Sister Time John Ringo & Julie Cochrane

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Chapter Thirteen

The family quarters for the Indowy-raised humans were a series of small, low rooms. The Michelle O'Neal family suite had walls in shades of mint and peach. The parents' sleeping room and the living room opened directly on the corridor. Behind those two rooms lay the nurseries. A central corridor contained the long washroom that served the family. All the rooms were very small. That, at least, was the allocation of the human living space its Indowy planners had intended. In reality, the parents had tri-sected their room by hanging curtains from tracks in the ceiling. On each side wall, and along the back wall, a set of bunk beds, closely stacked, provided a bunk for each of the six adults in the group. Hooks at the head of each bed held a change of robe and two night-robes apiece. A small, six-layer chest of drawers held underclothes and a memento or two for each parent.

The children's rooms had the same furnishings as the parents' room, except that the beds were slightly shorter and wider. There were more drawers, the plan being that two children would be in each bed, at capacity. The children past their first apprenticeship would, of course, live in unmated social groupings. After some trial and error, the Indowy had learned that the humans they encountered in Fleet had been wise to suggest adolescent human social groupings be segregated by breeding biology. Their males and females exhibited social and mating behaviors that were unstable and intense when housed together in the juvenile stages prior to group assignment and bonding.

The Michelle O'Neal family, as with most of the human families on Adenast, quietly deviated from their green mentors' plans and used clan privacy traditions to avoid discussing it outside the family. For one thing, the O'Neal adults were three couples, not a homogeneous group. Since Derrick's death, Michelle had slept in the room with her own two children and Bill and Mary's oldest daughter. Their toddler, and Tom and Lisa's three, slept in the other children's room.

In the parents' room, the other two couples had four bunks, but most nights only occupied two. Tom and Lisa's two-month-old slept in Michelle's old bunk.

Nooks and crannies all over the apartment—under chairs, in the small spaces under the beds—held prepackaged food so that the family didn't have to go to the mess hall for meals. It was the same stuff, anyway. In the sitting room, larger chairs for each adult and small ones for each child stood grouped around each other or the thinned-down holotank on one wall. On another wall, a spice rack displayed some of the family's wealth. The human sections of the agricultural planets didn't run to growing traditional herbs and spices. Most human families would buy a little pepper and hot sauce. More frequently, some locally brewed hooch. Michelle had paid to ship a fifty-spice rack up from Earth. Shipped and paid for legitimately. Refilled legitimately, for awhile. Sometimes the refills were even legitimately bought and shipped now. Just . . . not always. Her work did have small privileges.

The senior female in the group walked into the living room, where their children immediately mobbed her.

"Anne, Terry, move back and let your clan mother walk," a woman ordered. She was tiny, with wavy black hair and midnight eyes

The Michon Mentat leaned down and picked up the toddler, Kim. "How was your day?" she asked her clan-wife.

"Tiring. And yours?"

"Informative. I will be working late for the next three weeks."

"Mama! Mama! Look what I made for you!" Her own five-year-old, Tara, ran up to her with a picture on a thin sheet of white plastic. Bright, primary colors combined and smeared together into stick figures and childish trees. It looked like fingerpainting, but really came from a headset interface at school, designed to allow young ones to begin developing the mental discipline and neural connections to learn Sohon safely and without the risks of a real tank. "This is you and Mama Lisa and Mama Mary and Papa Tom and . . ." There were a lot of people on the page. Michelle smiled slightly, ready to hear them all.

"Tara, please let me talk to your clan mother for a few minutes, then we will pick out a wall to hang your pretty picture on," Lisa said. "Michelle, could we sit down, please?"

"Certainly. There is something you need to bring to my attention?"

"Oh, no. The household is running smoothly. If it would not offend you, I would like us to talk about your work. We are worried about you." Her wife's robe showed stains and spots, accumulated from watching the children.

"We can talk about my work," the mentat said.

"You are home early today. I thought it would be good to discuss this before the others get home. We are—I am—very concerned about you. I do not mean to interfere, but there are certain rumors . . ." The tiny woman reached out and took the toddler, who had started to play with the pins in Michelle's hair.

"If the rumors are that I have been threatened with default on a contract, that much is true. It is also true that there is some danger. However, I have a plan."

"A plan?" the woman echoed.

"Yes, a plan."

"How likely is this plan to make you very hungry within the year?"

"There is considerable risk."

"Loss of the head of our family would be very hard. Also, I would miss you very much. We must all hope that your . . . plan . . . goes well." The smaller woman fixed her dark eyes on her group-mate's face, mute with compassion.

Wednesday 11/10/54

The Darhel Pardal relaxed his jaw and shoulders in an unseen gesture of relief as he watched the Epetar Group freighter finally vanish into hyperspace, leaving the Sol System for its rendezvous with its next load of cargo at Dulain. The nearly two-week delay in getting the cash to the freighter to cover its docking fees at its next stop, as well as purchasing its high-margin cargo, had been the worst black spot of his career. Epetar had a contract to deliver bounce tube replacement parts, each specially crafted for its own unique bounce tube machinery, to Diess. The repair and reclamation program had finally gotten around to rebuilding Telsa City. There were countless tubes all over Diess in various stages of salvageable disrepair. The contract would last at least a century.

Indowy made all their equipment in the normal way, growing each item from a set of VR goggles all the way up to an entire starship in Sohon tanks. For a ship, an entire Indowy family from the newest apprentice to the most skilled master might be involved in bringing the sharply envisioned, individual design to reality. Every item of Galactic technology had slightly different parts and slightly different designs. Devices were built to last at least one lifetime—which for a member of a Galactic race, or a rejuved human, amounted to about five hundred of the local years. It discomfited Pardal that he had developed the habit of thinking in Earth time, but after twenty-eight years one adjusted. Even to this Aldenata-forsaken backwater.

Of course, he used human-produced goods for less critical functions in his office. Ephemeral as they were, even counting replacement costs they were economically optimized and functional. Which was why all the groups took such great pains to keep human goods as localized to the Sol System as possible. The destabilizing effect of their merchandise and their methods on the economy, if not properly contained, didn't bear thinking about. Dangerous as a mob of budding adolescents, the whole species.

He cursed the theft that had caused the delay in the Dulain-Diess run on his watch. He would be decades repairing his reputation and career from this debacle. At the moment, he was directing all his spare time to tracking down the thief for deterrent punishment. Recovery of the stolen wealth was probably too much to hope for. His most recent efforts followed the line of an old human adage for the hunting of attackers: Who profits? Unfortunately, his "short list" was not yet short enough.

"AID. Display Hunt File One and control pad for evaluation. Show suspect list. Retrieve cash flow intelligence for each entry on suspect list for six months prior to the theft." He doggedly resumed his search for connections, humming softly. The departure of the freighter, albeit belated, had put him in a better mood than he'd enjoyed for weeks. Gistar, Cnothgar, Adenar. Someone wanted a trade war. But which? Any one of them would have profited enormously by the theft, but only if their group could throw off suspicion on one of the others. He didn't for a moment suspect the Tir Dol Ron. As administrator for the Sol System, he was separated from the covert jockeying of inter-group rivalries. The Darhel Ghin had some limits to the behavior he was willing to tolerate in the name of business. The Tir's squeezing of rival Darhel groups would have to follow the same traditions as anyone else's—confined to systems where he had interests, but not direct administration. Sometimes Pardal wondered if the old Darhel maintained the rules just for the sport of it. Not that it would matter. He proceeded in his happy attempt to untangle conspiracy from betrayal from intrigue. Someone, somewhere, was going to pay.

As with any world, some parts of Dulain were stunningly beautiful. Unfortunately for those who lived there, Bounty City was not one of those places. Chin Ming looked over the ugly Galplas cube that held the indentured servants. Her hair, which she wore today in her own elegant bob, blew in the wind as she stared at the slave barracks many of them would only leave feet first. The top Tong leader on Dulain, one of the Grandfather's full lieutenants, was a very petite woman. She had shipped out among a generic batch of colonists and been one of a core of bought-out former indentures planted by the Tong to establish a foothold for their new operation. The wife of a respected Hong Kong businessman within the organization, she had ridden out the Posleen war in Ontario. Her husband and children she lost to the war. Her own not inconsiderable operational and business experience had remained intact. Juved, she looked like a sweet, demure, little flower. Her protective detail thought so, Little Flower being the code name they had assigned her. Mrs. Chin had raised being underestimated to a high art. She functioned well with the Indowy not only because of her diminutive size and habit of indirect gaze, but also because each sensed in the other a certain skill set, and respected it.

Chin Ming had never underestimated, nor been underestimated by, one of the Indowy in her life—which certainly put her one up on every Darhel she'd ever had to deal with. She had avoided ever meeting one of the Sidhe in person, but in the game of competing interests she dealt with them every day.

The vast majority of the human population had been set down here in the dry, gray-green scrub more for the lack of water and subsequent ease of containment than for any other reason. Planetary admin shuttles dropped armed indents wherever the latest infestations of feral Posleen had been sighted, then picked up the human survivors afterwards for return to the cube, healing and recuperation. They laid down their arms and reported aboard the return ship for the simple reason that if they did not, ankle and wrist bracelets would start to administer increasingly painful electrical shocks. If ignored, the bracelets would inject the wearer with Hiberzine, rendering him unconscious and setting off a beacon for pickup whenever someone got around to it. Frequently, delinquent pickups came in much the worse for wear. More often, they came in as very depleted remains.

On Indowy worlds, of which Dulain was one, although it had been depopulated to the point of emptiness, the Darhel controlled all commerce, including food shipments from automated farming worlds. If a rebellious Indowy—they occasionally cropped up in so large a population—got too far out of line, the Darhel group that owned his debts for his working tools called those debts in. His tools repossessed, the hapless Indowy starved with no intervention by his fellows, and the Darhel were minus one problem. Living in a society that had been fundamentally static for millennia, all of the Galactics had gotten too used to a predictable, immutable status quo. Ming smiled. Galactic inertia made it very hard to change standard contracts. Contracts the Darhel had written to entangle the Indowy didn't have the same results with human laborers.

The clear intent had been to force the indents to purchase food and healing services from on-site company stores and render servitude lifelong, much like sharecropping in parts of postbellum North America. The right of laborers to purchase from competing providers had always served to protect the rights of the Darhel groups to compete with each other. Darhel stores had a monopoly on wheat and rice of strains enhanced by Tchpth manipulations to provide all necessary nutrients for sustaining humans in a healthy state. Undermanagers had evaluated and assessed the potential outcomes of human women bringing seeds of unenhanced, inferior food plants native to Earth and found them to be a useful way of marketing expensive hydroponic equipment to humans and keeping the breeding stock occupied, and deeper in debt.

The first cracks in the system on Dulain had occurred when the Tong orchestrated the payment of the debts of one hundred men and women in what would become Bounty City. They had purchased land, immediately outside the barracks compound, at an exorbitant price. The Tongs had used an intermediary to keep the left hand from knowing what the right hand was doing. Simple. The Darhel factor executing the buy had thought some stray humans were increasing their indentures for worthless wasteland they'd have no opportunity to use, anyway, and had taken the commission as easy money. The Darhel factor selling the land had been happy to unload land at higher than market price, even if the group it presumed it was selling to managed to recoup some percentage of the loss.

Darhel groups were secretive with each other about their dealings. It had taken upper management decades to sort out that the owners of the land were not another Darhel group but were some human entity. They reprimanded and demoted the underlings involved, but the damage was done. Certain humans, returning from the field, spent their pay buying their food and incidental healing in town. The prices were much better, so the free citizenry always sold all they could grow. The best the Tong could do so far for meat was raising abat in hutches. The Darhel were never going to surrender easily. They tried sending humans who were paying down their debts to the forefront of combat and to die, rendering the reduction in debt pointless. The greenhouses of free humans, and some of the humans themselves, had suffered assaults and accidents.

The Darhel of the Cnothgar Group, administrators of Dulain, had quickly discovered that humans were not as easily managed as Indowy. Indents stopped using their savings to pay down their debts directly to the Darhel, instead banking the money in town by buying lottery tickets. Only humans alive at the time of drawing were eligible, by the terms of the ticket. The Tong's front in town held drawings as soon as a lottery pool reached the average debt level among the ticket holders. The Tong bought out the winner's contract no matter what he or she owed, holding the debt if it was larger, paying the excess to the winner if the debt was smaller. When the Tong banked for individuals, it had proved adept at hiding the records off planet and protecting the privacy of depositors. If a depositor died, the Tong paid the balance, minus a fee, to the depositor's designated beneficiary. Darhel creditors had been unable to collect at the death of an asset, unable to prove he had left behind an account. The Cnothgar Group's collections department kept trying to find a way to trace the money. The Tong was better at laundering it.

Humans who hired out to kill humans tended to die, quickly, at the hands of their fellows. Without human police willing to investigate and prosecute the murders, with the Tong carefully orchestrating the removals, this strategy was not working for the Elves. Ming conceded that they did tend to take down the occasional local Tong head. Rarely. Now, the locals protected greenhouses around the clock with human shields. Indowy or Darhel could not attack the clearly sophont-occupied facilities, and the humans the Elves hired to do so had low success rates and short life expectancies. The result, over the decades, had been a slow but steady increase in the population of free, rejuved humans in towns like Bounty City all over Dulain.

The residents of Bounty City, of course, would rather be free and rejuved in town than enslaved in the barracks. Still, the surroundings alone rendered it an ugly place, where the wind quickly draped everything with a coating of gray dust. Beeseers, as they called themselves, never planted greenery out of doors. Transpiration would have wasted too much precious water. As it was, they replenished the deficits to human sweat and breathing from water left as wastes by the shoppers, window-shoppers, and patrons of the brothels and other entertainments in town. Careful management ensured efficient water and fertilizer recycling. Also, despite unbeatable differences in biology, desert life around them was still carbon based, still ninety-something percent water, and still carried most of the right trace minerals. Anything organic the hordes of children could grab, the waste treatment facilities could handle.

The Darhel could not obtain new indentures from women who would not bear, despite the Darhel's own refusal to provide contraceptives. Contracts had never included any obligation to breed. The whorehouses sold condoms to all buyers, as well as offering discreet abortions in the rare cases those were necessary. No Galtech required. The women, already juved, felt no pressure of a ticking biological clock. Indentured males certainly were more willing to plant their seed in town, when they could, than risk slavery for their children. Besides, the women in town were, for those very reasons, so much more available. Pimps found their best profits in buying the indentures of women grateful to get away from the combat missions that now included them—women with sterling prospects of working those indentures off. Under the circumstances, the pimps harbored no hard feelings at the ladies who graduated from their employ. There were always more whores where they came from.

For the goods the residents could not manufacture or raise in town, the Tong did a brisk black market trade. In the case of the off-Earth free cities, this had included the deliberate policy of supplying capital equipment wherever practical.

The Randy Tabby in Bounty City was quiet today. Nobody was playing the electric piano, and even the men who would have been customers were hard at work with heat guns or scissors, turning endless meters of colorful, plastic beads into cheap necklaces. All along main street, the buildings contained people scrubbing out every shipping crate that the Beeseers could find, stuffing waxed paper bags with handfuls of necklaces, and filling crates with the bags. Beneath the BC General Store, a pair of workmen fed the machinery that produced the long strings of beads, winding them off on much-used spools.

One of the first capital packages shipped out, piece-meal and hidden, by the Tongs had been an integrated PVC plant. With it, the humans in Bounty City could begin converting waste organics and desert salts into versatile plastics, useful for so many things. Other communities specialized in other Earthtech goods, but plastics were Bounty City's specialty. For Dulain, Bounty City wasn't a bad place. Ming liked it much better than most, worse than a few.

She didn't live here, of course. Ming's existence was nomadic, her travel itinerary a closely held secret. The Darhel groups did not officially acknowledge any of the Tong's planetary lieutenants on any of the Posleen-infested planets that were undergoing the reclamation process. Unofficially, dealing with someone in charge was ingrained in their habits. Currently, they were still trying, with limited success, to have hit men target the lieutenants. The Grandfather said that it might take them some time to realize that expecting to stop human black markets by lopping off heads was about as effective as beheading a Greek hydra. Mrs. Chin made sure that she remained a moving target.

Proximity to the Indowy brought a certain amount of trade, and with the trade had come a certain familiarity with the furry, green teddy-bears. The human factor for the town had noticed that members of Indowy breeding groups delighted in giving each other small, simple gifts as tokens of affection. Indowy being Indowy, they purchased even simple gifts which were individually crafted and expensive—not because the Indowy had a particular dedication to individual craftsmanship, but simply because they had never done it any other way. Two of the Beeseers, from New Orleans by way of a central Indiana Sub-Urb, and old enough to remember prewar Earth, had amused themselves for awhile making strands of clear, colored beads and stringing them to sell to the green herbivores. They'd marketed their product as symbols of fertility, plenty, and fellowship. Dulain, being an Indowy world and the Indowy being able to outbreed all known sophonts anywhere, had a very few humans and a whole lot of Indowy. The Indowy considered the pretty little gifts so inexpensive as to be practically free. Page and Gilbeaux, with no marketing efforts to speak of, had been selling as many Mardi Gras necklaces as they could string.

When Ming had received the message from Earth that Dulain's humans needed to assemble an alternate cargo for an incoming freighter, production had gone into round-the-clock shifts. They could count on some lower-margin Indowy goods being available to fill out the ship's hold—especially as the message came with suggestions of which Indowy ears for the Tong lieutenant for Dulain to drop a word in. Clan Beilil was not plentiful nor powerful on Dulain, but they did appear more open, for no reason that was readily apparent. Ming had quietly filed the name in her memory as a useful contact for the future.

Meanwhile, several human towns that were capable of turning out glass beads had gone into high gear, as well. The plus was that there was less of a bottleneck in the immediate machine production of colored glass beads, the downside that they had to be strung by hand. A cube containing a series of books on the construction of machine tools from scrap metal had been, and was still, very popular on Dulain. The necessary parts for generation of strings of the beads were being put together by every small machine shop on the planet. In the two weeks since they had had word from Earth, her people had accomplished a great deal. In the two weeks they still had before they had to ship the product off Dulain, they would do much more.

Wednesday 11/10/54

The more time Michael O'Neal, Senior, spent in secure rooms, the more alike they all looked. The Galplas walls were a light mud color, except for the purplish glow of the ceiling surface. It made his eyes hurt, if he didn't wear sunglasses. Which was, of course, the only reason he was wearing them.

"Nice shades, Papa," George said as he walked past and moved a couple of the rolling office chairs around, trying to pick one that was less broken down than the others. The chairs all sported gray Galactic silk slipcovers over the seats and backs. Silk was expensive—unless it was from the first efforts of children and typically very off-spec. Color, texture, and quality were variable. The slipcovers were marginally better than nothing, maybe. They didn't stop the feel of the torn tweed and disintegrating fifty-year-old foam padding beneath them.

He grunted and set his mug down on the table, shaking a couple of chairs to pick one that wasn't going to dump him into the floor. A caster came off of one of them and he slid that chair over against the wall, putting the offending piece in the seat. The other chair seemed to only have loose handles, so he parked himself in it and kicked his feet up onto the badly chipped pine table.

"So, the miracle kiddies down below get to make another part." George jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the chair.

"Gotta hand it to them. Theirs don't break. At least, not so far." Papa spat neatly into his mug.

"Bitching about the crappy fucking chairs again?" Tommy Sunday walked in wearing a grimace and carrying a steel camp stool. He pushed a couple of the inadequate chairs out of the way and unfolded his stool. "At least you can sit in the damn things."

"You aren't missing much, son," O'Neal said.

The door opened again, admitting Cally and Harrison together. Cally's hair was a shining silver bell around her face. It hadn't looked that good in years.

"Wow," Tommy said. "What the hell did you do to your hair?"

"Why thank you, Tommy. Good afternoon to you, too," she said, smiling a little too sweetly.

"Uh . . . I mean it looks really good," he said.

Papa suppressed a grin. "Your hair looks very nice, sweetheart."

"Thank you, Granpa."

"Who would have thought that Darhel conditioner would work so well on human hair?" Harrison asked the room at large.

"Not me," said George. "Cally, you're a brave woman."

"We tried it on a sample of hair from her brush first. I'm not a total novice at hair care, I'll have you know. I figured since Darhel depilatory foam works on humans, the protein structure might be similar enough that their conditioner would work as well." Their fixer looked insufferably proud of himself.

"I didn't think Darhel medicines were safe in humans."

"They're not. The conditioner has a binder and emollient effect to reduce split ends and increase shine. It's not a medicine."

Cally crossed the room and sat down next to George. "Okay, let's get started. Has everyone had time to review the latest intelligence on our target?"

"Is it supposed to smell like cabbage?" George asked.

Cally glared at him and switched on the holoprojector, pointedly ignoring the young man's comment as a holo of a video screen appeared at the far end of the tank. With holo the default viewing medium on the planet, using three-dimensional projection to simulate a two-dimensional screen no longer struck anyone as ironic. "As you can see from the timetable, we have at least a month to get inside. If Michelle is more than three days late, we'll have to hold on for another three weeks past that before we get another shot. We're just lucky that winter is convention season—all those researchers flying down to the Caribbean for their conferences."

They laughed. Of course, it wouldn't have been half as funny if half of them didn't already live along the coast. Even if it was colder than a witch's titty in a brass bra this time of year. Maybe after this mission he ought to talk Shari into doing a run down to Cuba. Havana was nice now that the governmental policies had changed.

". . . thing we know Erick Winchon does is go to conferences and give speeches. Usually long on mouthings about peace and altruism, short on science. There's a front group that does some puff research. For their cover research, our best guess is that they do small studies off site, then fabricate large sample data consistent with their small study results. Dr. Vitapetroni tells me they design their work to generate meaningless truisms that sound good. Grants are so light on the ground that convention standards aren't so high these days—anybody who's got a paper published fills up the convention program. So giving a lot of pretty speeches maintains their cover and appearance of respectability." Cally tapped the forward arrow on the buckley, advancing the slide.

"Anyway, we have Winchon's conference schedule. Michelle tells me our only chance is to do the op when he is at least a few hundred kilometers away from the site. As far as possible, really." When she mentioned talking to Michelle, Granpa's face got grumpier, like it always did. She hated being in the middle of family squabbles. "Work like this tends to have small but significant turnover. People may not be able to walk out, but they do leave feet first. We have the profiles of the jobs most likely to turn over, and the ones that are vacant. Multiple resumes are in the pipeline for each of us. Our inside man has our list. We have staffers down in GN32 manning our phones. Interview calls will be routed to voice mail for obvious reasons, along with a tag telling you who the caller thinks you are. If you can't have your buckley tell you when a call comes in, you need to check it at least every two hours. If you're doing a short assignment and can't do that, you need to notify me in advance and let me know how long you'll be out of pocket."

George started to say something, but Cally had evidently anticipated. She placed a soft hand over George's lips and smiled as she continued, "Granpa, you and George take what we know of the layout of the place, develop plans for physical surveillance of the facility, and start working on secondary plans of entry and execution."

Papa O'Neal nearly choked on his tobacco trying not to laugh at the expression on the young man's—well, he looked young, anyway—face. As if his granddaughter was going to let him steamroller one of her meetings for the second time in a row. He caught a whiff of her perfume from across the room. Dangerous stuff. The kid's eyes glazed over as she turned in her seat, deliberately moving the lethal cleavage nearer. At least, Papa knew damned well it was deliberate.

"Anyone gets a call, it will automatically route to me, too. Whole team, meet back here, same time, in one week to touch base unless I tell you sooner. Dismissed." Unusually for Cally, she didn't give time for questions, and she didn't relax the format, just took her hand off George and swept out of the room. Whew, but her nose was out of joint. He might just have to have a talk with her. Or better yet, with Schmidt Two, who was still looking a bit poleaxed. Maybe even each of them. He might indeed.

Sunday 11/14/54

Pardal cordially loathed the smell of Titan Base. The overpressure on the domed city drove in mixed hydrocarbons that made the entire facility reek of a combination of a ship with a faulty life support system and a dirty waste-room. The pathetic suite set aside for his use, which would have looked luxurious only to human savages who knew no better, had a shoddy Earthtech air filter in one corner. It reduced the reek in his own rooms, but produced a whining that abused his sensitive ears. The air movement and hiss had, more than once, awakened him from a sound sleep, diving for his pressure suit. The times it had happened, it had taken a few seconds before he'd realized he was not aboard a ship with a hull breach but was, instead, on the Aldenata-bedamned Titan Base. By then his stress hormones, mingled with a tingling hint of Tal, were in such an uproar that it took a seventh-level meditation to relax him enough to get back to sleep.

Demanding complete and immediate repair would have revealed weakness. He certainly didn't want the humans to know that the panicked awakening was almost as dangerous, to him, as a real hull breach somewhere on board one of his ships would have been. Much less reveal weakness to others of his kind. He had ordered proper air cleaning equipment from a reputable supplier and would simply have to wait for its arrival. He hated humans, as much for their cheap and shoddy devices as for anything else.

The Indowy produced voluminous excesses of Indowy, the Tchpth produced overwhelming technological inventions, the Darhel produced money and power, the Himmit produced—well, consumed, then—an excess of stories, the Posleen produced a voluminous amount of both Posleen and ships. The humans' particular excess was millions of tons of ephemeral, garbage goods—some in use, the vast majority already broken and discarded. They were ridiculously self-congratulatory over insignificant increases in useful life of what they produced, and the ability to remanufacture their garbage instead of just piling up and burying their millions of shipweights of discards.

Human females were the worst. They incessantly wore and replaced robes in an absurd variety of colors, textures and shapes, like some maniacally molting, diseased insects. Human men apparently found this profligate trait attractive. They did price their shoddy goods like the worthless things they were, but that was almost as bad. By treating them with extreme care, it was possible to extend the life of such goods to the point that they became economical. The volume and variety of garbage goods, that did work for very brief periods, made the humans frighteningly adaptable—an unpleasant truth that he would never admit to anyone else and barely admitted to himself. He really loathed the little barbarian carnivores.

He watched a live holo of the main dividing way of the savage city, the one the humans called the Corridor. How original. He sat watching and listed to himself the various reasons he hated humans. He was aware that most of his kind felt merely a more distant contempt for the species. He would probably return to that attitude, himself, as soon as he could get out of the gods-forsaken Sol System and back to civilization. For now, they were just too close. He was finally in a state of mind to get the most appreciation out of the latest cube of research he had received from the human Erick Winchon.

After the first hour, he decided he was very disappointed. This cube wasn't nearly as good as the last one. The first half, an aversive eating sequence with fresh subjects, would have been completely boring if he hadn't learned to read human facial expressions. The second half, aversive mating behaviors, should have been boring, but wasn't. Somewhere in the sequence, it crossed over from mere unaesthetic mates to pointless and counterproductive destruction of the females. Odd, that. The accompanying notes said the obvious aversiveness resulted from the peculiar human emotion called empathy, rather than the loss of a potential mating opportunity before viable offspring could result. The other feature that rescued the cube from tedium was the proof of aversiveness tests performed on random subjects after a significant act, which left the subject in the situation while removing all controls on his or her emotional responses. Humans in distress were capable of an extraordinary variety of vocalizations.

He was leaning back in a reclining couch, watching the show a second time through, when his AID interrupted him, stopping the holo.

"Sir, you have an incoming message from a special courier vessel," it said.

"Display it," he said coldly.

A still holo of another Darhel appeared. The yellowish tinge to his silver and black fur, along with the yellow stains on his teeth, showed his less-than-stellar grooming habits. It was also a telltale mark of a certain age, as teeth didn't get that neglected overnight. The gilded patterns on the columns behind him had Epetar's traditional triangular motifs worked into the designs. From the moderately low quality and the obvious lack of sufficient Indowy body servants to attend his personal needs, Pardal knew the sender was of low rank.

The AID from the courier ship had a beautiful voice. "Message from Epetar Factor Raddin of Dulain to Commerce Manager Pardal, currently traveling in the Sol System. Message begins."

The holo shifted into motion as the Darhel in the display began speaking his recorded piece. "A freighter, a gods-be-damned garbage scow by the look of it, has entered the Dulain System. Dedicated Industry has a Gistar registry, she is not on the schedule, and however disreputable she looks, she has the capacity to carry a substantial cargo. There is no substantial cargo waiting to load out here that is anywhere near completion except for ours. Two of the three cargoes over fifty-percent assembled are Cnothgar cargoes that they're not about to allow jumped from their own planet. Strange ships coming in on top of one of my high margin cargoes make me very nervous. This would be a very bad time for a ship to be late. If there is a circumstance of which I am unaware, I report the information so that you may plan accordingly. I take my leave of you."

"Message ends. The billing confirmation number for this service has been transmitted to your AID. This vessel will depart the Sol System for return to the Dulain System immediately. Any standard correspondence or return messages should be uploaded at once."

Pardal ran his claws through the fur on top of his head, scratching nervously behind his ears. He took a deep breath and dropped the hand back to his side. He had to look composed for official correspondence. "AID, record for transmission from Commerce Manager Pardal to Epetar Factor Raddin of Dulain, copy to Epetar Freighter Captain Efgin traveling in the Dulain System. I received your message. As the shipment is late, it is likely that the Gistar vessel has taken advantage of the situation to take the contract on our Dulain cargo. Empty holds leak profits. Acquire whatever salable cargo you can, for the best price, and quickly. Unload, reload, and get that ship on to Prall. The Gistar vessel will undoubtedly beat us to Diess as well. Skipping that leg is the only way to get back on schedule. Your information was critical. Your use of the courier in this instance is validated, despite the expense. Continue to exercise all care before incurring such expenses. I take my leave."

Gistar. Pardal smiled. It was the kind of smile that, thousands and thousands of years ago, would have scared any prey animal stiff. Or sent it running. Today, his Indowy body servants abruptly left the room. Gistar. The code keys were no doubt long gone from Sol. Probably went out on the very next shuttle off of Earth and didn't stop until they hit the jump point. Still, some things had to be revenged. What did the humans say? One good turn deserves another. Amazing that they were sometimes capable of sarcasm. One good theft certainly deserved another. Gistar.

It would take a call to the human who primarily handled those of Epetar's interests that required the human touch. And, curse Gistar, require him to book passage right back to Earth. The only mitigating component would be getting off Titan.

"AID, what is the name of our human agent for special issues on Earth?"

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