Sister Time John Ringo & Julie Cochrane

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Chapter Nine

Greenville, South Carolina, had been a minor manufacturing powerhouse before the war. Lockheed-Martin, Michelin, Kemet Electronics, and more—all had plants to take advantage of the non-union labor, ready to work. The original textile mills that had been the mainstay of the economy since antebellum times had lost ground to the cheaper labor overseas, but the area's job base had continued to grow. Before that, it had been a resort for tidewater aristocrats seeking a break and some fresh scenery back in the wilderness. Now, it was ruins, with good odds that it would not be inhabited again for a long, long time. The entire county had been held back from the bounty farm program as a joint service field training area, administered by SOCOM.

The damage to the buildings in the various sectors of the city hadn't been done, mostly, by the Posleen. Oh, they would have gotten around to it eventually. But they had been more focused on the land held undeveloped by the country millionaires who, prewar, had wanted some acreage under their homes. So the buildings had mostly been unmolested by the invaders. The true destruction of Greenville had been wrought, in various stages, by humans. First by the owners themselves, who preferred going scorched earth over leaving their homes to the Posleen. Then, in small part, by those of their neighbors who had a true fondness for explosives—enough to make them wait beyond initial evacuations to mine and booby-trap anything they could get their hands on, regardless of ownership. The artillery had been the next source of damage. Then Fleet. When the troops came sweeping in after the war, the areas targeted by Fleet were flattened. Fleet hadn't screwed around when it, finally, arrived to lift the siege. Any area with any indication of Posleen build-up had been scorched by plasma and hammered by kinetic energy weapons.

The areas hit by arty had various building walls still standing. A stairway or corner here or there. Walls of half-underground almost basements.

The areas Fleet hit were finally getting fully covered with vegetation.

Those buildings had been rebuilt with the cheapest bulk methods available, where needed, with no regard to aesthetics. Troops needed practice urban combat as well as in different types of field terrain. So various troops worked their trade on the buildings in Greenville's demolition area—cleared and fought through, blew up and smashed and rebuilt, sometimes even the streets, again and again. Live-fire urban training, with demo, meant their only opposition would be dummy defenders. But that was for Saturday.

Tonight was in the blanks and VR section. Mosovich's enhanced night-vision goggles incorporated VR software that interpreted and remapped the scene to look like an old-fashioned black and white movie in full daylight. The goggles had a setting for color, but the machine guesswork involved in colorizing the scene could be disorienting when the machine guessed wrong. Doctrine, which the colonel agreed with, was to keep the color turned off. Field testing had demonstrated, to the satisfaction of the brass, that "black and white at night" gave troops a significant advantage over an opposing force using the colorized setting.

Tonight, Mosovich was glad for the warmth of his silks. Greenville in October could be cold at night, and tonight was an unseasonable bitch of a freeze. He had had himself declared an initial casualty, along with Mueller, so they could get a good look at the performance of the troops. On top of the observation towers, the wind and the light drizzle stung his face and ears so much they ached. His standard cover was hardly a barrier to the escaping heat. Who would have guessed South Carolina at night would be this cold? He looked over at Mueller, whistling cheerfully in his optional attached hood, mouth exposed only to drink the cup of instant coffee he'd just brewed with water from a heater canteen.

"Sergeant Major Mueller, you know use of heater canteens on a night mission is strictly against regs. Where's my cup?" Jake felt around for a packet of instant coffee and dumped it in the steel mug he unhooked from his web gear, holding it out for some of the hot water, himself. He suppressed a twinge of guilt about the troops below, who wouldn't be able to use the heater canteens because of the white IR spot the goggles would show to the opposition force. They were moving, and mostly in the buildings, protected from the worst of the wind.

"Mueller, let's add a little incentive to the mix. Get a detachment from Bravo Team to set up some 'loot' of hot coffee and spare hoods in a few of those buildings."

"Yes, sir." David Mueller grinned evilly, understanding the confusion it would add to the exercise to have a bunch of random troops running around who were working for neither side.

The explosions on the demolitions course sent up plumes of dust and smoke through the holes in the roofs. SOCOM's Training Command had set up the courses with dummies and VR hostiles. DAG units not only had to navigate a complicated course involving the location and "demolition" of selected targets, they had to do so under directed and suppressive virtual fire from said hostiles. The course was a fiendishly difficult test of a unit's ability to shoot, move, and communicate in concert with a primary demo mission.

The observation tower for the demolitions course was set well back from the activity, serving both for simulation and live runs, so that Mosovich had to use the enhanced features of his field goggles more than he would have liked. He was fine with the zoom, but he'd never quite gotten comfortable with shifting the view so that he was looking out from the eyes of one of his officers or men. He wasn't happy using it in combat against humans at all. After Vietnam, Jake had a healthy respect for the wits of the enemy. He considered the use of the "alternate eyes" feature to be a serious breach of radio discipline and a prime example of assuming the enemy was stupid. DAG primarily fought humans. Assuming the enemy would be smart enough to do what he would do had kept him alive more than once before, and he wasn't about to get lazy just because Posleen didn't fight that way. Well, okay, there was that time down in Georgia, but that must have been the Posleen equivalent of military genius, because we've never seen it again. Not that I ever heard of, anyway.

He turned as Mueller climbed onto the platform, holding his mug out for a cup of strong coffee from the thermos his sergeant major seemed to have grafted onto his web gear for field exercises. He zoomed back in on the action, watched for a minute, and shook his head.

"You know, you would think that looking at a red-headed troop I should know exactly who the guy is even if I can't see his insignia. What is it with all the redheads?" the colonel asked.

"Yeah, it's funny, but have you noticed we tend to get a lot of two kinds of guys? There's the little red-head guys. Most of 'em are kinda stocky but it's all muscle. Then there's the really big dark-haired guys. It's kinda weird, like the war did something to the gene pool or something." Mueller wrinkled his forehead, taking a big sip of the steaming coffee.

"Now that you mention it, Top, it is a bit strange. I don't think I can even make a guess at what could cause it. Probably just some bizarre coincidence. Go figure." The use of the traditional nickname, "Top," for the ranking NCO in the command was a mark of respect and appreciation used by everyone, officer or enlisted, to distinguish that NCO from all others. It marked the NCO thus named as the go-to guy for all the thorniest practical problems of service life that someone hadn't been able to solve at a lower level. He, as an infinite fount of military wisdom, would exercise near-magical powers to slice through whatever Gordian knot the Service had provided this time.

Jake watched his men glide through the course as smoothly as if they'd done it a dozen times. He'd looked it up. The course had been substantially redesigned since the last time they'd been through. Whatever personal problems the previous CO had had, he had left behind a first-rate outfit.

The service had DD'ed the bastard after JAG caught him banging a sixteen-year-old girl, then flushed the unit's senior NCO who, far from reporting it, had been blackmailing the jerk. He'd seen a picture of the girl from Mueller's buckley, and you almost couldn't blame the guy. Almost. Still, a juv at least three decades her senior had one hell of an unfair advantage. Which made the sonofabitch enough of a sleaze that Mosovich wasn't too surprised to hear that shortly after discharge that pair—the guys, not the girl—had gone on a drunken binge, gotten behind the wheel and smashed themselves into whatever hell was reserved for old men who preyed on high-school girls.

There was one thing niggling at him, though. Sure, sometimes good officers could be sleaze-balls. Soldiers weren't by any stretch plaster saints. But everything he'd seen about the guy indicated that he was a grade-A clusterfuck. Both the commander and the sergeant major.

Usually, when you had a grade-A clusterfuck in charge of a unit, no matter how elite, the unit went to shit. They might get the job done, but they weren't top-drawer.

DAG had cruised along as if it didn't matter. As if having a commander who was a daily clusterfuck wasn't a problem. Might even have been preferred.

As if the commander just didn't matter. As if having an incompetent in charge was not such a bad thing. As if there was the Unit and then there was whatever screwball the brass had saddled on the Unit.

As the new commander, Mosovich wasn't too sure how he felt about that.

The charcoal and red shades that blended on the Grandfather's walls appeared to shimmer three-dimensionally. The dragons were so real you wanted to reach out and touch them just to make sure they weren't there. Most observers would assume there had to be some clever tricks of Galtech materials involved in the illusion. A very close look would reveal that not only were the patterns two-dimensional, the dragons were each individuals. Each had five toes, as befit its noble stature. Yet each had its own body and face among the rest. The artist had spent only God knew how long bringing each dragon into its own semblance of life.

Stewart was early, or he wouldn't have been waiting. The Grandfather believed in punctuality, and achieved it within his organization by always displaying it himself. "Lead from the front" was one Western aphorism that the Grandfather wholeheartedly agreed with. Precisely as his watch clicked over to two o'clock Greenwich Mean Time, the door opened and a man walked in. His hair was still completely black. Stewart suspected the use of hair dye, since his face showed the deep lines and dryness of rapidly advancing age. An advancing age that was tragic for his friends and colleagues as well as the organization. Unfortunately, there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. In the early days of the war, a handful of the Tong hierarchy had been successfully rejuved. Unfortunately, the stolen drug sets had been improperly handled, through ignorance. Since then, the ignorance had been remedied, but too late for the ill-fated first generation—the first generation of Tong rejuvs would get about a tenth of the benefit of a proper rejuvenation. The botched rejuv suffered from its own lacks, plus the seemingly impenetrable wall the Galactics had come up against that limited the original process. Once the initial nano-repair mechanism was fully set in motion, its own processes prevented its ever being repeated. The Grandfather and the upper echelon of the Tong had lived well into the twenty-first century, and had succeeded at passing on their institutional knowledge to the next generation, but at what now seemed a very high price.

The head of humanity's largest and most powerful organized crime syndicate was a blocky, solid man. He wore a black, European-cut suit, moving with a fluid grace that belied his arthritic knee joints. He walked behind the large walnut desk and sat, folding his hands in his lap to face the freshly-minted older brother who had asked for this unprecedented meeting, after dispatching a large chunk of expensive Tong resources on an unexplained errand. Stewart knew this meeting would lead to a permanent change in his position in the Tong, one way or another. He watched the old man suppress a sigh and put his hand to his heart. The man's fondness for Szechuan cuisine was well known. As was his distaste for taking medication he deemed unnecessary. Even antacids. Given his experiences, it was hard to blame him for his skepticism.

"It's good to see you today, Yan. How are you? Would you like some tea?" the old man said, as a pretty girl brought in a lacquered tray with a traditional tea service on it. She looked about sixteen, but could have been anything from fourteen to forty. She placed the tea on the desk and left quietly, shooting a quick glance at Stewart under her lashes.

"Yes, thank you. I'm having a very good day, and you?" Standard opening, no real clue to his mindset. Stewart accepted a cup poured by the man who held his life and death in his hands. Of course that was always the case with Fleet Strike. Superior officers had the power of life and death. At least theoretically. I should be used to it by now.

"You would shudder to see my schedule." He poured his own cup of tea and sat behind his desk, fixing a direct gaze on the younger man.

Translation: I'd better not be wasting his time. That's fine, since I'm not. "There is . . . history of the war that our people rarely speak of, and never when we are not face to face," he said. Yeah, like those Darhel bastards sandbagging Earth's defenses and letting the Posleen through to eat three billion people in Asia.

"Our organization has much history, all worthy of study. We have a very long history of survival." The old man regarded him with a gimlet stare over the rim of the tea cup.

Right, we keep our mouths shut because we don't want our people to die. Stewart carefully kept his eyes fixed on the Grandfather's collar. Respect was key in this meeting—was always key with someone this far up the chain. Stewart had grown up in latino gangs, and gone from there into the entirely Westernized Fleet Strike. The differences in eye contact rules in Asian culture were still something he had to think about. One thing his counterintelligence training in Fleet Strike had stressed was how difficult it was to overcome the little gestures and telltales every agent drank in with his mother's milk. The trick was to identify the ones that you, personally, always had to be mindful of. Even when your "role" was now your real life.

"An excellent example for study, sir. Another of our strengths is that we have always patiently sought opportunities to recoup debts of honor and exploited them, when the costs were affordable, and most eagerly when honor could be reclaimed at a profit." God, what a mouthful. All that to say that we owe the Darhel and I've got a way to screw them and make money doing it.

The only thing that moved in the Grandfather's face was his eyes. A couple of rapid blinks confirmed that he'd understood. One of the other reasons the Darhel haven't caught on to how bitter the Tong's enmity is with them. The Darhel's information processing and artificial intelligence capabilities were awe-inspiring, but there were still things computers just didn't do very well. One of them was parsing the indirect communication that was an absolute rule of courtesy in some human cultures. For all that, the Darhel must engage in very indirect communication themselves when hiring out their violent dirty work, Cally had confirmed for him, once, something the Tong and Fleet had long suspected. Perhaps because the Darhel were much less indirect in their business communications, even their best AIs completely missed the subtext of the more indirect human conversations. Except when violence was contemplated—they caught indirect conversations about that very well. The Darhel analysts just weren't as good as they thought they were about remembering that other species were alien. Humans had a leg up on that skill, being the most polycultural of all the known sentient species. The Tong had exploited that Darhel weakness ruthlessly to gain and maintain a high and pervasive institutional awareness of all that the Darhel were, all they intended, and all the payback the Organization owed them. Payback had been a long-term project, contemplated only in the abstract—until now. The fucking elves were too used to assuming absolute species supremacy in business matters, and the Tong was about to fuck them right in the pocketbook. Stewart had his own debts to pay to his ghosts. He ruthlessly suppressed the feral grin that threatened to break through his polite mask, but couldn't quite prevent it shining through in his eyes. The Grandfather's eyes narrowed and lit with an answering gleam as the old man leaned forward.

"The advent of such an opportunity, if proper care could be taken, would be auspicious. Very, very auspicious. You begin to interest me." The head of the largest and most powerful, unsubverted, solely human organization in the Galaxy set his tea to the side and leaned forward in his chair. The fires banked underneath the cold rage, so long held in check, began to burn. Stewart could almost see the man silently counting his dead and reckoning the interest.

"I apologize that time constrained me to send the first ships before we could meet. The opportunity would have been lost." Stewart allowed his eyes to meet his superior's for a moment. When the old man nodded, he continued, "This is what we have set in motion . . ."

The Indowy Aelool walked the halls of the O'Neal Bane Sidhe base with one of his younger clan brothers, but recently arrived on Earth. The youngster had tested as a high genius for the aptitudes important in the field of xenopsychology, leading the clan head to request his presence especially as an apprentice. Coming from his Clan Head, the request had more force than the strongest human command. A human would have been surprised that a clan head of even a tiny group like Clan Aelool—tiny only by Indowy standards—could disappear for long periods without ringing alarm bells in the heads of the Darhel. It was actually the youngster whose disappearance had taken more arranging. Clan heads were some of the very few Indowy who were not under contract to one Darhel Group or another, instead serving the clan as a whole. As such, the Darhel were long accustomed to having little to no contact with the head of this clan or that clan for centuries at a time. As long as the clan's members were meeting their contracts and causing no trouble, the Darhel reasonably presumed that the clan head was off somewhere doing his job. Wasting time worrying about a relative handful of Indowy among the trillions and trillions would have cut into real business. For the Darhel, the clan heads had no other function than to maintain the system that kept the masses of Indowy well under control.

In the new apprentice's case, the clan had made vague mumblings about administration work and bought out the childling's contract, apportioning his former duties among other apprentices in his family. The Darhel had never marked him as particularly smart or talented—Indowy being careful about such things, Clan Aelool more than most.

The head of his breeding group was also unusually smart. She had made certain the child displayed some conspicuous mistakes and clumsiness in his work, making the Cnothgar Group happier than not to see the slow-learning, incompetent youngling become someone else's problem. If he thought about it at all, the Cnothgar Group's local factor would assume the clan had removed the little fuck-up to someplace where he couldn't further dishonor Clan Aelool.

"I do not understand why you are such a determined contrarian regarding human civilizability, Clan Father Aelool. I have read the other clans' reports on the failures of the Sub-Urb dietary experiments, and, most respectfully, they run exactly counter to your positions. My wisdom is lacking. Enlighten me, please?" his new apprentice said.

"Ah. You are fond of kaeba pie, are you not?"

"Well, yes. Who is not?"

"But you more than most. If someone tried to get you to give up kaeba pie by offering you only mashed loogubble in exchange, how happy would you be to cooperate?"

"Please do not ask me to make this sacrifice for Clan Aelool, sir. I will, most certainly, but . . ."

"It would be a great sacrifice. I know." His eyes crinkled in the Indowy equivalent of an impish grin. "That is, more or less, what our enlightened colleagues among our own race and the others attempted to do with the humans." He clucked his tongue in a "tsk" picked up from humans.

"Would it surprise you to know that the humans have established in excess of one hundred specialized colonies, in the areas that were totally destroyed, in pursuit of the different varieties of bean for this continent's favorite bean soup? These barbarian carnivores—yes, I know they are—consume bean broth in the megaliters. How many specialized colonies do you think they have established in pursuit of favorite meats?"

His younger clanmate shuddered, "Ugh. What a question. Thousands, at least, based on your bean data."

"Zero," the Indowy Aelool said. "Exactly none."

The other Indowy actually stopped walking in consternation, then appeared to have a thought dawn. "That is easily explained, Clan Father. They raise captive populations of most of the meat animals they most prefer. Perhaps it is more difficult to grow their beans in various places, with their primitive technologies."

"Partially true. Yet there are meat animals they used to eat—do not shudder, we miss things when we look away too soon—that they like, that they have not reclaimed. Then there are twenty-something specialized colonies dedicated to replanting large populations of another bean whose fermented products are particularly favored by their females—and consumed in no small quantity by many males."

"If they are so fond of these beans, why did the Sub-Urb experiments not feed them these beans rather than other foods?"

"A mere deficiency of metabolism. The lipids and sugars forming the food value of these much-favored vegetative foods can only be metabolized by the humans into energy, not synthesized into the building blocks needed for major body maintenance and repairs. The Sub-Urb plan failed because those carrying it out were too lazy or too careless. The carnivores disgust them, so they equated all beans to all other beans and substituted beans and seeds that do provide the compounds humans can metabolize—as we have in the food facilities for humans on this base, as well. With the problem being that the humans tolerate those foods but are about as fond of them as we are of loogubble."

The youngster shuddered.

"The first thing one would think is to fortify the favored beans with the necessary compounds. Again, the problem is the humans hate the taste or the texture of the fortified beans."

"So why are you so preoccupied with catering to their aesthetic whims?"

"If we want them to change their behavior without resistance, we must make them prefer to do so. If you were offered meat on your plate or kaeba pie, which would you eat?"

"Neither! The dead flesh would make me ill!"

"You would eat the kaeba pie, or even loogubble, in preference at least partially because you like it better. Philosophy be damned, it suits your preferences."

The youngster winced.

"The obvious solution never occurred to the relevant planners. Provide the humans with the ability to metabolize the vegetable foods they already prefer into the nutrients they need. It was too much trouble to take with the disgusting, immoral, primitive carnivores." The clan head's own disgust was obviously for the planners, not the humans. It was an almost blasphemous rebuke of their recognized wisdom.

"Clan Father, in another, I would consider the assertion of one's wisdom over those planners as presumptuous. You, however, are such an eminent xenologist, and my Clan Head, that I must consider the possibility that your wisdom, in this, may exceed theirs. Is it permitted for me to ask if you have evidence?"

"I am so glad you asked. You see, we are going to my human dietary laboratory. You will please excuse the decor. It is designed to make the humans especially comfortable with the foods that proceed from it. First, let me confess that I have taken the small ethical liberty of fortifying the foods with specialized nannites that convert the food compounds available to the ones necessary for human health. The nannites build up in the system of humans who consume the foods and make the preferred stream of vegetable substances much more nutritionally available to those humans. I do not tell them about the enhancements."

"That is quite an ethical lapse, if you will forgive my horribly impertinent comment."

"It is. I believe they would consent if they knew. I believe they would then also imagine deficiencies of taste in the foods. This belief is the result of other experimentation in their kitchens. True meat was presented, falsely, as vegetatively enhanced. They not only claimed to notice a taste difference, they preferred the true meat so presented much less than the true meat honestly presented. Oh, do not shudder so. They would have been eating it anyway, and they would not, as one of us, be misled into an ethical breach—they perceive no ethical reasons to prefer the vegetative offering, anyway. That particular deception had no negative ethical value for the humans—I checked with the human planner Nathan O'Reilly. He has also approved this experiment, on the grounds that if the ones eating the nano-enhanced foods like the taste, and have no adverse health consequences, they are getting a pleasant treat and little more. I do confess his approval probably was contingent on the way I presented the information—truthfully, but in a persuasive way. Could I please attempt to produce aesthetic human treats as long as I endeavored to ensure they were healthy and did not impair the functionality of his operatives and staff?"

"Well, if their planner approved, of course it is ethical. Why did you not tell me that at the beginning?"

"The humans would not entirely agree on that ethics evaluation, customarily requiring individual consent."

"Insane," Rael Aelool echoed the sentiment he had heard, often though surreptitiously, from his elders.

"Not for them," his Clan Head contradicted. "Alien minds are alien. If we want their cooperation, we must respect that. Do not wince. To ignore the differences in alien minds in our dealings with them is the height of folly. If we had not once done so with the Darhel, all this plotting and intrigue—this Bane Sidhe—would have been unnecessary to begin with." The clan head had the expressions of an instructor commencing a class.

"From your enthusiasm, it almost sounded as if you were going to tell me they are not that different from you and me." The child's wry tone was an unwitting display of his genius.

"What? Of course they are different. Incalculably different. They are aliens. That is my whole point. We respect the Tchpth; we respect the Himmit; we even, after a fashion, respect the Darhel. We had better, out of sheer survival interest. We wrote the Darhel off as primitive because of their history. Short-term thinking to our long-term sorrow. One would think we had learned nothing from our mistake."

"So are we to respect the Posleen next?"

"Interesting question, despite your ironic tone, but one for another day. The course of study for your immediate future is humans. First lesson. Forget 'insane' unless you are talking about an organism that is a mentally damaged individual of its species. Alien and damaged are not the same thing. The thought patterns and behaviors of a healthy individual in a species are the way they are because they served an evolutionarily positive function for that species. Yes, there are evolutionary dead ends, but too often we Indowy say 'insane' when what we really mean is 'not like us,'" the clan head lectured.

"Humans have tried, many times, social structures very similar to our way. The results have been abysmal—for the sole reason, I believe, that they are not us. Your first assigned reading for discussion tomorrow is Bradford's chronicles of the Plymouth Colony. You may use my translation; get it from my buckley. As you read, keep in mind that these were mentally healthy humans, of a high degree of ethical development for the species, virtually all of whom deeply believed a way like ours would work and wanted it to work. Do not make the mistake of assuming it failed because of a few aberrants who sabotaged it. Instead, look at how application of a system that would have worked for Indowy served the whole. Our whole premise for why our way is moral is how it serves the whole," he emphasized.

"First lesson—always evaluate human species' sanity in terms of how their systems of social organization serve the whole of that society. It is human societies that are their analogues of our clans, not their 'families.' Families are incorrectly classified in the literature as proto-clans. In this assignment, think of them as breeding groups, instead. That analogy is usually, but not always, more apt than the proto-clan one. We will study why and when later. For a start, the O'Neals are a bit more of the exception than the rule. I find I am usually most correct when I think of the entire O'Neal Bane Sidhe as now folded into Clan O'Neal. Usually, I think of the human Father Nathan O'Reilly more as a senior clan planner serving at the pleasure of the O'Neal Clan Head. It is very close to accurate, and often the best approximation for Clan Aelool purposes."

"I do not understand. The human planner O'Reilly's leadership in the human component of the Bane Sidhe considerably predates the split," his apprentice said. "He is accepted as being of senior rank to the O'Neal."

"True. Yet if it came to an unresolvable policy dispute, the organization would not further split. Instead, Human Planner O'Reilly would choose to relinquish his position, unhappily but without external pressure, in favor of the candidate preferred by the O'Neal. By our standards, all the O'Neal Bane Sidhe are O'Neals. Hence the name. However, for some reason specifying this to him distresses the O'Neal, although he clearly takes full responsibility for all the others. Witness that there is a second O'Neal Bane Sidhe base on Earth. It is his own home, run directly by him. The 'Edisto Island' base. The terminology bothers him, apparently out of something the humans call 'modesty.' It is no use calling it that to him—modesty is an attribute he does not believe he possesses. I humor him, the Indowy Beilil humors him, as must you. I learned this, by the way, from the Sunday annexation. Clan O'Neal is the most vital human society to the Galactic future, and we must carefully nurture it in a healthy direction. Clan Aelool and Clan Beilil consider the Plan entirely remapped by this unexpected development of Clan O'Neal as a growing human 'society.' More or less. Alien minds are alien—the clan to society analogy is not exact. Second lesson for the day. Inflexibility in the face of large situational changes is a countersurvival trait for the whole. A bit of human wisdom, 'No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.'"

The young Indowy winced again.

The Clan Head sighed, "No, do not shrug it off because of the barbaric phrasing. We Indowy, and all we Galactic races, do that far too much. It means one cannot plan wisely if one does not adapt to large situational changes. How can the humans be rightly considered such irredeemable barbarians if they have wisdoms they can teach us?"

"I am not wise enough to dispute with the wise, Clan Head, but I respect that as a Clan Head with your expertise, you may best judge if you yourself are. Particularly regarding human xenology."

"In this, I am quite certain that I am correct. Quite, quite certain indeed. Consider the Himmit and Tchpth . . . unconvinced, but cautiously interested in our research, so long as we manage it as safely as possible. The Tchpth's human xenopsychology researches take a more direct, active interest in the Michelle branch of Clan O'Neal. Which has implications for some other developing situations, beyond your level of study."

"That explains much of Clan Aelool policy on a level I can understand. Thank you, sir."

"Come. Allow me to show you some of the work we do here."

The Indowy Aelool entered a room decorated in colors and patterns that offended the young Indowy's eyes, and would have similarly affected all of his species. The Aelool had equipped the room with odd, unexplained human devices. He donned a human-style garment, cut to his size, that covered much of his photosynthetic surface. Then he picked up a flat ceramic disk with brown rectangular solids of food, covered by a clear human plastic. All of this was quite bizarre. If he had not known better, and if the matter were not unthinkable, the young Indowy would have feared for his Clan Head's rationality.

"All of this presentation is necessary. Especially the 'apron.'" He gestured to the Earth-cloth garment. "Come," he said again, carrying the disk in his hands as he left the odd room, walking down to the moving box humans preferred to decent bounce tubes.

"These foods, by the way, are completely ethically clean. They are also metabolically enhanced as I described, obviously," he said.

The Aelool asked his buckley PDA a question in a human language. Fabulous collaboration between the humans and Tchpth, that. The collaboration aspect was unwitting on the part of the humans, of necessity, but still a fabulous invention. Ridiculously fragile and short-lived, but so incredibly inexpensive! Aelool had assured him that it genuinely did not attempt to spy on you. His Clan Head apparently believed it. Amazing.

He spoke no further as he led his younger clan brother into areas frequented by humans. The young Indowy made every effort to copy his senior's mannerisms, ruthlessly suppressing all natural fear and, especially, thought of fear.

They approached a human that even the youngster had no difficulty identifying as a female, treated for proper longevity or very young adult, in excellent health. Her head tendrils were a pale, silvery yellow and fell to her shoulders. The colorful parts of her eyes were a clear, bright blue.

"Miss O'Neal, my favorite test subject! I am most happy to see you. May I offer you a brownie?" The Clan Head pulled back the flexible plastic, which stuck to itself awkwardly, and presented the disk of food to the woman.

"Oooh. Thanks, Aelool." She picked up a brown square and began munching rapidly. Her smile tried to cover the teeth, but with imperfect effect since she was eating the food.

He tried to look away, and kept his gestures under control, but could smell the stink of his own fear pheremones begin to waft into the air. Fortunately, he had been told, humans could not scent or recognize them. This one's nostrils flared, though, in a way that made him doubt his information. Still, she seemed thoroughly preoccupied with the food.

"Walnuts and chocolate chunks? You're getting good at this Aelool. I don't know why you picked this for a hobby, but I approve!" Again, she grinned around a mouthful of the food, bits of which stained her white teeth brown. "Do you mind if I . . . ?" She picked up four more squares eagerly, disappearing down the hall as if afraid he might take them back.

After she was out of sight and out of hearing, Aelool muttered softly to him. "Completely ethically clean food. Completely nutritionally adequate to maintain her. How much meat do you think that human will consume today?"

"Your wisdom vastly exceeds mine, sir. I admit I have no idea. I presume at this stage of your researches you are choosing the more ethically advanced humans?"

The Indowy Aelool's ears and eyes quirked in suppressed mirth. "Childling, that was Miss Cally O'Neal."

The dump of fear pheremones overwhelmed him as he shook in sudden reaction, "You brought me near—"

"Please. You were perfectly safe. Miss O'Neal has never killed an Indowy. Such drama. You yourself saw that she was only interested in how much of the clean food she could take without offending me." He made their race's equivalent of a shrug. "Do you see why I am convinced of my researches? To answer my own question, Miss O'Neal will almost certainly consume no meat today. She is concerned about keeping excess fat deposits off of her body, so monitors her caloric intake carefully. She will consume a few cups of bean broth, with no caloric enhancement—without enhancement, it has virtually no calories for them. She much prefers these 'brownies' to the meat. It really is that simple. I could provide similar clean foods, high in lipids and sugars, and persuade her to replace large amounts of her meat intake—completely on her own initiative. She would feel no deprivation. To the contrary, she would feel guilt for consuming so much 'junk food.'"

"Junk food? It is better food! Um—doesn't she have two, very large, excess fat deposits?"

"Oh, those. Those she has little choice about—an evolutionary adaptation to attract males. I gather she is unusually well adapted," he said. "Remember, she does not know the bean squares will keep her healthy. By the time I have the human Nathan O'Reilly tell her the truth about the food—with me at a safe distance, far away, of course—she will be angry for a few seconds to a few days before laughing and asking for more brownies. By then, she will have accepted that she likes the taste of the improved, clean foods and will not imagine bad tastes into them."

"You told her she was a test subject. Why would she be angry?"

"She thought I was joking."

"Why? No, never mind, sir. I have a different question. Human males are the more aggressive. You mentioned that human males are less fond of the beans in the brownies?"

"Quite true. However, I have not yet explained the human male fondness for another metabolically challenging, high food-value, ethically clean broth made from fermented seeds. Let me tell you about 'beer.'" The head of Clan Aelool led his young protege to a convenient, civilized bounce tube, carefully securing the rest of the experimental food for the journey.

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