Sister Time John Ringo & Julie Cochrane

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Chapter Six

Cally made sure she snagged Willard Manigo for lunch. He was more plugged in to the grapevine than any three other people in the organization. She had checked the menu and had shelled out for a bottle of steak sauce to go with his soyburger, and even managed to find him a Snickers bar that was only a week past its sell-by date.

Then she waited until he got in line before sliding up behind him.

"Hey, Willard, how's it going?" she said.

"Well, hi, Cally." He grinned. "It just amazes me to see you here."

"Heh. Okay, so you don't miss much. Grab a table with me?" she asked.

"Sure. Especially since I figure you're pretty much the reason chocolate chip cookies have made it back onto the dessert menu." He gestured towards a corner near the conveyor belt. Not quite on people's path out, it was still close enough for the kitchen clatter to muffle their voices.

She walked across the room with him, dodging tables and other diners, sharing a friendly greeting on the way with the people she knew well enough to be almost friends with. The steel of the chair legs squeaked on the tiles as they pulled up to the table. Even with Galplas flooring, it didn't matter. It seemed to be a law of nature everywhere that cafeteria floors had to squeak.

"See the Old Man this morning?" he opened, picking up the steak sauce and dousing his burger. He looked at it doubtfully and gave it a few more shakes. "Hey, thanks for the stuff."

"Yeah, I saw him. And, well . . . he didn't seem too glad to see me," Cally said.

"I think you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, again," he said.

"What, is it just me?"

"I don't think it's that. It's . . . well the Crabs are pissed about the heist, and they could cut the trickle of low code keys and tech we're getting down to nothing if they wanted. And we've started having problems holding full-time staff because the food and pay suck—ideology only goes so far when you've got a family to feed. And we lost a couple of agents in Durban last week. The last few days just haven't been good. I tell ya, my department is running fifty percent understaffed," he said, palming the candy bar and making it disappear under the table.

"Not a great time to put more stress on the father's plate."

"No." He shook his head, taking a big bite of his burger.

Wednesday 10/20/54

Cally checked into a temporary room on base and pulled out her PDA. O'Reilly wants more, I'll get him more. I hope. She logged onto the Perfect Match site, which had obviously had a recent web redesign. She had gone to the site, just to check it out, after one of the teenage girls on the island had mentioned it to a friend in one of the hand-to-hand courses. Of course I was just checking it out. To make sure it was safe.

The redesign had not changed the site for the better. A background of lurid pink hearts clashed against the fuschia and orange-red backgrounds of sappy pictures that looked like they'd been swiped from the covers of bodice-rippers. Bright yellow buttons for everything from links to hit-counters to awards of dubious provenance littered the bottom of the page, seemingly at random. The text and frames couldn't seem to decide what color to be, and the company logo at the top of the page actually blinked. It looked like another company had decided that do-it-yourself was cheaper than hiring art talent.

Blech! I hope Michelle will forgive me. Okay, where's the pesky forum? There.

She thought for a minute. "MargarethaZ: Apollo555, I have eyes only for you." Okay, so it's trite. At least it doesn't stand out in amongst all this sappy crap. Vanna69 wants to do what? Now that's just gross. Eww. She logged off, wishing there really was such a thing as brain floss.

"You know the people you meet on those places all look horrible," the buckley commented. "And just last week, a man was killed in his sleep by a girl axe-murderer he met in a chatroom. Fifty-seven percent of 'singles' online are actually married. Twenty-two percent are ki—"

"Shut up, buckley."


"Buckley, go secure. Where's Granpa?" she asked.

"In the gym. Did you know that ninety-three point two percent of all sports inj—"

"Shut up, buckley."

"Well, you did ask the question! Why ask me a question if you don't want to—"

"Shut up, buckley."


Papa O'Neal was doing his morning chin-ups when Cally walked into the otherwise empty gym, having taken time to change into her own workout clothes before taking the bounce tube down to level three. The black shorts were okay, but the red leotard was on its last legs. She clung to it because it had that blessed option, a built-in sports bra. And not one of those flimsy ones, either. This one actually worked. She walked over to the bar and began stretching, waiting for the young-old man to finish his set.

He dropped lightly from the bar, flexing his knees as he hit, and walked over to her. His T-shirt was dark and wet in big patches, his red hair darkened with sweat. He grabbed a clean towel out of the box at the end of the bar and turned to her, wiping his face.

"So, mission a go?" he asked. To anyone who didn't know the inner workings of Bane Sidhe society, it would have seemed odd that Cally led the team instead of her grandfather, who, after all, had more experience. The truth was, he didn't have time. Clan O'Neal administration had eaten up so much of his days with things he couldn't delegate that handing off leadership to her had been the only way he could be assured of any meaningful time with Shari and the kids. Besides, she was good at it. So he had explained, anyway.

"Not yet," she said, stretching into a vertical split.

"Not yet?" he coughed. "Whaddya mean not yet? Hello, job. Hello, paying job. Hello, life and death mission on the side of good and right? Not yet?" He started absently patting the nonexistent pockets on his shorts and T-shirt before sighing and letting his hands drop. "Okay, what the fuck's going on?"

"What isn't? The Crabs are pissed and are threatening to fuck with our code key supply, the Old Man's about that far away from a nervous breakdown," she held her fingers about a half inch apart. "And of course, it's all my fault. Okay, not really. Just the wrong place at the wrong time. Anyway, O'Reilly wants more hard evidence that Michelle is either right about this thing and the threat level, or he wants her on board. One or the other."

"Say that again." O'Neal was ice.

"He didn't deny the mission, Granpa." Cally put a placating hand on his chest. "He just wants more of her cards on the table, his words, before we commit. It's a pain in the ass, not high treason."

"No. That join-up shit—" His clenched hands were relaxing slowly and smoothly. A bad sign.

"Like you wouldn't know about bargaining chips, Granpa? He wants to know the mission's not going to be another bust—and I can't believe I'm defending this." She sidestepped casually, putting herself between Granpa and the door. "But I guess I am. Get pissed after I talk to her, if he doesn't approve the mission then."

"We're doing it. All that's left to be decided is if they're coming along or not."

"Fine. But don't nuke our bridges unless you have to, get it?"

He held a hand up, finger pointed at her, about to say something, but then dropped it to his side.

"Right. Don't nuke the bridges. Got it," he sighed. "Make it so I don't need to nuke 'em, Granddaughter."

"Yeah, but no pressure, right?" Cally put her head in her hand for a minute before looking back up at him. "I'm staying over another night, at least. You guys can either fly back and I'll drive, or whatever. I know we just planned on a one-day trip."

"Right. I'll call Shari and tell her not to hold dinner."

Friday 10/22/54

The Cook Retail Center was Chicago's newest shopping mall. Cally pulled the old Mustang in and parked. The spot was way back from the entrance, but it was the closest one she could find. No matter how the economy in general was suffering, the fat cats in the federal bureaucracy were getting plenty. Like a gold rush town, to a limited extent the cash rolled downhill. It was a small mall, all cream walls and chrome. When they said the plant foliage had variegated colors, they really meant it. They had plants—or the equivalent—from Barwhon and a good half dozen other planets. The Barwhon stuff she recognized right off. The purple was a dead giveaway. And the place was busy, for a weekday. Maybe I shouldn't have come just before lunch. There were other choices.

If I'm going to be meeting Michelle more than once or twice, she has to get out of those damned conspicuous mentat robes. Could she scream, "Hi, I'm Michelle O'Neal and I'm on a planet where I'm not supposed to be," any louder? Cally found a chain store well known for subdued but dressy casual clothes. As a trained observer, having seen Michelle twice, she had a perfect memory of her sister's size for everything but shoes. It wasn't hard to find a cream sweater and tan slacks. She added a tortoise-shell rooster clasp so the mentat could do something more conventional with her hair than that bun. Conservative, but nice.

The big reason she had chosen this mall had to do with the very upscale Chinese restaurant at one of the side entrances. It was one of the contact points Stewart had given her. Someplace where her money was no good and her privacy absolute. The Bane Sidhe expense budget didn't run to business lunches anymore.

Normally, she couldn't have afforded any place this nice and would, therefore, have avoided it like the plague. She never, ever lived above her visible means—it was the first thing Bane Sidhe internal security looked for when they swept for moles. But with the bonus, she could afford a good meal out, and the Old Man knew she had a high-level meeting. Besides the tongs had a good reputation for actually delivering privacy when they sold it. If paid not to ask questions, they asked no questions. Not that I'll actually be paying. I didn't get to the top of the profession without knowing when to take a calculated risk. Necessary mission, this gets the job done, saves scarce resources. In this case, my own. I'm not touching that seed capital for more than the girls' Christmas until it's had the chance to get together with those stock tips and make babies.

Recognition was as professional as she could want. A word and a hand sign, a particular place at the counter, and a waiter discreetly ushered her to the back room, handing her several menus. If the manager was surprised when he asked her if she would be expecting anyone and she said her friend would find her, he gave no sign. He simply left and presumed his guest knew her own business. Michelle appeared seconds after the door shut behind him, robed, as always.

Cally carefully didn't sigh. "Okay, we can't have lunch without the people up front seeing you enter in the normal way. Hey! Don't go!" This time she did sigh, in relief, as Michelle stayed there but raised an eyebrow. "Here. I got you some street clothes. Change and do your thing, showing up in the ladies' room. Nobody really ever notices who goes in and who comes out, but they will notice if you're in this room without entering it. Go ahead and change here. At least nobody'll come in without knocking. Oh, and your code keys are in the bag."

Michelle's eyebrows arched higher in her otherwise impassive face, as she took the bag but made no move to change clothes.

"Oh, for heaven's sakes. I won't look, all right?" Cally said.

Michelle carried the clothes over to a corner, looking at Cally pointedly until she turned her back. A few moments later the Michon Mentat handed her sister her folded robe and disappeared. Before she left, just for an instant, Cally saw her feet. Birkenstocks?!

When Michelle walked back in, she was obviously ill at ease in clothes that were, for her, so unusual.

"So how long has it been since you've worn anything but these robes?" She put the garment, which she'd been holding on her lap, into one of the now-empty shopping bags.

"Earth styles? Fifty years. The cut and fabric of clothing has changed over the years for utility reasons, even on Adenast. And the first colors were inharmonious for human well-being. But our changes have had nothing like the frequency and variety you have here. Clothing is counterproductive for the Indowy, and we—they and us—do not see the point in having to turn around and replace things over and over again every couple of years, or worse, like less Galactized humans do."

"How do you stand it?" Cally couldn't help asking.

"I wanted to ask how you do." Michelle chuckled. "Having to buy replacement clothing as often as you do would deplete my pay very quickly. Not to mention my time."

"It's a trade-off. We probably pay about the same, when you get down to it. But most of us like to shop." Cally grinned, eyes twinkling.

"Leisure. The amount you have is unheard of on Adenast. Converted for differences in reckoning time, my schedule would work out to about ninety hours a week, Earth time. Some more, some less."

"For how long at a stretch? That's a crushing schedule," Cally said.

"It is an ordinary schedule. The discipline reduces the need for sleep. And I include necessary muscle care periods in my schedule, of course. Human Sohon workers cannot maintain health without it." She waved a casual hand at Cally, a deliberate gesture rather than a spontaneous one. "Really, I enjoy my work, Cally. It satisfies me a great deal to accrue honor to Clan O'Neal. I do regret that Father has never learned to understand. You are more often around Indowy than he is. Am I truly that alien to you?"

Her sister shrugged. "You're . . . very Indowy. Your expressions aren't very expressive."

"How strange. To the Indowy we are so very human. And our expressions are stilled, of course, out of habit. We copy Indowy expressions, or those of the other races, to communicate, but they never become automatic. So when we Galactized are not actively using facial expressions, our faces tend to be still to avoid misunderstandings. And, of course, while working, the feelings must be still."

"We should order." Cally pressed the button for the discreet call light at the base of a small lion sculpture next to the sauce caddy. She didn't recognize many Chinese ideograms—after so many languages on so many missions they ran together without a pre-mission review—but she did know those few that she could expect in these establishments, including the sequence that roughly translated, "Press for service."

"What are you going to eat?"

"I thought I'd try the crispy-skin duck, and I love hot and sour soup. Ooh. And they have shrimp spring rolls."

"You have not been here before?"

"No, this is a treat for me." Cally smiled. "What are you going to have?"

"The Buddha's delight looks appropriate. And I will have to ask the waiter which soups do not have meat. I can order my spring roll vegetarian, can I not?"

"There're other vegetarian choices on the back of the menu, so you don't need to feel locked in to any one thing."

"I noticed. I chose what I like." Her smile was slow, and obviously thought about, but it did reach her eyes.

"So how do you see me?" Cally couldn't help but ask. Seeing Michelle from her own point of view had been . . . enlightening.

"Like the rest of our clan. You are so aggressively human that at times I can not imagine how the Indowy who live on your base avoid fleeing in distress. You do not actually eat meat in front of them, I hope?"

"They don't come to the cafeteria. And we learn lists of expressions not to do when they're around."

"Yes, but I doubt any of you understand how difficult it must still be for the Indowy who live among you. Each of them perforce becomes an expert in a very difficult branch of xenopsychology. And those who raise their children on your base must be very apprehensive and very brave, to risk the lifelong social functionality of their offspring. I have seen the reports. Most of them are almost pathological loners, by Indowy norms."

"I hadn't thought of it that way. I suppose xenopsych is hard for everyone," Cally conceded. "Now, about this mission . . . The leadership wants more evidence and more information before committing us to the mission."

"The purpose and the pay are not sufficient?"

"It's political. The risks are, for various reasons, greater than just the loss of our team if the mission goes to hell on us. They want some hard evidence. Sorry about that, but there it is. Think convincing Indowy."

"I had made a projection of the possible complications, and anticipated your request. I would have preferred a better price and wished to keep my request simple. I think I can help you get what you need while relieving some of the political concerns." The mentat lifted her hand to reveal a data cube. It could have just been sleight of hand, but Cally suspected "real" magic.

"Here is a cube of some of Erick's work that I was able to acquire through my own resources. The Darhel commissioning the research cannot do the tests themselves, but they . . . like to watch," she said, something about her colorless tone expressing infinite distaste. "I do not have other hard evidence that your superiors would accept, but there is a way to get it, and something else. Since the material on that cube was in Darhel hands, it was possible to obtain a copy. The device specifications and modifications never leave the research facility. I have my memory, and I have partial views from cube recordings. I could construct a very convincing substitute from just that data, but I can build something much more effective with some additional information. I can construct a substitute that almost works. Not a working model, but a device almost all personnel will merely take for damaged or malfunctioning, not completely inert. What I need are the records from the Fleet Strike team that originally retrieved the device. It was recovered partially disassembled, and with some other devices—part of a museum display on a Tchpth planet." Unlike most humans, she pronounced the name of the Galactic species perfectly, making it sound easy.

"Crabs have museums?"

"Yes. They have very good museums, although the ones with extensive Aldenata displays are typically closed to any species but their own. The other species were never meant to have this. Not until we were much farther along the Path."

"Path? You say that as though it's preordained or something." Cally held up her hands, rejecting the idea.

"There are things you do not know. There are things you should not know." Michelle held up her hand. "Do not ask for things you know I will not tell to even my sister and fellow O'Neal. I will not harm you or Clan O'Neal with too much of the wrong information. Your employers, the Bane Sidhe, have this policy also—not to harm their people with things they must not know. In this, at least, they are wise. You need to listen now so that I can tell you what you will need to know about the Fleet Strike mission that first obtained this device."

"The biggest thing I need to know, first, is how your man inside can ensure our operative gets hired, how we can be assured that this isn't a trap, and to what degree we can count on your man to keep our operative's identity confidential if your guy gets burned."

"As I said before, my 'man' is in personnel. To be specific, he occupies a key position in the personnel department. He can control which resumes get through the process. He can contrive bad references if the wrong applicant is chosen. Your person will be hired, assuming you can fabricate adequate background credentials and documentation. Scrutiny of your fabrications will be light, to say the least. A list of the positions most likely to come open, accompanied by detailed position requirements, are on the cube. My 'man' owes Clan O'Neal a third-level favor, through me, which is binding enough to satisfy the strictest concerns." She looked at her sister's raised eyebrows and sighed. "You may confirm the degree of obligation involved with the Indowy Aelool. Now, may I continue?"

The opening view of the cube showed a large, high-ceilinged room, split down the middle with a sturdy-looking dividing wall. Each room contained two chairs, at opposite ends of the room, with a man and a woman locked into each chair with steel restraints. The rooms looked quite clean around the edges, but the stains in the center of the room and by the chairs made Cally wince. The hardened assassin, being what she was, recognized instantly that the smears and trails across the floor were a mix of dried and fresh, streaming to a pair of central drains that appeared slightly . . . clogged.

She could hear mumbling in the background, but couldn't quite make out the words. "Buckley, speech enhancement please." As the thin tenor voice began to clarify into tinny but clear words, she said, "Raise the volume two notches."

". . . has no prior preparation. The subject on the right has been prepped through an increasingly intense series of directed tasks, from innocuous to unpleasant. Today's demonstration shows the necessity, with the current prototypical configuration, of some prior access to the subject to precondition the acceptance of control, and the familiarity of the operator with the subject's mind. Without prior access, control is limited by intensity of task and degree of preparation. Current research aims to refine our equations for computing probability of successful control for a given task by a specified subject. Yes, you have a question?" The tenor paused. The next voice was gibberish despite the Bane Sidhe's top of the line speech enhancement software.

"We agree. Unfortunately, even extensive conditioning fails to preserve the active subject in an end-series trial like this one. We still have a lot of refinement and research before we can meet final specifications." There was a pause. "Another use we hope to make of our research data is to separate minds into primary and, if possible, secondary classifications identifiable by externally observable characteristics, and genetic profiles. Our goal is to refine the software, in the final device, to modify initial output based on preassessed typing, where available. We believe that we will be able to substantially increase control probability and decrease the number of prep . . ." The voice drifted off as if the speaker had stepped farther away from the pickup. On the floor in the rooms, the shackles on the chairs snapped open, freeing the subjects to stand, move around, rub wrists. In each room, one subject sat frozen in the chair, despite the removal of physical shackles.

Then it got ugly. Hardened as she was to the bloodier side of life, she had to fight her rising gorge several times before the "experiment" ended. On the unconditioned side, the people were physically intact. Workers shot both with a trank gun before removing them. The indifferent treatment during the removal made it clear the tranks were solely for the workers' safety. On the conditioned side, workers in gray coveralls and gloves came in wheeling an equally gray trash bin to clean up whatever remained.

When Cally left her room to walk to the gym, people got out of her way. One look at her face and coworkers disappeared through the first convenient door or side corridor—as quietly and unobtrusively as possible. The prior inhabitants abandoned the locker room seconds after she entered. The gym itself didn't quite empty. The other users just discreetly moved to the far end of the large room, away from the mats and bar.

Two hours later, she stood in the shower letting the steaming water pound away the rest of the stress, We're doing it. I don't care about the damned politics, I don't give a fuck about approval, we're doing it. She sighed. But approval would be nice. Professional. If I plan to get Nathan on board, I have to be strictly professional.

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