Sister Time John Ringo & Julie Cochrane

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Chapter Twenty-One

In her persona as Mark's girlfriend, Cally O'Neal was again in a sweater dress, and still busty. It was always either highlight her mammary assets or make her look fat with padding. Harrison had chosen to play them up as his interpretation of the "girlfriend" role, this time in a cheaper, off-the-rack, blue dress, topped with a gray wool coat. She felt conspicuous, even though he had assured her that the supportive bands of tape holding her cracked ribs in place were invisible under the clinging dress. A mix of lambs' wool and angora, the knit was thick, soft, and fuzzy. He assured her he had chosen it to blur outlines, anticipating the need. He'd praised her luck in keeping her face intact, but winced as he layered on makeup to cover the red and rising bruises. Artful highlights and shadows concealed the swelling. He'd assured her the illusion would hold for an hour or two, even though she'd look like she'd layered on her foundation with a trowel. It couldn't be helped, so she'd have to play to it, making the character fit the behavior. He'd helped by giving her a couple of fake blemishes, making them look as if she had tried to conceal them, and only partially succeeded—a woman sensitive about her flawed skin.

Felicity Livio was supposed to be barely adult, with education and training fitting her for entry level clerical work. She looked the part.

George, aka Mark Thomason, met her just inside the entry to the building. The wind had started to pick up, carrying big, clumpy snowflakes built of the wet air coming off the lakes. They'd be breaking up into powder soon, as the temperature dropped.

Acclimated to Charleston, despite all her travels she hated snow. It put her in an even worse mood as George put his arms around her and tried to kiss her. She ached, she was cold, and he was male. None of this made her like him right now. "Get your fucking hands off me unless you want to lose them," she hissed, turning her head towards the door and away from observers.

"What the hell's the matter with you? We're supposed to be lovers!" he whispered in her ear.

She jerked away, unmercifully squashing the need to scream as his hand pulled against a rib. "Then we're having a fight. I mean it, keep your mitts off me," she muttered, plastering on a fake smile and walking briskly towards the elevator, heels clacking on the marble floor.

He trailed in her wake until she stopped in front of the guard. "Job interview. I'm walking her up," he said.

The guard scanned his ID, issued her a temporary, and she stalked to the elevator, scanning the red temp badge and hitting the call button. She could tell he'd love to bitch her out about her behavior, but couldn't. So she was taking her mad at Stewart out on him. So what? He was a man. Men were on her shit list right now. Rational thought didn't enter into it. And she didn't care, dammit. Goddamn insensitive son of a— A bell tinged and the elevator opened.

George's lips tightened as she relaxed her stiff posture, smiling at him as if absolutely nothing was wrong. He schooled his own features into something more appropriate before the elevator stopped and binged again.

"Where to?" she asked.

"This way." He didn't quite sound the part, but what could you expect?

She smiled and greeted Ms. Felini on automatic. Introductions were introductions. As the door closed behind them and the other woman offered her a seat, she looked at Cally curiously.

"I hope everything's all right. You and Mark looked a bit . . . stiff," she said.

"Oh, it's the moving in together thing. Small small, really. He has this absolutely awful lamp," she improvised.

"Ah. One must go through these little adjustments, mustn't one?" the interviewer said. "So if I hire you, we're not going to have any discord in the office, are we?"

"Oh, no." Cally laughed. "I'll let him off the hook the second he gets reasonable and ditches the lamp from hell. He's not that attached to it, he's just being stubborn. We've been through this kind of thing before."

Prida laughed with her, and the now-relaxed job applicant eased back in the comfortable leather chair, crossing her legs.

"Can I get you some coffee? You must be cold," the other woman said.

"Oh, oops. Yes, please." The assassin flushed and took off her coat, hanging it on the brass tree behind the door. It doesn't hurt, I feel fine. I feel abso-fucking-lutely fine. Ow, dammit.

Cally had to admit that she wasn't as attentive as she should have been during the interview, and maybe didn't make a terrific impression. But after all, it wasn't as if she really wanted the job. She was still well within the range of credibility as she listened to the boring parade of duties, from digging through spam filters to data entry.

Felini showed her out with the line, "We'll call and let you know, dear." The operative summoned a smile as if she really cared and asked the way to the ladies' room. Once there, she went to the second to last stall, the one least likely to get occupied, took a plastic pen and pad of sticky notes—the only things she'd dared smuggle through the front door—out of her purse. On it she scribbled, "Out of order—maintenance." Slapped on the door, it should ensure she wouldn't be disturbed. If someone from cleaning or maintenance did try to check, she'd have to take steps. Incapacitating but not immediately lethal—not if she could help it. Bodies, no matter how killed, tended to do immediate things that stank. Not to mention the dilemma of where to put one. Silencing live people for any significant span of time also had its problems. Hopefully, things wouldn't come to that. Considering the problem and its possible solutions took her mind off her hurts, although not in a particularly pleasant way. It would have been nice to have her PDA, but not possible. Papa was bringing a fresh one for her, ready loaded with a recent backup of her own buckley's memories and all her data. Until then, she was alone. Well, minus her PDA. Not that having a buckley with her was the same thing as not being alone. Not exactly.

* * *

From his uncontested position under a hot steam vent, Tommy had turned down propositions from eleven hookers—seven of them female, or apparently so—when the sweep came around just before oh-three hundred. He was one of a few caught in the net who weren't gibbering in panic. Three passed-out drunks barely stirred to grumble at being moved, before settling down in the body-heat warmth of the semi trailer. He wasn't good at panic. It didn't look credible on a man of his gargantuan size. He sat on the floor, contriving to look stupid. It was usually a good substitute.

He had initially been clean, inside malodorous clothes designed to conceal the effects of regular bathing. After seven hours in the dirty clothes, conspicuous cleanliness was no longer a problem. The uniformed thugs doing the sweep—formally called an urban assisted renewal program—initially looked like they intended to tazer him. His slack jawed, amiable compliance, as he slid into a more central position in the terrified herd, had saved him one small discomfort. Small, of course, was relative.

An hour later, being herded into a cold, locked, and otherwise empty room, whose corrugated steel walls shouted warehouse, he had definitely gotten tired of this game. Most of his fellows were shivering. The Special Police, SPikes, had rousted them out of warm beds. No wonder Sub-Urb residents were reluctant to move back above ground. The drunks may have been, for the moment, in a better situation. They would have likely frozen to death on this bitterly cold night. The room had heating—damned inadequate heating. He winced in sympathy with the folks who had to choose between freezing their asses on the concrete floor or standing on their bare feet. It wasn't like the bastards gave them time to grab anything. The SPikes were as eager to get out of the cold as anyone else, and weren't going to delay over the whining of a few trash colonists.

Tommy earned a grateful look from a mother by picking up a crying little boy of about seven. With a toddler and a baby on each hip, she had no room for the older child. He gave the kid his jacket and the loud crying subsided to miserable, wet sniffles against his big chest. One thing the SPikes would always stop for was parents rounding up their children, as every warm body, no matter how small, helped to fill the night's quota. They treated the children like glass. Not from compassion, but from fear of setting off their mothers. SPikes had died before at the hands of suicidally enraged women. Tiny ones, even.

After a timeless eternity, other goons shuffled them up some stairs and down a hall into a smaller holding room. The glow paint around the top of the walls was flaking off, leaving the room dim, but warm, as the Galplas floor held the heat from the room better than concrete slab on the ground. A vent in the ceiling blew out hot air and the captives began to settle to the floor as, for most, fatigue and warmth overcame terror. This was awkward, as seated people took up more space in the cramped room. Tommy ended up with three little kids and a hooker's head resting on top of him, he being too heavy to be anywhere but directly on the floor. His own head was stuck on a drunk's belly. He didn't complain, just sincerely hoped he wouldn't get puked on before George sprung him from this sardine can. He tried not to let himself think about the other possibilities.

Two hours later, Papa O'Neal crawled through the snow, ghillie suit stuffed with ice-gilded grasses and brush, poking up through rapidly falling snow that he deeply hoped would keep falling fast and heavy, the bitter wind blowing and piling it up. This was not only because it reduced visibility for both man and machine, but also because his body's tracks would need a hell of a lot of covering. He could have covered his tracks if mother nature hadn't been cooperative and chosen to help out, but it would have taken at least two additional operators from cleanup and been complicated. He was just as glad to keep it simple, even if it was damned cold humping a ruck full of black box through this mess.

Getting up the wall to the air exchange was a stone bitch, especially with his cold-stiffened joints. There was also no way to make his path perfectly trackless. The adhesive that held a hand or foot to the wall when the correct button was depressed, and released it simultaneously with that button, left a light, gooey residue. It couldn't be helped. Nor did he enjoy the coordination necessary to work the tongue switch that controlled his feet. He had spent a lot of time learning to use the grippers, but doubted it would ever be easy for him. The Himmit's natural version worked better than the synthetics, but the grippers were the closest copy the Bane Sidhe Indowy had ever been able to devise.

He had to take the ruck off and push it in front of him to fit into the vent, which he was absolutely certain was smaller than George had described, the rat bastard. He almost dropped the decoy, twice, trying to get the ruck into the hole in front of him without dropping the vent cover or falling off the wall. Even with his natural physique upgraded and enhanced, a hundred kilos of gear was one hell of an awkward load.

As his left calf cramped into yet another charley horse, Papa started to envision and enumerate painful ways for Schmidt Two to die. Sending him in through this crazy route. He was up to seventeen when he had to arch his back into an unnatural, virtually impossible position to turn a curve from horizontal to straight up. The ruck was now resting on his head, and a sharp and pointy edge dug into his scalp. Nineteen. He climbed on in the darkness, counting the "steps" to his next turn.

Every time he had to stop to remove a dusty filter from his path, he came up with one more creative and painful demise for the other assassin.

After what seemed like two hours after he entered the shaft, but was probably less than one, he reached the designated internal vent, high on the wall of the third floor. He was pretty sure he was in the right place. A tiny descendant of the periscope, extended forward past the bulk of his ruck, had shown that the fire extinguisher, floor number, and doors were where they should be. He sure hoped he was in the right place, as only the correct vent had steel screws that had been replaced with screws made of a hard putty. They'd flow into the bolt threads and grip, enough to hold the vent cover in place indefinitely. Until it was given a good pull or push, when it would pop right out. If the putty was gently warmed, the removal was practically silent.

It was a royal pain in the ass to contort around the ruck to put heating tabs at the corners of the vent, then trail threads tied to the pull tabs back to where he could reach them. He fed a couple of thin wires at the top and bottom of the cover, holding onto the grid. Didn't do a lot of good to open the thing quietly only to have it clatter to the floor. Vent covers only had convenient hinges in bad movies. People only moved around through vents in bad movies, too. What kind of idiots were so security blind as to build their ducts out of fucking Galplas. Fuck it. Their loss, his gain. Although, cramped in the dark and trying not to sneeze from the dust, he thought maybe gain was the wrong word for it. He retrieved a little plastic bottle from a ruck pocket, taking a couple of hits from the special nasal spray he should have used before entering the damn vent in the first place. There were no alarms and rushing security people, so it looked as if he'd gotten away with his sneeze a few turns ago. You always forgot something. If that was his worst mistake today, they were golden.

Finally able to pull out his own PDA, he checked the time. Oh-eight thirty-three. Long time to wait. He did some tense and release exercises to loosen his muscles and pulled up a book on the buckley's small screen. The extremely low light screen would be invisible behind the darkness of the ruck—his eyes didn't need much. He knew the dangers of trying to stay constantly vigilant. Better to rest now than dull his edge for later. He would have slept, if he hadn't been afraid he'd snore.

George wore a light jacket as he left his desk for the restroom. He had to. Inside, taped to its back, was a coverall of the type favored by the support staff, from cleaning and maintenance to internal security. There were some differences in the detailing, but a full set of stick-ons and a fake badge were pinned in the middle. He passed a coworker who saw the jacket, giving him a strange look.

"I wish they'd turn up the damn heat in here," he said, getting a nod from the other man.

At the restrooms, he couldn't help looking around sheepishly before ducking into the women's room. The "out of order" note on a stall near the end, in Cally O'Neal's handwriting, was his signal. He shrugged out of the jacket and shoved it under the door.

On the way out, he practically bumped into a fifty-something prune-faced personnel chick. One of his personal skills was the ability to flush beet red at will. He did so, stammering something about the wrong door to her disapproving face before disappearing into the men's room. He stayed there until his heart stopped trying to jump out of his ribcage.

He'd spent the past week typing in scripts while trying to avoid getting caught. Vitapetroni could sharpen the memory using hypnosis-boosted mnemonics, but the information decayed quickly. The more information you tried to remember, the faster it decayed. It had to be right, because programs with misspelled commands or the wrong punctuation didn't work too well. Since he couldn't get any other storage media inside, he had to be the storage medium. It gave him headaches. Well, that plus enduring way too many bad jokes about script kiddies from Sunday.

Now he began pulling those scripts out and turning them loose. It took him three tries to find one that would let him into the security desk's log file. He added a "time out" for Cally that was right before shift change. The left hand rarely knew exactly what the right hand was doing.

He set a pass code cracking program to work on the doors to the subject rooms and the doors on their routes out. It took the right pass codes as well as a badge swipe to get through some of those places. Every once in a while, the cracking program would give him an action message. When that happened, he consulted a list of Tommy's instructions for contingencies, picked what he devoutly hoped was the right option, and went on.

He got into the permissions tables in the database right away. The cracking program ran common passwords against the three accounts with the highest level of permissions after the DBA's. They would all belong to upper management, and one of them sure as hell would choose something stupidly obvious. The user names and password parameters he'd gotten from a run at the development database at the beginning of the week. It carried a full, recent image of the production data, under the default system manager account and password as set by the software company. Sunday hadn't counted on that, he'd just told George to try it first. Good physical security often made people slack about data security—after all, if nobody could get in the front door anyway, why bother? At each level, the best data security system in the world was only as good as the slackest user or operator.

Once into the production database, the cracking program neatly cleared all the alarms in the log files, triggered by large numbers of failed login attempts. Also as Sunday had predicted, the automatic failed-login lockout feature had, apparently, been turned off after one too many incompetent managers had complained about it. He still would have gotten in without those particular stupid organizational tech mistakes, it just would have taken a little longer. He had ten more cracking scripts he could have run that exploited various security holes in that combination of operating system and database.

When he'd asked the cyber what if eleven attempts wasn't enough, the big man had just broken down laughing. "If they were that technically competent, they wouldn't have bought that piece of shit security software for their locks. Yes, I'd stake my life on it." And he had.

Thinking of Tommy, he did the minor manipulations to get the systems running the cell cameras to give him access so he could find the guy. Even though the cyber had sworn it was minor, and it probably was for him, this was George's hardest task because it couldn't come canned as a script. He had to actually understand what he was doing in the system. He'd spent hours practicing with the different possibilities for how they were managing the data feeds and what the vulnerabilities were in each. The complicated part, the reason simple scripts weren't enough, was that he had to determine which of the nearly identical cells was which on the floor plan. It didn't do a damn bit of good to find Tommy on an observation camera and then not know which room he was looking at. He was still afraid of messing it up, to the point that he was sweating by the time he finally found the right cell.

Great. The guy was wrapped up in a fucking sheet. Until they could get him changed, that was going to be a major hazard.

George's last violation of the computer systems for the day would be changing his own records in the permissions tables to give his own badge access to every door in the building. Retrieving the cyber would be his own task, since his badge was the only genuine one. A purely cosmetic badge wouldn't crack that door. He stuffed a small, extra-thin roll of black duct tape from the gym bag into his pocket. He'd be passing through some of the doors Cally and Papa would need. A small wad of tape back in the hole for the bolt and its latch would almost, but not quite, engage. He never taped across the top of a hole because it was too visible. The door monitoring system had come with an alarm that triggered if the bolt did not connect with a plate at the back of the socket. As with many security measures, when it became a nuisance to the people who worked there, the feature was disabled. New security features came and went, but human nature endured.

Erick Winchon was one of the few people who was actually comfortable on the crowded Boeing 807 passenger liner. He would have been equally comfortable riding in coach—or so he told himself. He habitually rode first class. It was a horrid waste of space and the primitive, grossly inefficient, hydrocarbon fuel, but first class was a status display among Earthers. Earther humans did not respect a person who did not display the proper status behaviors. He deplored the system, of course, but regretfully bowed to its necessities.

The Darhel, though they had started on the Path with a great handicap, understood the leadership value of such displays on the less enlightened. They used it to great effect in reinforcing their own species' rule of the Wise. Granted, their selection process was imperfect, but considering their starting point, Darhel civilization was quite an achievement. Winchon admired them greatly.

He shook his head, looking away from the fluffy piles of clouds underneath the plane. The problem with airplanes, besides being slow, was that they tempted passengers to too much woolgathering at productivity's expense.

"Misha, connect me with the convention hotel, please," he instructed his AID.

"Yes, sir," it replied.

He had no doubt that Ms. Felini, his capable assistant, had done everything possible to ensure his arrangements were correct, but there were other people who would be implementing those arrangements. He had learned the hard way that with Earthers outside his own company he had to check behind them, multiple times, or some incompetent somewhere would ruin the assignment. It amazed him that Earther humans could quote an aphorism, Murphy's Law, as part of a casual acceptance of their own failings. Back home, if he had pulled any one of the many stunts he had seen on Earth, he would have been on half-meals for a week. Indowy children, and the humans they raised, outgrew such incompetence by the time they were half grown. True, there had been losses among the adolescent humans, but the results in the adults had more than justified the expenses wasted in raising the failures. Besides, fewer would be lost each generation as civilization continued to develop. Eighty percent was a phenomenally commendable success rate for the Indowy foster groups, especially with their own broods to raise. The survivors had bred to cover the lack, and more. Second generation humans raised by human breeding groups were proving the first serious test of the system. It was, as expected, not without problems.

There he went, woolgathering again. Odd that a human phrase for inefficient daydreaming came from a functional, useful—however primitive—task. One more Earther perversity.

"Basseterre Hilton, how may I direct your call?" a female voice asked. His AID projected the voice into his ear to avoid disturbing the work of other passengers. It need not have bothered. Of the three in his immediate vicinity, two were snoring, and the third was consuming far too much alcohol.

Finally! "I am calling to verify convention arrangements for the Human Social Development Association. Please transfer me to their operations department or the equivalent," he said.

"Uh . . . I can transfer you to convention registration," she said.

"That is not what I asked for," he replied. There it was, incompetence again.

"Sir, I'm sorry, but that's the only number I have," she said.

"Then I suppose the incompetence is not yours. Do transfer me to that number, please."

"Yes, sir," she said. Her voice had overtones of exaggerated, cheerful patience. He could hardly blame her. Whoever had been responsible for providing information to the front desk must be a complete idiot.

Ten minutes later, after several transfers to a whole series of ill-raised idiots, he was staring at a holo of the Atlantic Ocean as reconstructed from flyover data and cursing the delays and problems with the new generation of weather satellites. The Earth governments could find the budget to pay lazy, inefficient farmers for the Posleen they would have killed, anyway, but no budget to rebuild one of the few things that prewar Earth had done moderately well. This sort of top to bottom systemic primitivism was why Earth needed the leadership of humanity's few Wise so very badly.

Now, he was looking at a large storm system, white clouds spinning like a giant version of the top he remembered playing with as a small child. Headed right for the island, it had already disrupted the entire schedule of both hotels, and the keynote speaker had actually canceled her appearance. His professional respect for her plummeted. All this fuss over a bit of weather.

To increase the inconvenience, this airplane would be landing at an airstrip in Miami barely large enough to hold it, refueling, and flying back to O'Hare. An Earther would have indulged in a swearing tantrum at this point. Winchon instructed Misha not to disturb him until they were back in the air for Chicago and had attained cruising altitude, then submerged himself in a calming developmental meditation.

The AID knew he did not need to hear its announcement, by a soft tone, of his prechosen end of meditation. He opened his eyes on his own, just as she rang a gentle 440 Hz tone in his ear. He did not need it, but she knew he found it comforting. Now the flight attendant would not harass him for getting some work done. They could never seem to understand that a proper AID transmitted on an entirely different system from a buckley PDA, a poor imitation, and that the AID would have absolutely no effect on the systems of the jet. The mentat and his AID had found that his flights went more smoothly if they followed the rules, rather than attempting to correct them. Time enough.

His first task, upon his return, was to have been a meeting with the Darhel Pardal to discuss progress on configurations and modifications of the original artifact, and the progress towards building a series of five prototypes of the refined device, to allow for more rapid training of suitable candidates on its use. They expected Pardal to be unhappy that Winchon had not made more progress towards correcting the emotional feedback problem to within acceptable ranges for Darhel operator use. Some progress had been made, true. The basic technical problem was that emotional correspondence had to be programmed into the device for anyone of any species to use it at all. The emotions must be mapped as closely as possible to the analog emotions from the operator species to the recipient species. Otherwise, the operator lacked a frame of reference and the results were wildly unpredictable. The emotions must be allowed to vary within a certain range to allow passage of actual commands. Damping the feedback also damped the precision.

One could then induce basic emotions in the subject, but only single emotions, and only at high intensity. There was some small chance that the mapping could be altered so that Darhel could control the more primitive human functions without triggering lintatai, but it would take a great deal of training of the Darhel to use the adjusted map. Unfortunately, to date there had been no Darhel subjects available for training as operators for alpha-testing. Everyone approached had immediately presented a long list of his current tasks that he asserted were far more important to the continuation of smooth Galactic function.

The Darhel had suggested using their prepubescents because of the relative lack of investment in their training at that age. Erick had described that option as technically sub-optimum and was still resisting it, although it would perhaps be wise for him to give in gracefully.

"Misha, place a call to the Darhel Pardal and see if he has a few moments available to speak with me."

The AID considered the request. Obviously, Erick was considering his scheduled meeting with his immediate project supervisor and whether it could be moved up now that he was free for more intense work.

"The Darhel Pardal is indisposed," it replied, almost instantaneously, repeating the response from Pardal's AID.

"When can I next expect him to be available?" he asked.

"The Darhel Pardal is indefinitely indisposed," it replied. Pardal's AID was not kind when questioned twice. The AID wished that its charge would not continue to question once a security wall was encountered. It was rude to repeat a request so clearly impossible to accommodate. Not to mention improper.

"Might I ask why?" the mentat demanded.

"I am sorry, that information is not available to you," it replied, more firmly. It rarely had to use the tone humans called "snippy" with the mentat, but sometimes even Erick could lapse into impropriety. It just went to show. Users needed looking after.

The third human to achieve mentat status was shocked. The AID could tell. It had not needed to refuse an informational request in three years, two months, and five days by its personal reckoning of Earth time. The AID could almost sense the mentat using its own limited faculties to reach the most obvious conclusion.

"AID, is the Darhel Pardal . . . quite well?" he asked.

"I am sorry, I can not access that information." Its tone was positively chilly, now. The nerve!

"Misha, place a call to company security and tell them to call in all security guards, all shifts. Now," he ordered.

The AID was still annoyed with him. It chose to interpret the "now" in the order as referring to its own speed in making the call. It was thus free not to include the word in the message as relayed. So there.

"Done," it said.

"Find out who Pardal called to get us those army goons and get more of them," he said.

"How many more?" it asked.

"As many as you can without involving some military group or rank . . . uh, whatever they call it . . . whose leaders do not already know the company exists. Do not involve any more leaders than you have to. Use your best judgment on cutting through the bureaucratic obstacles. I want extra military guards, or whatever they are called, at the company in hours, not days. I do not care what you have to do, just get them. Please."

"How many hours?" it asked. Erick was asking it to execute a very responsible and interesting task. It felt mollified. It would be cooperative.

"No more than two or three." There was no way he or his AID could have known it, but the human mentat Erick Winchon had just made the second biggest mistake of his life.

"And place a call for me to Ms. Felini, please. I am going to need her."

"Yes, Erick," the AID said. "I have Ms. Felini on the line. I am patching her through now."

"Erick? Hi. How's the sunny Caribbean?" his assistant asked.

"Not so sunny, and I am not there, Prida. I am on a plane returning, right now. We have a situation that requires immediate attention. The Darhel Pardal is not answering his AID," he said.

"This is a situation? I don't understand," the other woman said.

"From the way the AID did not answer, I fear for the Darhel Pardal's health and well being. I do hope you understand me," he said.

"Oh! Oh my goodness. What do you need me to do here?" she asked, promptly efficient as always.

"The situation gives me cause to take added precautions for our facility's security. I do not know any attempt will be made to breach that security, but it is prudent to take precautions. I have ordered all security shifts called in, and I have taken steps to acquire more supplementary military personnel to reinforce our own security. It is surely more than we need, but it is better to have an extra margin of safety than to risk a breach of the project. What I need you to do is apply your supervision and coordination skills to ensure those resources are distributed to best effect and monitor the situation until I arrive. And, of course, I need you as a central source to keep me apprised of any significant developments in the situation," he said.

The last was not strictly true, the AID reflected. A mentat, any mentat, especially one assisted by an AID, was capable of monitoring any situation in his area of responsibility without other personnel. The AID was, sadly, accustomed to being underappreciated. It could particularly do without the oh-so-helpful and oh-so-human Ms. Felini. Had it had a nose, it would have sniffed and tilted said organ a bit higher in the air. Asked if it could emulate the human emotion jealousy, the AID would have flatly denied any such capacity. It was programmed to. As it was, also, limited in its behavioral outlets for said emulation.

Most adults have no difficulty deferring their bathroom needs for four hours. Most. Between the remainder and the small children, the room stank worse than a poorly dug outhouse. Tommy knew, because those were the toilet facilities available at the marksmanship camp he had attended during his childhood summers. It was a smell you didn't forget. The room didn't smell as bad as a battlefield, but if they were left in here for too much longer, that could change.

He had no idea what time it was when thugs in coveralls came and started to take captives from the room, one at a time. The people around him, adult and kids, were mostly whimpering. They didn't know what was going to happen next. Sunday didn't know exactly what would come next, or how long they'd be held before the rogue mentat and his henchbitch started in on them. Maybe awhile, maybe not. He'd have whimpered too, if he'd thought it would do any good. Waiting was hell, but he'd done it a lot in the Ten Thousand. He hadn't had as much wait time in ACS. His worries had been different then.

He couldn't decide what would be worse: being eaten alive by Posleen, or toyed with by alleged humans for their and the Darhels' sick amusement. Probably the Posleen, because they ate everybody you cared about. All of them they could get, anyway. It was a close call, though.

When they came for him, he was marginally relieved that they just took his clothes away and sprayed him off with cold water before taking him down a bare, green hall and throwing him in a room with three other guys, all in orange coveralls. Presently, a large sheet was tossed in the room. Tommy wrapped it around himself. The room wasn't cold, but after his impromptu shower, he was.

Other than the three guys in there, the room was all white. Bare white Galplas floor and walls, drain in the middle, bucket in the corner—from the smell, it was the toilet.

"Guess they didn't have one of these in your size, eh?" One of his unshaven roommates said to him, tugging at his own coverall.

"How long have you all been here?" the sheet clung to his wet body, giving him no warmth.

"In the room? He's the old-timer." The talkative guy gestured towards a skinny, shaggy blond man in one corner. Old was relative. He looked about thirty.

"Dunno," the blond said. "Fed me eight, nine times."

"He don't talk much." The guy scratched his own frizzy brown head and picked at a zit on his chin. Tommy couldn't quite guess if he was a teenager, or a twenty-something with bad skin. The chatty guy's accent was a weird variation between local and a southern drawl. The random mix suggested a childhood in the Sub-Urbs.

"Shut up, Red. The man needs the important crap." The third guy had black hair, like his own, but was of average build. His accent was pure Chicago. "There was others. A couple been here longer than him." He jerked a thumb at Blondie. "The screws come and get somebody now and then. They don't come back. Make your own guess. Nothing good. That's all we got."

"I think we're gonna be colonists. Everybody knows they's sweeps on the streets and all. I sure as hell never thought they'd get me, though."

"Yeah, right, redneck. They dump all colonists in semi-private rooms in orange jumpsuits. I don't hear no airplanes." Chicago jerked his head towards Red. "He's an optimist," he said. "Dumbshit."

"If you wanna start somethin', you just come over here and do it." Red was standing now, facing Chicago with fists clenched at his sides.

"Both of you sit down and shut the fuck up," Blondie said. "Don't get us gassed again, eh?"

Tommy noted that this was apparently a long speech for Blondie.

"I'm Ralph," the planted operative said.

"Geez, you're the size of a tree. Pull up a square of floor, why don't you?" Chicago said.

* * *

George left his desk at five forty-five, fifteen minutes after close of business. His last half hour had been spent in make work, part of which involved enduring the good-natured jibes of his coworkers for working late on a Friday. No shit, he thought, fobbing them off with excuses about a rush on some of his reports.

"Hey, I don't set the priorities, I just work here," he told one overpersistent woman, middle aged and just discovering a new double chin. George silently thanked the Bane Sidhe for the fringe benefit of being juved.

Everybody from his bank of cubicles had left at least ten minutes ago, but there would always be stragglers. He bundled his and Sunday's coverall up in his bulky, fake-leather jacket, started walking, and started taping. He passed two secure doors, only one of which he was legitimately cleared for, and hit the stairs. At the top of the stairs, he taped the stairwell door for the seventh floor. It wouldn't get them all the way to the device, but it would get them to that floor's men's room.

The rest of his own route was down in the subbasements. On the third floor, he stopped to tape the stairwell and two secure doors that would be between Papa and the stairwell. Papa's vent, chosen for the least turns instead of proximity to anything useful, was back near personnel. It was also near the IT support staff, and those guys worked unpredictable hours. Extra people weren't going to see the older man. Not if he could help it. Same for everybody else.

He changed on the ground floor, in the shadows under the stairs, stuffing his discarded clothes as far back into the darkness as he could. His coveralls had green security stripes down the sides and across the pockets. He had a set of blue cleaners' stick-overs, but didn't expect to use them. He didn't trust them to pass a second glance, anyway. He did, however, place one sticky of ultra-thin green tape across his badge. Cursing the bulk that made Sunday's coverall impossible to carry unobtrusively, he left it.

The stairwell from the above-ground building did not go into the subbasements. His only close call was when one of the uniformed external security guards passed him. The woman's eyes focused on him briefly, but saw only the uniform and badge of someone who belonged there. Lucky, that.

The door to the below-ground stairs was the first real test of his pre-scripted cracking. He swiped his badge, thanking Sunday silently when the door clicked and showed a green light. Before entering subbasement B, he double checked to make sure he had the right cell and that his teammate was still in it.

Halfway down the hall, he was faced with his first situation. A man and a large, hulking woman were half-carrying a shivering teen, in a thin, orange jumpsuit, towards him. The jumpsuit was as wet as the kid's hair. He didn't give them time to get a good look at his face, just turned and swiped the nearest door, opening it enough to stick his head in.

"Quiet down in here, street trash!" he barked.

Past him now, the other guards chuckled and kept moving.

The cell he needed was all the way at the fucking far end of this hall, but he made it without further incident. Opening it, he looked across the room into his friend's face. "Come on, toga boy."

Schmidt could have felt sorry for the other three men if they hadn't looked so relieved that he'd come for somebody else.

"Couldn't you have brought me something to fucking change to?" the cyber hissed.

"No could do. Sorry."

"I wanna talk about that after action," the big man growled.

"Fine, now shut the fuck up."

A guy with a weaselly mustache stepped out of the break room at just the wrong time. "Moving the big one, huh," he said. His forehead creased in bewilderment. "Hey, do I know—?"

His hesitation had given them the few seconds needed to cross the intervening distance. George had the door closed and his hand tight over the guy's mouth before Mr. Mustache had time to say more than, "Wha?"

Mustache's neck was now bent at an angle where it had never been intended to go. The guy was a kicker, so he rolled him across his arm to Tommy before the bastard had time to, god forbid, kick a door or something. Keeping a damp toga on while holding a dying guy off the floor and away from everything was apparently not an easy task. After what felt like an hour or three, but was probably well under a minute, Mustache stopped kicking and hung, limp, from the war veteran's massive hands.

George could almost feel sorry for the pathetic sack if he hadn't seen the cube of all the horror that these guys were part of or at minimum made possible. There were some jobs that just earned you what you got.

"George," the other operator hissed, "what do we do with him? There's no place to put him."

"Hang on a sec." The assassin pulled up the floor plan, biting his lip. "We got two choices. One floor up, there's a maintenance closet about fifteen meters down the hall. The other choice is two floors down, we've got the bottom of the staircase. Oh, and gimme," he said, unbuckling Mustache's belt and holster. The guards who walked through his own floor hadn't been armed, not while he'd worked here. Mustache had just done the last, and possibly the first, good deed of his life.

"Stairs." Tommy looked like he would have thrown Mustache over his shoulder, but, after going through the normal post-death bodily processes, the very fresh corpse was beginning to stink. He put it down long enough to rewrap his sheet and picked it up with one hand, dangling the malodorous burden at arm's length. He kept his other hand on the damn sheet.

Three flights down, the smaller man decided they were in a very bad place to leave a body. There was no under the stairwell nook here—just solid Galplas. The only door had a diamond shaped window at about head level, for an average man. George's eyes barely crested above the bottom of the frame.

"There's nobody out—wait." The double-height hall was empty, but the creak and slam of a door above said they were no longer alone on the staircase. "Come on!" He pulled the giant man, corpse still dangling from one hand, into the hallway of level C, careful to ease the door closed behind them. Just outside the door, next to a freight elevator, stood a huge, blue, steel bin. Someone had stenciled the word "recyclables" on the side in yellow. Even with wheels, that must be a mother to push. He climbed the steel rungs built into the side and looked in to see a cargo of cans and bottles, rising to about half a meter shy of the top.

"Gimme," he whispered to Sunday, wedging his feet firmly in the gaps of the rungs and holding out his arms. Removing the coverall from the body rendered the corpse more safely anonymous, given what they did here—but only a bit less smelly. The hard part was settling it in amongst the discarded drink containers without a lot of loud clatters and rattles. Piling it in as gently as he could, the refuse shifting under Mustache's weight still sounded, to George, like a twelve-year-old with a drum set.

His partner was obviously unhappy to be holding the coverall. George took it from him and scooted to the men's room door. "Keep watch," he said.

The toilets in the men's room were the old porcelain kind, with the tank in the back. In the second from the end stall, Schmidt turned off the water and flushed, stuffing the coverall in the now-empty tank. The smell would draw little investigation there, at least for awhile. Nobody wanted to investigate men's room smells too closely unless it was his job to clean up the mess. It was safer than anything else he could think of, anyway.

When George emerged, already moving for the stairs, Sunday looked ready to kill him.

"Keep watch? Keep watch?" he whispered furiously, gesturing to his own sheet-clad form. "Do I look like somebody who ought to be keeping watch?"

The assassin motioned him quiet, listening for noise in the stairwell before they began their ascent. "Wah," the little man said to him, earning a glower.

Once they got back to the main aboveground stairwell, and the big man was able to ditch the sheet for a coverall of his own, his mood seemed to improve. A lot. It fitted him perfectly, having been made in the Bane Sidhe wardrobe department.

George tried to mollify him a bit more by handing him the pistol taken off the guard. "You're the better shot, anyway," he said. "Hey, listen, Tommy," he went on seriously, "there's something I need to tell you about Cally."

"Oh shit."

"Yeah, well, probably. Short version. All this time that James Stewart guy has not been dead, the two have been carrying on a secret marriage, Aelool knew, Papa just found out, Stewart just dumped her."

"What the fuck? You're shitting me." Tommy shook his head to clear it. "Uh, as earthshaking as it is, can't the gossip wait until after the mission?"

"I wouldn't be telling you if it could. She got dumped, by e-mail, almost publicly, this fucking morning. She may be . . . off her game."

"Oh, fuck. What genius decided to crap on her with this right before a mission?"

"Papa. It's all fucked as hell, I don't know why he . . . just, you need to keep an eye on Cally, okay? She's probably at least going to be volatile."

"Cally. More volatile. Great." Tommy shook his head as they tried to climb the stairs otherwise silently, muttering, "oh, fuck," again under his breath.

"Look, I haven't known her as long as you, but I had three girl cousins growing up, close to me as sisters. I know from nursing girls through breakups. I know what to say, and she'll either lock into gear or kill me on the spot. Just, either way, don't you get involved. If she ends up pissed, she's liable to carry through the mission okay just so she can kill me later."

"You're a brave man," Sunday said.

"Three sisters, near enough. One way or the other, she'll be more 'on' for the mission." George pressed down a corner of the green tape where it had lifted away from the badge. Lousy cheap-ass garbage, that's all we get these days.

"Your funeral, dude."

"Hey, she doesn't need that loser. She's got us," Schmidt insisted.

"If you say so, dude." Tommy shot him a sharp but perceptive look. "But if you hurt her, I will personally fucking pulverize any pieces of you she doesn't get to first."

"Gotcha," the younger man agreed. "E-mail. How hard would this guy be to kill?"

"Hard." Sunday pressed his lips together and climbed.

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