting to give the hummer a surface it could drive over. Two pairs of improvised snow shoes and two sections of bridging allowed the truck to be stopped on one section while they went back to get the one they just drove over and move it forward. Since the material could be rolled and unrolled, their progress wasn't comfortable, but it was reasonably quick. By early afternoon, they had detached Tommy to the bridge. In silks, with silks gloves and full headgear, which he'd sorely missed while fleeing the base, he could stay out here for hours and hours. The thermos of coffee was a luxury he savored; he just didn't savor too much of it in case Cally showed up and needed the warmth.

About sixteen-thirty he saw damp blonde hair, over a splotch of black, bob across the horizon. When she got close enough, he stood up, unsurprised that she immediately disappeared into the snow. "Hey, Cally! It's just me!"

The blonde head popped up again as she stood up and resumed slogging forward. Tommy just couldn't take watching it. He went out and met her on the way, ignoring her protests to pick her up and carry her to the bridge.

"I can just imagine trying to walk through this shit all day without snowshoes," he said. He flipped open his PDA and opened a transmission, "Charlie Romeo, say again, Charlie Romeo."

"Roger Charlie Romeo. RTB, out," Papa O'Neal answered.

"Cally, you're shivering. Here." The big man pulled a Galactic silk survival blanket out of his pack and wrapped it around her, then poured her a cup of hot coffee as she huddled under the blanket. She warmed her frozen hands around the plastic mug as she drank it down, to have the empty cup taken and an energy bar shoved in her hands.

"Eat that, one more cup of this, then we tackle the bridge."

"Where are the others?" she mumbled around a mouthful of food.

"At the second backup rendezvous point. You didn't load that cube in your buckley, did you?"

"Forgot. Then on the way out, didn't have time to go back for the stupid jumpsuit," she said.

"I win my bet," he said.

"Bet? Bastard." She punched him on the arm.

"You're recovering fast. Here, wash the last of that down with this and let's get going. You'll warm up faster on the plane, the sooner the better."

"Let me guess, the truck's at the plane where it's out of sight," she said.

"You got it. In this mess, we can walk faster than it can move."

She looked down at his snowshoes, bent bars of metal strapped together and laced with five-fifty cord, and held up one of her own soaked, frozen, sneaker-clad feet. "Speak for yourself."

"I am. You're riding over my shoulder in a fireman's carry after we get to the other side, because I'm not staying out in this shit one minute longer than I have to," he said. "So, why didn't you radio in? Your PDA get smashed up?"

"Yeah, somewhere along the way. Probably when I jumped out of the tree. Or I fell running a couple of times. Nothing to me, but a bit hard on the buckley. I had to run his emulation up, had to leave him on. Not real good for a buckley system. Of course he crashed, but he got me through some rough spots."

"Let's get out of this and talk when we're warm." Tommy led her out onto the icy bridge, watching her carefully the whole way across. She was damned good, with the balance and stamina of the athlete she was, but she was also damned tired and he knew how she felt about heights. They went right up the center of the bridge, and it was pretty wide, but she still could take a nasty fall on that surface if she slipped.

It was with relief that he hoisted her onto his shoulder on the other side, and a mark of her fatigue that she let him. It couldn't have been a comfortable ride. He was really feeling it by the time he had walked the seemingly endless trek back to the LZ. People who had never "done" snow had no idea how much it took out of you to move in the stuff.

Back in the plane, after they got out of wet clothes, both of them hit their seats, reclined them all the way, and didn't wake up until they landed in Chicago.

Friday 11/5/54

The Darhel Heldan stood on the bridge of his dilapidated freighter, supervising his Indowy, who were making the final temporary repair to the control systems he needed to execute the return to normal space. His ship would not have made it out of Adenast Space Dock without full completion of its scheduled overhaul had it not been for the humans' silvery-gray, rolled, adhesive strip that had proved so very useful for minor repairs. Repairs that otherwise would have required a custom-grown replacement part to install in place of the defective one could hold together almost indefinitely with enough of the stuff. His ship, whose name meant something like "Dedicated Industry," was his life, but he managed her very carefully.

Food runs as part of a cargo weren't a bad deal. Everyone needed it, somebody had to carry it. Food runs as a solo cargo were the bottom of the barrel of merchant shipping, because they were so common and routine. Margins were thin, and there was no opportunity to distinguish oneself in such a large crowd. Heldan's strategy to claw his way up the chain of power in the Gistar Group involved careful control of his expenditures. Whenever possible, he sent orders for his parts ahead, or made the order and deferred the pickup until his next cargo brought him back to the repair facility on his circuit. Allowing the Indowy to slot his repair part job in wherever it was convenient in their schedule obtained him the small but regular discounts that kept his operations in the black. Now came this extraordinary opportunity.

He was a very young Darhel. So young he was fresh out of management school. So young he could still remember the perilous intoxication of the awakening of the Tal within him. Every moment of every day. Remember, crave, and fear—yet sublimate it all under discipline, always discipline. Discipline awake, discipline asleep. For a young Darhel, self-discipline was a matter of life and death. Give in to rage, or hunt lust, or allow himself the taste of meat—even dreaming too intensely of such things—even for an instant, out would pour the sweet, sweet, infinitely intoxicating Tal into his system from his own glands. Until he matured, his life would hang by a thread. Afterwards, it would merely be precarious. Once more than the tiniest foretaste of the Tal entered a Darhel's system, the craving itself would trigger release of more, and more, and more. And who could fight the temptation to drown in bliss itself? Only one who had seen the dessicated bodies of the living dead, locked in lintatai until unassuaged thirst turned them into the truly dead; one who had smelled the smoke of the pyres floating on the air. Only one with the rare fortitude, will to live, and great good luck to embrace the discipline and survive.

His reward had been selection and initiation into one of the great merchant groups of his race, and charge of this ship. A thousand-year-old clunker too old to have even been commandeered for refit in the war, but a ship nonetheless. Now, an unprecedented opportunity had leapt out in front of him like a gorlet from the brush and—he took a few moments to breathe, breathe deeply, hold it, count, release. Calm restored, he permitted himself a brief grin, exposing the rows upon rows of pointed shark teeth. The Indowy Melpil, on sensors, happened to be looking in his direction and shuddered. Heldan covered his teeth obligingly. No need to upset his crew. Not when the jump was so near and he needed them attentive.

His eyes darted over to the human on watch at the gunnery station, suppressing the twitch of his ear that would have betrayed his annoyance. He saw that the man had been watching and no doubt reading his face. Above the space black of his Fleet uniform, the human's face was impassive, revealing none of the facial cues Heldan's own studies had drilled into him. He had been warned that most of his six Fleet gunners would be of this harder-to-read strain. He resented humans. Envied them. Disdained and yet secretly admired them. Arrogant—far too sure of an equality with the older races that they didn't even begin to approach. Dangerous, almost too dangerous to be allowed. But as a young race they had been spared the long term effects of having been made a "project" by an even older race. They could kill. He hated them for that, and for the twinge of desire that always accompanied the thought. What would it be like to be able to live, to kill and kill . . . He returned to his breathing drill as the deadly intoxication of the Tal began to make the edges of his vision sparkle. He truly loathed humans, but the loathing retreated to a cold thing as he reasserted his self-discipline, forcing the beast of his soul back into its cave.

The Indowy under the console, whose name he did not know, finished its task and left the bridge with discreet haste. Control system patched, Heldan spoke, the liquid syllables to activate the return to normal space dropping from his tongue. It amused him to see the human lean towards him, just a barely visible amount, its eyes beginning to glaze as he spoke. They always did that—had a half-hypnotic reaction to his species' voices. It was amusing. The only thing about the smelly, primitive beasts that made their presence on his ship barely tolerable.

The large holotank in front of his chair lit up with the points of light that were the Dulain System. At this distance, its star was a bluish spark, barely brighter than the brightest of giants far, far off in space beyond it. Dulain, Dulain, Dulain. What a cargo. Eleven point three standard years cut off my time on this broken-down scow before I get my first real ship. Something that can stay on the trade routes for the entire time of my contract aboard it, never bogged down for the abomination of "routine maintenance."

After a hour or so, he noted the blinking light on his display, indicating a courier-class ship lighting off its drives on a vector that would move it towards the Dulain System's most probable transit points should Epetar start screaming for help. Accounting for the inevitable lag of lightspeed communication, it had taken them about five minutes longer than he had expected to recognize the registry on his ship, realize what that meant for the other group, and decide what to do about it. About a week and a half too late to do them any good. He must remember to light an incense stick after he left the bridge to eat, relax and sleep, and thank the Lords of Enterprise that the Epetar Group had been so colossally stupid and incompetent.

Friday 11/5/54

Epetar Factor Raddin was not happy at having been roused from his bed by the chiming of his AID. The asynchronization with his sleep cycle had been extremely unpleasant; feelings which he transferred to the ship displayed in the holo before him.

"Industry, are you perhaps lost? Your mayday signals are not broadcasting, so I must wonder if they are defective, or whether your navigational systems are malfunctioning." The mellifluous voice managed to imply that the brain between the captain's ears might be the defective portion of said navigational systems.

"Negative, Dulain caller, Dedicated Industry is in good running condition and is not lost." Rudely, her captain, for the beautiful voice could only belong to another of his kind, did not display his own holo, leaving Raddin looking at the rather dilapidated freighter.

He tried again, "Good running condition? That would be a surprise, since your registry is from the Gistar Group and no freighter of your group is due to arrive at Dulain at all, much less now. State your business."

The holo of the ship flickered, replaced by the image of a young pup whose robe was edged with the yellow trim indicative of novice captains. "We thank you for your courteous solicitations, Epetar Factor. Industry's business is between ourselves and Dulain System Administration. Who, if you will excuse my brevity, are transmitting presently. I take my leave," the young whelp said.

Raddin found himself staring at empty space above the altar of communication. Muttering under his breath, he lit a spike of incense and left to seek his grooming chair, a pair of Indowy body servants following in his wake.

"AID, monitor station logs for Gistar's purported reason for intruding in Dulain. The business here for the near future is mine and I do not appreciate interference." He opened his mouth to permit his servants to clean his very sharp teeth. Sleep was obviously a lost cause.

Five hours later he had gone from annoyed to alarmed. Fact: the only ship due in the next two weeks, for anything but routine food runs, was the Fetching Price from Sol. Fact: the Gistar ship did not belong here and was being extremely cagey about her purpose. "Exploring new business opportunities" was an excellent generic description of a Darhel's everyday life. A great believer in professional paranoia, Raddin damned the cost and commissioned the courier ship on station for the system to carry the news to Sol. The courier ship, in damned presumption, had already been moving in the right direction, anticipating his hiring their services.

Manager Pardal, currently operating from Sol, was reportedly attempting to corner the market on humans. Personally, Raddin didn't see the point, but managers had access to information a factor could only envy. Regardless, Epetar had a great deal of the carrying trade for Dulain locked up under iron-clad contracts and any Gistar attempts at intrusion were unwelcome and potentially serious. Even coming from such an unlikely threat as the dilapidated, garbage scow of a ship plodding in from the jump point.

Tuesday 11/9/54

The restaurant was a converted trawler parked along the banks of a creek, off of Old 701. It had what was quite possibly the best she-crab stew in the low country. Well, except for Shari's. It also offered the one of a kind courtesy of serving lunch or dinner on or below deck for any boat that tied up at the adjoining dock. It was a niche market that took advantage of the ready cash of honeymooners, playboys, and fish smugglers. The latter had a good line going in unregistered catches and tax evasion. High as taxes on legitimate incomes were, that translated to quite a bit of ready cash.

In Cally's case, it meant that all she had to do was borrow a decent boat to have a good, discreet, business lunch. She and the smugglers had similar notions of what constituted adequate dining privacy. November was not a good time of year, in Charleston, for alfresco meals on deck. The sky was a sullen gray that seemed to merge at the edges with the gunmetal ocean in the distance. The brown marsh grasses bent in great swathes, ends fluttering in the strong wind. The sisters would eat lunch in the warm shelter of the small galley.

A thirty-eight footer, the craft had never served to smuggle fish. Well, once in a pinch, but that was strictly as a cover for its real cargo—in that case, a political refugee who had made it as far as Norfolk on his own but who had needed more distance from civilization than even the unreclaimed wilds of the eastern coastal U.S. could offer. The problem with bounty farmers was, well, that they made their living from collecting bounties. Most places, they weren't the sort to keep their mouths shut if a reward was offered. As she understood it, it had taken strenuous efforts to get the dead fish smell out of the living areas of the boat after that run. Fortunately, that had been a job for the cousin who owned the boat, not her.

Eating inside was not exactly picturesque, but ideal for privacy. The galley already boasted fittings of high-quality blocks for eavesdropping. Her PDA would page the waiter when they needed service. The restaurant management, sensitive to the needs of their most discriminating and lucrative clientele, had a very fine sense of which boats not to bother with may I help you visits or incessant coffee and tea refills. It was a great restaurant. The whole family loved it.

Michelle was late. That surprised Cally more than she'd been surprised in a long time. She didn't think a Michon Mentat could be late. It didn't go with the labeling on the package. She looked cool and unflappable when she walked down the pier, wearing the street clothes her sister had purchased for her in Chicago, plus a duster of Galactic silk that matched the color of her pants. The assassin noted a bulge in the right pocket of the duster. If it had been anyone else, Cally would have suspected a weapon.

"I apologize for being late. I thought I would look strange if I did not wear a coat. Does it look appropriate?" the mentat asked

"You . . . made it?" Cally asked, sliding a menu across the table.

"Is it obvious? Is that a problem?" She might have been any woman, for a moment, as she critically examined the garment.

"I can only tell because it's Galactic silk and made in a single piece, and no, no problem. It looks great." And worth about ten years of my salary, I think.

"Good. Were you able to obtain the information I requested?" The other woman's clear tones betrayed the tiniest hint of her childhood Georgia accent, but only to an experienced operative like her sister.

"Oh, yeah. We got it. It was a milk run," the assassin assured.

"That is good. Were your superiors sufficiently satisfied to agree to the rest of my contract? Also, I hope the milk was good?"

"Milk? Oh. That was just a figure of speech. Milk run, I mean," she said. "Yes, we have a go for the mission. Here. This has everything we found." She passed a cube across the table and Michelle took it.

"Let's go ahead and order. It would look strange if we just sat here for too long." Cally looked down the menu, running her finger over the options, "I know you can't, but it's a shame you can't eat meat. They have the best she-crab stew in Charleston."

Michelle winced.

"It's a regional specialty. Have you really never eaten meat since we were kids?"

"I have not. If I were to eat it after all this time, I would probably have to make an extra effort just to be able to digest it. I would prefer a salad."

"Can you do dairy, then? They do a very good Caesar salad."

"We have dairy. It was not appropriate for the Indowy themselves, but because humans are mammals, they made allowances. Also, I think they like the cows. Though the Indowy do not eat other animals, their population density has made large, mobile species a certain rarity on their worlds. I think I will try your caesar salad, thank you."

"Do you mind if I just message it to them? I know you don't get the full restaurant experience that often, but we're more secure if the waiter just brings our food out."

Michelle laughed, the first real laugh Cally had heard from her. "You must be making a joke. For me, this is nearly unimaginable seclusion. One waiter or ten, I am amazed that it would make that much difference," she said. "At home, security means being in the company of your own clan, or clans with close affiliations to your clan. Being alone like this would be like . . ." She paused for a long moment, nonplussed. "I do not remember. What would be so strange on Earth that nobody would think of it, and anyone doing it would be—you would think they were ill in their brain? Now being in a room alone, I understand. I sometimes work that way. Just . . . this." She waved her hand around to include the space around them, from the river to the sky to the dock between their boat and the restaurant. It had never felt empty and open to Cally quite the way it did now. It was kind of peaceful.

"When you put me on the spot like that, that's a good question—about what would be the same level of weird here on Earth," Cally said after a long pause. "I would say stripping naked in the middle of a state funeral, but it's been done. I don't know if there is anything so strange that some person somewhere hasn't done it just to make a point." She thought some more. "Wow. Now that you say it, all I can think of is random destruction of life or property for no good reason."

"I thought that was what you did?" Michelle said.

Cally stiffened until she realized that the question was totally sincere and not at all intended to be insulting. "I always have a good reason."

"What do people here consider a good reason?" Michelle might have been talking to the Mad Hatter at a tea party.

"I can't speak for the whole planet." She shrugged. "For me, it's whatever Granpa and Father O'Reilly consider a good reason."

"Of course you listen to the O'Neal. Are you saying that you have not yet begun training in the evaluation of reasons for what you do?"

"No, I'm saying that it's not a good idea to have people in my profession pick and evaluate their own targets. Also, I don't always have all the information my superiors have in determining whether someone should or shouldn't be a target," she said. "Oh, here's our food. Hang on."

Michelle waited until the waiter had delivered the food and left before holding up the data cube her sister had provided. "Will it bother you if I look at this while we eat?" she asked.

"No, that's fine. It's what we're here for," Cally said. "Not that I'm not glad to see you. That didn't come out right. Anyway, our resumes for the job listings are on there, too."

"I am not offended." The mentat took a buckley PDA out of her pocket and inserted the datacube.

Cally raised her eyebrows, but didn't comment. It must really bite the Darhels' butts that buckley PDAs were slowly and quietly spreading out from Earth to be used instead of AIDs, when the user wanted something not to be recorded. The Darhel certainly never shipped the competing devices anywhere, and never authorized them for sale. They had made alleged consumer protection laws banning their sale off Earth. Unfortunately for the Darhel, with a human gunner team aboard almost all freighters and human colonists everywhere, the Darhel were becoming more and more aware of the difficulties of trying to suppress black market activities among humans. She knew from Stewart that the Tong was ecstatic at the advertising effects the Darhel's attempts at suppression were providing in their target markets. Cally suppressed a smile as she glanced up at Michelle's PDA. Obviously market penetration was good.

They ate in silence. After feeling strange for a moment in the unnatural quiet, Cally opened up a fashion magazine on her buckley and started looking through the spring collections. She was going to have to buy some outfits from an islander seamstress real soon, anyway. Might as well do something stylish.

"This is the information I need. I wish it showed one more part, but I do not think they will be disassembling the mock-up—just modifying it. At least, not within our time window." The mentat gave the appearance of wearing robes even in street clothes as she looked up serenely. "This is straightforward. I will have it for you in four weeks, local."

"Four weeks?"

"I assure you, I can work very quickly since it only has to appear to function."

"That's not what I meant. I guess I'm used to Earthtech."

"This is very far beyond Earthtech. That is why I have to personally make it. Four weeks." She pulled a bag out of her coat pocket, handing it to the Bane Sidhe assassin. "Here is the agreed payment."

"Great. A month, huh? Guess we won't have trouble getting someone inside and getting set up with that much lead time. I thought you were originally planning to make it without this stuff?" Cally gestured towards the cube.

"Once I knew I was going to get better data, I had to wait. Like any other product of advanced technology, it has to be grown whole. Specifications cannot change in the middle of the process. Upgraded parts can be retrofitted, settings changed, options added, replacement parts redesigned. The basic design for the underlying item cannot be changed while it is still in the tank."

"Okay, so four weeks. I may contact you for a meeting between now and then to coordinate arrangements."

"That will seldom be possible. I will be growing the product in the tank. I will not be able to interrupt the work casually. Suppose I contact you and we meet once a week?"

"Okay, so four weeks and once a week. I'll see you whenever I hear from you, then."

"Cally." Michelle reached out and touched her hand. "I still have not thanked you for the clothes. Is there anything at all I can get you? Not business, but something personal?"

Cally hesitated for a moment, strangely reluctant to ask a favor. "Uh. I hate to ask, but could you possibly get me some depilatory foam? I haven't been able to get any since Dad's supplies from the old emergency cache ran out." Spoken, it sounded a bit pathetic, and she was kicking herself when Michelle smiled.

"Of course I can. I will make it myself. It will not take even an hour."

"Okay. But there's got to be something you want from Earth. The Galactics aren't exactly big on consumer goods."

"Well . . ." Her sister hesitated for a long moment, considering. "Chocolate. You could get me chocolate. And some of those little white solidified sugar wheels. The ones with red spokes and no hole for an axle, that are flavored with peppermint oil. I think they are designed to spin counter-clockwise, but I was so young I am not sure my memory is correct." She shrugged, but her eyes were actually glittering with what might have been excitement. "Clockwise or straight-spoked wheels would be perfectly lovely. Just whichever is available. Star-sparkle Mints or some such. I am sorry, I cannot remember the name."

"Okay, chocolate and peppermints. Got it."

"The little wheel ones," the mentat said.

"The little wheel ones. Got it. Next week. No problem." Her sister grinned.

"If you cannot get them next week, whenever you have time is most acceptable," Michelle said. She sighed. "We have indulged in quite a long lunch. I need to go start work now. The salad was good. Thank you." Then Michelle was gone.

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