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Chapter One

 


Tuesday 10/12/54
Chicago, USA, Sol III

The dark figure dropping over the edge of the building could have given lessons in camouflage to a Himmit. Well, almost. Actually, the bodysuit and balaclava she was wearing owed rather more of their stealth abilities to the Himmit than the reverse. The rappelling rope was more conventional, as were the multivision goggles. A clever observer, had she been observed, would have noticed that the better gear was old, and the cheaper gear new, suggesting that the agent or her employer had seen better days.


She stopped at the thirteenth floor, fourth window from the north end. The tool she pulled from a clip on her web gear was something like a monomolecular boxcutter. Working with a fluidity that belied the complexity of the task, she clipped a line to the rope above her, deftly secured the two suction cups of the complicated apparatus to the window, tightened them down, and excised a wide oval of the thick glass. She pulled the glass piece free and allowed it to dangle, swinging her feet through the hole and slipping inside.


The room she entered was dusty from extreme disuse, and she wouldn't have braved it at all if the threadbare carpeting hadn't been there—perfect for hiding footprints that otherwise would have been glaringly obvious. The carpeted cubicle walls, now a moth-eaten, mottled gray, had the occasional rusty bolt showing through the cracked plastic. The dusty, crumbling particle board contraptions that used to pass for "desks" for corporate underlings dated the room as being part of the postwar surplus office space. The phenomenon made the middle floors of skyscrapers in most major cities very convenient for people in her profession but, despite its drabness, it did tend to trigger a certain wistfulness for a world she'd never really gotten to know. Still, it was eerily silent, beyond the muted traffic sounds coming through the hole in the window, and that was creepy enough that she'd be glad to leave it. She was careful to touch as little as possible as she shrugged off her gear and went rummaging through for the props for the next stage of her mission.


If the stealth suit was high-tech and inconspicuous, the little black dress she pulled from her back pouch was neither. The only modern convenience was the very light antiwrinkle coating that enabled the minimal silk sheath, with its skirt that flared out below her hips, to look as perfect as if it had just been pressed. Still, the dress was tight and she had to wiggle a bit to shimmy into it and get her ample cleavage positioned for maximum effect. She frowned down at her chest, grumbling a bit about the overendowment she'd gotten stuck with when they'd lost the slab in the Bane Sidhe split.


Her employers had steadfastly refused to surgically alter them, pointing out the futility as it was hard-coded in her body nannites; they would only grow back inside a month. Besides, the doctors were unwilling to afflict her with the scars such primitive field surgery would undoubtedly leave. She harrumphed at them silently as she pinned her silver-blonde hair into a smooth chignon at the nape of her neck and spritzed it with good old-fashioned hair spray. She slipped a gold and diamond torq-style watch, which was unusual in having a digital instead of an analog readout, around her wrist. Damn, gotta hurry. Not quite a minute until the guard reaches this floor again.


In the past few years, rejuv had gone from being a mark of social shame to an outlet for conspicuous consumption among the glitterati. Hence, all but minimal makeup was out of fashion. Chances were very good that she would be taken for an authentic twenty-year-old. Most black market jobs were incomplete, missing at least the individual fine-tuning that was necessary for the full effect. They left subtle signs that the gossips were quick to notice and comment on. Her rejuv, done in better times, was perfect. A light coating of lip gloss, a pair of clear Galplas high-heeled sandals that looked like cut crystal and felt like a medieval torture device, and she was ready to go. Well, almost. She tucked a small egg-shaped device with a pull ring into her cleavage. The body her own DNA originally built never would have been able to hide it. I swear I could hide a truck in there. Geez. Not like I really need to be able to blend in with a crowd or anything, not like sticking out like a sore thumb with this attention-getting look isn't a mortal hazard for an assassin. And thank God my "real" work has been light enough since I came back to work that they can divert me more often to fluff missions like this one.


Her rappelling gear and other nonessentials got bundled into the pack and clipped onto the line outside the window. She looked down, and down, and down to the street below and shuddered. And Tommy wanted me to exfiltrate the same way? Hell, no! Crawling around outside some skyscraper like a freaking fly was bad enough once, I'm not doing it twice in one night. She pulled her eyes away from the dizzying downward view. God, that's a long drop. Besides, who tries to catch party-crashers leaving the party? And this way I spend about half as much time slinking around places in the building where a party guest, even a lost and tipsy one, has no business being. Okay, and I don't get out much. Sad, Cally, really sad. Maybe I ought to make time next month to take the girls up to Knoxville to the zoo. Maybe I ought to get back into character and get my mind on the job. She shook herself slightly and got back to work.


Two sharp yanks to the line and the pack began ascending out of sight—now it was Harrison's problem. Once she got the glass oval seated back in the window, she took a ballpoint pen out of her evening bag. The pen extruded a thin line of silicon-based adhesive and nannites around the cut piece. The window would heal in about a day. After that, it would take a very sophisticated forensic analysis to tell that there had ever been any damage. Well, okay, there was a slightly larger bead of goo where she'd had to shake the pen. Damn thing was almost empty. Still, it was the next best thing to untraceable. When she was done, the pen went back into the tiny evening bag with her lip gloss, a pack of Kleenex, a comb, an assorted handful of FedCreds, and the ubiquitous slimline PDA that nobody who was anybody went anywhere without. The decoy nanogenerator code keys were in a hidden pocket. It wouldn't pass close scrutiny, but then, as she wasn't on the guest list tonight, neither would she.


She'd chosen this office because the suite had an internal stairwell access, and the door was right outside this one. The office door was ajar, and she ghosted through the opening without needing to lay a finger on it. The door to the stairs was another matter. She opened it with a tissue, crumpling it and tucking it back in her purse. As she climbed the stairs to the thirty-second floor, she glanced briefly at her watch and sighed, slipping off her shoes so she could pick up the pace without sounding like a herd of elephants.


The last half flight of stairs, she froze, foot halfway down onto the next stair. Talking in the hall. The Darhel was late leaving his room. The sound was muffled enough that without her enhanced hearing she wouldn't have heard it at all through the heavy stairwell door. With enhancement she still couldn't make out the words. Just that it sounded like a command, followed by the shrill, piping acknowledgment of an Indowy servant. After a few moments she heard the bell of the arriving elevator, and she strained to hear the opening of the doors, and their closing.


Cally glanced at her watch, Damn. Time's gonna be tight. She crept the rest of the way up the stairs, pausing to slip her shoes back on before opening the door and stepping out into the hallway. This part of the building was immaculately maintained. The carpet was new, and the walls smelled of fresh paint. She passed a picture of a lighthouse, in a gilt frame, as she counted three doors down and retrieved the gas grenade from inside her dress.


The Posleen had reduced Earth from a thriving civilization of five billion down to about one billion refugees, barbarians, and Galactics' lackeys. The six-legged carnosauroid aliens were immune to every hostile chemical agent the humans or Galactics had been able to envision. Likely, they were immune to quite a few things nobody but the half-legendary Aldenata had envisioned. Fortunately, the Indowy were more vulnerable. Particularly, they were vulnerable to the general anesthesia agent in the grenade. She opened the door just long enough to toss it in, pulling it closed and waiting outside.


Nonlethal and scentless except for a vanishingly faint chemical-lavender smell, the gas was harmless to humans and persistent enough to be readily detected later. The thing she liked best about it was that one of the breakdown products was a common Darhel allergen and tended to give them a very nasty rash—about three days later. She watched the second hand on her watch tick off thirty seconds before going in.


Inside, one of the first things she noticed was a holographic display that sat on an antique mahogany table. In a display of vanity excessive even for his own species, this Darhel apparently traveled with his own portrait. The silver-black fur would have been salt and pepper except for its characteristic metallic luster. His fox ears, cocked forward aggressively, had been embellished with the lynx-tufts that were the current fad in Darhel grooming. His cat-pupilled irises were a vivid, glowing green—she would be willing to bet they had been digitally retouched. They glinted in the middle of the purple-veined whites of his eyes. The most prominent feature, however, was row of sharp teeth, displayed in a near snarl. Again, they had obviously been retouched to make the light appear to sparkle off their razor edges. He was draped in some kind of cloth that was, no doubt, hideously expensive. His angular face combined with the other features to make him look like a fatally charismatic cross between a fox and some sort of malignant elf. Half a dozen Indowy body servants were portrayed clustered in subservient postures around his feet.


Other than the gratuitous display of self-adoration, it was a stereotypical Darhel suite. A thin layer of gold covered practically everything that could be gilded, worked in intricate patterns. Piles and piles of cushions were covered in muted colors of an expensive Galactic fabric ten times softer than silk. Some of those cushions were now graced with the small, green, furry forms of sleeping Indowy. One of them had been unlucky enough to fall on the floor. It had curled up into a ball and she stepped over it as she searched for the all-important, hideously expensive code keys that were the goal of her raid.


The drawer was one of several hidden in one of the false columns ornamenting the room. She assumed it was the one with the expensive bio-lock worked into the hatch. Her buckley might have been able to convince it she was the Darhel owner. Or it might not. Fortunately, this Darhel had neglected to consider the hinges, which were delicate, of a Galactic material far too strong for most brute force, and exposed. The screw holding one end of each pin took the normal Indowy hourglass head. She unscrewed the top of her pen, selected the right size bit and—


"Cally O'Neal, I see you." The soft voice behind her was soprano, but not nearly high enough to be Indowy. The blonde cat burglar whirled and froze in mid strike, staring at a thin girl in Indowy mentat's robes, her brown hair pulled back in a tight bun . . . 


"Michelle?" Cally asked, her eyes blinking rapidly in surprise.


Since Cally had been officially dead for over forty years, including as far as she had been aware to the knowledge of her only sister, seeing the mentat was, to say the least, a bit of a shock. Especially in the middle of an op.


"What the hell are you doing here?" Cally hissed. "And that Indowy greeting was in very poor taste, you know. 'I see you' sounds like we're playing hide and seek."


"Is this a bad time?" Michelle could have been slightly miffed. In all that serenity, it was hard to tell.


"Hell yes, this is a bad time!" Cally hissed. "I'm kind of in the middle of an op here. And could you please keep your voice down!" Despite feeling totally surreal from the interruption, the underdressed cat burglar couldn't help drinking in the sight of her long-estranged sister. "Waitaminute—you knew I was alive? How the hell did you get in here, anyway?" she asked.


"The physics is . . . complicated. You know, Pardal is going to be very displeased when he finds those missing."


"Fuck Pardal. Personally, I wouldn't mind if it sent the bastard into lintatai." The thief fitted the screwdriver into the tiny hinge.


"Fine, don't listen to me," Michelle sighed, "but don't do it that way. You'll break it. Someone put a lot of time into that drawer. Why don't you just use the manufacturer's override code?"


"Oh, I don't know. Maybe because it's a hundred random characters of Galactic Standard? What do you mean I'll break it?"


"Those aren't hinges. They're purely decorative. And breakable. Also alarmed. If you attempt to remove them the real door will lock somewhat permanently. Besides, the code's not quite random." She rattled off a string of Galactic syllables with a glibness that made Cally's tongue ache in sympathy.


"How? Nevermind. Could you repeat that again, only slower?" She fiddled with her PDA for a moment, "Buckley. Give me a Galactic keyboard and pretend to the drawer you're an AID."


"It wanted to tell me. It likes me." Michelle gestured faintly towards the drawer, then began repeating syllables, pausing briefly after every group of five.


"The keyboard's rather pointless, you know." The buckley's conversational tone made Cally twitch a bit, as did the fact that it was talking again. "I understand Galactic perfectly," it said.


"I told you not to talk."


"Yes, but when you spoke to me directly I presumed you wanted that to override the earlier instruction."


"Buckley, is your emulation up too high again?"


"Of course not," it answered indignantly, "and don't reset it until after the mission. You know it'll all go wrong without me. Not that it won't anyway." It sounded smug. She hated it when the buckley got smug. Whenever it was too happy, sure as hell she'd screwed something up somewhere. Michelle reached the end of the long code, and the door slid open soundlessly as the buckley finished feeding it the correct characters. Damned if the hinges weren't ornamental, after all. And the inner door was solid plasteel with very expensive subspace traction locks. If she'd triggered those the thing would have become more or less a single piece of material.


"Okay, thank you for helping me get into this thing," Cally said, checking to make sure the code keys were actually in the compartment. "Now go away. I have an egress to effect and I don't need the distraction. Nice chat. Catch me some other time."


"I did not just come to nag you. It is business. I wish to engage your team's services for a mission. Are you available three weeks and two days from now?"


"If the money's right and it doesn't go against our core objectives, we are," Cally said. "But I did mention I'm on short time here, right?"


"Neither of those things should be a problem. Shall we talk terms?"


"Oh, jeeze," Cally sighed. "Fine. Whatever. We're expensive."


"I had assumed as much," Michelle said calmly.


"If you have that much backing, I need to know who you're working for," Callly said.


"This is primarily a personal venture. Although it is of course in the larger interests of Clan O'Neal and all the clans."


"Personal? How much do you make?"


"Quite a lot, but I presume you mean money. Whatever I ask for."


"Whew." Cally whistled softly. "Want to come over to the side of Good and Right?"


"As members of the same clan, I thought we were already on the same side. For the rest, now is neither the time nor the place for this discussion."


"Well, thank you for finally agreeing with me!" Cally snapped. "Can you meet me at Edisto Beach tomorrow at seven? I'll take a walk after dinner. We can talk privately. I can bring Granpa. I'm sure he misses you as much as I do, and we can iron out the details together."


"Please, it would be inappropriate to distract my clan head when he has such weighty policy matters to meditate upon as he does at this time. I would take it as a personal favor if you would grant me a private meeting between us to handle the negotiations." She vanished, not giving her sister time to reply.


And it was a good solid vanish. One moment, sister. Next moment, air. Cally had enough experience of holograms to be pretty sure she'd been dealing with a real human. There had been a faint smell of perfume, something extremely light. Her nose was tweaked high enough that she'd caught a faint odor of body as well. Not funk, just the smell any human gave off. Traces of heat, a breath. Michelle had been standing right in front of her and now was not. Cally waved her hand across the space for a moment, then shrugged. She didn't have time for this.


She lifted the code keys out and put them carefully into her purse, replacing them in the drawer with the identical-looking but worthless decoys. Each single-use key, when plugged into a nannite generator, would trigger it to make enough fresh nannites to fill an Indowy journeyman's Sohon tank. Among the Darhel, they were the diamonds of currency.


Manufactured very carefully by the Tchpth, with multiple redundant levels of control to ensure that the makers could not self-replicate and did indeed self-destruct precisely on schedule, the nannite generators were the underpinning of virtually all Galactic technology. The use-once key codes that safely activated those generators were obtained from the Tchpth by the Darhel and traded amongst themselves and to the Indowy for all the necessities and luxuries that comprised the Galactic economy. They were too useful to be allowed to sit idle for long, but they were the ultimate basis of both the Indowy craftsman's wage and the FedCred.


Darhel actuaries had been in business for a thousand years by the time humans were counting cattle on tally sticks. They knew to a fraction the worth of code keys and where the nannites were flowing throughout the entire Galactic economy.


They weren't used to being robbed.


Cally suppressed the temptation to hum as she pressed the button on the inside of the door to close it. The fancy lock probably had recorded that it had been accessed with a manufacturing code, but that just added to the mystery for the Darhel. She lifted the edge of a cushion and kicked the empty gas grenade shell underneath. She wanted it found, just not right away.


I don't know what the hell to think about all that. I'll think about it after I'm out. First things first. She hurried to the door as one of the Indowy began to twitch. They'll be awake any second now. She glanced at her watch again. She'd made up time on being able to just close the drawer instead of reassemble it. Thank God.


After letting herself out of the Darhel's suite, getting out was a simple matter of taking the elevator to the second floor and schmoozing her way through the party. As with a lot of places, there was a lot more effort put into keeping unauthorized people from getting in, than keeping people from getting out.


The party was the kind of glittering affair that had been attended by national-level movers and shakers back in the twentieth century. It would have had diplomats, politicians, major league bureaucrats, and the occasional celebrity or industrialist. This party still had movers and shakers, but while some of the attendees were officially diplomats, the interests they really represented were one or another Darhel business group. There were a few more celebrities than would have been in attendance before, outside of fund-raisers. As artists had throughout history, they clustered where the opportunities for patronage were. Whatever else they were, the Darhel were not stupid. They understood the value of good public relations. People in the entertainment industry knew the value of a FedCred. As a business arrangement, it generally worked out rather well. In show business, people who didn't think so tended to be conspicuous by their absence.


Wow. That's the first time I've seen a champagne fountain done in real life. Clever to have floated it over the water garden. Jewels and gold lamé had enjoyed something of a revival. The room was alive with potted trees and draped greenery. Floating lights resembling mythical will o' the wisps made the ballroom look like something out of a materialistic reinterpretation of A Midsummer Night's Dream.


Cally shrugged. She was a realist. As long as a collaborator didn't actually get innocent people killed, he'd have to be into some pretty heavy-duty stuff to merit her professional attention. She didn't think of operations like the one tonight as professional assignments. Sending her out to steal was a little like having an attorney take out the office trash. If your employer asked it, and cash flow was tight, and you could spare the time from your real job, you did it. But it wasn't her real job. Cally O'Neal's real job was killing people. And once she'd thought she wasn't bothered by that at all. Now she knew she was, sometimes. And that it was better that way.


As she eeled her way between one overly large matron and a rather sticklike pruny one, Cally couldn't help observing the effects of bad rejuv jobs from incomplete drug sets. Okay, so there are worse things than backaches and blouses that gap at the buttons.


" . . . and so my therapist said not to worry, Martin's just entering a third childhood, and I said I'd had enough of this midlife crisis crap the first time and . . ."


There are definitely worse things. She snagged a glass from a tray carried by a balding, forty-something man in an ill-fitting tux. Including being stuck in a dead-end job like waiting on these bastards. She jumped as a hand groped her butt and glanced back to see a man who looked like a seventeen-year-old geek in a tuxedo disappearing into the crowd with his matronly wife on his arm. Case in point.


A slim socialite with the tight face characteristic of good old-fashioned plastic surgery caught her arm. Cally suppressed her reflexes, turning a blinding but polite smile on the woman.


"Gail? Is that you? Why the rumors said you weren't due back for at least another two weeks. It looks fabulous." The woman chattered at her, not pausing to wait for a response, "Where did you get the full set, you naughty girl, you. Oh, gawd, and the boobs look great! A bit over the top, perhaps, but you always were the drama queen, weren't you."


"It's so good to see you!" Cally piped in a bright, cheerful generic Chicago accent, noting from the woman's eyes that she was probably too blitzed to even notice that Cally wasn't this "Gail," whoever she was.


"God, I almost didn't recognize you, but I said from across the room, no two girls could walk like that. Blonde really suits you. A bit dated, perhaps." She plumped her own fashionably chestnut curls into place. "But I always say you should wear what looks good on you and to hell with little things like fashion. I'm never daring enough to do it, though. Anyway, you look marvelous! Oh, is that Lucienne Taylor-Jones? I just must speak to her! Kiss kiss, must run!" The woman weaved off in the direction of an eighteen-year-old looking, red silk-clad grande dame on the arm of an apparently sixteen-year-old uniformed man with a pair of stars on his collar.


Cally grinned privately at her "friend's" back. There's always one. But it makes it easier to get to the door.


Another female hand, this one with an electric blue and white French manicure, rested lightly on her arm as she wove towards the door at an oblique angle. "Love the dress, darling. It reminds me of something from Giori's Fall collection. Did you by any chance notice where they've hidden the Ladies'?"


Cally hadn't, but she had memorized the floorplan of strategic parts of the hotel and business center. "Right over there behind the Birdwell sculpture." She pointed across the room to a gaudy confection of Galplas and cobalt blue glass, formed to resemble yards of lace draped over a Shaker chair.


"Ah, I see the sign now. Good eye for art, by the way, and thank you." The woman left her, hurrying as much as the crowd would permit.


As she passed a waitress in a tuxedo that was just a hair too tight for her hips, Cally drained her champagne and added the empty glass to the woman's tray. Another tray she passed had Oysters Rockefeller, and mission or no mission, she couldn't resist taking two. Three would have been conspicuous. Not that she wasn't anyway. She could feel the male eyes on—well, on her everything, really. Rounded butts were apparently the thing, courtesy of some starlet or other. And the captain she'd been impersonating when the slab went away had also been not quite wasp-waisted, but close enough. In the little black dress she'd checked out from Wardrobe, it showed. Goddamn conspicuous slab job. She simpered past some guy with a Kirk Douglas chin and a martini, who moved just enough to be standing way too close, resisting the impulse to spike him in the instep with her heel. It didn't help that her last stolen weekend with Stewart—she still didn't understand why he insisted on her using a name that had been an alias in the first place and wasn't even his current one—had been damned near six months ago. Between that and the overcharged female juv hormones, which must have been somebody's idea of a bad joke, she was getting downright cranky. Well, a secret marriage sounded romantic at the time.


She carefully didn't sigh with relief when she finally reached the door. She nodded to the door attendant as she slid past a couple who were presenting their invitations, and ducked out of the building through a fire exit. Holding her PDA up to her ear, she pretended to be dictating a voicemail to a friend, rounding a corner before telling her buckley to page the team.


A few moments later, an antique limousine pulled up and the rear door opened. She climbed in, gratefully slipping off the evil high heels and massaging her sore feet. The glass between the driver's seat and the passenger compartment lowered slowly. A man in a green and black chauffeur's uniform that contrasted nicely with his properly spiked red hair glanced up into the rearview mirror and met her eyes. The slight bulge in his cheek and the faint but unmistakable whif of Red Man tobacco was out of character for a chauffeur, but didn't surprise her in the least.


The two other men in the car couldn't have looked more different if they'd tried. Harrison Schmidt was slightly too handsome, on his worst day, to be a field agent. If he wore the right clothes to make his triangular frame look paunchy, and with the right makeup, he could look nondescript enough to get by in a support role. They tried to keep him from having to do so, since if he lost concentration his native dramatic flair tended to get in the way. He simply refused to alter the windswept, golden-brown hair that could have made a holo-drama hero die from envy. But his talents for obtaining or making virtually anything they needed, regardless of the circumstances, made him a valuable addition to the team.


"Oh, don't tell me you went in with your hair like that!" their fixer said.


"What's wrong with my hair?" Cally put a hand to her hair and looked around at the interior of the car trying to find a makeup mirror.


"Nothing, if you like split ends. And when you wash it you really need to work through a little mousse while it's still wet. And a hot oil deep conditioning treatment once a month. My hairdresser has an herbal shine rinse that works wonders. You need it, hon. And if you can possibly avoid it, no more color changes for you until you can let it grow out enough to trim the damaged hair off." He flicked a nearly invisible speck of dust off his immaculate, charcoal-gray sweater.


"This is my natural color. Well, now, anyway," she said.


"No, dear, it's been bleached and dyed back to your natural color. Not the same at all. When you were first back from sabbatical it was all fresh and not that bad, but the years of chemicals have taken a toll. Honey, you have got to start taking better care of it if you want to be able to pass at parties like this one."


Tommy Sunday coughed into his hand, looking at Harrison.


"Dude, you're blind. Cally, ignore him. You look gorgeous as always, okay?" he said.


Tommy Sunday was a large man. He seemed to crowd the back of the limousine all by himself. His hair was so dark it was practically black. In an earlier time, he wouldn't have looked out of place among a pro-football team's defensive line. In fact, his own father had played. It was part of the reason he was such an avid baseball fan. Oh, he'd long since made peace with his father's memory, but the love of baseball had stuck. Cally was sure that he would be eager to get back to base as quickly as possible tonight, entirely out of a dedication to professional efficiency, and having nothing to do with game three of the World Series being due to start within the next half hour. Personally, she didn't think the game had been the same since they let Larry Kruetz get away with betting on baseball. Sure, the only incidents they could prove were on games in the other league, but she suspected the commissioner's leniency had more to do with the Rintar Group owning a majority stake in the St. Paul Mavericks.


"Now, if we go ahead and get the post-op review out of the way, we can all get home quicker. Everything went okay, right?"


"I got the keys, if that's what you mean. And a line on another job. Hey, where's my stuff?" Cally said.


"What? Run that job bit by me again." Papa O'Neal said, glancing sharply at her in the rearview mirror


"Your other granddaughter sends her love." Cally lied. Michelle hadn't, actually, but she would have, of course, if she had had more time. Or at least the Indowy social facsimile thereof. She suppressed a slight grimace. In many ways it was harder to deal with the Indowy-raised humans than it was with any of the other races of aliens. You expected the Galactics to be alien. And you could always tell the Indowy-raised at a glance. They either wore robes like Michelle's, or street clothes of a particular shade of green that no other human would ever wear. She was surprised they hadn't developed a fabric with active chlorophyll.


"Michelle? Michelle's there?" He started to turn his head and turned it back as he felt the car begin to drift.


"Was. She seems to have figured out the trick of getting places without crossing the space in between," Cally answered drily. "She left before I did. Vanished, actually. Either a very good cloak of some sort or teleported."


"You're joking," Tommy said, shaking his head. "Tell me you're joking."


"About my sister?" Cally asked. "Or her vanishing. Neither. That girl has some answers to cough up."


"What did she want that was worth breaking cover after this long?" Papa asked. He looked surprised and puzzled. No wonder. This was the first personal contact any of them had had from Michelle since they "died." Cally couldn't sort the rest of the jumble of emotions out from his face. Hell, she was having trouble sorting out her own.


"She wants to hire us. I don't know what for. I'm supposed to talk to her again tomorrow night. Did you know she's apparently rich as Croesus?"


"What, she's talking about personally hiring us? To hell with that. How is she?" Granpa asked.


"She's . . . very Indowy. But seems to be healthy and everything. Could use some extra food in my opinion. She was in mentat's robes, like always." They had gotten a hologram a year through Indowy sources until the split seven years ago. Since then, it was more like a hologram every two or three years, whenever the O'Neal Bane Sidhe—and she still winced at the organization's new name—could get an operative close enough, on some other business, to sneak a picture. It didn't really matter. They could just replay the old holograms. She never changed.


"My stuff?" she prompted Harrison again.


"All the gear's in the trunk," Tommy said.


"But you got my shoes out, right?" She dangled the high heels from their straps. Her look spoke volumes.


"Uh . . ." Tommy hesitated. His experience of women frustrated with painful shoes had taught him that he usually wanted to be far, far away. Women did best with cute shoes when they only wore them long enough take them off—or at least didn't walk on them much.


"Sorry, darling. Forgot. I always find the grav belt a tad awkward." Harrison looked like he really was sorry.


"You wouldn't have had to wear them in the first place if you'd gone out the same way you went in," Papa O'Neal grumped.


"I told you, Granpa, I flew the friggin' thing way up to the top of the damned building, and I didn't trust it not to give out then. No way was I gonna do it twice if I had a choice. What kind of moron thought it was a good idea to fly around hanging from some stupid belt?" She examined the shimmering pink nails of one hand. "Besides, you know I hate heights."


"The only fatalities flying the belt have been either from sabotage or a direct hit in combat." Her grandfather shrugged, apparently wise enough not to say anything more on the subject.


Cally regarded it as a mark of extreme dedication to her job that she'd let them talk her into this mission at all. Never again. And it was high time she thought about something, anything else.


"Excuse me, y'all. I've got to check in or Morgan and Sinda will pout at me." She looked down at her PDA to dial, but the phone on the other end was already ringing, reminding her that she really needed to turn the buckley's intelligence emulation level down before it crashed itself.


"Buckley, you didn't call directly, did you?" she asked.


"What do you think I am, stupid? No, when they catch us all and kill us, it won't be my fault. Can I give you a rundown of our current tactical vulnerabilities?"


"Shut up, buckley."


"Ri—" It cut off as hundreds of miles away a phone was answered.


"Hello?" A soft female voice answered. Cally still marveled that the voice didn't sound even a little bit harried.


"Hi, Shari. I'm done for the evening and thought I'd call in. How are the girls doing?"


"Sinda's out like a light. She really wore herself out in Aunt Margret's dance class. Morgan's almost finished with her homework. I'll get her."


Seven minutes later, the limo turned into the parking lot of a vintage car dealership, pulling around back to park. Its four occupants piled out and into the building, taking the hidden elevator in the back of the broom closet down to the tunnel. In the small antechamber at the bottom, they carefully hung their dress clothes on the cleaning rack and racked their shoes and equipment. Cleaning was no longer a euphemism for precautionary destruction—not always. Things tended to be figleafed with a new look and reused as much as possible. It wasn't terribly safe, but then it wasn't a safe business. She tucked the small evening bag inside a pocket of a larger purse that had already been prepped.


Cally and Harrison got the makeup table to themselves for a few minutes while Tommy ran the standard post-op checks, downloads, and scrubs on the surveillance equipment and Papa dictated the post-op report into his PDA. By the time they were ready for their own turn at the table, she and Harrison were through. She smiled gratefully as he ushered her over to a stool and went to work on her neck and shoulders. Certified massage therapist was not on the list of desirable secondary skills for operational team members. It should've been, and Cally was personally grateful for the luck of the draw that had put Harrison available for field assignment just when Granpa was filling the vacancies on the team left by her sabbatical and Jay's timely demise.


She knew the rest of the team, while glad to have her back, still missed George Schmidt. She could understand that. George was a damned good assassin and field man. Unlike his more flamboyant brother, he could blend into a crowd easily, either as a shortish, nondescript man or a teenage boy, if he chose. He had needed the brotherhood of being part of a working team to pull him through that awkward and painful grieving time after losing his father-in-law to the enemy, and then his wife to a sudden and severe infection bare months afterwards. Everyone agreed that her grief had weakened her system, and in the immediate aftermath of the organizational split of the humans from all but a small remnant of the Indowy and other galactics, the O'Neal Bane Sidhe had discovered quite unpleasantly just how much their internal emergency medical services had relied on access to the slab. Sherry Schmidt had been one of the casualties of the chaos.


It was good for George to have had Harrison to get him over the hump of anger, where you just wanted revenge and wanted to kill any and every enemy culpably connected with your loss. Assassination was one job where you couldn't be impersonal forever and stay sane, but you couldn't let it get too personal, either. It was like walking a razor's edge all the time, while accepting horrible danger and risks of loss. Not many people could do it. She'd never figured out if she was supremely lucky or supremely unlucky that she could.


By common consent they let Tommy and Papa leave first. Harrison didn't follow baseball, and she wouldn't have been able to stay for the game, anyway. Seventeen minutes after they left, she slid behind the wheel of her ancient, primer-colored Mustang. One of the things she liked about Harrison was he understood her need to drive her own car now and again. A natural gearhead, he had restored, enhanced, and carefully tuned the car so that it had more power than your average police interceptor, but had artistic rattles and clinks. The ever-so-slight smoke out the exhaust that implied (falsely) that it would soon need a ring job was the perfect finishing touch. The best part was that she could turn the special effects off, taking her baby out on a nice open stretch of road to listen to the engine purr. She didn't get to do it often enough, with one thing and another. Still, she could feel the power under her right foot, and that'd do for now. They drove out of the city in silence, watching the stars come out as they got beyond the smog belt. In Indiana she turned up a dirt road between two cornfields and followed it around to the back of a grain silo, where she hit the garage door opener and drove into the vehicle elevator.


Underground—far underground—she parked it in her reserved space. One benefit of the split was plenty of parking. She waved Harrison off to whatever his evening plans were and went to turn in the night's take.


The Base had none of the graffiti and vandalism which so dated the various Sub-Urbs. Still, whether it was the smell of the air or dark lines in the little places that dirt gathered no matter how carefully you cleaned, there was an atmosphere of age about the place. After seven years it still seemed so empty she almost expected it to echo. Her black tennis shoes, of course, did nothing of the sort. As she walked from the south elevator to the workroom administration corridor she noticed someone had gotten creative with the Galplas again. The design wasn't bad at all. It appeared to be a rather interesting cross between Celtic knotwork and early circuit board. And the murals, probably done by the children, of Indowy engaged in daily tasks were pretty well done. She just wished they'd chosen a background color other than puce.


The Indowy she passed on the way were all people she recognized by name. Even after so long, they still traveled the corridors in pairs or triads where possible. She had been told it helped to cut the risk of agoraphobia.There had been initial talk about establishing breeding groups in the Base, but for some Indowy reason no one had explained to her it hadn't happened. Maybe it still would. She didn't know and for some reason had always felt it would be rude to ask. Instead, once or twice a year when a Himmit scout ship came through another one of Aelool's people would come inside, or two or three from Clan Beilil.


The other operatives had, in a way, had more time to adjust to the change. Since she had been home with the girls, not on base, for most of the past seven years, it always hit her as a shock to see the emptiness of Earth's central Bane Sidhe base since the split. It was very hard not to take that split personally, as centrally located in the whole mess as she had been.


First, her decision to kill the traitorous Colonel Petane, who had been partly responsible for the death of a Bane Sidhe team that had saved her life. The assassination had not only been without orders, but she'd done it after the leadership of the Bane Sidhe, the entire Bane Sidhe, had gone to considerable lengths to make her and Granpa think he was already dead. They had considered him an intelligence asset, and never revisited that decision after he turned out to be basically worthless. In retrospect, she agreed he was not only a fucking traitor, but a harmless schmuck. It wouldn't really have hurt anything to leave him alive. At the time, however, she had been truly livid at the deception that had deprived her, and Granpa, of giving their input to the decision.


That was the moment when the building tensions in the Indowy about how to relate to humanity, or whether they even wanted to relate to a species of carnivores that could and did kill other sophonts, finally started to come to a head. Clan Aelool and Clan Beilil had had deep and recent experience with extreme clan-wide blood debts. Debts of honor, and debts of vengeance both. While Clan Roolnai and the rest of the clans had seen the assassination of Petane as a dangerous repeat of Granpa's assassination of someone on his own personal "better dead" list in Vietnam, and a sign of the fundamental homicidal instability of humanity, Aelool and Beilil had taken the view that Team Conyers had saved the clan head of Clan O'Neal, the O'Neal himself, in saving Michael O'Neal, Senior. This had made the blood debt to Team Conyers a much graver matter, and the concealment of Petane's continued existence an offense against Clan O'Neal as a whole. Aelool and Beilil, victims of the worst of the massacres on Diess, apparently felt the guilt of this offense the most keenly, feeling the strongest debt to Clan O'Neal because of the actions of her father on Diess. They had, after much internal discussion, taken the mostly private position that Cally had been acting on behalf of Clan O'Neal to discharge a debt the clan owed to Team Conyers.


The Indowy concept of loyalty, called loolnieth, did not translate very well into English or any other human language. The loyalty was all up chain to the clan. The mere idea of down-chain loyalty to individuals was, by Indowy standards, perniciously insane. It made perfect sense, applied to their species. Individuals were overwhelmingly plentiful, and clans were few. The only protection the vast majority of individuals had for their safety and the safety of their offspring was the security of the clan as a whole. Additionally, the Indowy breeding groups precluded anything like the human nuclear family.


Another facet in the split had been that the Indowy Aelool had, by far, the greatest understanding among his people of humanity as a species. He understood, in some small sense, why human reproductive patterns dictated that loyalty that did not go at least partly down chain as well as up was disastrous to any tribe that adopted it. He understood why a social convention that was insane for his own species was not only sane but necessary for humanity, especially its predominant surviving variants. In his understanding, he was as rare as humans who truly understood why Indowy loolnieth worked—for Indowy. It was not, as some in the cyberpunk faction supposed, a corrupt and dishonorable reaction to oppression by the Darhel. It was not some Indowy feeding others to the tiger in the hopes that the tiger would eat them last. Instead, it was just another example of the truism that aliens are alien.


In retrospect, she'd had to admit that lack of human understanding of the Indowy had been as much a cause of the Bane Sidhe split into the Traditional Bane Sidhe and the O'Neal Bane Sidhe as the reverse. Perversely, it made her feel better to acknowledge that. She certainly hadn't been responsible for human misunderstanding of the Indowy, whatever else she might have done.


The final break, the break that had resulted in the other clans packing up their delegations and leaving Earth, also cutting themselves off from any human agents the Bane Sidhe had managed to cultivate off Earth, had also revolved around her. According to the majority faction of the Bane Sidhe, her capture on Titan Base had presented a neat solution to the problem of a renegade agent and was best left alone without risk of further exposure for the organization or expenditure of organization assets. Loolnieth owed no allegiance to an individual operative, however occasionally useful.


The Indowy Aelool, Father O'Reilly, Granpa, and the entire leadership of what would become the O'Neal Bane Sidhe realized that if Cally had been abandoned to torture and death without even an attempt to determine if rescue was feasible, especially if a component of the decision was her personal inconvenience, the ability to retain and recruit human operatives would have been compromised to the point of destruction. The operatives that could have been recruited would have been mercenaries with little loyalty to the organization and would, every one, have represented horrendous risks of exposure. The cyberpunk faction would have bolted outright, drastically reducing the ability of the Bane Sidhe to operate on Earth. The cyberpunks had signed on with the Bane Sidhe back during the war, but they had always harbored extreme reservations about the Indowy and had never truly integrated with the noncyber operatives. Cally had been admired and respected in the cyber community largely because she was admired and respected by Tommy Sunday. The O'Neals and Sundays had forged strong ties over the decades, including the development of Edisto Island as a unique refuge for the human resistance. When it was impolitic to ask for a close friend or family member, a completely trustworthy one, to be taken in by the Bane Sidhe itself, the Edisto operation had smuggled many to new lives.


None of that had mattered to Granpa or Tommy at the time. They would have pursued any feasible extraction plan to save her. However, the larger political calculus had meant that the next time she saw the Base, the other side of the split was mostly packed and gone. Aelool and Beilil had taken the position that the O'Neal was making a decision as clan head to preserve a vital asset of his clan, and had also pointed out the "as yet" tiny size of Clan O'Neal and the corresponding magnification of the value of each member. Cally thought that may have been just an excuse, out of blood loyalty from the Battle of Diess. If so, she could live with that. Loyalty was loyalty.


She shook herself out of her reverie as she passed an Indowy with a bay mare, about six and a half hands and clearly gravid, headed down to the trotting ring. Obviously "travelling in pairs" included their equine pets. Hey, whatever worked. It wasn't like they were going to run short on corn any time soon, and hydroponics easily turned out everything else.


She passed through workroom administration and back into equipment supply. Someone had obviously reported her presence, because Aelool and Father O'Reilly had preceded her and were standing next to a machine she hadn't seen before, chatting. It was a plain gray cube with beveled edges. Small seams outlined shapes on its surface that were probably panels of some sort. Other than shape, the thing it most reminded her of was the slab. God, she missed the slab. She rubbed the small of her back with one hand as she took the small evening bag out of her purse, opened the pouch, and handed it over.


Father O'Reilly took it without comment and placed one of the keys against a matching shape where it clicked into place, only to click back out almost immediately as a beep nearly too high for human ears sounded and a spate of Galactic Standard appeared in the air above the device.


"Cally, what the hell did you steal?" Father O'Reilly asked, looking at the readout.


"Me?" she spluttered. "You're the one who told me to! I followed that ops plan to the letter." Well, okay, the ops plan did not say get the drawer's override code from your Michon Mentat sister, but it's the thought that counts.


Aelool's ears had turned in slightly and shoulders tightened in the expression Cally had learned to interpret as "pensive."


"It is not a disaster. It is simply not useful to us at this time." His tone said not useful ever.


"What's wrong with it? It was where you said it would be. It looked just like the holograms in the briefing. Is it broken or something?" Okay, bad enough that I have to stoop to being a cat burglar. Money's tight, I know that. But I would like to at least not be blamed for someone else's bad intel.


"Cally O'Neal, it is not that it is broken. And it is not your error. It is that our generator is only authorized to read and execute level three and lower code keys. One of many redundancies in a system designed with the best of intentions to prevent dangerous industrial accidents. It is unfortunately also useful as a tool of political control." Aelool explained patiently, "These are simply more powerful keys. Almost certainly level fours, or perhaps even level fives."


"But you sounded like they aren't worth anything. It seems like we could at least fence them. Can't we?"


"No. It is that we cannot use them ourselves and they are too overheated to fence." He sighed.


"Too hot?" she echoed.


"Isn't that what I said?" He cocked his head at an angle in a questioning gesture he'd copied from humans and other terrestrials.


"More or less. So it was a busted mission after all. Sorry. Other than that, is there a problem?" Cally would have been the first one to admit that the business side of the organization was not her forte.


"The Darhel will not be happy. But it was a low budget mission and a small cost to us. And Darhel happiness has never been one of my priorities." His face crinkled, amused.


 


"You lost what?" The Epetar Group executive suddenly understood why the useless, decayed, folth of an underling, Pardal, had insisted on a meeting without any Indowy body servants and had meticulously searched out and disabled the spy devices from rival groups that tended to accumulate over time. He began his breathing drill and spent a few moments making sure he had himself under full, tight control before continuing.


"You have delayed shipping," he said coldly, raising a hand to forestall interruption by his hapless subordinate. His clear displeasure did nothing to detract from the hypnotic, melodious tones for which his species was renowned.


"You will explain to me how any Darhel, however incompetent, can contrive to lose six level nine nanogenerator code keys in a single night. You will explain this in detail. You will pause when necessary to control yourself and you will not go into lintatai before you have completed your explanation. Afterwards feel free."


 


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