18 Shawwal 1420yp
Analysis had five floors of the building. His Central region was the only one that had its own floor, the rest having at least half their personnel out in their region. Admin—The Director, the two Subdirectors and their staffs had the two top floors. Then there was accounting, financial, payroll, human resources and so forth. Five floors. Law enforcement, twenty-seven floors.
Internal security had a single floor. The people nobody likes, because they are investigating us. And no one likes to be a suspect.
But son-of-a-gun, they have actual offices. With doors!
He spotted the “Senior Investigator Keiq” on the sign beside an open door. He hadn’t really planned on what to say, but . . . “Whoa! You have a window!” hadn’t been anywhere near his vague thoughts on the matter.
At least it amused her. “Yeah, I always pity you poor little rats in your cubicle mazes. And no, I won’t tell you anything about anything.”
“Oh well. How about lunch?”
She frowned down on him, which since she was sitting ought not to have been possible.
“Well, you do eat, don’t you? And I wouldn’t dream of offering to pay for a Senior Investigator’s lunch.”
She crossed her arms. “I was thinking about Corbin’s.”
“Sounds good.” He backed away as she got up, and walked beside her to the elevator. Rode down in silence, out the entry and down the street.
“Why look me up? Wondering about the progress on our investigation.”
“Well . . . I’m trying to be patient about that. How’s my new comp doing?”
“It was fine until the first day you got back from sick leave.”
“It sat on my desk for ten days or so. At some point it was turned off.” Ice walked in silence for a long moment. “You know, I stuck a micro cam up . . . forgot all about it. I wonder if it’s still there. In working order.”
“That’s illegal in an area that handles classified data.”
“Oops. My bad. Guess I’d better remove it and reread the regs.”
“Yes, I can see you’re upset.” She had a really attractive dry drawl. “I’ll accompany you to your office and take possession of it. After lunch.”
She eyed him skeptically and turned into the entrance of the restaurant.
He followed her in, and sat across from her at a tiny table.
“So . . . does a Tall Trees Upcomer really feel loyalty to the Empire?”
“Boom! First shot fired!” Ice shrugged. “I grew up very conflicted. Not accepted by the people I grew up with. Not sure whether I’d be better off or worse, with those Oner people.”
He took a moment to poke at the order machine while he sorted through memories . . . how to be honest with out betraying himself. His mother. “When I ‘blossomed’ there was no one to train me. Just a few things my mother had over-heard, guessed at . . . didn’t work really well. I sort of got kicked out, about the same time I realized I couldn’t stay.”
“Oh, you weren’t in a city?” She sent in her own order and sat back to study him.
Careful, Boy, this is an Internal Security expert.
He shook his head. “At least they waited until spring. I only had to sit out a couple of storms. Practiced what I’d tried, without interruptions or bullying.”
“I stopped by another branch of the Sycamore, they needed workers, to get the fields plowed, the grain sowed. And then they needed people to pick fruit, hunt, build, chop firewood . . . I guess I stayed there eight or nine months. Trying as hard as I could to control the weird stuff. Realizing I really was going to have to find these Oner people and hope to hell they could teach me.”
“So you left for the city?”
“Oh, well, I kept putting it off. Then—mind you I was weedy sixteen-year-old—I kissed a girl and her three big brothers beat me up. They made it clear that it was time to leave.”
“It worked out well.” He leaned back to let a skinny woman deliver sandwiches and ice tea.
“And to answer your question, when I got closer to the city, well, it was just an oversized town, really. But I felt . . . like somewhere, deep down, I belonged there. That I was already a part of it. And when I crossed over to the Home world . . . you could have knocked me flat, the impact of the One mind. I was . . . with my people.”
“But we’re rude to you.”
“A few insecure bullies. But the connection is there.” Ice shrugged. “Am I reading your accent right as North American?”
“I don’t have an accent . . . well . . . Colorado Clan.”
Ice thought of a map . . . Is Colorado even in the same place here. “Western half? Mountains?”
“Yep. East side of the Rocky Mountains. A couple of centuries after the Nuclear War before the Islamic Union claimed the area, and reinforced it with troops. Not many people there. Some that claimed to be the survivors of the war, more that had moved in from further south. There weren’t many Oners, at that point.”
She frowned a bit. “Now we’re mostly Oners and Halfers. That’s what Rumacova’s talking about, isn’t it? A large population moving in and dominating a smaller one, and even genetically dominating them, because of the fertility effect.”
“Yep. It’s happening to her people right now. To the Tribes who are still back in the Trees. I doubt you could find a pure Tall Tree under fifty years of age in the cities, now.”
“Did you know Rumacova? Before you moved to the city?”
Ice grinned. “Rumacova’s the girl I kissed.”
“It was a clumsy teenager kiss. I did better the next time I saw her, which was three years ago, however she’s been all business and zero romance since she declared.”
“Got dumped, huh?”
“Oh, not really. Hadn’t seen her since I was in Central City for a few days, three years ago.”
“I see. You’re the love’em and leave’em type.”
“More . . . ‘well, you were fun, Ice, now go away, I need to find someone I’d be caught dead marrying’ type. Yes, I do get that from both sides.”
“Ouch.” Unfortunately she looked more amused than sympathetic.
“Well, just as well.”
“Why? You don’t want to marry?” Challenging, now.
“I, uh, have the Priest gene. And even though, in theory, there’s a right of refusal, umm . . .”
“Oh. Yeeesss . . . I can see being leery of having children.” Wrinkled nose. “How the One hell did a Tall Trees Upcomer get a Priest gene?”
“Probably some third son. Probably thought a couple of early bastards would save his “real” sons, born later. Or, of course, some poor youngster in a panic to get all the sex he could before he got hauled off screaming.”
“So you don’t know him?”
“I don’t even have his name.” Ice thought it over, and felt no need to elaborate. Gang rape. Under circumstances that pretty well guaranteed they got what they deserved.
“So how about you? Parents? Brothers? Sisters?”
She rolled her eyes, but a smile crept in and quickly disappeared.
Damn, I need to see that again. It’s not just hormones making her look attractive.
“Yeah, my parents sort of over did it. I have four big brothers. I don’t know if my parents just didn’t know what to do with a girl, or whether they even actually noticed. So I grew up trying to as tough as my brothers. I . . . didn’t pick up any lady-like manners until I hit college and was judged by the other women students to be beyond Hicksville and all the way to raised-by-wolves.”
He failed to not snicker.
“Not exaggerating. They took a vote. Then collected money and hauled me in for a makeover, and worked to civilize me.” That little smile crept out again. “Fortunately they didn’t give up easily.”
Ice took a large bite of his sandwich to stop himself from saying . . . what? Swallowed. Drank tea. “Is there anything safe to say to that? Like, they had damn good material to work with? Or maybe . . . and you’ve regressed halfway to wolf, please don’t eat . . . no wait . . . Shutting up now.”
Her attempted glower fought with a smile as she blushed.
“And damn. Four big brothers.”
She was still snickering as they walked back to the office, and up to his cubicle. With heads sticking out and eyeing them.
He raised his voice a bit. “Bunch of gossips.” Heads disappeared. Generally with snickers.
Keek glared at him, then looked around his cubicle. “How do you power those little spotlights? Oh I see. Photocells. Cute.”
She picked up his rock. “So this metal streak is from the bullet?”
Hmm, I didn’t mention that. Duh, of course she’s researched you, idiot.
“Yeah. Pure luck.” He stepped around her, glanced beyond her, no one in sight. He popped the micro cam off the bottom of the shelf right beside the micro spotlight.
Dropped it on her hand as he took the rock.
“Luck. Riiight. Well . . .”
“Umm, see you around.” He’d have blushed for the shear awkwardness of it, except it was pretty much perfect.
Figgy, across the hall, watched him watching her walking away and shook his head. “Amazing. We should have known you’d fall for someone non-standard.”
“I am not falling.” Ice stepped back into his cubicle. I’m already flat on the floor, and wondering what hit me.
Which had been an excellent distraction.
Two weeks. Just get me two weeks of peace, and I’ll . . . I’ll . . . what? Agfu’s ahead in the polls. I’ll be out on the street looking for a job. Anywhere.
Anybody want to buy a used political analyst? Hello? Anyone?
I’m getting close to having the buy-in money for a colony, pity I don’t have the skills to farm or ranch.
Getting fired would take off a lot of pressure, though, and I’d be able to think. And totally helpless to do anything about it.
22 Shawwal 1420yp
“Come have lunch with me.”
Ice blinked in disbelief. She’s actually smiling . . . and her eyes are tense. His “Oners don’t get ulcers” kicked up a notch.
“You bet!” He jumped up, looking eager, smiling. Stomach hurting.
Quick, think of something to say!
“Sandwich at Corbins? Or if you’ve got the time Fang Chews has the best Chinese . . . well, within easy walking distance.” He searched his brain for other restaurant, the War Path was right out . . .”
They were early, and the elevator came quickly. With only two stops to pick up more people.
“I like Damasq, but it’s slow, not a good place today.” Strain lines showing around her stiff smile.
Ice nodded as the elevator reached the ground floor. “Let’s see what looks good, when we get there.”
He steered her down the street to the corner, and across to the square. “I love the trees here. This is my favorite, we can face it and maybe no one will hear us, and won’t be able to read lips.”
“Your secretary Zeeq took your computer away and kept it for three days.”
Ice boggled. “Zeeq? Good . . . One. Right. C’mon.”
First stop, a sandwich shop for two subs and drinks. “Time for a working lunch. You have the date and time?”
She nodded, eying him cautiously. “What are you going to do?”
“I’ll start by checking the traffic cams and see if I can spot her. See if she’s carrying anything the size of a comp. And if so, follow her.”
“You can do that?”
“Half my damned job is playing in traffic, trying to find out what politicians are up to.” He grinned suddenly. “We should use your office. Since mine is compromised.”
A snort. “Poor rat, starved for natural light.”