Sister Time John Ringo & Julie Cochrane

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Chapter Eight

They got off the train at a station in the south of Chicago, trudging down the path of crumbled gray asphalt and sand that wobbled between jumbled stretches of gray and white snow, leading into Bronzeville. Once, their O'Neal-fair skin would have been cause for comment in the historically black community. Not now. Time and migrations to and from the Nat King Cole Sub-Urb, along with the shuffling effect of the semi-random sweeps for shippers—as the involuntary off-world colonists were called—had shuffled the population into a spectrum from Sub-Urban spectral white Caucasians to dark brown, old-time Metropolitans, with a vast middle of cafe au l'asian.

The landscape was a mixture of buildings. Bricks with early twentieth-century arched windows. Buildings with squared off prewar windows. Crumbling brick, crumbling cinder block. Tattered strips of old stores. Row houses like shark teeth and blocky old four-story tenements. In front of one of the old strips of had-been neon and steel, a cart of fresh vegetables from a black-market hydroponics setup sat upwind of a burnt-out sedan, whose trunk served as a shelf for piles of bagged tortillas, dimebags of cornmeal, the same of textured soy, and a large pile of slump cakes. The latter was a heavy, flat bread that had begun life as wet wheat sourdough, then got loaded with as much corn and soy meal as it could take without turning into a rock. It was a staple, as the name implied, of people whose financial resources were in a slump. Judging from the size of the piles, compared to those of the other fare on offer, this included most of the scattered denizens of Chicago's once-teeming South Side. Over a fire in a barrel, an old woman shook and tossed a pan of popping corn, which a little boy beside her poured into paper cones and hawked to passers-by. In the late afternoon sun, a smattering of young teen whores, pushers, and grays milled around, grabbing something to eat and running errands before their nighttime working hours. Dressed in the typical third-hand drabs of the grays, Cally and Denise blended into invisibility among the cleaners and other low-grade menials that served to keep the city's innards running for Chicago's trade and professional classes. She dropped a couple of dollars on the popcorn boy, handing one of the two cones of the plain, hot kernels to the girl beside her.

As they moved away, Cally hissed under her breath, "If you don't quit sneaking and just walk, I'm going to cold-cock your ass."

The girl flushed in embarrassment and began walking more normally, keeping her mouth shut. Next, the older woman bought a cake of slump for another dollar, breaking it in half and sharing it with her. The tall blonde glared at the kid when she bit into the bread and almost choked. Denise erased the offending expression and tried hard to look hungry as she dry-swallowed the nasty stuff. It was scratchy, as if ground or chopped corn husk had been added to make a few kilos of grain stretch.

As they moved past the makeshift market and its shoppers, Denise only pretended to eat and hoped nobody noticed, not the least her interviewer. A block down, they turned into an alley. Shortly thereafter, Aunt Cally tossed her half of the awful stuff over to a couple of rats who were scrabbling around in a mess best left unidentified. She followed suit, trailing behind to a particle-board door in one of the buildings. Her aunt pulled out a pistol, seemingly from nowhere, and screwed a cylinder onto the end.

"Kick in the door. There should be a man sleeping inside. Kill him," she said, thrusting the gun into the girl's limp hand.

"Huh? Just like that? What'd he do?" She blurted. Her hands were sweating, and she felt a sudden cramping in her guts as if her bowels were about to cut loose. She swallowed.

"Do you really need to know?" Cally shrugged. "Please do make sure he's dead." After a second she sighed and snatched the gun back. "You cock it like this. This is the safety. See? Now it's off. See the little patch of red beside the lever?" She shoved the gun back at Reardon. "There. Do it, now, or I will. Then we go home."

Taking a deep breath, the thirteen-year-old girl hit the door with a solid side kick right at the knob. Then she had to hit it again, since it only collapsed into a ragged almost-hole at the point of impact. Her second kick knocked it open, and she stumbled into the dark, musty room, blinking. Over on a pallet in the corner, barely visible by the light streaming in through the doorway, a man lay, face to the wall. He was snoring loudly, though it was pretty damned amazing he had slept through the noise. She walked up to maybe two and a half meters from him and fired two shots at his head, closing her eyes despite herself. Her hand must have been shaking, because two dark, wet splotches that she could barely identify as red splashed across his back, splattering onto the pallet and the floor. She ran back for the door, stopping halfway to heave up the contents of her stomach.

Outside, she wiped off her mouth with her sleeve, shakily. "Okay," she said. "I did it." The arm with the pistol hung limp at her side.

"Are you sure he's dead?" Her aunt asked her, searching her eyes. "Gimme," she said coldly. She held out her hand for the gun. The professional disappeared into the building, emerging after what seemed forever, but from the pounding of her heart could only have been a few seconds.

"You got him. Let's go." The taller blonde strode back up the alley, turning the corner as her niece had to jog to catch up. Neither of them said a word all the way back to the car, and then, via a circuitous route that probably wasn't the way they got out there, to base.

"Can I . . . know what he did, now?" she asked as her aunt dropped her off at the room she'd been assigned.


Three floors down and two corridors across, Cally sought out Harrison, who had beaten them home and, of course, changed immediately.

"So she passed," he said.

"Maybe," Cally answered. "If we didn't need her, I could come up with half a dozen reasons to flunk her. But yeah," she sighed, "she passed." She lit a cigarette in a convulsive, angry motion, arms hunched in close. "That is, she passed if she still wants to sign on after thinking about it for a couple of days. You overdid the snoring just a bit. I could hear you all the way out in the alley."

Wednesday 10/27/54

The Darhel Beren had recessive metallic gold fur, threaded with black. His slit-pupilled eyes were a vivid deep green. The deeper purple tinge to the portion of his eyes around the pupils spoke of too many late nights playing strategy games against his AID. With a roundedness to his frame, he was the closest thing to a fat Darhel one would ever see. He sat staring at the image over the altar to the Lords of Communication and crunched on a bright turquoise vegetable. It actually wasn't bad. He'd made something of a study of the available vegetables and their varieties—an extensive study. The trick was to find the high-protein ones, just close enough in taste and saltiness to . . . He didn't even think about meat, just shied away from the idea when he felt that tell-tale twinge of euphoria as his body threatened release of the deadly-addictive Tal hormone.

Right now, he was replaying the transmission that had just come in, light speed, from the jump point. The message was so hard to believe that he couldn't tell whether he was looking at a fantastic opportunity or a piece of disinformation, leaked as part of some elaborate plot against the Gistar Group. Six level nine code keys, or the better part of them, missing. An Epetar freighter on one of their highest margin trade routes stranded in the backwaters of the Sol System waiting for cash to pick up its cargo. This was an especially intriguing opportunity, if true, simply because pick-ups and deliveries to the Sol System were so onerous, anyway. Most systems had the resources to build their outer-system trade base two weeks or less out from the major jump point or points servicing the system. Titan Base in the Sol system was far, far inwards from normal.

Galactic ships used an FTL system of traveling along lines of low resistance in hyperspace, which was why jumps that took months for Posleen vessels took seven to twelve days for Galactic vessels. The current Galactic ships were much faster than their own old standard, too, since they had incorporated the improvements spurred by the war into newer vessels and retrofitted them, however imperfectly, into the old ones. The bulk of the transit time for goods and passengers was between jump point and base. Ancient vessels with hyper drives too far gone for economical repair plodded through the space between base and planets, delivering the goods in-system over the long real-space legs of the trip. Fleet vessels too battle-damaged for their drives to be reliable, and too expensive to repair, formed the nucleii for the deep space bases that received incoming cargoes and loaded up the outgoing ones.

Beren disliked humans, as any other civilized being would, but some of their optimization ideas increased profits. In this case, the innovation of keeping a dedicated courier on station at a system jump point for high-priority messages, while costly, was less costly than the delay in critical communications from the old system of sending messages with whatever freighter was headed out.

Certainly they used the old system for routine communications, or when, as now, a freighter happened to be going to the right place at the right time. However, keeping couriers a day or less out from a jump point had been a marvelous improvement over having them waiting weeks away at a base.

Humans were unpredictable and disconcerting as hell. Stupid, but incredibly cunning. They naively gave away the most valuable suggestions—for free. Gistar had a whole department dedicated to receiving, sorting, and analyzing every recorded human utterance that began with the phrase, "Why don't you do it like . . ." So far as he knew, Gistar was the only group with such a department. Its existence was the most closely guarded secret of the group. Beren only knew about it because he had helped to set it up, even worked there briefly. Which was how he came to distinguish himself enough to be the factor of Adenast, fifty years younger than other Darhel in the most minor of systems—and how Gistar came to be the only group to maintain a hard currency reserve, in deposit, on board the neutral courier vessels of the highest traffic systems.

He was proud of Adenast. Adenast's space repair dock was the most patronized yard in this region of space, sitting a mere two days from the major jump point out. Adenast could cut weeks off the repair time of any vessel and get it right back in service. They could stabilize junkers that could barely limp out of hyperspace, that would have died one way or another before reaching another system's repair yard at a base deeper in-system. Sure, they sometimes, very rarely, had a catastrophic collision. Still, the profits far outweighed the costs. All profit entailed some risk. Besides, he conducted his own work on the surface of Adenast Four, so he wasn't in any personal danger.

It was all very well woolgathering like this, but he was going to have to reply to this transmission, which he was now replaying for the third time. All right. Assume it's genuine. Time is of the essence. "AID, display Adenast system with functional freighters marked and labeled." Immediately, the transmission ceased its replay and a modified three-dimensional representation of the Adenast system took its place. It had to be modified, because if it hadn't, any holo that showed the system from its star all the way out to its jump points would, of course, have rendered the relevant bodies and ships too small to see. The jump point pulsed bright red.

"AID, what is that freighter practically on top of the jump point?"

"That is the Dedicated Industry. Heldan of Gistar commanding."

"What is its status?"

"The fault in the gravity feedback sensors was certified repaired point eight days ago, local. Dedicated Industry is outbound for Rienooen to rejoin the food transit circuit."

"Display the particulars of its holds, plus the particulars of the anticipated Epetar cargo out of Dulain."

Friday 10/29/54

Michelle liked to begin her workday early in the morning. It was more comfortable for her to navigate the low, multihued corridors then. In the megaskyscraper where she lived and worked, the smaller Indowy crowded corridors to near immobility during the morning rush. The press of the little green teddy bears at this hour was heavy, but not impassible. The brightening blue light shone down on their symbiotic chlorophyll, feeding Adenast's dominant sophonts a gentle post-breakfast snack during their commute. The filaments gave each Indowy the appearance of being coated by green fur. It was quite a contrast to the robin's egg blue, bumpy, gently-wrinkled skin of an infant Indowy. She did not know whether all baby Indowy looked that way. She had only seen the babies of the breeding group who had been her childhood foster family. She had maintained close ties with her foster sibs. They were the only Indowy she knew who sometimes almost forgot she was human.

If they had not been so familiar, the corridors and rooms of her building would have been terribly claustrophobic. Michelle was a good twenty-five centimeters shorter than her older sister, and the ceiling was still only about fifteen centimeters above her own head. All the Indowy-raised were short, by human standards. Their hosts had tinkered with their hormones to keep them from having to stoop and hunch their way through the buildings when grown. It was easier to keep the humans on the lower side of their species' height range than to re-engineer entire buildings.

Once they got used to the tight quarters, the only thing that kept humans from developing agoraphobia when away from home was the high ceilings of both the work spaces and the general Galactic areas. The latter had Darhel-height ceilings, of course. Also, humans and Indowy both underwent early and intense training and conditioning to be comfortable with spacewalk maneuvers.

"Human Michon Mentat Michelle O'Neal, I see you." The Indowy Roolnai waited for her when she entered the engineering bay, where she was orchestrating the build of a core chunk of the new Cnothgar mining station for one of the system's inner planets. It was a cutting edge project, and a rather exciting one. It used some of the interoperability lessons of Earthtech manufacturing standards to build a large station whose pieces would snap together like one of her childhood building sets back on Earth. After they mined the planet out, the pieces would unsnap for transportation in freighter holds to a new system, rich in exploitable resources. Cnothgar would disassemble and reconstruct it, over and over again, for mining in systems normally inhospitable to Galactic sophants. The Adenast mining would be the shakedown operation for a facility she expected to last, with proper maintenance, at least two thousand of her local years.

Roolnai, the head of one of the major clans, had to meet with her at the beginning or end of her work day, because it was impossibly dangerous to interrupt a Sohon or Michon engineer during operations. Poor Derrick had been a terrible reminder of that basic truth. Her late husband had lost concentration at a critical moment in an operational process. The materials had, violently, proceeded to the natural conclusion of the chemical reactions involved, instead of the engineered reaction paths required for that portion of the project. Everyone had mourned with her, but been thankful that the accident happened in the outer system and he had merely been working on a chemical-level operation. If he had been a single level higher in operations classification, and the associated tasks, it could have been so much worse. Derrick himself would have just been grateful he was several light-hours away from the children when the accident occurred.

So here was Roolnai, doubtless to ensure that another dangerous, and much higher level, human accident was not in the offing. "Indowy Roolnai, I see you," she said.

"Please will you sit with me, Michelle?" he asked, gesturing towards the respite chairs along the wall. They did not go into a private room, privacy not being big on the Indowy list of concepts. By Indowy standards, their privacy was inviolate simply because no Indowy would ever repeat or even try to remember a conversation between a major clan head and a Michon Mentat.

"You are here about my meeting with Pahpon," she stated.

"Yes, I am. He contacted one of the other clans, who in turn contacted me because of my prior experience of humans."

"Your experience is formidable. Nevertheless, I remind you that no Indowy-raised human has ever acted, significantly, in a way that was not in the best interests of his or her clan," she said.

"Yet. We may also disagree as to what constitutes significance, and what constitutes the best interests of one's clan. Threats of Galactic annihilation would, by most standards, fall outside the interests of one's clan." The Indowy's face was angry.

"I am not aware that anyone has ever made such threats, directly or obliquely. If you speak of my meeting with Pahpon, I did quite strongly remind him of the dangers of declaring a breach of contract prior to any such breach occurring."

"He felt otherwise," Roolnai said tightly.

"He was certainly mistaken. The purely socioeconomic risk to his group of breaching the contract himself, by declaring breach where none has occurred, would be severe enough that it could only be a kindness to remind him before he made such a serious financial mistake."

"He felt you threatened to misuse your abilities," the clan head insisted. The Indowy from her work group continued to bustle around, but increased the berth they were giving the two leaders.

"He implied that he felt as much. I immediately laid out my case that there was no breach, which tactfully made it clear that our discussion was solely over the details of our contract. Perhaps a prejudice against humans caused him to assume a threat where there was none, but I certainly made every attempt, immediately, to correct his misperception."

"He says your breach of contract is inevitable, and that you gave him no reason why it was not." At least Roolnai was calming down.

"He is quite correct that I gave him no explanation of how I will avoid breach of contract. I am not obliged to. I can and will, however, give you a reason. This is a clan matter, and must not be divulged."

"Accepted," he said.

"As you know, I have clan members whose existence must remain unknown to the Darhel Groups. My contract allows unlimited delegation of tasks according to my judgment. I have, as is quite proper, delegated the tasks involved in ensuring I do not breach my contract to those members of my clan most uniquely qualified to succeed. Would you doubt that, with my guidance, properly limited by traditional wisdom, they are likely to succeed?"

"I do not like this. I find the risk almost as high as direct action on your own."

Michelle finally made an expression, one that the clan leader might actually recognize since it was close to a similar Indowy expression. She raised her left eyebrow. The slight, closed-lip smile was less conscious.

"That is gross exaggeration and unworthy of you, Roolnai."

Galaxy death. It seemed such a silly thing to suggest. However, the Indowy knew the power of Sohon. One unchecked Sohon master truly could bring about the destruction of all life, perhaps all formed matter, in a galaxy. It would take time, mind you. The mentat would be dead long before the galaxy. But the destruction would spread and spread, wiping out planets, stars . . .

Killing one Darhel, or even a clan, would barely cause Michelle to break a sweat.

However, Michelle knew the dangers as well as the Clan Leader did. No mentat was allowed to rise to her level if they had the slightest trace of interest in that level of violence. By the same token, suggesting that putting Cally on the job, while fey as any human in history, was anywhere near the same level of danger was just . . . silly.

After a long moment he sighed, "In that, you are correct." Now he looked nervous. "Please tell me you are supervising them closely."

"I am supervising them closely." Childlike, she crossed the fingers of the hand that was hidden by her robe.

"I will tell Pahpon that there is no threat, that you are using legitimate, proprietary techniques to fulfill your contract, and that you have a traditionally acceptable likelihood of fulfilling your contract without breach."

"Thank you." Michelle bent her head slightly. The Indowy accepted the human gesture of respect and returned it. Arguably, they were of the same rank. The interaction between mentats and clan leaders had always been one aspect of fealty the Indowy were unsure about.

"Please, please keep them under control. I respectfully bid your clan good fortune." He rose and turned to go, but stopped before he had gone more than a few steps. "Oh, there is something else," he said. "You should be aware that the Darhel are becoming restless. We do not know what has disturbed the balance, but Gistar diverted one of their freighters leaving this system, two days ago, to intercept one of Epetar's prize cargos at Dulain. Gistar is acting under the impression that Epetar has been the victim of a large robbery. In the Sol System. It is not good for the Darhel to be restless." He made a shifting motion, the Indowy equivalent of a sigh. "What is done cannot be undone. Your fellow humans do not comprehend the damage such rashness may do. I know you may not have . . . opportunity . . . to contact your clan head directly for some time, but please use all your influence to restrain them." He inclined his head, tacitly acknowledging her difficult position in interclan politics. After long years of practice, she had no trouble reading the plea in his eyes.

Friday 10/29/54

"Now that I finally have a chance to see you, did you enjoy your weekend off last week?" Wendy prodded. "C'mon, give."

"Need you ask?" Cally grinned at her, knowing she herself looked more relaxed than she had in a long time. She gave the plate she'd been drying a last wipe and set it on the stainless steel shelf.

"Did you meet somebody? Ah, a blush! You met somebody. Cute?" Her friend was not going to give up this line of questioning easily.

"All I'm going to say is I had at least one nice evening." I'm never going to get her off this, am I? Not a chance. "So the grapevine says you and Tommy are trying again?"

"Well . . . Hey! No fair! Illegal change of subject, fifteen yard penalty, loss of down. We were talking about your nice evening." Wendy looked mildly outraged.

"Later." Cally glanced around the kitchen meaningfully.

"Well, okay. But if you try to dodge me I'm giving Sinda a set of fingerpaints for her next birthday. And drums for Christmas, too!"

"Uh . . . sneak off with a pair of chocolate bars after dinner?" Cally offered.

"You're on."

The hall the O'Neals had rented for the "Kelley" family reunion was a refurbished Asheville wilderness resort from prewar days. Mostly what the facility had to recommend it was huge stone fireplaces and an isolated location. It was not refurbished enough to have a stocked and staffed cafeteria, so they had had to bring their own food and crew the kitchen in shifts. Fortunately, they only filled half the rooms, since the others hadn't been redone yet and had plumbing that was . . . unreliable. But the partially unfinished state had made renting the facilities for a long weekend cheap—which was the other prime requirement in a location. Still, with the postwar economy being what it was, the O'Neals were a lot better off than many. Earth's governments, and particularly the U.S. government, had been hit hard by late fees for failure to provide colonists according to contract when colony ships had been lost in transit and had failed to reach their destinations. Protestations that humanity had no control over the maintenance or mishaps of the ships had cut no ice with the Galactics' arbitration councils. If someone or several someones on Earth had failed to take proper notice of the provisions of the contract prior to signing it, that certainly didn't excuse the Earth governments from living up to their contractual obligations. The councils upheld the fees in full; the taxes to pay for them had been difficult. Earth governments negotiated later contracts to remove the offending provision. However, the interest on the existing fines had done enough damage to set postwar economic recovery back decades.

Which had made the owners of the resort grateful for the early business, which provided desperately needed funds for their ongoing repairs and restorations. Their gratitude, plus a reasonable security deposit, had been enough to make the owners more than willing to make themselves scarce while the rather eccentric "Kelley" family served themselves for the weekend. Besides, it had meant there was no need to bring in, and pay, temporary staffers to work the off-season.

Cally was glad to be working in the kitchen with Wendy. So glad, she had volunteered for an extra shift helping cook. The huge stone fireplaces out in the hall were nice. Very pretty. And very crowded. Any heat that didn't go up the chimney went right to the top of the beautiful vaulted ceilings. Worse, having been mured up on the island for most of the past seven years, a lot of the people she "knew," she hadn't seen for years. Particularly the kids, who changed so quickly, or the spouses when someone lived away. She could deal with crowds of strangers. She could deal with family. It was just putting both together at the same time that was way too weird.

The kitchen's more normal proportions made it the warmest room in the place. She was presently pouring a couple of jugs of cider into a large cast iron pot to hang over the fire. If they hadn't brought the spices themselves from Edisto, and the cider from a bounty-farm orchard on the way up, the cost would have been prohibitive. There were things you didn't want to pay the import taxes on. The O'Neals knew the fees levied by the Darhel were for missing colonists that the aliens themselves had arranged the deaths of. The knowledge neatly disposed of any guilt the the family might have felt for circumventing the levy. Yes, it left the burden for paying those fees more heavily on others, but the Bane Sidhe were shouldering their share of that burden in a far more constructive way—by trying to put an end to it.

For one thing, it looked like the penalty fines might quit accruing if the Darhel had to strike a deal to prevent the U.S. from putting maintenance inspectors aboard the colony ships. The Darhel had long had a standard clause in the contract predicated on their long-standing control of Indowy lives. Each Indowy was kept "in line" by having to assume initial debt to buy his working tools, on terms that kept him in debt for life. Any Indowy who made waves could expect to have his debt called in, his tools repossessed, and would starve to death.

Where an Indowy wouldn't dare actually insist on inspecting a ship for missing spare parts, but would simply provide them unless ordered not to, making the inspection clause an empty formality, humans were insisting. A team of O'Neal Bane Sidhe was surreptitiously guarding the relevant human politicians, and another some critical engineering personnel, and it looked like the Darhel would have to either cut a deal on the fines or quit "losing" ships of colonists and turning up with the "salvaged" ships sans humans. Bane Sidhe analysts anticipated that the Darhel would choose to end the fines, figuring live humans the greater threat.

During the war, the Galactics had needed humans to fight the Posleen. Recruiting humanity to their war had been a desperation measure because the Galactics had been losing the war and losing badly. They had needed humanity, even though they had regarded humans as carnivorous primitives only barely less dangerous than the locustlike Posleen. Well, locustlike if you discounted the differences between a flying grasshopper and a space-faring, omnivorous, six-limbed carnosaur. Calling the Posleen intelligent would be inaccurate. The hermaphroditic cannibals reproduced at an appalling rate, laying eggs that randomly hatched into hordes of moronic normals with a few sport God Kings, and immediately became food for each other and the adults. The Posleen who survived the nestling pens grew up to eat nestlings. And everything else.

A Darhel could only kill once directly; the tremendous high they got when they did so triggered a hard-coded response that sent them into lintatai. On the other hand, they were more than capable of unlimited indirect kills by technical error and negligence, as well as by hiring human psychopaths to independently kill direct human threats for them. They just tried very hard not to get excited about it. They followed a deliberate policy of maximizing human casualties during the war, keeping just enough alive to stop the Posleen, and were, as a race, responsible for billions of needless human deaths. Most of those Asian, given the prewar planetary demographics.

Now, in 2054, the Galactics still needed humans. They needed them to throw the Posleen off of those of the formerly-Galactic planets that were still capable of sustaining life. They needed them to protect the primarily Indowy settlers of those planets from the few remaining feral Posleen.

Once infested by the Posleen, a planet stayed infested for a long time. Nestlings hatched with the knowledge base to survive and function; they needed no care. A single feral Posleen, left unchecked, was a planet-destroying pest problem.

Still, while the Galactics needed humans, they no longer needed very many, and still considered the species deadly-dangerous primitives and an ongoing threat. Hence, the Darhel maintained their policy of actively but indirectly killing as many humans as possible. It was a cold war where disengagement was impossible. It would take only a single Darhel sacrificed to lintatai to fire a planet-killer into the Earth. Galactic politics prevented that, but humanity was in no position to push its luck. Hence the very long-term cold war humanity had joined in along with the very-underground resistance movement among the other Galactic races known as the Bane Sidhe.

Everything came back to the Darhel. Cally blamed them more than the Posleen for destroying her and her children's chances at anything like a normal life. Starting from when they sent assassins to kill her and Granpa when she was eight, and continuing on through their deliberately worsening human casualties in the war pretty much any way they could. She didn't know for sure that Daddy wouldn't have had to drop that antimatter bomb on Rabun Gap if the Darhel hadn't fucked up the war, but she thought it was a good bet. And if it weren't for the Darhel, there would be no need for the Bane Sidhe, and no need for James Stewart to be officially dead—as far as the Bane Sidhe were concerned—and separated from her and the girls. Cally O'Neal hated Darhel with a passion. She tried not to think about it. But she tried not to repress it either. Ah, stupid shrink head games. You can't win. Best not to play.

Shari was farther down the counter in the very large kitchen cutting up fruit for some kind of salad or desert. She was also chatting about business with one of the sisters of a Baen Sidhe newlywed, probably to look over any single O'Neal men as prospects for marriage. Or whatever. Said sister was already in on the big secret, having grown up with Bane Sidhe parents. The parents had done little more than run a safe house. Dangerous enough, but deliberately not in the know for many things, which was reflected in the knowledge base of the daughter—or lack thereof.

Her interest seemed a bit on the serious side, because she was pumping Shari for information about DAG. If it had even occurred to Cally that eavesdropping was impolite, she would have silently laughed at herself for the qualm and done it anyway. Had she been asked, she would have been able to count on the fingers of one hand the social engagements of this size that she had attended that hadn't either been professional or, earlier in her life, orchestrated tests of her professional skills. She was what she was—not listening in never crossed her mind.

"I don't understand why the government doesn't just go ahead and admit DAG exists and end all the melodrama. It's not as if they can keep something like that secret for long. Just about the whole country knows they're around and what they do. There have been movies about them!" The short brunette had a tendency to squint and wrinkle her nose as if her glasses were trying to slide down it.

"Sure, everyone knows it's there. But it's not the only open secret in the history of the world, you know. You aren't the first one to have asked that question. As I understand it, the rationale is that if they don't admit DAG exists, they have the best of both worlds. They don't have to openly account for what it does, but they can hold it out as a threat against bandits and tax revolts in the territories, as well as pirates and raiders around the city states that might interfere with the flow of strategic resources. And more than a threat, when threats aren't enough. At the same time, the voters are reassured that their interests are being protected. And the voters subconsciously don't worry as much about DAG turning up on their doorsteps. After all, the government is hardly going to violate the Posse Comitatus law and use DAG in the actual Core States if it would 'expose their secret,' are they?"

"But it's not really a secret," the young lady protested.

"It doesn't matter. As long as the government pretends it's a secret, the pretense, no matter how thin, gives it certain advantages. Or it thinks it does. Politics is weird that way."

"I still don't understand why you guys are willing to put down tax revolts and stuff in the territories, free training or no. Sure, the Indowy had kittens whenever we tried to move resistance against the Darhel along a little faster, but most of them are gone now. It seems like the rebels are on the side of the angels to me," the kid said.

"You haven't been around the operations side of things much, have you?" Wendy broke in. It wasn't a question.

"Not really, no." The girl turned to the petite blonde who was somewhat dwarfed by Cally's height. "Our family's mostly done support services as long as I can remember. You're one of the only people I've met in my life who hasn't run me off with a 'because' and looked at me as if they wondered how reliable I'd be. I'm fine with just knowing I'm helping, and I understand why we compartmentalize information. I just get frustrated sometimes at how few things ever get explained. All the things I thought would be revealed when I got older, well, I guess I'm starting to wonder when I get old enough; when and what that will be." The girl had a slight petulant pout, almost too little to be noticed unless you were looking for such things.

"Probably not a lot. But I can tell you about the stuff in the territories and DAG in a nutshell. Random rebellion is dangerous. It's unpredictable, it provokes unpredictable responses, and the Indowy have shared enough history with us to make it clear that the last thing in the world you want is to get the Darhel spooked enough to make them unpredictable. That tends to be a Bad Thing." You could hear the capitals as she said it.

"The Darhel have to be maneuvered, like a chess game. A game that does take lots patience. It's not something that comes easily to most people. But whenever any of their opposition has moved too fast before, well, let's just say there are good reasons not to do that and leave it there, okay? Pretty much the humans who have looked at it closely, to the best of my knowledge, have all come away with the conviction that the Indowy are not being overcautious. Whatever things the split was about, that wasn't one of them." Wendy was carefully looking away from the girl as she said the next bit. "And if you do get, well, close to somebody in operations, get used to having more questions than you've got answers, all the time. Almost all the time, we never ask. Because the quickest way in the world to kill a budding relationship is to make him say over and over again, 'I can't say.'"

"Oh, I wouldn't do that," the girl protested, pushing her glasses back up on her nose with one finger. "Besides, I've heard they all tell their wives and girlfriends stuff anyway. So I just wouldn't ask. I'd wait to hear."

"Uh-huh." Cally suppressed a grin. Wendy was getting her "patient" tone of voice. This one would be a daughter-in-law when hell froze over. Shari was covering her mouth with one hand, but her eyes were twinkling.

"Let me tell you a little bit about that," Wendy said. "Yes, they all tell more than they should. And you can kill your husband's career in a heartbeat, or worse, if you ever let the tiniest bit of it slip. What they don't tell you is always lots more than what they do. What they do tell you is designed to reassure you and usually has the exact opposite effect. So you smile when they leave and hug them and pretend to be as reassured as they think you are. Then you wait. And you wait. Knowing that you don't know what they're doing, or when or if they'll be back, with just enough information to paint about a bazillion different disasters in your head. Then when, and if, they do come back, you smile and you rub their shoulders and you patch them up until they go back out to do it all over again. Because you don't want him worrying about anything that might distract him at a crucial time and keep him from coming home, and asking too many questions will worry him, you take what he volunteers and you just don't ask."

The brunette girl did the first smart thing Cally had seen her do since she came into the kitchen. She shut up.

Anyway, it was getting time to brave the crowd and handle one of the things on her do-list for the weekend. Cally excused herself and grabbed her jacket, trudging across the parking lot to a dilapidated gym where the guys were playing basketball. The floor was a freshly laid Galplas slab. She was surprised the owners had sprung for it, but it might actually have been cheaper than hardwood, if they had lucked into the right supplier. It didn't have the lines painted on it yet, so someone had patiently drawn them on with chalk. The chalk lines showed signs of having been touched up already, and needing fresh touch-ups soon. The hoops were old, having survived the years, though one of the backboards was missing.

She watched the game for a bit, looking down at the picture she'd called up on the buckley. It had been so long since she'd seen the kid she was looking for, since he'd grown up off the island. Only he wasn't a kid anymore. She finally picked him out, waiting until he rotated out of the game to let someone else in and get some water. She walked over close enough to wave and get his attention, motioning for him to follow her. He pointed to his own chest questioningly, unsure if he was the one she was looking at. When she nodded, he looked her up and down and got a goofy grin, amiably following her out of the gym. Ye gods, he's checking me out. Ick. Okay, he's cute, but ick.

She kept a bit ahead of him as she led him back to the hotel-like section of the retreat and down the hall to her room, inserting the card key and suppressing her comments as he surreptitiously tried to wipe sweat off with his towel. His T-shirt had dark, damp patches, and she was not looking at his sweat pants.

Cally heard the hotel room door close behind him.

"Don't even think about it. I'm your aunt," she said.

"Aunt Cally?" he squeaked, putting two and two together far faster than she would have expected.

"Hi." She turned and smiled at him. "I guess I haven't seen you since you were, what, five? How'd you know it was me?"

"Uh, yeah. About five. I'd say you've changed, but it's obvious, and uh, well, there was kind of a mention . . ." he said, raising his eyebrows as she set a sound damper on the table and flipped it on.

"I'm really just here to pay allegiance to Mr. Murphy. There is the barest chance that DAG's Atlantic Company could end up dragged into one of our ops if it really goes to hell," she said. "Briefly, because I think your CO is going to want some background, our target is owned and run by a Darhel group. For various reasons, he may get nervous about the time we're getting ourselves inside. Nervous Darhel try to cover their asses, and you guys are kinda notorious right now."

The young man rolled his eyes, but she continued, "I know, I know. A nervous Darhel might see adding some flashy security to be career insurance, and for various reasons, could set his eyes on you guys and pull some strings.

"Anyway, if someone tries to drag you guys into a 'black' furball near the Fleet Base around Christmas, avoid it if you can, if you can't, you need to know it'll probably be us on the other side," she finished.

"Avoid? With Posse Comitatus we don't do domestic shi—stuff. We're authorized to operate in the territories, but there are federal laws against DAG operating in the states. Second, it's kinda hard to 'avoid' being sent on a particular mission. I appreciate the need for a go to hell plan, but this time you may be going beyond benefits versus costs to your OpSec. I don't know what you've been told about DAG, but we really don't operate in the States, no matter what the conspiracy guys say. Even the Darhel don't have that much pull."

"Yes, they do. Trust us, we've been doing this a looong time. He can do it." She fixed him with the kind of stare schoolteachers reserve for young boys to make sure he got it. "It's very, very unlikely that he will. And we probably are being too paranoid. But just as Murphy insurance, one guy in your company needs to know, and that gets to be you. Obviously, don't share the information unless it becomes necessary."

"Okay." He rubbed his chin with one hand before looking back up at her. "Aunt Cally, it's not my ass on the line, but how do you guys decide need to know on an operation? Of course I can and will keep my mouth shut, I'm an O'Neal. Not my business, just curious."

"Oh, I'm not worried about you running your mouth, Mauldin. If you did, and anything happened to Tommy or Papa, you'd have Momma Wendy and Momma Shari on your ass."

"Yes, ma'am, that's a solid guarantee." He swallowed hard. "Of me not running off at the mouth, I mean."

"As to OpSec, let's just say that Granpa has very well-developed survival instincts," she said.

"Good point."

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