Sister Time John Ringo & Julie Cochrane

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Chapter Twenty-Two

Sitting on the tank of a toilet with your clothes half on and half off wasn't calculated to inspire confidence. If changing clothes in a restroom stall wasn't something she'd done dozens of times in her life, Cally would have felt odd about it. As it was, she just froze in place until the other woman finished her business and her primping and whatever the hell else she was doing—like, perhaps, reading War and Peace—and left. She wriggled the rest of the way into her cleaner's coverall. She had to fight to get the zipper all the way up in front, of course, and cursed the lazy ass in wardrobe who had gone with standard size charts when fabricating them. Yes, she was a size twelve, tall. Everywhere but the bust. Ow. When she caught up with the bastard who did it, she was going to find him some night, shove him into a good, old-fashioned, straight jacket, trussed and gagged, and leave him somewhere he wouldn't be found until morning.

Her purse and other disposable crap she stuffed in the empty tank, then without appearing to hurry, got her ass to the stairs as fast as she could. It was a calculated risk to leave George's tape in the doors. If someone noticed, they'd know something was up. On the other end of that, the black masking tape was nearly invisible in the recessed shadows. If things went right, their cyber would be working his customary magic to cover their tracks. If things didn't go right, she didn't want to be boxed in by doors she couldn't open. None of these scanners was biometric, so if she had to hide for a bit, she was maybe as low as one body away from getting out of the building.

The janitors didn't technically come on shift until six, but she had to get all the way down to the ground floor. She glanced at her watch and hauled ass. She had only a narrow window in which to swipe a cart without having to dispossess some poor schmuck of both cart and life. She'd rather not do that if she could help it. A missing cleaning cart wasn't going to ring any alarm bells right away, just cause a bit of confusion. A body, on the other hand, was something you had to hide someplace—a real pain in the ass on this kind of run.

Sure enough, four carts were in the hall, all on their lonesome, while someone rustled around in a stockroom for whatever critically necessary brush, bottle, or bags weren't already on the carts. She grabbed one and got around the nearest corner faster than fast, coming out next to the elevator. Here's where she needed a bit of luck if she wanted to keep clear of another needless death. She'd cheerfully kill the man-sized rodents who ran and worked the nastier parts of this place, but when she thought of maids and janitors, she couldn't help thinking of the gray haired old lady in some prewar show about a family with too many kids. How could you kill a cookie-baking little old lady? Yeah, stashing a body would be a pain, but she would also hate to have to kill the cookie lady. Or someone like her, anyhow.

Luck was with her again, maybe. She pretended not to see the balding man in a guard uniform who was coming down the hall, swiping her card ineffectually and cursing in a properly ladylike fashion when there was no answering green light. When the guard came over, she gave him a properly helpless look. "It won't work," she said.

"Here, let me try." The guard examined her ID and swiped it, with, of course, no result. Duh. As if him swiping it was going to magically make it work by some sort of masculine osmosis. This was another calculated risk. If she had to kill someone for a badge, and wanted someone more culpable than a cleaning lady, she had to draw him in, didn't she? He turned the card over in his hands, examining it.

Cally kept up her helpless me act, watching for the moment when it might be time to kill him. The ID should be perfect, except for the data that wasn't encoded on it. She'd also artfully scratched it up a little to age it.

"Here's your problem," he said, pointing out the scratches along the code stripe. "It's all scratched up."

Boy howdy, a bona fide genius, she thought. "Dammit. Not another one. My supervisor is gonna kill me." She gave him puppy dog eyes as he nodded in commiseration. "I know I shouldn't put it in my back pocket, but . . ." She shrugged.

"I'd like to be in your—" He stopped himself. "Damn, tell me I didn't just say that."

"Aw, how sweet," she chuckled, practically cooing at him. Dumbass. You had fish for lunch, didn't you?

She bit her lip, looking up at him through her lashes. "If I could get up to the third floor and get personnel to make me a fresh one, maybe I wouldn't get caught," she said.

"Ah, but that would be a security breach." He was clearly only teasing her, holding his own card just out of reach. "I'll do it for a kiss and a phone number," he said.

"Awww . . ." she cooed again, pulling a lipstick out of her pocket. She scribbled a number on his arm, leaning over to plant a passionate smooch on Fish-breath. He swiped the door, pressing the third floor button for her.

"I'll call you," he said.

She waited until the door closed all the way before wiping a sleeve across her mouth. Blech. It wasn't that she'd have had anything against the guy if he hadn't worked here. She, at least, only killed people for good reasons and then as cleanly as the mission permitted. Creep. But not the first creep to develop a sudden case of stupid when presented with a pretty face, thank goodness. Besides, she'd been nice; she hadn't killed him.

The elevator dinged and she pushed the cart out past the visual and braille "three" on the door jam. Why the hell they still printed signs in braille she didn't know. She couldn't imagine anybody not shipping to a colony if the alternative was staying blind or something. She swiped the bags of trash from one set of restrooms, just as if she was really emptying them. They'd need it for camouflage.

Granpa's vent was at the far end of the floor from IT. She had only half lied about going to the personnel department. She parked the cart underneath the vent and popped the cover, startled at the trail of strings that came along with it.

"What are you doing? Taking up macrame?" she hissed over the pack at her grandfather.

"Shut up and take this damn thing," he growled, pushing the ruck towards her.

She hefted it out of the vent, then shoved it into the trash hamper, putting the bags on top of it. She scattered some loose paper towels around to make it look more authentic.

She was bending down to get her buckley out of the side pouch when she saw him. He had shoved his shirt out in front of him and emerged, clutching the coverall. His scowl dared her to say anything.

"I got stuck," he said, standing bare except for his skivvies. "After I got the others off, obviously." He scowled.

Wordlessly, she fished his sneakers out of the pack and set them on the floor. It wasn't funny. Nothing that happened on an op that could get them killed was funny. Ever. And she absolutely was not going to laugh. Because it wasn't funny. Besides, Granpa had a mean sense of payback.

He was still glaring at her sideways after he was fully dressed, while they were wheeling for the stairwell. The elevator trick wouldn't work twice.

"It's not my fault," she said, tugging a pistol and holster from the bottom to the top of the goodie bag. The magazine belt caught on the button of the fucking decoy and she had to reach under the heavy mother to get them loose. She hoped she hadn't damaged it—at least not anything that would show. She might not be able to put the belt on yet, but she wanted it within arm's reach, dammit.

"Who planned this op?" he prompted.

"Me, but—"

"The elevator's the other way," he observed.

"It's secure. We can't use it," she said.

"You couldn't at least have swiped a badge by now? How long have you been mobile?" he asked.

"I'd have had to kill somebody for it," she said.

"So when have you gotten squeamish, Granddaughter? Besides, you could have grabbed me his gun."

"I'm not squeamish!" she protested. "I just didn't want to have to hide a body. Somebody'd smell it or something. And you're the one who refused carrying more than one gun in."

"Uh-huh." He gave her a skeptical look. "You didn't have to lift that damned thing. And the pistol's a go-to-hell backup, anyway. In case we needed one before somebody had a chance to acquire one for us. You're getting soft."

Cally shrugged and stuck to her story. Besides, they were at the stairs. She didn't wait to argue with him, just took a quick peek through the window, pulled the door open, and went on through. She picked up the front end of the cart and started moving, assuming he would come along, thereby forcing him to grab his end and start climbing, instead of standing around grumbling.

Just past the door to the fourth floor, her enhanced hearing picked up another door closing, way down below. Not even her hearing would have picked it up out of background noise if the stairwell didn't magnify sound. Evidently Papa had heard it too, because she felt the cart drag a little behind her, as if he was slowing, maybe thinking of hiding on the fourth floor and waiting a few.

"Come on. We'll stay in front of them," she said in a low voice.

"We've got three flights before we get out of here." He took care to avoid the loud hisses that would accompany a whisper.

"Then pick up your feet," she said, climbing a bit faster. She knew she could set the pace, because he didn't dare risk dropping his own end. The feet on the steps below were catching up with them, within a couple of floors, when they finally got to the top. For the last two floors, she and Granpa had been slowed by having to hug the wall and stay well out of view of climbers below.

With the cart back on its own wheels, she could tell from the flush on Granpa's face that he was just itching to chew her out. She forestalled it by opening the men's room door.

"In," she said. Boy was she ever going to catch hell after this op.

He kept scowling at her as he tucked himself into a stall and lifted his feet. She began pretending to clean, sprinkling scouring powder in a sink and giving it a few casual scrubs to spread the green powder around. Like any mom, she had plenty of experience watching people—namely her girls—pretend to clean. She could hear the feet in the stairwell and made sure her back was to the door. It gave her a good view of most of the area behind her in the mirror, while letting her mostly conceal her face by just a small turn of her head.

She heard the door open and scrubbed harder, bending over the sink, waiting. They were stopping, behind her. Two of them, faces just out of her field of view.

"Ma'am, I need to see some ID," a bass voice barked.

Her fist, the one that was suddenly flying towards the larynx of the voice's owner, stopped in midair, caught in a hand only slightly bigger than her own.

"Hi," George said, he and Tommy beaming at her.

"You're dead," she hissed. "When we get out of here, you're dead."

"If you're through playing, children . . ." Granpa could put a wealth of disdain into a single sentence when he wanted to.

Cally hadn't been dicking around, but she wasn't going to argue, either. If George was stupid enough to clown on an op, it had needed to be said. It must have been one hell of a relief to get Tommy out of the shit-hole below, though. She wrote it off to endorphins and focused back in. Or tried to.

"Hey, Cally. Seriously, Papa told me," the other assassin said. "Look, I know I'm in your business, but any schmuck who'd leave you alone with the kids for seven years—" He held up a hand when she would have interrupted him. "This is damned important before we go farther in. You didn't need that schmuck anyway. I know you don't—" He held his fingers over her lips to silence her, and to her complete surprise, she let him. "I don't care what you think your part was. Any guy who leaves his kids like that is a schmuck. You didn't need anybody like that. In a couple of hours, when we get out of here, we're all gonna go out together. We'll get you roaring drunk, we'll get roaring drunk with you, and we'll get you home. You didn't need that guy, you got us. We're gonna put this mission to bed. Then we're all gonna go out and get plastered together. You're gonna be okay. Okay?"

"You're right. You're in my business," she snapped. She was having to fight misting up, but no way in hell was she going to let him know that. She had no idea what the fuck was wrong with her. She took a deep breath. It wasn't so much what he said as the way he said it. Okay, so it helped. He still needs to mind his own fucking business, and Granpa has a big mouth. Enough. But it was enough, and she dialed back in. All the way back in.

As they jogged down the hall to the secure room, she heard Granpa clap the other man on the back. "I knew I liked you," he said. In any other circumstance she'd have been thinking what the fuck? Or contemplating killing someone. And later, she might even decide to wring Granpa's neck. But that would be later. The only thing in her head right now was: mission.

They had done something right with their security. There were no dedicated guards on the door to make the room scream out, "Place Where There Is Something Interesting, Valuable and Important!" Unfortunately for them, but through no fault of their security people, the team already knew what it was, and where it was, so the lack of extra guards was going to bite the bastards in the ass. Too many places arranged their security in such a way as to announce, "This way to the secret documents." If he hadn't gotten a couple of breaks, it would have taken George several more days, at least, to find the device with this setup. There was another thing they had done right: there were very few groups and no individuals, that she knew of, who were capable of subverting an AID.

Epetar and Winchon wouldn't have given the security people a better view of the risks. None of them had any idea Michelle O'Neal had anything like these contacts, resources, or any will to use them. All they would have expected to face was garden-variety industrial espionage—played according to a Darhel-style version of hardball. For the kind of threats they thought they faced, and within the constraints put on them by the bean counters, the security people had done their jobs right. They would probably get the blame, anyway. Cally felt almost sorry for them. Almost.

AIDs had a real bad habit, hard programmed in. The Darhel were so confident of the AIDs' ability to infallibly record and transmit their data load that the AIDs wouldn't scream for help on their own initiative, they just transmitted their load on the prescribed schedule, and "talked" when tapped from a higher authority than their user, or when told by their user to call someone or send something. If an AID was left to secure something, it was enough that nobody could, theoretically, go in and mess with whatever it was guarding without being caught on the next upload. The Darhel were frighteningly smart, and more deadly than even Cally had expected. They just had some real odd blind spots, one of which included being slow to change and update.

She still held her breath while Tommy cracked the door and ran over to treat the annoying little computer to the electronic version of an intimate rear intrusion with no lube. If it had started a transmission while Tommy was crossing the room, they would have been so fucked.

She relaxed and helped George carry Michelle's decoy over while Granpa opened the black box sitting, alone, on an ordinary steel pushcart in the center of the room. The lid off of their own decoy, all three saw the same problem.

The base artifact had not been reproduced by Winchon or Michelle—perhaps they had not even been able to reproduce it yet. That was fine as far as it went. Michelle's toy matched up on the surface. Unfortunately, for these people to tweak and change it to learn new tricks, they had connected cables to it in seemingly random places, hanging off and doubling back in a black tentacular mass that would have done credit to H. P. Lovecraft. To top off the similarity and the problems, the entire device sat within a mass of translucent, green, gelatinous goo, which moved and dripped, almost as if it sensed their presence.

Cally looked at the thing in the target box. She looked at the thing in Michelle's box. Michelle's gizmo had it going on with the tentacles just fine, only there weren't enough of them. Not by a long shot.

Tommy had apparently gotten the next AID violation set on automatic, because Cally felt him peer over her shoulder. "Looks like the suit undergel we had in ACS," he said. "Well, except for being snot green." He looked at Cally. "So, what now?"

"You tell me. How is that goo going to react if we scrape off as much as possible and swap out black tentacle thingies."

"Dunno," the ACS veteran said.

"You don't suppose we could, kinda, rip off some of those black thingies from his box and tape them to our box, or something, do you?" Granpa asked. Technology still wasn't really his thing. Unless it went boom.

"Probably not," the three younger operatives said, almost simultaneously. Growing up in the virgin age of television apparently left a guy . . . different . . . from growing up just a few decades later. Very different.

"Okay. Here's what we try. Tommy, you pick up the gooey shoggoth or whatever the hell it is, and scrape any goo you can off it—keep as much goo as you can in their box. George and I will pick up the decoy and put it in there and see if we can get any of the goo to stay on it. Maybe they still won't notice for awhile," Cally said, doubtfully.

"And me?" Granpa asked.

"Uh . . . go watch the door, Granpa. Somebody needs to watch the door," she said. He harrumphed grumpily at being shuffled off. Everybody in the room would hear someone approaching the door, so a watchman was strictly unnecessary. She expected he'd grouse at her about it when they got home. But they had to get there first.

Tommy picked up the object of their endeavors with about the enthusiasm of a fourteen-year-old boy for a baby's dirty diaper. The goo tried hard to stick to the device, but by dint of a lot of brushing and pulling and wrestling, the big man managed to get about half of it to stay in the box.

At least, it stayed long enough for them to fit the decoy in. Then, to their immense relief, it swarmed up and around the decoy as if they were best friends. If nano-goo could have friends. The bits on Tommy even crawled down his arms and into the box, obediently wrapping around the decoy. Both devices had less goo, but at least their decoy had green goo. She'd been really afraid of how the stuff would react.

"Gross," she said. "Lids on the boxes, me and George. Tommy, finish up with that AID. Granpa, how're we looking?"

Instead of answering, he held up a hand and slid silently out the door, moving sideways down the wall.

After her AID terminated Erick Winchon's call, Prida sat and stared, silently, at the far wall. Dahmer had, of course, made a valiant effort to insinuate itself into her affections over the couple of years she'd had it. The artificial human personality was limited, however, in the fundamental lack of same in the psyche of its charge. Prida had known, and still knew, of the machine's efforts. They amused more than alarmed her. She had never become attached to her AID for the simple reason that she had never been attached to anyone, in anything but the most temporary physical sense.

When debating her course of action, in any circumstance, Prida had and used an excellent poker face. Now, she was considering the amount of trouble and risk someone would have to go through to kill or incapacitate a Darhel, as well as the amount of power that indicated. She had idly considered, herself, what it would take to kill a Darhel. She had investigated only to the extent of hitting absolutely no tripwires. Paranoid herself, she had an uncanny ability to estimate where others would put measures in place for their own safety. In particular, she had noticed very early that the Darhel tended towards the same self-honesty in their emotions as she did herself.

Anybody with the will and ability to eliminate a Darhel necessarily had the ability, and perhaps the will, to eliminate Prida Felini. Erick Winchon was a good employer. She had found some of their interactions truly delicious, although she had been a bit piqued that he had not derived equal pleasure from their mental trysts through the machine. It would have been so much more convenient if he had.

She knew Erick's psyche, more or less. If she left his employ, even precipitously, he would simply write her off as no longer in his employ. She would not have believed the indifference if she hadn't found it such a persistent irritation. She would also lose a terrific salary and unparalleled fringe benefits.

On the other hand, there was someone in the game who not only could take out a Darhel, but had. There was also the probable reaction of the other Darhel upon anything or anyone in the vicinity. Fringe benefits or not, Prida had more than four hundred years in which to find and enjoy jobs as good as or better than this one. Provided she was alive to enjoy them.

Yet, one didn't want to jump the gun and throw away a good thing needlessly. Perhaps good old Pardal had just gone off and had himself a major snit, all by himself. One heard of such things happening to Darhel now and again. The thing to do, she decided, was to appear to be totally invested in the project for as long as possible, while covering her routes of escape if things suddenly blew up. Literally or figuratively.

"Dahmer, get me the head of security," she said.

"Security, John Graham here, Ms. Felini. What can I do for you?"

She absently inquired as to Erick's orders and more or less repeated them, telling the security head to also take over and coordinate the loaner guards from the military along with his own people. This was harmless cover for her real announcement—that she intended to spend the night at the facility, or several nights if necessary, and therefore would be making a brief run to her apartment to pick up a few necessities.

She declined the assistance of a staffer to run the errand for her, of course. Wouldn't dream of it. Morons.

There. She could keep herself out of the way of any real hazards until she was more confident the situation was stable, and without jeopardizing her job. After all, she would be doing her job, and doing it well. From a safe distance.

Jerry Rydell did not appreciate being called in on a weekend, for no damn reason at all that he could see, to patrol a damned near empty building. Entering middle age and already picking up a little weight, despite a job that kept him on his feet and walking, Jerry didn't often get dates with attractive women. Belinda Scarpelli was about as good as it got for him. Pretty, about six years younger than he was, only a bit plump herself. Having to cancel his date with her had put him in a goddam lousy mood. Especially not when what he got in exchange was having to walk the floors with Nigel Pinkney, otherwise known as Nigel the Prick.

"So, bet you're real glad to be in here on Friday, mate. Do a little honest work for once," the prick said.

"Nigel? Blow me." He'd been up one sixth floor corridor and down the other with this cheese-dick and it had gotten old before he'd taken the second step.

"Eh, what? Don't like the sixth floor, do you?" In some stupid attempt to play up his name, Nigel affected a very corny English accent, copied out of old prewar stuff that had been badly holo-enhanced to fill in the dead air in the wee hours of the morning. He seemed to think it helped him get women. Jerry allowed that that might be so—but only the stupid ones.

He clenched his fists as they walked, yet again, past the old biddy's office. Said woman was some nameless corporate drone on the sixth floor who had the most grating voice he could imagine—worse than his mother-in-law from his first marriage. It didn't matter what time you walked past her office, day or night, she was loudly talking at her PDA, on some kind of call to someone, with that grating twang that echoed halfway down the hall in both directions. On and on and on. In his nightmares sometimes, he'd be patrolling this hall and stop, wrenching her face open with a crowbar. Inside would be only a buckley and a large, round speaker, embedded in miscellaneous wires and plastic casing, droning on in a computerized loop, forever.

They were really responsible for both the sixth and seventh floors, but on this job that meant walking the halls of the sixth floor in endless loops, trying futilely to break the pattern by looping here instead of there, running the route backwards, etc. But no matter where you went on the hall, you could always hear the old biddy, at least a little bit. He had, more than once, fantasized about breaking into her home some night and bludgeoning her to death in her bed. He wasn't a particularly violent person, but it was the only way he could conceive of continuing to draw his paycheck while never, ever having to listen to that scraping, screechy, rasping voice ever again.

They could only patrol the sixth floor because the big boss and his bimbo minion were housed on the seventh, and they were too good to be bothered with the presence of lowly rent-a-pigs. Jerry's fists clenched tighter and he harrumphed silently. Damned snot-nosed suits. Except—her highness the bimbo was out of the building and the creepy big boss was out of town. They were allowed to patrol the seventh floor when their majesties weren't there.

"Hey, Nigel. We really oughtta do a few loops around the seventh floor, seeing as we're on such high alert and the suits are all out. Ya think?" Please let him not be a prick just for once, the portly man wished, adjusting the too-tight, loaner gun belt. Paranoid snot-nosed suits, he amended morosely.

"Right you are. I could do with a change. That old bird could peel paint off the walls, if you ask me."

What a prick. "Let's take the elevator." As a rule, Rydell avoided stairs.

"Shall we, then?"

Papa O'Neal heard the squeaking in the elevator well and had his back to the wall by the time it dinged. The first guard, a little weaselly man, hit the floor, sapped and stunned, but not out. The taller, fat one was still slightly in the elevator, and had to be grabbed before he could hit the door button. The neck break would have normally only worked for someone catching his victim from behind, by surprise. Those men did not have Michael O'Neal's squat, muscular build and gorillalike arms. His massive upper body strength and juv's agility let him muscle the guard's neck around by main force, snapping it like a twig.

Almost as an afterthought, his heel jammed down, hard, on the neck of the first man, before he twisted, bringing the opposite knee down, with his full body weight, onto the spot where his foot had been just an instant before. Both hands buried in the little man's hair, he pulled it up and back, past a right angle, until he heard the familiar crunch.

A body in each hand, he dragged them free from the elevator doors before that conveyance could start complaining too loudly about the obstruction. A novice killer, or someone who had not yet made up his mind to kill a particular individual, could be hesitant—read "slow"—in action. Decisions to target or not target took time. Thinking about which move to use next took time. The techniques of an active martial artist, who had only trained but never killed, took time.

It is a truism in fighting that reaction takes longer than action. The techniques of a practiced, active, master who had killed many times at close quarters, and had already targeted a particular man, took very little more time than the remorseless fall of a guillotine blade.

Papa O'Neal had come into the facility classifying all its employees as not only enemies, but "bad people." The guillotine blade had felt no more nor less for those it once felled than he felt for his own kills. Now, he no longer classified them as either enemies or bad people, simply as bodies in need of safe disposal. Safe, in this case, being defined as providing the least risk to the mission.

Around the corner, Tommy Sunday gestured him to the open door of the closest empty office, stripping the PDAs, guns, and security cards from the bodies as they went. Working quickly, he dumped their buckleys down to emulation level one. He was relieved to see that they had only been on three in the first place. A three would not have had enough initiative to place an alert call on its own. He routed their security radio feeds, over very short transmission, to earbugs for Cally and Papa. Each also got a working secure card in a front pocket, guaranteeing that every member of the team could get through almost any door in the place.

"So much for a quiet, subtle switch," Cally said, frowning at the bodies.

"We already had to leave one downstairs," Tommy confessed.

"It couldn't be helped," Schmidt explained.

After giving all three of them a chastising glare, she reached into the carry bag and pulled out the belt with the .50 A.E. Desert Eagle and three spare magazines back to the top. Having given his own "take" to George, Papa looked unhappy, but didn't contest her claim.

She took point, followed by Tommy with the box and cart, which were flanked by Papa, with George bringing up the rear. Sunday, with his massive size, was the only one able to carry the cart down the stairs, in his own arms, quietly and without help. He could make twice the safe speed on a staircase as any other pair of them.

"Dead people," she grumbled. "A whole goddamn trail of dead people. Can't take you guys anywhere."

The O'Neal, as even he thought of himself occasionally, didn't like having his granddaughter on point one little bit. But she was a professional, a damned good one, and the most likely to befuddle the mind of any real security officer they encountered for at least long enough to deal with the problem. In a practical sense, this meant that the stunningly distracting assassin "patrolled" like the security guard she was supposed to be, for long enough to get to the next door or corner and see beyond it, then beckoned the rest forward.

The third and fourth floors were crawling with guards, enough that those more-desired routes of egress were impassable. In both cases, upon encountering hostiles, their team leader had managed to smile and nod, pacing and turning just as if she had reached the end of her own assigned route, and getting them all the hell out of there.

The problem with the second floor was that it contained one of the observation decks for a central double-floor demonstration area. It was very likely the place from which Michelle's spy had filmed their initial cube of enemy operations. This meant that the route across the second floor to the necessary freight elevator was more than three times as long as any of the other floors. That one freight elevator was the only access to the loading dock through which all routine supplies came in, and all innocuous trash traveled out.

Cally stopped, up ahead, and started backpedaling towards the rest of them. The old man tensed, then relaxed into a certain boneless looseness—the kind of looseness that in cats and warriors presages a flurry of preternatural speed. Weight forward on his toes, he could feel the air singing between the team members, buzzing with channeled adrenaline, as their point faded back, just in front of Tommy and himself. He heard voices around the corner, voices of the guards that had caused her to stop.

"Are you cold? I'm freezing. Here's a couple of bucks. Why don't you go back down to the break room and grab us each a cup of coffee while I finish the loop of this floor?"

The mumble that followed was unintelligible.

"That's why they have us in pairs, right? Nah, it's okay. Have a cup on me. Yeah, meet you back at this floor's lobby, all right? Good."

The first guard's voice was friendly, decent. Too bad the guy was probably about to die. The team waited, standing silent.

Then Cally was moving forward again, motioning them to follow, then stay. She walked ahead to the corner, peered around, nodded, and motioned them forward again. There was something . . . different. Still, he'd trained her since she was a child. His confidence in her field abilities was absolute.

As they turned the last corner to the freight elevator, he understood. Leaning against the wall, out of their way, waited a large, dark-haired soldier in the uniform of U.S. SOCOM and Fleet Strike's Direct Action Group for Counterterror. He stood, silently, as they approached, pausing only to touch the front of his cover with one hand as they passed.

"Hi, Aunt Cally," he said. "Dad," he nodded as Tommy wheeled by.

The Bane Sidhe agent watched them safely onto the elevator, team and cargo together. As the doors closed, Papa saw the young man resume his patrol, down the hall and away from them. Always a pleasure to see a well-grown, respectful, young man.

Tommy had had a few seconds near enough to George to, after watching Cally go all misty and then snap right back into gear, hiss, "I give the fuck up. How?"

Their rear guard shrugged, keeping his words quiet enough that he hoped she couldn't hear him, when she'd gone up ahead. "Kick the hardest guy hard enough and he rattles—in a guy way. Kick a hardass woman hard enough and she rattles, too. Give a token soothing to the little girl, and you've got the operative back. Cally was hung up in a rare, girl moment. She's better now," he said.

Sunday nodded. "No shit."

Just for a moment, Papa looked suspiciously like the side of his mouth was trying to quirk upwards. Then the rest of the team was past the moment, too.

"Whaddya wanna bet she kicks his ass?" the deadly little man muttered.

"No bet," the ACS vet and long-married man muttered out of the corner of his mouth as the subject of their clandestine conversation beckoned them forth, shooting them a darkly suspicious glare.

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