At 10:20 p.m., Kah and Cory popped into the Jensens’ quarters.
“Ten minutes to meeting time,” they chorused in stereo. “We came to get Kate and Gene. No offense, Sven, but being stuck to you like limpet mines to a cargo freighter for nearly seven weeks must have driven these two crazy.”
“Did not,” Kate declared loyally. “I’m already crazy.” She moved to take her tall cousin’s arm, smirking in delight at being mothered. Here, within the confines of Sandfire Tower, was the only place she felt completely and totally safe these days.
The Seeder made no comment, but he couldn’t help grinning as old Gene Trask, whose knees weren’t yet unkinked for the day, hobbled stiffly out the door–arm in arm with Kah, pinching her well rounded behind as he went.
“Good thing you’re not thirty years younger, old man,” the dark woman told him with a straight face. “Jeremy might be tempted to defend my saintly honor.”
Lagging behind long enough to gather up a fistful of notes and to strap on his in-house-but-out-of-apartment weapons harness, Sven could hear the aged lecher cackling even after the elevator closed behind the mismatched pair. Gene appeared to be stooping a bit more as he moved, it seemed…or had he always been shorter than Kah? Both Mrs. Boulder and Mrs. Arbogast ran around five-nine or five-ten, somewhere in there. Gene Trask’s body must be yielding to gravity; surely he’d topped out at better than five-six when they’d first met….
In the restaurant, they all took their usual seats with one exception: There was a newcomer, a square-jawed woman of about thirty who, while not unattractive, still managed to give the impression she could chew rocks and spit sand. Her buns were only a bit above average, but her guns were serious Howitzers. Sven searched his mind–ah, yes. This would be Hallie McKay, working partly with Jeremy in Security and partly with Kah in the kitchen.
Okay. Clearly, if the Boulders and Arbogasts had elevated her to Inner Circle status while the Jensens were gone on field assignment, she must have impressed the Hell out of everyone.
Maybe not Kate, though. His little redhead was eyeing Hallie with frank speculation. After the betrayal by Tina-not-Nina, it would be a lo-ong time before Little Red could trust another new-to-her female.
That was to be expected. What came as a surprise was the obvious relationship between the McKay girl and young Ben Boulder. If not love, lust at least was definitely in the air. Hopefully, lust had not been the basis for Hallie’s promotion.
“Well,” Jeremy Boulder’s gravelly voice cut into the small chitchat percolating around the room, “There is one thing we need to do before officially opening the meeting. Here we go.” The Sandfire CEO looked positively ill at ease, a puzzling thing coming from a man capable of facing down a charging buffalo and coming home wearing a brand new buffalo robe.
A few seconds later, the mystery was solved. The big-headed Greek stood and began singing. No wonder he was uncomfortable; the man couldn’t carry a tune in a 55-gallon drum! To make things even worse, every other person in the room who’d not been on the raid with the Seeder joined in on the chorus. Two of them were horribly flat, and Ben Boulder’s additional rendition of hand drums performed on the conference table top couldn’t disguise that. The song itself was simple enough; they could be thankful for that much.
“For they are jolly good raiders
And old solarchem engine traders
They brought home a Data Chip Sorter-r-r
And all other sorts of disorder!”
When they finished, not a sound could be heard…other than from Kate, who’d collapsed in a fit of giggles. Jeremy and his backup singers beamed in pride. Twenty-second century Zorba the Geek, for kri-yi. Gene was shaking his head slowly in utter disbelief.
Sven just sat there, trying hard not to let anyone see him cry. These people were the family he’d always wanted and never had. Not to knock his original Di Marco relatives, but that bunch couldn’t hold a candle to the Sandfire Clan.
That’s it, he thought suddenly. Smackie and the Blasted Bastards have it right. Clan Honor. Those of us here in this room have Clan Honor. We’d die for each other in a heartbeat or live together under one roof for a lifetime. I wonder if Miss Hallie McKay knows what she’s found?
Aloud, when he could trust his voice, he said, “Don’t give up your day job.”
The room erupted in laughter. It was an inside joke. Edsella had been told not to give up her day job the first time she’d ever performed on a professional comedy stage. Years back, a young and eager Garrett Di Marco had heard those same words directed toward his own singing excellence, and one fool had even made the same comment about his bull riding–disregarding the silver-throated pro rodeo announcer who’d introduced Garrett to the audience as “one of our most promising young bull riders”.
Boulder’s great head jutted forward in mock menace. “Oy weel geet you for dees, you bostid Zeeder!”
“Who’s been coaching the Greek with that accent, Cory? You?”
“Nein, mein Herr,” the Hoelringer replied in one of her many Edsella voices. “Der Feurher und der crazy Jupie, dey be seein’ dem do Stick Mon whoopee. Foer alles in–”
“Enough!” Sven held up both hands in surrender.
“That,” Edsella informed him, smiling sweetly, “Is exactly the way it sounds in the Archives in our nation’s capitol. The Jovians tried to talk our talk and even copy our humor, but they couldn’t quite put it together. They wound up with unbelievable combinations like that one, talking about Hitler without realizing he’d been dead for a couple of centuries.
“Not to mention scrambling dialects like so many eggs hitting the blender in Hell’s Kitchen. When they tried imitating rap lyrics, of all things, linguists now believe the Stick Men were honestly attempting to negotiate a treaty–not realizing, just for example, that their speeches came out like they were wanting to hook up a long gone genocidal maniac dictator with their ambassador for extended horizontal bop sessions.
“You can bet your tail our forebears weren’t laughing when that was recorded during the PTS–Preliminary Treaty Sessions–of 2098, but it’s funny as the dickens today!”