Sister Time John Ringo & Julie Cochrane



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Chapter Three


Granpa was quiet as he fought with the tie-downs on the tent-roof thingy they were putting up over the picnic table. Cally knew it said gazebo on the box, but she'd seen plenty of gazebos in Indiana—white, wooden, merry-go-round buildings without the ride. This was just a square tent roof with four poles and top to bottom mosquito netting. She got the zipper to work and zipped the mosquito netting from bottom to top outside her pole, moving on to the next one. Shari was grilling some hotdogs for the little kids, and had a shrimp boil going for the adults.

Cally had really hated having to tell Granpa that "our" meeting with Michelle was really her meeting with Michelle. She'd felt like she'd just taken away a kid's Christmas candy. He hadn't said much, then or since. She'd passed on Michelle's excuse, and cringed when he'd tried to wave it away as "no bother" to him as Clan Head. From the way Michelle had sounded, it hadn't seemed like she'd show unless Cally was alone. Granpa didn't understand, of course. She didn't, either, but she wasn't the one being left out. Telling him had been just awful.

Soon they'd gotten the netting down, which was more to stop the blowing sand than anything, all sensible mosquitos having decided to stay out of the cold, or whatever it was mosquitos did. She looked at her watch and threw a side-glance at Granpa. Neither one met the other's eyes. She looked up at Shari, whose eyes plainly said she didn't want to be involved.

"I guess it's about that time. I'll be back in a bit," Cally said. Granpa just grunted in reply. Not gonna be a real relaxed dinner, is it?

Cally picked her way through the tall grass to a set of ancient railroad-tie stairs and started down onto the beach. She looked out at the waves hitting the shore and sighed, futilely trying to tuck her hair behind her ears. The wind insisted on blowing it right into her face. She dug an elastic band out of her jeans and pulled it back in a ponytail. It made her look about sixteen. Twelve, if it hadn't been for the boobs, which she still considered overwhelming. She sighed, but it wasn't like anyone but family was here to see her. The impression of adolescence was complete as she walked down the beach, scuffing her feet in the sand.

"Where are you going?" The voice came from behind her and Cally jumped, spinning around in a crouch.

"Ack! Don't do that!" Cally clutched a hand to her chest and looked back up toward the girls, letting a breath of relief out that they were still sitting at the table and maybe hadn't noticed anything unusual. "You didn't just appear out of nowhere, did you?"

"Please give me credit for some sense. I came in behind that pile of rubble." Michelle gestured at the crumbling remains of some cinderblock structure or other. "I only walked down when I saw you. So it seems I am finally at a beach with you."

"Yeah," Cally said. There was an uncomfortable silence. "Before we get into the mission, real quick, can I ask you a question about nanogenerator code keys?"

"Your employers do not have the capability to make use of the keys you stole." It wasn't a question.

"Right. Our people say they're level fours and would be difficult to fence," Cally said.

"The current price of six level four code keys would be sixty thousand seven hundred and forty-eight point zero nine seven FedCreds as of close of business at the Chicago Trade Consortium. I would be willing to pay that amount for the keys you took from the Darhel last night. Do you agree to carry my offer to your employers? It would be an arrangement of benefit to Clan O'Neal." If possible, Michelle's voice was even more expressionless, and she stood still in her mentat robes. They should have been blowing in the wind, but weren't. The wind wasn't allowed to so much as ruffle her hem, and Cally was suddenly aware of the sand in her own shoes and the blowing wisps of ultra-pale blonde hair that had escaped from her ponytail.

Michelle had clearly inherited her height from their father and Granpa. Her petite five foot nothing had an almost boyish slimness that made her sister feel awkward in her own tall frame. If she could have seen herself through the eyes of others, the unlikely assassin would have realized her comparatively small waist and Scandinavian features made her look more like a nineteen-nineties calendar girl than the chubby teenager she imagined. If Captain Sinda Makepeace had been anything, she'd been strikingly attractive. Cally's physical appeal had not suffered from being stuck in the other woman's semblance when the Indowy and Tchpth yanked the slab off Earth. Unconsciously, she arched her back and stood straighter in a seven-year habit designed to minimize her imagined defects.

"Okay, we'll sell you the keys. My bosses will probably be thrilled I found a safe buyer. Now, what couldn't you tell me last night?" Cally asked.

"I could have told you all of it. But you seemed rushed." Michelle said. Cally looked for any sign that she was making a joke, but couldn't see one. Perhaps Indowy-raised mentats didn't have anything as mundane as a sense of humor.

"First, you need a way to reach me with questions about the mission. There must be some kind of indicator you can set somewhere for me to see. I can not watch you every minute of every day—I have work I must do. I would prefer a day's notice in advance of a meeting, if possible. This is your specialty, is it not? Do you have any suggestions?"

"Um . . . lemme think. There are several message boards on the Perfect Match singles site on the web. When I need to meet you, I'll place a message on the pre-date board. The message should be from MargarethaZ, capitol 'M,' capitol 'Z,' no spaces. It should go to whoever you are. Say . . . Apollo555. I'll post it the day before I need you, or include the word 'diamond' if it's an emergency and I need you sooner. You can find me, right? And check that I'm alone? If we don't have to set up a code for meeting time and place, it makes it a lot less complicated and a lot harder for anyone else to twig to."

"Do I need to know what a singles' site is? Never mind, I am sure it will be clear enough. MargarethaZ, Apollo555, and diamond. I will remember." Michelle nodded. "Here is a broad outline of the mission. I have a colleague, a fellow mentat, who has recently acquired an obscure piece of very old technology and developed it into a problematic device. It is a device which should not remain in his keeping. I wish to hire your team to obtain the device and deliver it to me so that I can arrange safe storage for it. The priority is, however, on removing the device from the possession of this colleague. If a choice comes between damaging the device or failing to remove it, it is the removal which absolutely must be done to complete the contract."

"Okay. Are we supposed to just waltz in and take whatever this is?" Cally asked, her brow furrowing. "I presume you have a full description, location information, some background. Any recon data you have would be nice. Come on, I'm going to need the most complete information you can possibly give me for us to plan and execute this mission. First of all, what the hell is this device? What does it do, and what does it look like?" Cally glanced quickly up to where the candlelight was silhouetting the girls, glad that Morgan appeared to be putting their dinner things back in the packs.

"It is a discontinuous, partially automated, multichanneled, medium-range harmonic resonance inductor. I have a datacube for you with full external specifications, a very abbreviated overview of its known and theorized capabilities, and the location of the facility where it is being used." Michelle said, "Of course, you must absolutely avoid any direct confrontation with—"

"Whoa. Back up a second. It's a discon-what? What does it do, in plain English, please."

"I was speaking plain English. The best way I can describe the action is that it affects the brain, in this case of human subjects, stimulating and analyzing the internal signals for report and, if desired, overriding the internal voluntary muscle commands and other processes with replacement sequences of the operator's choosing."

"What, like reading minds? You're shitting me."

"Excuse me? What does excrem—nevermind. In a very nontechnical and imprecise sense, that is probably a workable functional estimate. Although it would be a mistake to overlook the capacity for control."

"It's a mind-raper."

"The process is reported to be quite unpleasant for the subject, yes."

"You're telling me this monstrosity really exists? Yuck!" Cally shuddered. "That's vile. That's really, really vile." She rubbed her hands up and down her arms, hugging herself. She almost thought she could feel the goosebumps.

"That is an adequate nontechnical description of the device's function. One reason I chose to hire your team for this mission is convenience of location. The research facility where the device is located is outside the Great Lakes Fleet Base. Obviously, they will have some sort of human security arrangements in addition to the automated systems. Your people are going to have to determine what those are and be prepared to deal with them. You must avoid any direct confrontation with the other mentat, Erick Winchon. You will need to use a time when Erick Winchon is absent. He has periodic absences from the facility, you'll need to determine his schedule and use one of them." Michelle paused, taking a deep breath. "The deadline for this job is January 15 of 2055, Earth time. By that date, I must have in my possession either the device itself or conclusive proof that it has been destroyed. The proof must be sufficient to pass a rigorous inspection by a Galactic Contract Court."

"What can you tell me about how the device is protected and guarded? I'll need the blueprints of the facility."

"Much of that you will have to determine yourselves. It is what your team does, is it not? I will, of course, get you any information I can without exposing my actions."

Cally rubbed her chin, thinking. "One of the classic ways of working this kind of mission involves a switch of a replica for the target item to postpone discovery of the theft. I need not only the external specifications of the device but everything you can tell me about the device itself and how it's used and when and by whom so that I can get a convincing replica made, if that's even possible. We'll do our research thoroughly, but the more you can tell us about the device, the better chance we have at constructing a convincing replica. The other solutions I can think of are all more complicated. That would mean more expensive, with more chances for something to go wrong."

"I do not think your organization could build a cosmetic replica that would fool the security systems or the lower level employees. I will build a facsimile of the device that should deceive anyone but another mentat. I will deliver the facsimile to you before the first opportunity to acquire the device arises." Michelle pressed a datacube into her sister's hand. "Hug your girls for me." She folded her arms closer in, a gesture that had immediately preceded her disappearance from Pardal's suite before.

"Wait!" Cally said.

"Yes?" The tightness in the mentat's arms loosened fractionally.

"You said you'd get us information if you could. If you have anyone inside, that could be vitally important. That's the biggest risk of the entire mission—it can take months to get a man inside a secure facility, or more. As I understand it, we don't have that kind of time, but we need that kind of subtlety to pull this off. We can work without it, but it sure would be a big help."

"I have a worker there who owes me a significant favor. He cannot help directly. It would place his actions too close to both violence and breaching his word. The favor owed is large, but not that large. I do not see how he could help you. He works off the main site, in their personnel department." There was a long silence as she thought, the wind off the sea at last ruffling a few stray tendrils of hair from her severe bun.

"Could he get you a list of any job openings? They've got to have vacancies, coming open feet first. Operations like these always do. If he could influence hiring decisions by losing some resumes or bumping ours to the top of the list, that would really help."

"Possibly. Do you have any idea how difficult it would be to 'lose' an electronic resume? Not to mention several. I will do what I can."

Cally placed a hand on Michelle's arm, only to take it back for no reason she could name, just that the mentat seemed somehow more withdrawn than before.

"There was something else?" her sister asked.

"Granpa was pretty hurt that you wouldn't see him, you know. Telling him was hard. I'd at least like to know why." She shoved her hands into her jeans pockets and stared out to sea.

"The split in the Bane Sidhe has created political difficulties between myself and the Indowy." Michelle didn't even twitch. Cally found it irritating.

"Oh, don't tell me you're shutting out Granpa because of your job. Do not tell me that." She fixed her sister with an icy, gimlet stare.

"You do not understand. I remind myself that you do not understand," Michelle said.

"Damn right I don't!"

"You need resources. I am, for now, able to help you. I can only keep the access to help you by avoiding the O'Neal. No, allow me to finish. Of course I want to see Grandfather. At present, I am what you might call 'in limbo,' but I am balanced upon the edge of a knife. It is for me as if the split had not yet taken place. I have not yet been officially informed of the change in clan policy and alliance by my head of clan, or an immediate ancestor, or his designate. I can pretend official ignorance. Among Indowy, this would be impossible. They would never go so long without a meeting. But humanity's asocial nature has the Himmit, Darhel, and Tchpth precedent. It is viewed as different but not insane. Clan O'Neal may desperately need my resources at some point. Once I meet with Grandfather, I must then confine my future dealings to Clan Aelool or Clan Beilil, and my resources will be greatly reduced. For myself, I would be well enough. But at the cost of greatly increased risk to the survivability of Clan O'Neal. The Indowy know that I must know, yet they know that the resources serve my clan. And so they cannot decide whether I am being supremely honorable, or supremely dishonorable. The thought is distressing to them, so they ignore it, waiting for the dilemma to resolve itself. Which may happen either by reconciliation of the O'Neal with one or more major clans, which is highly unlikely, or by my meeting with my clan head. I must maintain this delicate balance until our clan is secure. I admit that my understanding of the value of what it is that you do is limited, but I believe we both understand that loyalty requires personal sacrifices. As our estrangement through the years has been. Please believe me that this is a most regrettable sacrifice and convey my apologies to Grandfather for the necessity."

"Wait!" Cally said again, sensing that Michelle might be about to pull her vanishing act. "Michelle, I've gotta ask. Yes, this mind-raper thing is obviously a problem, but you've made contact after an awfully long time and you haven't done a lot of blatant things in the past to save the world. There's something different about this, and I have to know what it is."

"That does not concern you." Michelle's face could have been carved of stone.

"I can't do my job without the whole story. I won't take my team into this without all the background. We can keep it between us, but I'm responsible for my people. Now give." She made a come-on gesture with one hand, fixing her eyes on the mentat's face. Everything about her posture, ratty jeans and blowing hair or not, suddenly screamed "professional." It was a nonnegotiable demand.

"Very well. It was my project, for the Darhel group that holds my debts, when Erick stole the technology. They are holding me personally responsible." She shrugged beneath the enveloping robes, agitation betrayed by a slight fluttering of her hem as some of the wind finally got through.

"Wait a minute. How can you still be in debt and afford us, the code keys, all of that? I'm lost. This makes no sense." Cally said.

"I have disposable income. That is not the same thing as being out of debt. We never get out of debt. Even appearing to try will get your debts called in then and there. Every tool and tank I have is deeply mortgaged, as are the tools of everyone else. When I die, the equipment will revert to the Epetar Group to pay the debts. Unless the debt is called in beforehand, as it will be if I do not at least remove the device from the hands of the rival group."

"So what if they do call your debts? You can teleport. Just move on. Disappear. Let them take the damned tools and go to hell. It's not like it hasn't been done before. Just because you were raised by the Indowy doesn't mean you have to sit there and starve to death. We're human, not Indowy. You have to know there's no way we'd just leave you to your fate like they would one of theirs."

"Yes, I can teleport. The possibility of which is a secret held by few, and worth more than my life. My daughters cannot, and the Epetar Group also holds their debts. If you fail, I will let my debts be called and you certainly will leave me to my fate, for their sake and for the reasons you would not understand. But no, I would not wait to starve. There are quicker ways." The Michon Mentat squared her shoulders. "This discussion is pointless. You, and the very few who must know, can, at least, keep a secret. I have risked worlds and more on that decision—far more than I should. You must justify my trust," she pronounced.

"For the moment, we will presume my offering price for the code keys is acceptable. Here." She pulled a brown cloth bag out of her robes from somewhere, though for the life of her Cally couldn't see where, and thrust it into the blonde woman's hands. "Grandfather can carry out the next step in the dealings. I do not understand the purpose of the . . . work that you do, but you are quite effective at it and you will not fail. You will succeed at retrieving the device, or, if necessary, you will destroy it. It is an obligation to serve Clan O'Neal which you will understand. So the question of failure does not arise, does it?"

This time, she did vanish, leaving Cally staring at a pair of indistinct footprints, already being erased by the blowing sand. She shivered in the cold wind, sand stinging her face, as she turned and walked back up the beach. Summer was definitely over.

Michael O'Neal, Senior, sat on the comfortable but patched living-room sofa trying to talk some sense into his most lethal granddaughter. He was pretty proud of how she'd turned out. A real survivor. Deadly, but ethical. Sometimes too damned moral for her own good. Like now.

"I don't want a frickin' bonus, I want a raise!" Cally hissed over her shoulder at him as she poured a fresh cup of coffee. Two bright dots of color on her cheeks showed more real emotion in this family squabble than she would have ever revealed in the field. Shari had fastened the dark blue, denim nightblinds over the windows to keep the electric light from leaking out into the darkness. Clan O'Neal, and its Sunday branch, were meticulous about not displaying more wealth and development than they ought to have. Most bounty farmers had electric enough for their scanners, but little generator power to spare for other applications, even if their homes had been wired for it. None had buried antimatter plants with community power transmission. For bounty farmers who were not O'Neals, "burning the midnight oil" was not just a figure of speech. Cally leaned back against the counter, cupping the warmth of the mug in both hands. She gave Shari a tiny headshake, obviously warning her not to intervene. Michael O'Neal, Sr., was making extra effort to be reasonable. He didn't feel reasonable. She calls in after all these years and I don't get to speak to my own granddaughter. What, does Michelle think I've got leprosy or something?

"This is professional," he said. "You take your pay when and how you can get it. That's the business we're in." Papa opened the gray and blue salt-glazed jar on the counter next to the fridge, hand hesitating between the familiar red and white foil pack and the leather pouch with Billy's Cuban-Salem blend.

"It's bad enough becoming a thief for a cause. I'm not going to turn into a common thief just because Mommy needs a new pair of shoes. Granpa, if we don't have some principles, we're no better than the damned Darhel," she said.

"What, you'll kill people for a living but you're too good to profit off a raid? A raid of that Darhel enemy you're so busy despising, little girl." He could tell the ironic, mocking edge to his tone lit a slow fire under Cally's temper. Good. She needed to be shaken up a little.

"Well, that's below the belt!" Her hands were fisted at her sides as she tried to control herself, but her voice was rising.

"Could you two keep it down! The children!" Shari backed out of the room, closing the door to the den as an extra buffer between the kitchen and the kids' rooms.

"You aren't making a dime off the theft; you're making a commission on a sale," Papa said.

"Okay, so now I'm a fence?" Cally said.

"A frickin' barbed wire one," he muttered under his breath, as he turned and spat into a chipped blue mug with no handle.

"What?"

"Nothing. Look, we live in an imperfect world. We are working to make it better. If you agree to the commission, I'll use it as leverage to work on a raise. We all agree that a raise is necessary and fair. If you want it to happen, I need bargaining chips." Her grandfather spread his hands, the picture of reason. Stir her up, then calm her down.

"So you're trying to tell me you're not actually going to do this ten percent thing?" she asked skeptically.

"I can't bargain with a bluff. Hey, I'm not just using this as an excuse to get around you. Holidays are coming up, you know. I'll ask for the raise first. If they won't see reason, we take the commission to get through their thick skulls so the next time I bring it up, they're not so pigheaded," he said.

She still didn't look happy.

"What, you've got a better way to get through to them?" As he asked, looking her in the eye, he could practically see her playing Christmas in her head. If he let even a flicker of triumph show in his eyes, she was going to dig in her heels. He kept a poker face, leaving her nothing to think about but a bare tree and empty stockings. She drank her coffee, probably playing for time. Besides, good coffee was too expensive to waste. He waited, watching, until finally she sighed and set the cup down.

"Against my better judgment. But if they offer a raise instead, and it's at all reasonable, we take it. Whether the numbers match up or not," she said.

"You're going to get all stubborn and noble over that, aren't you? Fine. I'll be leaving money on the table, I just know it, but fine. I swear, I never should have let you spend all those years with nuns. Went and turned you into a dewy-eyed idealist," he groused.

"And any part I take of it goes for the girls," she said.

"Fine." As she left the kitchen on her way to bed, he let a tiny quirk at one corner of his mouth get through. She was stubborn. Just like Mike had been. Always saw sense eventually, but you sometimes had to get her attention with a two by four first.

Cally got into her red, Tweety-bird nightshirt, frowning at the narrowness of the twin bed in the small room. Quite a change from her apartment in Charleston. At least she'd been able to keep some of the art from her walls. Even added a print. Okay, so the picture of the surfer catching a wave at Malibu was a cheap reprint of a digital file. Still, it was nice having it. It was a small, tangible reminder of her time with Stewart on Titan Base seven years ago. She got a fresh washcloth from the pile under the nightstand and picked up the buckley to set her wake-up call.

"Psssst. You've got a message," it said in an exaggeratedly soft voice.

"Why didn't you beep me?" she asked.

"It's a secret message," it said.

"Well, yeah, buckley. I'm an assassin. I do get a few of those. What message?"

"Yeah, but this one's really secret," it said. By now she wanted to throttle him.

"Buckley, what's the message? Is it from . . . him?"

"Say, 'pretty please,'" it prompted.

"Buckley, give me the damned message," she said.

"If you're not going to be polite about it maybe I won't."

"Buckley!" she hissed. "Do you want me to load a Martha emulation on top of you? This place looks pretty drab. I could use some affordable decorating tips. Buckley, what's 'raffia'? Does it come in purple?"

"All right, all right. It's from him. He's making a trip to Charleston. Can't stand another minute without you, apparently."

"Text, voice, or holo?"

"Encrypted text."

"Buckley, if it's encrypted, how do you know what he said?"

"I didn't say it was very well encrypted. Well, it sort of was, but you guys are way too gooshy in your choice of decryption keys. And if I can decrypt it, would you like an estimate of how quickly your bosses can decrypt it in various scenarios? I can give you a full set or just the basic dozen run-downs."

"Shut up, buckley."

"Well, that's gratitude for you."

"Buckley, please just display the text."

"Right."

Thursday 10/14/54


The building looked harmless enough. Windowless on the lower floors, it squatted, a giant rectangular block, northeast of a small city on Lake Michigan. Convenient to a good beach on the lake, and several smaller lakes for the recreation of the employees, the surface of the building was simple pink brick, from base to top. The dark, mirrored windows that ringed the top floor looked out at the world with guarded impassivity.

The signs in the ample but mostly empty parking lot, and large aluminum letters on the side of the building, announced it as the Institute for the Advancement of Human Welfare. On each side of the building, raised brick beds and dense boxwood hedges separated the front parking lot from the back of the building.

Through the front door, a large middle corridor went halfway through the building. Well-tended ficus trees flanked a central security desk where solidly-built guards took pains to keep their guns concealed beneath the jackets of their cheap, maroon suits. On each side, there was a glass-fronted office with white lettering on the double doors. The one on the left identified itself as Altruism Research, the one on the right, Kindness Care. Against the glass walls inside the offices to the right, one could clearly see the generously laden shelves of a newsstand and gift shop.

Behind the guards, a brass- and granite-fronted bank of elevators led to the rest of the building. A thin strip of brass, practically invisible until one got past the security desk, outlined the card readers to the side of each elevator.

Behind the building, loading docks allowed trucks to back right up against garage-style doors that were exactly the size of the rear of a semi trailer. Thick black weather-stripping insured a strong seal between arriving truck and building. To the side of each loading dock door, cement steps led up to painted white steel doors with security card readers to the side.

An entrance from a separate road wound down to the subterranean parking deck at the rear of the building, which bore large signs reading, "Employee Parking Only." At the deck's combined entrance and exit, a guard occupied a small, heated booth. The gates into and out of the deck also had card readers, though nobody who was not an employee ever saw them. An elegantly domed conservatory stood at ground level on top of the parking deck. Inside, ornamental plants from several worlds graced professionally designed beds along silver-sanded footpaths, winding in to a Galplas water feature. Carefully crafted to resemble lichen-encrusted granite, the salt-water pool and fountain had at least a dozen colorful species of tropical fish.

The burial of a parking deck was unusual at this latitude. Although parts of the building were clearly of Earthtech materials, legacy of whatever occupied the building before the institute, the deck was a recent addition—pure Galtech, top to bottom. From top to bottom the warmth of the surfaces and an overengineered drainage system kept the deck operational year round—access road and all.

The man and woman walking in the garden did not work in the front offices of the building. They were an odd contrast. The man presented an image that was conservative to the point of functional invisibility. Almost everything about him was bland, from the hairspray-glazed newscaster spikes in his thinning blond hair, to the gray tailored jacket and pants, to his plain brown dress shoes. The exceptions were his eyes, which were a disconcertingly frosty blue, and his ruby and onyx tie clip, stark against the charcoal gray tie. The eyes and ruby burned, oddly paired fires against the man's drab, brown shirt and pasty skin.

So thin he was almost gaunt, his slightness combined with his short stature to give the impression of an ice-carven gnome in a suit. He kept his elbows in closely when he walked, as if he had grown up spending much of his time in crowds. Which, in fact, he had. Growing up on the Indowy planet Haithel, he had been accustomed to crowds and crowds of the green-furred Galactic working class. The Indowy family who raised him carefully schooled in the Path, cautioning always against human barbarisms. To their quiet pride, he studied the Sohon techniques with diligence, energy, and phenomenal talent. Reaching legal adulthood at age twenty-one, Erick Winchon continued study, driven by some unsung inner need, despite clear serenity and a fanatical devotion to the strictures of the Path. By Earth's 2042, he had become one of only three human mentats in known space. Meticulously modest, he avoided every appearance of attention-seeking.

The woman, on the other hand, clearly had no objection to attracting attention. She wore her hair in a simple but eye-catching classical style, shoulder length black hair drawn back in a lime green headband and worn with bangs. The headband matched her green suede suit, teamed with a black leather corset and vinyl go-go boots. She walked just a little too close to him, arching her back to give him a perfect view down the front of her corset. He appeared more interested in the data on her clipboard.

"So we've got progression in the food series down to a week?" he asked.

"From liver and broccoli straight through to raw offal. We have included cannibalism, but it's all unknowing, so it doesn't really count, yet. Normally, that would take another week. As you know, it takes a week more than that if we can't convince them they've already broken the taboo," she said. "We're hoping that by refining the focus of the norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors in the gamma-Brucksmann synapses we can get that down to two to four days."

"I'm concerned that we don't have enough of a range of inhibited actions at the upper end of the spectrum, here. Why haven't we gone to cannibalism of live subjects? Subjects of personal interest? AID, flag this as important," the mentat inclined his head towards the black box in his shirt pocket. Other than color and cardboard, it could have been a pack of cigarettes.

"Live subjects won't be a problem, but personal interest subjects could be. As you know, they're a limited resource and if we use them up on one test, we don't have them available for the next. Virtual reality biometric measurement suggests that they'd be much more effectively utilized in the interpersonal aggression series." Her eyes sparkled with a dark excitement, leavened with apparent bewilderment at his blind dispassion. She showed no surprise, of course, for nothing about his reaction was new to her.

"Are you going to have our data with the cross-series shifting ready for my conference in Cleveland next week? Remember that the public interfaces department will have to translate the experimental design and data to refer to the green monkey and prepare a junior researcher to present the paper." He bent to feed a small orange wafer to fat, spotted fish.

"It's not nearly where we want it to be, I'm afraid. . . . Still, the results are adequate for a preliminary paper. I don't understand why you even go to these things when you have to disguise your real work so much. The projected results for the monkeys, well, interfaces will do their best, but the work won't be even remotely replicable after their translation."

"That is the point, is it not? If they could replicate the work, what would Epetar's leadership need us for?" He smiled serenely. "I can at least tell others in the field something of the important work we are doing, even if they can neither appreciate it nor repeat it. Even if they do not know it is my work." His last comment was a telling slip from Erick Winchon's habitual rhetoric of we.

"How many more trips are you making before year end?" she asked.

"Only three. It's the busy season, you know. Everyone wants an excuse to go someplace warm. Cleveland. Bah!" he grimaced. "The next is in Jamaica. Stimulating conversation and some of the best coffee on Earth. What more could one want? Although it is beyond me why they call it blue. The beans are as brown as any others. I checked. I have been meaning to fix some seed stock for them, but our other work is needed so much more."

* * *

Prida Felini, his assistant in the garden, was the mentat's favorite Earth-raised human. Barbaric, of course, but weren't they all? At least she was honest about it. She could intellectually understand the need for civilizing humanity and had chosen to help. At the lowest level, their work set one barbarian against another. A rather regrettable zero sum play, but necessary for the welfare of the species as a whole. Somebody had to look out for them. With no clan system to care for humans in manageable chunks, the mentat had selflessly shouldered the task. At least it was interesting work, which was some compensation.

Erick Winchon had learned from hard experience that no matter how thoroughly he surrounded himself with competent people, any time he had to interact with Earther humans outside his own control, he had to check, check, and check again. There was no task so simple that it could not fail because of at least one incompetent Earther somewhere along the chain from instruction to delivery. His species was manifestly capable of ordinary, proper work habits. Humans could perfom quality work. There was something simply wrong about Earther upbringing and cultures that generated incompetent, spoiled adults. It was a source of great vexation to him. The goal of his research was nothing more nor less than the deliverance of his species from its endless loop of primitive incompetence. Only then could the human race become an optimal tank for growing wisdom and advancement along the Path. Earthers would continue to be resistant to becoming civilized and moving beyond their primitive habits. The lack of progress in curtailing the black market for meat in the Sub-Urbs proved that point. Enforcement was especially difficult when the Galactics could not admit the goal of the measures to the Earther government or the internal police of the Sub-Urbs. Frustrating. It was all very frustrating.

That resistance problem was the whole reason testing of the behavioral remediation technology had to be so aversive. Only complete success would allow civilization of those who would, inevitably, resort to primitive force in resistance. Winchon knew enough of human history to be fully aware that he would never be appreciated by humanity in his own lifetime, even with that life extended to the full range possible through rejuvenation. His estimates for the time necessary to civilize Earth varied. The longest was one-thousand three hundred years. The range became considerably shorter the greater the percentage of human population could be shipped to planets already run by Galactics, and the more Earther humans could be induced to restrain their reproduction and repopulation efforts. The Darhel were helping with both problems as much as possible, but progress had been disappointing.

They paced by a miniature apple tree, talking softly.

The Darhel Pardal had dismissed his body servants and sat behind his desk, turned to look out the large porthole into the black of space. In his mind, he compared motives, positions, attributes, and interests. He had narrowed the list of possible thieves to three rival groups, any of which could have used the extra currency to knock loose a lucrative expansion of their mining concessions from the Darhel Tir Dol Ron, whose job included the administration of Earth. Not that the humans understood the explicit nature of the position.

The Gistar Group's operation mining niobium and tantalum in Africa had capital equipment that was reaching the end of exploitable resources on site. The Cnothgar Group's extraction facility for monazite sands in Brazil could refurbish equipment the Tir had mothballed and open at least three other sites with that kind of financing. Adenar Group's molybdenum mining in Chile couldn't be overlooked, not because he could see specific scope for expansion, but because they had succeeded so well in being cagey about their project.

Which one? That was the hard question. It would be the height of stupidity to compound Epetar's current troubles by starting a trade war with an innocent party. However, the frontal assault on the group's currency reserves simply could not go unanswered. It would be Adenar. They weren't happy about a certain defection, but it had followed long-established rules. It would be out of character for them to react this emphatically, but certainly possible. He couldn't be sure enough to act.

He heard a reedy sound like a dying voorcn—a flying animal hunted by . . . predators . . . on his homeworld. The thought, "other predators," did not quite make it to the surface of his mind. The tiniest hint of the sweet, deadly pleasure of the Tal hormone provoked a shudder, warning him of ultimate bliss and death. He ruthlessly suppressed the forbidden thought. He became aware that the offending sound was coming from the whistling of his own breathing through his teeth.

He stopped the noise at once, instead instructing his AID to replay a holo file he had received that morning detailing the progress on an interesting project his group was undertaking. It showed tremendous promise towards solving the previously intractable problem of human behavior control, as well as eliminating the most dangerous of the three existing human mentats as a side bonus. It was possible that the Darhel manager who owned the commercial territory rights to Earth, the ultimate end user for a market-ready product, could be induced to cut loose an advance on the basis of the progress shown in this report.

The request would have to be phrased carefully. He settled more comfortably into his chair to watch again and analyze his best selling points. The Tir Dol Ron was, as the humans would put it, a tough customer.

The bounce tubes had been an annoyance when Michelle had first outgrown her old clothes and started wearing robes. In pants, they had been fine. She had walked around with her hair braided and tolerated the flyaway bits the breakneck fall to the bottom of the tube shaft caused. Until she had learned to hold them down by main force of will, her robes had tended to end up around her ears. With that kind of affront to her dignity as incentive, she had learned fast. The thousand little tricks of technology she had would have appeared to the uninitiated as magic. In fact, one of the first things she'd done was taken advantage of some differences in human versus Indowy physiology to have her Sohon headset surgically implanted. The second thing she'd done was learn to work efficiently enough to have some nannites to spare. She walked around with a layer of them at all times. Hidden, never enough in one place to be a visible aggregate, but completely controlled. That was one of her small technological magics. Easily mastered, for her. Later, other and progressively more esoteric applications and technologies had followed, leading to abilities that the adults on Earth before the war, even the ones at the cutting edge of physics in the most secret of the secret research labs, would have considered flatly impossible. Then again, she understood a whole lot more physics than they did. The difference was of the same magnitude as that between Aristotle and Heisenberg—and as shocking to the common man as the difference between a clay pot of Greek Fire and a cobalt bomb.

It would have been shocking, that is, if the Michon Mentats hadn't been every bit as tight-lipped and disciplined about their knowledge and abilities as the Tchpth or the legendary Aldenata themselves. Any of the mentats from any race of sophonts could have created vats of nannites the size of a small star with no input from the Tchpth. The ability was a requirement of the rank. They were also wise enough to understand why they shouldn't. There were things that were worse than the current Galactic sociopolitical order, suboptimal as it was. Far worse. An unjust galaxy was better than no galaxy at all—and inevitable besides. The nature of life prior to enlightenment was necessarily and irreparably a morass of injustice—the rule was as solidly inflexible as Tlschp's Law of the Balance of Entropy.

Which was why she was on the way to her meeting today, serenely dropping down the bounce tube to the Galactic conference sector of her building. She would meet with the Darhel supervisor Pahpon, and treat him as a superior, even though he was little advanced from the ancient human soldier throwing a clay pot of incendiary. Ancient was, in the scheme of things, not all that long ago. In any case, she would meet with him. Her true superior was neither Pahpon nor the entire Epetar Group that employed him. Her true superior was the self-discipline and foresight she had necessarily had to develop to be able to hold some very advanced physics and skills in her own head. Desire for the good opinion of her colleagues was her shield against hubris. She could see the consequences of saving her own life as clearly as if she was reading a history book after the fact. Her life was not worth that. Except for the one way out she had already arranged. If it worked.

Her steps were sedate, measured, as she entered the conference room reserved for Darhel. "Good morning, Supervisor Pahpon," she said.

"Human Michon Mentat O'Neal. Our group is terribly displeased with your negligence in allowing the Aerfon Djigahr to be removed from your facilities. I am here to present you with a letter of demand for your debts to our organization. You will see in the file that, as per the rules to avoid their unnecessary losses, we have purchased your debts from the various other groups to which you owe various obligations. AID, send—"

"I would not do that," she said icily.

The Darhel froze, fur puffing up in a vestigial reflex his prehistoric ancestors had used when alarmed. "You are surely not such a human barbarian as to take everyone else down in flames for your own error?" She could see the pulse beating at his throat in stark terror, and smell the fear pheremones that were not at all like the scent of a Darhel whose system was releasing the suicidally intoxicating Tal. Darhel could feel fear without dying of it. In fact, they could feel some rather extreme fear. As Pahpon was now.

"Of course if I fail to retrieve the Aerfon Djigahr in a timely fashion, or ensure its destruction, as per our contract that I would not let it be transferred out of Epetar's hands in any nondestroyed condition, functional, restorable, or reverse-engineerable—if I do not do that, then I will be in breach of my contract with Epetar. However, within our contract, my responsibility does not terminate until one half cycle and twenty-four more Adenast days. I merely begin incurring late fees after Renthenel twenty-one. I am not yet in breach."

He glared at her. "You know very well that destruction clause was intended to cover any necessary loss of functionality during the research process."

"Nevertheless, it is in the contract that if I make a good faith effort to avoid destruction, I fulfill my contract by providing you with whatever I learn about the device. The contract does not say the device may not be in other hands at some point or points during the research period. It says I must either return it to Epetar Group at the end of the contract or ensure that it has been irretrievably destroyed during the research period."

"Research is not being conducted on the device, the task for which your services were contracted. You are in breach," he insisted.

"Research is most certainly being conducted. The contract gives me supervisory discretion to arrange that research in whatever way seems practical to me at the moment. At this moment, the only practical research option is for the persons that have it to research the device where it is." Her speech was calm, her manner preternaturally still.

"Research for another group!" he growled, the renowned melodious voice marred with a harsh burr.

"Preliminary research data where the technical results are, as a matter of universal practice, stored in a single, closely protected site and not in that group's internal storage, as a matter of security. The thieving group's central facilities do not have technical analyses and results. The most they have is some cubes of pretty footage. Galactic standards do not consider a group in possession of data until it reaches one of their authorized ships, authorized central facilities, or a Darhel member competent to understand the information. I have constant external monitoring that will demonstrate to the satisfaction of a contract court, in the absence of contrary evidence, that the technical research results that would put me in breach have never left for a ship, nor to one of their central facilities, nor a Darhel of the group, whichever it may be, who is technically competent to understand the information. I am not in breach. I suspect Adenar, by the way."

"That's a flimsy technicality and you know it." He waved away her conjecture with one hand. The Darhel was breathing very carefully and deliberately now.

"As your ancestors told the ancestors of the Indowy so many generations ago, in contracts, technicalities are everything," she said.

"This is not the performance level we have come to expect from Michon Mentats."

"This is rather precisely the sort of performance we have come to expect from Darhel Groups." Impassively, she noted the ultrafaint scent of Tal entering his system.

"Fine. Live until the end of your contract. But your wages are in abeyance until you demonstrate the ability to fulfill your obligation," he sneered. "Make your peace with the Aldenata or whatever you human barbarians do because the day your contract expires unfulfilled, is the last day you eat. You are dismissed!" he said.





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