Sister Time John Ringo & Julie Cochrane

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Chapter Sixteen

The fountain plashed softly in one corner of Michelle's office. The breeze today smelled of apple blossoms and rain. The ceiling gave the impression of clouds moving in an overcast sky. In another corner, a sohon tank stood, containing its mass of nannite jelly and some as yet ill-defined parts and bits, whose purpose and final assembly pattern were indecipherable to any of the few dozen Indowy who came and went in her private space. She knew what her apprentice must be thinking: that whatever it was, it must be very important and delicate indeed to merit the personal attentions of a Michon Mentat. The apprentice, like the dozens of others on her personal work crew outside, would ask no questions. If he needed to know something, she would tell him. Besides, they knew that there was every likelihood that anything a mentat took on personally was a matter for those whose wisdom exceeded their own. An apprentice's teaching emphasized that if he did not involve himself in matters that did not concern him, he could make no embarrassing or damaging mistakes.

Michelle O'Neal's Indowy apprentice was twitching with excitement, despite years of Sohon discipline, and despite having shown the self-discipline to earn the position of primary apprentice on her work crew. She ignored it as understandable in one just entering his sixth decade—not considering that she herself was close to the same age. For one thing, he had just been entrusted with the great secret of the existence of rapid transit this morning—a secret only a handful of masters held. For another, he was going to travel by that almost miraculous method himself, this very day. For a third, this important job, if he completed it with wisdom, was to be the final test of his ability to function in the journeyman post he would hold provisionally until the assignment was complete. It was a great honor, and the apprentice—journeyman, she corrected herself—was not presently operating a tank. She could allow him some high spirits on his big day.

"It's important that you understand both your job and the reasons for it. The Darhel Epetar Group has done something very unwise. Unwise to the point that the appropriate people have decided upon the appropriate responses. The Darhel Gistar Group is neither particularly wise nor particularly unwise, but happens to have a ship conveniently positioned in the Dulain area—never mind how. A group of humans, also neither particularly wise nor particularly virtuous, happens to have been set in motion by others to assemble the rudiments of a cargo with no planned shipping. That is, if a ship suddenly becomes available to carry it, they can appear to have merely scraped a cargo together on short notice, without any prior plan. The Epetar ship will be late to drop off its cargo of humans and pick up a mixed cargo of uninitialized Sohon headsets and tools. The Epetar ship will have defaulted on its shipping contract—ordinarily a matter of simple fines. In this case the Rontogh factor will have rebooked the cargo onto the conveniently available, and timely, Gistar vessel. The Epetar ship will not want to depart with empty cargo holds. They will book the cargo 'hastily assembled' by the humans." She faced the journeyman with quiet, serene eyes. If she had any personal feelings about this matter, they didn't show.

"Obviously, this would normally be a minor annoyance and profit loss," she continued. "The Epetar ship would simply skip its next stop and jump directly to its third scheduled port of call. This is where the human plan against Epetar would ordinarily fail. Because of Epetar's gross lack of wisdom, we will help the plan to succeed. The Epetar ship will also be late for its third port of call. This is the reason for your assignment.

"Remember, for purposes of the station's employment log, you have just debarked from the ship High Margins. With your orders from me, neither the ship's real crew nor the station's crew will gossip or pry. The station master is Aem Beilil. You will convey my message to him to expedite the loading of Gistar shipping and delay the loading of Epetar shipping, and to do so unobtrusively. He is to discreetly facilitate the operations of humans with the replacement cargo, who will stall the loading of the Epetar ship after it is irrevocably committed. The humans will most likely seem sincere but incompetent. This is not to put him off dealing with them. They are neither. Do you have any questions about your assignment?" The question was rhetorical. The instructions were clear.

"Mentat O'Neal," the young Indowy asked tentatively, "isn't the Epetar Group the one that holds your contract for—"

"This decision comes from those far wiser than myself," she said, holding the little green Galactic's eyes until his ears narrowed in embarrassment at his own presumption. The only people who would ordinarily be considered wiser than a mentat—any mentat—would be major clan heads or Tchpth policy planners. Michelle would never have involved herself in large-scale Galactic politics without the sanction of higher authority. Wxlcht's seemingly casual comments over a game of aethal would, in the military, have amounted to a direct order. In the hierarchy of established Galactic wisdom, almost everyone took the "suggestions" of Tchpth planners of any rank very seriously indeed. She did not like to think that personal friendship might have colored such a major decision, but was not about to let minor misgivings divert her from following the considered advice of someone whose wisdom was as far above her own as hers was above—well, above her sister's, for example.

"We will be going now." She took his hand, then released it as they appeared in a purplish-brown maintenance closet. The intense crowding in the destination space was unremarkable to him, but he did startle slightly at the abruptness of the transition. He only had an instant to blink before she was gone, leaving him alone with his new job.

Cally was on the last leg of her morning five-mile run. With the buckley clipped to one hip and a supplemental speaker clipped to the other side, she had music that projected to her own ears in stereo with little leakage. The sound was a bit scratchy. The speaker was older than the girls, having been part of her shopping splurge on the moon after the escape from Titan Base. That is, before she found out Stewart was alive. After he'd tracked her down in a bar, valiantly trying to drown her sorrows, her stay had been a frenzy of activity as they found a priest, put him under seal of the confessional before enlisting his cooperation, got married secretly, and stole precious private moments. All of this had had to be managed as she gave the performance of her life for Granpa and Tommy, moping around and pretending to be heartbroken and bereaved, slipping away here and there for a few hours on the pretext of shopping and long walks alone through the endless, anonymous corridors of Heinlein Base. The corridor she'd seen the most was a rent by the hour strip in the red light district where she and Stewart had snatched a furtive, rushed, passionate, and pitifully brief honeymoon.

On returning to Earth, she had found through experimentation that a heavy-duty workout schedule would keep about twenty pounds of Sinda fat off without her having to constantly starve herself. Twenty pounds less helped. A lot. So she ran, she lifted weights, she swam, and she danced. While the girls were at school, she fit as much general training in as she could around the normal martial drills—unarmed combat, shooting, climbing. She hated the climbing. Her morning run was the workout she enjoyed most, next to her dancing.

The morning was cold, doubly so with the wind blowing off the ocean. She wore longjohns under her jeans. Without them, she would have frozen in just the worn denim, the wind biting right through the holes in one knee and around her back pockets and belt loops. Her breath frosted in a small puff that trailed away as she ran through it.

The next moment she was on her ass on the ground, having crashed into her sister.

"Ouch." Michelle said, rubbing the back of her neck. "Are you usually unaware of your surroundings?"

"Unaware? You weren't there, and then you were. I was watching the dunes and the shoreline, okay?" The blonde grimaced, brushing sand off her jeans. "What do you need?"

"That is the right question. I will use the vernacular to make sure you understand me the first time. I need to know about your husband. Spill it."

"What husband?" Cally asked, too quickly.

"I do not have time for this. I have more than enough to do on my end. Your former lover, now husband, James Stewart, is alive and getting himself involved in high level Galactic politics. You know it, and I need the details. Tell them to me," she said.

"I'd love to know how you found that out. Not that it's any of your business. And I don't know what the fuck you're talking about with the Galactic politics line. You know talking about this could get us both killed, right?"

"No, it is failing to talk about it that could get us killed," the mentat said solemnly.

"I meant him and me 'us,'" Cally grumbled.

"Oh. Why would you tolerate association with humans that would—nevermind. I need you to tell me the details of his plotting."

"Not that I'm not doing everything I can to keep you alive, but to help you I need more information about what you want to know and why," the assassin said, breath frosting the air as she panted.

"Keeping secrets is more difficult than you imagine. Are you telling me that you do not know about his economic plots against the Epetar Group? Plots that coincide with your theft of a large amount of value from them," Michelle accused.

"What?" Cally was beginning to feel like a broken record. "He wouldn't. He couldn't have. I didn't tell him . . ." She thought for a moment. "If he knew how big my commission was for selling the code keys to you, you don't think he could have figured out where it came from? How?"

"You have almost no experience of business, do you?" Her sister sighed. "It does not matter if you knew about this or not. I need you to find out exactly what he is doing and his timetable."

"I'm not going to do anything that might get him killed," his wife said.

"That is an ironic statement. I know you can keep a secret—usually. You can tell Grandfather not to worry. I do not intend to hurt your husband's plans. Presently, they are likely to fail. I find myself in the unenviable position of having to ensure their success."

"I'd rather keep Granpa out of this."

"Grandfather does not know of your marriage?" Michelle looked shocked. "I had thought you were more mature than to keep that kind of secret for our clan head. I am sorry I do not have the time to have that conversation. If you do not know his plans, I need you to discover them, quickly. Starting with whatever he is plotting on Dulain, and proceeding from there."

"Dulain? What the—" Cally shook her head, interrupting herself, "Never mind. Just because I didn't mean to leak anything and I'm pissed off at him over it doesn't mean I'm going to help screw him over without damned good reason. You promise you're only going to help him?"

"I cannot believe you think I would lie about something like that." The mentat looked genuinely shocked.

"Fine, but I hope you don't need it soon, because arranging meetings with him isn't easy or quick."

"I know he is on the moon. Tell your employers you are making a courier run for me. All you have to do is get him to tell you the information I need. The broad plan, and all the details you can get me. You and I won't need to meet afterwards, I will simply listen in."

"You will not!" Cally blushed. "We're going to be busy. You just keep your mentat mind out of there."

"Fine. I do not have time to argue, I am very busy working the prototype in around my other work commitments. Please be on the next courier flight."

"Delivering what? What am I supposed to be taking you and why?"

"Invent something. I'm sure that will not be a problem for you, as your dramatic skills far exceed mine." There might have been something vaguely disapproving in the way she said it. She was so closed that it was impossible to tell. Cally couldn't even say anything back. Her sister was gone.

Saturday 11/20/54

The hotel room was clean enough. Maybe. Stewart might have said the place had seen better days except that, sadly, it probably hadn't. The walls were cheap white stucco, probably slapped right over the lunar equivalent of cinder block. One wall was simply the decorative brick of the corridor outside painted a glossy white—barren cheapness trying to masquerade as decorating panache. The blue patterned carpets were dingy, tinged brown with dirt up next to the walls. The paint on everything was fresh and clean, like someone had been desperately trying to pretend the place was not a dump. It had been the best anonymous privacy he could arrange in the base's dusty underbelly on short notice. It also featured two double beds instead of one king. They'd just have to get very close.

"Okay, what the hell was so important?" He addressed his wife, a pin-up perfect picture even in old jeans, who had arrived before him and now sat on the edge of the bed nearest the door, legs crossed. Anyone else would have been leaning back. Cally sat, spine straight, weight balanced forward, elbows in, hands in her lap. It was body language Stewart associated with the real Cally, Cally without masks. No masks, just defensive as all hell. A muscle jumped in his cheek as his jaw clenched as he took in her disconcertingly neutral expression. She was really pissed off about something. Unfortunately, being called out of business meetings on practically no notice for a dangerous face-to-face rendezvous didn't have him in a receptive mood.

"My sister Michelle sends her belated congratulations on our happiness." Her voice had that cheery lilt that southern women got when you were really in the shit.

"Oh fuck." He turned and walked a few steps away, his forehead clasped in a hand.

"She also sends congratulations on your debut into high level Galactic politics and asks what in the hell you thought you were doing," Cally said coldly.

"Excuse me?" He tried, and apparently failed, to look innocent. He felt like a husband caught with five sealed decks of cards after promising to give up poker.

"What did you do, or are you doing, to the Epetar Group?" She was giving him the deep freeze for sure.

After a long pause, he said, "I don't know if I can get into that, Cally."

"I see," she said shortly. "Fine. I'll go first. You started with what I told you about my windfall and extrapolated that, correctly, to my having stolen a set of nanogenerator code keys from the Darhel Pardal. You proceeded to plan and act on that information for the sake of your organization. Fine, my mistake for indiscretion. Now I'm going to compound that by providing more information. Whatever you planned is about to go all to shit and, your good luck, Michelle finds it in her own interests for it to succeed instead. No, that's not right. She finds it in Clan O'Neal's interests. That Indowy upbringing really took. She wants to smooth the way for it, but she needs to know what the hell you have planned."

She held up a hand to forestall his interruption. "Lest you think this is a setup, I know her situation. You're trying to screw Epetar, she wants them thoroughly screwed but can't have her fingerprints on it. For our part, let's just say that this ties in, in an acceptable way, to things we're working on, as well. Fortunately." She shrugged. "You've got two choices. You can take the gamble that she's telling the truth and talk to me, or you can tell me to go to hell and take your chances." She looked at her watch. "It's late. I'm tired. Think about it all you want. I'm grabbing a shower and going to bed." She snatched up a small bag and left him to his thoughts.

Even if he had a good poker face, a guy's wife could tell a lot about his thoughts from watching him think. It was a decent gesture to leave him alone to do his thinking. Or would be if she didn't have the place bugged to the gills. It was what he would have done. He pulled a small device out of his case and began a sweep.

"You don't need to bother sweeping the place. I didn't bug it. Just applied some creative static."

"If it's not bugged, how come you knew when I started looking?"

"I'm your wife, genius. Go ahead if it makes you feel better."

Damn but she was good. He sometimes forgot how good. Now, did he bring her in or pass? Obviously, bring her in. First, she was good. Good enough maybe even to read her mentat sister right for motivation. Second, said mentat sister, like all the Indowy-raised, would put her loyalty to her clan—as she saw it—above everything else. However much he disapproved of Michael O'Neal, Senior, for letting his son continue to think he was dead, Michelle had to know her grandfather was alive, which would make him the O'Neal clan head. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Michelle could have sunk Stewart himself any time she wanted, and still could, just by pointing a finger. She didn't need proof. Darhel paranoia would kick in and that would be that. Helping it succeed was the only possible reason she could have for wanting the full plan.

It still messed with his sense of reality to call people with the highest levels of the Indowy's production voodoo "mentats." He kept having flashbacks to a fucking long science fiction movie he'd seen years ago with freaky looking human calculators. He knew how it had all happened. When they translated Indowy labor ranks into English, or coined words for them, they had classified all the levels at the top of the list as different grades of "adept." Well, that had been great until they found out that there was another voodoo level above the adept grades that was so qualitatively beyond them as to be a whole different ballgame.

There was apparently a very sudden, massive jump in ability from the top grades of adept to this new thing. It hadn't been on the lists of Indowy labor ranks because it wasn't one. All the other grades had a set wage rate for assigned work. These folks had variable pay based on negotiated contracts, and were the direct employers of the various Indowy work teams. As much as you could translate something as individualistic as "employment" to Indowy, anyway. So they needed another word for someone super-skilled, something so way up there as to be almost unimaginable. Some wit had borrowed the term "mentat" from the same book that inspired the old movie. Stewart still couldn't hear someone spoken of as a mentat without picturing a fat guy with toothbrushes for eyebrows.

He was flipping through the channels on the holoviewer, mostly reruns with the occasional hologized prewar show, when his wife came out of the dinky hotel bathroom, still vigorously toweling her hair. He immediately did a double take.

"Footy pajamas? You wear flannel footy pajamas?" He managed to keep his jaw from dropping, but only just.

"Sometimes," she squeaked. "They keep it damned cold in some of these corridors. Besides, I didn't have my good stuff with me when I booked my ticket up here. They were a present from the girls," she admitted self-consciously, walking over to the wall heater and fiddling with it.

"I checked. It's broken. We're stuck with central ambient," he said.

She held her hand over the weak stream of warm air coming from the vent, glared at it and gave it a kick. The result was a light dent added to its already battered appearance, and louder noises coming from the thing as it shifted into higher gear. She made a satisfied harrumph and came back to sit on the bed beside him, cross-legged so that the toes of the absurd flannel pajamas peeked out from under her knees. He silently vowed to dispose of the offending garment as quickly as possible. Over against the wall, the heater lapsed back into an apathetic wheeze.

Cally rolled her eyes at it, brushing her hair back behind one ear and looking at him expectantly. "So, what's it gonna be?" she asked.

"Fine. You're in. Here's how the plan goes," he began. "First, you made Epetar's ship three weeks late shipping out for Dulain. They needed that money plus their human cargo to pay for a big load of tech gear for Diess. The gear is high-margin—you've interrupted an extremely valuable run. I don't know if you knew it, but when cargo ownership transfers between Darhel groups it's strictly cash on the barrel head. No FedCreds, just hard value in hand. FedCreds aren't really Galactic money, anyway. Not the way we think of money. Close, but not the same. So anyway, Epetar's ship had to wait for more cash to get here, or it would have been pointless to go on to Dulain. From Dulain, that ship's scheduled to go on to Diess, then Prall, and beyond that is irrelevant for purposes of the plan. The point is it's a very high profit, complicated route with half a dozen stops before it comes back with a mixed hold of goods for Earth and the Fleet repair facilities on Titan. You don't see a lot of Galactic goods on the Earth market because—well, never mind. You can't learn the shipping business in a day," he said. "Are you following me so far?"

She nodded, gesturing for him to go on.

"The important point from all that is that being late puts the Epetar Group in breach of their shipping contracts with the groups that administer those planets, or otherwise own the cargo. Technically, once the Darhel are in breach, the groups on those planets are free to renegotiate shipping with anyone. In practice, it virtually never happens because the odds of another ship turning up with an empty hold before the late ship gets into port are infinitesimal. Contracts usually only get renegotiated if a ship is lost. Then any group positioned right races a ship there to try to snap up the route. Time is money, so the first group to get there usually gets the agreement. I'm going off at a tangent again. The point is, if another group can get a ship there that can carry the cargo after Epetar is late but before they finally show up, the factor for the Darhel group that owns the cargo will deal with the ship that's there instead of waiting for the late one. Obviously, the ship poaching the route also has to be carrying enough money to buy the cargo, or the deal won't happen. Another reason a late ship is usually embarrassing, but not that big a deal. You see where I'm going with this."

"Maybe not. I think you're saying the Tong's getting into the shipping business, but I didn't know you had even one cargo ship, much less enough money to buy a cargo. You can't be that rich. Besides, the Darhel would never sell to you, money or not."

"You're right, we don't. What we did was slip the word to a Darhel group with the money and ships they could divert in the right places to take advantage of the chance. It never would have been possible without communications changes since the end of the war. It's ruinously expensive to send a message on one, but when a message is time-sensitive, it can be worth it."

"I see how you've set up Gistar to screw Epetar, sort of. But what I don't see is where you get anything out of it. It's not like one group of Darhel is any better than another. They're all amoral bastards who would sell their own mothers—or whatever it is they have—to make a buck."

"Yeah, they are. Which is where we come in. No Darhel captain is going to run from one planet to another with an empty hold if he can help it. He'd end up running inventory on fertilizer sacks on some agricultural planet in the ass end of nowhere. So he's going to look for whatever cargo he can scrape up quickly to at least show he tried to offset the loss. If he can blame the remaining loss off on some other sap, his career just might survive. The Tong does have one courier ship we lease from the Himmit. Officially, it's a Himmit courier ship. At the same time we leaked the Epetar intel to Gistar, we also dispatched our courier along that trade route to get our people together assembling cargos we could buy or make cheap and sell dear. Cargos just worthwhile enough to make up all or part of an Epetar captain's pickup cargo."

"Then you use the cover to sabotage their ships? That's insanely risky," she said.

"Hell no. Business. Think business. We're gonna shear the bastards like a fucking sheep. If we can swing it with the Indowy dock crews, we'll draw out the agony by making sure Gistar's loading and unloading gets expedited, and stalling Epetar after loading starts so they can't cut their losses and run. Ideally, we figure when they know they've been skunked out of Dulain, they'll skip Diess and go straight for Prall. But maybe not. If we can foist another pickup cargo on them at Prall or Diess, then we get to skin them twice. Or more."

"So what if they don't take the bait and you get stuck with all these cargoes on your hands that you can't sell?"

"No problem. We either ship them out piecemeal as filler around the edges of other shipments, or we sell them locally. Our people are supposed to scrape together things that are salable locally if it comes to that. Admittedly, it could take them a long time to sell off the inventory."

"Yeah, well. Michelle says it's all about to fall apart." She brushed a hand at her hair impatiently. He remembered it as a Sinda trait that had stuck.

"I hope not. I stuck my neck out setting it up. I'd sure like to know how she plans on 'helping' without being obvious about it. The stakes are pretty high."

"You have no idea," Cally said. Her lips tightened as he looked at her curiously. "No, I'm not bringing you in on all that. Too bad. That's what you get for using what I said, anyway. Michelle and Clan O'Neal, respectively, have big personal stakes in seeing you succeed." She seemed impervious to the look he gave her. "No. I needed to know your plans. You don't have a need to know our reasons. You ought to just be thanking your lucky stars that when you got us caught it was Michelle, and that she needed something from you. Besides, I'm still pissed off."

He moved closer to her and started kissing a particularly sensitive spot behind her ear.

"Well, somewhat pissed off, anyway," she said, burying her fingers in his hair.

"So let me kiss it away," he breathed against her neck, lifting a hand to her collar to begin undoing the snaps on the childish pajamas. "Let me wipe it away and wipe away the memories of all the jerks the job keeps hitting you with. Nobody here but us two," he was kissing downward, between her breasts, when she stiffened.

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" She shifted out from under him and sat up, staring at him.

"Just that they don't matter. They don't matter a damn." He stroked her hair. "I don't blame you. I don't like your job, but I knew about it when I married you and I don't blame you at all, love."

"That's nice. What 'they' are we talking about, exactly?" she asked icily.

"Hey, calm down, Cally. Nobody in particular, just, well, anybody you have to . . . encounter . . . in your work. It's a tough job, and you've got nothing to be ashamed of," he reassured. "That's why I never, ever ask. And I won't."

"You mean—" she broke off, pitching him aside and storming across the room, turning to face him. "I don't fucking believe this!" She ran a hand through her hair, breathing heavily, voice rising to just short of a screech. "I just don't—the whole time we've been married, you think I've been fucking other guys? You do, don't you? Oh, my God." She sank down into the plastic desk-chair and stared off at the wall, unseeing. "I don't believe this."

"What?" Stewart's face was a sickly ashen-gray. Aware that he had screwed up, badly, he hesitated. His normally quick mind felt like it had been stuffed full of fog. "Of course I—" he began, tapering off to silence. He held a hand out to her, but let it drop when she didn't respond. "You didn't—I didn't—oh, hell."

When he would have walked over to her, she flinched away.

"Oh, my God, Cally, I'm so sorry. I thought—I guess I didn't think." He tried to think of something else, anything else he could say that might make things better instead of worse. In the end, he just sat. After an eternity of her staring like that, refusing to talk to him, he stood and stuck his feet into his shoes. At the door he turned back. "I'd like to have breakfast with you," he said.

"Fine." She didn't even look up as he stepped out and closed the door.

In the morning, over breakfast, they made up. Then they proved the old adage that make up sex is some of the best sex of all. It was good, but there was something hollow in the pit of James Stewart's stomach as he saw her to her shuttle and watched it take off, saying goodbye to her for the umpteenth time in their marriage. Damn the risks that had kept them from being together.

Monday 11/22/54

Gray cubicle walls didn't look any better when they were made from Galplas instead of fabric, steel, and plastic. In fact, it was worse. The entire cube and desk had been extruded in place, defeating most of the purpose of modularity in the original design. The whole thing was the gray of cinder-blocks, rendered even more dismal by the absolute lack of texture—a feature of working directly for a subsidiary of a Galactic group.

Most of the workers in Human Welfare's personnel department did what they could within the company's policy of one plant, one still holo—usually of a spouse or partner, one dynamic wall image of dimensions less than point seven five square meters. There was scarcely room for more. It hadn't taken long after the advent of really efficient buckleys before some wonk had noted that no paper and no phone meant none of the files and office supplies that typically went to serve paperwork and phones. The modern worker needed little more than a chair, enough space for his buckley to project his current work, a place to rest his coffee cup, and a small drawer to hold data cubes. The time and motion study that followed ensured that there would be little more than that inside an individual's cubicle. The name had stuck, even though the shape was now more like a rectangular box stood upright than an actual cube. The divider walls were two meters high, to prevent each person's coworkers from presenting a visual distraction that could reduce productivity.

The tiny desk areas had a single, unintentional benefit. A worker had only to slide back his chair to talk to the guy next to him. Samuel Hutchins now did so.

"Hey, Juice. Do you have a couple of people who maybe came in with some . . . new friends and family . . . and are open to returning the favor?"

"What, got some people you're trying to get on? Didn't know you were low on cash."

"If I can." He shrugged. "You know how it is."

"Sure," she said, scribbling down a couple of names. "You're always good about returning your favors."

"I try to be," he said. Hutchins had been most particular about returning his favors all his life, which was mostly over now. At fourteen, he had been right at the upper age limit of children considered for shipment to Indowy worlds. If his father hadn't been the leader of the loyal opposition in Parliament, he wouldn't have been sent at all. On Adenast, he had frequently wondered whether that wouldn't have been for the best. He was just too old to adapt. He had no talent for languages, and so never became fluent in any Indowy dialects. He had taken sedatives for claustrophobia every day of his time living among the Indowy. Ordinarily, that would simply have been his lot in life. Nobody paid to ship humans from some other world back to Earth, and he had no talents for jobs that would have made enough FedCreds to pay for passage—and would have been constrained by contracted debts to remain on Adenast if he had. Michelle O'Neal, bless her soul, had somehow managed to obtain him a cabin job on a freighter leaving Adenast for Earth thirty years ago. The job was another he had no talent for, resulting, as she had no doubt intended, in his employment being terminated and him being booted out the door on Titan Base. Earning further passage to Earth, part paid in cash, and part paid in the most disagreeable of ship chores, he had found difficult, but possible.

His debts, of course, had dictated that he seek his employment through Darhel firms. Nothing else paid enough to service the interest. Hence his present situation, at long last, in a position to return the single biggest favor he'd ever owed a living soul.

So here he was in his sixties, not juved and never likely to be a candidate for such, working in a position where, until now, the greatest job benefit was the blessed, however fake, solitude of his workspace. Handsome and agile in his youth, Sam now sported arthritic knees, a large bald patch, and a bad comb-over. His own grandfather, who Sam knew he resembled, had worn his hair just the same. The younger generations would never understand loss the way the war babies did. It could make you do funny things, sometimes. Maybe his near-fanatical dedication to paying debts, monetary or favors, somehow came out of his shuffled teen years. Maybe the repayment of favors was just the one bit of Indowy culture that took. His common sense, however, was all wisdom acquired from age.

When Miss O'Neal asked her favor, that common sense had made him sit on any personal curiosity, or any heroic tendency to volunteer for more than she asked. He had a feeling that whatever she was planning, if he stuck his nose in it, the only place he'd be was in the way.

This part of the favor was simple enough. In personnel, they did it all the time. The boss was Indowy raised. The Darhel were more used to employing Indowy laborers than human. Indowy always placed great emphasis on clan connections in hiring. The idea that nepotism could be a bad thing was totally alien to their species' nature. Humans applying for jobs in facilities like this one sometimes had relatives on the job already. When they didn't, friends on the job were the next best thing. The bosses liked everybody's relationships interlinked—it bought organizational loyalty when many of the acts that the organization perpetrated were grossly illegal. That, along with very large salaries. Personnel grunts like himself, faced with the impossible requirement of finding employees connected with other employees in a disorganized postwar world, managed by "people" whose understanding of human nature was sketchy, did what any good paper pushers would have done. They made friendships and kinships up wholesale and greased the palm of the right employee to make the "relationship" pass casual inspection. Employees who had gotten their job by this process were universally willing to supplement their salaries in exchange for passing on the favor to someone else. As a system, it was a bit nuts, but it kept everybody happy. He now had enough names in hand to make all his target applicants look desirable to the bosses, and would owe Juice a return favor.

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