Tommy Sunday knew something was wrong the minute George walked into the office he used whenever he worked on base. It was only "his" office in the nominal sense. Two strips of very small cubicles, and their associated chairs, occupied the office. A shielded hard line from the wall cabled up through the backbone of each strip of desks, ready for plugging into the back of clean AIDs or buckley PDAs for greater data security. This, of course, as he participated in breaking the encryptions on other people's data, which data would then be fed back into the Bane Sidhe's higher AIs for pattern searches and preliminary analysis. Tommy's office chair was his own. With his size, it had to be—a fact that had not endeared him to organizational bean counters. The chair simply migrated with him to whatever cube happened to be available when he was.
George Schmidt didn't often track him down at his desk, and didn't often wear a facial expression that seemed to be mixed in equal parts of bewilderment and anger.
"What's biting your butt?" the larger man asked.
"Cally. She—or rather, we—may have fucked up our surveillance covers. At least, I'm going to have to float a good story to cover the damage. Thing is, I don't know what the hell happened. I do not understand women," the assassin said, pulling up a chair from the wall and wincing at its rickety wobble.
"Tell me," Sunday said.
"First, she caught me popping the booze pill at dinner. We were having good champagne, I know my limits, why not? Then it turned out she didn't even know about it and had basically never had alcohol before. So she practically insists and I give her one, expecting her to be sensible or at least not stupid. She proceeds to get trashed out of her gourd, which I guess is partly my fault—" he interrupted himself as Tommy gave him a skeptical look. "Okay, it's my fault. I should have insisted her first drinks not be in the field. I knew alcohol, and she didn't. Fine. Then she proceeds to make bedroom eyes over the table and climb all over me on the drive back to the apartment, where she's supposed to stay over."
"Wasn't she supposed to be your cover's girlfriend?" Tommy was finding it hard to be sympathetic. Yeah, Cally was hot as hell, but George was supposed to be a professional with sense, too. Unless his lack of sense meant he was getting involved. Ordinarily, Tommy would have cheered—to his certain knowledge Cally hadn't seriously dated anybody since James Stewart's shuttle blew up seven years ago. If he was getting the hots for Cally, George's timing was horrible. It could complicate the mission. And it was awful hard to feel sympathy for a guy just for having a hot woman climb all over him.
"Well, yeah, but usually there are limits to how far you act it out," the discomfited man said. "I doubt our tails had cameras looking down into the seats of the car and doing a hand check. And don't look at me like that. She's drunk and she's damned lethal—as if I'm going to piss her off and risk an incident."
"Wah," Tommy commiserated. "I can guess what's next and you get no sympathy from me for your poor lost innocence. Or for having to face Papa."
"We didn't screw; she ran out on me. Knocked me on my ass for no reason and ran out on me, that is." The bewilderment had taken over George's face.
"Ah, now we see what you're really upset with." Then, quirking an eyebrow at the other man, "There's got to be more than that. What did you do, what had just happened—there's something you're not telling me." Tommy leaned back, threatening to tip over the chair if he hadn't had excellent balance honed by regular hiking and boating.
"Just something stupid. She said she hated my carpet. It makes no damn sense."
"Well, what's the damn carpet look like? Is it nasty, or what?" the cyber asked impatiently.
"It's gray and dingy, but not grimy or anything. No bugs or nasty smells. Besides, white shows dirt. It's pretty ugly, but not—"
"White?" Sunday interrupted him. "What kind of white carpet?"
"What's it matter? Matted down shag. It still makes no damned sense. Why throw a fit and jeopardize a cover over a stupid rug? Is she crazy?"
The big man sat up, burying his face in his hands for a few long moments before looking up at the other guy. "You are so lucky to still be breathing it isn't even funny. White shag carpeting. Holy fuck. She had a bad experience," he explained, shaking his head. "George, I'll make it real simple for you. Do not get Cally O'Neal drunk. That woman has more land mines in her past than you ever want to risk stepping on. Didn't you ever think there might be a reason nobody had volunteered himself as the one to introduce her to real liquor? And get a decorator in there. Today."
"Why the hell would a guy about to move redecorate? Hello? Cover?"
"If it were me, I'd do it and think up an excuse." The code cracker looked at his skeptical colleague and sighed. "Fine, ignore me. It's your funeral."
"This is an odd place to meet." Michelle was wearing a get-up that looked almost like a parka and mukluks to the ice rink Cally had given her as a rendezvous location. She looked dubiously at the white figure skates she was expected to don in place of the tan, furry boots. "These look cold," she said.
"They're not," Cally replied as she finished lacing her own, wrapping the long laces twice around the top for ankle support before tying them.
Michelle copied her, even though the standard size white boots were lumpy inside and a bad fit for her feet. Self-discipline or no, there were limits. She fixed them. They were still all Earthtech materials and so forth. Nobody would ever notice. Besides, she only changed them a small amount.
Her sister handed her a bag of red and white candies from her purse before shoving her gear into a rental locker. The bag had "Star-Bright" blazoned across the front in italics.
"Oooh. Peppermint gears!" the mentat exclaimed, delighted. "Thank you!" At a loss for what else to do with them, she tucked a couple of them in the top of one boot before shoving the rest of the bag into her own locker.
On the ice, after an initial stumble, Michelle glided like a dream, if only like a dream that had discreet puppet strings assisting her balance. She regarded her sister's rusty fumblings with tolerant amusement. The great assassin. How cute.
It took 3.2 minutes, more or less, for Cally to get her ice-legs back. She had obviously done this before, and done it a great deal.
"This is a favorite leisure activity for you. Am I correct?"
"Yeah, but it's my first time back on the ice this winter. Hey, that looks fun." The operative looked no more than sixteen as she swung a hand towards two girls who were spinning like a two-kid top, toes turned out, holding hands, leaning back. They were laughing with an innocence only a little kid could have. The blonde one's braids swung straight out behind her.
Cally's face lit up. "Let's!"
It was only the engineer's abilities and instantaneous comprehension of the mechanics involved that kept Michelle upright as her sister spun around in front of her, grabbing both her hands and whirling her into a matching spin.
When she recovered from her surprise, the mentat noticed that there was a data cube squashed between their joined palms. The mechanics of intrigue involved pleasant toys, but she wondered when, or if, her sister would grow out of them.
Later, as the two sipped hot cocoa in a corner too isolated for the tastes of the child patrons, Michelle sighed, "It was truly unwise of Pardal to try to murder one of us."
"Which, an O'Neal or a Michon Mentat?" Cally asked over the soft swishing of a conversation silencer that badly needed servicing.
Michelle placed her palm over it and it quieted. "Yes," she said.
"I could eliminate that problem for you. Very permanently," Cally offered. When her sister either didn't understand or pretended not to, she spelled it out. "I could kill him. It wouldn't be hard."
"So you think. It is fortunate that the more elevated of your fellow intriguers keep you on—I believe the idiom is, 'a short leash,'" she said.
"Whatever. It was just an offer." Cally couldn't help appearing affronted, though she tried.
"Besides, even if I were murderously inclined, which I am not, that would violate an agreement between your employers and the Darhel. A certain Compact."
"I don't take it as a rule. More of a guideline. I never get to have any fun." She made a pouting moue. "Besides, if I drove him into lintatai, it wouldn't be killing him. Letter of the Compact. Don't think I haven't thought about it. The Compact was written back before we knew about lintatai and it wasn't like the Darhel were going to tell us by negotiating for it."
"As I said, you need to be kept on a leash, and I for one am glad your employers at least have a modicum of sense. It is not as easy to drive an adult Darhel into lintatai as you think, by the way. The ones vulnerable to losing their heads generally do not make it out of adolescence."
"Yeah, but every time I turn around folks are telling me how much I piss everybody off. Gee, they split a millennia-old underground conspiracy apart, all for me." There was an element of self-derision in her cornflower blue eyes. For a moment, Cally O'Neal looked every year of her age.
"Perhaps you could, but please do not kill Pardal. He is odious, but that external restraint on your killer instinct—do not call it a leash if the term offends you—protects you as much as anyone else. I know we Indowy-raised appear detached, but I do love you. Please try to avoid unnecessary dangers of that sort." The softening of Michelle O'Neal's expression was fleeting, quickly covered by a return to a more appropriate demeanor.
"I will admit this one thing. There is more room for intriguers of one's own clan to counterbalance dangerous intriguers elsewhere than I had thought for many years. A very little more room," she added, lest Cally take encouragement from such a small, polite concession. Her sister, of course, would never know that this entire meeting was a mere formality, a concession to Cally's quaint Earther modesty. Michelle was sorry to have eavesdropped, but, in this instance, proper timing was so critical she could not justify the extra risk. Wisdom often had to override people's personal preferences.
John Earl Bill Stuart, more generally known as Johnny, sat cooling his heels in Erick Winchon's plush office. Impatiently. Even this many years into his employment under the Darhel Tir Dol Ron, the opulent surroundings gave him a feeling that was half greed, half offended contempt. Growing up poor, losing his wife too young to an illness that money could have cured just fine, it pissed him off to see money wasted on the fancy marble and crap in the lobby of the building. The Tir's excesses affected him, too, but he hid it well. Oh, he liked the money just fine. It brought good bennies like health insurance for his daughter, who wasn't so little anymore. It let him trick her out in expensive enough clothes and stuff, and afford a personal trainer, to put her in the popular cheerleader set in grade school. Every time he went to a basketball game and saw her on the sidelines jumping up and down with her ponytail and pom-poms, he teared up and had to hide it, thinking how proud her momma would have been.
His train of thought jarred loose as the little mentat finally strolled in, ten minutes late, for their meeting.
"I apologize for my unpunctuality, Mr. Stuart. There was a matter I was unable to delegate," the suited pansy said.
Johnny got a lid on his feelings. He wasn't all that sure Winchon couldn't read his mind or something. Some of these Indowy-raised types could do some pretty scary stuff, and this little guy was one of the scariest. Especially knowing what went on here. As a manager of professional killers and dirty tricks men, Stuart couldn't decide whether to be impressed or revolted. Probably a little of both.
"The Tir is getting kinda antsy. As it gets closer to you-know-what, he's getting worried about somebody trying something. I'm supposed to check and make sure you've got a lid on all that. What you do isn't my department, but the boss wants a report. So, what've you got?" the larger man said. He didn't, himself, "know what," but he wasn't going to give this gay prick the satisfaction of admitting it. The bastard's shrill, annoying giggle might mean he knew about Johnny's own ignorance, though. He tried to keep a poker face in the face of the derision.
The mentat gestured to the far side of the room, where one of those weird game boards was set up with its layers of pieces and multicolored lines connecting these and those in ways that made no damned sense to him. He could see, though, that the setup at least mostly matched the similar board set up in the Tir's office.
"I am quite confident that I've blocked off all the avenues where, as you say, 'somebody might try something,'" the twerp said.
His choice of words showed that he knew damned well the spymaster had been kept in the dark about crucial factors in the operation—which seriously fucked up his ability to do his job.
"Yeah, well, Tir Dol Ron seems to want more guarantees than that. If I take that back to him, he's going to show me his own aethal board and tell me he already knew that. He won't be happy." There. Let Winchon chew on that. Yes, I know what your dumb game is called, I don't think much of it, and you've got as much reason to keep our boss happy as me.
"Far be it from me to tell an expert such as yourself what to do, but if it were my problem," the mentat implied that it wasn't, "I'd find some ostentatious barbarians somewhere to augment building security or some such. A bit of advice, Mr. Stuart. When you have dealings with a Darhel employer, and you do not know what else you should do, follow two old adages you Earth-raised have. Look busy. Cover his posterior. With the exception that when you do so, attempt to spend as few of his resources on the matter as possible."
The executive's AID chirped, "Your three o'clock is here, sir."
"If you'll excuse me, I think we've covered the matter. If you find yourself in any need of more assistance or advice, please feel free to call my AID. I'm always happy to find time for a . . . colleague such as yourself." The small man giggled again and walked out, leaving the spymaster fuming in his chair.
Much as he hated to admit it, though, Johnny wasn't one to scorn useful advice just because it came from a jerk. A scary jerk, but a jerk. Flashy security. Flashy cheap security. Yeah, it might smooth down the boss's ruffled feathers—well, fur, anyway. That shouldn't be too hard to figure out.
As he stalked out of the building, he pulled at his lip, thinking over his options.
If he had been a civilian, Jake Mosovich would have been miffed at getting an important call, requiring action, after four o'clock on a Friday. As it was, sixteen hundred on Friday was just another set of digits on the watch he still wore. His hours had been so irregular for so long that he only thought in terms of duty and leave, which for a lieutenant colonel was just a more unpredictable extension of duty. His leaves or off-duty hours were relaxing in a fragile kind of way, but never inviolate.
His office at DAG had remained fairly spartan, Jake the Snake being the kind of man who noticed everything in a tactical and strategic sense, but little to nothing in an aesthetic one. Unless, of course, it involved a proper military appearance at the proper time for same. In the field, he was, by turns, muddy, sweaty, and bloody or all of the above. Red, yellow, or orange blood, as the case might be. Like many of the hardest of the hard core, when he did dress up, DAG's CO made a point of looking sharp.
His car, of course, was an object of affection that had occasionally bordered on obsession—or so he had been accused.
Loathing paperwork along with all the best of his kind, his office was a place of function, no more. His "I love me" wall was obligatory, but there was far more personality outside of his office than in it. In the rest of the building, the walls were lined with unit history, honors, the faces of past commanders. In the rare cases where DAG had made the news, the clippings of complimentary pieces had been printed and the holos saved, all carefully framed. The break room was adorned with the latest crayon artwork of the men's children, those who had them. Such pieces held images of well wishes and admiration for Daddy, prompted by the inevitable cabal of military wives.
The color that entered Mosovich's office was usually, as now, in the form of holo calls from his own commanding officer, as projected by his AID, standing about two feet tall on his desk. It took a certain knack to project authority from a live image that was two feet tall. The Gods of War had, as always, a perverse sense of humor. Said knack was something his CO did not possess.
"Mosovich here, sir."
"Colonel, I have just forwarded your AID a detailed set of orders. Because of their unusual nature, I deemed it advisable to make myself available to answer any questions you might have," he said. "I think it would be best if we meet in town for lunch. I'd like to discuss this, for clarity's sake, in a situation where we won't have to worry about interruptions."
In other words, leave his fucking AID back at the office. It wasn't that military personnel were worried about recorded information being accessible to their own chain of command. They weren't. The tacit observation was that AIDs had proved to be unsecure on several occasions, and discussing that lack of security in the presence of AIDs had proved conspicuously unhealthy.
Initially, the Darhel had been able to keep a lid on their own accessing and manipulating of the AID data and behaviors by having any human who found out killed. That had worked throughout most of the Posleen war, even in the military.
The problems the Darhel faced with that strategy on a continuing basis were Darwinian in nature. The military culture had thousands of years of natural selection balancing the competing priorities of OpSec, the back channel, and the grapevine. Military culture likewise had the same forces of natural selection craft, in the survivors, a healthy distrust of upper level brass and higher command authority. It was a distrust that followed orders—with its eyes open.
As always, the upper level brass and higher command authority were not the real brain of the military, although many liked to believe they were. They directed the real brain of the military as to policy and mission, but they were not, themselves, that organ. Below the level where geopolitical strategy and politics built policy and mission, where the rubber of implementation strategy, application of logistics within given constraints, tactics, and doctrine met the hard road of military reality, lived the real brain driving the machine. The smarter of the top brass knew this, as did a few very smart political animals. Generally, those few survived in their positions by choosing not to remind their peers of inconvenient truths.
In a shorter time than the Darhel would have believed possible, their own heavy-handed actions had created, in reaction, an unofficial but highly effective combination of security-mindedness, back-channel, and grapevine—a postwar scar tissue. This barrier walled off the AIDs—and the Darhel—more and more from any information that the brains and teeth of the military tiger truly wanted to keep from them.
The Darhel were adept at dealing with human political animals. They were adept at dealing with human economic animals. They were adept at dealing with human lone predators. The brain and teeth of the surviving human military structures functioned like none of these creatures.
Two centuries earlier, Kipling had observed: "The strength of the wolf is the pack, and the strength of the pack is the wolf."
Had the Darhel home world evolved a closer analog of that terrestrial animal, the aliens might have had a more natural metaphor for understanding the most dangerous branch of humanity. Unfortunately for them, as advanced, brilliant, and predatory as the Darhel were, they had incompletely applied the biggest truism of xenopsychology—that alien minds are alien.
Hence, they—and the political humans, the economic humans, and the lone human predators—were aware of the exclusion of the AIDs from some matters as a minor irritant, but totally ignorant as to its scope and depth.
Mosovich's AID was quite put out with him when, reasoning that it would have to interrupt him if a communication came from a sufficiently high authority, and that he had been ordered by competent authority not to allow such interruptions, he left it behind in his desk. Jake's AID had long since retreated, permanently, to whatever emulation of the human martyred wife lived in its programming.
The general waited for him at a table next to the indoor waterfall of a very discreet Szechuan restaurant. The reputed excellence of the food was a nice bonus. He rose as Colonel Mosovich arrived, directed by a wizened little old lady carrying a pair of menus.
"Good to see you, Jake. I see you've forgotten your poor AID?" he asked, returning his subordinate's salute.
"Yes, sir. I'm afraid so." He sat, only a second behind the general.
"Good." His CO affirmed, nodding politely when the tiny woman offered their very good jasmine tea. "Jake, this mission has come down at the behest of the Joint Chiefs, but they don't much like the smell of it and I don't either.
"There is a corporation with a facility in your area that has, I am informed, had some intelligence indications of a terrorist threat. You will be providing that facility with a supplementary security detail immediately, for a duration to be determined. Because DAG must remain available for deployment in the event of attacks elsewhere, you are authorized to detach two squads to advise and supplement the corporation's own security forces and the civilian authorities." General Pennington looked like he had just swallowed a piece of broken glass.
"Jake, this is where the mission gets complicated. The Epetar Group, as you are probably aware," he waited for the colonel's nod before continuing, "had connections to the wrong side of a terrorist operation your people just had to clean up in Africa." He grimaced.
"DAG's mission is counterterror and antipiracy. We protect innocent civilians, and legitimate corporate property. We are not the Epetar Group's water boy to end up, through some goddamn complex Darhel fuck-up, supporting terrorist activity instead of fighting it. Where this ties in is that we suspect, but can't prove, that this facility, through a number of cutouts, is an Epetar Group operation. Among other things, one of their Darhel has been out there several times and the Darhel are too self-important, and too genuinely busy, to go places with no reason.
"No, we don't routinely tail high level Darhel, much as we'd like to be able to. We just sometimes hear things. Never mind sources and methods." He shrugged as the century-long specwar operator nodded.
Jake had seen far too many friends die because of blown OpSec. He would have been alarmed to get too much information he didn't need to know, rather than the reverse.
"Now, as far as I know, that Epetar facility is one hundred percent legitimate. And if we get indications of an imminent terrorist attack against it, you are to reinforce your token detachment. However, in service to DAG's primary mission, you may have to exercise some independent judgment on this one. Out of school, I am not happy. If I could give you clearer orders, I would, just to ensure any crap afterwards falls on me instead of you. I do not trust these Epetar people and I flat do not know what you're going to find up there. If it goes to hell, I'll back your play, Jake. Back on the record, we're good soldiers, and good soldiers obey orders, hooah?"
"Roger that, sir," Mosovich said unhappily. This mission already stank to hell and gone.
"Two squads, I know that's an unusually low detachment, but it is the absolute minimum we can send for this. My chain of command ordered us to send a few men up there, but they've quietly let it be known that we're not to over-do the corporate hand-holding, either. The fewer men we send, the less potential they have to wind up in the middle of some corporate clusterfuck where the politicians decide which side we were supposed to have been on after the fact." Pennington grimaced. He was a good officer, and good officers hated having to drop their men in the shit.
"Hooah," Jake said.
The rest of the conversation concerned the finer points of golf, a sport the general avidly pursued. Mosovich hadn't attained his current rank without a rounding out of this part of his military education. It wasn't a hobby of his own, but he could hold up his end of the discussion. In this case, Pennington wasn't talking from real interest, anyway, but just to provide necessary social noise in case someone was watching.
The food was excellent. His CO left a tip that expressed ample appreciation for its quality, along with that of all the other services just provided.
As a first day, George's started out normally enough. Loud music in his ear too damn early, hitting the snooze button, donning stiflingly boring corporate clothes, chugging a cup of his own bad coffee, black, rushing out the door. If traffic hadn't blessed him with extraordinary luck, he would have been late. As it was, he walked in the door two minutes early and congratulated himself on living up to his resolution to be on time, every time.
He knew someone would have to meet him to walk him in, but he hadn't expected it to be Ms. Felini herself. She wore a deep blue sweater-dress of something soft that clung and released as she moved, revealing every detail of her body, including the fact that she had plenty of upper body support without artificial aid. Her nipples stood out like pebbles underneath the dress, though they hadn't a moment before. She saw his appreciative look and ran her hands down the sides of her thighs, smoothing her skirt.
"On your first day, I thought I'd like to come for you myself. We can get to know each other better while I give you the tour," she said.
As she was saying this, she had come up beside him and taken his arm, draping herself on it so that her breast pressed against it. He reflected that his right arm was getting one hell of a lot of action lately. She acted as if this were perfectly normal, friendly behavior. Well, perhaps it was normal. For her. They walked together to the elevator. He reminded himself of her beautiful face as it had looked in the control room on the cube he had viewed. Safer to screw a Bengal tiger.
In the course of scanning her ident card at the elevator bank, she contrived to brush more of her admittedly very attractive body against him. "I hope you don't mind my being friendly. It's part of our organizational culture. We're all very close, here. We work hard, and play hard. I hope you're the kind of man who can work hard and play hard, too, Mark. Are you?"
For a few seconds, George had almost forgotten his cover's name. He reminded himself of how many times he had played the same kind of sexual games that this one was playing on him, with women he could use in his own missions. Better to play a mark than be one. He swallowed, hard, nodding nervously.
"Good," she purred. "You should be a very good fit. For the company."
As the elevator climbed to the third floor and the personnel department, he could smell her hair. "Your shampoo smells nice. Something like roses and apples," he said.
"Apples? Nobody's ever told me that before," she laughed, running a hand over said hair and pushing it into place.
As he said the trigger word, the elevator acquired a certain sharpness and clarity for him. He would form memories of the facility and events very precisely until he spoke the second trigger word to turn it off. At his debrief in the evening, he'd pour out everything he knew in every valuable detail. He couldn't possibly get a recording device or any media in, so he was the recording device.
In personnel, Prida excused herself, telling him she had something to take care of and would be back about the time he was done. The personnel clerk checked out a buckley PDA to him with firm instructions that it was never to leave the premises. The first thing George did with the PDA was select his cover's favorite personality overlay. The second thing he did was fill out forms. Lots and lots of forms.
True to her word, Prida was back and escorted him to her own office, for what she referred to as orientation. She motioned him to a chair in front of her desk and shut the door behind them. Walking around behind the desk she asked, "How much do you know about what we do here? Anything?"
"Only that you need my skills and you pay well."
"Well, one obviously has to know more than that." She set her own buckley on the desk. "I've got a cube to show you," she said, bending down behind the desk to open a drawer. "After we deal with the preliminaries."
When she sat up, she was wearing a headset he recognized, and he froze as the psychopathic nymphomaniac penetrated his mind, locking his will in an immovable grip.
"You will never, ever, ever tell anyone at all, outside those people in the company with whom we authorize you to work, anything about your job here or anything from those elevator doors on in," she ordered. "Do you understand? Answer."
"Yes. I understand," he found himself replying, as she squirmed greasily in the raw places of his mind. It felt like something out of SERE training. Bluntly, it pissed him off.
"Good. Now stand up and drop trou," she grinned. "You look too yummy to resist."
To his disbelief, he found he didn't even have the ability to hesitate. None of the background information had indicated that they were able to control people immediately, with no prep work. This op could start to go real bad just about now.
She knelt in front of him with a lazy smile.
"You can do yourself up now," she told him later, sinuously arching her back as she rose up into a full stretch from the vivid red tips of her toes, in her open-toed stilletos, up to her outstretched fingertips. She sat down on her desk, spinning and kicking her legs over the side to slide into her seat, like something out of a fucking nightclub act.
"I love a little quickie in the morning," she said.
She took the headset off. "All done." She made a shooing motion towards the door. "Go on, I've got to get this thing back down to operations. I hope you'll enjoy working with us."
"What about that cube you mentioned?" he gulped, endeavoring to look like a normal guy who'd just been both mind-probed and blown by his boss on the first day.
"Oh. That. There isn't one. I just wanted to lighten up that nasty security induction with a little present, because I like you. Have a great day."
At the end of the day, as the door of the building closed behind him and he followed the sidewalk back to the parking deck, he muttered one word under his breath. "Pears." The posthypnotic recording state terminated. His "new boss" was a real piece of work.