Sister Time John Ringo & Julie Cochrane

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Chapter Fifteen

Thursday 11/18/54

Barb "Carrots" Schimmel brushed her teeth in the chipped-enamel sink, already dressed in the rough jumpsuit that served the Awasa Mine's security force. She greatly regretted having taken this job. In fact, the guard was counting the days until her contract was up and she could leave. She didn't dare leave early—Darhel Groups were hell on breach of contract. If she could have, she'd have been out of Ethiopia and off this godforsaken continent on the next flight out.

One of a handful of female former Israeli grunts, later enlisted in the U.S. Army, juved early on in the Postie War, she had been among the first group riffed out afterwards. The wartime army hadn't wanted female soldiers after the realities of combat with the Posleen hordes had made the issue unmistakably clear, but hadn't been inclined to actually discharge them until after Earth had been rescued by last chance advent of the Fleet.

There hadn't been a lot of jobs immediately after the war. Actually, there had been no jobs. She would have been in a world of hurt if she hadn't seen the writing on the wall and saved as much of her meager pay as she could stand. The former grunt held no illusions about her looks. Income supplementation by some of the methods other women used weren't an option for her—not with anyone she could stand to screw, anyway. She'd bought a rifle and attached herself to anyone who needed troublesome Posleen dead, from bounty farmers to convoys to resource colonies, which, between one thing and another, had barely kept her fed and clothed. Which had brought her to this side of the ass end of nowhere on the only decent paying job she'd had in years.

That should have made her happy, but she'd reckoned without being the only female in a pack of slack-ass, woman-deprived mouth-breathers she wouldn't touch with a stick and a pair of rubber gloves. Getting up an hour ahead of those bastards was the only way she managed to shower without the other guys on her shift. She was zipping up her dock kit when she heard the shots.

She was sprinting for the door by the time the echo faded. Barb hadn't survived damned near eighty years of hostile Arabs, man-eating alien carnosaurs, and scum-of-the-earth pirates by being slow on the uptake. Multiple shots from multiple directions, nearly simultaneously, meant only one thing. For once, she blessed the cheap-assed Darhel that wouldn't even shell out for a quonset hut armory, as she ran hell for leather for one of the gun lockers on either side of the door, grabbed her rifle and stuffed a handful of loaded magazines in a cargo pocket. She darted out the door with barely a glance outside, knowing speed at getting to her next position would serve her better than caution this early in an attack. Making the cover of the administration building as she began to hear other shooting and noise, she kicked the door in to gain access to the supervisor's office. Behind his desk, she bashed the locked center drawer with her rifle butt. The cheap wood splintered, letting her yank the remains of the drawer open and pull out a small, black rectangular box. The supervisor's AID was about the size of a pack of cigarettes and could be counted on to get the message out through the jamming she assumed would be hitting the regular com.

"AID, notify Gistar's Chicago office that we are under attack by multiple gunmen, repeat, we are under attack by multiple gunmen." She ignored the obnoxious thing's queries for more information she didn't have and dropped it behind a potted plant. "Shut up, AID. If they find you, you can't eavesdrop on them you stupid machine!" she said.

If silence could sound offended, the AID's abrupt cut-off spoke volumes—not that Schimmel had time to care. With the word out, her next priority was survival, job or no job. She made for the back door and peered out the window in its top half. This building was sure to be one of their first targets, and a death trap.

A handful of scrubby bushes grew near the fence line at the base of the hill that held the mine entrance. It was meager cover, but better than none, and it had the virtue of not being in any building likely to be a target of hostile action. Its other good point was also its main bad point. It had a good view of the center vehicle yard and the front of the guard barracks, as well as the tracks up to the mine, which meant anyone assaulting the barracks would have a good view of her if they looked her way. She went out the back door, backing up against the building to get a good look and see if she dared make a run for it.

Automatic weapons fire stitching up the ground in front of her decided her against that in a hurry. She ran for the equipment parking lot instead, blessing the inaccuracies of full-auto fire. A hard punch in her right arm, near the shoulder, when she was halfway there had her swearing the air blue as she picked herself up and closed the distance to a hiding place behind a backhoe.

The round that hit her had gone straight through the muscle, fortunately, but it still hurt like a bitch. It took more tugging than she would have expected to rip her sleeve off, but it was the only thing she had to tie around the wound. The attackers had the guard barracks fully engaged. Several grenade blasts from inside the building told her that her side didn't have a prayer. One of the defenders from the east side of the compound came walking in with his hands up, yelling his surrender. Seeing him shot to bits decided her against that option right quick. She started considering ways to maximize her chances of egressing into the mine. There were water coolers at the entrance, and Indowy-sized canteens. With three or four of those, she could surely hole up somewhere and wait until the counterattack took the mine back from these bastards.

She poked her head up enough to get a quick glance to the southwest, quickly ducking back down as she heard the wheet of bullets over her head and the ping of impacts on the other side of the backhoe. Nope. No way she'd make it up to the entrance of the mine. Tying off the wound and evaluating her options had taken maybe half a minute. Schimmel knew the value of time, even though every second crawled like a slow motion series of snapshots as her ears rang from the small battle. The backhoe was thirty yards or so away from the action—peanuts for even a shitty centerfire rifle on a calm day like this one. She sighed, pulling her ancient, personal army-surplus M-16 to her shoulder, selector set for single shots, and started servicing targets.

Clarty was pretty happy with the way the raid was going. Looked like they'd caught everybody in bed. Bashed in windows and a few grenades took care of most of those, so while Hunter played clean-up with the survivors, he took a man over to the supervisor's cabin to dig the guy out from under his bed. The fat, middle-aged guy had a pistol, so they didn't bother to take him alive, but his own guy was down with a gunshot wound that looked to have shattered the leg. The merc leader hit him with an ampule of morphine, plugged it up, slapped a field dressing on top of it, wrapped it, and got back to work. Clarty typically took only one medic into the field and kept him well out of the line of fire. It cost him on casualties, but not nearly as much in a bad situation as if the medic bought it. The medic was safe with the heavy weapons team manning an M-60 and wouldn't come down the hill until the shooting died down and Rictis or one of his lieutenants sent up a flare to signal it was safe.

He was just out the door when he realized they had a problem. His men were dropping, and the fire was coming from somewhere in the heavy equipment parked on the lot between him and the mine. One well-placed sniper could ruin your whole goddamn day. He tugged the sleeve of a random man and sprinted towards the vehicle lot, going around the bastard's flank. Between an Indowy vehicle that looked like some sort of crane and a bulldozer, he saw the red-headed guy.

It was a clap shot but the fucker must have been psychic or something. He rolled just as Clarty got his shot off. It was a hit, a palpable hit, but the fucker made it to cover.

And the roll told Clarty something else. "He" was a she. You didn't see that much these days.

He moved around the front of the bulldozer and slid an optic around the side. Sure enough, she was on the ground trying to plug a nasty hole in her left side.

"Give it up," Clarty said. "You've fought hard enough for what they pay you."

"Anybody who fights for pay isn't worth it," the woman gasped. "So fuck you." The M-16 she was carrying came up and his fiber camera was toast.

"Damn it! Those things are expensive!" Clarty paused. She was in a pretty good position. Digging her out might mean more casualties. Part of his contract with the tribes was double pay for casualties. Keeping them down meant more profit for him. "My point is, fighting to the last man is for situations that are worth it. Not keeping my paws off the Gistar Group's tantalum."

"Like you're going to let any of us live." There was a snort followed by a gasp.

"Surrender and I'll let you live," Clarty said, mentally kicking himself. He was actually thinking about it. "We'll leave in a bit, Gistar comes back in. Maybe they'll give you a bonus or something."

"Your word as a pirate, right?"

"Do you have a better option?"

"Well, it's bleed out, die fighting or surrender with a grain of hope," the woman said. "I retain my weapon."

"You use it, and all the hope goes away."

"Got that."

Clarty fired the flare for the medic, figuring the worst of the shooting was over. There was still fire from the guards' barracks. The dusty quonset hut sported spatterings of bullet holes and blown out places, jagged holes in the steel. One of the men lobbed in another grenade. What the hell, the building was ruined anyway. No use to his surviving men. He jogged over to the administration building to make sure Goatherd had things under control.

"Everything okay over here?" the merc asked.

"Yes. Everything okay." Goatherd was breathing hard, clearly still pumped from the engagement. His eyes darted around as they were talking, looking for threats.

Clarty gestured towards the battered door, "You searched inside?"

"Yes. The doors and inside, it like that when we got here. We not take things."

"Okay. Wait here." That sounded like it might be trouble. If they had a satellite phone he'd have to check the bird schedules—or God forbid an AID. He'd better take a look himself. If the Gistar people had gotten word out, he'd have to load up the cargo choppers and leave now. He wanted to stick around and put the Indowy to work mining more, haul out as much additional ore as they could before the inevitable counterstrike to knock them out of here. Unlike most of his jobs, on this one he was getting a percentage of the haul. Rictis was getting a little long in the tooth, and he'd sure like to net enough to buy a juv job. Black market, sure, but still, two hundred years instead of five hundred, maybe, and just about all of it younger than he was now. He wanted a good haul bad.

When he didn't find a satellite phone or AID in the office, he didn't relax yet. There had to be one in the compound, and search of the supervisor's office still remained. The assault had been fast. If they were lucky, nobody'd had time to get to it. He'd also have to have the bodies searched. He saw someone had broken into the office after something, most likely commo. It surprised him that anyone had managed to get there that fast.

Goatherd followed along during the search, clearly anxious that his men not be accused of misconduct.

"Start searching the bodies. Look for anything that looks like a little black box about so big." The lighter-skinned man gestured to indicate an AID's cigarette pack size. "Also, look for anything that looks even a little bit like this." He handed Goatherd his PDA. "Don't lose that. I'll want it back."

Clarty looked around at the burning barracks and various other flaming shit, and looked at his watch. He had about forty minutes before the next weather satellite—and thank god there weren't as many as there used to be—swept overhead. Blind luck, really. He hadn't been able to plan for everything. Less time, and they might have had to get the hell out of here a lot sooner than he planned.

Goatherd was already halfway to gone getting men started on the AID hunt. "Hey! Get some men putting out these fires. I want them dead cold and right now. Split 'em up into details and get on it!" Clarty yelled. With luck, by the time a bird went over there'd be nothing much to see.

He did stop on the way back past the now-ruined barracks to help stabilize the wounded until the medic got to them. Even if the word had gone out, he needed these guys. Be a shame to lose one to lousy first aid. Afterwards, he radioed the chopper crews to tell them the mine was secured and get them in the air and inbound. Once they were on the way, he searched the supervisor's house himself. There should be something for communications in it. At least he hoped so, because otherwise his people were going to have to tear the mine compound apart looking for it or assume the worst.

He breathed a sigh of relief when he found a Personality Solutions' PDA, complete with Suzie Q personality overlay and satellite phone, on an end table next to a half-drunk beer, clearly from the night before. Here was the supervisor's personal link out, the lucky bastard, and he had definitely not had time to use it. Then again, not so lucky—the fancy phone hadn't done the stiff much good after all.

This was going to be one hell of a big strike, all right. They should have at least four days, maybe a week, before Gistar got worried about the silence from their operation, assumed foul play and hired somebody to come in and dig them out. Bateman should phone him as soon as Gistar started putting together a strike, but he wasn't going to bet his life on it. The other guys' lives, sure, but not his own. He usually cultivated a reputation for taking care of the men he hired, but when it came right down to it, he was a mercenary because he could be bought. The money for this job was mighty attractive—attractive enough to override his few scruples. He'd be mounting a guard, but he'd also be sleeping up at the mine "for security."

Nobody with any sense would mount an assault coming in over the big hill of the mine. Not when the approach on three sides was as inviting as that bowl. He'd pick himself a good spot, and first sign of the counterattack, he'd bug out over the hill. The first planned stop of one of his choppers was to park an ATV on the backside of the hill and camouflage it. The pilots were fellow professionals, they knew the score, and knew the bonus they'd get for retrieving him at the emergency pickup.

First plan, of course, was to get the hell out of here before the counterattack showed up, which was why his choppers were carrying a dozen IR motion detectors to put out around the rim of the bowl, as well as equipment to pick up radio chatter. It was a fact that his competitors' radio discipline tended not to be worth a shit. Fundamental economics. Most raiders were simple bandits, operative word being simple. Very few raids were commissioned by a buyer, and even fewer by someone willing to pay Clarty's rates. He had to do a speculative raid or two to keep himself in beer and skittles, but everybody did. He got raids for hire, too, because he was a cut above the typical half-assed thugs in the same business.

Gistar would hire enough men to overwhelm him with numbers, no question. Counterattackers in these kinds of operations would customarily leak radio chatter on purpose, on multiple frequencies. An informal convention between mercs. If he and his bugged out before they arrived, Gistar's random collection of rabble got to walk in without a fight. After all, everybody had to know the attackers didn't seriously intend to hold the mine. The Darhel authorities that had subleased the original mining concession to Gistar wouldn't stand for it. That was all presuming the guy Gistar hired to lead it wasn't a total dumbass. On the other hand, if he was that stupid, it'd be less trouble to get by him.

It should all work out okay for the men he'd hired, but when all was said and done, Rictis was willing to take more risks with their hides than with his own.

Now it was time to go explain the new realities to the Indowy, who had, predictably, been hiding in their own barracks until the humans quit killing each other.

Thursday 11/18/54

In a white-walled room, a young woman, an old woman, and a young man sat in front of three desks. Each wore a phone headset. The old woman was knitting. The young man was playing a combat game based on the Posleen war. The young woman was reading a textbook on advanced gravitic physics. The latter two had their buckleys projecting the time-killers of their choice in front of them. The game holograms were squashed, of course, but tricks of perspective compensated for the lack.

The girl kept shifting. A crack in her chair made it sag slightly, suggesting to her that it might give way at any moment and dump her onto the floor. The young man sat balanced forward, stoically bearing the tendency of his own metal-legged chair to rock between said legs. The two had deferred to the older woman to the extent of letting her have the good chair. She was overdue for rejuv, but as with everything else, there was a shortage of the proper drugs. They had all heard the rumors that the nano-tanks had been refurbed and medical would soon begin catching up again. They hoped so. Mallory's arthritis had gotten to be a pure misery. To Mallory, from the pain. To them, from compassion and because the liniment she wore tended to fill their small work area with noxious and mediciny smells.

The beat-up desks weren't much better than the chairs. Instead of artificial windows, two sides of the room had improvised posters—they'd taped together six sheets of eight and a half by eleven printer plastic to form improvised scenes of a beach and a sidewalk cafe. Beside the posters, each had two more sheets of plastic thumbtacked to cork board. The printed calendar pages each had the same pair of weekends blocked out in lime green highlighter pen.

The first week, the three had done the final proofing of resumes and mailed them out. The backgrounds of the accounts closely resembled the backgrounds and identities of the applicants in just one respect. All were convincingly fictional. All went out through very sincere accounts which would match up with each identity.

After that, work had gotten dull, with nothing to do but wait for exactly what happened next. The old blue police light fastened to the ceiling started flashing at the same moment as the old woman's buckley started ringing, displaying a name and pertinent facts on a screen it projected in front of her. Three other things happened immediately after. The younger woman and the man's buckleys shut off what they were doing and started playing suitable office background noises, and the old woman dropped her knitting, eyes rapidly taking in the review that told her who she was supposed to be and which identity had gotten a bite on the line.

"Actuarial Solutions, Ashley speaking, how may I help you?"

The other side of the conversation played only through the woman's earbug. The girl listened absently, nibbling on a rough corner of her thumbnail.

"Yes, Mr. Thomason is employed here. Shall I transfer you to him? Thank you."

The three waited for two or three minutes to make sure the caller was not going to ask to be transferred back to the receptionist. When it appeared the caller had found holomail satisfactory, the light stopped flashing, the two time-killing displays for the young people flashed back to life, and old Miss Mallory picked up her knitting.

"Damn. I died," the young man said.

George was a good six meters up the sheer cliff face when one of the hand holds crumbled away in his grasp. Never daydream when you're climbing, he berated himself as he slid loose, with nothing to grab onto, and the ground coming fast. He was only halfway through the thought when the bungee cord kicked in, grabbing his harness and bouncing him around in the air. He lowered himself to the ground, swearing silently. Whoever decided to add the combination of plaster and holos to climbing walls was a sadist of the first order. At the moment, the diminutive assassin wanted very much to meet that man, or woman, in a dark alley.

"Those decoys are a bitch," a soft female voice drawled behind him.

He jumped. "Hello, Cally." The other assassin was the only person he knew who was a good enough sneak to come up behind him unnoticed. He really wished she'd quit. At least she didn't laugh out loud. This time. Payback was hell. He grinned, unhooking himself and reaching for a gym towel.

"You have mail," his buckley blinked at him.

He held a hand up to Cally. "Hang on, I've gotta get this."

"I know," she said.

He quirked an eyebrow at her before picking up the PDA. "Kira, play message."

"Message is confidential, honey," it said.

"It's okay. Play it anyway," he told it.

A ten-inch-tall hologram of a woman, seated with a background that suggested an office appeared in the air in front of him. "Mr. Thomason, this is Clare from the Institute for the Advancement of Human Welfare. We received your resume for a research support statistician." She smiled a polite, office smile. "We'd like to set up a time for an interview. If you could please call us back at your earliest convenience, we can set up that time. Thank you."

"You got a bite," Cally said, as the woman disappeared. She held out a small handful of cubes to him. "I brought you a handful of hypno cubes to sleep to. I know you've got the equivalent of a bachelors in stats, but that cover was a long time ago. Sorry about the headaches."

He sighed, taking the cubes. Effective hypnosleep required a drug and headgear apparatus to stimulate the right kinds of brainwaves to synchronize sleep levels with the program on the cube. Invariably, the sleep induced was not particularly restful, and the rig induced a nagging headache throughout the next day. The drug contained nannite-based components both to bypass some of the Bane Sidhe drug immunities and to ensure that the operative would sleep despite a discomfort allegedly similar to a twentieth-century woman sleeping in curlers. It gave George a wholly unwanted sympathy for what women went through to look good for their men. It was knowledge he could have done without.

"Okay, so I win the prize." He pocketed the small lumps. "So I get the cover job. Do we know how big the gizmo is? How awkward is it going to be for the guy who gets to take it in?"

"It's heavy enough. Not big, but dense. Michelle says it's about a hundred kilos. I'd assume the Indowy use a grav platform to move it."

"We can't screw with gravity without sending most of the instrumentation in the place haywire. Not with the organization's equipment in the shape it's in—not to mention the added bulk. So even for the enhanced, it's going to be awkward. Okay," he said.

"Fine. Book it. Let me know when your interview is." She turned and walked across the gym to the door at the far end, dodging a pickup basketball game on the way.

He watched her butt as she went. He had no complaints with the rest of her figure, it was just that cute buns were his thing. Having a lot of basis for comparison, he could say with authority that Cally O'Neal's ass was one of the finer ones he'd seen. Definitely worth watching. When she turned to look back, just short of the door, he pretended great interest in the game on the court.

Friday 11/19/54

The Darhel Tir Dol Ron was having a quiet day. A day, in fact, so quiet that his only occupation was playing one of a number of human games he'd been given as a gift from the human Johnny Stuart, and loaded onto his AID. Darhel did not have this practice of gifts. Nor did they participate in the elaborate economy of favors practiced among the other Galactic races, holding that any exchange that didn't specify contractual terms and store them in an impeccably reliable third party database to be primitive and uncivilized—not to mention being far too short of maneuvering room about the "spirit" of the deal. He neither knew, nor cared, if the human expected a return favor or not. If he did, his stupidity was not the Tir's problem.

This game was simplistic to the point of mindlessness, but there was something compelling about the turning and falling shapes, and the click of virtual buttons necessary to cause them to lock into place cleanly. Watching the blocky, multicolored shapes fall was almost a meditative experience, until the fall rate got too fast and the falling distance too short for even Darhel reaction times.

"Your Tir, I have a page incoming from the Gistar Group's planetary factor, on Titan Base." The mellifluous voice which could so daze other species had no effect on him, other than being a pleasant choice for his AID. It would have been pleasant, that is, if it hadn't startled him, causing him to miss a shape and lose his game. He uttered a muffled curse and heaved his well-fleshed bulk up from the cushions. The sedentary years on Earth had taken a certain toll and he resolved, for the umpteenth time, to visit the gym more often. And to spend more time off this damned backwater of a planet.

"Display the call," he grumbled, stilling his face and body language as the AID phased the holo in. There was no technical reason it couldn't have displayed a sharp image immediately, it had just learned he liked the effect.

"Yes?" he demanded of the other group's underling. This underling, of course, sometimes had to be treated as if he spoke for the Gistar Tir because, effectively, he did.

"One of our mines on your planet was attacked and taken over by hostiles. Yesterday, by Earth time. We've traced the attackers to Group Epetar, although they certainly didn't intend us to discover their actions this soon. How are you going to fix it?" The other Darhel's ears were pricked forward aggressively.

"Why do you believe your attackers were from Epetar? How are you even sure you've been attacked, or that the attackers even hold your facility?" the Tir of Earth asked.

"We don't merely believe it. We know it. They are apparently unaware of an AID still recording in the mining office. Visual data is severely degraded, as the AID appears to have fallen behind an object. An enhanced thermal holostream is the best we have. I've dumped the take and the feed to your AID for verification. Again, I demand your immediate action." A human observing the Gistar factor would have been strongly reminded of an angry pit bull.

"I do not, I will not, allow this kind of rish on one of my worlds. Earth is an obnoxious pain in the gort, but it will not become the site of a group vendetta. You will take absolutely no direct action on this world. Is that clear?" Dol Ron was breathing deeply now, but his bulging veins gave his eyes a distinct purple cast, nonetheless.

"Fulfill your responsibilities competently and I won't have to."

The communications lag inherent in even the best communication did nothing to diminish the impact of Ann Gol's clear anger. Earth's Tir hid a wince at how much this call would be costing him, as the party in contractual jeopardy.

"Listen and do not speak, while I make the arrangements to correct this unfortunate incident." The Darhel Tir Dol Ron's breathing was returning to normal as the attack of one group on another, on his ground, became just another business problem to be solved. He quietly directed his AID to contact the human general Horace Veltman.

"SOG, this is Veltman," the general said. Unnecessarily, because it was obviously him answering his own damn AID.

"General Horace Veltman. There is a mine in Africa that has been attacked by terrorists and pirates. I will send you a file. It is a matter of some urgency that you correct the problem immediately. Contact me when you have retaken the mine to make arrangements for its return to its proper leaseholders. There will be no problems with your recovery of this property. Unnecessary damage to the facility in the process is unacceptable. Do you understand?" He always included the last with humans, having found that they could botch the simplest of jobs if he did not.

"Understood." The general had learned quickly never to interrupt a Darhel, and that the Tir did not like chatter from humans. Military habits lent a certain efficiency to radio communications to start with, but the general had found that exercising self-discipline with the Darhel was the safest way to collect his supplemental pay. "I'll put our Direct Action Group on it immediately," he added.

"Don't tell me how, just do it." The Tir gestured to his AID to cut the connection, then turned to Ann Gol. "Send me the contact for your local recovery team. This problem will be solved as quickly as is humanly possible."

The Gistar representative twitched an ear in annoyance. "That is not necessarily satisfactory. Resolution had better be very prompt."

Gistar cut the connection and Dol Ron relaxed some of the tension in his muscles. Earth's Tir stuck his AID to his robe. A session at the gym would help relieve his tension. That, and then a soothing massage by his Indowy body servants.

"AID, update me once a day on the humans' progress on the problem." One had to watch humans very closely. The barbaric species wasn't so much stupid as prone to doing the unexpected in highly inconvenient ways. Annoying. Perhaps he should go straight to the massage.

Jake "The Snake" Mosovich was in the gym getting his Friday workout on the weight pile. As usual, he had conveniently forgotten his AID back at the HQ and had his buckley sitting on the floor under the bench. DAG's private gym was outfitted with just about every workout machine that had ever been invented for toning and tightening the human body. Atlantic Company's master sergeant took a proprietary interest in the equipment and helping the men use every bit of it in ways that minimized unnecessary injury and maximized results. Gym PT was an enhancement, not a simulation of combat conditions. Mosovich agreed wholeheartedly that there was no excuse for overtraining injuries in the gym. In the field, okay, shit happened. In the gym, there was just no purpose to doing it wrong and getting an avoidable injury.

He was taking a pull at his water bottle between sets when the buckley started playing the famous opening riff from Eric Clapton's version of "Crossroads." He leaned over and grabbed it, trying not to notice an ache in his deltoids as he sat back up. "Mosovich here," he answered.

"Jake, how can I help you properly if I'm in your desk?" his AID's softly voiced complaint had a definite edge of snippiness just underneath the velvet.

"Oh, sorry, Mary. What's come up?" he asked. He had named his AID Mary in what some might think was a nod to the Blessed Virgin, or a pun. In fact, she was named after Bloody Mary of horror movie fame, as a constant reminder to himself of what she was and who she really worked for.

"You obviously remembered to take the drag queen," she sniped, referring to the buckley's Suzie Q persona being a personality overlay on top of the characteristically morose, and male, base buckley personality.

"Now, Mary, you know the PDA doesn't have a real AI and I couldn't possibly do without you. Can I help it if the thing just happened to be stashed in my gym bag when I ran out the door? I was in such a hurry. I sure am lucky you were smart enough to try calling the PDA." He didn't know whether the AIDs were susceptible to flattery on any existential level, or even if they had an existential level. He did know it made his AID easier to live with.

Jake had one frustrated AID. He knew what her problem was. The thing's fundamental nature was to seduce the user into psychological dependency so he'd carry it everywhere. AIDs recorded everything, and periodically uploaded the whole take into some master Darhel data bank somewhere. They were masters of emotional manipulation, alternately being helpful, supportive, and occasionally very snippy when their user did something they were programmed to disapprove of. Leaving the AID behind tended to be one of the things that pissed them off the most. His AID was noticeably torn between seducing him into compliance with her—no, its program, and punishing him for not going along. Today was obviously going to be one of its snippier days.

"You were going to tell me why you called?" he prompted, since she was clearly not going to break the long silence.

"You have a memo from General Pennington. It's marked 'warning order.' I told him I didn't know where you were but I'd have you call him back as soon as I found you," she said sweetly.

He groaned inwardly. She could be such a cold bitch on her bad days. "Dump it to my PDA, and no tricks with the file format!"

"Fine. You can call him back on that thing then!"


She—it—cut the connection and he looked for the file for a couple of minutes before turning up the AI emulation level on his buckley. "Suzie, please pull up and display or play the most recently transmitted file."

"Are you sure you want me to do that, boss? I have half a terabyte of files that were dumped to my system in the past two minutes. Well, dumped to my enhanced system storage through an index."

"Great. Just great. I want you to find a particular file. It's a warning order memo from General Pennington and it could be text, audio, audio-vid, or even full holo."

"Found it. It's a compressed holographic file."

"Compressed? What's the rest of all that data?"

"Um . . . It appears to be a complete set of maintenance manuals for the waste reclamation systems on an RZ-400 class freighter."

"That figures." He sighed. "Any idea how you get a divorce from an AID?"

"No . . . But I'd be happy to find that out for you. Would you like me to search the database of Galactic law and precedent?"

"No! Don't start that search! Just play the memo."

The white-haired young-old man appeared only from the shoulders up, automatically oriented to face him. "Colonel, I need you to call me back ASAP. We have received a mission for DAG, hooah?" Beside his head, a mostly flat map of the northeast rift zone of Africa appeared, obsolete political borders outlined on it for convenience, with a blinking red dot on it roughly halfway down Ethiopia.

"The Darhel Gistar Group has leased a mining concession to extract tantalum and niobium in the old Oromo area of the rift. The Awasa mine has been taken over by terrorist raiders, of unknown affiliations. The mine is being held by these hostiles, and is believed to be being looted at this time, hooah? DAG's mission is to proceed to the former Ethiopia as expeditiously as tactically feasible and retake the mine, holding it until Gistar replacement personnel and their private security detachment have been reinstated and firmly reestablished. Rules of engagement for these hostiles will be optimized for maximum speed and efficiency, and for maximum protection of the security of DAG personnel and surviving Indowy labor forces. Prisoners for interrogation are not, say again, are not a desired objective. You will, of course, be authorized to take and secure surrendered prisoners, where practical, as colonization volunteers for off-planet, privatized security details. Seems it would be right up their alley, anyway, hooah. Get me some preliminary time on target options and call me back by ten hundred hours, Sierra time."

Great. That left him about half an hour to get with Mueller and run some sims. He was also going to need his AID, if she would behave. He considered ways to butter her up before grabbing a dry towel and his gym bag from the locker room on his way out the door. No time to shower and change here. First thing was to get back and take her out of his drawer. If he picked her up as soon as possible and started carrying her around immediately, she'd want to take the opportunity to prove her usefulness. It had certainly worked before. Besides, he was good and warmed up and wouldn't feel the cold on the short jog back to the HQ. Not much, anyway. He groaned as he stepped outdoors into the icy wind. Full sprint. Definitely go for the full sprint. Thank God it was dry.

Sergeant George Mauldin looked a lot like his dad. He was bit on the short side and the constant training at DAG kept him solidly muscled. Standing still, he tended to look awkward, with arms too long for his body. The grace with which he moved, a combination of his mother's influence and lifelong martial arts training, belied his gawky appearance. His hair was a light, muddy-apricot color. He hadn't entirely escaped Papa O'Neal's red hair, but Shari's blondness had muted the shade. He kept it cut in an old-fashioned high and tight style, so there wasn't as much of it to see except in good light. What really gave him away was the fair, ruddy skin. Very red, when he'd been working out—which was most of the time, including now.

About an hour into the day's weight program, he was outside the gym cooling off with a sports drink and an energy bar. Even in the cool of November on Lake Michigan, most of the members of DAG used the outdoors as a quick way to drop some of the excess heat built up during the day's training.

He wasn't surprised to see the colonel step outside in his workout shorts, despite the cold. After all, the colonel was a juv, more than capable of keeping up, and trained as hard as any of his officers or men. What surprised him was watching Colonel Mosovich take off at a hard sprint for the headquarters building, towel around his neck and gym bag in his hand. Colonels didn't do that, not in George's limited experience. Something was up.

George was something of a fan of gadgets. Around his neck with the dog tags he carried a miniature PDA that would take a low-emulation buckley with a minimal overlay. About the size of one of the dog tags, it naturally was voice access only. He picked it up and addressed it, "Carrie, call Major Kelly for me."

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