Sister Time John Ringo & Julie Cochrane

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Chapter Twenty-Three

General Robert Foxglove, a one-star staff officer within SOCOM, had been less than thrilled to get a call from an AID outside the service. Particularly an AID he had to listen to, like the one belonging to the Darhel Pardal's pet mentat. Foxglove owed a lot to the Epetar Group. One thing in particular was the ability to live comfortably on his own salary while his ex-wife enjoyed the life to which she had once become accustomed. The counter-intel guys didn't twig to it because the money wasn't coming to him. His ex-wife was merely too occupied with a conveniently rich toy-boy to bug him about money for alimony or to support his ex-kids. Nobody suspected a man was being paid off merely because he lived within his own salary. He was just a guy lucky enough to have an ex who wasn't a platinum-plated, grasping bitch. She was, of course, but the Epetar Group had long insulated him from that reality in return for a few discreet favors.

The favor required, in this case, was going to be a royal pain in the ass. He had tried to confirm it with the Darhel himself, in the hope of getting out of it. Unfortunately, his own AID had been typically snippy about getting that august personage on the line—even more so than usual. The general interpreted the silence to mean discussion of his alien master's instructions, delivered by proxy, was neither necessary nor desired. The humiliation stuck in the man's craw, but he was, by now, used to the myriad small humiliations and indignities that the Darhel heaped on their minions.

The bitch of it was that the favor would have been easy if that asshole, Pennington, would only play ball. Unfortunately, the commanding officer of DAG was a starchy bastard who had chosen to get sticky about deploying troops under his command to the strictly temporary, necessary effort of providing supplemental security to an important Epetar Group project. Okay, so they had reason to be miffed at Epetar right now, maybe, but that shouldn't matter because the facility didn't have any open links to the Epetar Group. None of the men would know of any connection, anyway. And it wasn't as if DAG wasn't pulling the cherries of one Darhel group or another out of the fire every other mission, whenever the perpetual rivalries or petty piracy resulted in one kind of violence or another against the aliens' legitimate business interests.

Pennington had a real corncob up his ass about this one, though. Foxglove had had to pull in an important, and rare, favor from one of the Joint Chiefs to get the original orders to come down through the appropriate chain of command and force the uncooperative bastard's hand. Even then, he had only gotten the most grudging, limited assistance available for his clandestine masters—a paltry two squads. His Darhel associates—as he thought of them, though they would have said masters—hadn't been happy. He thought the other general might be having a fit of idealistic pique over that Epetar-Gistar mess at that mine in Africa. Dammit, the modern world couldn't afford those kinds of juvenile temper tantrums over necessary expedients.

Anyway, his present problem was that Pennington had extended his complete unreason to a flat refusal to order reinforcement of the security detachment in question without direct orders from above. It wasn't as if the other general couldn't have done it, entirely legitimately and within his orders, on his own initiative. It wasn't as if Foxglove himself didn't have a firm reputation for returning favors, and for having the ability to do so. No, the man just had to be an asshole about it.

Which put Foxglove between the proverbial rock and a hard place. He couldn't go back to the well with the Joint Chiefs. His capital was burned up there, as had been made painfully clear when he'd called in the initial favor. He had to get those troops. Epetar had him by the short hairs, dammit, and the Darhel didn't react well to failure.

The best way to handle it, he had decided, was to follow the old adage about it being easier to get forgiveness than permission. He couldn't get Epetar's active assistance before the fact, damn Pardal's power games in refusing to take calls. However, he was too damned convenient to them for them to leave his ass swinging in the wind. His only choice was to take a few risks now and rely on them to cover for him after. At least the mentat's AID had been willing and able to help. Using its master's authority, it had convinced Pennington's AID to conveniently ignore incoming calls, and experience "technical difficulties" with outgoing calls for the next eight hours. He hoped it would be enough.

"Daisy, get me Colonel Jacob Mosovich on the horn," he told his AID.

"Yes, Bob," it husked.

Jake's first thought when his AID informed him that one General Foxglove was calling was, "What the hell does this dick want?" It was at best bad form to speak ill of a superior officer. Unofficially, there were some assholes it was damned hard to speak well of.

Mosovich's long military experience had taught him that there were officers you could count on to take care of both the officers under their command, and their men. Then there were officers who fit the military profile of "active stupid"—which generally meant that their officers and men were left to make the CO's hare-brained orders work however they could, or catch nine kinds of hell for his incompetence. The colonel knew from both reputation and personal experience that Bob Foxglove was one of the latter, and was in his current staff position not for the sake of career development, but as an expedient for getting a politically connected, dumbass weasel into the spot where he could do the least harm.

"Good afternoon, General. What can I do for you, sir?"

"Colonel, I've been unable to reach General Pennington, and apparently I'm not the only one. My call is regarding your security mission with the Humanity Project. Their CEO, the mentat Erick Winchon, has informed SOCOM that an associated facility was attacked this morning. He declined to provide details, but said he believes an attack on their facility may be imminent," the general said, as if expecting Mosovich to be impressed with his important connections to this Winchon individual.

When Mosovich didn't reply, Foxglove continued, "This is a strong indication of an imminent terrorist attack that requires DAG reinforcing its . . . ahem . . . unusually small detachment on site. I have done everything I can to contact Pennington, with no luck. I was hoping that his standing orders to you would allow you to begin deploying while we continue our efforts to reach him."

Jake was silent for a few moments, but for once, Foxglove didn't seem to be in a hurry for an answer. "Let's try him once more. Maybe he's back in touch. AID, conference in General Pennington, please," the colonel instructed. He had noticed that Bob didn't say who at SOCOM had been informed.

"I'm sorry, Jake. I can't reach him," his AID said.

Damn. The commanding officer of DAG avoided letting his mental grimace show on his face and made a decision. He could begin movement while his AID continued to try his CO. The general would probably be more effective getting additional information on the threat than a colonel would, and he might even sabotage his boss's efforts by pushing too hard with this particular asshole right now.

"Yes, General, my orders do allow for further deployment on my own initiative. Please forward me all the intelligence information SOCOM has, and any more that comes in, of course. Meanwhile, we will begin moving out as soon as possible. Thank you for the information, sir," he said. Then, to his AID, deliberately within hearing of Foxglove, whom he didn't trust farther than he could spit, "AID, please keep trying General Pennington until you do reach him. Keep me informed of your progress."

"Of course, Jake," it said.

"Thank you for your cooperation, Colonel," the one-star cut the connection, leaving the lieutenant colonel staring at the empty space and silently cursing all politicians, civilian and military.

"Get me Mueller and Kelly."

"Right away, sir," the AID sounded almost relieved, which was odd. Maybe he'd imagined it.

Major Kelly stood in front of his CO and only had two words in his head: "oh shit." Colonel Mosovich was a hell of an officer and one hell of an operator in his own right. Kelly had hated to have to deceive him by holding back the fundamental nature of DAG's dual loyalties. It smacked of dishonor and had been the hardest thing about his job since the day he first reported to boot camp. Now, he was finally going to have to come clean, and couldn't help being ashamed even though there were vital reasons for the dual loyalties and the deception, and a perfect opening for confessions to the colonel. Not to mention how Mueller was going to react.

"Sir, we need to discuss a great deal without interruption," the XO said.

The old man nodded and walked Mueller and him outside, away from the AIDs, who would punish them later, in small ways, for the exclusion.

"That bit about not knowing what you might be getting into brings up something, actually a lot of big things, that you now have a need to know, sir."

"Why do I get the feeling I'm not going to like this?" Jake asked his XO.

"Because you absolutely are not. First, I and most of DAG already know exactly what we are going into, and you now need to know how."

"This is more than just feedback from our men on temporary duty up there." It wasn't a question.

"Yes, sir, it is. The answers go way back. First, Michael O'Neal, Senior, who you worked with in Vietnam, did not die in the nuclear explosion at Rabun Gap but is very much alive, rejuved, and working for a covert organization with a very, very similar mission to DAG's." He waited to see what the old man would say.

"You sound like you have direct personal knowledge of this. I am not happy to just be hearing about whatever this is, and I will be even less happy if I have to drag it out of you in bits and drabs."

Mueller was glowering silently, since this mess was the colonel's situation to deal with.

"Yes, sir. Other veterans of special units, listed as dead, are clandestinely alive and part of this organization, primarily because the civilian authorities have been compromised." Kelly suppressed a sigh. The colonel's scowl was expected, but not encouraging. Of course.

"Sir, you and the rest of the services—the uncompromised rest of the services—know this full well," he said to his impassive superior.

"Sounds like you're telling me they've been compromised in two directions, Major," Mosovich said expressionlessly.

"That's certainly one interpretation, sir. Those of us, and I do mean us, who are members of this other organization think that the fundamental nature of the mission matters. Our mission is congruent with DAG's stated mission, with what the mission is openly presented as supposed to be, and the Darhel's mission is not. To be complete, we were not recruited, unless you count recruiting from the cradle. We joined DAG second, for the training," he admitted to his rightly furious CO, "and not one of us has ever acted counter to DAG's orders and missions while serving."

"While serving," the colonel repeated grimly.

"Sir, respectfully, we never act counter to the interests of humanity. Yes, that's as we perceive them, but as a resistance to the pernicious actions and aims of the Darhel, which you know damned well they have by now, we have ethics. If one of us reaches a situation where he can't obey orders here, he leaves. Sometimes it's officially feet first, but he leaves. To the extent DAG's actions are genuinely counterterror or neutral to humanity's welfare, or not pernicious in a way contrary to humanity's vital interests, we serve honorably."

"Your definition of honor leaves something to be desired, Major."

"Perhaps, sir. Unless honor is cooperating with the forces that have compromised national command authority with extremely negative intentions towards humanity as a whole, and the United States as a part of humanity."

"I'll be goddammed!" Mueller exclaimed. The outburst, given the situation, and the dumbfounded enlightenment on the man's face, warranted explanation.

"Sir, what do you remember Iron Mike's dad looking like?" the sergeant major asked. "I knew I knew you fuckers from somewhere!"

"Fuck," Mosovich said, the light finally dawning. "How many of you are his damn kids? That fucking asshole. When I get hold of him, I'm going to kill him. Or kick his ass. I haven't decided which yet. Well?"

"Kids, grandkids." Kelly shrugged and grinned. "Very close friends' kids and grandkids, other lifetime members—a bit more than half the company, sir."

"You know, Major, I have never thought of myself as an incompetent officer—not once—until this very moment. More than half my fucking command, right under my nose." He rubbed his face in both hands, absorbing the truth, clearly furious.

"Sir, think back about how these men have served you, and how Papa O'Neal served with you. Then think about just why we had to leave those AIDs back there in the office. If you don't think there's a right and a wrong here, there's definitely a better and a worse."

"You'll pardon me, son, if that's not a lot of comfort right now." Jake's scowl had returned. "Leaving off that, for awhile, suppose you tell me exactly what we're facing up the road, since I don't doubt that what I thought were my two squads are actually your two squads, Kelly."

"Sir, you're a damned good officer. Don't take that away from yourself. After a few thousand years of covert operation, an organization gets pretty good." He shrugged at his CO's expression. "Yes, sir, it's been a very long war, and it ain't half over yet."

"You were going to tell me about the mission, not flatter me, son."

"Yes, sir. The facility we're being sent in to guard is an Epetar-owned facility. It is a facility in which atrocities of the very, very worst kind take place every day, against innocent men, women, and children, sir."

"Go on." The colonel was giving nothing away. Kelly didn't suppose he would have been, either.

"The 'attack' the Epetar Group is expecting is real, is more serious than they expect, and is designed to remove the equipment they are using to commit those atrocities. The atrocities are involved with testing a particular alien technology for widespread application against humans."


"Mind control, sir. The other officers and men don't have that specific information, sir."

"Well, finally I know something that everybody else in my command didn't know first. Not that it doesn't sound like fucking science fiction. Thank you so much, Kelly."

At least he had said "Kelly" and not just the more impersonal "Major."

"Yes, sir. Sir, in your place I would be just as pissed, but knowing you, and Sergeant Major Mueller, I strongly believe that you will, upon reflection, realize the nature of the mission as in the vital interests of everything you hold sacred and the failure to tell you as necessary OpSec, no matter how unpleasant. And personally distasteful, I might add, sir. Sir, until this moment, you did not have a need to know."

"I'm still making up my mind about that."

"Sir, I might also point out that our organization is far more closely aligned with the interests and intent of the honestly elected, un-bribed, and un-blackmailed components of the legitimate civilian authority than those we oppose. Far, far more."

"It's that 'far more' part that still concerns me, son."

"Where possible, where the public has not been deceived in a way that is overwhelmingly adverse to their interests, identical. In the case of nonvital deception of the body politic by the enemy, we make every effort to stay aligned with the uncompromised, legitimate civilian authority."

"I notice a lot of wiggle room in that description, son."

"All I can tell you, sir, is that you should consider it highly unlikely that some of the best of the best of the veterans of the war would sign on with anything less, sir. Or would permit anything less on their watch, sir. Then consider the exigencies of the circumstances. It's not an easy call to make, sir."

"Except that by your own admission you and half my men have never known anything else."

"No, sir. All I can say is that the father or grandfather of a number of the rest of your troopers is an honorably discharged veteran of both the Ten Thousand and the ACS. You've got to make up your own mind, sir, but you don't have much time to do it in."

"And whose fault is that?" Mosovich said sourly.

"Sorry, sir. No excuse, sir."

"Oh, shut up, Kelly. Get the men moving and I'll decide whether or not I'm going to shoot you later." He did not add: as I expect you'll decide whether or not you're going to shoot me. He didn't have to.

"Yes, sir." Kelly answered. The old man was not joking, and he knew it. Then again, considering how he would have felt if it had been him, he had expected nothing else.

* * *

Mosovich pulled his XO aside before addressing the men.

"Kelly. I am buying your story, but God help you if I find you have lied to me," he didn't say again, "in any particular of this, because I will shoot you and every single member of your little cabal. Do you read me?" The old veteran added to himself, Unless you shoot me first, which you will if I'm wrong about you. God help us all, anyway.

He couldn't have known that one third of the Bane Sidhe operatives in the briefing room heard him, quite clearly, with their enhanced hearing. Their faces gave no sign as they sat at the desks used, between missions, for training classes.

"All right, men. We have been ordered to the Institute for the Advancement of Human Welfare on the basis of receiving intelligence that there may be an attack there by forces hostile to them. You will notice that I did not describe the attackers as 'terrorist forces.' We have intelligence of an impending attack. We also have internal intelligence that this facility is a front for the Epetar Group and that said facility is engaged in activities that would, themselves, fall within our organizational definitions of terrorism. According to our information, the attackers are members of an organized vigilante group."

It could not have been his imagination that some of his men looked at him a little sharper, while one or two might have looked the slightest bit shamefaced. The holo of the building he told his PDA to display took up a third of the empty space in the front of the room, before the ranks of desks. His XO had ensured that there were no AIDs in the room, to the reported chagrin of one FNG who had not yet learned to remain emotionally detached from the treacherous little machine.

"DAG's mission is to stop a terrorist act in case of an attack," he stated deliberately. "To that end, the Epetar Group are known associates of and supporters of terrorists, as each of you knows from recent personal experience. Our intelligence indicates that the Epetar people are holding civilian captives in the basement areas of the building. Note that our mission is not to initiate attack, but to respond against terrorism if one occurs. In the event of an attack on the facility, which we confidently expect to occur, our counterterror mission dictates that we liberate those captives." He scanned the room, making eye contact with individual officers and men. "To that end, you are to consider the vigilantes friendlies with objectives of their own separate from ours.

"The Epetar people believe we are coming up as security forces in support of them," Jake continued. "We will encourage them in that belief as long as possible in order to infiltrate the facility. In line with that, they are expecting us to report to this area," he pointed to a loading dock on one end of the building, "for briefing on the situation and deployment within the building. Which we will do.

"We will be carrying buckley PDAs, and only buckley PDAs, for full compatibility of communications, secure from the enemy. We will insist on keeping members of the same platoons as close together as possible. I do not anticipate any trouble persuading the Epetar people to comply.

"Major Kelly will brief you on the mission plan for location and liberation of hostages."

Specialist Quackenbush, 19, who did not know that his company XO now classed him as "the FNG with the AID," stopped one of the other guys in his platoon as they rechecked their webgear for the mission prescribed equipment. "Hey, what the fuck is up with these mission orders? Vigilantes? Corporate terrorists? Is the old man off his nut? I mean, what the fuck are his fucking orders? Really, honest to God, is he insane? Dude, I'm seriously asking."

"What the fuck is your problem, Quackenbush?" Specialist Grady hissed. "If you think for one moment that the old man would disobey his orders, or maybe you don't have confidence in the rest of your chain of command, then what the hell are you doing in the service and how the hell did you make it here?"

"Well, excuse me for breathing, Grady. You find nothing strange about this?"

"Cherry, did you ever maybe think we've got the term 'Fucking New Guy' for a reason? Shut the fuck up and follow your orders. The old man knows what he's doing."

Quackenbush received a professional ass-chewing that took less than half a minute and left him feeling about two inches high when Sergeant Mauldin relieved him of his AID, again, before they climbed into the choppers, popping the little computer neatly into some kind of envelope and tossing it in the back of one of the jeeps in the motor pool before climbing into the bird. He grimaced as he tried to orient the PDA that the sergeant had shoved into his hands instead so that he'd be able to use the thing, and hoped it didn't snow or something and break his AID. This buckley didn't even have a damn personality overlay. He shut up miserably in his seat among the other Bravo guys. He was in the doghouse for sure, and right now had no idea whether the world had gone crazy or he had.

Sergeant Major Mueller pulled him aside a few minutes later as they got off the chopper. The enlisted man resigned himself to another ass-chewing and maybe even an article fifteen.

"Look, son." The old sergeant clapped a hand on his shoulder in a fatherly manner. "You're in a counterterror unit. We're liberating civilian hostages. Just keep your eye on the ball, and your mind on the mission. You'll do just fine. And if you don't, I'm going to shove a size sixteen boot up your ass so far my toe is going to be kicking your tonsils."

The loading bay was large, for what it held. Three stories high and a bit larger than half a basketball court, it stood mostly empty. Made largely of Earthtech materials, the Galtech portions had the look of replacements and repairs, as if someone had been uninterested in building new, but had had such ready access to Galtech materials that cost was an afterthought whenever anything needed repairs. Boxes stood in palleted stacks along the walls, separated in clumps as if grouped for type. A couple of forklifts sat in the middle of the floor, as if their operators had knocked off without parking them away.

The mass of men in green-detailed coveralls either ignored the forklifts or leaned against one as they listened to the shift supervisor explain why they had all been called in after six o'clock on a fucking Friday. Turned out one of the suits had a wild hair up his ass about some corporate raid that probably existed only in his imagination. The general mood among the guards whose shift it wasn't was pissed off, except for the ones who really needed the double-time pay, coming up on Christmas. The general mood among the guards whose shift it was was pissed off, on account of not getting paid double-time along with the other guys.

The half dozen DAG troops who weren't actively patrolling had positioned themselves on one side of the mass of security guards, giving them a clear field of fire across the bay. They had picked the side nearest some stacks of boxes they could retreat behind for cover. That gave them the cover boxes, and the boxes on the far side of the hostiles, to absorb ricochets in the bay. The haphazard mix of Galplas and cinderblock walls was unlikely to be fun as backstops. Better to ruin the enemies' day than their own.

Six specwar troopers with pistols and shotguns, versus sixty armed idiots. The odds were jimmied by the two or three juved war veterans, riffed out and working at whatever they could get on planet. That, plus the shells in the DAG guns, all of them, which were supposed to be rock salt but weren't. Buckshot was downright unpleasant for human targets, not to mention the other little specials among the shells on their belts. The number of shells had had many of the regular guards making snide remarks about expecting ice on the roads.

The Bane Sidhe operatives, which all of them also were, had each security guard classified more in the category of "target" than "human." To the extent that they considered the guards people at all, the men classed every facility guard based on their willing employment in support of an organization committing atrocities against civilians. Nobody in DAG, Bane Sidhe or not, had problems with killing bad people.

The DAG guys had no anticipation that they would be killing these particular guards in this particular place, or in the next few hours, or at all. They each followed the general principle of having a plan to kill everyone he met. When off duty, but together, the counterterror troops resembled a wolf pack between hunts. When operational, the troops—being all O'Neals and in the same unit, to boot—moved in an easy flow so coordinated it was almost telepathic.

Their distribution now differed little in kind from their distribution around the civilian security people for the past couple of weeks. The specifics followed the tactical situation. Without ever seeming to realize why, one or two of the guards had developed a strange tendency to jump at small noises when the DAG guys were around.

Cally, still taking point, opened the door to the loading bay and immediately tried to step backwards through it, seeing that Mr. Murphy had finally struck with a vengeance. Unfortunately, she'd been seen.

"Hey! No, goddammit, don't you dare leave. You're fucking late and I'm not repeating myself just because some asshole who couldn't be on time didn't get the memo. Get your ass down here, and you better believe I'm docking your pay for this. Who's your supervisor?" All of this left the shift supervisor's mouth in a rapid-fire staccato burst, without pause for breath.

He was approaching the base of the stairs as he said it, obviously to continue chewing her out, so instead of retreating, Cally continued down the right half-flight of stairs, noting the six-inch steel rim rising at the floor of the landing and running along the line of the stairs down on each side. She'd seen better cover, and worse.

Having seen the troops deployed along a line at right angles from her team's angle of entry, and realizing that an unintentional ambush could still be close enough for government work, counting the odds, she made an instantaneous decision.

"Might as well come on guys, we're in the soup but good," she called back over her shoulder.

"Oh, so there's more of you lazy ass slack— Hey! What shift are you on anyw—"

Cally's draw was a smooth blur. She had whittled it free of unnecessary movement like a gunsmith floating a barrel, then embedded in muscle memory with daily dry-fire practice. The buckley monitored her progress over time. She had been stable for many years now. If draw speed had had a formal competition class, she would have long ago achieved high master status.

The shift supervisor's body was jerking from the big round between his eyes as the back of his head blasted away in a welter of red and white gore, splatters of blood flying back onto her face and coverall. Then his body was shielding hers as she carried him right with her, forward and behind a barrel. Even though she twisted to get the corpse under her as she landed, her vision went red as everything exploded in pain.

She'd had no choice but to take him along. She might need his stuff if she ran out of ammo, his extra magazines were on his belt, and she couldn't possibly have gotten them loose on the fly. She was damned good, but there were things even she couldn't do. For a female operative whose full enhancement gave her the strength of a supremely fit man—with none of the extra bulk—the fastest solution was to take the magazines by taking the whole man. She hadn't really needed the corpse for cover, since she was behind the barrel before the first round impacted on the cinderblock behind where she had been.

At close enough to the same instant, all hell broke loose as the Bane Sidhe operatives, every one of whom recognized Aunt Cally instantly despite the short, black hair, opened up on the guards while backing to take up their preselected positions behind one stack of boxes or another.

The rest of the switch team used the device and cart as a visual distraction and cover, coming in low behind it and pitching it down the opposite half-flight of concrete and steel stairs, hitting the floor of the upper landing behind what paltry cover there was.

Glancing aside and through the gaps in the stair risers, Cally amended that impression. Tommy Sunday had somehow managed to either precede, follow, or pace the cart and land himself behind a screen of toilet paper boxes that she was surprised he'd had time to find and pick, much less get to. Her already high opinion of the ACS veteran's practical survival skills rose another notch. Cover it wasn't, but for a man as big as he was, the concealment was a better tactical choice. She realized that ninety percent, at least, of the enemy wouldn't even think to shoot through the boxes. The rest would almost certainly miss anything vital. Good choice.

The Darwinian process of war generally has to apply over several engagements, or several battles, to make veterans of survivors. The enemy survivors of the first seconds of this engagement were made up of both the fitter and the luckier of their fellows. At least one veteran of combat against the Posleen, unknown to the Bane Sidhe people, now lay bleeding out on the floor. Being a veteran had not equated to being a good man, in his case. Any ship making port had its rats, and Nicholas Rondine had left a trail of beaten and broken ex-wives behind him.

Being in a bad place did not always equate to being a bad person, either. Willard Burns was a forty-three-year-old dry alcoholic, recently unemployed from a shoe factory, whose next door neighbor had gotten him this job. He had been unhappily working his two week notice because his five-year-old daughter wanted a toboggan from Santa. Now he had ceased feeling pain from the shotgun blast to his chest. Forty extra pounds of beer gut had rendered him slower than too many of his fellows.

Whether fitter or luckier, most of the guards behind the boxes had, unfortunately, either through presence of mind or awareness of limited ammo, chosen to at least attempt to aim their fire. The DAG guys had taken out at least three times their number in that first burst of action before the survivors were under cover. The good news was that the enemy was minus about a third of his strength. The bad news was two thirds of the enemy, both the unwounded and lightly grazed, had made cover.

DAG itself was not without losses. One man lay DRT, in a position too hot to Hiberzine him—an almost certainly permanent loss. Another lay behind the boxes, sporting the swollen lips and other visual signs of a Hiberzined man, chest perforated by a skilled or lucky pistol shot. Not like it mattered which.

One guy had taken it in the meat of the leg, and was combat effective again after a few precious seconds spent dosing and binding it. The other three made it completely untouched and fully effective.

The numerical odds were essentially unchanged from the beginning of the fight. The Cally team made little functional difference as they were so lightly armed.

With a few minutes to get organized and start thinking, even forty untrained idiots could take on the best soldiers, especially if they had an accepted chain of command and were armed with weapons tactically appropriate to the situation, as these were.

Cally had absorbed the change in resources and positioning instantaneously and with almost no conscious thought, part of the battle gestalt of one of the youngest living veterans of the Posleen War, irregular though she'd been. Her barrel was on the same side of the room as the DAG troopers, so she had been positioned perfectly to run the numbers on friendly troops. Not like six minus two was a hard calculation to make. In their military uniforms, DAG troopers were instantly distinguishable from the enemy.

The DAG troopers, in turn, would have absolutely no trouble tracking the friendlies on the switch team, all but Schmidt being their close kin, known to them from birth.

At the moment, Cally was more busy swearing and providing covering fire than anything else. Granpa just had to have a gun, and had slithered down the stairs after the body of a guard who had staggered their way to die.

It wasn't actually completely stupid, she allowed grudgingly. One shooter was a big difference, one lump might as well be dead for the immediate engagement, and the best time to risk this partial exposure was in the first seconds, while the most confusion reigned among the enemy.

After retrieving the pistol from the floor in front of the man's hand, and the body of the spare magazines, Granpa sprinted for the nearest real cover. He made the DAG box line, but she felt a hard thwack to her thigh as a round penetrated the barrel and continued through her leg. She absently noted the lack of an exit wound and figured a chunk of the lucky bullet's momentum must have been sapped off by impacting the barrel. Dammit. He exposes himself and gets me hit. If we survive this, I'm gonna kill him.

As a top-level field operative, Cally O'Neal and the rest of her team had very complete nannite packages in their bodies. In her case, this meant that the blood coagulated almost at once, and a highly selective nerve block made it feel like she'd been smacked with a broom handle rather than a sledge hammer. She automatically and unconsciously diverted her other pain through a post-hypnotic melange of Vitapetroni's that acted like a psychic Demerol, without the loss of function. You still felt all of it, you just didn't give a damn. Ongoing blood loss was a weeping trickle from the constricted capillaries whenever movement cracked the jelled proto-scab.

"Wish we had a magic pill for morphine," she groused, picking off one of the hostiles who had picked the interior wall to try to rush around the corner. Tommy and George got one each, and she got another one, as they went past. The only reason they got so close to the far wall before Granpa and the closest trooper got the last of them was they had to hold back until their field of fire didn't include Tommy.

That took seven more, but the odds were real bad. Men, even untrained ones, fought far better per individual than Posleen. The horses had overwhelmed with sheer numbers, the literally moronic Posleen normals being totally heedless of danger in service to their own God Kings, driven by a hunger that made voracious a pathetically inadequate descriptor. Men, contrariwise, were each as smart as a single God King. They'd spend their lives, but not heedlessly. Unfortunately, it had yet to occur to these dumbasses that they could just break off, quit firing, and be allowed to run away whole and healthy. Or, more likely, they were under a light compulsion that hadn't yet broken under the instinct of self-preservation and a glimmer of nonpanicked thought.

She winced, not at her wound, but at the knowledge that a similar rush up the other side, with more people, would likely make it—at least with a couple of people to negate DAG's cover by exposing them to fire on all sides of each box stack. Tommy and George would be unable to provide supporting fire, having to conserve nearly nonexistent ammo for clearly hittable targets. Two of their remaining DAG guys, and Granpa, would have their line of sight obscured by other stacked boxes. That left the two closest and Cally to take down a rush. Good shot though she was, with only three people exposing themselves to hostile fire, one of them was certain to be hit. None of these ruminations took more than a tenth of a second to come together in her brain as a unified picture of their (bad) tactical position.

Two minutes is an eternity in situations like theirs. Inevitably, the rush down the other side occurred to the enemy, which would likely have been the end for them except for the absurd entry of yet another DAG trooper through the far door, face to face with the lead guys in said rush. The moment that followed was one of those that perfectly illustrated the concept of time dilation.

Both sides faced each other, and even though Cally couldn't see their facial expressions, she could imagine as both retreated back to their previous cover in a jumble. Geez! Couldn't they hear the shots outside? What the hell kind of acoustics did this place have, anyway?

Somebody in their relief force was on the ball, though, for what happened next was a crack of the outside door and what looked like a slap of something on the top and bottom of the inner door frame. She was subconsciously bracing for an explosion when a voice, amplified by the stereo separation of the tiny speakers, poured in the room at a volume loud even to people who'd just been in an indoor firefight.

"Security personnel. This is Colonel Jacob Mosovich of the United States Army Direct Action Group. This facility is under assault for violation of Federal law and terrorist activities. Drop your weapons and come out, one by one, slowly. You will not be harmed. Your names and job titles will be taken and you will be released to go home or seek medical attention. People, we are interested in the big guys, not you. You're little fish, and immunity may be offered in exchange for testimony." The voice paused, as if to let the orders and information sink in.

"Come out, unarmed, with your hands up. You will not be assaulted, arrested, or detained. You do not need to die for this employer today, but you will die, within minutes, if you continue to resist." There was another pause, probably to see if the security weenies were moving. Not fast enough, apparently. She did hear a couple of clatters as some arms dropped.

"We have an entire, armed, counterterror unit of elite soldiers," he continued. "Well-armed soldiers with unlimited ammunition. You have low ammunition, light armament, low numbers, and no training. Surrender now, and come out. You will not be harmed. You will be released. We do not want to kill you, but make no mistake that we will. Your time is up. Surrender now," the naggingly familiar voice said.

There were more clatters as the closest former guards apparently decided that this was a damned fine offer and walked towards the door, hesitantly glancing in the direction of their surviving enemies as if wondering if they would be shot as soon as they broke cover.

When the first two made it out the door alive and unharmed, the rest started to form up in an orderly queue, more used to standing in lines than fighting, anyway.

That was, at least, what started to happen before Cally suddenly found herself unable to move. Out of the corners of her eyes, she saw the security guards frozen in place, as if someone had taken a still holo and they were all trapped in it.

Alone in the center of the room, a short man in an expensive suit stood glaring around as if deciding who or what to deal with first. The human mentat Erick Winchon had come home.

He wasn't alone for more than an eyeblink, as Michelle O'Neal, brown mentat robe stiff as the skirt of a porcelain doll, stood in the center of the room as well, glaring at him.

"So. You are truly insane after all. Do you think the rest of the Wise can or will tolerate your reckless and haphazard direct intervention, running around like a little tin god? How long before larger and larger sections of the Milky Way would become your play toy? How long before simple boredom drove you to take everything down in your own, individual calamity?" Her sister's stress on the word individual was so soft it was almost indiscernible.

"Oh, like you haven't intervened wherever and whenever you pleased. Killing a Darhel. Congratulations. I thought in you the legendary O'Neal barbarism had skipped a generation."

"I did not kill Pardal. I have not intervened directly once. Not until this moment when your own recklessness made it worth everything to the rest of the Wise that someone stop you. That I stop you."

"Piffle. Technicalities. You are so sure you are better than every other sentient in this galaxy that I suspect you even starch your panties. Had tea with the Aldenata yet, have we?"

"I do not—" Michelle began. "This is pointless. You will stop. You will proceed, with me as escort, to Barwhon, where you will submit to the designees of Tchpth planners for safe, serene contemplation and study where you will be neither a threat to yourself nor anyone else. I will return and clean up your mess."

"And you get the goodies and to use my research to become the Epetar Group's fair-haired girl, write your reputation in Galactic history, and take credit for civilizing humanity. I do not think so."

"Why would you agree to this, this intrigue in the first place? Research was proceeding. Do not tell me you had insufficient work of your own to do?"

"For one, it was considerably less interesting work." Erick sneered. "Boring, frankly. For two, I do not drag my feet, and humanity needs civilization desperately."

"The primary responsibility of a researcher is caution."

"Again, piffle. Humanity pollutes the whole of Galactic civilization with its violence. There is not time."

"You do like that word, do you not?" she rolled her eyes. "You dare to speak of humanity's violence in the face of the unspeakable violence you have engaged in here?"

"You did not kill Pardal—though you drove him into lintatai, or ordered it. I have not committed violence against humans. The same principle applies as always. One protects civilization by turning barbarism against barbarism. The firebreak theory. Here, barbarians have done violence to barbarians. No more, no less. They would have been doing it somewhere, sooner or later. They were simply doing it here."

"If I needed any more proof that you are insane, I would have it with that incredibly convoluted excuse for philosophical reasoning. I did not drive Pardal into lintatai, nor did I make the decision that permitted the possibility."

"Oh, what a world of delicious wiggle room that careful statement leaves. You were involved, I am sure."

"I was not completely uninvolved," she conceded.

Cally could see his facial expressions, but not her sister's, and was genuinely frightened by the manic glee that attended Michelle's admission. If anything she had heard about mentats was true, she had never wanted to be around an unhinged one. This guy was so unhinged his door wasn't on the same block.

"However, my tangential involvement was in no way my own instigation." Michelle spoke calmly, but Michelle always spoke calmly. It was sort of irritating. Erick's delighted skepticism wasn't making the assassin feel any better.

"I was not consulted, I was required," she insisted.

"Whatever excuse allows you to sleep at night, Miss Starch," he said. "He tried to kill you, you got there first. And apparently managed the incomparable feat of not only securing sanction from our 'pacifist' peers, but persuading them that it was all their idea, and you their oh-so-reluctant puppet. I will give you points for style, at least. You finally surpass your famously barbaric sire in the art of murder." He giggled and bowed, the gesture spoiled by the uninterrupted fit of humor.

Cally hadn't heard a mentat laugh before—didn't know they could. She could do without hearing it again. Winchon's giggle could have curdled milk.

"If you knew Pardal was trying to kill me, how do you rationalize helping him do it, I wonder?"

"My dear colleague, I would have forever applauded your self-sacrifice in the advancement of civilization. The death of one of the Wise is always poignant." He sighed, a hand clasped to his heart. "I have, alas, tired of your charmingly self-righteous and cautious company, Human Mentat Michelle O'Neal. Good-bye," he said.

Cally felt the hair on the back of her neck try to crawl up her scalp line. Apparently they were through with the talking.

The mentats were locked into perfect stillness, standing apart yet swathed together in sheets of silver light and shadow. Seemingly random portions of the building alternately shook and cracked. In one corner, the ceiling crumbled as an I-beam curled, stretching and deforming like hot taffy. The massive weight of the building above it creaked threateningly. The destruction slowly stilled and froze, air sparkling with an alien haze that strained against some undreamt-of aether, unmoving, stalemated. As if by mutual consent, the buzzing tension stilled, as both took precious moments for deeper breath. They stood, panting, somehow managing to glare at each other and remain preternaturally impassive at the same time.

You have hired the worst sort of barbarians to do your violence, Michelle thought.

Do not be melodramatic, Erick replied. They are all barbarians. My hirelings are killing sophonts for money; so are yours. There is no difference. Barbarians are mutually expendable.

So we come, yet again, to our mutual philosophical debate, Michelle thought. You have never understood that in humans who are not damaged, the embryonic basis of clan loyalty is nature, not nurture. They thus have an inherent value. If you do not find some clan loyalty in an Earth human, you have a defective one.

What clan loy— He stared, as if for the first time, at the frozen Earther combatants. Oh, good grief. The attackers are your clan, either by birth or adoption. And the Darhel thought you were dangerous before. It is the perfect cosmic joke. Fine, you were right, I was wrong. But how truly hilarious!

"Okay, holy fuck," Cally said, looking out from under the stairwell.

The two combatants had stopped for the moment. The stasis had broken as soon as they started their titanic battle and Cally had tried to get a shot in on Erick. But the round had been absorbed into the swirl of power around the two and never hit.

"Bit of a pickle," Mosovich admitted. "Do we know each other?"

"I think we met once when I was a kid," Cally said. "I looked different. Full body sculpt. Cally O'Neal."

"Oh, I remember you," Mosovich said. "Pleasure to finally meet you again. I'd mention that I heard from very good sources that you were dead, but . . ."

"Long story."

"Perhaps another time," Mosovich said, raising his arms over his head as the two mentats raised their hands.

This time the power was confined to a small space between the two mentats. A small very strange space. Tremendous heat was burning off of it but every time Cally tried to look into the spot her eyes basically tried to crawl out of her head. She stopped and looked at the combatants instead, noticing for the first time that the weird distortion around them was gone.

"I wonder . . ." Cally said, raising the Desert Eagle and assuming a careful shooting stance.

Michelle caught the power she was driving before it could do much more than blast the boxes on the far wall. And Erick, whose body burned to ash in a moment.

But the splash of blood on the ground was evidence of why he had suddenly failed.

"What did you do?" Michelle shouted, looking over at her sister.

"I dunno," Cally said, standing up. "Saved your life? Killed a monster?"

"I cannot understand why you did that!"

"What part of horrible mass murderer of innocent people did you miss? Besides the target part, that is."

"I never hired you to kill him. You do not kill the Wise!"

"Just did," Cally noted. "My only regret is that you burned him to ash. I'd hoped to pull out his skull and shrink his head. I figured it would make a hell of mantelpiece."

"Can it, Cally," Papa O'Neal said, crawling out from under a desk. "Let me point out that Michelle has a point. There are only a few mentats in existence. The termination of one is going to be big news. Which means big trouble. The flip side is, other Granddaughter, that he was a mass murdering psychopath with enough power, by your own statements, to wipe out multiple worlds. So I have little regret for her actions. The alternatives don't bear thinking."

"I do not believe he was that kind of threat," Michelle said. "The differences were philosophical . . ."

"So were the differences between the U.S. and the Soviet Union," Papa O'Neal said. "Millions of people died—all those proxy wars add up. You probably need to get your nose out of the ivory tower and take a good look at history instead of physics. Most wars in the last century have been about philosophical differences."

"I can, however, present his death in terms of threat, and the heat of the moment," Michelle admitted. "For the sake of the O'Neals, Grandfather, you need to be very careful whom our people kill. Please pardon my presumption."

"Your 'Wise' need to understand that someone who gives the orders for henchmen to round up and kill human beings in horrible ways no longer has a credible claim to being a navel-gazing pacifist," Papa O'Neal said definitely. "The O'Neal Bane Sidhe don't make it a habit to clean up every problem in the galaxy. Not enough days in the week. But we can make an exception. Do you read me, Granddaughter?"

"I . . . read you, Clan Leader," Michelle said. "I will make that point quite plainly to the mentats. And I'm sure that the Indowy masters, when they are apprised of Erick's full actions, will make it even more plain. The issue should never arise again. In any case, you have accomplished the purposes for which I hired your team. Thank you. Now, I need to take the device back to Adenast and construct a credible story for how it got there." She raised her hand . . .

And Cally reached out like a cobra and caught it.

"Oh, no you don't . . ." she said, raising the Desert Eagle.

When Cally caught Michelle's hand, Papa O'Neal knew they were all in for it. The storm clouds were just hanging in the air. Well, it was probably best to let them get it out of their systems. It had been a real long time coming. He put his head in his hands and turned away, wiping the sweat from his face. He could smell the rust of blood, too, but that was nothing new. Their voices were so close in pitch that he could only sort out what was being said by accent and content.

"That is a priceless archeological artifact! You will not damage it."

"That is a fucking abomination against free will!"

"Free will is an illusion you place far too much—"

"The hell you say! Yours may be an illusion, but mine's working just fine."

"This device requires close study. But it needs to be at the hands of the Wise."

"Nobody's wise enough for that."

"And you in your own vast wisdom are wise enough to decide that for the whole galaxy and all of its posterity?"

"When you guys came to me to do your dirty work? You're darn tootin'. This ain't exactly rocket science, Michelle."

"No, it is ancient Aldenata science and was developed for a very wise—"

"Bullshit! You think you know it all don't you? The Indowy didn't make you like this; You've ALWAYS been this way! I remember how you use to try to boss me around like you were a little tin god when you were a KID . . . !"

Papa O'Neal shook his head. That tore it. They were going nuclear. Nothing could stop them from saying it now. Best to just pour it all out. Wait till they wore down then take . . . steps. He looked around, eyes lighting on a couple of mop buckets and a faucet. Nobody else was moving. Not "frozen in stasis," just watching the argument and waiting for Cally to get blasted. Which was good. He guessed the problem was mostly gonna fall in his lap. He spat resignedly and headed for the buckets.

"I just knew you would do this. Don't think that just because the Wise used you to—"

"Damn right they used me. They use people a lot, if you hadn't noticed. Then kid themselves that their hands are oh so much cleaner than—"

"Do not think they do this casually!"

"Don't think I do!"

"Don't you?"

"Well, fuck you too!"

"And this is the response of the self-proclaimed wisest person in the galaxy."

"Just because I say it in plain English and do it mysel—"

"Oh, that is such garbage! You are so arrogant! You, Cally O'Neal, decide who lives and who dies. Or you decide who is wise enough to decide, which is much the same thing. You—"

"Don't you? That's exactly what you do. You learn what's basically glorified engineering and you suddenly think your shit doesn't stink. Free clue, Sister, you aren't any wiser than the rest of us! And neither are the goddam Crabs. Technological advantage doesn't give them the right to play God."

"Your 'God' is just a delusional excuse for your own arrogance!"

"Oh, don't even go there, you so don't want to go there."

"You say 'God,' but what you mean is a handful of relative babies mouthing their own interpretations of the ravings of luna—"

"Father O'Reilly has more wisdom in his little finger than—"

"Your Father O'Reilly is a petty, deluded, clanless, juvenile intriguer who—"

"You take that back!"

Papa O'Neal was back now, one of the buckets to the brim and sloshing. He'd been nice enough to empty it and at least get them more-or-less clean water. The shoving had started, and they weren't bothering to get to their feet so much. Hadn't gotten to hair pulling yet. Probably a good thing. Some things, he just couldn't watch. He was pretty sure neither one had enough presence of mind left to hurt the other even if they'd a mind to. Not even Michelle. When it was time to put a stop to it, his ears would tell him well enough. They were sisters, all right.

"What is your answer; a few humans get to choose for everybody?"

"You're human, in case you've forgotten, you bitch."

"Do you think I forget that ever, for even an instant? You people send me off to live among—"

"Oh, like being in a war and about to be eaten was such a piece of cake! And the Bane Sidhe aren't just a few hum—"

"One, you small-scale intriguers are not the Bane Sidhe. Two, the Bane Sidhe is what you Earth-raised would call the bastard step-child, bottom of the barrel, most foolish bunch of eccentric losers in the Gal—"

"Oh, I'm so sorry you're in the family with all us losers and what the hell does that say about you, asshole?"

"You kicked me out of the family! Mom and Dad kicked me out of the family but you—"

"Oh, my God! I get left behind to get eaten; Daddy drops a fucking nuke on my ass . . . Oh, I forgot, before we even get to the serious stuff, I have to kill some asshole your peaceful Galactic Darhel sent to scrag an eight-year-old! Poor old you! The Bane Sidhe were there! Where the hell were your precious Gal—"

"I was in exile! I was the useless one, sent off like a spare tire! Just because I have been able to make something of myself, you cannot stand— And you are just one person! The galaxy has to stop because you are in danger? While billions—"

"Billions more than would have died without your murdering fucking civilized Dar—"

"Always with the Darhel! The Darhel are barely half a step more civilized than your Bane Sidhe! You think they are so powerful when really—"

"Powerful enough to kill billions of human beings! You're so fucking ashamed of being human that—"

"Why the hell would I not be? You are all ashamed of me!"

"You fraud! It's all about you! When it gets right down to it, it's all about—"

"It is not either!"

"The fuck it's not!"

"Arrogant carnivore!"

"Stuck-up bitch!"

"Deluded theist!"

"Tin God!"

He didn't even bother to sort out the name calling. Yep, they'd just about yelled themselves out. He gave the bucket the practiced heave of an experienced farmer, hitting them both squarely and pretty much equally. There was a loud splash. There was a silence. Both of them turned equally shocked and betrayed expressions on him. He reckoned neither one would be real fond of him for awhile. He valiantly and successfully resisted the urge to laugh, or even smirk. The situation itself wasn't funny, despite their comical appearance.

"You sounded about done," he said. "You'd started repeating yourselves."

Michelle looked more shell-shocked than Cally. Probably the first time she'd lost her temper in, well, decades. Do her a world of good, in the long run. True to their natures, Cally recovered the ability to act first, retrieving a shotgun from the floor and pointing it across the room at the device. Yeah, the friendlies were away from it and the room around her was about right. She'd absorbed his early lessons about friendly fire right down to the bone.

He was kinda proud of Michelle, as she wasn't but a couple of seconds behind. He shifted, and felt the other O'Neals follow his lead. Michelle was so focused on Cally, she didn't seem to notice.

"I can stop you," she said to her sister.

"You sure?" Cally said.

"Completely," the Michon Mentat said, her control returned to her.

"Just one problem," Papa O'Neal said.

"Which is?" Michelle asked.

"I absolutely forbid it," he replied. "And I am your clan leader."

Michelle opened and closed her mouth for a moment, stunned.

"Hard time getting around that one, huh?" Papa said, walking over to her and putting a hand on her shoulder. "All that training by the Indowy. Lineeoooie or whatever it's called. Now, Cally might just tell me to get stuffed. She's done it before. But you?"

"Clan Leader," Michelle said, formally. "I respectfully request that you reconsider your decision to destroy this device."

"Didn't say I was going to destroy it," Papa O'Neal said.

"Huh?" Cally shouted. "Well screw that!" she continued, pointing her rifle.

"Don't," Papa O'Neal said. "Seriously, Granddaughter. Don't. I'm handling this."

"This thing can not exist," Cally said.

"They said the same thing about nuclear weapons," Papa O'Neal said with a sigh. "But they do. And biological agents and all the rest. As I said, let me handle this, Granddaughter."

"What in the hell could you want it for, Papa?" Cally asked, exasperated.

"I don't," Papa replied. "She does," he added, pointing at Michelle. "And since I haven't given her a Christmas present in years, I figure I owe her. What I'm going to ask is why? You're an O'Neal. I know the Indowy raised you but I also know you're my genes. You were raised by my daughter-in-law who I loved like my own daughter, by my son, before the Indowy got their linatoooie or whatever thinking in your head. You're not going to be mind-raping people. You can't. You're an O'Neal. Absolute power be damned, some people just don't care about the power. So what do you want it for?"

"A question my sister never asked," Michelle said, nodding.

"She's . . . Cally," Papa said. "She tends to shoot first and try not to ask at all. But it's a question you will answer. To your Clan Leader. In small words."

Michelle seemed to consider that for a moment, then nodded.

"This device is a remnant of technology," she began.

"Stuff I don't already know," Papa said.

"A remnant of the Aldenata before they . . . became more," Michelle said.

"That I will admit I didn't know," Papa said.

"It was held by the Tchpth," Michelle continued, apparently ignoring him. "They did not study it, for they already understood its function."

"The Crabs can make another one?" Cally snapped. "Oh, holy shit."

"So my point is made," Papa O'Neal said. "The nuclear wall is breached. At that pont, you gotta figure out how you live with it. Continue."

"The device uses Sohon techniques," Michelle said. "But it does not require a Sohon master to operate."

"Ain't that interesting," Cally scoffed. "Afraid we regular people might learn to do what you do?"

"Yes," Michelle replied quietly. "And no. Yes, in that advanced Sohon techniques are . . . exceedingly dangerous. You hate and revile this machine, Cally. But it is simply an aspect of Sohon. We masters, we mentats, the Wise you so despise, have deliberately avoided exploring this area, this aspect, of Sohon. It is a violent approach to Sohon that we abhor. Mind-raping as you put it. But it is an aspect of Sohon."

"So what you're saying is that if you wanted to, you all could be mind-rapers?" Cally said. "Maybe I'm aiming at the wrong thing."

"Perhaps you are," Michelle admitted. "But to learn such advanced skills requires decades of study and discipline. Perhaps that is insufficient to prevent its misuse, Erick showed that well enough. But would you have anyone have access to such power? Consider his lieutenant. Consider the many people you have . . . cleansed over the years."

"Point," Cally said, frowning.

"That is the yes," Michelle said. "It is clear that humanity, as a whole, is not ready for the power to simply press a button and achieve this sort of power."

"So we destroy it," Cally said. "The Crabs had it for how long? And they never made another one. So it's unlikely they're going to any time soon."

"But there is the no," Michelle said. "This device generates Sohon fields. Yes, it was misused. But consider the possibilities, sister. Other devices that can be used for peaceful applications of Sohon. For building that does not require such intense energy on the part of a person. New ship drives, new methods of power generation. The peaceful applications are endless."

"Ain't possible," Papa O'Neal said. "Nuclear power, nuclear weapons. Chemical industry, gas factories. Medical technology, biological weapons. You never just get peaceful applications, Granddaughter."

"It is possible if the people producing them are devoted to peace," Michelle said, spreading her hands. "I will make a compromise with you, Grandfather. The device will be placed in the care of the O'Neal Bane Sidhe. It will be accessible only by myself and other Sohons I designate, secured in such a way as only we may access it and you may ensure yourself of that. I give you my personal word that the research will be devoted to finding the methods whereby it produces Sohon fields without the input of a Sohon master. One can learn much of nuclear power from observing a nuclear weapon, to use your own metaphor. Also electronics, manufacturing and materials technology. This is what I wish to research."

"Cally?" Papa O'Neal asked.

"Fuck," the woman replied, shrugging. "I dunno. I mean, if the tech is already out there . . . Why not just get it from the Crabs?"

"The Tchpth and mentats approach the same Way from different Paths," Michelle replied. "Sometimes we have trouble communicating. This would be . . . a crossroads, yes?"

"That was her way of saying 'whatever,'" Papa O'Neal said. "Your compromise is accepted. We need to get it to Prime Base."

"And we need to get the flock out of here," Mosovich pointed out. "There's going to be more response than just us. And I really don't want to be here when it gets here."

"We can carry the team out on the shuttles," Kelly said. "We're not going to be going back to DAG anyway."

"Details, details," Papa O'Neal said. "Let's load up."

"What about the security goons?" Cally asked.

Papa O'Neal looked at the still frozen group and snorted.

"Let them try explaining what happened," he said. "Gonna love reading the debrief. Granddaughter . . ."

"Yes?" Cally and Michelle answered simultaneously.

"I don't give a crap about the thing with the Indowy," Papa said, clarifying with a glance at Michelle. "It's about time you come home. Other Granddaughter?"

"Yes," Cally said.

"Tell my grandson-in-law that he can come down and explain in person, and to me, what the fuck is going on or he's on my personal 'better off dead' list. And there ain't many people still living on that one."

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