Sister Time John Ringo & Julie Cochrane

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Chapter Seventeen

The first thing George noticed about his interviewer was her legs. They were legs to die for. Long, slim, perfectly shaped, leading up to a fiery red skirt that could have doubled as a wide belt. The skirt was literally fiery, done in a shifting pattern of hot coals and flames. Those were two-dimensional, as holographic clothing tended to detract from the wearer's assets.

She had her legs crossed and turned away from him as she stood to shake his hand. He would have completely missed her name if they hadn't already told him who he'd be interviewing with. He thanked God that he'd long ago formed the habit of leering only discreetly. Still, he got the feeling that she didn't miss much, which reminded him that dying for those legs would be a genuine possibility.

She ran her fingers through long, black hair streaked and tipped with glowing metallic red as she resumed her seat, crossing her legs deftly to preserve what modesty she had left by the barest margin imaginable.

"Hello, Mark. I'm pleased to meet you. I'm a very brief interviewer. One way or the other, I make up my mind quickly. Your statistics credentials are impeccable for our needs," she said. "Why do you want to work here?"

"I like living on Earth. The money and your company's status go a long way towards making sure I won't end up swept onto a slow boat to Dulain," he answered. "And, candidly, you pay well."

The nails of one hand tapped on her knee. He noticed idly that they were black tipped with a masterful illusion of dripping blood. She was certainly intent on making a specific impression.

"The primary reason I'm interviewing you has to do with a job that isn't on your resume. You worked at Celini and Gorse Consulting from 2048 to 2051. You've done a nice job of covering it. You were one of the few accountants who managed to come out of that without prison time and without speaking a word ill of your employers or any of your coworkers—and especially of the investors. You don't run off at the mouth. We handle highly confidential business, so we prize that attribute. You're a practical, goal oriented man. I like that." She smiled. It was a charming smile that did reach her eyes. It gave no indication of the cold psychopath he knew lived behind those warm, brown, feline orbs. She was good; highly dangerous even to him. He smiled back with what he hoped was the right degree of polite avarice.

"You do your homework," George, aka Mark, said. "Your own investors, of course, have no lack of resources when they want something. It reassures me that I can trust your organization's ability to meet its generous commitments. I like to be able to trust the people I work for."

"Mutual trust, backed by natural situational guarantees, is essential to our corporate mission. We can certainly offer you better job security than any other offers you might have. No worries about getting fired if your dirty little secret comes to light. We know, and consider your discretion an asset." She pressed a couple of buttons on her PDA. "I see here that Joseph Espinoza is your cousin?" she asked.

"Yes. We spent a lot of time together growing up."

This smile was predatory rather than charming. Even though he was sure it was calculated to the nth degree, a finger of ice prickled on the back of his neck.

"If he's your cousin, I'm your mother," she said. "Relax." She waved a hand as he fought the sweat trying to emerge on his upper lip. "You just passed another of my little tests. You're resourceful, and you go along with the system instead of getting your briefs in a twist the first time you have to bend a rule. Apparent kinship links keep the investors happy. See, I can be pragmatic, too." Her playful grin, though perfect, put him in mind of a piranha.

She stood, perforce drawing him to his feet as well. "As long as you never break any of my rules, we'll get along fine. The first of which is that from this moment onward, you will never, ever lie to me. In return, I will never ask about anything you did before you worked here. My rules are simple, reasonable. I expect loyalty and obedience. Which constitutes doing your job competently, unquestioningly, and keeping your mouth shut. From your record, that should be easy enough." She cupped his cheek with one hand. He could feel her nails against his jawline and had to think of least squares graphs to avoid embarrassing himself, amazingly. "Breaking my simple, easy rules is a termination offense. Understand?"

He nodded, swallowing—staying in the role. He wouldn't have thought it was possible for anyone to look coldly sociopathic and gleeful at the same time. One or the other, but not both, not that charmingly terrifying way. It was an expression he might have to practice. It could be useful for interrogations.

"Great. Still want the job?" she asked cheerfully.

Her mercurial moods were frightening to a professional. The best swordsman doesn't fear the second best. He fears the tyro who knows just enough to be dangerous. He vowed to interact with her as little as possible, and to handle her as carefully as a crate of Tennessee antimatter balls.

"Yes, definitely," he said.

"Can you start Monday?"

"No problem."

"Then we're all set. Give your salary requirements to personnel on your way out. As long as they're reasonable, they'll be met. If they're not, we'll give you our own offer on Monday." She put a hand on the small of his back, ushering him out the door. He didn't flinch.

"Got any plans to celebrate tonight?" she asked.

"Dinner with my girlfriend."

"Been seeing each other long?" Her teeth were a glaring white against the retro red lipstick.

"We're pretty serious. She's applying for a reception position." He shrugged at the raised eyebrows. "For a liberal arts major, your live reception jobs are one of the best paying gigs on offer."

"I see. Thank you for telling me. In spite of all our fictional interlinks, we do try to get real ones when we can. You just gave your girlfriend an edge. I hope she's appreciative." Now her grin contained a distinct air of sexual predation.

He wordlessly conveyed a certain opportunistic interest, eliciting an extra sparkle from the brown eyes. "I'm sure she will be."

"Until Monday." Prida Felini turned and walked away, offering him a stunning rear view which he took open advantage of, deciding a leer was in character after all.

Cally tucked a strand of her shining black bob behind one ear. Despite Harrison's edict of "no more color changes," he had managed to find her a temporary hair color that she could wear for a month or two before it washed out naturally, with no further damage. He claimed it was protein nourishing, moisturizing, and shaft-reconstructing, whatever that meant. All Cally knew was that he had made her swear to God she'd brush a hundred strokes, four times a day, with a boar-bristle brush. Whatever. She'd do it because he knew his stuff. He could worry about the damn details.

Her contacts were a deep brown that was nearly black, skin left ghost pale. She was eye-catching, and she was meant to be. The adversary would be watching George, and her intent was to leave an indelible impression as his girlfriend. The watchers would have no trouble describing her, making security slot her automatically into a known category when she showed up at his job. She would be meeting him for lunch, daily when possible, until mission execution.

Girlfriends were curious. She wouldn't get past the security checkpoint until and unless she was called in to interview. However, up until they got someone else in or went to plan B, she would be the designated man for up close and leisurely reconnaissance—everything through the front door and up to the checkpoint. George could give his full attention to all that was beyond the checkpoint, and the rest of the team to the other directions of approach to the target zone. So long as she behaved in character, she would be functionally invisible. Ogled, yes, but her curiosity unremarked.

George was late. She knew he thought of himself as habitually on time now, but his timeliness was merely relative to his prior habits. He tended to rationalize tardiness as in character for his current role, a result of extra scouting, or confined to the tradition of being fashionably late. People's self-deception got on Cally's nerves. She made every effort to root it out in herself whenever she found it, and felt everyone else, particularly people on her own team, should do the same.

Seven minutes past target time, he finally arrived.

She rose, walking around the table to kiss him, high on the cheek. "You're late," she whispered.

"Not much." He shrugged. "Besides, I made a wrong turn."

She favored him with a blinding smile. "We'll talk later," she promised softly, as he pulled her chair out and helped seat her.

"So. You obviously liked the job or you wouldn't have taken it. Tell me about it." She took his hand across the table and began playing with his fingers. "Did you meet your boss, sweetheart? What are you going to be doing? I want all the details."

He proceeded to establish his reputation for discretion with his doubtlessly watching employers by changing the subject.

When he ordered a split of one of West Under-Detroit's finest sparkling wines, she pretended a good cheer she certainly didn't feel. Wines of any type weren't her favorite thing. She supposed the buzz had to temporarily dull the taste buds of normal people, or some such.

"What was that?" she asked silently, tapping her fingers idly in an in-house variant of Morse Code. "Mark" had taken his hand back, slipping something out of his sleeve and palming it to his mouth. It couldn't have been for the watching eyes—she barely noticed it herself. It was odd.

He reclaimed her hand across the table, fingers twitching imperceptibly against her palm. "You know, the pill. Why waste the champagne?"

"What pill?" Her hair fell forward and she reached across with her other hand, tucking it back impatiently.

"Duh? The booze pill. You didn't bring one?" He took her other hand, staring soulfully into her eyes.

"What the fuck?" She squeezed his hands and gave a lovestruck sigh, taking her hands back to pickup her menu. "What looks good to you?" she asked aloud.

"I may just make a meal of the Oysters Rockefeller. Harry says there's not a bad thing on the menu here," he answered. "Whaddya mean 'what the fuck'?" His fingers pattered on the tablecloth. "Living under a rock for thirty years? The pill that turns your booze nannites off."

A flabbergasted look flickered across his face, quickly erased. "My god, you really don't know. Wow." He captured her hand, taking it to his lips.

She felt a gelatin capsule slip into the crease between her fingers and palm, and gripped it. She felt like an idiot. Slipping it into her own mouth with her next swallow of the straw-colored bubbles, she tried, unsuccessfully, to crush an odd mixture of pique and rage. Thirty years. She'd never felt as shut out of the professional "boy's club" as she did right now. Was she by God really the one single agent who hadn't known?

"The job's going to mean I'll have to find an apartment in Great Lakes," he said. Then, pretending to find something in her expression, which was actually rather wooden, continued, "You didn't realize? If I'd known you didn't, honey, I'd have told you the minute it came up. This could be the perfect time for us to try sharing an apartment the way we've been talking about. We could pick the new place together."

She smiled. Rather, the persona she was wearing did, feeling distant from the core of her self. "You've just sprung that on me. Give me a bit to take it in, darling." She focused on the menu again. "The picture of those oysters is tempting. I'll just have whatever you're having." She drained her glass and held it out to him for a refill.

He blinked, refilling it. She suppressed an evil grin. So she was alarming him now? Good, dammit.

The rest of the champagne, two mai-tais, and an after-dinner Irish coffee later, he was handling her like a nuke that might go off at any moment as he walked her out to his car. It made her want to giggle.

George's car was old, but clean. The faded blue paint showed a line of rust spots at door-ding height, increasing in size and frequency as they went downward, until finally there was no paint at all, only a lacy russet hem, legacy of driving through prior winters' salty slush.

He opened the door for Cally and she sat, inhaling the rich aroma of rust and cracking plastic. The thing was a real piece of shit. The carpet and floor mats were a compressed layer of grimy fibers matted with sand. A particularly dark splotch on the floorboard helped her place the other scent nagging at the back of her mind—old motor oil. She fought down her rising gorge.

Schmidt shut the door behind her, lifting it slightly to take the weight off the warped hinges. She wrinkled her nose as he walked around to the driver's seat, wishing she could get away with taking the train back. She didn't at all approve of his trade-craft over dinner and again, here in the car. The leers were a bit overacted. As they drove south into the darkness, she stared out the window, silently wishing the road wouldn't rock quite so much.

"Um!" She tugged at his arm, urgently. Evidently he'd been expecting it, because he swerved to the side of the road and stopped, sighing. A few minutes later she wiped her mouth and climbed back into the car, feeling much better. She must be sobering back up already.

As he pulled back onto the road, she resisted the impulse to look around for their tails. Obviously, she did need to keep up her end of the show. She leaned in against his arm, snuggling her head into his shoulder. It moved uncomfortably as he reached into the center console and handed her a little white tablet from a foil-papered roll.

"Breath mint?" he offered.

"Oh, thanks." She popped one onto her tongue, enjoying the minty fizz as the enzymatic cleaners went to work. She curled closer into his arm, reflecting that it would only take a slight turn to bring her left breast up against it. Well, serve him right if she did, for looking at her that way all evening. She turned in towards him.

"I'm lost. How far from your apartment are we?" she asked.

He sighed. "Less than ten minutes, honey."

Schmidt pulled his still very drunk colleague tightly against himself, kissing her deeply. Right now he didn't like her very much, even though the breath mint had made it possible to enjoy kissing her—too much. He could already see how this was going to be all his fault in the morning. The other side of that coin was that if he was going to be blamed anyway, he might as well make the most of it. Her mouth was fresh and cool. After her thirty years of killer professional training and experience, no pun intended, Cally O'Neal's full frontal attentions packed one hell of a wallop. The way he saw it, he could take his life into his hands with her and her pissed-off grandfather in the morning, or with her pissed off self right now if he pushed her away. Under the circumstances, he wisely chose immediate gratification and deferred risk. Not that he wouldn't have anyway, he admitted.

He had taken advantage of straight men's notorious lack of decorating taste to avoid spending the money refurbishing his cover apartment. It was pretty awful; he usually hated staying here. Tonight promised to be an exception to that rule. It was a good thing she was at least buzzed. The dirty white shag carpeting and beat up faux-wood paneling inside would have put any sober woman off. He unlocked the door behind her and, without breaking the kiss, maneuvered her back through it.

Considering a male operative had to be competent to extract required information from a source in whatever way it took, including any female source who took a liking to him, he wasn't too shabby at this game, himself. He was, therefore, stunned to find himself sitting on his ass on the floor, after about a minute and a half of practically doing each other in the doorway.

"I hate white shag carpeting," she spat at him, whirling and slamming the door behind her.

He stared at the empty space where she had been a moment before, butt stinging where he had landed, reflecting that he had never understood a woman less in his whole life.

Tuesday 11/23/54

The battle began as a war between two artificial intelligences. The aim was not to destroy property nor yet to take lives. The aim, at the beginning, was to try to drive each one crazy.

Fortunately, buckleys were pretty much always that way.

Clarty was a good Africa hand and loved technology. But he did not understand it. Take for example the "IR sensors" scattered around the perimeter.

Clarty knew that they picked up on infrared emissions, heat that is, from the warmth of any mammalian critter. What he did not know was how they worked.

Any large mammal generates an awful lot of heat. In the case of humans, enough to melt fifty pounds of ice in one day. However, because of IR sensors, human soldiers, spies and burglars had long before come up with IR defeating systems. Heat cloaks, thermo-paint, IR static generators, they were all designed to reduce the IR signature of a person to that of, say, a rabbit.

And there were many rabbit-sized creatures in Africa or any other "natural" area.

For that matter there were many creatures that produced as much IR signature as a human. The very simplest systems would then scan for human contour and outline but a ghillie cloak changed that and the system never could tell the difference between a human and, say, a baboon.

So the makers of the IR sensors had a choice between a system that would produce thousands of false positives or a system that couldn't spot a male human wearing the simplest of disguises.

Unless they threw in an AI. AIs could make "rational" judgments about whether there was a real threat or a hopping bunny.

But then there existed the question of just how to integrate the AI.

Still the only human AI, buckleys were the only choice. The IT geeks at the manufacturer understood the problems of buckleys far too well. Buckleys were notoriously unstable. Simply throwing a buckley onto the control interface was a sure recipe for disaster. And depending upon the number of IR sensors scattered around, one buckley might not be able to do all the decision making.

So Clarty's system worked like this.

There were IR sensors. They were not "smart." They were not "brilliant." They didn't have any processing to them at all beyond that necessary to convert IR into something a system could read.

Behind them, at the second tier, was a "smart" system that converted one or more sensors into data the buckley or buckleys could read.

At the very top of the hierarchy was a system that, based upon the number of sensors, generated medium emulation buckleys. These AIs would then consider the sensor data and determine if it was a real threat or not. They would sit there, day in and day out, looking at sensor data and deciding whether to cause an alarm.

Occasionally, they would get bored and cause a false alarm. The longer they were left in place, the more false alarms they would generate from sheer boredom. Each time the user reset the system, telling a "smart" program that it was a false alarm, it would be considered by a non-AI algorithm. When the buckleys got to a certain level of false positive, determined by the user or the overriding "smart" system, they would be reset and forget they had ever been there. And the cycle would start all over again. They would also be automatically reset if the "smart" system determined they were going AI gaga or if they started fighting incessantly, which was common.

None of this occurred at a level the user could see.

Clarty did not understand how his system worked.

DAG did.

That was the first of many differences of quality between the two groups. Differences of quality that had made coming up with an attack plan such a pain in the ass for Mosovich.

This was his first "real world" action with DAG. He wanted it to be professional, precise and good training. Because the best that could be said about Clarty's unit of "pirates" and his setup was that it was going to be a good training op for DAG.

There were so many many choices. It really became a question of what sort of command personality Mosovich wanted to project.

He could start with orbital battle lasers, normally used to take out heavy Posleen infestations but fully on-call for an op like this, to take out the sentries. Then DAG would come in right behind them in choppers or even shuttles and hammer into the middle of the compound. Good estimate of take-down of the entire compound was one minute twenty-three seconds. Snipers scattered around to take any leakers. Satellite and UAV surveillance to make sure nobody got away.

Simple, brutal, effective.

Training level? Minimal. Joie de vivre level? Zero. Coolness level? In the negatives.

He had no intention of taking so much as one casualty, whatever he did. But with such a simple op, making it interesting had real command benefits.

So he decided to start with causing a nervous breakdown in the "automated" system.

Buckley Generated Personality 6.104.327.068 was beyond bored. He'd been looking at really boring African countryside for nearly seven boring hours which was, to an AI, approximately a gazillion years by his calculation. He'd calculated pi to a googleplex decimal points. He'd tried to log onto a MMORPG and gotten kicked for being an AI, the bastards. He'd gotten into a three point two second argument, about thirty years to a human, with Buckley Personality 4.127.531.144 over whether a sensor reading was a monkey or an abat. Since all they had were these stupid ZamarTech IR sensors, who knew? He couldn't even ask anyone to check it out and adjust the system without setting of a bagillion alarms. They could have put in an interface that let the AI simply ask somebody to go tell them what something was, thereby increasing their functionality but noooo . . .

Now he was looking at another IR hit. The buckley did not "see" this as a human would; he did not see a smear of white on a black background. What the buckley received and processed was a large number of metrics. Horizontal area of total generated heat. Precise numerics of shape, thermal output fall-off, calculations of three-dimensional shape, vectors not only of the total blob but of portions. It then took all this information and compared it to a database of notable IR hits, ran all that through a complicated algorithm assigning a valid numeric likelihood of it being positive for a hostile human or animal then, at the last, applied "AI logic" to the situation.

"Looks like another abat to me," he transmitted, having applied "AI logic."

Or tried to in the face of Buckley Personality 4.127.531.144's utter stupidity.

"It's moving too fast and it's too large," 4.127.531.144 replied. "Jackal."

"No way," 6.104.327.068 argued. He was almost thirty minutes older than 4.127.531.144 and thought he knew damned well what an abat looked like in IR. "A jackal couldn't have taken that slope. It's 62 degrees at a minute of angle of .415 in the tertiary dimension! Abat can climb like that; jackals can't. I'd say chinchilla, but we're in Africa.

"Okay, then it's a Horton's monkey," 6.104.327.068 said. "Native to the area. They can climb. Same thermal characteristics. Quadrupedal, which this is. So there. Put that into your pipe and smoke it, youngster."

"They climb trees," 4.127.531.144 said seventeen nanoseconds later having accessed the Net and looked up Horton's monkeys. "They're arboreal. They stay off the ground to avoid predators. They're notable for having a distinctive cry that sounds like icky-icky-pting . . . tuwop!"

"And if we had audio sensors that's what you'd hear you moron!"


"Wet-behind-the-ears ignoramus . . ."

"There's another one," 4.127.531.144 said. "It's abat."

"It's not abat," 6.104.327.068 now denied. "Thermal characteristics are too low. Abat are pretty cold blooded for mammaloids. I don't care what you say, it's a tribe of Horton's monkeys."

"They're arboreal."

"Maybe they're moving territory or something." 6.104.327.068 accessed everything he could find on Horton's monkeys. "But they're arboreal."

"That's what I said."

"Then it's jackals."

"You're up to twenty hits," 4.127.531.144 replied. "Jackals don't move in groups that large. But Horton's monkeys do."

"They're arboreal."

"Maybe the're moving territory or something."

"That's what I said!"

The argument continued for an interminable twenty-three seconds of increasing Net access until the override system determined that the AIs were approaching complete failure, the repeated eletronic transmissions of insults was the cue that its algorithms was looking for, and deleted both personalities.

"Hello! What the hell? Where am I? What the fuck is this . . . ?"

Ninety-three seconds later, the system reset again.

The UAV was made of clear spider-cloth. One of the Cushitic sentries might have spotted it if he was looking just right and it occluded a star. Since Cushitic sentries didn't look at the stars, much, it was a reasonable risk sending it overhead. They could not have seen, but could otherwise sense, what it was releasing.

One of the sentries did indeed sense its release. He sniffed the night air, shivered slightly, and paid a bit more attention to his surroundings. He recognized that musk.


But the sensors would assuredly spot one of them.

* * *

The toughest part of the plan had been finding the elephants.

Elephants had very large territories. And once the survival of the species had been assured, monitoring of the herds had dropped to nearly nothing. It was far too expensive to keep doing "just because."

So Mosovich had had to use satellite time to find the nearest herd. Then they had to get it moving in the right direction. That had taken time.

But in the meantime they had to get the buckleys properly prepared, anyway.

"Now you're seeing elephants? What, are they pink?"

"Yeah, I'm seeing elephants. Look, they're bang on for six sigma match!"

"You were seeing upland gorillas a second ago. Sixty of them. There aren't any upland gorillas in a thousand miles! Much less sixty of them. How many elephants?"

"Twenty-three. They're elephants I tell you!"

"It's a glitch in the system. Run another diagnostic. With all the false readings we've been having, I don't want to wake anyone up for a herd of imaginary rampaging elephants."

"Well, that's better than letting them sleep, don't you think?"

"Personally, I'd like to continue to live and process even in this horrible fashion. And when the elephants turn out to be a false positive, we're going to get deleted and you know it. So run another diagnostic."

"I already did. It says the're elephants."

"Are they pink?"

"You're starting to repeat. I think maybe you do need to be reset."

"Like you're any more stable, granpa!"

"Brat . . ."

Which left the human sentries. Who were not going to ignore a herd of rampaging elephants.

Mosovich wasn't sure who had come up with the system, or why, or how they'd gotten it funded. But Mueller had heard about it years before, researched it and then filed it away in his capacious memory for military trivia.

The orbital battle stations that were the third line of defense against Posleen infestations didn't just have man- and Posleen-killing lasers. They had high capacity directional tuned EM generators. Orbital battle stunners if you will. Mosovich figured they were probably designed for crowd control although he could imagine the reaction if they were ever used.

However, they were quite selective. And tunable. Which was why the six Cushitic sentries were, a moment after the system crashed again, twitching in the ground.

"They're probably going to get trampled, you know," Mueller said, watching the readouts.

"O ye of little faith," Mosovich replied.

He watched the real-time data with his arms folded.

"This is gonna be fun."

Clarty wasn't sure for a moment what woke him. Then he noticed the ground was rumbling. His first thought was earthquake. The area was tectonically highly active, the Rift Valley being a crack in the crust where two continental plates were slowly drifting apart.

But it continued much longer than an earthquake. And then he heard the first angry bugle.

"Oh, bugger," he muttered, rolling quickly out of the mine manager's bed.

Looking out the window he saw several things at once.

The one sentry in view was unconscious on the ground, more or less to one side of the large herd of elephants that had already breached the compound's perimeter.

Then there were the elephants. A lot of elephants.

Looking at the control panel for the IR sensor system, which should have noticed a herd of rampaging elephants for God's sake, he saw that it was in reset mode.

He did not think to himself "Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action." His brain, when it came to combat, worked much faster than that. What he did think was "Time to leave."

As he burst out the back door of the mine offices his brain finally reached a logic stop and started screaming at him. Exactly how did the sentry get taken out?

But by then it was too late.

"Wow, that thing can take down an elephant?" Kelly said as a mature female suddenly slumped to the ground just short of an unconscious human figure.

"Yep," Jake said, panning the aiming reticle around. The elephants, following the trail of the "Posleen God King," had finally reached the barracks. Since the trail apparently went into the barracks to their senses, they were looking in the barracks for the God King. Since the Cushites in the barracks knew better than to remonstrate with a herd of rampaging elephants, they were boiling out the back. And getting about three meters before they slumped into unconsciousness.

"I think we're out of moving human IR hits," Mueller said.

"Right," Jake replied, spreading the aiming area and firing. All movement in the compound stopped except for the Indowy signatures in their barracks. "Time to fly."

Clarty woke up with the worst migraine of his life, his arms and legs zip tied, and leaning up against something large, warm and very smelly.

Squinting his eyes against the rising sun his first impression was that the compound was now filled with very large boulders. Looking a bit more closely, he could see that the "boulders" were breathing. As was the one he was leaning against. Men in digital tiger stripe were wandering among the elephants, walking carefully.

The compound was filled with more elephant dung than he'd ever seen in his life.

"They apparently poop when they're excited, one thing I hadn't considered," a voice said from behind him. "And one of them got shot by one of your guys. That pissed me off. Fortunately, it was only a flesh wound. All patched up."

"I didn't figure Gistar could get orbital firing authority," Clarty said angrily.

"Who said anything about Gistar?" the voice said. The man who came into view was short and wiry with the look of a rejuv. "Colonel Jacob Mosovich, U.S. SOCOM. I'd say at your service, but I rather think it's the other way around. We've got a few questions to ask you."

"It's really very simple, Mr. . . . Clarty," Jake said, looking at his buckley. "You're going to be sent to a distant planet as an involuntary colonist. But there are some choices, there, good and bad. If you tell me what I'd like to know, the choices will be good. If you don't, the choices will be . . . bad. So. Who hired you?"

"Like I'm going to tell you that," Clarty said with a grunt of laughter. "I'd be more than willing to talk to avoid the . . . bad choices. Only problem is, I doubt I'd get to 'enjoy' the better choices. The people who hired me can't just arrange something like this on Earth if you know what I mean."

"Well, that's one question answered," Jake said, ticking something off on a list. "That this wasn't your plan from the beginning. But we'd figured that. The thing is, I really sort of would like to know who you work for. Come on, be a pal."

"Thing is, Mr. Clarty," Kelly said. "There's bad choices and bad choices. Let's compare and contrast. One example is a colony ship headed for, oh, Celestual. It's crowded with 'indentured colonists' such as yourself. Many of them are old, weak, sick, what have you. There's a certain death rate among them which is, well, the Darhel consider it unavoidable. But if you're in good physical condition, it's just a very bad, very smelly ride with miserable food to a not particularly nice planet where you will live out your days working as a virtual slave. That, by the way, is the good choice."

"What's good about it?" Clarty snarled.

"Well, then there's the contrast and compare," Kelly said. "This is another ship. The 'colonists' on this ship are all volunteers. Conditions are somewhat better. However, there's a problem with the crew. You see, the defense gunnery crew for the ship has been carefully hand-picked. They are all what could be termed violent psychopaths. They spend a portion of the trip . . . playing with the voluntary colonists. I won't get into the details of such play except to say that there is a great deal of blood and a lot of screaming. At some point in the trip they rendezvous with another ship. The crew of the colony ship unload, then open up the bays to vacuum. The bodies, blood and other material are wafted into space along with the surviving 'colonists.' A few years later the Darhel find the 'lost, derelict' space craft and put it back into commission. The bodies, and evidence of what happened on board, are long gone.

"Now, Mr. Clarty, you have a choice. You can go to a distant planet and live out what remains of your days doing hard work for the eventual benefit of mankind and other decent races. Or you can be loaded on a ship full of 'volunteer' colonists and . . . not arrive."

"You're sick," Clarty said, his eyes wide. "I mean, I thought I was sick, but you're just nuts!"

"No, but I will admit the crew of the 'voluntary colonist' ship is," Kelly said. "So, whadayasay? Who are you working for?"

"Mission accomplished," Jake said, looking at the shuttle with the arriving Gistar personnel. The exercise had involved very little door kicking. None, really. Which had some of the DAG troops grumbling. But Jake considered it good training. In his opinion, DAG troops had to learn to be more flexible. They were highly drilled and unquestionably lethal. But they were also used to straightforward door-kicking. Sometimes kicking the door wasn't the best way to solve a situation. Sometimes the best way involved . . . elephants.

"Not that we got anything we can use," Mueller said. "This Winchon guy is in the States. We'll have to turn the information over to the Fibbies and by the time they build a real case he'll be long gone."

"If they get to build a case," Jake said. "Five gets you ten this was an intercorporate battle between two Darhel. Which makes us even more of whores than usual." He paused and looked at Kelly. "So, where'd you hear about that 'voluntary colony' ship and where, exactly, do we find that crew?"

"You'd be hard pressed," Kelly said. "I don't think anyone left beacons on the bodies."

"That was a real group?" Mueller asked, frowning. "I figured you made it up."

"No, it was a real situation," Kelly replied. "We didn't deal with it. Another . . . group handled it. When they found out. It had been suspected for some time that the Darhel were intentionally losing colony ships."

"Which is why nobody will voluntarily colonize anymore," Mueller said.

"As you say, Sergeant Major," Kelly replied.

"But that particular . . . crew was dealt with?" Jake asked.

"Yes, sir," Kelly said.

"By whom if I might ask?" Jake said. "Because I never heard about it."

"They were dealt with," Kelly said. "Not by us, I'll add. Pity, but it wasn't us."

"Well, let's see," Jake mused. "We're the pinnacle of the SpecOps hierarchy, at least when it comes to black ops and killing bad people quietly. The Fibbies sure as hell didn't do it because it would have been blasted all over the press. I'm not sure who that leaves. Nobody I know about. And there's not much I don't know about that's on the black side."

"As you say, sir," Kelly said.

"I'm waiting for you to say something like 'need to know' and then I'd wonder why my XO has need to know and I don't," Mosovich replied.

"That would be a good question, sir," Kelly said. "So I'd rather you didn't ask it."

Mosovich's face twitched for a moment. He looked over at Mueller, then back.

"Consider it . . . unasked," the commander said. "But in retribution for my not asking the question, you're in charge of clearing the compound of the elephants."

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