Sister Time John Ringo & Julie Cochrane

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Chapter Fourteen

Monday 11/15/54

The white-haired man was clearly not a juv. He looked like a late middle-aged stockbroker. He had sectioned his hair into precise squares pointed into precise spikes, exactly two point five four centimeters long. His pale blue suit jacket had the tails that had come back into style for morning clothes at the office. Robert Bateman even had an office. It was in the business district of Little Rock. When he was in town, he unfailingly went into the office at eight each morning, and left it between five and seven each evening. If he had to be elsewhere, which he frequently did, he reported in to the office first. He charged this expense to his employer as a necessary cover. Too many of the things they wanted done required a respectable business persona. His day trading of a picayune amount of Epetar's money kept him abreast of the market, well enough to talk intelligently about its movements, scandals, and surprises. This was the cover he needed most often. It cost less to simply maintain it than to pay people to fabricate what was essentially the same identity, over and over. He did what he could to avoid getting the alias visibly dirty. You don't shit where you eat.

It surprised him to receive a direct call from the Darhel Pardal—or, rather, from his AID, which amounted to the same thing. He carried a buckley. An AID would have been an extravagance and a security risk. The trader he was counterfeiting would never have used one. He trusted Epetar to make sure his calls back and forth to them were secure. The hard-ass alien bastards were geniuses at programming. Privately, he thought of them as a weird blend of vampire, fox, and elf that sucked money as a poor substitute for blood—and resented it. Obviously, the Darhel had evolved as carnivores. Plant eaters did not have those rows of sharp teeth.

But they couldn't kill directly, either. That was what they needed him for. He was the smart-gun in their hand that selected its own targets and fired itself—giving them just enough plausible deniability to protect their sanity.

Bateman had zero illusions about his employers, he just didn't care. Hell, he liked them. At least they weren't sweetness and light hypocrites. He knew he was a sociopath. He knew he was one of the less common sociopaths who had above average intelligence. Being what he was, he appreciated the better games his intellect made available to him. The Darhel were great employers. Whether they did or didn't know that the rest of humanity would regard him as damaged goods, the important point for him was that they just didn't give a shit. In fact, his lack of conscience was his most crucial job skill. Working for the Epetar Group was the best job he'd ever had. If he discounted the boredom between assignments.

He looked over the file dumped to his buckley and whistled softly. Pardal's call had been terse, "Review the file. Assess our interests. Arrange the services you deem appropriate. Among other things, ensure you steal from them, for delivery to us. The more the better, but amount does not matter and you most certainly need not limit your creativity to theft. Submit the bills for your expenses. Oh, and Mr. Bateman? There will be no need to itemize expenses—a very general bill would be most satisfactory."

A blank check to avenge some intercorporate insult. The file didn't specify the insult, simply that it was severe and highly costly. Epetar must be really pissed at Gistar to turn someone like him loose with no leash and no limits. He rubbed his hands and started going down the list of Gistar assets on Earth and in the rest of the system.

The tantalum and niobium operation in Africa looked good. Starships didn't move too fast. He had enough money on hand to hire a good team of mercenaries, stick them on a wet ship with a pack of reliable pirates, and deal out a lot of mayhem to the dumb schmucks at the mines. Stuff out of a mine wouldn't burn—it wasn't like it was coal or anything. Unless they directly hit it, they wouldn't disperse it with explosions, either. Should be able to pick it right up and cart it off.

Bateman ran a search against his Rolodex and began sorting through names. He found the booking agent he was looking for and placed the call.

Monday 11/15/54

The Indowy Falnae had the con on the bridge of the Gistar freighter, Fortunate Venture, it being the captain's sleep shift. Venture was heavy with her food cargo, headed out for Laghldon, a major Indowy world specializing in standalone communications systems and ground vehicles. The great, automated farming machines of Rienooen produced the various high-energy, high-protein staple crops that formed the mainstay of Indowy and Tchpth diets. The dietary needs of the independently evolved species were, obviously, extremely different, but Rienooen was a big and fertile planet with the largest ratio of arable land to planetary surface of any planet in this region of space. Their ship was part of an endless convoy of vessels that trekked between systems, packed from floor to ceiling with food one way, and sterilized, packaged fertilizers on the return. Presently, they were six days out from the major jump point out. Out of two known ways to move a ship through hyperspace, the Galactics used the ley-line method, traveling paths of least resistance from one system to another. It was an odd quirk of space that these paths tended to cluster together in clumps, like flaws in a giant crystal. They varied in their distance from the core of the system, which had made large differences in travel time for centuries.

Like a pebble tossed in a still pool, the War had changed everything. The changes seemed good, but they destabilized things, and destabilization was risk. The Darhel managed trade, but the Tchpth, and the Indowy to a lesser extent, managed change. The Darhel groups were so competitive that any information that gave one group a competitive edge forced the others to change as well. The chaotic, imprudent, savage humans were like an information storm released into the heart of Galactic civilization. Certainly they had saved the civilized races from a greater disaster, but at what cost?

Falnae's shipboard sensors registered the scheduled transit of an incoming freighter from Barwhon. They also registered an incoming transmission. There must be incoming messages for the crew, or the captain. The first message bore an urgent tag. He hit the play sequence.

"Freighter Fortunate Venture, you are diverted. You will rendezvous with the courier and take on the full Gistar currency reserve. You will proceed to the Prall System and sell your cargo. There is a Cnothgar cargo of ordered spare parts, scheduled to be carried on an Epetar vessel to Adenast repair docks. The Epetar vessel will be late, defaulting on the contract. You will inform Cnothgar. You will persuade them to allow you to load, committing to paying the costs of unloading and re-prepping the cargo if Epetar comes out of hyperspace on time. Since this is not a default of the standard carrying contract, they will be amenable. You will execute a conditional standard contract to become effective if Epetar defaults. When the Epetar vessel is late out of hyper, constituting default, you will carry out that contract. Our factor on Prall will provide you with our full currency reserves for the system. Combining the reserves together with the gross from the food you carry, you should be able to purchase Adenast cargo. How fortunate that we were on the verge of expansion. Others will ensure the Epetar vessel's default. You have your instructions."

He would not wake the captain. With six days to jump, the Darhel had plenty of time to finish his sleep before he began the process of changing plans and recalibrating the engines. Or, rather, before he instructed his AID to do so.

A trade war. This was yet another terrible disturbance. The clans would be centuries, or more, smoothing out all the ripples in these troubled waters. In the deep, still places of his own heart, Falnae feared that the Darhel had erred greatly when they assumed that reducing human numbers in the war, down to a mere one-sixth of their prewar numbers, would reduce the fury from stirring up that hoolna warren, Earth. The evolutionary forces that created sophonts rendered some primitive, developing sophont species capable of catastrophically destructive rages—but no less able to distinguish threats to their existence. What a chaotic mess. The civilized species had to divert the humans onto the Path, yes, but the Darhel effort had been a foolish, foolish blunder—haste in creation fouled the tank. The surviving humans were already well on their way to making up their losses, despite the Darhel's best efforts.

He would never dream of doubting the wisdom of his clan head. Even though the breach between the main body of the Bane Sidhe and the humans split the humans off from their one positive, guiding force. Except for Clan Aelool and Clan Beilil, who he devoutly hoped would be steady in their efforts, and successful—for the sake of all the clans. But again, these were matters best left to wiser minds.

Tuesday 11/16/54

Michelle O'Neal was showing her newest apprentice some of the practical applications of material from his engineering classes. She was using her office because the lighting was a bit less wearing on her eyes. The tinted contact lenses she normally wore in Indowy areas of her complex—which was almost the whole megascraper—had been irritating her eyes today. She could have repaired the problem easily, but part of the discipline she enforced on herself was that she didn't use her abilities for most routine problems. Sohon should come from trained, personal focus, not from cutting one's self off from the ordinary issues of daily life.

Her office was a calm place. The walls were a softly luminous shade of blue, shading from sky blue at the bottom to deep indigo at the top. Instead of a water cooler, she had a running fountain in the corner. It was one of her own teenage art projects. The pebbles in the lower pool were strangely colored. She had let out some of her adolescent rebellion and angst in the coloration of her projects. There were a couple of freighters sailing around space with pink stabilizers in their containment rooms to this day.

She normally didn't teach the apprentices herself, but in this case the personal lesson was a reward for outstanding diligence. Also, the apprentice was one of the Clan Ildaewl workers who were members of her manufacturing team. Clan O'Neal's numbers on Adenast were far too small for a full team, and she owed a debt to Ildaewl for her own training when she had first come from Earth as a child, fleeing the Posleen War. Her own diligence and skill in managing her team and ensuring the progress of the team members under her, together with her own constant research of techniques which probed the boundaries of the Art, had converted her association with Ildaewl from mere debt to something more like an alliance. Ildaewl being the second largest of the Indowy clans, this was no small thing.

The apprentice, Aen, was barefoot. Indeed, he was completely bare except for the furlike leaf-green filaments that covered his body.

Michelle was also barefoot, as was her own habit in her office. Elsewhere in the building, she wore sandals. The soles of her feet were not nearly as tough as the Indowy pads, and like all manufacturing facilities everywhere, Indowy workshops inevitably had the risk of small, sharp objects that landed on the floor between sweepings. In her own office, she was a neat freak who wouldn't dream of allowing a foreign object to land on her floor, which was a carpet of living grass whose original seed she had shipped up from Earth. She had grown her furniture as a practice drill in materials science. The seat cushions were a soft material like squishy suede, but the slight variances in the surface enhanced the effect of the lichen- and moss-covered Georgia granite pattern she had tuned into the surface. The surface was indistinguishable in appearance from the hard, structural portions of the tables and chairs, which she had sized to accommodate the members of the various of the Galactic races who might have occasion to meet with her here.

Truth be told, it was all an excellent excuse for the office to be indecently spacious. Everything, even the low table that served her in place of a desk, gave the appearance of having been carved from stone in a style that wouldn't have been out of place if set down in the middle of Stonehenge—a touch of her own wry humor over the reputation of humanity. The corners and edges within the office were all beveled. Random clouds scudded across the ceiling. The airflow paired with potted plants on small tables along the walls gave the scent and feel of being outside on a pleasant, late spring day. Despite the alien origin of her vegetation, people of just about every race experienced a certain calmness in her office—which was, of course, the point.

The herbivorous Indowy, normally a bit shy around even the Indowy-raised humans they knew personally, tended to be calmed by the environment. This despite thousands of years living, by preference, in closely packed warrens of their own kind. The decor smoothed her working relationships. Darhel would have hated it, of course, so when she met with one of them it was always elsewhere. Which suited her just fine, since from childhood she had absorbed a very Indowy attitude towards Darhel. It was not so much that the Indowy feared the Darhel. The Darhel did, after all, serve a useful purpose in Galactic civilization. Each race had its role.

But then, so did the flies that infest a dung heap.

Which brought her back to her apprentice. A young Indowy, he was beginning to embrace the theoretical underpinnings of advanced Sohon. He was also beginning to appreciate the difference between knowing and doing, as he moved on from childhood training projects to his first adult working team.

She looked at the raw Galplas, or what was supposed to be raw Galplas, that had coalesced in the center of the tank, before reaching in with a simple ceramic strainer to lift it out. One of the things she had fashioned for herself when she first began teaching was a stainless steel hammer. Such a primitive tool tended to convey a point indelibly. She appraised the unpleasant mass, choosing her spot. One sharp rap reduced the stuff to rubble and dust.

"On Earth, they call that chalk," she said. "Now, why did the polymeric binding fail in the third stage of processing, and as a consequence, what is the present imbalance in your tank's raw materials? Neglecting the tank fluid and nannites that dripped off your . . . chalk . . . how much of which substances will you add to bring your sohon tank back into working equilibrium? I want the answer along with the uncertainty range. Here. I will help you."

She pulled a stainless steel pan out of the top drawer of her desk and swept the rubble and dust into it with a careless hand. Liquid crept away from her hand, up the side of an empty water glass. The stray dust followed along, obediently falling into the pan. "The pan masses fifty Earth grams, to ten decimal places. The contents masses the product I took out of the tank, in Earth grams, to three decimal places. The glass is thirty grams and masses standard nano-solvent to eight decimal places."

She would have continued, but a ten-legged arthropoid figure had entered the doorway and was bouncing up and down in a pensively contemplative sort of way. "Go. Write it up, send it to my AID," she concluded, dismissing the apprentice. She flipped the indicator on the side of the unbalanced tank from green to the amber warning light, and hit the lockout switch.

Looking up, she favored the Tchpth with a friendly, closed-mouth smile, "Wxlcht! It has been at least three years. Are you at peace?"

"I follow. And you?" Dancing gently on its spidery limbs, her friend offered the customary response, routinely indicating adherence to the enlightened species' philosophical Path.

"I work. The grass grows." She offered the closed-mouth, tiny quirk of the lips that had become the polite human smile.

"Is it a good season for your work?" he inquired.

"It is interesting." She gave a negative.

"Would you have a moment for a game of aethal with an old friend?" She wondered idly what business he had on Adenast. Wxlcht was neither properly he nor she. She used the masculine pronouns for her social comfort, since the Tchpth did not care.

"Of course." Her face lit with pleasure, she went to one of the walls and pulled out a box from a shelf underneath one of her plants. Tchpth were stronger than they looked to most humans. As she turned, Wxlcht had already pushed a human chair and a Tchpth platform up to the low table where they had played many games.

The human mentat took the board off the top of the box and set it in the center of the table, touching the randomizer button on the side. The triangles on the board immediately lit with the initial locations for the game pieces. For beginners, it would have also lit from beneath with the web of clan-group obligations, alliances of interest, and contracts. As both players were grandmasters, Michelle kept her board set for the traditional game, which incorporated random destabilizing events. The object of the game was, in a set period of time, to establish a stable web of interconnections that was more likely to lead to enlightenment than the opponent's web. The game, of course, was far simplified from real life.

Wxlcht placed his pieces, making a show of examining the board. "You will certainly have to watch the interaction of your clan obligations with your contracts in this game. It would be especially difficult if your primary contract were to encounter a calculated treachery."

Michelle looked at the board and blinked. The advice might match the board, but that fourth degree alliance on the left forward flank was far more hazardous. "You are talking about more than aethal," she said.

"Yes. The human mentat Erick Winchon stole something essential to your contract with the Epetar Group. Have you been able to determine which Darhel Group Erick Winchon is working for?"

"Not with certainty. I suspect Cnothgar, but that is an initial impression and not proved."

"You know my people's capabilities, and you know my position. Most things involving humans we do not take notice of, as it would take far too much time away from our researches on the Path. Mentats are worthy of notice. I owe you a debt. My closest family is from Barwhon. Your clan was instrumental in rescuing one of my fctht mates. The human Erick Winchon was commissioned by and is working for a branch of the Epetar Group whose affiliation has been carefully concealed. The secrecy is for many reasons, but one of them is to place you in apparent breach of contract. You will not be able to prove the ownership, as they have used considerable resources to cover the track even from you. My people will not, for obvious reasons, confront the Darhel or the other mentat directly on this issue. Still, the information should be sufficient to clear the debt."

"Yes, the debt is cleared. Thank you, friend," she acknowledged.

"There is more, that would shift the balance of our alliance, if you wish to know it."

"It is you that is offering. You would not offer if it wasn't well worth owing you a debt. I would certainly like to hear it." Protocol required, if possible, allowing the other to choose whether to take on a social debt. In the case of information, this of necessity had to be done before the recipient knew what she would be getting.

"We normally do not interfere with the younger races' members who love to plot and intrigue, so long as it keeps them harmlessly occupied and out of the way of the more advanced among their own and other species. A younger student of our own race, watched by me, supervises for a time as a training exercise, but rarely has cause to either intervene or report. However, plots that risk setting two mentats against each other, unlikely though it is that either would be rash enough to allow a direct confrontation, are not harmless. We would not be averse to seeing future attempts of this kind discouraged. If the Epetar Group were to suffer great financial reversals that appeared to be the result of mismanagement, other Darhel groups would be inclined to dismiss any recent unusual adventures on Epetar's part as ill-considered."

"You know the safeguards in the system. If I intervene, it will be very clear that I did," she said.

"That is very true. However, you have among your extended clan those who plot and intrigue in secret. One specific relative is engaged in an intrigue against the Epetar Group that is likely to fail on its own, but that you might assist without being noticed. There is risk. We trust your judgment. Look to the dealings of your sister's mate."

"Mate?" Michelle's two rapid eyeblinks were all that showed her surprise, but they were enough.

"Correct. Shall we play?" A Tchpth would naturally treat her like an Indowy, shying away from a potentially sensitive clan matter.

"Excuse me, but I am not sure I heard you correctly. Are you referring to Cally's lover, who fathered her children? James Stewart is dead."

"Has he died recently, then?" he asked.

"If you are counting seven years as recent," the mentat said.

"Oh. I am sorry if I am interfering in a closely held clan matter, but as of Earth's last lunar cycle, he is very much alive. Forgive my discourtesy." He paused, raising a forelimb over his mouth in the equivalent of a grimace. "For the sake of timing, you might encourage the Indowy crew on Dulain base to cooperate with the local humans before you pursue the matter with your clan. If you choose to do so, it would be best if you were highly expeditious and discreet."

"Um . . . thank you. Thank you very much. I am indebted to you," she agreed again.

"Pilot's apprentice to Clan Head's four-b, using the rest of my move to institute a third level alliance to uncommitted family Tinne," he bounced left and right, rapidly, resembling an overcharged metronome.

"That's an unconventional opening. Hrmm. What could you be up to?"

Wednesday 11/17/54

Rictis Clarty's medium-dark skin could have come from his indeterminate ancestry, or perhaps it was all the time he spent in the tropical regions of the East Africa Rift Zone. Clarty had been born with two talents and one dominating attribute. A natural marksman and linguist, his driving ambition, developed in the crowded underbelly of the Sub-Urb that produced him, was open space and power over other men.

He had started out as a Posleen hunter for one of the re-release African preserves, a joint project of government and environmental organizations established out of American and Canadian zoos after the war. At the end of the war, when they first inaugurated the preserves, ecologists had faced a devastated continent in which anything larger than a beach ball had become extinct. Humans were an exception, surviving in small, isolated groups on mountains like Ras Dashan and Kilimanjaro, or on little islands off the coast or in large lakes. It had been a toss-up for years whether the ecology would crash completely or not. Now the question was firmly settled. While she would never be as she was, Africa was definitely winning. The key for the small fauna and the flora had been the original biodiversity. The key for the reintroduced species was that human settlements were tiny and the Posleen were mostly gone. Fleet and ACS efforts at Posleen elimination had greatly reduced habitat competition and the number of other predators at the top of the food chain.

Another key, oddly enough, had been the elephants. Those terrestrial mammals were apparently considerably smarter than Posleen normals. Elephants recognized and carefully trampled Posleen eggs. Bull elephants would respond to the presence of feral Posleen by actively tracking them. A God King crest would trigger a berserker charge of an entire herd. Without advanced weaponry or overwhelming numbers on their side, Posleen facing elephants died. Since elephant family groups roamed widely in the ongoing mission of stoking their bodies with hundreds of kilograms of forage a day, and the other reintroduced animals had a sure safe zone in any elephant group's range, reintroduction had gone faster than anyone had hoped. The animals followed the elephants. Used to the eternal footrace between the big cats and the herd beasts, most of the critters could outrun an isolated Posleen, anyway.

The ultimate result had been that after ten years of more or less steady work as a paid Posleen hunter, Rictis had found himself out of work. Africa was by no means clear of feral Posleen or repopulated with native wildlife, but neither was the issue in enough doubt for a government crippled with debt to keep men like Rictis on its payroll.

He had had to seek other employment. He had found it in the needs of the human survivors for things out of song and memory. They had never had many of the benefits of modern civilization—not compared to first worlders. Those they had grew in story and song until the young men were eager to earn any hard currency they could to buy these fabled luxuries.

Across Africa and all the depopulated continents, the Darhel had extorted mining concessions in partial payment of Earth's debts. Preferring Indowy employees to human ones, the Darhel facilities offered few employment opportunities to survivors. With an eye to extorting future mining rights, the Darhel looked with extreme disfavor on human city states springing up to exploit even the mineral resources they themselves did not own. Wary of the clauses in the colony transport contracts that had caused Earth so much trouble, Earth's government—which at this time amounted to what was left of the United States government, in consultation with the Asian-Latin Coalition, Indonesia and the Phillipines—had explicitly refused any responsibility to secure Darhel mining facilities against rogue humans. The result had been a thriving market in human mercenaries, mostly comprised of local survivors.

With satellite phones an expensive luxury, traveling middlemen, known to the local bands, recruited and employed local mercenaries. The middlemen, like Clarty, stayed in areas of the world with phone or radio contact until they drummed up a new contract and it was time to go back out in the field. The satellite phone in his pack was a short-term rental he would expense in his bill. An ugly piece of shit, he coveted it nonetheless, remembering the once-upon-a-time convenience, in another life, of walking around with a cell phone glued to his ear, yacking to his friends.

In the morning, a Darhel mining facility would be on the receiving end of their destructive power. A columbite-tantalite mine in the northward portion of the East Africa Rift System was the unlucky target of his attentions today. His combined band of Cushitic warriors from the Simien Mountains to the northwest and the Dahlak Archipelago in the Red Sea aimed to form up behind some of the terrain blocking this part of the rift from the view of the mining complex. The complex had human security, if you could call it that. Upper level Darhel managers were brilliant. Lower level Darhel supervisors were also brilliant, but less cosmopolitan and prone to jumping to conclusions about humans based on Galactic stereotypes. Unless they observed substantial contrary data themselves, they were unlikely to ever get beyond that attitude. Lord, but it made Rictis's job easy.

Low level Darhel, like the rest of the mainstream Galactics, viewed all humans as bloodthirsty carnivores, good only for killing or being killed. A human who presented himself as a security guard and knew one end of a gun from the other was automatically accepted at face value as a security guard. Why would any sane being falsely claim to be a bloodthirsty killer? Security guards hired to protect such facilities typically walked or stood around with dirty, poorly maintained rifles slung across their backs. The poor maintenance would have mattered less if they had been carrying AK-47s instead of old, prewar M-16s. They used to say you could bury an AK in the mud for ten years, dig it up, and take it right into an engagement. You sure couldn't do that with an M-16. Like as not, half the rented uniforms down there would find their rifles jamming on them, if they lived long enough to shoot back. All guys like them were good for was presenting a visible presence, wearing token uniforms, and drinking their pay.

Right now, in the gathering twilight, his men clustered around the rough map scratched into the ground for a final refresher. This morning they had infiltrated most of the way in a silent anti-grav shuttle, flown in low, nap of the Earth. The closest they could get was to park behind a rise fifteen klicks away, give or take, and walk in through the tall grass. They'd marched, if you wanted to call it that, in a double-file line, two men out to the side as flankers, and three scouting to the front. Clarty would be the first to admit that his men were not the best of soldiers—weren't soldiers at all, not to speak of. But they were experienced hunters and knew how to use the AKs they carried. Also, they worked cheap. The boys he'd had to hand rifles got to keep them, their villages got a couple of cases of ammo, and other than that, they didn't take much paying at all. There was plenty of cheap stuff he could bring in, easy, that these people only knew now from legends told around the fire. It didn't occur to him to worry about the boys who might, as some certainly would, fall in the engagement. If someone had asked him about that, it would have honestly puzzled him. Their villages counted losing some young warriors as part of the nature of young warriors. If they didn't care, why should he?

As sure as he could be that each man knew his position and job, Clarty doled out the three precious pairs of night vision goggles in his pack to the men he considered most competent. He took out his own goggles, and familiarized the chosen with the minimal controls and how the world looked in varying shades of black and green. His goggles, of course, had a few extras like built-in binoculars and range finders. The ones for his picked lieutenants were cheaper, but serviceable.

Rictis had worked with Abebe, Tesfa, and Alemu before. All three were old enough to have some sense, but hadn't started to slow down from age yet. Tesfa was one of his inland Cushites. At twenty-five or thereabouts he had a wife and four children. An expert hunter, his eyes didn't miss much, and what his eyes did miss his nose picked up on. He also shot abat from fifty meters for fun, when he had the ammo. If he didn't stuff his ears with soft hide when he shot, he'd probably be deaf as a post by now. Abebe was his second best, islander stock that had moved back to the mainland for more room. Unusually for the area, he had the local high cheekbones but midnight-dark skin. Tall, his perfect teeth flashed paper-white when he smiled. He herded goats and managed to keep them safe from the other wildlife who also thought goats tasted pretty good. Clarty figured keeping goats from straying wasn't much different from watching for stray men—not the stray men facing them, anyway. Alemu was the youngest of his best three, oldest of three brothers himself, and a damned sharp hunter. Clarty had heard their names, of course, but simplified his own life by bestowing noms de guerre. Shooter, Goatherd, and Hunter seemed more flattered than offended.

He took his thirty men and stretched them out in a long single file line. He spaced his men with goggles evenly, putting Shooter on point, followed by his nine men. Goatherd was on the tail end with his nine in front of him. He and Hunter bracketed Hunter's nine men in the middle, with Rictis taking the middle front position. When it was good and dark, he gave the command to move out. He had ensured radio silence to complement the darkness by giving radios only to his three chosen lieutenants.

They filed over the hill in the darkness, being careful rather than fast—they had all night to get into position. As they approached the lip of land surrounding the mining camp, the formation split, Shooter taking his spotter and the heavy weapons team around to the east. His two next best marksmen and a pair of spotters proceeded around to the west to line up on the guard towers on that side. Goatherd and Hunter were good shots, but Clarty needed them leading the assault squads. Since he was older and more experienced handling young men, Goatherd and his team would be taking the guard barracks while Hunter secured the administration building and provided close-in fire support. Hunter was his youngest lieutenant, with plenty of energy but not nearly as much experience as he could want. Rictis suspected that if he wasn't personally on the scene, Hunter would put himself first in through the door and orders be damned. He really wanted to keep his three most reliable men alive to help him manage the looting and loading phase before they pulled out.

The self-styled mercenary leader stood at the front of the line pulling cheap, pre-set digital watches out and handing them to one member of each departing group. With the vibrate alarm set for first light, the watches served two functions. One, they were a pretty reliable way to kick off separated groups at the same time. Two, the locals liked the watches. They wouldn't last long, they broke if you half looked at them funny, but they were reliable for about a week from the time you broke the seal on the plastic bags they came in, which was better than some brands and good enough for him.

The site of the mining camp had been chosen with an eye to convenience, not defensibility. The collection of quonset huts sat in a natural bowl, out of which the company had cut a drainage ditch to lead the very polluted runoff out to the nearby creek. As Hunter and Goatherd positioned their men on the ground, Clarty crawled up to the top of the lip to kick in the binocular function on his goggles and get a good look at the camp. Secondhand photographs made him nervous.

Men in place, Hunter and Goatherd tapped their chosen scouts to make the crawl down the hill with wire-cutters to open a hole in the chain link fence. The four guard towers at the corners of the fenced area had made him think twice. The easiest thing would have been to take them out with RPGs, but he needed them intact for the same reasons the mining camp needed them. The local wildlife had recovered only too well, and he respected the associated hazards. Hit and run pirates less organized and funded than his own force could still make trouble, and occasionally did. That, and someone would come to clean his men out eventually. If they came in sooner rather than later, he'd rather have enough warning to at least save his own skin.

Clarty had Hunter set the two-man watches and laid his head down on his hat to catch a nap. The last watch would wake him ten minutes before time.

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