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INTRODUCTION




It isn’t everyday a one-and-a-half-year-old walks in and orders lunch.

I mean one-and-a-half Grainne planetary years, of course. That’s two-and-a-half for those of you using Earth standard. Still, it was a surprise.

This curly blonde little munchkin streaked in at a run, heaved herself into an empty booth and sat up straight. She clasped her hands on the table, looked at me from five meters away and clearly said, “Peetzaz.”

She was too adorably cute to refuse. Figuring an adult would be along in a few seconds, I asked, “What kind, lady?”

“Cheez.”

So I dished her a slice of cheez peetza. She accepted it with a huge smile when I brought it over, and said, “Tinks, man.” Mannerly little thing.

I didn’t see an adult. She sat happily, munching it upside down, and making very little mess. She was clean, neatly dressed, obviously no hungrier than any other kid, and had a bottle and towel with her. She finished, put the plate in the trash, came back and scrubbed the table top and seat with a napkin, threw it in the trash, and headed out. She stopped at the door, turned, and loudly said, “Bye-bye!” to one and all.

Startling. It was then I realized she hadn’t paid. Ah, well. She was cute.

She was back the next day. This time she clutched a one cred chit in her hands. She passed it over with a coy smile when I brought her pizza out. She was packing away adult-sized lunch slices, but she wasn’t particulary small, as I said. She had all her teeth, clean. She had clear skin, a bright smile, and was obviously well-cared for except for lunchtime. Very odd.

She paid almost every day, and sometimes appeared midafternoon as well, waving her bottle and saying, “Drink.” I’d ask her if lemonade was okay, and she’d nod her head once firmly and say, “Yes.” Then she discovered “roobeer” and would have nothing else.

Finally, one afternoon, I saw her grab a hand as she ran outside. There was a bag over the arm, typical for dealing with kids. I hurried from behind the counter, but she and her parent were gone by the time I got outside. I wanted to find out what the story was. She was obviously loved, but left alone here and there.

That may mean something else to you than it does me. In the Freehold, it’s not uncommon for kids to run around unsupervised. It used to be perfectly safe, since our crime rate was almost nonexistent. This assumes the kid is old enough to avoid all the nonautomated traffic, which I was sure she was not. After the war, we did have some theft and robbery, and some organized crime, though. Professional childcare is expensive. Friends and neighbors, however, are free. Why did she not have an adult, or older child, or someone?

She began showing up with her bag, too. It was almost as big as she, and even with its low mass, it was cumbersome. She didn’t seem to mind. She brought money every day now, rather than just usually, and one day brought a ten with a note attached that said, “For past meals. Thanks.” Clearly her guardian knew what she was doing. Well enough. She took to hanging out longer, and I began feeding her free again. She would lurk with a pile of napkins, and whenever someone spilled or dropped something, she’d announce, “Uh oh!” and dive on it with napkins, scrubbing the spill and throwing out trash. She also cleared the occasional table and wiped them down. I usually had to redo it, but the effort was worth rewarding. She was too darn cute, and patrons began tipping her. She was obviously the deciding factor between my place and others for some customers.

One day shortly after that I got a surprise. She came running from the dining room to the office, stood in front of me and said, “Shainj!” To illustrate she unpeeled her diaper, and handed me her bag. Well, it wouldn’t hurt me to do it once. “Tinks, man,” she said when I was done, and raced out to wash her hands and wipe more tables.

She was doing okay on tips, too. Her clothes, plain and clean and only about four outfits, began to get nicer and more varied, but not extravagant. I wondered if she did her own shopping, too. Not likely, although if she found the right salesclerk . . .

That afternoon I finally saw her parent. Father, specifically. She ran out, shouting “Bye-bye!” and grabbed his hand. He drew her up into a big hug, and walked off happily talking to her. I recognized him. He was one of the local escorts.

Another note, since your society may be different. Prostitution is not only legal here, it’s a recognized business and highly respected. This, however, was shortly after the war with Earth. The economy was a shambles, and there were far too many volunteers for it to pay well. The restaurant business was good, with traffic recovering and lots of out-systemers, but the sex business was downright saturated. Also, during the war, all the diseases we’d eliminated came back by the shipload. I hoped he was being safe. Especially since most non-Freeholders still regard escorts as trash.

I was getting the picture. He was alone with her. Her mother had probably died during the War. He couldn’t find another job (if he’d ever done anything else—he wasn’t that old), had a local room in the business district near the port, and no neighbors to look after her. He sent her in here, out of the weather and safe and occupied, while he took care of business for whatever few creds he could get. Time was before the War that one couldn’t get an escort for less than Cr250, and that wouldn’t include sex. After the War, twenty-five creds would get anything you wanted some places, and maybe a disease or two as bonuses.

Now, I don’t know how things work in your society, but here, that created a problem. Morally, I should be helping him, since he was working for the best of reasons—his kid. Morally, someone that proud and determined would be insulted if I offered charity. I scrawled out a note, “I need wait staff,” and sent it with her. The reply was, “Thanks, but I’m self-employed.” I got that picture, too. He’d ask for help if and only if she was in danger of starving. She clearly wasn’t. I’ve never met a better behaved, prettier, more cheerful little kid. And she technically was a street-urchin, too.

So I began to boost her tips a bit, here and there. She learned how to sweep floors, once I cut a broom handle off short enough for her. She was too small to steer a sweeper. She would stack boxes and trays, and showed an amazing aptitude for simple tasks. I had music in to liven things up, and she demanded, “Lowd!” so I raised the volume. She nodded and clapped and danced while she worked, seemingly channeling energy straight from some hidden reactor, and customers threw more money at her. Her idea of dancing involved a huge grin, a waving mop of hair, and jumps straight up and down while waving her arms. She seemed tireless. I had to explain again and again that she wasn’t a relative of mine. She even climbed onto a table at one point and danced until it almost fell over. I insisted she stop, and she looked at me with huge, sad, baby blue eyes and said, “Allright.”

I had to meet this kid’s father. I mean, she was too young to say her own name, too young to be toilet trained, and was politer and better raised than most local eight-year-olds. I had to meet the man who was raising her. I gave her a note that read, “Come by when you can. We need to settle the bill.”

Her father showed up with her that night about nine, which is one div before local midnight, ten divs of 2.7 hours each to our day. He was who I thought he was. About fifteen local years, or twenty-two Earth. Good looking, healthy, well-muscled even for our gravity, and dressed professionally. She ran straight in, yelled, “Hi!” and grabbed her cleaning tools.

“I’m Dan,” he said.

“Dan, I’m Andre,” I nodded. “I’m afraid I’ve never caught your daughter’s name.”

“Chelsea,” he said, using the old spelling.

“She’s an incredible kid. You must be very proud,” I said. There was no need to ask. It showed in his face and body language.

“Yes I am,” he admitted. “I just wish her mother was here to see her.”

“During the War?” I asked.

“Yes,” he agreed.

“May I ask?”

“No,” he said. That was the end of that, then. Considering the nukes, kinetic strikes, vicious nano and bio vectors, random gunfire, gang rapes and assorted mayhem the Earthies inflicted on us in order to “civilize” us, I could make several guesses, none of them pretty. Thank the God and Goddess we kicked them the hell out. Eventually.

“So what do I owe you?” he asked. “In addition to my heartfelt thanks,” he added. “I’m trying to find someone to watch her while I work, but there aren’t many people who live in this area, and I have no transport.”

“Actually, Dan, I owe you. Or her, rather,” I said.

“Thanks, but—”

I rode over his protests, “Dan, you see that?” I pointed to where she was sweeping the corner booth. “She’s putting in two or three divs a week doing grunt labor I don’t want to do. She’s good for business, and pizza and pasta really don’t cost much at my end. I figure I owe her for a month at a half div a day. That’s fifty days times six creds a div. So here’s her one fifty. I’ll pay her weekly from now on. My daughter is available to sit when I’m not open, and she charges three a div. Just make sure Chelsea’s bag is full, and give me some notice, and we’ll take care of things. That’s how it is,” I finished, making sure he couldn’t object.

Not only was it a fair deal to me, it was good karma to take care of those who needed it. We had a lot of rebuilding still to do after the pounding we took, and we wouldn’t do it by being selfish bastards. Besides, this man had to have the biggest balls of anyone I’ve ever met to be surviving here and raising a kid that well. Maybe some of the local help, including my second cook, would learn something from it.

Chelsea, now that I had her name, came running back. “Finisd,” she said.

“Thanks, Chelsea,” I said. “Want some cookies and milk?”

“Yes,” she said, nodding once in her no-hesitation fashion. Dan sat quietly, unable to reply, while I dished up a plate of warm cookies and glasses of cold milk.

When I came back, she was on his lap, babbling away in near-English, and he was talking back to her. Not babytalk, just plain conversation, technical terms replaced with basic words. She clearly understood what he was saying. Well, he was no moron, and her mother had obviously been bright, too. I predicted a good future for her.

I caught sight of him the next day as I was cleaning tables outside. He wandered along the street, taking food samples from each vendor he passed. He stopped at Charlie’s and paid for a hotdog, then loaded it with peppers, relish, sauerkraut, mustard and olives. Got it. Ten samples and a cheap sandwich was nutritious if not filling, and as long as he rotated, no one would complain. Certainly not when he had Chelsea grinning in his arms.

Soon after that, he stopped doing alley business and started doing high-end business calls. That paid better, and was far safer. The rate was still low, and the overhead higher—nice clothes cost, especially after the war. Chelsea took easily to evenings, and even occasionally slept in the farthest back booth until he was done.

It turned out he was renting a closet from someone, not quite a flophouse. I can see why he wouldn’t leave a child there. She was much safer on Commercial Boulevard. He pinched money and scraped.

He had a plan. A few weeks later, he had enough to rent a small space, about eight meters square, and stuck a cot and a broken coordinate mill into it, doing most of the installation by shoving and cursing, with me blocking it as needed to help it walk right. The place was diagonally across the street in a corner of a near abandoned warehouse that someone apparently still owned. We were recovering from the war, but it was slow. There are some things that a small, solvent government does better. Borrowing money to build infrastructure isn’t one of them. We knew that when we started, but we stuck to our principles. The Freehold never spent more than it had from Residence fees, and there were a lot fewer people declaring Residency after the War. It was bad for a time.

But, he had this space he could sleep in, and a broken mill, which within a month was a working mill. He made a replacement hinge for one of my ovens and refused to let me pay. He found ways to fabricate things people thought impossible, or that the major shops couldn’t do cheaply enough. He leased a little more space and installed a bathroom—he’d been using a half-functional one at the rear of the warehouse, across a rubble-strewn floor—and ran a solar power system to keep his costs down.

It was odd, though. He would not get certification for ship parts for the port, and he would not run an ad on the nodes. He was word of mouth and listing only. He did okay with all the out-Port businesses, but he wouldn’t make the jump to the big money inside.

***

One day Chelsea came through the door with a grin a meter wide. She was carrying, right shoulder arms, a Little Weasel. That’s a Little Weasel 4mm rimfire single shot rifle. They’re scaled down for kid’s use as a training weapon. She still wore shooting glasses, and looked disgustingly cute. Of course, she always looked disgustingly cute.

She held out her left hand, waving a target at me. “Andre! Look!” she shouted. I took the paper, glanced at it, then again. It had perhaps ten holes in it. It was hard to tell precisely, because they all were in a tight cluster, dead center. I whistled. “Nice shooting, Chel!”

“Thank you!” she said, taking it back and running to show others.

Dan had a Merrill Targetmaster rifle over his shoulder. I figure he’d been teaching her. Impressive. Not many kids that age have that kind of hand-eye coordination, and not many adults can be patient enough to help them over the bumps. He was a good man, and I was proud of his friendship, even if we never spoke much.

***

Lots of kids helped with the family business, and she was sort of family after a few weeks, effectively family by the time she was seven. Even though Dan had his shop running well, and was usually there, she would typically stop by after school, do some quick chores like trash and cooler inventory, disappear for homework and dinner, then come back for a bit more.

She was there after school one day, mucking out a pile left by the older kids. They spent well and ate well and left trash accordingly. It was in the cans, but there was a lot of it.

Right then, a woman in a scarf and robe came in. I couldn’t understand her, but she was frantic and needed help. She pantomimed a child and repeated something about “yardim.” The poor woman was jabbering away in some language I didn’t even recognize. She was distraught, obviously. Tears and ragged breathing and clear pleading for any kind of help made her point that something was wrong. I had no ideas except to call City Safety. She nodded and gestured as I raised the phone, and I got the definite impression that she was saying, “Please hurry!” in whatever language she was speaking.

Chelsea came running in from the back room, said something that sounded like, “Beer s¸re beklayin,” and ran for the door. The operator answered and I said, “Unknown emergency, translator needed.” I gave the address as a doublecheck, as they obviously had it on screen already.

Seconds later, Dan arrived at a sprint. He said something back in the same language, and the woman turned to him, sighing in relief.

They spoke for a few seconds, swapping gestures, and it was obvious he was completely comfortable with the language. He never hesitated over a word.

“Her son is missing,” he said. “She last saw him near the old warehouse next to the East Gate, and now she can’t find him.” Damn. That was a diagonal block over, but there wasn’t much open between here and there.

Chelsea said, “He probly found the slide.”

“Slide?” he asked.

“There’s a slide into the cellar. We play there,” she explained.

“And I told you not to,” he said, then turned to the two arriving Safety officers. “Lost child, four years old, male, brown curly hair, brown eyes, green shirt and yellow denim, speaks Mtali-Turkish, last seen near the East Gate at the old warehouse, may be playing in the lower level. Spread out from there, I’ll check inside.” He turned and scooped Chelsea up with one long arm. “Where?” he asked her as he strode out. Over his shoulder he called something and gestured with one hand for the woman to wait.

I got her a lemonade and a seat, and pondered. He was military. Had to be. There’d been no hesitation in him taking command, no dispute from the Safety officers, his description was detailed, complete, and brief, and he spoke Mtali dialectic Turkish without trouble. That was an old conflict. He must have been a young enlistee and gone straight there.

In less than ten segs, everyone was back, with a crying little lost boy in tow. He was unharmed, and threw himself on his weeping mother. Dan translated as a report was made, and kept reassuring her and refusing her offer of a reward. I was surprised to see Chelsea throw in a few words. That’s right, I recalled, she’d recognized the language and run for a translator.

Ordinarily, the better you know someone, the easier it is to figure him or her out. With Chelsea and even more with Dan, the more I knew, the more confusing they were. Kids are talkative and boastful. Not her. Not a word about her personal life ever. I thought I was close to the family, close enough to know there wasn’t anyone else. And I knew almost nothing.

***

Chelsea developed much like any normal adolescent. She pulled a few dumb stunts from rebellious hormonal exuberance. She came by with the usual boyfriends and occasional girlfriends until she decided she preferred boys. She worked hard, occasionally begging a schedule change for a concert or to go dancing—she still loved dancing.

***

Now, it wasn’t common before the War, or now, but we had occasional violence during the aftermath. That had all ended after only a couple of years, however, so I was stunned one day when four kids came traipsing in the door, pulled out guns and demanded money and jewelry. It’s just not done here, and I was in shock. I was also unarmed. I mean, I usually go to the bank armed, but daytime? In my own restaurant?

What I’m about to relay burned itself into my memory. It was unforgettable and staggering. And if anyone doubts it, there are witnesses to corroborate, and lots of them. Here’s what happened:

Chelsea was near one of the punks, and moved like a leopard. She bent his gun wrist back on itself, kicked his ankle while leaning into him, and stepped forward. Her left foot ground his left arm into the floor, and her right was behind his head. His right elbow was braced against her thigh and she still held his wrist. He must have had a fantastic view right up her skirt, and an equally fantastic view down the barrel of his gun, now in her left hand. It was about two centimeters from his right eyeball.

She was fast, but Dan . . . Dan was a striking snake. It simply isn’t possible to move that fast, only he did. By the time I turned to see what he was doing, the robber nearest him had Dan’s instep behind his head and the other toe in his guts. Dan was horizontal, turned in midair, and drove his heel straight back into the guy’s head. I could hear the neck snap.

He landed on his hands, rolled behind a table, jumped forward into an arch, and snagged the fallen gun with his right hand. His left fingertips barely brushed the doorsill, and he was rolling, onto knuckles, wrist, elbow, shoulder, and back. His right foot was almost at his buttocks, and he landed flat on it, sprang upright onto his left and fired twice at the two remaining kids, now running down the street. He fired twice more as he flipped over a car and landed in a crouch next to a van. The gun waved in a motion that seemed to cover the entire sphere of space around him, then he teleported back inside in a hop. He landed on his right shoulder, and the gun panned from near left to far right corners as he rose, then down in a smooth arc to the left and toward Chelsea’s captive. It might have been five seconds. His jacket had an abrasion through it and some burned skin showed, but he wasn’t even breathing hard.

Then he burst into sweats and shakes and flushed red. His breath panted and his eyes dilated. I thought it was some kind of seizure. He laid the gun carefully on the counter, dropped down, and began doing pushups. Chelsea shook her head at me as I started to move, then spoke to him. “Are you allright, Dad?”

“Yes,” he grunted in between pushups.

“CNS reaction?”

“Yes,” he agreed.

She remained standing, and I figured if they knew what was happening, I should just stay out of it.

City Safety was there seconds later. The kids’ guns were outsystem trash, unsuppressed, and the loud roars had brought a lot of response.

Chelsea told her story, I told mine. They bundled up the surviving punk to hold him for trial and one of the officers looked down at Dan. He squinted slightly, nodded, and looked at Chelsea.

“Combat NeuroStimulant?” he asked her.

“Yes it is,” she confirmed.

“What unit?”

“I don’t know,” she replied.

The Safety Officer knelt down next to Dan and began speaking. They mumbled back and forth for several segs, while Dan probably passed the two-hundred mark on pushups. I was beginning to understand.

I’d seen documentaries. Some of the Special Warfare soldiers have an implant for use in combat. It releases endorphins, sugars, oxygenating molecules, and synthetic adrenaline. The end result is a trained soldier with half the response time and twice the speed and strength of anyone else. That explained his speed. But if one stopped operating before the compound burned out, it created tremendous stress on the body. That explained the pushups. He was burning off enough energy for six normal people. And if I’d known for certain he was a vet eight years before, Chelsea would have had free room and board for the duration of her juvenile life without question.

The Safety Officer was getting louder. “Sir, I don’t really care about that. I have orders to report this person’s location if he is ever spotted. I need to know if that’s you.”

Dan dragged his legs under him, drank in seconds a full glass of water Chelsea handed him, and sighed. “Yes, I am,” he admitted. He looked sad, angry, dejected and disgusted all at once.

The SO stood up. “And that’s all I needed, sir. If you are okay, and the witnesses agree, then we’ll have the bodies removed and that’s it. Please call if you need anything, Captain.” He saluted as he left.

Special Warfare. Most of them died during the War. In the process, a few hundred of them took tens of thousands of enemy troops and six billion Earthies with them. Dan was one of the best trained killers in the galaxy. Yet he was the gentlest man I know.

Except that he’d just killed three men in five seconds with no hesitation.

He was upright now, and looked calmer if still sweaty. We stared at each other at length, and he finally spoke. “Boost takes a lot out of me.”

“Is that the minimum dosage?” I asked. His breathing was almost normal now.

“It’s a one-shot mechanism, and it’s not intended for surprise response,” he said. I looked puzzled and he explained. “Boost is used primarily as an offensive enhancement. Upon preparing to initiate hostilities, it adds an additional force factor, and is especially of psychological use, since it creates an overwhelming relative power factor against an opponent. It doesn’t work quickly. There’s about a five second lag.”

Got it. He’d triggered it as the fight started, and it was over by the time he reached full speed. Then I did a double take—he’d been unenhanced during the fight. Just how fast was this guy when enhanced? How fast had he been during the War when younger, in regular training, and “boosted”? No wonder there were almost mythical stories about our Special Warfare people.

“Is it time to talk yet?” I asked.

He nodded. “I organized and trained the Earth mission troops,” he said. “I used every resource I could get, and stole what I couldn’t. Those were the best troops ever trained, no exceptions. We did what we had to do, because the choice was to let our society be destroyed. Some people seem to think that makes it easier.”

“At least you were face-to-face,” I said. “Didn’t that help? I understand the bombardment controllers—”

I should have kept my mouth shut and listened. He came out of his chair. “Bombardment zeros!” he snapped. “They pushed buttons and saw flashes. I had to look at people as I went in, knowing they were about to die. I had to look at them as I left. I had to watch the local news for comfirmatory intelligence as they tore each other to pieces over scraps of food, torched their own homes, ran screaming in terror knowing no one locally could save them, and we weren’t going to. I watched children—” his hand waved in the general direction of Chelsea, who was sipping tea a couple of meters away. This seemed familiar to her “—scream and die. Then I had to document it.” He was silent. So was I.

He mumbled, almost into space, “Somewhere in the docs is a picture of a little girl, who looks just about like Chelsea did right after I came home. It was all over the news loads. I remember the kid; I saw her as I blew a water-pumping station in Minneapolis. There she was, dead from smoke inhalation, because there was no water available. It was a job, I had to do it, so I did.

“Then I had to come home and look at my daughter, and wonder if her parents, if they survived, hated me as much as I hated the bastards who killed Deni.”

I wanted to ask if he felt any different because his actions were technically justifiable, but I’ll admit I was afraid. He saw it, too.

“Can’t talk to me now that I’m a killer, can you, Andre?” He had a disgusted, knowing grin on his face.

“Once I get used to it,” I said, as firmly as I could. “The resistance people I sheltered had their own share of grief, but I knew about theirs ten years ago.”

He nodded. “Fair enough. I’ve done enough talking for now. I have things to do.” He stood and turned to leave.

“Hey, Captain,” I said. He stopped.

“Dan,” he corrected me, without turning.

“Dan, then,” I said. He faced me half over his shoulder.

“You and Chelsea saved my life, and my customers. Thanks.”

He nodded and left.









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Framed