Sister Time John Ringo & Julie Cochrane



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Chapter Seven



Monday 10/25/54


"Nathan, here's what I've got for you. I think it'll make all the difference," the silver-blonde assassin was wearing a forest green suit. She obviously dressed for success. As a priest, he wasn't supposed to notice such things. He could appreciate the color and fit of the suit, and the obvious custom-tailoring of the blouse. He would have suspected her of living above her means if he hadn't known the outfit had been a Christmas present from her grandparents several years ago. As an assassin and operative, Cally had studied and drilled on the value of proper costuming. The bare fact, he winced at his mental choice of words, is that I am not as immune to Cally O'Neal's charms as I ought to be. But it's not the job of a good priest to be immune to the temptations of the flesh, just to resist them. Sweet and lethally charming when she wants to be, isn't she? He focused on the "lethal" part and began counting her kills in his head as a distraction.

"I hope it's good, Cally. I have to be a diplomat as well as manage operations. Right now, through no fault of yours, you and your team are squarely in the middle of politics again. This time, it's our fault, and I'm sorry. Our faulty intelligence got you into this situation." He smiled wryly, passing her a cup of coffee. He had used the good Jamaican stock. Charm and a bit of courtesy went both ways. She was a friend, not an enemy, of course, and he'd love to approve her mission if she made a good enough case for it. It's just that with Ms. O'Neal a man had better always be quite sure he's thinking with his brains. Even an old priest, he acknowledged ruefully.

"It's good. First, Michelle will pay the same amount over again in level two code keys, under the table. A private reserve for us. The whole pay package, thirty percent now, thirty percent after a necessary intermediate run, forty percent on delivery," she said.

"But pay wasn't our problem. Please tell me you have more." The Darhel's lackey in Burma, a corrupt priest in Ireland, three businessmen who sold out a factory of captured Posleen equipment in Durban, that too-able subordinate of Worth's in Cleveland . . .

"I'm getting there, Nathan. I've got a file with her initial results studying the Aldenata device, the one this research is based on, before this Erick person took off with it. Buckley, send it and stay mute," she said.

Father O'Reilly's eyebrows arched.

"Yeah, I keep my buckley's emulation set a little high," she shrugged. "Anyway, I know it's not much, but that's where the intermediate mission comes in. Fleet Strike recovered the device on Dahl, and that initial report, as well as the observations of their field technician, will be in Fleet Strike's secure AID files at Fredericksburg. There are a lot fewer unknowns there, and they just aren't used to getting hit, so they'll have decent security, but not great. They're used to security against Posleen and the occasional humanist nutballs, not other trained humans. They're not trying to protect a nasty mind-control gadget against rival businesses."

"So you're hoping you can get me to approve the Fredericksburg run to get enough data to approve the job you really want. And if you get there and the records you want have been deleted? Wouldn't the group sponsoring this Erick want to clean up behind themselves?"

"Michelle doesn't think they have. I think they might consider it an unnecessary risk. What do they gain? Michelle admits she can't make anything workable from the initial field observations, and our potential targets have the device in hand. Who would they be keeping the information from? Besides, she says the initial observations probably will help her make a more convincing decoy for the switch."

"Might and Michelle says and probably. It's still a bit thin, Cally."

"I know. But you get sixty percent of the total just for this. That's a hundred and twenty percent of the original fee. Half of that in code keys you can actually use. Just for the initial intel gathering mission. With nothing counterproductive to Bane Sidhe interests. I would think that's a pretty sweet deal. Of course there's risk, but isn't there always? It's a good deal, Father."

"Yes, it is." He sighed. Am I succumbing to feminine charm, or making a rational decision? The keys are the kicker. They reduce our direct dependence on the Tchpth in the short term, and open a favor-trading relationship with a potential alternate source, with the strongest clan of connections, which provides a future margin of safety. The Tchpth planners would see a difference between ceasing to provide us with keys, versus cutting us off from alternate supplies. As a Michon Mentat, Michelle O'Neal's judgment carries weight that they might not interfere with. They would consider her decisions more reliable than that of the leaders of the Indowy Bane Sidhe, since she does not—or has not until now—engage in intrigue. A tenuous thread, but better than we have now, which is no backup. It's a sound rational basis for the decision, and damn my juv hormones for confusing the issue.

"You have my approval for the Fredericksburg run. But if what you find isn't conclusive, I won't be able to approve the rest of the job in good faith. I also need much more than 'Michelle says' about how we're going to get an agent in place for the main job," he said.

"There's a file on the cube with job listings and requirements. We fake up the ID's and resumes, her guy in personnel makes sure at least one of us gets hired. I took the liberty of downloading it to buckley to cross-reference with our prior missions and build a file for the covert identifications department. I hope I can get authorization to get them moving on this. Time is tight."

"Fine. If Michelle still wants to hire our services, knowing that this in no way commits us to the rest of her project, then do it."

O'Reilly stared after her as the door closed behind her. Heavenly Father, I hope I'm doing the right thing. He crossed himself and picked up his own coffee, sipping it before it got cold.

As a "live" priest, prewar, to him the area of finance had always been something other people dealt with. Ever since he'd come inside and taken over the base management of the Earth headquarters for the Bane Sidhe, he had learned more about budgets and cash flow and overhead than he had ever wanted to know. But he had come in as one of the leading experts on xenopsychology—albeit only known as an expert by a select few. The Tchpth hadn't a clue about finance. As long as they were undisturbed in their figurative ivory towers, they let the Darhel deal with such mundanities. Which was half the reason the Galactic situation had become, so long ago, what it was today.

There were no Darhel here. The likelihood of the Tchpth or the Indowy outside the O'Neal Bane Sidhe figuring out that they had more level two code keys than they should was, well, infinitesimal. It just wasn't the way they thought. Some Himmit somewhere would notice, sometime. But they wouldn't share the information. They liked to gather stories; they didn't seem to have nearly as much fun telling them.

A strategic reserve wouldn't solve the fundamental problem of Crab-dependence, but that was going to be a tough nut to crack. They were not going to be able to out-Crab the Crabs. The solution was going to have to be a matter of reducing, not ending, their dependence on the Crabs, while finding other Galactic trade goods than mercenary soldiers. And that last might well turn out to be the impossible dream. But if solved, that would likely be solved after one Father Nathan O'Reilly had joined his maker, rejuv or no rejuv.

Connections with Michelle O'Neal wouldn't hurt, but mentats tended to be so aloof from the real world that it was far more likely than not to be a one-off, of no long-term help. Still, plant enough seeds and something was bound to come up.

The slightly built man with the straw blond hair falling over his eyes looked barely old enough to be in a club. Even one as relaxed in its standards for clientele as the Pink Heat Showbar. In fact, despite a chin full of carefully cultivated stubble, he had had to bribe the doorman to ignore the presumed-fake nature of his ID. The ID really was fake, but not for the reasons the doorman assumed. George Schmidt was a forty-one-year-old juv whose usual profession involved taking out the worst of the world's human trash. Worst by O'Neal Bane Sidhe standards, that was. By his own best guess, he'd only killed four people in his career who were not themselves directly involved with the deaths of numerous innocent humans. One of the four he knew about was simply a too-convenient fool for the Darhel. The other three were regrettable collateral damage. He couldn't have counted the number of targets he'd serviced that he considered guilty. He'd never tried. A bunch.

Some would have called him a psychopath, because he could kill so casually. It didn't show. He was friendly, personable—the last person anyone would suspect of having killed other human beings. His eyes were as animated and open as the barely-legal adult he resembled. Casual acquaintances could talk with him for hours and be surprised later, if it occurred to them to think about how very much about themselves they'd revealed. People frequently told him what a good listener he was. The first thought of most people he interrogated, as they were walking away, was, "What a nice guy." The ones who experienced his less nice side usually didn't walk away at all.

The Bane Sidhe shrinks had never tampered with his mind, other than basic training and some minor counseling—from other operators. The counseling department's internal records did not define him as a psychopath. The diagnoses section of his file had only had three entries: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—in remission; Survivor Guilt—active; Natural Killer—empathy and conscience intact. For an active assassin with over fourteen years work experience, his caseworker considered the list extremely short. Past all the psychobabble, he had nightmares. He dealt with what he could, and gutted out the rest. If asked, he would have attributed his success to keeping the damned shrinks the fuck out of his head. And being smart enough to take his goddamned leave when he got it and go unwind.

George's job hadn't been his first choice of career. Information was his first love and his driving passion. Given the option, he would have become strictly an intelligence operative. Unfortunately, in this business having a rare talent could and did override personal career preference. He worked for a cause; therefore he did what they most needed him to do. He got some scope for his real calling in his job; the organization didn't have targets for him every day, or even every month. His information seeking on the job was never enough for him, so like most people he had to pursue his driving interest in his off hours, as a hobby.

Right now, he was using his enhanced hearing to listen to a local underworld lackey shake down the bartender for the weekly fire insurance premium. Not something an observer would have guessed from the way he was leering at the brunette seducing the pole on stage. As her generous cheeks approached within inches of his face, he tucked a fiver into her g-string, fumbling like the youth he appeared to be. Shy kid was a good cover. It kept him from having to yell his enthusiasm and risk missing crucial words in whatever conversation he was eavesdropping on at the time. Enhanced hearing didn't mean other noise couldn't drown things out. Particularly if it was his own voice.

"Eleven hundred this week, Pat. Cough it up."

"What? That's up two hundred from last week. You're drivin' me out of business!"

"Value for the money, Pat. You wanna pay the cops instead? Ask around. They're charging fifteen, and they don't do so good."

"Don't make no difference if I can't keep my doors open," the bartender, apparently the owner, muttered under his breath.

"Pat, you're a stand-up guy. You know I like you. You know I like you, right? But the boss, he can't make no exceptions. You're a good customer, always pay on time. Don't give me no excuses. Tell you what, I'll ask Jimmy. Maybe he needs a favor and you can work it off in kind."

"Uh . . . Now that I think about the numbers again, it's a stretch but I can do it." The man was talking fast, obviously eager to avoid owing Jimmy Lucas a favor. George didn't blame him. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the muscle clapping Pat the bar owner on the back.

Light spilled into the dimly lit bar, backlighting a female figure. A very nice female figure. George wasn't the only patron whose eyes were drawn to the door. As the woman stepped into the room he blinked. Oh, her. He frowned. She sure dressed to look comfortable in a strip bar.

He signaled the bartender for another round as she pulled up a chair at his table, facing the stage. She put a hand on his knee while eying the girl on the pole, pulling out a wad of cash with her other hand. Good move to avoid pissing off the management. Only problem was that inevitably a girl danced over to wave her g-string in the direction of more money. Okay, not really a problem. His cover was a damned good excuse to openly leer at Cally O'Neal. He wasn't complaining.

"What do you want, gorgeous?" he asked.

"You, baby, only you." She squeezed his knee. "Truly. That trip out of town I've got coming up, I want you with me." She slid her hand up and across his shoulder, pressing against his arm to nibble on his ear. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. She was taking realism a bit far.

"One of your covers is perfect for an inside man," she whispered, then leaned back and began stroking her nails through his hair. "I need you so much, Boopsie."

Boopsie? I'm gonna kill her. "I'll see if I can get off." He suppressed a wince at his own unfortunate choice of words.

"Baby, I can guarantee that." She leaned over and gave him a kiss so hot he almost melted into a puddle on the floor. She groped his dick, hard enough that he could feel her fingernails through his jeans, before straightening to walk out the door. She left a few bills on the table to pay for the beer she wouldn't be drinking. Normally, the brush and grope wouldn't have bothered him a bit, only he knew damned well she had zero intention of following through. Who the hell was he kidding? The only objection he had to having Cally O'Neal blatantly molest his body was that nothing else was gonna happen. One of the other assassin's well-known rules of professionalism was that she didn't screw the operatives. Dammit.

The owner set the two beers down on the table. "Tell your friend we don't allow working girls on the premises unless they work here. Not that we wouldn't sign her up if she wants to come back." He laid a card on the table beside the beer. "If she ever wants to dance, have her call us."

"I'll do that." George grinned as he pocketed the card. He certainly would. He didn't know her all that well, but the expression on her face would probably be priceless.

The attempt to recruit him for whatever she had going was another thing all together. He'd heard some disturbing rumors about her performance since that mess back on Titan, and seven years was a long break from real work, rejuv or no rejuv. He wasn't all that sure he wanted to work with her. For the organization's sake, he'd check things out before he made up his mind. Time to set up a little talk with Tommy Sunday.

Tuesday 10/26/54


It wasn't really a good tourist day out past the barrier islands. The sky was that flat gray tinged with painful UV purple that people who didn't have to sail under it called "leaden." Tommy just called it damned cold, and stuffed his hands farther into his windbreaker, hunching miserably against the icy spray. Only a father's love would have gotten him out on this boat today to help his son-in-law, Pete, try to bring in the last catches before the weather got really foul.

He stood at the railing, collar flipped up, baseball cap jammed on his head against sunburn, but otherwise appearing perfectly comfortable, the bastard. George, in a fit of what Tommy considered insanity, had volunteered to come along for the ride.

"Tell me you're not hard-core enough to be here for the fucking fishing," Tommy opened, when it looked as though the slight, blond-haired man was going to be silent all day long if Tommy himself didn't say something.

"Got a touchy subject to bring up. Cally contacted me yesterday about coming along as an auxiliary on a run Team Isaac has coming up." He pushed the horn-rimmed glasses up on his nose with one finger.

"And?"

"First off, I try not to pay attention to gossip. I've heard enough gossip about me that wasn't true to know ninety percent of what I hear about other people is crap. And I don't go out on missions with partners I haven't done my homework on. So. Cally. I'll be going straight to her to get to know her, but first I want general impressions from you. I've heard more talk about loose cannons than I like."

"Cally has pretty much earned her reputation for giving the rules types the finger when it suits her. But so have the rest of us, and you. There's always that dynamic between the operators and the desk jockeys. Mostly, she's done what's necessary to accomplish the mission and get us all home."

"I've seen her resume. What I'm really interested in—"

"—is that mess back on Titan in '47, right? And the Petane hit."

"I'm more concerned about her stability, and reliability. Everyone I've heard agrees that she's . . . erratic. But I haven't heard from the rest of the team. You guys never really talked about her while I was tasked to Isaac, and asking didn't seem like a good idea."

"Papa pretty much nailed it when he called her 'creatively violent.' And he's her grandfather. But just because she looks erratic from the outside, don't let that fool you. That woman never does anything without a plan. It just looks like she goes one way and then zips off in another operational direction. It's really because she doesn't telegraph. She doesn't tip her hand, and unless you're on the inside of the team's plan, you never see it coming. If the phrase 'need to know' hadn't already been around when she was born, Cally would have invented it."

"You're making it sound like she walks on water. I need to know. Talk."

"She definitely has her faults. She damned near had a nervous breakdown before and after that Titan mess. It's not wise or safe to seriously piss her off. But it's not real easy to do, either. Since they put her back together after Titan, she's a lot less detached than she used to be. She and I have spotted for each other on a couple of straight sniper ops when she needed the cash. She's been more concerned than she used to be about picking times and places to minimize trauma to bystanders. She does things like look for opportunities to take the target during school hours, when kids are off the street. Once she called an abort because a school field trip was in view. We got him the next day, but our controls grumbled. O'Reilly stepped in for us on that and validated her call." He shrugged, "She's not the machine she was early in her career, but she's not verging on psychopathic anymore, either. Usually. Lemme see, what else? Oh, the couple of times they've wanted her specifically to screw information out of a source, she's told them to go fuck themselves."

"That could be a problem."

"It hasn't been, yet. Not as far as I'm concerned. She says she turned them down because they were, quote, 'Using her as a whore out of convenience, not necessity,'" Tommy said. "I asked," he added.

"Yeah, maybe she has a point there. Still," Schmidt grimaced, "I hate to say it, but resources matter. This isn't a job for those kinds of scruples."

"Fine, but I can't blame her for asking if they're paying her enough for that." The huge man held up one hand. "Sure, she's dedicated to the cause. We're all dedicated to the cause—but if you'd watched her go through half of what we have . . . I'd say she's earned herself the right to a couple of scruples. If you can't agree, I doubt anybody's going to force you to take the mission. Even though, as you say, resources matter."

"I don't know. I still have to wonder if we're going to be in the shit and hit a wall because of those new-found scruples. I do it if necessary, and so have you, once or twice. Face it, it's part of the job."

"George, you're either thinking like a guy, or thinking like an Indowy. She was right, they were using her as a fucking convenience—to the point of not even considering any other kind of operational plans if good ol' Cally could get them what they wanted on her back. And while she was fine with it, it was nobody's business to say anything." He looked the boyish assassin directly in the eye. "You grew up in the Bane Sidhe. We may be on the side of good and right, but you know the Organization sure as hell isn't perfect. You know the Indowy—how could anything be anything but honorable and joyful if it furthers the interests of your clan. Especially if it doesn't maim or kill you. Or not permanently, anyway. Man, if you had just been there when one of the little furballs who's been trying to learn accounting came in all excited, 'Cally, with your present form, do you realize how much FedCreds we could bring in if you just—' George, she was three months fucking pregnant. And then he ran out of the room before Papa could deck him. Caught the first Himmit express off planet and hasn't come back. And the rest of the little green fuckers had not a clue what the big deal was. We were 'overreacting.' 'Anachronistic, irrational, residual fear of mating with inferior genes,' they said. You wonder that O'Reilly backed her? Vitapetroni finally got through to them, barely, with an analogy about damage to their psyches from fighting, even for survival of their clan. You may not have known about it, being a guy and not having worked with her enough to be close, but if she hadn't won that argument, I don't think we'd have a female operator left. Don't even talk about the O'Neal wives—I thought Wendy was gonna hop a plane up there and start lopping off heads. So yeah, just about all the female operators are telling them to fuck off on the honey trap jobs right now unless there's a damned good reason. It's not just Cally. Call it a pink flu."

"Roger that—but you talk like she's your little sister." He grinned. "You've given me what I needed to know. After lunch tomorrow, I'll know whether I'm going to volunteer or suggest she look at her next choice. Yeah, I'll probably take it, but you know as well as I do how quickly it can fuck up an op if the team doesn't fit together. If I don't think I can work with her, I'll say so."

"George, how many people have you ever met that you couldn't work with?"

"I've met a few. Not many, but a few. Enough to make asking the question one of my cardinal rules. Oh, dude. Pink Flu indeed. Good old Bane Sidhe 101. 'Alien minds are alien.' Too bad the Indowy seem to have such a tough time getting their heads around that. They get it with the other Galactics, but when you get right down to it, none of the Galactics are any good at adapting to new ideas or new situations. Including just about everything about human nature. That's dense even for them, though. That must have been right after I lost Sherry. And everything. That's the only way I could've missed something that big."

Tommy was silent for a minute, uncomfortable at the reminder of his friend's dead wife. And the rest of Team Hector. What could you say to that?

"Oh, one other thing," the big man said. "You do not want to be in the same state—no, on the same continent—when that woman is seriously pissed off. But that could describe Papa, or—what can I say? She's an O'Neal. They're all like that. But whether it's something to do with growing up right in the middle of the Posleen war, or having her dad blow up a nuke on her head when she was thirteen, or having to kill her first assassin at age eight, Cally's just—more so. O'Neal, but more so."

"Hey, totally off the subject of Cally and the O'Neals, except that her weird relationship with her PDA creeps me out a bit, what is the deal with the buckleys? Somebody back at the shop told me you worked at Personality Solutions when they first came out. Why the hell did they make the base personality fucked up like that?" the assassin asked.

"That is one tough question. I didn't work in that department. The buckley template came in through technology acquisitions somehow and I never worked on the underlying bit pushing for the chip design. Couldn't tell you, unless you just want my speculations," he said. He continued when the other man nodded. "I don't know if you've ever been dead yet, in more than the prewar heart stoppage sense, to the extent of being revivified on the slab—which we don't have right now, dammit."

"No. Never happened to me personally," Schmidt replied.

"Sometimes I forget you're a baby." The veteran of the Ten Thousand and Iron Mike's Triple Nickle Armored Combat Suits in the Posleen War smiled.

The younger assassin favored him with the pained expression of a young juv who had heard that refrain for a couple of decades now.

"Anyway. The Crabs can do some damn scary things with storing and amalgamating and fiddling with the human brain, when and if they get their hands on one. My wife once knew a woman who . . . well, nevermind. That's another story. Anyway, the Crabs' bouncy little claw-prints are all over this one. I think somewhere there was one or more real guys, that for some reason the Crabs found especially interesting, and somehow got their claws on at least for a little while. My suspicion is that there was more than one brain, or more than one access to the same brain, involved. But that's all speculation, of course. I also suspect the base personality learned some things as an electronic entity—like awareness of what it was—before it was reproduced and distributed as a fixed base program. But all that is sheer speculation on my part. No idea how much, if any, is true."

"So that would make it a full, real AI, not the simulation everybody says."

"Well, no. Not exactly. You see, at full AI, the buckley personality is unstable and self-destructive. The progressively stronger inhibitions against those fundamentally self-destructive, pessimistic tendencies take more and more AI functionality from a buckley. That's part of the coding I was into, a little bit. That's why buckleys tend to crash. Turning up its emulation is really turning off, by stages, that inhibitory code—strictly necessary to get more independent functionality. So the more you turn it up, the faster it crashes. It's unusable at full AI level, which is why it's sold as a simulation. It's close enough to true for government work. Then, of course, there are the after-market personality overlays. They interact unpredictably with the fundamental personality and the level of inhibitory code turned on. You may have noticed the 'Martha' personality overlay was recalled five years ago. At emulation level 1, the lowest setting, they never had a buckley go longer than a week without crashing into an endless loop. For some reason, all the screen would display was, 'no more raffia.' Nobody's ever been able to figure that one out."

"Okay, so how are the buckleys different from the AIDs? I mean, I know the subjective difference, I've used both, but I want a more professional view. I've never had the chance to sit down and talk to a really good AI cyberpunk about this stuff."

"You know all about the Darhel spyware from your basic classes, so I won't cover that. First of all, AIDs are addictive. Darhel-made AIDs a lot more so than our own. I've got my theories about that, but AID software is frighteningly complex. The Elves know their damn programming. They also deliberately sabotaged human software theory. Only outside our organization, of course. It's why our cybers can crack damned near anything anywhere, and a factor in the fusing of the cyberpunk faction with the pre-split Bane Sidhe back during the war. Did I mention I'm freezing my ass off? Not to mention we're going to have to start the real work out here any damn minute." Tommy's teeth were chattering, and he gratefully accepted the chemical hand-warmer George passed him.

"Right. All the AIDs are different for the different Galactics species. AIDs for Indowy think like Indowy, Crabs like Crabs, and so forth. It still strikes me as damned suspicious that the Darhel had such a bead on human cognitive psychology to turn out AIDs set up for us so soon after first contact. I've never bought the official explanations, and I still don't. The upper levels of the pre-split Bane Sidhe didn't know or weren't saying, and, of course, same with the O'Neal Bane Sidhe. Except in the latter case I'm more likely to believe they don't know. The official explanation is that it was the same way they knew how to call the U.S. President on his private phone as their first contact, and the same way they knew we were what they needed against the Posleen, that they'd watched us when they started having problems with the Posleen and knew us from our TV and radio broadcasts and all that. It doesn't smell right to me, but I don't have better speculations. Wild ass guesses? I could give you half a dozen and bullshit all day long, but the truth is I just don't know. The humans and the Bane Sidhe had obviously known each other before, which means the fucking Elves were around here, too. Even the name has old connections. Way, way old. Then the Posleen pyramids and the Egyptian pyramids had a whole similarity. And there were bits of human archetypal history the Darhel were awful keen to alter or take out of circulation entirely," the giant said.

"Wheels within wheels within wheels," the older man got up and shook himself. "That's all I know, and really more than I know. You're about to earn your ride anyway, if I feel this boat slowing. Which I do."

"Oh, joy," George groaned.

Cally stepped out of the gym shower and began toweling her hair dry. The surfaces of the Galplas walls were that glossy shade of light blue that seemed to infest locker rooms everywhere.

"Buckley," she said, drying off, "please project a holo of interrogation room 7B."

"Huh? Oh. What was that again?" Cally noticed the subdued red light that indicated an active camera. She dropped a sock over the camera port.

"Dammit," it said. "Infrared just isn't the same."

"Quit ogling and show me 7B."

"You look nice today. Well, you did. If you put on your socks and shoes, you wouldn't have wet feet."

She couldn't do much about it. Slapping a PDA was possible, of course, but hardly effective.

"Shut up, buckley," she said.

"I knew it was too good to last."

"Shut up, buckley."

"Right."

She waited for a long moment. "Buckley! 7B!"

A display of the requested room appeared above the bench seat where she'd just tossed her towel. A barely adolescent teenage girl sat in one of the chairs, apparently reading something on her own buckley. It had to be something she had stored locally, since the room was shielded against outside access. Her eyes kept flickering upwards towards the camera lens on the far wall, which was quite a trick since said lens was only as big as a pencil point and shaded to blend with the walls.

"Huh. She might have potential." Cally finished dressing and stuck the buckley in her back pocket. "Not one word," she warned it.

The candidate had been waiting for a good twenty minutes. Long enough to see how much patience she had for her age. Time for the next step.

She passed Harrison Schmidt on her way to the stairs. She almost always took the stairs. Every little bit helped. Tommy and Harrison said she looked better with another ten pounds than without it. Seeing herself only through hypercritical eyes, she thought they were trying to be nice. If the subject came up, Granpa just coughed.

"Hey! Harrison!" She turned and jogged to catch him. He could be a big help.

"Can I borrow you a minute?" she asked.

He quirked an eyebrow at her, waiting for an explanation.

"I've got a potential recruit. I need to run her through evaluation. Be at the alley off Pappas Street, the one nearest Horner on the far west side. Two hours. Be sure not to see us."

"That's more than a minute. Wednesday. Why do I always get this kind of crap on Wednesday?" He sighed, "Okay. Skulking, or oblivious?"

"Drunk and oblivious," she decided. "Taking a piss would be ideal. That'll look pathetic enough."

"Oh, thanks so much. I have to get all grimy for this, don't I?" He sighed. "You owe me, dear."

"Yeah, I do. Thanks a bunch. I know this is a sucky assignment," Cally said.

The interrogation room looked smaller from the inside than it did on camera. The walls were a rather unsettling puke green. Beyond the two chairs, the room was bare. Its ugliness was deliberate, designed to unsettle anyone interrogated here. There were other rooms for other kinds of discussions. She pulled the empty chair around backwards, straddling it, to look the girl over.

"Denise Reardon. So, you think you want to be an assassin. That's one strike against you, Denise. Why should I let you have one of the slots to the school?" Wisps of her damp, blonde hair had fallen forward. The pro absently tucked them back behind her ear.

"Because I'd be good at it." The skinny, brunette kid looked at her through owlish glasses. Eyesight was fixable.

"At killing people? Why would anybody want to do that?" Cally set a knee bouncing, tapping her heel. It wasn't a real mission, but she was fidgety to get going.

"You do." The kid squinted, scrunching her glasses back up her nose.

"That's not an answer. Answer the question."

"Because our whole family, just about, lives on an island hiding from people who want to kill us. Because I know our family. We're not monsters. We argue, we squabble, we gossip behind each other's backs, we have a fair dose of hypocrites and liars, a couple of drunks, and a few serious assholes—but we're not monsters. So the people who are trying to kill us must be the monsters." The words sounded like a preprepared little speech.

"And what if they're not?"

"What?" Her forehead wrinkled a little, like a worried puppy's.

"What if the people we're fighting against, that you're sent out to kill, aren't monsters."

"I . . . um . . . I—I don't know."

"That's the first sensible thing you've said. One in your favor."

"Look, the Posties wanted to eat us. I'm not dumb. I know a lot of you were alive back then. You're juvs. You're sick of fighting, right? So anybody who the whole family, basically, is working so hard to fight must not be planning to hug us and give us a cookie."

"So what if you get deep enough to get more information and decide we're wrong?" Cally crossed her arms on the chair back, propping her chin on them.

"Nothing's perfect. I don't think my whole family is stupid, and I don't think they're evil. I'll throw in my lot with y'all. I'm not stupid. There will be a lot I don't need to know. Keeping that in mind, if I saw anything too bad, I'd talk about it to my boss."

"What if you were in the field when that happened?"

"Then I'd have to do my job and wait until I got back to talk about it, wouldn't I? Nothing's perfect. I'll throw in my lot with you."

"What do you think this job is like, anyway? What do you think your average day would be?"

"I don't know."

"Speculate," the assassin ordered.

"Average day? Probably buffing my skills or doing mission prep. Maybe traveling to or from a mission. Maybe under cover in some mission or other. Maybe watching people or scoping out situations before going in. It's like dance, isn't it? A lot of hard work preparing, for just a couple of recitals a year."

"Like dance. I wouldn't have put it like that, but we'll let it go. Especially since I dance, too. But you knew that. I think you were in my beginning jazz class one year on the island, weren't you?"

"Yes, ma'am." The young girl hesitated. "Ma'am, excuse me, but you're pretty good, right? So why did you leave work to be with your kids? I mean, why would they let you? Wouldn't the Bane Sidhe want you to keep working?"

"Tsk. You're not really supposed to know much about who you're interviewing with." Cally turned the chair and sat, crossed her legs, lit a cigarette. "Look, just between us girls, if you take this job you're going to spend a lot of time in a shrink's office. You'll need it. But being a chick, you're going to spend more time in there than one of the guys would. It may not be fair; it may or may not be necessary. This job isn't about fair. The bosses just about pushed me into taking a long sabbatical." She shrugged. "In my case, yeah, I needed it. I'd been active a long time. You can't do this job forever, presuming you live that long, and not have it get to you. It will dehumanize you. It will fuck you up." The assassin grimaced as the girl's eyes widened at the profanity. What the hell am I doing letting a little girl—no, I was just thirteen myself. She'll get several chances to opt out. An honest little voice insisted at the back of her mind, Yeah, but there will be subtle pressures on her to measure up. Pressures on her teachers not to lose candidates. Inevitably. What the hell am I doing?

Cally leaned forward, propping her hands on her knees. "You shouldn't take this job. It will fuck up your relationships. You will find yourself fucking about a bazillion strangers off the job because after you've fucked a bunch on the job, who the hell would you be saving yourself for? You will see things you absolutely do not want in your head, and the pictures won't go away. You will do things that literally make you puke. The price is too high. Go home. Get a legit ID, move to Indianapolis, get a husband, a white picket fence, a dog, two or three kids. Don't look back. It's a happier life. That's God's own truth. Go the hell home," she said.

The girl's jaw tightened. "Are you declining my job application, ma'am?"

Suddenly feeling every one of her fifty-eight years, Cally pressed her palms into her eyes and sat back up, sighing. She absently flicked the growing ash tail off the end of her cigarette. "No, I'm not doing that. Not yet, anyway. Okay. You want it, then it's time for your next test."

The tall blonde walked out of the room and returned in under a minute with two armfuls of clothes. One set she threw to the kid. "Get changed," she said. "Your sneakers are fine. They'll be covered by the boots, anyway."

Both sets of clothing were average to the point of boring. A set of long johns implied they'd be going outside. The jeans to go over them were faded and somehow a bit grayed out, as if they'd been washed too often in unsorted loads with all the other clothes. The sweaters were some kind of blend, hers a faded navy blue, the other a rusty brown, with the random little fluff balls sweaters get when they've been around a couple of years. The older woman didn't look up, just started changing her clothes as if she was alone.

"What the hell are you waiting for? Get dressed," she told the girl, who was hesitating. The kid jumped to comply, startled.





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