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Cally's War: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Sunday, July 18, 2004 01:12 EDT



    Old Tommy’s Pub was always good, getting both the liquid and musical imports fresh off the boat from Ireland.  Irish music, with its irrepressible ability to make the best of a hard lot, was enjoying something of a revival.  Even if ballads and marches about armored ACS knights facing centauroid monsters weren’t strictly traditional, Ireland’s modern bards recognized their cultural value in a post-Posleen world and rose to the task brilliantly.  A bodhran not only fit on a small pub stage, it also laid a surprisingly good foundation for the screaming treble of a vintage Stratocaster.  Well, it would be screaming in a couple of hours, anyway.  Right now the instruments were cased and a couple of the guys sitting in the corner grabbing a bite were probably the musicians.  With that hair, they sure weren’t cadets.

      She pulled up a barstool and ordered a Killians and a seafood salad, then spent the next hour or so flirting with the bartender and waiting for the band to start.  The cadets came in in dribs and drabs through the evening.  Most of them looked too young to shave and were strictly no-touchies, no matter how much they tried to catch her eye, but one of them looked a little older than the rest and moved like he was prior service, even though the marks on his Summer whites indicated a junior—with a fine butt.  He’d do.

    She caught his eye and raised her glass, offering a friendly smile.  He froze for a second and looked back over his shoulder, as if unsure she was looking at him, and excused himself from his buddies, bringing his bottle of Bud over as his friends tried not to be too obvious about taking bets on a crash and burn.

    “Uh…hi.  Mind if I join you?” He set his beer on the bar at the empty stool next to her.

    “I’d like that.”

    “I’m Mark.”  He looked at her practically full beer with something like desperation and offered, “Um…come here often?”  Then just as obviously sat cursing himself for saying something so trite and unbrilliant.

    “Not often enough, since I haven’t met you,” she smiled kindly and offered her hand. “I’m Pamela.  Been at the Citadel long?”

      “See these stripes?  They mean I’m a junior.”  He grinned easily, back on familiar ground, “Freshmen have none, sophomores one, seniors are those guys walking around in blazers.  But I’m actually going into my second year.  Prior service.”  His chest puffed up a tiny bit, probably subconsciously, as he said the last.

    “Oh?  Where’d you serve?”

    “Africa.  There just aren’t enough humans there to permanently displace the Posleen, and the Posties inherit skills that humans would have to learn. So Fleet Strike has forces there that rotate through on semi-random sweeps to try to dislodge the small bands of ferals before they become big bands.”

    “Was it hard?  Even ferals are so big.”  She leaned an elbow on the bar and sat forward slightly, eyes wide.  “I’ve only seen them on the holotank, of course.  You must really be brave to have volunteered for that.  Were you in, you know, one of those armored suits?”

    “Don’t I wish,” he shook his head.  “Those guys are really hard core, and they only take the very best.  We didn’t have very many of them in Africa.  Most of them are out on the new planets tossing the Posties off to make room for colonists.”  He grinned faintly, “Sometimes ACS will take a new service academy graduate with a really good record, so I’ve still got a shot.”  His eyes flickered down to her chest, occasionally, but overall he was fighting a valiant battle to keep them in the vicinity of her face, “So what about you, what do you do?”

    “Nothing near as interesting as killing Posleen.”  She grinned and held up a perfect hand, “I’m a manicurist.  Nails and sympathy, that’s me.”

      “And gossip?”

    “Maybe just a teensy bit,” she laughed, wrinkling her nose at him.

    “So…um…did you grow up in Charleston?  I guess in the old days you could tell by the accent, but….”

    “No, I grew up in the Cairo Urb.  But I liked the Sun,” she gestured to her tan and shrugged, “and I love the beach, so here I am.”

    “Ah, a genuine beach bunny.  Not many of those around anymore.” His hand was gentle as he took hers. “Just an old-fashioned girl, huh?”

    “Well, a bit,” she admitted, squeezing his hand and licking her lips slightly. “Oh, hey, I love this song.”

    He listened with her until the end of The Holy Ground, signaling the bartender for another beer.

    “So, you like Irish music?” he asked.

    “Yeah, some.  I’m more a fan of pre-war dance mixes.  I’m not a sitting still type, you know?”  She pulled a pack of Marlboros out of her purse and started to light one, but paused when he winced. “Oh, I’m sorry.  Does the smoke bother you?”  The bar was heavy with the usual cloud of tobacco smoke, so she raised an eyebrow at him curiously.

    “Only that you’d do that to yourself.  My Gran died last week.  Lung cancer.  She cut way back during and after the war, when tobacco was scarce, but I guess it wasn’t enough.” He frowned, “I’m sorry to be a downer, I just…it’s still fresh, I guess.”

    “Well, it’s not like they’re addictive anymore, but I’m sorry I brought your mind back to sad stuff.” She shoved the pack back in her purse and laid a soft hand on his arm, “You know what you need?  To get your mind right off it. Decos is just down the street.” She waved at the stage. “This stuff is too much when you’re already down. Dance it out of your system. That’s what I always do when it gets really bad. Let’s get out of here.”

    “Sure.” He shook himself very slightly and nodded to his friends as they left.

    Two hours later a light sheen of sweat dried on her skin in the salt air as she rode behind him on his bike to one of the hotels that catered to tourists from the heartland. When he pulled into the parking lot and stopped, she let go of his waist and climbed off slowly, reluctant to relinquish his warmth.

    “This has got to be hell on your uniforms,” she gestured at the bike.

    “Well, yeah. I pretty much keep it garaged except on weekends. But yeah, I do go through uniforms a bit.” He sighed, “I really hate to ask but would you mind waiting with the bike while I get us a room?  I don’t know if they’d be weird about it if you were with me.”

    They couldn’t care less, but I don’t want to admit I know that. “Oh, sure. The moon’s nice tonight, and it’s warm. I’ll just watch it and enjoy the fresh air till you get back.”

    “Um…be back in just a minute.” He straightened himself and walked towards the doors to the lobby with a slightly exaggerated assuredness. 

    They were within a couple of blocks of the wall, and as she stood in the parking lot she could see it behind a couple of vacant lots and low businesses, cutting the skyline between apartment buildings. She supposed if she was home more she wouldn’t smell the salt as much, but tonight it was strong on the air and she watched the few stars visible through the haze above the still fronds of the palmettos.



    When he walked back out with the key, she was leaning back against his bike with her eyes closed, face turned into the wind.

    “You’re not going to sleep on me, I hope,” he teased.

    She shook her head and swallowed something, probably gum, because her mouth was fresh and sweet when he drew her up against him and kissed her, softly at first, but responding enthusiastically when she deepened the kiss.

    “Um…let’s go inside,” he said when they came up for air, looking around the parking lot a trifle self-consciously before taking her hand and leading her up the stairs to the second floor room.

    Inside the door, she moved into his arms and slid her hands up his chest.  He cupped her butt with one hand and tangled the other in that beautiful, silky blond hair.  She was so slim it felt like he might break her if he hugged too hard.

    She caught his jaw in her hands and kissed him hungrily as she backed towards the bed, playfully letting go and allowing herself to fall backwards with a big grin as soon as the backs of her legs met the edge.

    “Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly….” She undid the top button of her pedal pushers and blew him a kiss.




Sunday, May 12

    Mark lay in bed next to her, whoever she was, and stared at the hotel room ceiling. Pamela had seemed so nice and funny and…fresh when he’d met her at Old Tommy’s last night. But that girl didn’t exist, did she?  He glared resentfully at the tangled mop snoring on his arm. God, it’s almost like she killed her. If she ever was Pamela, 22, from Tidewater Tan and Nails, she sure isn’t now. Hasn’t been for decades at least. Damn juv. God, what am I going to say…I just want her out. So, wake her up and kick her out now, or wait until morning and tell her exactly what I think of her and her kind….

    When she stirred in the morning and snuggled against his side, fondling him with one of those too-skilled hands, he had to repress a shudder as he smiled and pushed her hair back from her face. Amazing that you can’t tell by looking. No marks, nothing,

    “I bet you could do some really nice things to me with your mouth, you know, down there,” he said.

    “Mmmm. Sure could,” she smiled sleepily and eased her way down his chest.

    He twined his hands in her hair and tried to pretend, just for a few moments more, that there really was a “Pamela.”  Afterwards, he took a deep breath and pushed her off him, standing up and grabbing his pants off the chair next to the bed. He might be young, but he was old enough not to say to any woman what he had to say to her without at least a little protection.

    “So, how old are you, really?” he asked coldly.

    She pulled the sheet up to wipe her lip as she appraised him. “How old do you want me to be?”

    “Remember I told you last night about my grandmother, just died of cancer.”  He had turned and was facing out the window, his voice conversational. “The Galactics could have saved her, but they wouldn’t.”

    “I know.”  Her face softened with sympathy. “That must be terrible.”

    “Yeah, well, at least she died with her soul. You ever met a Juv?”  Here it comes, let her have it. “The Galactics can save your body all day long, but you sign your soul away for it, don’t you, Juv? Oh, I’m sorry, Pamela.

    “You didn’t seem to have any complaints last night.” Her eyes were icy, her tone flat.

    “Remember my bike, that we rode here from the pub?” He smiled stiffly, “Brand-new Honda-Davidson 2047. I could have gotten a 2046, fully refurbed, for about half the price. I just don’t much like refurbs. You juvs sell your soul away off-planet, and then, every once in awhile, when you notice something’s missing you come back slumming and try to suck the soul out of some poor schmuck who’s willing to be your toy for awhile. You suck real well, Pamela, but I just don’t like refurbs. Please be gone when I get out of the shower, but don’t hurry, I’m sure I’ll be scrubbing for awhile.”

    “By the way,” she swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood, letting her cold, dead eyes slide up over his body, very slowly, “your ‘soul’ needs practice.”

    “Yours has had too much,” he tossed the last word over his shoulder as he closed the bathroom door, ”what’s left of it.”



    At her apartment, Cally switched her Pamela clothes for Justine’s shabby-chic clothes and changed Pamela’s tan and touch of dark roots for Justine’s pallor and low-lights, and the pink polish for none, took the 9:30 bus down to Market Street, and entered a small and otherwise empty café. She ordered toast and coffee from a seat at the counter. The waiter, a kid in his late teens, set a cup of coffee with three sugar cubes in front of her, along with her toast. Two of the cubes were slightly whiter than the third. While the waiter was occupied at the cash register, she palmed those two and dropped the third in her coffee. She spread a thin layer of the orange marmalade Justine preferred onto her toast. As she was drinking her coffee, the waiter came back by and asked her if he could get her anything.

    She shook her head slightly.

    “You’re in awfully early this morning,” he said.

     ”He wasn’t a morning person,” she shrugged. Just a pathetic little puppy, and all he knew to be afraid of was that I might kick him in the balls, of all things. He was right. I am too old for him.

    He suppressed a grin as he walked over to the small sink and resumed doing the dishes from the small Sunday morning rush.



    Back at home, Cally rinsed the thin outer layer of sugar off of each cube, dried them off, and inserted the first one into the cube reader slot of her PDA. A hologram lit up above it with an image, surprisingly, of Father O’Reilly.

    “Miss O’Neal, you are seeing me instead of your usual mission profiler because this mission is a bit special. We have reason to believe that the Bane Sidhe have been penetrated at a very high level. As a result, all knowledge of this mission on the headquarters end has been confined to three people, including myself. Your mission is to find and plug the leak by any means that you in your personal judgment deem necessary. You will use your usual back up team for this mission. Because of the highly sensitive nature of this mission the briefings of your fellow team members will be limited to those details necessary to insert you into your cover position. You are not authorized to expand on that briefing material until the on-base briefing, which will happen no earlier than the Thursday before insertion is made, and will require any team members briefed in to remain in secure circumstances until insertion. Your team members’ insertions to back you up are significantly less complicated than your own, you will review them and make any setup changes you deem necessary in the two weeks between today and your insertion date. Any time not necessary to your preparations you are authorized and instructed to charge as some of your extensive backlog of vacation time. Cally, if you don’t take at least a week of that as vacation I will personally guarantee that you will be benched for at least a month. You are an excellent agent, one of our best, but even the best need some down time. We would prefer that you take it voluntarily, of course.”

    The hologram flickered and was replaced by a revolving still hologram of an officer whose collar stars belied his apparent age of thirty. “The officer you see now is one General Bernhard Beed, of the Fleet Strike Security Directorate.  Ostensibly, Beed’s office handles the 3rd MP Brigade and criminal investigations functions of Titan Base. With two of his battalions forward deployed, you’ll notice he’s potentially got time for extra duties. We have information that indicates our leak may be using a non-Bane Sidhe member of one of the tongs on Titan Base as a cutout.  We believe that in reality Beed has been detailed to head developing counter intelligence and operations against our organization. We therefore believe that Beed’s office is the best place to begin looking for the identity of our leak.”  The display flickered and now the still was of a young woman of roughly Cally’s own height and build, in Fleet Strike gray silks.  Well, my build if you ignore that she’s a pudgett.  The slab is going to have to do one hell of a boob job.  But her thighs…can’t tell if that’s muscle or fat in what she’s wearing.  Maybe muscle.  Her waist and stomach look okay, thank God.  My eyes are fine, but the hair--it’ll be the first time I’ve had to go lighter than my natural color in a long time.

    “Your cover, Captain Sinda Makepeace, is slated to transfer from the office of Fleet Strike Bureau of Personnel in Chicago to Titan Base as General Beed’s new administrative assistant. We have been able to verify that no-one assigned to Bead’s office has ever met Miss Makepeace face to face.”  The hologram flickered and was replaced with a dark haired young officer who was probably shaving every day now, “This is the general’s aide, Lieutenant Joshua Pryce. On Sunday, May 26, Miss Makepeace is scheduled to take the 08:15 shuttle from Chicago to Titan Base. You will have approximately one hour between when Miss Makepeace passes through port security and the shuttle begins boarding to make the switch. You will report in person for appropriate physical adjustments no less than 48 hours before the switch to allow time for your system to stabilize. Cally, Titan Base is an extremely hazardous area of operations. I have to warn you that if you or any member of your team are caught, chances of our being able to mount a successful extraction are very poor. We need this information, Cally. Get it, and get out. All files on this cube will be automatically erased in five seconds.”

    She waited until the frozen hologram disappeared and pulled the cube and dropped it into a glass of vinegar, where it fizzed merrily as it dissolved. She put the second cube into the reader and was surprised when a hologram of Shari O’Neal popped up in the air in front of her. “Hi, sweetie. I know I’m not supposed to raid the supply of these for personal things, but these days it seems like the only way to be sure I reach you. I know you’re off work right now, so Wendy and I have planned a little beach picnic and we aren’t taking no for an answer. Not the walled section of Folly, but that nice little strip just North of it. I checked, there hasn’t been a feral there for two months, so we can take turns on sensor watch. You don’t need to bring a thing but your swimsuit and yourself. Tomorrow. Eleven thirty. Call it a girl’s day out. Five seconds and all that, bye.”

    A face appeared on the screen of her PDA, and a tight, somewhat morose voice issued forth, “That was a security breach. Guess we’ll have to move apartments now so the minions of the Darhel won’t find us and kill us in our sleep. Would you like me to run a search of available rental real estate? I can list the results in increasing order of risk, if you like,” it offered helpfully.

    “No thanks, buckley. I think I’ll just put up with the risk of staying here.” She never could tell if the AI emulation of the buckley was good enough to know when she was being tongue in cheek. Personality Solutions, Inc., had never been forthcoming about how it had initially developed the base personality used for AI emulation in modern PDA’s. Most people found the standard personality emulation somewhat pessimistic for their tastes, and purchased an aftermarket buckley with a personality overlay more compatible with their own preferences. Cally didn’t. She routinely used her PDA for high performance applications, and the sad truth was that buckleys overlaid with other personalities had a distressing tendency to crash catastrophically, requiring low-level system reformats. The more different the personality overlay from the original buckley, and the higher the AI emulation was set, the sooner it crashed. Of course, one of the main differences of the buckley from true AI was that even just running the base personality, if you set the emulation too high you were inviting a crash. A buckley on a high setting could just envision way too many potential catastrophes.

    After thirty years, she was pretty adept at wheedling, cajoling, and threatening the base buckley personality into acceptable performance. She tapped a few screen buttons and checked her settings. Sure enough, she’d left the AI turned up too high. She dialed it down a couple of notches and ignored the swearing and references to lobotomies. It really handled better day to day if you didn’t run the emulation above level five.

    Once, ten years ago, it had somehow figured out how to manipulate its own emulation level. The poor thing hadn’t lasted two days.

    She dropped the second cube into the glass and ignored it as it began fizzing into oblivion.  As Justine, she had a gym membership, paid several months in advance, at an old pre-war high school. The gym had survived the war with an intact roof and had initially been snapped up by the local defense forces for their own use, but had been let go to Deerfield Spa and Fitness once the Citadel had reopened as a Fleet Strike Academy and the Corps of Cadets had taken over much of the work of manning the wall.

    Justine liked it for the one curtained section entirely given over to jazzercise and its sixteen hour, seven days a week drop-in schedule for members.  She shoved some basic black workout togs and a pair of jazz shoes into a gym bag and turned out the lights on her way out the door.

    Three hours and what must have been a gallon of sweat later, she felt she just might be fit for human company again.  Well, okay, definitely after a shower.  As she walked back to the locker room, a guy with a towel over his shoulder and apparently headed toward the weight room bumped into her, apologized curtly, and kept going.  She blinked twice but walked on without looking down at the cube he had planted in her hand.

    In the locker room, she looked at the small slip of paper around the cube and sighed, Okay, legitimate codeword.  There had better be a good reason for this extra message because it is lousy tradecraft.  What do they think I am, a walking chatboard? If it's not a genuine emergency I will have someone's ass.

    She took a much quicker shower than she wanted and skipped her plans for an al fresco lunch down at the Battery.  There was an open air vendor there who made what she would swear were the best crab cakes in town.  And Justine liked to feed the seagulls.  She frowned at the bag of cheese curls in the passenger seat and drove home.

    At least she could, and did, run a hot bath to soak in while she viewed the thing.  To her surprise, the hologram that popped up was Robertson, a computer geek who had several times given her team additional specialized backup on more technical missions.

    “Cally, first, I'm sorry for taking the risk of contacting you like this.  Second, this is not strictly a Bane Sidhe authorized communication.” He ran a hand through frizzy brown hair and frowned. “If I could, I'd deal with it myself, but it's not my line.  I know you took down several of the guys who ordered and did the strike on team Conyers.” Cally sat up in the tub and her face was etched in cold lines as the hologram continued. “I was only in on one of those runs, but I remember you felt...unusually strongly about them.  I know they were sent to save your life as a kid.  There's no easy way to say this, Cally.  The bastards lied.” The hologram flickered to show a US Army light colonel with a receding reddish-brown hairline, a neatly trimmed mustache, and a weak chin.  Her stomach clenched in remembered hatred.  The cube now had her undivided attention.

    “I'm sure you remember Colonel Petane, who sold the team's safe house out to the Darhel.  You were told, we were told, that team Hector had terminated Petane.  Cally, he's still alive.  Somebody in that batch of pragmatists,” he made the word an epithet, “upstairs decided that the good colonel would be a good source of information and traded him his life to turn him.  Which I would reluctantly be okay with if he was the only source of some vital stuff, but this little pissant only ever has access to give secondary or tertiary confirmation of things we already know.  He's a living example of the Peter Principle, and he's been passed over for promotion twice.  The pragmatists, it seems, don't like to admit their errors.”

    “They covered it up pretty well.  Got him transferred to the Army Fleet Strike liaison office in Chicago and have carefully assigned any missions likely to go near that office to team Hector.  If you've ever wondered why your job rarely takes your team to Chicago, that's why.  Mine didn't, either, until I got assigned to back up Hector on a couple of jobs over the winter.  I guess the powers that be figured I didn't have a personal stake and was safe.  They needed an in-person meet with Petane, and I was there to watch the counter-measures and make sure we didn't get burned.  I know I've sometimes had to do some things that made it hard to sleep nights, but nothing like this.  Loyalty has to go down the chain as well as up.  I...well, we've worked together and I knew you'd want to know.  What you do about it's your call.  This message will be gone in five seconds.”

    Of course he couldn't do it the normal way.  The hologram of the traitor blew up in a welter of gore that faded into a really spectacular sunset.  She pulled the cube out and walked to the kitchen to destroy it, heedless of the water dripping into her carpet.

    “Well, they wanted me to go on vacation.  Okay.  So I'll go on vacation.” Her mouth was a grim line as she thawed a salad in the nuker and rinsed the crisper gel off the lettuce into the sink, then dumped a packet of crab chunks on top and covered it in horseradish sauce.  It was a poor substitute for Herman's crab cakes, but she hardly tasted it anyway.

    After doing her hair and grabbing a black off-the-shoulder cotton shirt and faded jean shorts, she pulled up a list of acts on the web, twisting the bangles on her left wrist absently.  Justine preferred ultra-modern Cleveland-crash style music.  A group called Anger Management was playing at The Riverside Dive. That sounds like something I could use right about now.  I hope their pub grub isn't too obnoxious. 



Charleston, Monday, May 13


    Cally came home in the wee hours of the morning, alone. Music tonight, yes.  Company, no.  If I got another anti-juv bigot pup like last night, I just might forget it’s not my job to kill them.  The cleanup crew would not be pleased, and the paperwork’s a bitch.  She grinned and kicked off her heels, swinging them by the straps as she hummed her way to her room.

    Makeup off, check.  Fresh washcloth, check.  ID’s put away, check.  She stripped off Justine’s clothes and tossed them in the basket, frowning, “Laundry tomorrow morning.”

    She dialed up some Creed onto the vidscreen’s audio for the night, turned on countermeasures, set the alarm for eight, and snuggled into her pillow.

    Bhutan.  A banker who got on too well with nonhuman bankers.  He had a taste for street whores, but didn't treat them well.  One of them had been happy to retire in the South Pacific after his heart attack.  The nannite poison had been untraceable even with Galactic equipment.  In the closet, watching.  Checking the body and injecting the now hysterical whore with a merciful tranquilizer before getting her onto her shuttle.  Death was so different up close.

    Rabun Gap, she puts the front sight on the assassin and squeezes, gently, and the red splash and the death smells.  Efficient men in white, cleaning, and then the Posties are coming and the men in black are so silent, and so efficient at killing.  Rosary calluses on his hand.  And in school the nuns won’t tell her anything and then there’s Father O’Reilly.  Team Conyers is gone.  Gone, all gone Father?  Our Father, who art….

    Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.  How long?  Nineteen years, two months, three days.  Father, it’s a long list.  There was a prostitute specializing in industrial nano-researchers.  Two of them died after she made her report.  I had to…Father? Father?  In a rage she smashes the screen and glares at the empty seat and there is no door, and no door she came in through.  There had to have been a door, wasn’t there?  And no ceiling, just the walls going up and up.

    The Keys and she’s back on the boat with Dad, and he’s proud because she just caught a really big one and she’s washed the salt from the wind out of her hair and is sitting on the edge of the dock watching the sunset as Mom combs the tangles out.  Michelle is in the water swimming with Dad, and a dolphin is chittering to her as she strokes under its chin.  And Mom’s brought her a nice, cold limeade and a plate….

    The alarm shrilled at her and she slapped it and the system off, reflexively grabbing the washcloth to dry her face. Mmmm.  I’ve always loved the beach.  Maybe next time I get a real vacation I’ll finally go back for that visit I’ve been promising myself.  I guess after forty years it’s probably changed a bit.  Gotta be Cally today.  Let’s see, Cally’s very casual, got a smart mouth, wears a lot of olive drab but also likes red.


    She tossed the used washcloth in the basket and carried it into the kitchen, sticking out her tongue at the empty coffee maker she had forgotten to set last night and hitting it’s button with an elbow on her way past. Just off the kitchen she opened the door and raised the lid of the laundry machine, dropping in the clothes and a packet of fragrance-free fabric saver before closing the lid. The machine detected the added weight, analyzed the contents and she heard it filling as she shut the door behind her.

    She rummaged through the freezer until she found a bar of chocolate-cheesecake breakfast ice-cream and pulled up the news, glaring again at the offending coffee machine that still hadn’t finished brewing.

    The House and Senate are still debating what Posleen-free means for purposes of reconstruction to Statehood? Yeah, the Urbies really don’t like the difficulties they already have with the Senate over food subsidies. And their internal media makes sure they get a full report on every feral Posleen attack in CONUS, so they’re not bloody likely to poke a nose out and take a look. Some days nonexistence beats the crap out of citizenship.

    “Ah, it’s done.” She grabbed her mug and filled it with coffee, adding a sugar cube, and took a look at the weather and ferals report before going to get dressed. Looks good enough for me.

    In the bedroom she pulled on a red bikini with a t-shirt and jeans over it, pulled on an old pair of sneakers, threw some clean underwear and a towel in a beat-up khaki backpack and pulled her hair back in a neat braid. She sorted through the rows of wallets in the bottom drawer until she came to a battered khaki and Velcro one that had very sincere identification and bank cards in the name of Cally Neilsen. The wallet was a bit old fashioned. It was the one used least often, and least hazarded, so it was least often in need of replacement. All the wallets had artful wear and tear. This one had acquired them the old-fashioned way, although the contents had to be as frequently updated as the others to stay current, and the last name, like those of the others, had varied over time. Fortunately, the Darhel were no more interested in US computer identification procedures being truly secure than the Bane Sidhe were.

    As she loaded the Colt .45 and extra magazines into the front of her car, she wished she’d picked up at least something beyond a small cooler of beer to add to the picnic. She had her go-to-ground supplies—never left the wall without them, but they weren’t exactly your recreational sort of refreshments. Her eyes lit on Justine’s bag of cheese curls. Just the thing. Wendy’s kids would love them.

    She drove to the James River exit, partly because it was close, but mostly because the simple sliding gate of heavy steel, combined with the drawbridge, was easier to navigate than some of the other gates. It just took a few minutes to get through the checkpoint. The .45 and three spare magazines, along with her range certification card, were enough to exempt her from the municipal convoy requirement and fee. Even in the postwar world, liability was a bitch. Charleston's city government, elected from a population of many of the first southerners who had returned from the Urbs and the heartland, along with the local militia and the Fleet Strike cadets, had chosen a uniquely southern solution. Since tourists from the Urbs were generally a braver sort to start with and sensible enough to travel with the convoys, it worked rather well. The few who weren't might gripe about the fee, but the people of Charleston firmly believed that the best way to keep the local population of Postie ferals low was to avoid feeding them.

    The road north of the walled section of Folly was not as well kept up as the road to the walled municipal beach, but it wasn't as bad as one might have thought even after decades of official neglect and two decent-sized hurricanes. The more enterprising and independent Charlestonians who used the unwalled beach made a habit of collecting buckets of cleaned clam shells in the backs of their cars and bringing them along as an unofficial toll for beach use. The Citadel Cadets had picnics on the beach a couple of weekends a year at which it was an unofficial tradition to bring a couple of thick steel sheets and a few sledgehammers and have impromptu contests to see which company’s champion could pulverize the most shells (Golf Company being the current record-holder at twenty-three buckets), after which the cadets carefully filled in any significant cracks or potholes with the makeshift paving material. Over time the road had become perhaps more tabby than asphalt, but it remained essentially adequate for the mostly local traffic it served.

    She pulled into the parking lot, checked her holster, and went around to the trunk, carrying two large buckets of cleaned shells to dump into the steel bins. Fortunately, even feral Posleen did not consider empty clam and oyster shells edible. She was a few minutes early, and, as was the case more often than not on a weekday, the beach was empty, so she went ahead and got started on the normal precautions of activating a couple of portable postie alarms and running them up the flagpoles that had been set into the edge of the parking lot. They were okay on a wire stand or on top of a car or rock in a pinch, but to get the best warning time you really needed to give them a bit of elevation. She set her PDA up to listen on the sensors' individually programmable alert frequencies and entered the sensor locations and orientations on the screen. Now if a feral showed up she'd have not only an alarm but a distance and a moving dot-on-a-plot.

    “Please tell me you’ve got more than that dinky forty-five and aren’t planning to fight a horde of Posleen alone with it. Or a boat? If we’re far enough out, they can’t get us in a boat. We’ll be just fine until it capsizes and we get eaten by sharks.” The buckley always did get a bit agitated on sensor watch.

    “Buckley, do you actually sense the presence of a single Posleen feral?”

    “No, they’re doing a real good job of hiding this time. I can call in reinforcements if you want. Won’t do any good, but if you want…” it trailed off.

    “Don’t call anyone, buckley,” she ordered.

    “Good idea. No reason they should all die, too,” it said.

    “Shut up, buckley.”


    With the basics done she was free to get cooler and bag down onto the beach, jeans and shirt off, pop open a beer, and amuse herself throwing a couple of cheese curls to the seagulls until Shari, Wendy, and the kids pulled up and came down onto the beach, Wendy's four kids at a run close behind Shari's golden retriever. Well, okay, she was mostly golden retriever and all dog, running straight at the gulls and barking cheerfully.

    Cally surrendered to a lapful of sand, fur, and dog drool, scratching Sandy's ears vigorously while the other women maneuvered loads of food and gear down the stairs, and tried to variously call off the dog and the kids.

    “Okay you hoodlums, get back here and help carry!” Wendy called, grinning, “Mike, you too!”

    “Hang on, Mom! I’ve gotta reboot my shoes, again,” her six year old was staring down at his feet, where a hologram of an ACS trooper was shooting at a hologram of a Posleen normal with a boma blade, the latter having frozen mid stride, interspersed with flickering bits of static. Muttering words a six year old probably shouldn’t know, he took the offending shoe off and stuck his hand inside, fumbling around for the reset switch. The hologram disappeared and reappeared later, the Posleen chewing red drippy bits of meat better left unidentified. With the shoe back on the child’s foot, it resumed swinging it’s Boma blade at the ACS trooper every time one foot passed the other, finally erupting backwards in a slow-motion welter of yellow gore as a line of bullets cut its torso in half. When the pieces hit the “ground” they stayed for a second while the ACS trooper jumped up and down triumphantly, then both holograms flickered back to pristine health and began their battle anew.

    “Hiya, Aunt Cally.” He made it back over to the others as his mother was spreading out the blanket next to Cally’s towel. “Daddy bought me some new shoes. Like ‘em?”

    “Hey, those are great! Great detail on the images.” She watched the Posleen normal explode again, this time having its head splattered apart by aimed fire. The victorious ACS trooper turned a backflip, before going into a classic pre-war end-zone dance. “Does the postie ever win?”

    “Once in awhile,” he nodded solemnly, “but it’s okay, ‘cause they don’t show the gooshy stuff for that.” He reassured her as if he was the one talking to a small child.

    “Do you remember me, Annie?” She tucked a strand of hair behind her left ear and craned her neck, trying to make eye contact with the little girl hiding behind Wendy's leg.

    “Sorry, she's going through a shy phase.” Her mother absent-mindedly stroked the wispy blond curls the little girl was shaking, her face buried in Mommy's knee. “Oh, come on, Annie, you remember Aunt Cally, don't you? Sandy remembers her.”

    “That's my doggy,” the four year old's gray eyes met hers. “You've got sand all over yourself.”

    “I know. Sandy shared.” For a minute her eyes looked as young as the rest of her, as she laughed and stood up, brushing the sand off of her belly and legs, and giving Sandy enthusiastic scratching at the back of her head. “You're so good to share, you're a good dog, aren't you?”

    As Sandy's tail was sweeping back and forth as if to enthusiastically agree that she was a good dog, James and Duncan arrived with several folding chairs and one big beach umbrella.

    “Hi Aunt Cally. Gonna throw a few passes with us after lunch?”

    “They would be football fanatics, wouldn't they?” Shari pulled a ball from one of the towel bags and handed it to Duncan as the younger boy dumped his load unceremoniously on the sand and made a run for the water, spiking the ball enthusiastically as he hit the high tide line.

    “Hey!” James looked up from setting up a chair as his brother left him with the work. “Mom!”

    “Oh, go on. I've got it.” Cally picked up a chair and waved him towards the beach.

    Wendy caught Shari's eye for a moment as the six year old followed his brothers and dog towards the water.

    “The kids really like you, you know.” She began unloading plastic containers of food onto the blanket. “It seems to be mutual.”

    “Oh, yeah, they're great.” She opened another chair, “Glad you and Tommy decided to have another bunch, now that the first group's flown the nest. Oh, congratulations by the way. I thought you guys were gonna wait until this bunch was up and out before having more though.”

    “Yeah, well, even with Galtech you get the occasional pleasant surprise,” she blushed. “So when are we going to be congratulating you, sweetie?”

    “Say what?” Cally spluttered, dropping the chair she had just picked up. She retrieved it and suddenly became very occupied with brushing every bit of the sand off of it.

    Shari put her hand over her eyes, shaking her head slightly.

    “Okay, so I could have handled that better,” Wendy sighed.

    “Ya think?” Shari suddenly became very interested in the beach umbrella she was putting up.

    “Cally, you can't just be twenty forever,” Wendy tried again.

    “I haven't been twenty for thirty years or so.” She plopped down in the chair and stretched her legs out in front of her, crossed her arms, and leaned back looking at the two of them suspiciously. “Okay, give. What are you two up to?”

    Shari sat down and curled her arms around as Annie scrambled into her lap, and looked out over the sea. The wind was blowing her hair back from her face and she squinted to keep stray grains of sand out of her eyes.

    “Cally, this life's not good for you anymore. If it ever was. You're not happy. When are you going to give yourself permission to have a life and settle down?” she said.

    “What? You know what we're up against. I do things that very, very few people can do. Things that need to be done for other people to settle down.” She sat up and leaned forward in her chair, resting her hands on her knees. “Look, if and when I meet the right man I probably will do the kid thing, I just...haven't met him. And the anti-juv prejudice doesn't help. Not to whine, but it's hard to get intimate with a guy when you're old enough to know he's an immature idiot.”

    “But you're never gonna meet him in some bar,” Wendy broke in, handing her a juice pack. “Look, I can understand if you're not keen on the BS organization's matchmaking program. Hey, that would creep me out a bit, too. But between Tommy and Papa, they've gotta know at least half a dozen decent guys who would love to have a wife who didn't have to be kept quite so much in the dark. I mean, geez, what's the harm in letting them fix you up with a date or two?”

    “What's the harm?” Cally asked flatly, her eyes suddenly dead. “Just that having an emotional tie to someone who ends up on the same mission could get me or him captured or killed. Not to mention his side of it. Who wants a wife who faces the odds I face, or does the things I have to do? I'm good, but it's sheer dumb luck I've only died once so far, and that not permanently. The only thing worse than the odds of death for a female assassin are the odds of a successful marriage.”

    Shari winced and clapped her hands over Annie's ears. “You never talk about that!” she whispered.

    “Get my point?” She pulled out a mug and a flask, squeezing the juice pack into the cup and pouring an ounce or so of clear liquid on top. “You want?” She extended it to Shari.

    Shari's hand went to her stomach. “No, I...can't.”

    Cally broke into a grin. “You dog! No wonder you're trying to get me married off and pregnant, misery loves company!” She joked, then smiled, “Congratulations!”

    “Are you really?” Wendy laid her hand on her best friend's knee. “You wouldn't kid between girlfriends? Congratulations! Oh, this is so great. We will eat ice cream and go off the curve together! Have a juice pack.”

    “There, see what you're missing?” She turned back to Cally, “Will you just promise me you'll consider letting Tommy fix you up on a date? Just one teeny weenie little date? If you want, you don't even need to see him alone--we could double.”

    “Oop. Now you've gotta do it, Cally. I'll baby-sit. She and Tommy haven't been out on a date in ages, it's your positive duty to your best girlfriends in the world.”

    “My only girlfriends in the world,” Cally grimaced. “Not that I don't appreciate you two--that is, when you're not trying to fix me up with Tommy’s or Grandpa's fishing buddies. Okay, okay, I'll think about it,” she caved when the two of them glared at her. “After I get back from this next mission.”

    “A short one, I hope?” Shari asked.

    “You know I can't say. But, I wouldn't get your hopes up on it.” She used the juice pack straw as a swizzle stick to stir her drink and took a sip before checking her PDA. “Everything's fine. Still up, still scanning, no signs.”

    The rest of the afternoon was practically idyllic. They washed down the crab salad sandwiches with juice and sodas--well, Cally had a beer. It didn't matter that she had postie watch since she'd been immune to the effects of alcohol her entire adult life. The kids didn’t eat many of the cheese curls—it was more fun feeding them to the gulls and the dog. Since Sandy loved cheese curls and chasing gulls, she usually won the race to each freshly tossed treat.

    Duncan and James loved passing practice with Cally, as she generally caught the ball even when their throws went a bit wide, and they generally caught the ball because she could land it right in their hands from twenty-five yards down the beach. Cally reflected that the boys, who had had very little social contact with adult females who were not fully upgraded, were going to have a rude awakening some day. She could have landed it in their hands at twice that distance, but the display would have been bad tradecraft. As it was, she never would have done this much if there'd been outsiders on the beach.

    That afternoon, she carried a sleeping Annie up the stairs for Wendy and got her strapped into her booster seat in the station wagon, while the older boys stowed the folded chairs and gear in the back. A few seconds after Mike climbed into the seat beside his little sister his sneakers, obviously sensing that their wearer was no longer standing or walking, shut off the holograms.

    “Those are really cute shoes,” Cally said as she walked around to the back of the car where her friends were waiting to say goodbye, “but I was a little surprised the battles were silent. They had neat weapons sound effects even when we were kids.”

    “Shhhh,” Wendy held a finger over her lips, obviously smothering laughter, “Tommy turned that off the first night.”

    Cally’s mouth rounded in a silent oh of understanding. She felt a small scrap of paper being pressed into her palm and looked at Shari enquiringly.

    “It’s a time and number for your Grandpa. Call him,” she said.

    “What? Over the phone?” She patted her bikini lightly. Still damp. She’d be riding home on a towel. Her mind snapped back into gear and she looked at Shari in bewilderment. “Phone? Why the phone?”

    “It’s what we outside the ops world call a personal call, Cally.” Shari patted her on the back with an exaggerated pitying air, then, more seriously, “He just wants to talk to you. Not shop talk, not mission talk, just a visit. Okay, obviously you’re going to use a pay phone somewhere, but…just call your grandfather, okay?”

    “Okay, sure.” She hugged both of them a little awkwardly. “Okay, then, well, I guess it’s goodbye until next time.”

    “We’ll wait while you get your sensors back down,” Wendy said, climbing into the driver’s seat and watching her pull the small boxes down the flagpoles and put them back in her car.

    A bank of clouds was rolling in and Cally could smell the rain on the air as she pulled onto the road behind the blue minivan for the drive back to town.

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