Sister Time John Ringo & Julie Cochrane

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Chapter Nineteen

Cally greeted George with the expected steamy kiss when he answered the door that evening. She realized the sleek leg she wrapped around him was probably overacting, but something about the guy just made her want to grab his composure and shake. He waved her in past him and she beamed in pleasure as she noticed the new plush carpeting. It was a garish shade of royal blue, but her relief made it look almost pretty to her. A guy had picked it out. What could you expect?

"Okay, guy. Debrief time. Record, buckley," she said.

"I can already tell this is going to be a truly horrible night," it announced cheerfully.

"Shut up, buckley," she ordered, half out of habit, dropping into a squishy chair and kicking her feet up on the coffee table.

"George. Yo. Debrief time? Start talking," she said.

He sat mutely on the threadbare couch, staring at the floor, hands clenched by his sides.

"George?" Alarms started flashing in her head. "They fucked you with that thing," she stated.

He sat for a minute, silent, before getting up and going to the kitchen. "Can I get you a cup of coffee?" he asked her.

"All right, dude." She stood up briskly, brushing her hair out of her face. "They're gonna be watching the doors to the building. I didn't spot any cameras on the way up, and neither did buckley. The door to the basement is in the lobby in full view of the front door, so that's out. Gotta be the roof. Where's your gear?"

"You hate heights," he said.

"Fuck the heights. Where's your gear?"

"Bedroom. Under the laundry in the corner."

"Got it," she said, leaving the room. She reappeared with a big green rope and a set of dark sweats for him. She had already stolen a cleaner set of his running clothes, although the black sweatshirt looked far better on her than it did on him.

She didn't bother him with chit-chat as they climbed the stairs to the roof. Some thoughtful jerk had padlocked the door shut. She opened a tube of what looked like first-aid cream and ran a line of dark goo around the padlock, sparking it with her cigarette lighter. When it popped, she grinned. "Thermite cream. Don't leave home without it."

She got down the side of that building with him as if it was nothing to her. There was a time and a place for fear. This wasn't it.

"Buckley, round up Vitapetroni. We're gonna need him," she said as they boarded a puce-walled lift back on base.

Minutes later, they sat in the office of the main base shrink. It didn't take long to explain the situation.

The psychiatrist had a bad habit of slowly turning his chair side to side. It squeaked. And if he crammed any more plants into the room, jungle fauna were going to start moving in. Cally realized he was speaking.

"Get him drunk," he said, pulling a bottle of pills out of his desk drawer.

"What the fuck?"

He shrugged. "Look, a compulsion not to do something is just a garden variety inhibition, I don't care how they implant it. Alcohol is very effective for lowering inhibitions. Besides," he waved the pills in the air, "it's the easiest drug to use on you guys, thanks to your own high jinks."

"You knew—and you didn't tell me," she stated.

"Damn straight. You know now. Get over it, lady," he said.

It surprised her that he was abrupt with her, until she remembered that this time she wasn't the patient.

"Three?" she asked, as he picked out a giant bottle of Kentucky bourbon and three long-stemmed glasses.

"We're all getting drunk. Absolutely stinko. When he's about that far from passing out," the shrink said, thumb and forefinger almost touching, "he'll spill his guts, your buckley will record everything, and we've got your debrief. Drinking with friends drops inhibitions more than drinking alone. At least, that's what it's going to say in my report." He shoved a box of holocubes across the desk. "George, you get first pick on the movie."

When she woke in the morning, she was still lying on Vitapetroni's waiting room floor, with a glass of water and a hangover pill on the table in front of her. Also, one of the shrink's eccentric yellow sticky notes, the writing of which was so cramped up on the little paper scrap that she had to squint to read it. "He'll be fine. Your PDA has the debrief. Tommy took him home, Schmidt's cover is intact."

Cally picked up her buckley and called up the text of the debrief. Her first task was to scan the intelligence available for what she thought of as "special features." Every operational situation, in real life, contained unique factors that would be so difficult to predict ahead of time as to be infinitely improbable. The trick of mission planning was to isolate the idiosyncrasies of the situation that you could exploit and build around them. Different details, different plan. If cookie-cutter plans from some kind of spy super-playbook would work, nobody would need recon. In her experience, special features created security cracks into which the seeds of opportunity fell.

"Buckley, project me a text window for my notes, up and to the left, thanks," she ordered.

"I've read the debrief. So many places for things to go wrong. I've been compiling a list for you."

"Shut u—" She stopped. "On second thought, after I construct the plan, give me the ten most probable failure points."

"Really?" It sounded pathetically eager.

"Yes, really. Now shut up and let me work."


One feature jumped out at her almost instantly. "Sweeps for new subjects on Thursday nights. Recent experiments show a decreasing number of subjects for statistical analysis of data, reducing potential significance of results—they'll have to sweep this Thursday and the next five after to replenish their supply, if they're true to pattern. Note that, buckley. It's one way in the door—no comments, please." George's brush up on statistics was coming in handy.

There was another. "Hybrid Earthtech and Galtech building and they make their ventilation system out of Galplas? Morons. Note that. Not the morons bit, the part about the ducting."

She began to hum happily as she picked through the report. George had gotten a damned impressive pile of details on one day. Okay, no automated recording or storage media of any kind would make it past the security scanners at the entrance. Then what could make it past? And the cleaners and thugs wore the same uniforms, which George had gotten a good look at. Okay, she had the brands of the database software and the security systems purchased. Shoot that by Tommy and see what he'd notice. What, if anything, could they find out about the security on the device itself? They moved it back and forth for trials. Could George contrive to be walking by when they took it out or returned it? What could Tommy help him find out? Did Michelle's inside man know anything useful—and how to ask him if it turned out that he might? Oh, making a list, checking it twice . . .

Two hours later, she ordered lunch sent up, too engrossed in picking around for features and holes to move. She waved absently to Vitapetroni as he wandered through his own waiting room. Today being his admin day, with probably no appointments, he didn't disturb her.

Wednesday 12/1/54

Winchon was startled, stepping out of his sixth floor corner office, to see a straw-haired man, more boyish looking than most juvs, short enough to be Indowy-raised, wandering around the halls on his floor. All this he noticed in an instant, along with the presence of an authentic employee badge. He was also certain that the man was not Indowy-raised, both from his body language and from Erick's own failure to place the man among the large catalog of men, women, and children he knew by name and face.

"Who are you? Are you lost?" he asked the stranger who was evidently his employee.

"Oh, gosh, I'm sorry, sir. Mark Thomason." George offered his hand. "I was just looking for the break room," he said. Looking sheepish at the mentat's raised eyebrow, he explained, "They took the Snickers bars out of the vending machine on our floor. I was just hoping maybe somebody else's machine still had some."

"Sorry." The boss obviously wasn't. "All the snacks in ours are geared to the tastes of the Indowy-raised. As an Earther, I doubt you would like them. You are, however, welcome to try. If you walk to that end of the hall, turn the corner, and walk through the second door on the left, you will find what you are looking for," he said.

His employee thanked him and walked towards the elevator bank, instead. The mentat dismissed the unimportant incident from his mind, continuing on his own intended course to speak with his assistant. He could have called her to him, but he wanted to stretch his legs. It had been a productive morning. The walk to the opposite corner office and back would combine a scheduled break with a useful task. Efficient.

As he walked in her door, Felini put down her AID. That she expected him was no surprise. A competent aide, she knew his daily schedule as well as he did.

"Prida, I need you to check with the travel office and verify that all the arrangements are as they should be for the Caribbean convention. Everything from the flight out on the afternoon of the eighth to the moment I arrive back at my apartment Sunday night. Last time, those cretins booked me in a hotel that had no pool, with a restaurant that was a carnivore's delight but did nothing for me. I informed them of my dissatisfaction, but I have learned not to expect stupidity and incompetence to abate merely because of a complaint and a couple of terminations. It is, of course, a ridiculous waste of your time, but I need it," he said.

"I'll take care of everything." His assistant was an absolute paragon of control, despite her minor idiosyncracies. She was an Earther. He expected no better in moral development, contenting himself with prodigious competence.

"Thank you. You have no idea how much I am looking forward to this convention. The keynote speaker, Alexandra Patel, will be presenting her paper on motivational strategies in postwar subsistence economies. I have read a small preview of her findings and they are fascinating. The implications for our work could be very significant. Oh, and note that I am not staying at the convention hotel. The Pearlbrook has self-contained chalets right on the beach. I am supposed to have one reserved, but please do verify it." He turned and began the other half of his restful walk, knowing that he could trust his accommodations and amenities to be perfect.

Thursday 12/2/54

The Personnel Department at the Institute for the Advancement of Human Welfare wasn't aware of the details of new employee orientation as practiced by Prida Felini. Not that they could have done anything about it if they were. Personnel weenies worked away from the most sensitive company operations and management carefully shielded them from those realities. Personnel weenies had way too much opportunity to damage the company through the passive-aggressive retaliations that were so hard to detail and therefore compel against. Insufficiently specific compulsions tended to wear off unless reinforced regularly—another technical problem to solve before they could release a production model of the Aerfon Djigahr. One, teensy compulsion was unpleasant, but hardly something to make a federal case out of. It was, however, just the kind of thing to get their panties in a twist. Personnel weenies bored Prida to tears. Consequently, she tried to make her interactions with them as rare and brief as she could get away with.

The little man at her door now was one of the most boring people in that department. Granted, it was his job to see that suitable candidates were presented, and interviews scheduled, until positions were filled. And every minute she spent with the little bastard she couldn't help thinking about all the fun she could be having if she wasn't occupied dealing with him.

"What is it?" she said, not bothering to waste courtesy on such a nonentity.

"Excuse me, Ms. Felini. Sorry to interrupt you but in-processing is screaming for that reception clerk again. I've got a list of all the qualified applicants I can forward to you." The underling didn't meet her eyes, just stared at the ground looking stupid.

Screaming. She'd be screaming with boredom until she ditched the man. "Pick the most qualified candidate, schedule it. Hal," she addressed her PDA, "send Personnel my schedule for the next month. The first or second week in December would be preferable, as I'm quite busy. It seems one is always busiest in the holiday season." She stared out her virtual window, which was much more interesting than the weenie, and dismissed him. "That should be all you need. I need to get back to work. Shut the door on your way out."

Samuel resisted the urge to hum as he trotted back down to the third floor and his own desk. Some favors were a joy to return, regardless of the risks. Besides, while he hadn't taken to all that much that was Indowy, the Path ought to mean something to a mentat. The human mentat O'Neal would now have her second friend hired into the company. He couldn't have cared less why Ms. O'Neal wanted these people hired, though he couldn't help guessing a lot. Whatever it was would be nothing but bad for Ms. Felini and Mr. Winchon, the corrupt son of a bitch, and that was plenty good enough for him.

There was a big smile on his face as he placed the voice mail call to the planted candidate requesting an interview. He was having a very good day—so good a day that his coworkers had to tap him on the shoulder several times to ask that he stop whistling.

Cally O'Neal sat down on the winter-brown grass in front of the tractor Granpa was winterizing for one of her cousins. She stuffed her hands in the pockets of her new, secondhand coat. "I've got an interview. December tenth. One of the clerk covers. Guess I'm the next one in," she said.

"So the girlfriend draw did the trick, did it? Told you so." He spat tobacco juice over his shoulder, simultaneously attempting to wipe the black grease off his hands with a shop towel. He only succeeded in moving it around, of course.

"This puts the whole show on for the tenth, if Michelle can get us the decoy device in time. Winchon's scheduled for a conference in the Caribbean." His granddaughter ignored the I-told-you-so and tried, in vain, to tuck the short, black strands of hair behind her ears. It blew into her eyes, and the dark hair was so much more distracting than her "natural" silver blond. After so many hair changes she should have been used to it. She sighed. On the job, yes. At home, no.

He nodded approvingly. "A Friday. Quitting time on a weekend is the fastest way to clear an office building I know of."

"Want me to go fetch you some hot coffee?" she asked.

"I knew I raised you right. You know how I take it."

"You sure you want a double shot of that rotgut you drink in it when you're messing with tools?"

"I am not 'messing with tools' as you put it. I am conducting the precision operation of winterizing a valuable agricultural machine. You're the one who volunteered to get me coffee, young'un, now git!"

She traipsed across the fields to the house, feeling like she was eight again and just learning to run demo. Carefree days, if you didn't count the Posties. Well, she'd lost count of her own Posties in the first engagement, anyway. Now she had her own girls to pick up from Jenny and Carrie's house this afternoon. Time sure did fly.

Monday 12/6/54

"We're all here, so let's get started," his granddaughter said.

Michael O'Neal, Senior, spat into the paper cup he'd filched from the mess hall. Being on an operational team with his own grandchild was a special kind of purgatory for O'Neal. He didn't grumble to himself over it, because he figured he had a lot of time stored up for one penance or another, anyway. Okay, so he didn't grumble much. The oldest living O'Neal never forgot that he was an old man in a young man's body. He had gone the whole route, from looking death in the face as a young man, himself, in the jungles of Vietnam—where death was a hunter you could avoid if you were both good and lucky—to looking death in the face as an old man, where it rolled up on you, a slow juggernaut that killed by inches as more and more of your parts and systems just didn't work like they'd used to. He hadn't made his peace with it. To his mind, anyone who said they had was lying—unless maybe it was less than a few hours off. Anyhow, those things in the heart and mind that turn a young man into an old one, he'd already traversed forty or fifty years ago.

His granddaughter, in her perpetually twenty-year-old body, had never felt what it was to age. Much as she thought she had the maturity of a full life to the same degree as a prewar woman of sixty, she had no idea. It wasn't time that made you old. It was your experiences. She'd had plenty of horrifying ones, but not the right ones, or not the same ones, anyhow, to give that perspective that came from getting old. A non-juved man or woman of her age could tell her a thing or ten about life.

She was going over the building floor plan, and working ingress and egress strategies. He knew she had various theories about why he had long since ceded command of the team to her. None of them were right. He needed a fresh plug of chaw. It was off-brand stuff that didn't taste quite right. He cleared his mouth and seated the fresh dose of nicotine, anyway.

His real reason for putting her in charge and leaving her there was that it made it far easier to watch her back. That meant more, now that the slab was gone. She'd died once in her career so far, and not just piddling little technical death-on-the-table of the prewar kind. She'd had a major organ-system blown away damned near real death. Without the slab, another one of those and she'd be gone for real. Half the time, his contributions to mission planning put him in place to cover her ass. If he had been in command, she would never have tolerated his shuffling her off to nice, safe spots. For one thing, there weren't any, for another, it would put the whole team at risk, and for a third, he'd just wake up one morning to find she'd transferred to another team.

This was the next best thing. He did his job, she did her job, he trusted her skill and competence and all that shit. There were proper mission slots devoted to covering a teammate's ass. He made sure that, as often as possible, when the right job was there, he was the one watching her back. When it wasn't, he put it out of his mind, completely, and did whatever job the mission dictated, knowing that a fuckup from him could kill her as surely as any enemy could.

So he didn't command. Planning, though, involved the whole team. Everybody's head had to be in the game one hundred percent to catch flaws in the plan, like now.

"Did I just hear you say you want me to go in through the ventilation shafts? Hello? Clang, clang, clang? Don't go all Hollywood on me, people," he said.

Everybody was looking at him as if he'd jumped in from Mars. He smiled sheepishly. "Okay, I obviously missed something. You caught me woolgathering."

Cally gave him a mom look, like he was a kid found climbing on the cabinets. "Granpa, the ducts are Galplas. Great for some architectural reason, I'm sure, but lousy for security. You also don't have to make as many of those weird turns. Apparently, Galplas can go farther in straight lines than steel or aluminum—something about heat expansion. You'll be carrying the decoy device behind you, but we've got a padded pouch for it with strap attachments and wheels on the bottom. You should have no problems pulling it along behind you."

He radiated skepticism.

"Sorry, but you're the only one who can get the device in. There's no way in hell Tommy will fit, George and I have other routes inside, and no offense, Harrison, but you don't have the right set of skills to take down any nasties, fast and quiet. Besides, you're stronger than Harrison, Granpa. The device is pretty heavy—about a hundred kilos. We all have upgraded muscles, so any of us could carry it, but you started off with the same lifter's strength as Daddy. You're going to be the best getting it through that ductwork, especially this vertical climb," she said, sticking a pointer into the ducting hologram her buckley had flashed up.

"So how do I get in? And do I really want to know?" Tommy said.

"We know their likely sweep pattern and their sweeps are always Thursday nights. We know they need more subjects. We position you to get swept up. The next afternoon, you're already in the building, we break you out."

"I don't like this plan," Tommy said. The other faces at the table had varying expressions of alarm, except for George, who looked thoughtful.

"Tommy, when you analyzed their internal security systems, you said they were a piece of crap designed to contain the technically ignorant, and could be defeated with canned scripts. That wrong?" George asked.

"Hell, no. They are a piece of crap. But do we know if all the people caught in the sweep go to the company or get split off for involuntary colonization? I don't want to end up with a one-way ticket to Dulain. Besides, predicted sweep patterns can change. Not to mention the hazards of joining Doctor Mengele's fun and games. If they're that low on victims, who's to say they aren't going to start in on people the first day? I read George's report of how fast their compulsions can work."

"On the sweep patterns, if we can go through and take our intelligence data to analyze where sweeps have happened before, and population traffic patterns, so can they." She pulled up a map. "There's a nice, juicy fat community right here that hasn't been plucked yet. It's the most likely target. Hey, they don't pick you up, we go to plan B."

"I like the sound of plan B better already. What is plan B?" he asked.

"That Harrison goes in through the vents with Papa and an AID to run canned scripts, and you drive the car. You can see all the potential that has to go wrong. We have no backup cyber. If we can't get into the room with the Aerfon Djigahr, the whole mission's a bust. I had hoped you'd be the first one we got in as an employee, but it just didn't turn out that way."

"The cracking equipment goes in on me either way," the O'Neal said.

"George, you're inside. What do you rate the chances of Sunday being a casualty between when he gets in there and when we break him out? I've got my own guesstimate, but I want yours."

"I think there's a decent chance they'll do something with him. How high, I don't know. But what she put on me had to be an easy task for Felini. As Mark Thomason, as far as they knew, I had already agreed to keep my mouth shut, so they expected it to be easy. As me, I keep secrets far more than I run off at the mouth about them, so it worked—until the doc broke it. The really awful stuff they do they still have to build up to. Anyway, the biggest thing is that only Winchon and Felini can work the device so far, and Winchon's gonna be out of town." He looked at the huge man. "The chances Felini alone can do anything permanently harmful in one day are real low," he said.

"The old Company motto: we bet your life." He shrugged. "Sorry, being helpless goes against the grain. There's no other way to get me inside?"

"None that I could find. I looked at security, supplies in, trash out—all the first choice routes I could think of. Look over it yourself. We've got some time. See if you can find anything I missed. We might get lucky."

"If I wanted a nice, safe, desk job, I wouldn't be here. Okay, I'll see if you missed anything. I hope so, because thinking about it I like plan B even less than plan A."

She grimaced sympathetically. "Sorry."

"Okay, so everybody knows the timing, the routes in for our gear, the routes in for us, the switch, and our route out. Have we missed anything?" she said.

"What's the go to hell plan?" Papa asked

"We have secondary routes out here and here." When she mentioned them, her buckley obediently highlighted the paths through the building in red and green. "As you can see, the red route is shorter but last choice, because it has one more actively patrolled hallway intersection, more chance of after hours workers, and two more cameras to gimmick. That's the most active stairway in the building, being closest to the front entrance. Buckley, give me the green route," she said. "This stairway is farthest from the secure room, but least used and closest to the west loading bay. The guys bringing in supplies don't take the stairs, they take the freight elevator. The trash goes into the burn bin there, so we also have the least likelihood of questions."

"Don't tell me we're hauling that cart down the stairs?"

"Either that or just the device."

"What's the problem with the freight elevator?"

"More chance of traffic and requires a real badge. Tommy could probably crack it, but it's more time spent and more risk of hostile encounter. The stair exit is around a corner from the elevator. Papa carries the prototype, Tommy carries the cart, George and I are available for reaction."

"If that's it, then mull it over, look for flaws, and get me any comments by the end of the day. Take off, people."

Thursday morning, 12/9/54

"Your office door is jammed," one of her work crew informed Michelle, as she walked up the side of the construction bay on her way in. It lacked only a final check of her work before she made delivery of the Aerfon Djigahr decoy to her sister. Then the endeavor would be out of her hands. She had not allowed this situation to ruffle her emotional equilibrium, so far, but with the grade II Sohon technician's announcement, she found she actually had to devote a moment's thought to restabilizing her heart beat and halting release of stress hormones.

"Shall I call maintenance?" he asked.

"Why waste their time? I will handle it. Thank you very much for informing me," she said.

Oddly, the door opened perfectly correctly at her touch. Perhaps someone else had cleared the problem for her. Inside, the situation explained itself. There was a Tchpth fidgeting stealthily in the corner of her office, taking unusual care not to be visible through the open door.

"Wxlcht?" She laughed. "Have you taken up Himmit impressions in your old age?"

"I do not come to laugh, human mentat O'Neal. Planners at the highest level have reached an extremely rare decision," he said. "They have determined that the Darhel Pardal's attempt to engineer the death of one of the very few, and very first, Wise of an entire sophont species is an unendurable threat to long-term Galactic existence. They have determined that measures of the same order of gravity are, most regrettably, necessary. They have also determined that the most skilled intriguer available from among your own clan would present the least risk to stability in the process of quieting the threat. We knew the price when we deviated from the Path, even by proxy, even for species survival. Knowing it and paying it are, to our sorrow, different matters. We turn a ripple against a ripple, hoping they cancel more than they create. It is all most unfortunate. Most unfortunate. Barbarism always is." He bounced silently for a several minutes, uninterrupted.

"Will you arrange this?" he asked, finally.

The Tchpth were a race almost as ancient and wise as the Aldenata. They were well set upon the Path of Enlightment. Never in her life could Michelle imagine one of them, essentially, contracting a hit. She managed to conceal her surprise.

"You know that I understand the stakes, old friend. There is another consideration, I am afraid. Regardless of their faith in the Wise among us, the jeopardy of my life as an individual complicates this particular ripple." She recognized his expression of shock at her perceived insane selfishness as easily as she would have recognized the expressions of her own species. "It will be assumed by masses of the young and foolish, and many who should know better, that I am acting alone, out of individual human barbarism. Forgive me, but your own reaction demonstrates my point. You have known me for nearly my whole life, and your first suspicion was human self-interest. The repercussions to all, if I did this and the Indowy masters were to draw hasty conclusions, would be severe. They would find out, you know. The gravity of my perceived sin would override the strongest traditions of informational discretion among the Indowy."

His request that she arrange an assassination was extremely disturbing, but she could, of course, see his point. Beyond that, she had immense respect for the Tchpth planners. She also had an intimate personal awareness of how humans and Galactics both were apt to react to the power of a mentat in the hands of a human. This gave her, perhaps, a more immediate understanding of how others would react to such an action on her part.

"I grant your point. However, it may, even so, be the lesser risk. I would not mention, but there is a significant favor in question." The Tchpth's bouncing took on an agitated air, as her friend clearly wondered if he was asking for too big a repayment of her social debt to him. He would think that. They were, after all, talking about a murder—however justified.

"A most significant favor, and I thank you again for your previous assistance." She inclined her head, acknowledging how much she owed him. "We are fortunate, as I have a simple solution," she said. "You speak to the Indowy Aelool, personally. He will accept the advice of wisdom. He will also be able to convey a message to my sister that will both explain the need and confirm that the request is personal among clanmates. Aelool will not recognize the message, but the human Cally O'Neal will. I can assure you that it will address your immediate concerns."

"I do not wish to know why such a message springs so readily to mind, do I?" the Tchpth danced nervously, one set of five legs, then the other, back and forth. She did not blame him for feeling agitated. "And will the Aelool accept her explanation enough to allow her to do what is necessary?"

"Probably you do not want to know. With Aelool, you will just have to make enough hints at the real matter that when she tells him what the phrase means, he will believe her." Michelle bit her lip, thinking. "Could you also make a simple delivery for me while you are there? That you bring a delivery from me may help clarify the message," she offered.

"Of course. At no obligation, as this more than returns the balance of debt. We will incur a certain level of obligation to Clan O'Neal."

"Tell Aelool I said to turn loose her leash. She will know what it means." The mentat busied herself examining the finished device critically as she boxed it for delivery. Offloading the errand gave her most of the morning to catch up on her backlog. "Please give me a moment to do a last quality check on the item for my sister. Apropos of nothing, my brother-in-law's endeavors are developing adequately." Giving Cally her head would certainly accomplish the Tchpth aims, but with terrible consequences, even if their planners had chosen the lesser damage. The long-term consequences to her own clan would be painful. The Earth-raised among them would, very likely, take this move as justification of their heedless, rash, headlong plunges into actions with insufficient judgment of consequences. The philosophical damage to Clan O'Neal would be laborious to repair. Most laborious. She had so been trying to set a good example. Ripples upon ripples indeed—but her friend was speaking.

"You have given an odd message. Thank you." The Crab bounced quietly in his corner, inscrutable now that the onus of such an unpleasant deed had returned to him, plainly relieved that the message, so harmless on its face, allowed him to distance himself even farther from any ultimate actions. Regarding James Stewart's activities, he made no reply.

Nathan O'Reilly suppressed the urge to grumble into his morning coffee. It was an unpleasant surprise that he hadn't known there was a Tchpth in his base until Aelool walked in the door with him. He hated intelligence failures. Granted, it wouldn't have been possible for the operatives to give him much notice, but even a little would have been nice. Especially since he was practicing his dart throwing accuracy against a cork board picture of the Tir Dol Ron. He covered his chagrin with the smooth grace bred by many years of organizational and professional politics.

"Please, have a seat," he said, gathering darts and board, nonchalantly storing them in their proper place. "May I get you a water?" he asked.

Aelool said "please" at the same time as the unknown Tchpth said "no thank you." His stomach was tied in a tight little knot, because Aelool was carrying the awaited device for the Michelle O'Neal mission.

"Wxlcht, I would like you to meet Nathan O'Reilly, head of the O'Neal Bane Sidhe." If the Crab was surprised by Aelool's deferring authority to the Jesuit priest, he gave no indication. "Nathan, my Tchpth friend is named Wxlcht. He is the Speaker of Intrigue. He is here, however, in the capacity of those of his kind far wiser than himself."

Oh shit, O'Reilly thought, silently apologizing to the Almighty for the vulgarity. What the hell did we get into to have what amounted to the Crab head of Intel in my office, speaking with the authority of the entire Tchpth species. Lord, please be with humanity in this time of trial, he prayed.

"Wxlcht is here to deliver an instruction to me, to be repeated to Miss O'Neal," the Indowy said.

"The human Cally O'Neal," the ambassador interrupted.

"Yes. Miss Cally O'Neal," Aelool accepted the correction.

"May I ask the nature of this message?" The priest continued to pray, silently.

"Four words. 'Turn loose her leash,'" the Crab quoted.

"Are you very sure you want us to relay those exact words to Cally O'Neal. I do not know how she will interpret them, so I cannot guarantee the consequences. At all," he warned. This was both far better and far worse than he had feared. That was nothing that Nathan himself would ever say to Cally. Ever.

"Yes. Those exact words. You do not know, yet, what they mean. The Tchpth do, and she will." The planner paused, thinking. "If there is any question in her mind, and if you think it wise, you may tell her I made that delivery after speaking with her sister. And tell her that soon would be good. Very soon." He indicated the decoy prototype with one limb. "We would not . . . It is, if there were not grave hazard to . . . We never otherw . . . Enough." He sighed, his body stuttering a bit in its perpetual multilegged tap dance.

"I trust and expect your absolute discretion," he said. "We do, of course, acknowledge the creation of a debt to the Clan O'Neal. A significant debt."

Good Lord! Big. Dangerous, big, and either cataclysmic or priceless. He made the only possible answer, "You have my word."

"And mine," Aelool added.

"Thank you, and farewell."

That it did not merely say "goodbye" was another surprise. Ordinarily, any Tchpth would avoid even a simple change of leaving-word as too explicit an expression of well wishes to any "vicious omnivore." Curioser and curiouser.

After his unusual visitor departed, along with his own Indowy counterpart, Nathan took his AID out of his desk. "Get Cally O'Neal in my office. Now."

Minutes after Father O'Reilly's peremptory summons, Cally entered his office. She had not stopped to change out of leotard and leg-warmers, but instead stood before him barefoot, hair in a ponytail and gym towel around her neck. She blotted her still perspiring face and bounced on her toes, clearly feeling her endorphin rush.

"Decoy Aerfon Djigahr in?" she asked.

"Yes, but that's not why you're here," he said.

She stilled. "Nothing bad, I hope?"

"That depends on you. A high-level Crab planner delivered the decoy, in person. He also, after informing us that he was speaking on behalf of the entire Tchpth leadership structure, gave us a message with the strict instructions to quote it to you, verbatim."

"And?" she prompted, when he paused and was wasting time searching her face, as if she knew a damn thing about it. Unless it was about Stewart. That could be bad.

"Turn loose her leash," he quoted.

"Excuse me?" She wasn't quite sure she'd heard what she thought she'd heard. Or, she was, but thought she'd better hear it again, just to make sure.

"Turn loose her leash," he repeated. "He also said I could tell you he delivered the device here himself. He certainly thought you'd know what he meant. If you don't, we're in a very bad position."

"Oh, I know what he meant. He had to have gotten that"—she pointed at the machine—"from Michelle. Therefore, logically he got the message from her, as well. What I can't figure out is why the hell the Crabs would order a hit on Pardal."

"They wha—?" It was the first time she'd seen O'Reilly slack-jawed.

"At a meeting with Michelle recently, I offered to kill Pardal for her—more to get a rise out of her than anything. If you could have just seen . . . I meant it, of course, but I knew she'd never bite. Or thought I knew. And I don't know what the Crabs have riding on this. How close are my sister and this Crab, anyway?"

Nathan picked up his AID. "Tell Aelool I need him again, but phrase it nicely. Then give me an executive summary of Michelle O'Neal's relationship with the Tchpth Planner Wxlcht." He had learned early on to ask for executive summaries as the magic words that prevented his AID from talking his ears off.

"Michelle O'Neal and the Tchpth Planner Wxlcht," it replied immediately. "They are both avid aethal players and partner each other frequently. They communicate often, exchange favors, and are unusually close for members of their respective species. Executive summary material prepared by analysis of organizational files. Would you like me to broaden my search or elaborate on existing material?"

"That's quite sufficient. Thank you." It wasn't necessary to thank an AID, but the priest was wise enough to know that any habit of omission of the basic courtesies would carry over into his relationships with humans and Galactics. He was always polite to his AID.

"So would he do this from friendship and to return a favor? Would he lie about representing his government?" the assassin asked the machine.

"That is not even a remote possibility," Aelool said as he entered the room, forestalling the AID's reply. "The Tchpth would never tolerate insanity in a planning position, nor have they had an adult manifestation of insanity in a thousand years, except as a temporary reaction to some drugs. I would have noticed had Wxlcht been drugged, unlikely as that would have been. The message and authority were authentic. What did it mean?"

"Miss O'Neal informs me that the Tchpth government has requested that she kill the Darhel Pardal," O'Reilly said woodenly.

Aelool slumped to the floor, landing seated. "If this is a human joke, it is in execrable taste."

"Aelool, I'm really not kidding. Even I am not that dense about interspecies relations," she said.

"Then you are mistaken," the literally floored alien stated.

"Anything is possible," she answered.

"Not this," he declared.

O'Reilly could see a situation developing and was about to intervene when Cally opened her mouth again.

"I meant, it is possible that I'm interpreting his message wrong, or that he thought it meant something different from what it means to me. This could be a misunderstanding," she allowed.

"It is. It most certainly is. Please tell me why you have come to this conclusion so that we can sort out the real meaning." The small creature wasn't happy with Miss O'Neal. Again.

The priest said nothing, wanting to hear the answer, too.

"When I met Michelle a week or so ago to give her that information she wanted from her Tong contact on the Moon, she said some nasty things about Pardal and I offered to kill him for her. More as a joke than anything."

"A bad one," Aelool said.

"Granted," she nodded. "But then she said that it was a good thing you guys kept me on a tight leash. That's the only time Michelle and I have ever talked about a leash. Ever. So as ridiculous as it seems, can we at least consider what motives the Tchp— Tphk— Crabs would consider sufficient to order a specific sentient being killed?"

"Tchpth do not kill sophonts. Not even second or third hand," Aelool reiterated.

"Of course they do!" Cally contradicted. "They sure as hell commissioned humanity to kill off Posleen. In job lots."

"That was because the Posleen were a threat to all of the Wise and, thereby, to all the sentient life in the galaxy." Aelool sounded positively testy.

"Don't get mad at me. I'm not giving the orders. I'm just the poor kid at the sharp end." Apparently deciding it was an oversight that she had not been invited to sit, or making a subtle Cally-esque point, she walked to the other side of the coffee table from the spot where Aelool was still seated on the floor and planted herself in a chair.

Aelool got up and moved to a chair, himself. As O'Reilly joined them, the Indowy explained, as if to a child, "The whole institution of the Wise was at stake. The whole Path was at stake. Without the Wise to guide others on the Path, the remaining sophonts would eventually destroy themselves and the galaxy with them. The Tchpth very reluctantly deemed using barbaric omnivores to kill barbaric omnivores an absolute necessity."

Nathan O'Reilly raised a hand. "A moment, Aelool." He rubbed his forehead pensively. "That Tchpth was as upset as I've ever seen one; he said the situation was grave 'or they wouldn't' whatever. He sure didn't like what he was having to say, and he went to a lot of trouble to let us know it was from their whole government. He clearly didn't think a misunderstanding would be a possibility, and it was something he couldn't or wouldn't come right out and say."

"Pardal is trying to kill Michelle. She'd be one of your 'Wise,' wouldn't she? How would the Crabs extrapolate events from that? Or could Pardal be into something else that big or that dangerous?"

"Wait." Aelool held up a green, furry hand for silence—a human gesture—and thought.

After a moment, he looked directly into her eyes—for the first time, ever. "The consequences if you are wrong would be unthinkable."

Finally, the human leader of the O'Neal Bane Sidhe did intervene. "Plausibly, the highest Tchpth planners could have extrapolated events from the Darhel's planned murder—don't equivocate, that's what it is—of one of the first human mentats to some sort of Galactic threat. I can't see it, but I can't understand their physics, either. Aelool, I hate to ask you, but how close is your wisdom to theirs?"

"It is not close." He cringed. "You asked him if he was very, very sure. On their own heads be it, and I hope the Tchpth can be made to see it that way if she is wrong. All we can wisely do is just exactly what it told us. We turn loose her leash." He turned to the priest. "My friend, do you still keep the human custom of prayer?"

"Of course," the Jesuit answered.

"I hope very much that you will never find a better time to practice it. Please excuse me. This is more distressing than any human can imagine." The little green alien left the room without another word.

"So. How do you plan to kill him, and when?" O'Reilly, having resigned himself to the business at hand, was determined to see it come off successfully.

"Did the Crab say when?" she asked.

"He only said, 'Soon. Very soon.'" O'Reilly had no idea what to make of this. It would take time to sort through the implications. At least, to sort through as many of them as a human could follow.

"Then it has to be tomorrow," she announced.

"What? Are you crazy?"

"Not recently. We can't reschedule the run for Michelle; there isn't time. We'd never get another chance before she died. On the other side of that coin, if either target learns the other has been hit, the security walls are going to go way, way up and whichever mission is second will be impossible short of nukes—and maybe not even then. They have to be done as close together as possible."

"You're the second inside man at the target. They know your appearance. You have to be there personally or it doesn't come off. The hit on Pardal also absolutely has to be you, because the Tchpth said so—rather, they said you, so we use you. In case you're somehow wrong, as is distinctly possible, our only possible excuse is that they picked the message, and the recipient, after being specifically warned. I also specifically declaimed responsibility for the consequences of delivering such a message to you."

"I love you, too, Nathan."

"Cally, that message is something I would never, ever have chosen to say to you on my own. There's just no telling who or how many would die next." She looked affronted as hell. "You are very good at your job. Good assassins always need target control in the hands of someone other than themselves. Which, in this case, it still is. If, may the Good Lord and all of the Saints preserve us, you're right." And so help him, if she made an inappropriate joke about his appeal to the almighty, he just might kill her.

"Okay. My interview isn't until late afternoon. So I kill Pardal in the morning, and you have Harrison waiting for me with the car and my interview clothes. I'll change on the way."

"It's damned late to be making radical changes of plans. How are you going to kill him?" he asked. He didn't add that she might be overreaching in assuming her success and survival. He didn't need to.

"Don't know yet," she shrugged. "Hey, no plan survives contact with the enemy. This is what you pay me for. I'll shoot you a revised mission plan just as soon as I've got it—tonight at the latest. Honest, just relax. Trust me."

As soon as she was gone, O'Reilly called his assistant and asked for some aspirin. He had developed a killer headache.

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