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3rd World Products: Book 15 [MultiFormat]
eBook by Ed Howdershelt

eBook Category: Science Fiction/Fantasy
eBook Description: Aria Wilson is an eight-year-old eleventh-grader at the Amaran asteroid factory station. As if her exceptional intelligence wasn't unusual enough, she exposes herself as a natural field user when she saves another kid's life at a birthday party. Shocked and alarmed school and station officials immediately ship her to Earth, where Lori and Ed have to foil the federal government's attempt to take seize possession of Aria with a phony Child Services warrant. Ed, Lori, Aria, and her mother manage to escape government custody and end up on the run as they put together a plan to keep Aria from becoming a human lab rat.

eBook Publisher: Abintra Press/Abintra Press, Published: 2011, 2011
Fictionwise Release Date: June 2011


31 Reader Ratings:
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Linking to my core, I had it locate Barbara Roberts using her badge's comm signal. Interestingly enough, she was in Angie's office, about five feet from Angie's badge. Neither of the badge blips moved. They were prob'ly at her desk.

My comm implant pinged. I put up a screen and answered, "You got me," and Angie asked, "Ed, what are you doing here?"

"Dinner with Lori."

"You came all the way up here just for that? Really? What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong and Carrington isn't 'way up here' with a flitter. Besides, how busy do you think I am down there in Florida? I could probably spend a week away and nobody'd notice. You had dinner yet? You could join us."

"No, I'm in a meeting. Okay. Later, Ed."

"Later, F ... Angie."

Her left eyebrow went up. "What did you almost call me?"

I chuckled, "Guess, ma'am. Old habits die hard. Bye."

With a tiny grin, she replied, "Yeah. Bye," and poked her 'off' icon.

Okay, I'd set the stage. With a witness, the very woman who'd had her trainee crews tail me during previous visits. I was almost to the mess hall doors when I saw Lori approaching from another hallway. I waved, she waved, and I waited by the doors for her. Lori quickened her step slightly and I wondered why.

She arrived beside me and took my arm as she said, "Oh, good. I caught you."

I grinned and said, "Oh, good, I'm caught. Could be a lot worse, right? You could be Rosie O'Donnell."

She snickered, "No way in hell. Look, on the way here I heard Aunt Lisa's in the mess hall. Can we postpone dinner a while?"

Putting up a screen and sending a probe into the mess hall, I saw Lisa talking intently to some guy. She pretended shock at something he'd said and grinningly smacked his bicep. He made some smiling reply, then she put her arm in his and leaned close to say something confidentially.

I shook my head. "No need to put dinner on hold. She's with some guy and they seem pretty tight. Who is he, her new squeeze?"

"That's Randolph Torell. She says they're just friends."

"Uh, huh. Crap. If she hasn't banged him yet, she will soon."

Wide-eyed Lori smacked my bicep and hissed a bout of laughter with a hand over her mouth.

I asked, "What? Look at her. She's practically climbing into his lap."

Lori let out a soft cackle and leaned on the wall as she recovered. After a moment, she said, "I still say we wait a while. I'm not starving, are you?"

"Wasting away to nothing, ma'am. I don't give a damn if she's in there. Let's go eat. If she becomes too annoying, we'll just stun her."

Rolling her eyes, Lori said firmly, "We will NOT stun Aunt Lisa tonight."

"But we will go on in and get dinner, right?"

Levering herself away from the wall, Lori sighed, "Yeah, come on," and seemed to trudge ahead of me into the mess hall. I let her continue to the serving line as I veered toward Lisa. She saw me coming and straightened up, releasing Randolph's arm. Behind me I heard Lori hiss, "Oh, shit," then her probe formed near my shoulder.

"Hi, Lisa," I said, "Is this the guy you dumped me for?"

She gave me a big fisheye and a sharp, "What?!"

Randolph's eyes got as big as Lisa's, then his gaze narrowed. I held up a hand and said to him, "Just kidding. When we met, she thought I was after Lori, so we never had anything more than an ongoing argument as a relationship."

Lisa yelped, "I did NOT think you were AFTER her, Ed. I just thought you were pushing her too hard."

I shrugged and admitted, "Yeah, well, I prob'ly was. A number of uncharitable people have told me I can be difficult." Looking at Lisa, I said, "Anyway, Lori and I just want to eat and run. We're gonna get a table by ourselves and I didn't want you to have any hurt feelings. Okay?"

She glanced at Randolph, then at Lori, and then looked back at me for a moment before she replied, "Uh, okay. What's so..."

I interrupted her with, "Thanks, ma'am. Bye, all."

With that, I turned to join Lori at the serving line. Her glare said it all. I grabbed a tray, plates, and silverware and pointed at one of the steaks on display. In the reflection of the room in the Plexiglass sneeze guard, I saw Lisa and Randolph holding a conference almost nose-to-nose. He glanced at me in a desultory manner and said something and Lisa noddingly agreed as if he'd just spoken high gospel. Heh. Or maybe low gospel?

Good enough. That would keep both of them at bay on social levels and very likely make Randolph do some digging on his own. That would likely get someone's attention. I reached for a baked potato and met Lori's eyes in her reflection.

She muttered, "What was all that about?"

"Think she'll come to our table?"

"No. Well, maybe. Hell, I don't know."

"If she does, she'll probably lose Randolph first. Wanna know why I'm here?"

"Yes, actually, I do."

"Can't say exactly. It just seemed to happen. Know what that means?"

Rolling her eyes again, she responded, "No, Ed. What does that mean?"

As we took our stuff to an empty table, I said, "In this case, I think it means my subconscious is trying to find me something to do. Retirement still sucks."

"You want 3rd World to hire you back?"

"Not exactly. Maybe as a contractor. After I left, I had some job offers from government agencies and a couple of in-house mercenary outfits. Some of them got pretty obnoxious about it when I said 'no'."

She looked up from cutting her steak. "What are in-house mercenaries?"

"Paramilitary companies based in the US or exclusively employed by the US."

Lori chuckled, "Sounds right up your alley."

"Years ago, maybe."

"Have you suddenly sprouted a conscience?"

I looked up to meet her gaze and she backpedaled with, "Sorry. Not funny. You've always seemed to have a pretty decent conscience." Taking a breath, she added, "But I also remember when you told me the world has about five billion people it really doesn't need and shouldn't have to support."

"I haven't changed my mind about that. If humanity had any common sense, it would stop mindless breeding, share the essentials in economically viable ways, and head off future wars and shortages, but I don't expect to see that happen."

Sipping her drink, Lori made a wry face and nodded. "I don't either, really. So you're just here looking for something to do, huh?"

"Seems so to me."

"Is it possible you're actually looking for some company?"

"Prob'ly that, too. Are you offering?"

"That depends on what kind of company. I'm still with Mark."

I knew that, but I said, "Well, rats," in a conversational tone and snapped my fingers in a 'one that got away' gesture.

Lori said, "That didn't sound too sincere."

"You want sincerity? Gimme a holler when you kick ol' Mark down the road." She started to speak, but I continued, "I could be doing a lot of things, but I'm not. I even stopped writing for over a year."

That seemed to startle her. Lori asked, "Seriously?"

"Yup. My last book went out fifteen months ago. I putzed around editing some stuff I'd started, but nothing went any further. No interest."

"Writer's block?"

"Nope. Just a plain-damned lack of interest. Got some house repairs done and spent some time cruising the country on the bike."

After a moment, she said, "You want to know what I think? I think you came here because you just wanted some company. Someone who's enough like you."

Shrugging, I said, "Other than possibly boredom, I don't have a better theory. How well does Mark handle your field talents?"

With a pause and a glance at Aunt Lisa's table, Lori almost whispered, "He says they're altogether secondary to getting his hands on me," then she laughed softly and said, "Going by what I heard from Kate, Mark's a lot like you in that respect."

I chuckled, "That could be good or bad, couldn't it?"

"Yes, but mostly good in this case, I think."

Conversation lagged for a while as we got serious about eating. We were nearly finished when Lisa stalked over to our table. I looked up and said, "Hi, Lisa. Want to come to range six with us?"

She visibly shelved whatever she'd been about to say and blurted, "Range six?! Ed, it's minus twenty and pitch dark out there!"

I finished my green beans, sipped my drink, and simply looked at her until she asked Lori, "Why range six at this hour?"

Lori replied, "This is the first I've heard about it." Looking at me, she said, "Like she said. Why range six?"

I shrugged. "Got a new toy and there's nothing on TV tonight."

Looking back at Lisa, Lori shruggingly said, "There you have it."

Sitting down, Lisa looked first at Lori, then at me. "Okay," she said, "A new toy. What kind of a new toy?"

"I'll show you when we get there. What's the deal with Randolph? I saw you two snuggling over there when I walked in, but now he's abandoned you."

In moderate shock, Lisa hissingly yelped, "We weren't snuggling! What is it with you?! Why do you say things like that?!"

"Hey, it looked like snuggling to me, ma'am. You had a grip on his arm and you were whispering sweet nothings in his ear."

I saw her shift her weight and got my five suit on just before her foot slammed my shin. When her kick had little effect on me, her brows knitted and she looked under the table, likely to see what she'd hit. Straightening up, she adjusted her blouse and said, "Randolph is just a friend. Nothing more."

"He's being difficult, huh? How long before you get him, do you think?"

Lisa leaned forward and met my gaze. "Enough," she said, "Why are you acting like this?"

"That's a damned good question. I seem to be more obnoxious than usual this evening." Looking at Lori, I asked, "Any idea why?"

Lori canted her head slightly, rolled her eyes, and sighed, "If you can ask a coherent question, you probably have at least half the answer."

Eyeing her, Lisa asked, "Where'd you get that one?"

Aiming her fork at me before using it to spear the last of her green beans, Lori said, "Him. Sometimes he says things that seem reasonably intelligent."

Lisa looked at me and said, "Then he's definitely having an off night. Yes, I'll go to the range with you. I'd rather not leave Lori alone with you tonight."

"Alone?" I asked, "How's that?"

"Alone means alone. I'm sure you know that word."

I linked to Xenia and asked, "Got a minute, ma'am?"

She appeared on Lisa's right and asked, "Yes, Ed?"

Lisa recoiled hard, almost falling on her ass and turning her chair over. She gathered herself fairly quickly, though, and Lori set her chair back upright.

I said, "Yeah, I know what 'alone' means. Maybe you're the one who doesn't."

Lori leaned forward a bit to see around Lisa and grinningly said, "Hi, Xenia."

Xenia returned the grin and, "Hi, Lori."

* * * *

Chapter Six

Taking her seat, Lisa gently snapped, "Very funny. Okay, Ed, I'll grant you the word 'alone' may not fit, but ... "

A sudden and foreign field presence made me hold up a hand to stop her. I looked at Lori and found her wearing a slightly wide-eyed, questioning expression. She linked to me and said, "I thought I knew all the AIs."

"Me, too. Feels like it's over that way." I lifted a finger toward the transport dock.

She nodded slightly. Lisa asked, "What is it?"

Lori said, "Someone's coming. It feels like an AI we don't know, and I thought we knew all of them."

I looked at Xenia. She gave me a small smile and said nothing. The sense of presence grew stronger and suddenly a tall blonde lady I hadn't seen in years entered the mess hall with a brunette girl who looked about seven or eight. When Ellen saw me, she stopped a few feet from the doors. The kid simply changed course slightly and came toward us. Ellen got underway again and followed her.

Using my core to riffle through personnel records, I located Ellen Wilson and saw she had three children, two girls and a boy. The oldest girl was Aria, age eight, and I was looking at her. The kid came to a stop a yard from me and eyed me for a moment before speaking.

She said, "I know you. You're Ed. Sara showed me your picture."

Holding out my hand, I said, "I know you, too. Hi, Aria." Indicating the others from left to right, I said, "And she's Xenia, this is Lisa, and that's Lori."

Standing up, I shook hands with Ellen and said, "You're as gorgeous as ever, Ellen," then introduced her around as I pulled out chairs. Aria seemed fascinated with Lori and almost as fascinated with Xenia.

As I seated the newcomers and took their drink orders, Lori linked to me with, "Ed, I think that kid's the source of the field!"

"Yup."

"That's all you have to say?! 'Yup'?!"

"That's enough to cover all we know about her."

When I returned with Ellen's coffee and Aria's Coke, Aria's gaze locked intently on Lori for a moment, then switched to me.

She said, "Sara said to say hello for her."

"Well, when you get back upstairs, you can tell her I said hello right back, ma'am. What brings you ladies all the way to Carrington?"

Ellen said, "We're here to visit Dr. Planer."

Planer? I silently riffled again and found she was Carrington's Education Director. Huh. Didn't even know they had one of those. Aria needed her education 'directed' already? She'd be in what..? Second grade? Third, maybe? Reopening Ellen's file, I found Aria wasn't enrolled in the station school system.

Looking at Aria, I said, "Lemme guess. You're one of those really smart kids and you're here to pick a college, right?"

Aria met my eyes for a moment, then said, "Yes and no, respectively," and switched her gaze to Lori.

Looking at Ellen, I said, "I think the word for that is 'succinct'."

Ellen grinned and chuckled and Lisa asked, "Aria, honey, what grade are you in?"

Aria replied, "I'm not in a regular school. I have ... a tutor."

"Oh. Uh, well, then, what grade would you be in if you were?"

"Eleventh."

Her answer shocked Lisa and at least startled Lori, who gave Aria an odd, studious look as she said, "That's very good, Aria. Very good."

I looked at Ellen and said, "Sounds to me as if she already has plenty of educational direction. What's Planer hoping to accomplish?"

"That's yet to be seen. We have an evaluation interview scheduled for next week. In the meantime we'll visit Robert's family and Aria will have time to acclimate before the interview."

Uh, huh. Something wasn't being said. I glanced down at Aria, then asked, "No field tests, Ellen?"

Ellen startled visibly and cast a quick glance across the table at Lisa and Xenia, then back at me. I noted her glance hadn't included Lori and said, "It's all right. Do you know anything about Lori?"

She said tightly, "We've heard some unusual rumors. Our research department would love to meet her."

"Well, Lisa is Lori's aunt and acts like her mother. Xenia is an AI."

Relaxing somewhat, Ellen said, "I see. Perhaps we should adjourn to a less public place to talk."

Lisa said, "I have a BOQ room."

Lori said, "Range six would be better."

"Why would range six be better than my room?"

Surprising all of us, Aria called up a screen, quickly looked up range six, and said, "I'd like to go there."

Lisa almost warily asked, "Uh, you have a PFM? At your age?"

Aria pushed her blouse sleeve up a bit to show the device.

I asked, "Why shouldn't she? One of the ideas behind the PFM was to provide a level of protection for those least able to protect themselves."

For some reason, Aria gave me a studious look, then turned back to the screen.

Lisa said, "Oh, for God's sake! It's below freezing out there and it's too dark to see anything! Not that there'd be anything to see this time of year."

Lori said, "Think about it, Aunt Lisa. Aria was born and raised on the station. Brought to Earth in a big ship. Brought from the transport passenger dock to this building's sheltered entrance in a shuttle bus. She's probably never even once been what we'd call 'outside' in her life."

Turning to Ellen, I said, "She seems pretty civilized for a kid, so maybe you could haul her down to Florida someday. We'll take her to a beach."

Lisa said, "Better a beach someday than range six tonight."

Aria's fingers danced on the faux-keyboard and the Florida State website appeared. I said, "Don't believe all that hype, kid. The place only looks like that for about the first month or so, then it all starts to seem kinda normal."

She looked up with a fisheye, then gave me a small nod. Linking to her screen, I split it and put North Carolina on the other side.

"This is where I like to go on my bike once or twice a year. Mountains. Scenery. Twisty little roads." I moved a hand to demonstrate whizzing downhill around curves.

Lori added emphatically, "And blind curves, don't forget. We almost got eaten by a big truck coming the other way on one of his 'twisty little roads'."

Aria looked up at me again with that same fisheye. With a dismissive little wave, I shrugged and used a confidential tone to say, "He missed us by at least four inches and we were only going about fifty. She's just a nervous-Nelly type."

Lori had an 'oh, really?!' look on her face that made Lisa giggle. Ellen rolled her eyes and said, "Aria, he's using miles per hour and they're probably both right about how close it was."

"Tell you what," I said, hoisting my pack, "I have to run down the hall for a few minutes." Indicating Ellen and Aria, I suggested, "Why don't you ladies have dinner while you make a decision about range six?"

On my way to the bathroom, I called up Aria Wilson's file from the base records through my core. Nothing of any interest--to me, anyway--had occurred until two weeks ago. That spot in her file had a red and black striped flag, which meant there'd be an instant report about any attempt to access the info.

As I left the bathroom and wandered toward the front of the building, I decided I didn't need to know what was under that flag badly enough to deal with the bureaucratic hassle peeking would incite. Chances were it was just the point at which someone had discovered her field talent. If so, she'd likely had them long enough to be able to do something worthy of note.

When asked about her equivalent grade in school, she'd said, "Eleventh." That was the official estimate, but from what I saw in her file, it seemed to me she could probably make a decent start in most dirtside colleges.

Her friends: four in particular and a group of known acquaintances. Of the four friends, two were also scholastically exceptional, though not close to Aria's level. Linked routine video interviews regarding progress showed them to be apparently quiet kids, if not actually rather shy. Only one seemed unusually uncomfortable during his interview with the counselor, and he finally blurted out that he had to go to the bathroom. Soon. The interview was halted and I didn't watch part two.

Her four main friends all had a few things in common during their interviews. They sounded like well-spoken adults, used words not usually deployed in common discourse, and had tutors for all or part of their schooling. They also seemed to very consciously switch to more childlike behavior and speech only when the adults showed signs of discomfort with them.

That told me that they mostly hung out with each other and likely did so because they made other kids uncomfortable and had little in common with them. It also seemed very likely that--out of sight of teachers and other adults--they received a certain amount of grief from other kids for being brainiacs.

I found myself near the all night convenience store in corridor three. Good. There was nothing in Aria's health records about food restrictions, so I bought a bag of devil's food cookies. Remembering Ellen's fondness for them, I bought a second bag and two small bags of gummi bears for myself, then I started back to the mess hall. Motion halfway down the corridor to my left caught my eye; it was a tall blonde. I sent a probe and saw Barb Roberts heading my way.

One of the overhead fluorescents flickered and I sent a tendril to tap it, then twist it slightly as Barb approached. She stopped by the shop door and asked, "Does it need to be replaced tonight?"

I tapped it again, then chuckled, "Nah. Even if it goes out, there are enough others to get us through the night, ma'am."

When I turned to look at her, I made a show of freezing slightly and being somewhat startled as I looked her up and down once.

Looking over her clothing, she asked, "Is something wrong?"

I asked, "Wrong?! With you?! Are you kidding, lady? If you have brains to match your looks, you pretty much have to be some kind of a goddess!"

Leaning to pretend to read her name on her badge as she blushed, I sighed, "Oh, hell. I've probably earned a trip through some damned government-run PC sensitivity class for saying that before I knew who you were."

Barb smiled and said, "Maybe not, depending on what you say next. I know who you are, Ed. Myra mentioned you a few times and you were on a list of people I'd likely encounter here sooner or later."

Myra mentioned me? Likely true because I might mention her to Myra and stories would have to match. List of people? Undoubtedly on someone's list.

She noddingly indicated my cookies and grinningly asked, "Got a sugar habit?"

"Nope. Got a few ladies in the mess hall who want to visit range six tonight."

That raised her eyebrows. For a moment she seemed to look for truth in my eyes, then said, "Give me a minute. I'd like to meet those ladies."

Hm. She wasn't at all uncomfortable inviting herself into things. I laughed, "Oh, yes, milady! At your service, milady! By your command, my queen!" and she stopped in the doorway to turn and grin wryly at me, then went into the store. I put my loot in my backpack and checked my coffee stash while I waited. Half a jar. Good enough. Hm. The range vending machines would be in storage in this kind of weather.

As I reentered the store and chose six packs of lemon tea and dr pepper, Barb gave me a sidelong glance from the register. She stood to one side as I paid for the drinks and the clerk bagged them, then she fell in on my left a few steps beyond the door and asked, "Why range six?"

I shrugged. "Nothing on TV."

She snorted a chuckle. "No other reasons?"

Looking at her, I asked, "How much do you know about me?"

"What's on file. I'm a Top Secret."

"What's my TRC number?"

With a sharp glance, she paused a moment, then said, "2813."

"What does 'TRC' stand for?"

Another pause, then, "I don't know."

"Now I know how much I can tell you about anything. In this case, I came up with a new field toy and the eight year old in the group has never been off the asteroid station. It'll be her first time outside as we on Earth define the term 'outside'."

She stopped cold and grabbed my arm. "You're taking a kid out there? Seriously?"

"Her mother is coming, too. So is Lori and her aunt. Everybody has PFMs."

Her grip on my bicep tightened slightly. "Ed, I'm not sure I can allow this."

"We aren't asking you to approve. You can come along or not."

Raising her left arm as if it were actually necessary to do so, she activated her PFM and pinged security. After her brief explanation, the guy put her on hold and I pulled my arm free, then went into the mess hall. Barb followed with long strides, catching up just as I reached the table. I set the drinks on one chair and my pack on the table and unzipped it.

"Ladies, I bought some snacks to celebrate Aria's first night in the open air. This is Barbara Roberts, an NSA liaison. I ran into her in the hall."

Aria looked at Barb, noted that Barb seemed rather antsy, and asked, "What's wrong with her?"

"Nothing, ma'am. She's waiting for a call back."

With a nod, she turned back to her plate and quickly ate the last few bites of corn. Ellen was a bit more than half-finished with her meal. She seemed to hurry a bit as she took a few more bites and washed them down.

Barb's call back finally happened. Angie appeared on a screen by Barb and said, "There's no problem, Agent Roberts. Go with them or not, as you wish."

"It's the middle of the night and it's cold as hell out there!"

"Their PFMs can handle the weather. Ed and Lori have flitters and range six is off line until Monday, so they won't be interrupting anything."

Still looking rather shocked, Barb looked at the unruffled faces around the table, then said, "Understood. I guess that was all, then. Thank you."

Angie said, "No problem. Good night," and turned off the link.

I asked, "So ... are you coming along?"

Giving me a tight look, Barb said, "Oh, yes. Absolutely."

Ellen set her fork down, sipped her drink, and stood up. "Ready."

Aria also stood up, as did Lori and Lisa. Xenia gave a little bye-bye wave to Aria and vanished. Barb froze and stared hard at the space where she'd been and Lori and Lisa giggled. I grabbed my pack and the drinks and led the way to the doors.

Calling up a standard six-seat flitter in the drive-through enclosure at the end of the building seemed to startle Barb again, though not so much as Xenia's departure. We boarded and the enclosure doors opened, then we soared over the bleak, barren, moonlit winter landscape on the short hop to the range. Aria hissed and gripped her seat, but took her cues from her mother, who sat quietly studying the world.

Barb had initially gripped her seat, but had almost immediately changed her grip to raise herself for a better look over the side. Well, at least flying in a flitter didn't seem to bother her too much. Had she just never seen one materialize before? Whatever. We were there in seconds and I considered what should happen next as I watched Aria stare around herself.

"Flitter," I said, "When we land, please become a hundred-yard-wide climate dome without a deck. Aria wants to look at the sky and get her shoes dirty at the same time. Give us seventy-five degrees farenheit and fifty percent humidity, but don't filter the air. Oh, and try not to disturb anything hibernating in the vicinity, please. I don't know what critters would be stupid enough to try to sleep on a flitter training range, but I'd bet some are out there."

The flitter set us down at the top of the hill, let us disembark, and then apparently disappeared. I set my pack and the drinks on the porch of the small range building and put the refreshments on display, then said, "Okay. Come and get it, ladies."

But only Lori and Lisa came to take cookies and drinks. Aria stood staring at the Earth beneath her feet until she suddenly knelt and touched it. Ellen watched her run her fingers through the dirt, then knelt beside her to do the same. They spoke in low tones and Ellen hugged Aria's shoulders as she raised an arm to gesture around.

Barb watched both of them for a time, then looked at me for a moment, smiled, and nodded slightly. Very slightly, in fact. I matched her tiny nod.

Lisa said, "Barbara seems to have had a change of heart about this trip."

"Yup. Sometimes people have to experience things--or watch someone else experience them--to understand them properly."

"This was a very nice thing to do, Ed."

I grinned and chuckled, "That's why I did it, Lisa."

As Ellen and Aria stood up and studied the nearly-full moon, Lori sighingly said, "Look at her. Aria, I mean. I wonder how she'll describe this moment later?"

Snorting a soft laugh, I said, "Very well, probably. She's kinda smart."

With a laugh of her own, Lori agreed, "No doubt." Turning to Lisa, she said, "This is where he brought me and taught me how to lift things. I sat on this very porch right where you're sitting now and learned how to make ice in a potato chip bag, then he caught a rabbit and taught me how stuns work."

Lisa raised an eyebrow. "You used some poor little rabbit as a training aid?"

Opening a dr pepper, I said, "It wasn't little. It was a big jack. And I only stunned it about twice before I stunned her. She picked up the trick real fast after that."

Lori laughingly yelped, "Oh, don't tell her things ... like that! You make it sound like a torture session!"

"Wasn't it? You certainly bitched enough."

She raised her voice a bit. "I did NOT bitch! And while parts of it weren't particularly pleasant, it wasn't what I'd call torture, okay?"

Recoiling as if in fear, I responded, "Woo! Yes'm! Not torture and you didn't bitch. Got it, ma'am! Don't hit me, I bruise easy."

"Oh, blow it out your ass. You were just trying to tease Aunt Lisa."

"Y'think so, huh? Who just got all fuzzed up, sweetie? Aunt Lisa has been the very model of ladylike decorum while you harangued me."

"I didn't harangue you, you putz!"

Looking at Lisa, I said, "You heard that. Did she?"

Raising a hand as she prepared to sip her tea, Lisa chuckled, "Uh-uh. Oh, no. Fend for yourself, mister. I'm always on her side."

"Figures. Did I get the right tea?"

She nodded. "It's fine. So are the cookies. Thanks."

I felt a field approaching and recognized Angie's board presence. Lori did, too, and scanned the sky back toward base. I watched Aria. She seemed to become aware of Angie's arrival a little after we did. Stopping her stroll and looking around, Aria stood facing the oncoming field presence.

Angie swooped to a stop in the two overlapping cones of light by the building and hopped off her board with a cheery wave and, "Hi, all." To me, she said, "Devil's food cookies? I'm sorry I didn't get here sooner. How are they taking all this exposure?"

"Pretty well, I think. Got drinks, too. Grab some stuff and have a seat. If we try real hard, maybe we can make them feel like a zoo exhibit."

Her gaze narrowed. "I hope you were kidding."

I shrugged. "Sort of. We're the audience, they're the show. We know it and they know it, but everyone is trying to ignore it."

"Except you."

"Yup. Seemed worth saying. I think we should find something else to do and let them tell us when they're ready to go in. The flitter can manage the dome."

"What kind of 'something else'?"

Pointing just ahead of the porch, I called up my emerald suit and had it rotate slowly as Angie and the others dropped their teeth in surprise. Barb came running over and tried to touch it, startling a bit when her fingers actually made contact. Maybe she'd thought it was a hologram? Manifesting a screen, I showed them how I'd messed with a copy of my board to create the first suit, then turned off the screen and neglected to mention I'd turned the rest of the job over to my core.

"That's all it is," I said, "A lot of board-stuff shaped to fit me. I got the idea from the 'Iron Man' movie, but now I'm having trouble trying to think of a daily use for it."

Lori asked, "Well, what does Iron Man do with his?"

"Damned if I know. I haven't read a comic in twenty years or so. Wait, not true. I found a bunch in a garage sale in ... 1995, I think? Read 'em and gave 'em to Goodwill. No 'Iron Man's in that pile, though."

Lisa said, "He does what they all do. They run around fighting crime."

"I do that anyway when I happen across one. Don't need a suit to fly. It'll stop all known bullets and shrapnel, but I hardly ever encounter that kind of stuff these days." Briefly manifesting each suit in my four-suit field wardrobe and stopping at the tux, I added, "And I already have a few other suits."

Barb asked, "ALL bullets and shrapnel? Really?"

"Yup. Want one for a bomb suit? You could use it to clear minefields, too."

"And it flies?"

"Yup. Wanna see?"

"Oh, hell, yes!"

I stood up and stepped into the suit. Angie produced a screen that made the night sky around us look like a day sky and said, "Ready when you are."

The suit reformed itself around me and I gave the ladies a little wave, then lifted at just under the speed of sound. Arcing around the base, I pinged Angie and suggested that she tell her people not to shoot.

Her reply was a grinning, "Would it matter if they did?" as she split the screen and linked to the OPS desk.

I said, "Missiles aren't just bullets, ma'am. I might get bruised or something."

She told someone to stand down twice before she was sure he had, then she grinned again and asked, "But how will we know if we don't try, Ed?"

"Try on the suit and let 'em shoot at you, major, ma'am."

Arcing the suit's trajectory over the main buildings, I brought it to a standing landing a few inches from where I'd taken off and said, "It'll be expensive. I'm six-two and one-eighty-seven and something like twenty boards went into this one." Looking at Barb, I said, "On the other hand, it'll never wear out or break."

She ran her hands over the suit and marveled at the color.

"Yeah, it's cool," I said, "I really like this shade of green."

For some reason she snickered, then laughed, and moved around me to look at the other side, still caressing the suit.

* * * *

Chapter Seven

I stepped out of the suit and went to the porch for my drink and a couple of devil's food cookies. Ellen and Aria had come to look at the suit, and after a few moments, Ellen came to stand beside me.

"That was very impressive, Ed."

"Yeah, but I really don't have any use for a suit like that."

"Someone will. If you couldn't use it, why'd you dream it up?"

"Saw something like it in a movie. It seemed like a good idea at the time."

Angie came over to stand on my other side and asked, "How long have you known you could combine boards?"

"Since about three this afternoon."

"Really? How'd you find out something like that?"

Vastly simplifying my answer, I said, "I was talking with Athena."

"I see." Looking at the suit for a time, she asked, "How much are you going to want for the design, Ed?" When I looked at her, she said, "You know I have to ask. Someone will ask me the same thing later."

"I don't know yet. Gimme a minute."

Watching Barb continue to marvel over the suit, I ate my second cookie, sipped my drink, and called, "Hey, Barb, need you over here for a minute."

With only one glance back at the suit, she came to stand in front of me and said, "Okay. What's on your mind?"

"You really like that suit, don't you?"

She laughed, "You couldn't tell?!"

"Right. Okay. Well, how would you like that one? It would still belong to 3rd World, but you'd be its only official user."

Barb goggled at me as Angie put a hand on my forearm and said, "Ed," in a cautionary tone, "She's not with 3rd World. She's a liaison."

"Know that," I said. "But that's my price. 3rd gets the design if Barb's the exclusive user of this very first suit." Facing Angie, I said, "You let her on base and she knows about fields, boards, and PFMs. The NSA can lend her out for bombs and stuff."

With a fat chuckle, I turned to Barb and said, "And that's the other end of this fancy deal, ma'am. You--that's YOU--get to go in and disarm bombs." I shrugged. "Or not, I suppose, in which case, y'might wanna wear earplugs."

Faces settled grimly around me. I looked at Barb expectantly. After a studious look at Angie, Barb faced me squarely and said, "Let me see you do it first. I want to be absolutely sure the product works as advertised."

I gave her a big grin and a small salute and said, "You got it. 'Suits' me, ma'am. That was a pun, by the way."

"If you say so. When will I see it work?"

I turned to Angie. "Is range five operational?"

"It can be. Are you sure you want to do this?"

Linking to Athena, I asked, "Will the suit handle big bombs?"

"Define big, Ed."

"Typical IED-type bombs, I guess. I don't know what else she could expect."

"It would easily survive the largest IED used so far."

"Good 'nuff. Thank you."

Angie asked, "Ed?"

I nodded. "Yup. Just got confirmation. Athena says it's tougher than the largest IED anyone's used so far. Show me to your pissy little land mines, ma'am."

"We could do this tomorrow, you know. This range visit was about letting Ellen and Aria get a little taste of Earth."

Ellen brightly piped up with, "Oh, we've done that, Angie. Let's go watch Ed blow himself up."

I chuckled, "Gee, thanks so much for all your enthusiasm, milady."

She snickered, "Think nothing of it, sir."

I glanced at Aria. Her face was expressionless, yet somehow very studious.

Barb waved her hands in protest and said, "You people are nuts! Are you really going to let him walk through a damned minefield?"

With a nod, Angie said, "Yes," and used her PFM to summon a field flitter inside our dome. I let the suit vanish, grabbed my backpack, and let the ladies take charge of the cookies and drinks as we boarded. Angie canceled the dome field and, a bit more than a mile later, she put up a screen as we hovered about fifty feet above the frozen terrain.

Glowing yard-wide white dots appeared on the landscape below and Angie rather needlessly said, "The dots are mines."

"Seemed likely." I suited up and hopped over the side to land a couple of yards from one of the dots. "Athena, will I need earplugs?"

"No, Ed. The suit will reroute energies as required."

"Thanks, again, ma'am."

With that, I waved up at the flitter, then stepped into one of the dots. Nothing happened, so I stepped left. Still nothing. When I lifted my right foot to take another step, the world turned scaldingly bright and very literally exploded around me. What seemed like half a second later I fell several inches into a small crater and the suit kept me from twisting an ankle on the sloping crater wall.

Hopping out of the little crater, I flew over to the next dot and landed on it. Nothing happened, even when I lifted my feet. I stomped my feet around the dot a few times before another explosion happened.

"Angie," I said, "Make the dots smaller. I'm having to hunt for the mines."

The dots shrank and I found the next mine the moment I lifted my left foot.

As I hopped to the next one, I said, "Much better, ma'am."

Angie said, "Okay, that's enough, Ed. You're having entirely too much fun at 3rd World's expense. Bring the suit back aboard so we can check it over."

Check it over? Hm. Must be for Barb's benefit. Angie had tried axes, hammers, torches, and probably more on a board and found that up to a certain very high point of stress and/or impact, the boards were damned near indestructible. She'd also learned that when damaged, they healed quickly without a trace of injury.

When I landed, Barb's marveling began all over again. From head to toe, she tried to find any sort of mark on the suit and failed.

Lifting an armored arm to point at Barb, I asked, "Angie, can we spare another mine or two for her?"

Barb froze solid for a moment, staring hard at me, then at Angie, and then she sort of shook herself out of her paralysis. Raising her arms as if to be dressed by someone else, she asked, "How do I get into it?"

I briefly discussed that with Athena, who programmed the suit for Barb, then I took Barb's right hand to guide her to the suit and said, "Just step into it, milady."

"That's all there is to it?"

"That's it, that's all. Turn around and back into the suit or walk into it from behind."

She chose to step into it from behind, reaching as if to slide her arms into sleeves as she moved forward. A second later, the suit adjusted to fit her and she stood there admiring how it moved with her.

"Looks good on ya, ma'am. Different somehow, though. Better, I think."

"Different? Better than what?"

"Better than it looked on me. You have a marvelous figure, ma'am."

I couldn't see her face, but she suddenly stood a little straighter and asked, "Is this really the place and time for such comments?"

Eyeing the suit, I said, "Oh, yeah. Definitely. You just made that suit worthwhile." Turning to Angie, I asked, "Didn't she? Didn't she do wonders for that suit?"

Angie laughed, "Sure. Wonders. You're such a sucker for beautiful women."

"I know, and I hate myself for being such a victim, ma'am."

That made Angie laugh again. Ellen laughed with her. Aria simply continued studying the tableau on the deck.

Again linking to Athena, I asked her to limit the suit to half standard scooterboard flight parameters and let Angie have the on and off key. She asked why. I said because there should always be reasons to maintain contact with your source.

"You intend to make her dependent on 3rd World Products?"

"Yup. I don't trust the government."

"But you've also said you don't trust 3rd World anymore."

"True, but I trust the government a helluva lot less. If they try to misuse the suit Angie can make it disappear completely."

"I see. Done, Ed."

"Thank you, Athena. You're a true marvel."

Barb had been walking around the deck doing knee bends, flexing her arms, and generally testing her ranges of motion.

She did a waist-high kick and I said, "Hey! Just like a big green Rockette!"

The suit turned to face me and stood very still. Trying to appear chastened, I queried, "Uh ... well, okay, then ... maybe a Tyler Rangerette, instead?" Correcting myself, I added, "Nah. You'd need a short skirt and a cowboy hat for that."

As if suddenly inspired, I sent a field tendril to add a thin layer in a lighter shade of green to form the words, 'Danger Rangerette' in italics across her chest.

Standing back as if admiring my work, I asked, "Whaddaya think, Angie? Perfect, huh? She'll be the envy of bomb squads everywhere!"

Rolling her eyes, Angie replied, "Oh, no doubt."

Barb shouted, "What the HELL did he just put on me?!"

I formed a field mirror and reversed the display so she'd see herself as we did.

Barb yelled, "How the hell do I get out of this thing? I am SO going to straighten you out!"

Aria said conversationally, "You can't use that name. It's trademarked." We all turned to face her. She said, "It's true. Danger Rangerette is a comic character."

Pretending great disappointment, I muttered, "Well, damn," and reached over to wave my hand near Barb's chest. The letters disappeared and she screeched, "What the hell?! Did you just grope my boobs?!"

"No, I just erased the letters."

Barb almost screamed, "They-were-on-my-boobs, weren't they?!"

Angie started laughing hard and had to sit down. Ellen soon joined her in laughter and took a seat beside her. Barb simply stared at them. I tapped her arm.

She snapped, "What?! What the hell is it now?!"

"Flight instruction, ma'am. Envision the suit going in the direction you want until it does it. Don't worry about landing hard; boards won't let you crash and the suit is made of boards. Think you can do that?"

She snapped, "Can you do it?"

"If you'll recall, I did do it."

"Then I can damned well do it too."

"Glad to hear it. Hop to it, ma'am."

Barb stood straight with her arms rigidly at her sides for some moments. I left the mirror field up so she could see her progress. She surprised me by actually lifting the suit a few tentative inches off the deck about a minute later. As soon as she realized her success, of course, it disappeared and the suit dropped to the deck.

Putting a hand on her arm, I lifted the suit like a balloon and carried her to the rear of the deck as I almost whispered, "That's all there is to it, Barb. You think it and the suit does it. Stay put a minute."

Calling up my own board, I hopped onto it and slid off the deck, then back again. I had the board rise and drop, then turn as if on a spindle until I again faced Barb.

Still almost whispering, I said, "Like that. It's one of those 'just do it' things. Ready to try it again?"

"Yes," she replied equally softly, and then, "Why are we whispering?"

"Because now we're past the jokes and down to the nitty gritty. Give it a shot."

"Okay." I heard a soft grunt from within the suit.

I said, "You don't have to strain yourself. Just think it and let the suit do the lifting. Wanna know why I gave you a hard time earlier?"

She hissed, "Yes, damn it, I do."

"Because a bit of emotion helps make things happen. Without it, you'd probably have been out here all night trying to move that suit."

She blurted, "You're serious?"

"Shhh. Yes. It can take people quite a while to figure out stuns, for instance. Piss 'em off a little and suddenly they're plinking at you with fifty percent or more."

With that, I reached out and shoved her hard. The suit compensated to keep her upright as she stepped back, of course, and she barked, "Hey! What the hell?!"

Moving to her left, I gave her another hard shove, this time toward the rear edge of the deck.

"Stop that, dammit! You'll make me fall!"

"That's the idea."

I slammed her with both hands again and set her back a pace that took her to the very edge of the deck.

Ellen and Lisa both yelled, "Ed!" and other stuff, but I avoided Barb's flailing attempts to deflect my hands and shoved her backward hard. The suit stabilized upright as before, but Barb had begun to lunge sideways to duck my last shove. Her instinctive avoidance move had turned into a powered leap that took her thirty feet to the left of the flitter.

She screeched and flailed and only managed to take herself higher as her terror of falling kicked in hard and fast. Expressions from the seating area varied among anger and amazement and Angie's display of exasperated weariness. Mostly anger, though, from Ellen and Lisa.

Angie rested her elbows on her knees and shook her head as she sighed, "I know Barb, Ed. You'll be lucky if she only breaks your arms when she gets back down."

"Maybe not. To get back down she'll have figured things out." I grabbed another tea and scooted off the deck on my board to catch up with Barb.

Two hundred feet up and away from the flitter, I stood in front of her and asked, "How's it going in there, ma'am?"

She screamed, "You bastard! You sonofabitch! If I ever get down in one piece, I'm going to kick-your-ass, you hear me?!"

"Yes, ma'am, I hear you fine. And that's exactly what I wanted to hear, in fact. Now, if you'll just turn all that rage into something useful, you'll be able to fly that suit."

I flicked the board forward a bit and slapped her armored butt as I said, "Come on, lady. Get it in gear."

Her ranting began again, but didn't last too long because she gained altitude fast. Quick upward distance faded her scream. I caught up with her and said, "See, Barb? A little emotion. Now quit screwing around in there and fly that thing. Remember you can't crash and try to follow me. I'll do some slow circles until you catch on."

"You'd better damned well hope I don't catch YOU!"

"Still waiting to see some positive results, ma'am."

"Dammit, stop calling me 'ma'am'! I'm only..."

"Hahahahah ... you're only what? Twenty-five?"

There was no answer for a moment, then she said tensely, "It just makes me feel old, that's all."

Good. Pretending to guess four years low took the edge off her mood.

I said, "Yes, milady. As you command, milady."

She snapped exasperatedly, "You can drop that bullshit, too."

"Oh, yes, milady. As you command, my milady."

She growled and her suit moved toward me. I backed away a bit and she kept coming. I made my board rise a few feet and she somehow haltingly followed. Good enough. She was past her fear of falling and focusing on me. I let the board drop twenty feet and heard Barb hiss something that sounded fairly obscene, but after a few moments, the suit began to descend slowly. I dropped some more and she followed at a quicker pace. When I moved sideways and up, she turned the suit and followed me fairly smoothly.

"Oh, my God!" she exclaimed softly, "I'm actually flying!"

"Yup. Come on, I'll show you around the sky before you pop mines."

With growing alacrity, she followed me in a wide circle around the flitter. I expanded the second circle and the third, then I moved upward to about a mile. She stayed about fifteen or twenty feet from me all the way and the flitter stayed about fifty feet below her.

Linking to the suit, I said, "You seem to be getting the hang of things, milady."

"Stop calling me that. How are you talking to me?"

"Hello? We wear PFMs and the suit has commo capability, milady. Your question should be; why am I talking to you like this?"

"What? Okay, why?"

"Because we're going over two hundred miles per hour and it's damned hard to talk any other way. Milady. Ready for some aerobatics? Milady?"

"Some what? Oh, Jeeez! What are you going to do?"

"Just follow me. If you can. Milady."

I whizzed through half a dozen simple loops and rolls and Barb trundled along after me, but I noted she was improving fast. Though slightly slower, she didn't cut any corners or roll inside through the last series of maneuvers.

Leaving my suit link open, I pinged Angie. She answered with, "Yes, Ed?"

"Whaddaya think, ma'am? Did I get her up and flying in record time?"

"Better than record time, I think."

"Kewl! Think she'll still try to kill me when we touch down?"

"I have no idea, but she's always seemed reasonably bright before. Could be she'll realize you were just helping her get a quick start."

Barb cut in, "You two can stop talking about me as if I wasn't here. I understand what he did and why."

I asked, "Hey, Barb, can you shoot pool?"

After a brief pause, she answered, "Yes. Sort of. Why?"

"Because there's a pool table in the Dirtside Lounge. You owe me five games."

"Five games?! For what?!"

"A fancy suit and flying lessons, of course."

"You made that deal with Angie, not me. I wasn't consulted about payback."

"So you won't shoot pool with me?"

"Well, not on that basis. I will, however, buy the first round and the first table."

"That works. Let's pop a couple of mines and head back in. Angie, show us were we need to be, please."

She said, "Follow me, people," and the flitter banked away and down.

A couple of minutes later I watched Barb carefully land on the flitter's deck a few feet from me. Angie again made dots below. Barb stepped out of the suit to take a few minutes and about half a can of tea and relax, then she stepped back into the suit and walked to the edge of the deck. In a conversational tone, she said, "Geronimo, everybody," and then she hopped off the deck and lowered herself to the ground.

She walked a few paces to the first mine, hesitated, and then stepped directly on the trigger mechanism. When nothing happened for some moments, I said, "Uh, Barb, these types only go off when you try to move away."

There came a strained, high pitched giggle and, "Oh! Oh, hell! Okay! I thought there was something wrong with it!" She lifted her right foot slightly. The mine went off and the suit didn't move until--without commands to do otherwise--it dropped into the shallow crater.

Barb yelped, "What the hell?! It was like I stepped off ... well ... a step!"

I replied, "Some of the frozen world under your feet just disappeared."

She turned the suit around and pointed at another dot. "I'm going over there!"

"The ones over there cost extra, ma'am."

"What?"

"Never mind."

She again placed herself directly on a mine and lifted a foot. Another explosion rang the night air. This time she didn't yelp when she dropped into the crater.

I asked, "Do you believe me yet?"

Barb laughed, "Yes! Angie! Can I do one more?"

Angie said, "Okay. One more, then we'll go in."

After another blast, Barb falteringly began ascending, then straightened up and soared into the sky. She called, "I'll see you there!" and headed back toward the lights of the base.

We followed and arrived at about the same time Barb landed outside the drive-through. The flitter triggered the doors open and Barb hop-flew in ahead of us, then waited as we entered. When the light above the door turned green to indicate temperatures above sixty, we stepped off the flitter and Barb stepped out of her suit. It vanished and I felt the board stuff that had formed it rise to a place above her.

I turned on my five suit on general principles as she strode over to me. For a long moment she just stood there matching my gaze like a drill sergeant, then she stuck out her hand. I took it without letting my five suit fade. There's an old sucker punch that starts with a handshake.

But it was just a handshake after all. She almost whispered, "We'll talk about all this sometime," and I replied, "Okay. If you think it's necessary."

She said, "Oh, it will be," then she turned and marched to the inner door and held it open for us.

* * * *

Chapter Eight

Angie chuckled, "Stan's going to love this trick."

Barb asked, "Stan? As in Stan Maxwell?"

Nodding, Angie said, "Ed wasn't kidding. That suit's tuned to you and only you."

"It can't be reassigned?"

"Not by me."

Giving me a sharp look, Barb asked, "Why me, Ed?"

"Fifth amendment, sweetie."

She stopped as if she'd hit a wall. "Did you just call me 'sweetie'?"

"Well? You bitched about ma'am and milady. I prefer those, but noooo..."

"You won't call me 'sweetie', either."

"No sweat. I'll come up with something."

She snapped, "Why not try using my name for a change?"

"You really don't mind?"

She gave me a peering gaze and rather flatly asked, "Are you nuts?"

"Could be. Barbara Millicent Roberts. Barbie for short, right?"

Barb froze and stared. "How the hell would you know something like that?"

"My sis had one. Or rather, she decided it was hers. My other sis got pissed when she wouldn't share it and tore its head off one day. Big squabble. I fixed it to turn off all the noise. Didn't work. They were still squabbling the next day. I wanted to know why the hell a doll was worth all that fuss, so I read the box and the paper inside it. Still couldn't figure out why it was such a big deal. Learned a lot about girls, though. They can turn seriously mean about things I don't understand at all."

Ellen snorted a laugh and Angie chuckled. Barb gave me a fisheye and seemed to consider her next words.

"Ed, I'm Barbara or Barb. If you can't work with those, I'm Agent Roberts."

Giving her a half-assed salute, I stoutly replied, "Yes, milady!" Turning to Angie, I said, "And I can be Dragonfly again and you can be my Fearless Leader, ma'am."

With an 'oh, really?!' look, she asked, "Are you sure, Ed?"

"Well, Linda's not using it lately."

Getting us moving again, she replied, "Well, thank you. I think."

"Don't worry, she prob'ly won't want to fight you for it."

"I hope not. I think she could still take me."

"Very likely, ma'am. She put me on the floor a few times."

"Sparring?"

"Well, when it happened, I called it that, sure."

Angie laughed again and Ellen joined her. Barb glanced at them and just continued walking. Aria seemed to continue studying us all. An odd kid if ever there was one. Apparently no sense of humor.

I said, "Aria. How'd you like it out there?"

She looked up at me and said, "It was ... unusual."

"Yeah, no doubt. What makes you laugh, kid?"

"Laugh?"

"You know that word, right?"

With a droll expression, she replied, "Yes. Why do you want to know that?"

"Oh, gee, I dunno. Maybe to see if I can make you laugh?"

She eyed me for a moment, then opened her mouth, but I said, "Please don't ask why I'd want to do that."

Her mouth snapped shut, then she asked, "Why not?"

"Because if you truly have to ask, you won't understand the answer, and if you ask for any other reason, you're just being a difficult brat."

Angie let out a cautionary, "Ed..."

"Yeah, yeah. Look, this kid is probably smarter than about half the people on the base, but I think she's running a con with this 'Little Miss Spock' act."

Ellen rather frigidly asked, "A con?"

"Yup. On everybody else or on herself. Her tutor is Sara, right?"

Through tight lips, Ellen replied, "Yes."

"Out of necessity, I'll bet. Regular school wasn't enough for her, was it?"

"No."

"And some people have given her a hard time for being too bright, also right?"

Glancing at Aria, Ellen again said, "Yes."

"Well, this act is a big part of the reason. It makes her seem aloof and strange. They can't find any way to relate to her." I turned to Aria and said, "Even Einstein laughed now and then, kid. It'll soften your landing in the real world if you loosen up a little before you get there."

Ellen looked more than a little irritated. The others seemed to share her attitude. Lisa started to say something, but Angie took my arm to pull me away from the group and led me up the hallway. I didn't resist. I'd expected either her or Lori to do that. I also expected we'd only get about twenty feet before Aria said something.

From behind us came Aria's voice.

"Ed."

I continued a few more steps, now against Angie's inertial drag, before Aria said somewhat louder, "Ed."

I stopped and turned to find Ellen trying to shush Aria and guide her away and Aria trying to get around her. She succeeded and trotted a few steps in my direction.

She stopped and I asked, "Yes, ma'am?"

Glancing back once, she forged ahead with what was on her mind.

"I ... I thought a number of things you said and did this evening were funny."

"So why didn't you give some indication then?."

"I didn't think it was ... important."

"Yeah? Really? That does not compute, to borrow a phrase. You definitely thought it was important enough to pretend it wasn't."

Ellen quickly strode to Aria's side and again tried to get her to leave, but Aria stood her ground and raised her voice slightly with, "No! Mama, don't you see? If HE can see it, why can't everyone else? Miss Conrad says to stay aloof and in control, but I'm the only one who ever really does that and I hate it!"

"Well, you certainly aren't doing it right now, are you? Let's go, Aria."

"No! Not until someone ELSE understands!"

Linking to Lori, I said, "This would be a great time to let her know you know something about what it's like to be a bit different, ma'am."

"I can't tell her about fields in front of Barbara."

"Just that you're different, not necessarily how you're different."

Lori moved forward and said, "I think I know what you mean, Aria."

Ellen sighed exasperatedly, "Oh, God, not you, too."

Meeting her gaze over the kid, Lori stated flatly, "Yes. Me, too."

I whispered, "Angie, does Barb know about Lori?"

She nodded slightly. "Yes. Lori's half the real reason she's here."

Raising my voice a bit, I said, "Okay, then. It's time for some show'n tell, people. Lori, Barb knows about you. Athena, kill the hallway cameras, please."

Barbara gave me a glare, then turned it on Angie as Angie muttered, "Oh, shit, here we go again."

Lori gave Barb a somewhat accusing look and Ellen asked, "What the hell are you people trying to pull now?"

I said, "Sometimes it's easier to show than tell."

Using my implant to snap on my green light saber, I looked meaningfully at Lori. After a big sigh, she lit up her blue one and attacked me. We sparred for about twenty seconds, then I called a halt by letting my saber vanish, but didn't step away. Lori maintained her saber 'en garde', anticipating a follow-up attack.

Everyone was staring at us except Ellen, who'd pulled Aria back and away from the action. Aria was staring hard at Lori.

Ellen focused on me and asked, "What the hell was that supposed to prove?"

"Let's ask Aria."

"I'm asking you, damn it."

Ignoring her, I asked, "Aria, what's different about Lori?"

Aria's eyes tore away from Lori and met mine, then she said, "Lori didn't have to use her PFM."

"Are you willing to believe she knows what your kind of being different is all about?"

The kid nodded. "Yes."

"Good." Looking up at Ellen, I asked, "How about you?"

Ellen was now staring big-eyed at Lori. In a soft tone of wonder, she asked, "She really is a natural field user?"

Lori let her saber fade away and said, "Yeah, that's me. No hardware."

I said, "And now it's time for yet another mask to come off. Aria doesn't need a PFM either. Well, except maybe for things she hasn't quite figured out yet. That's how she knew Lori didn't use hers."

Two security guards strolled around the corner and into our corridor. After a look at us and a polite greeting, one of them used a PFM to reach up and tap a ceiling camera. I linked to Athena to ask her to turn them back on and someone called the guards to say they were working again. They excused themselves and left.

As soon as they were out of sight, I covered my mouth and pretended to yawn as I said softly, "Not another word, people. Not here." When I turned to Angie, I asked, "Your office, ma'am?"

"Yes. My office."

We trooped down there and took seats around and on her desk. I checked the coffee pot, found it full, and made a field mug. Barbara and Ellen couldn't seem to help staring at it. I assured them it wouldn't leak. Barbara gave me a doubting glance and turned her attention to Angie.

Angie tapped two buttons on a small pull-out console under her desk and said, "Okay, it's safe to talk. Who wants to start?"

Making a face, I said, "Me. Your coffee could strip paint off a car, ma'am."

Maybe it was the stress of the past half hour that finally broke her. Aria saw Angie's startled face, snorted a giggle, and blew a small wad of snot halfway across the room. The event and her subsequent look of embarrassed horror served to cause a round of snorts, giggles, and laughs from all except horrified Ellen, who hurriedly handed her kid a tissue and dashed to clean things up with another tissue.

What a break that was. I recycled one of Selena's jokes for the occasion and asked, "Hey, Aria, do you know the difference between spinach and snot?"

She gave me a big fisheye and shook her head.

I said, "Obnoxious little boys won't eat spinach."

Ellen showed her deep and vast motherly disfavor with the joke, Angie rolled her eyes and chuckled, "Eee-www, yuck," and Lori cracked up laughing, "But it's true! It's true!" Lisa started chuckling and couldn't seem to stop, though she managed to keep it from becoming an outright laugh. It was all infectious enough. Aria glanced at her mother and held herself in for a few seconds, then she, too, began laughing.

When things had calmed a bit, Aria came over to touch my coffee mug. I handed it to her and she studied it like some sort of strange historical artifact.

I said, "Major Angie's coffee is actually pretty good stuff."

With another glance at her mother, Aria created a field tumbler in her hand and offered it to me. I took it and looked it over with a nod. "Looks good. Solid. How much can you lift, Aria?"

She shook her head. "I don't know. A few pounds, I guess."

Angie asked, "May I see that?" and Aria took the tumbler to her.

Noddingly indicating Lori, I said, "Lori can lift a ton, I think."

That made her blink. Aria turned to look at Lori and asked, "A ton?! Really?"

Lori nodded. "Yes, but I won't kid you. It took a LOT of practice."

"What else can you do?"

"Oh, lots of things, Aria."

I poured some coffee on the floor and grinned as eyes got big around me and Ellen yelped, "What the hell are you doing?"

Lori sent a blue tendril ending in a field pad to the floor. It drew the coffee up better than any sponge, then she extended the tendril pad to the sink and made it vanish. The spot on the floor was absolutely dry.

Aria gave Lori a big grin, said, "That's how I do it, too!" and then turned to Ellen and said, "See, Mama? They DO know."

Ellen replied, "Yes, dear, I suppose they do." To Angie, she asked, "What now?"

"That's mostly up to you and Aria, Ellen. We can discuss it later."

Aria asked, "Discuss what, Mama? Me?"

Ellen said, "Of course you, Aria. You're why we came here."

I coughed gently and Ellen said, "You'd better be choking to death over there. I've had about enough of your comments this evening."

Meeting her gaze, I said, "Too bad. That wasn't much of an answer, Ellen. She already knew she was the reason for the trip." Looking at Aria, I asked, "Who on the station knows you can do field stuff?"

She named her closest friends, of course. And Sara. And Ellen and her father, but I felt she'd left someone out and gave her that 'continue, please' look. After a moment of pretending to have to think about it, she offered up, "Mrs. Aron. I think. I'm not sure, but she acted funny around me after Yolanda's birthday party."

I looked at Angie and asked, "Mrs. Aron?"

"The teacher who alerted us something was odd about Aria. She's also on a reserve security team, so she regarded the matter as a safety issue."

I laughed, "Really? Aria, what the heck did you do at that birthday party?"

She blushed and said, "Jessie Aron's baby sister tried to eat a candle from the cake. The stem part caught in her throat and she was choking, so I..." she looked around the room and said nervously, "So I ... well ... I sort of reached down her throat and removed the stem while we were waiting for help. All I had to do was expand the field around it to keep it from getting stuck again on the way out."

I looked at Ellen and said, "Sounds like what I'd have done."

She rolled her eyes. "Oh, I'm sure you would have."

"Well? It makes sense to me. Locate the item, isolate it, and pull it out." Looking at Aria, I asked, "So what was the problem? Mrs. Aron saw you do it?"

"No, one of the other kids saw me and told her about it."

I sighed, "Damn. Just as bad if she believed it." Looking at Angie, I said, "And she did believe it, didn't she?"

Angie said, "Not quite, but she believed Aria had used something to reach down her daughter's throat and she wasn't at all happy about it."

"Something like what? Salad tongs?"

"She didn't speculate about that." Sighing and sitting back, Angie said, "Aria's here because they thought she might be dangerous to the other kids. We were supposed to evaluate her. All that." Looking at Aria, she said, "Of course, we had an idea what you'd done, but we needed some tests to be sure. Then Sara contacted us through Stephanie and verified things. Aria, honey, you're only the second natural field user we've ever found. Lori's the first."

Ellen's eyes got big at that. She looked as if she wanted to say something, but couldn't make the words happen.

Aria stared at Angie briefly, then asked, "Just two in all the universe?"

Angie chuckled, "In the parts of it we know about, yes. Just you two."

When Aria looked at me, I grinningly drawled, "You feelin' better yet, kid?"

She grinned back and nodded. "Yes! Much better!"

Standing up, I said, "Great," and set my mug on the floor. Counting on my fingers, I said, "Let's see ... I got rid of a suit I didn't need, had a visit with Angie, Lori, and Lisa, met two fantastic blondes and a cute little brunette with field talents, and taught one of the blondes to fly." As if realizing something for the first time, I sighed, "But I'm pretty sure I created a whole new problem."

Leaning her crossed forearms on her desk, Angie canted her head and regarded me curiously. "And what might that new problem be?"

Thumbing at Ellen, I said, "Her. She came here in protective mother mode and I confronted her kid in the hallway. Now Aria doesn't have to feel so fearful and weird and act like a robot, but Ellen may actually hate me."

Ellen said, "I wouldn't call it hate. A strong dislike, perhaps."

I shrugged. "Close enough. You realize I was trying to help?"

"Oh, yes. What upset me was the method you chose."

"Can you name any other method that would have worked better?"

"Haven't you ever heard of school counseling?"

"Sure. Would her school counselor's name be Miss Conrad?"

Ellen's gaze narrowed. "Yes."

"A fat lotta help she was."

Turning to Aria, I asked, "Hey, kid, what did you think would happen to you down here at Carrington?"

Startled at suddenly being included in the conversation, Aria managed, "Uh ... I don't know. I didn't know what to expect." She glanced around nervously and said, "Earth is ... well, some kids say it's where they send people who aren't ... uhm ... good enough ... to stay at the station."

"Since that's the first thing that comes to your mind, it's probably a reflection of something someone actually said to you. You're pretty smart, so I'll bet you pretty much instantly thought of a few reasons that speculation couldn't be true. What happened when you tried to tell whomever they were full of bullstuffings?"

She snickered at the word 'bullstuffings', then said, "She shoved me away. She said I thought I was too smart to be around them and told me to leave them alone."

"Who's 'them'?"

Aria shrugged. "Some girls at gym. It's the only part of regular school I have to attend. Well, gym and some special classes."

"By 'special', you mean 'advanced', not 'retarded' or 'remedial', right?"

Almost as if embarrassed, she nonetheless grinned and softly replied, "Yes."

"Kinda thought so, really. Never use euphemisms, kid. Only word-weasels use them as anything but jokes and they usually use them as evasions of truth. Did you turn what that girl said around?"

"What?"

"Think about it. She accused you of being the thing she feared, that's all. Have any of those girls ever tried to talk to you?"

"No." She seemed to think about it, then said softly, "Never."

"That's very probably because they'd already come to the conclusion they wouldn't be smart enough. Not on your level. Unable to match you. They were afraid to even try, so they pushed you away and locked you out of their group rather than take a chance on looking stupid." I let that statement gel a moment, then asked, "Does that sound about right?"

After a thoughtful pause, Aria nodded. "I think so."

Looking at Ellen, I asked, "Any idea why her school counselor didn't think so?"

"No, but what makes you think she didn't?"

I asked Aria, "Did your counselor ever say anything like that?"

"No. Never."

Returning my gaze to Ellen, I asked, "Why not? Political Correctness? Was she afraid Aria might repeat it to someone and piss some people off? Did she maybe take the safer route of having Aria clam up and avoid contact to avoid more trouble she knew she couldn't fix? And who recommended this trip to Earth? Miss Conrad? Maybe because she knew she didn't have a hope in hell of dealing with things and figured to pass the problem on to someone else?"

Raising a hand to hold the floor, I added, "And none of that is any sort of accusation against you, Ellen. You're Aria's mom and there was a system and rules and all that. Coming down here might've been best anyway, just to have another set of eyes on the problem."

Looking at Angie, I said, "But once her testing was underway, there's no telling how long Aria would be here. Probably months. Maybe longer. Could be everybody concerned up there decided to take the safe, easy, non-controversial route and dump her here rather than deal with her. And all that could have happened without knowing about her field talent. Wouldn't be the first time a school system passed the buck where an unusual kid was concerned."

Aria looked a bit uncomfortable. Troubled. Barb came to kneel by her seat and take her hand, then she looked at me.

"This is why adults discuss these things among themselves."

"Leaving the kids in another room, you mean? Wondering what the hell's being said about them? How those adults will change their lives? Is that fair?"

"Ed, she's obviously very, very bright, but I'm not sure she truly understands everything you've said. I think she's feeling even more excluded now that she knows those kids made their decisions about her without even knowing her."

Giving her a fisheye, I asked, "Y'think so, huh? Let's find out. Aria, were those kids bright enough to be your friends?"

Shaking her head, Aria said, "No."

"Reason?"

She looked up at me and said, "Like you said, they came to their decision about me without knowing me."

"Would somehow forcing them to associate with you have made them learn anything about you, or would they have only pretended to accept you?"

Ellen said, "Those are leading questions, Ed."

"Yup. Well, Aria?"

"That's exactly what they did in two science projects. I made suggestions. When they used them, they made it look like someone else made them or that they came from a text book or other data."

"When that happened, what did you do?"

"When I realized I'd get no credit, I let them continue without me. I created my own projects and turned them in separately."

"Good. Did anyone ask why?"

Aria sighed, "Yes, and I tried to explain, but it didn't help. I received an 'A' for my project and an 'F' for project cooperation. She said I was exceptionally intelligent, but lacked the average social skills for my age group."

I chuckled to Angie, "Sounds familiar, huh? Screw 'em, I'll do my own thing."

Not sharing my amusement, Angie replied, "In that respect, yes."

"Sometimes you can't overcome anthill thinking, Angie. Children can be nasty little jerks to each other. And unless they all got an 'F' for the cooperation problem, the teacher was a biased half-wit."

Turning back to Aria, I said, "Hey, there, Miss Exceptionally Intelligent. You just ran into some people who had tons of education, but had no idea how people really work. Vast knowledge, but sparse wisdom. Does that make sense to you?"

Giving me an odd look, Aria replied almost tentatively, "Yes. I think so. You're saying they know a lot, but don't know how to apply their knowledge?"

"Something like that. How about I give you an example?"

Glancing up at Ellen, Aria nodded. "Okay."

"Here we go, then. Knowledge is what tells you a tomato is a fruit, but wisdom is what prevents you from putting it in a fruit salad. Ever had a fruit salad?"

She grinned. "Yes, and there were definitely no tomatoes in it."

Trying to look relieved, I said, "Well, that's good. That would have blown my example all to hell. Hey, speaking of being different..." I sent an emerald green tendril across the floor at Barb. She instinctively pulled her feet back under her seat. I asked, "Have you ever seen anyone make a tendril using a PFM?"

Aria watched the tendril slither around like a snake and shook her head. "No."

"I taught Angie how to do it today. Maybe she'll show us."

Everyone looked at Angie, of course. Her eyes got big and she said, "Uh, Ed ... those were just practice. I'm not good enough to perform in public yet."

"Bet you are. If nobody else can make one, that makes you the best, right?"

She gave me a droll expression, then looked at her PFM for a few moments. A small, thin tendril eventually appeared and stretched forward across her desk.

I said smugly, "See? Toldja."

* * * *

Chapter Nine

Angie sighed, "Ed, sometimes I think you have the mental capacity of a child."

Pointing at Aria, I asked, "Like that child? Hey, I'll settle for that. You bet."

Her attention switched back to her tendril as she said, "That's not what I meant and you know it. I think this is getting easier."

"Thought it might. Good for you, Fearless Leader."

Her eyes snapped back to me. "I know what Linda meant to you. Don't call me that unless you really, truly mean it."

"I mean it. My old one retired. I realized I wanted a new one, and you're the best candidate available. Of course, it's just an honorary title between missions."

"What missions? You retired too, as I recall."

"My retirement can be remedied. Again. Sort of. We'll talk later, okay?"

Turning to Aria, I said, "Did you know your Mom's the reason I came out of retirement the first time?"

Giving me an odd look, then aiming the same look at Ellen, she replied, "No."

"It's true. The big ship had just arrived and they needed people to guard Amarans, so I signed on. Wow, she was pretty. I almost fell in love with her the moment I saw her, but one day I found out how mean she can be. Well, you live with her, so I'm sure you know. It was always, 'Don't do this, don't do that. Are you crazy? You'll put your eye out with that thing. No, you can't have a motorcycle, they're dangerous'."

Ellen said, "I never said one word about motorcycles."

"Oh. Must have been one of the others, then." To Aria, I said in a confidential tone, "And that's something else; she was always correcting me about stuff."

With fisheyed skepticism, Aria replied, "I don't think I believe you."

Trying to look hurt and bewildered, I yelped, "What?! You think I'd hustle you?"

Stepping back into her robot persona, Aria stated, "I think I'd prefer to use the word 'bamboozle'," then she grinned and giggled. The ladies joined her with chuckles and an outright laugh from Lisa.

Looking at Barb, I said, "See? She understands things just fine."

Nodding, Barb smiled as she replied, "Apparently so. She certainly seems to understand you, anyway."

I'd been keeping an eye on Angie's efforts. Her tendril suddenly reached across her desk and three feet or so beyond. It abruptly winked out of existence and Angie reached into a top drawer for a large envelope before she said, "I can play with fields tomorrow. Ellen, you and Aria must be dead tired after your trip from the station. I'll get you settled into your room now if you're ready."

With a dismissive wave, Ellen grinningly replied, "Oh, I think we can find it. I used to spend quite a lot of time here, you know."

"Yes, but that was eight years ago. The security people today don't know you."

Ellen accepted her offer, though Aria looked less than thrilled. Barb asked if there was any luggage to carry. There wasn't; it had been delivered to their room.

Angie said, "Good. We can discuss a few things on the way. Barb, Lisa, Lori, and Ed, I'd like some time to go over a few details with Ellen and Aria."

Sighing, "That sounds like a big, fat hint. I think she's throwing us out," I got to my feet and walked to the door. The others also stood up and I held the door open as we made our goodbyes and left the office.

A little way down the corridor, Lori asked, "Ed, are you going back to Florida tonight?"

"Thought about it. Don't know yet."

"Why don't you know yet?"

"I thought I'd let a few people know I'm here and see what happens."

Barb asked, "Who?"

"Friends, ma'am."

"What kind of friends? Women?"

Lori chuckled, which made both Lisa and Barb give her odd looks. Barb turned back to me and seemed to think a moment before she asked, "Well, if you're not sure you're staying, can you spare me a few more minutes of your time tonight?"

"Guess so. Questions about the suit?"

"Yes."

"Okay. Let's go to the mess hall."

Lisa checked her watch and said, "Well, you two have fun. Maybe I'll see you tomorrow, Ed."

"That would be nice."

Lori said, "I'm going to go study a while. Got exams this week. Bye."

They took the south corridor as Barb and I continued on. As we neared the mess hall, I said, "Wait one. You said you'd buy the first round and the first game."

"You'd rather go to the Dirtside Pub?"

"Yeah, I think so. I've had enough coffee for now."

We changed course and Barb said, "I really appreciate that suit, Ed. I don't know why you made me the exclusive user, but I'll make sure it gets used."

"Why do you think I made you the exclusive user, Barb?"

"I just told you; I don't know."

"Think about it. I wasn't kidding in the least when I called you a goddess."

She stopped walking and I had to stop and turn to face her. Barb said, "I hope to hell you don't think giving me that suit will get you into my bed."

I chuckled, "Nah. But I thought the thought behind it might. Eventually. Maybe." Continuing toward the pub, I said, "Besides, I didn't 'give' it to you. I just made you the exclusive user."

She caught up and asked, "What's the difference?"

"The suit belongs to 3rd World and I can always make someone else the user. It doesn't really matter."

"If it doesn't matter, why'd you do it?"

This time I stopped and gave her a direct look. "Because certain people have bugged the living shit out of me about coming to work for them more times than I can count. A couple of outfits even tried some lightweight coercion. They failed. I might be tempted to come back to 3rd World on a per-mission contractual basis, but I'm not interested in working for any government or government-run agency."

For a few moments Barb seemed to try to process that, then she said, "I'm afraid I still don't understand, Ed."

Walking again, I said, "Okay. I came up with a hardsuit, but I decided to give it away. Figure that out yet?"

"No. It's a ... a phenomenal thing, Ed."

"Yes, it is, and if I didn't have a board that can fly and a flitter that can stop a tank round, I might actually have a use for it. But I don't. So I gave it to those who can arrange for it to get some good use."

We entered the pub as she said, "Okay, I can see all that. But what does that have to do with making me the only user?"

I said, "In a minute. Beers first," and we stopped at the bar to place orders, then we headed for the pool tables rather than stand and wait for our drinks. Barb checked her pocket and found two quarters. I gave her a third, then racked the balls as the waitress arrived with our drinks and two bucks in quarters and Barb paid her.

As I started to flip a coin, Barb said, "No, you break. Back to my question."

"Okay." I chalked my stick, set the cue ball about three fingers in from the left second diamond, laid the stick on the table edge, and slammed the cue ball into the second ball from the apex of the rack. One of the tail-corner balls bounced off two rails, whizzed back into what was left of the rack, and the eight ball that hadn't previously moved began crawling toward a side pocket. It stopped half an inch short and I swore softly. I really like making the eight on the break.

Barb had frozen in the midst of taking a sip. Her eyes were big as she stared at the eight, then at me, but she shook herself out of her shock and took the sip after all as I lined up on the four ball.

Clearing her throat, she asked, "You made a solid, huh?"

I chuckled, "Yes'm. That's why I'm shooting this one. Almost made two solids."

"Yeah, I saw that. It sounded to me as if you intended to make that eight."

Popping the four in, I aimed at the one ball and said, "Well, it does tend to shorten a game by a few minutes."

"And you broke one handed. And now you're shooting the same way."

"You're very observant tonight, milady."

"I told you not to call me that."

"Yes, milady, you did, but I like it, so I'll probably keep doing it."

The one fell. I set up for the seven. Barb said, "You still haven't told me why you made me the exclusive user."

The seven fell and I lined up for the five.

"Can it wait until I stop shooting?"

Damn. The ten was in the way on one side, the fifteen blocked a side bank shot, and taking it off the back rail would almost certainly make the cue ball hit the eight. I studied the table again and decided the side bank might work after all. Barely. But it didn't. The five touched the ten and missed the pocket.

"Oh, Glory Be!" Laughed Barb, "I get to shoot after all!"

"Savor it, milady. And just in case you're suggestible, don't miss, of course."

She laughed and gave me a raspberry noise, then aimed at her eleven ball. It went in and the thirteen was her next choice. She got that one, too, but ended up behind my five ball. Barb gave the ball the finger and stepped aside.

Sipping beer, I chuckled, "I knew there had to be a good reason for leaving that five on the table. I made you the exclusive user to irritate some people, milady."

"Who?"

"You work for one. 3rd's honchos. And you'll probably be called to use the suit by a few others who pushed a little too hard a few times."

Giving me a fisheye, she asked, "I work for one? You mean Stan Maxwell?"

"Yup. I'll tell you about it sometime."

She grinned. "Oh, no, no, no, tell me now. This ought to be good."

Sipping again, I replied, "Can't. Classified. I'll just say he tried to rope me into something and it didn't work. When it came time to pop the perps, I managed to have a gorgeous FBI lady aboard the flitter. She got the collar credit."

Barb seemed thoughtful, then asked, "Was her name Amy Harding?"

"Good memory, milady."

"The report said she had absolutely no involvement in the case until you flew all the way to Atlanta and very nearly kidnapped her from her office."

"Yup. I owed Agent Amy a good time. The first time she saw me, she got shot."

"Not by you, I hope."

Saying, "I'm never that rough on my dates," I popped the last of my balls in with easy shots, then hammered the eight into the side pocket. The cue ball backed up only a couple of inches and sat there spinning like a top.

Barb sipped and asked, "Have you seen her since then?"

"Nope. Guess I didn't call back soon enough after our first encounter. She met some guy and got engaged. They're getting married in July."

She laughed, "So you hijacked a betrothed FBI agent that day?"

"Yup. Called her to get her to meet me at the coffee shop next door, told her very little, but just enough, and she called in a sitrep on the way to the bust. The FBI called ahead and had two other agents on hand when we got there, but Homeland had them on ice in a trailer, playing bureaucratic games to let the NSA run what Stan thought was a sure thing for his team. I put Agent Amy in position and drove the game to her. She had to shoot one before he'd disarm and surrender. Got it all on film, so to speak; there was no way in hell to fiddle with the bust record."

Sipping her beer, Barb picked up some quarters and went to rack the table as she said, "So I'm just a way of giving the finger to a bunch of high-ranking people?"

"Sorry, milady."

"Oh, I can tell. And speaking of telling, you didn't tell me any of this. I won't know any of it when I show up with that suit."

"Ah. Good. Mum's the word. Yes, milady. As you say, milady."

She laughed, "Somehow that doesn't bother me as much now."

Something rather obviously occurred to her and she stopped in the middle of racking to ask, "With all the transport passengers this evening, the BOQ will be just about full. Where would you stay tonight?"

"Like I said, I might head back to Florida."

"But if you don't?"

"I don't need a room. I have a flitter."

Her expression showed what she thought of sleeping on a flitter. Finishing the rack, she asked, "Isn't that like camping out in a gym? On a hard floor, I mean?"

Rather than correct her impression, I asked, "Got a better idea?"

She came to get her beer and said, "I don't know yet. It's your break."

Four games and a lot of chat later the score was three games to two and she wanted one more to at least cause a tie. I told her she was thinking wishfully and she reminded me that I'd managed to sink my own boat twice by scratching on the eight. I didn't tell her how easy it was to make that happen and instead accused her of distracting me at crucial moments.

She yelped, "I what? How the hell did I distract you?"

"Remember when we met and my poor little brain fell out of gear for a moment at the sight of you? Just like that. I should never play pool against women like you."

Grinning, she asked, "Women like me?"

"Gorgeous blondes. Or gorgeous brunettes, I guess. Or redheads, too, probably. I'm just too easily victimized by feminine beauty, y'know?"

Rolling her eyes, she snorted, "Right. See if you can overcome your victimhood long enough to make it through one more game."

"Oh, yes, milady. As you command, milady."

Ah, but I didn't win that game. I missed just a little too often and she caught me eyeballing various parts of her a few times. I blamed the misses on her, the beer, how the wind affected the roll of the balls, and so on, but mostly on her. She half-accused me of throwing the last game. There were five balls nobody was using on the next table, so I made a show of insisting that she stand behind me at all times and proceeded to snap all five into various pockets.

When I'd finished, I turned around and tried to look sincere as I said, "See? It's all your fault, milady! When I can't see you, I shoot just fine!"

She gave me a wry grin, snorted, "What bullshit," then asked if we needed a third round of beer.

"If that's a hint, I'll wave at the waitress. If it isn't, I'll leave it up to you. I don't have to be anywhere in the morning."

"Neither do I. Let's do it."

"You got it."

We didn't play any more pool, but we sat and talked on the field-shielded porch for quite a while, then she held up her empty bottle and again asked if we needed another round of beer.

"It's still up to you, milady. I seem to be having a pretty good time with you, so I really don't care whether it's beer, booze, or coffee."

"Beer, booze, or coffee? What about tea?"

"They prob'ly have canned stuff in the bar cooler. Back in a minute."

I started to get up, but she put a hand on my arm and shook her head. "I was just asking to see how you'd answer. Make it another beer."

Straightening, I said, "As you command, milady," and gave her a little salute. When I returned, she wasn't there. I set the beers down and went to the bathroom, and when I got back, she was in her seat, sipping beer.

Pretending great relief, I said, "Thought I'd lost you. Been searching high and low."

She laughed, "Right. While you took a leak, you mean?"

Sipping beer thoughtfully, I said, "Hm. You may be too smart for me, you know. I can't tell you how many other women have fallen for that line."

She laughed again, "That was a line?"

"Well, gee, lady, I'll try a little harder next time, okay?"

Laughing again, she put her bottle down rather than try to sip beer, then said, "You're fun and funny. I don't get much of that."

"Don't know why not. Making a woman happy is fun." Glancing around as if about to impart a great secret, I leaned across the table and said in a near whisper, "And if you keep them laughing, they never give you any grief about anything."

Grinning, Barb responded, "Is that so?"

"Oh, hell, yeah. I can safely say I've never been shot at by a happy woman. Not even once. As long as they're laughing, things are fine. It's when they stop laughing that you have to start worrying." Shrugging matter-of-factly, I said, "Now you know the secret of my survival. Keep 'em happy at all costs."

Still grinning, Barb looked thoughtful, then said, "I've never met Linda. What was she like?"

"Like? She was like nobody I'd ever known until Angie came along, and I think Angie became what she is partly due to working with Linda." Sipping, I added, "But she'd have needed that core essence to build on, so I'd say she was a lot like Linda before she ever met Linda."

Barb took a sip and said, "It sounds like you loved Linda."

"Oh, yeah. Definitely. Not the same way Wallace loves her, but just as much, I think. It'll probably be much that way with Angie, too, if we work together. I'm only careful about her now 'cuz she wears two hats."

"Two hats? You mean the Air Force?"

"Yup. Don't know why she stays in. 3rd would pay her better and their benefits package is astronomically better."

"Maybe she feels she has the best of both worlds now."

I shrugged. "I've asked her about that. She couldn't or wouldn't explain it well enough for me, so I don't even bother wondering about it anymore. Maybe she'll retire as a full bird and stick with 3rd World for another twenty after that. Doesn't matter. My attachment is to the lady inside the uniform, even though I think that uniform makes her vulnerable. That's why I'm careful with her for now."

"What does 'being careful with her' mean, exactly?"

Taking a sip, then a deep breath I let out as a sigh, I said, "I'll try to explain it this way ... Let's suppose I came to think of you the same way. No matter how much I loved you and trusted you in particular, I would never lose sight of the fact you work for the NSA. Not for a moment. No matter whether I believed you'd never purposely harm me or put me in jeopardy, because I'd know better than to believe the same of your employers. Military or civilian, government outfits are run by power mongers at the top. They'll use and abuse anyone in any manner they can possibly get away with in order to further their agendas."

For a long moment, she eyed me, then asked, "You really believe that?"

"I've seen it. I've lived it. I've watched others suffer and die because of it on four continents. You've read my non-TAC file, so you know where and what I'm talking about. That, milady, is why I'll never again be on another government payroll. Or on 3rd's, if it changes much more. It's starting to look and feel too much like a government agency." Sipping again, I said, "I hope I haven't taken the charm out of our evening, but I figured you wanted the absolute truth."

"As you see it."

"Yup. And if you can honestly disagree, prove me wrong."

We each had about half a beer left and I was frankly wondering if there'd be another or just a friendly parting of ways when Barb stood up and said, "Come on."

I got up and followed her through the pub. She sipped her beer one last time and set the nearly-empty bottle on the bar. I put mine beside it and she led the way out to the corridor, then turned left toward the BOQ.

Several strides along, she asked, "Do you want to know where we're going?"

"Sure."

Giving me a sidelong glance, she said, "You don't really care. I could hear that much. Why don't you care?"

"Cuz you'll be there."

"What if I only want to talk?"

I shrugged. "I like your voice and you're real nice to look at. Could be worse."

She shot me a grin and laughed, "Could be worse?!"

Grinning back, I replied, "Anytime you can say that, it's absolutely true, milady."

A few strides later, she said, "Yes, I suppose it would be. I'll remember that."


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