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Chapter Fourty

This invisible bubble was getting tiresome, Alicia thought, eyeing the empty tables around her in the lounge. No one would ever be crude enough to mention her insanity-but no one wanted to get too close to her, either.

I wonder how much of it's fear of contagion? she complained.

Oh, very little, I should think. They fear what you may do to them, not what they might contract from you.

A comforting thought, Alicia snorted, and hooked a chair further under the opposite side of the table to rest her heels on it. Her dialogues with Tisiphone no longer felt odd, which worried her from time to time, but not nearly so much as they comforted her. She had to be so wary, especially of her friends, that the relief of open conversation was almost unspeakable. Of course, her lips twitched wryly, it was still possible Tannis was right, but their exchanges remained a vast relief, even if Tisiphone didn't exist.

Of course I exist. Why do you continue to use qualifiers?

The nature of the beast, I suppose. I've never been all that comfortable with cyber-synths, but even so, this would be a lot easier for me if I knew you were something they'd whipped up in the AI labs.

So you find beings of crystal and wire more reasonable than beings of spirit? There was vast amusement in Tisiphone's mental "voice." You come from a sad age, Little One, if your people's sense of wonder has sunk so low!

Not a sad age, just a practical one. And speaking of wonder, look at that, Spirit Lady.

She turned her eyes-their eyes?-to the lounge's outsized view port as the transport settled into orbit around Soissons, and even Tisiphone fell silent. The port lacked the image enhancement of one of the viewer stations, but that only made the view even more impressive.

Soissons was very Earth-like-or, rather, very like Earth had been a thousand years before. More of its surface was land, and the ice caps were larger, for Soissons lay almost ten light-minutes from its G2 primary, but its deep blue seas and fleece-white clouds were breathtaking, and Soissons had been settled after man had learned to look after his things. Old Earth was still dealing with the traumas of eight millennia of civilization, but humanity had taken far greater care with the impact of the changes inflicted here. There were none of the megalopolises of Old Earth or the older Core Worlds, and she could almost smell the freshness of the air even from orbit.

Yet there were two billion people on that planet, however careful they were to preserve it, and the Franconia System had been selected as a sector capital because of its industrial power. Soisson's skies teemed with orbital installations protected by formidable defensive emplacements, and she craned her head, watching intently, as the transport drifted neatly through them under a minute fraction of its full drive power. A Fleet spacedock filled the port, vast enough to handle superdreadnoughts, much less the slender battlecruiser undergoing routine maintenance, and beyond it loomed the spidery skeleton of a full-fledged shipyard.

What might that be? a voice said in her brain, and her eyes moved under their own power. It was still a bit unnerving to find herself focusing on something of interest to another, but it no longer bothered her as much as it had, and Tisiphone didn't exactly have a finger with which to point.

The thought faded as her own interest sharpened, and she frowned at the small ship near one edge of the yard.

It appeared to be in the late stages of fitting out. Indeed, but for all the bits and pieces of yard equipment drifting near it she would have said it was completed. She watched a yard shuttle mate with one of the transparent access tubes, disgorging a flock of techs-minute dots of colored coveralls at this distance-and nibbled the inside of her lip.

Tisiphone's question was well taken. Alicia had seen more warships and transports than she cared to recall during her career, but never one quite like this. Its bulbous Fasset drive housing dwarfed the rest of its hull, but it was too big for a dispatch boat. At the same time, it was too small for a Fleet transport, even assuming anyone would stick that monster drive on a bulk carrier. It looked to fall somewhere between a light and heavy cruiser for size, perhaps four or five hundred meters at the outside-it was hard to be sure with only yard shuttles for a reference-yet someone had grafted a battleship's drive onto it, which promised an awesome turn of speed.

Their transport drifted closer, bound for a nearby personnel terminal, and her eyes widened as she saw the recessed weapon hatches. There were far more of them than there should have been on such a small hull, especially one with that huge drive. Unless … .

She inhaled sharply.

I'm not sure, but I think that's an alpha-synth.

Indeed? Interest sharpened Tisiphone's mental voice, for she'd encountered several mentions of the alpha-synth ships, especially in the secured data she'd accessed from the transport's data net. I did not think they could be so small.

Well, they only have a crew of one, and they're right on the frontier of technology. They're only possible because somebody finally developed a practical anti-matter power plant-not to mention the alpha-synth AIs.

The small ship floated out of their view as the transport lined up on the personnel terminal, and Alicia leaned back in her chair, wondering what it would be like to become an alpha-synth pilot.

Lonely, for starters. No more than twenty percent of all human beings could sustain the contact required to maintain a synth-link without becoming "lost," and less than ten percent could handle one of the cyber-synth-links which allowed them to engage their own thoughts with an artificial intelligence. Many who could refused to do so, and it was hard to blame them, given the eccentricities and far from infrequent bouts of outright insanity to which AIs were prone. It couldn't be very reassuring to know your cybernetic henchman could wipe you out right along with it, even if it did give you a subordinate of quite literally inhuman capabilities.

But from the bits and pieces she'd read, people who could (and would) take on an alpha-synth were even rarer-and probably weren't playing with a full deck. The highbrows might be patting themselves for finally producing an insanity-proof AI, but who in her right mind would voluntarily fuse herself with a self-aware computer? Interacting with one was one thing; making yourself a part of it was something else. Alicia, for one, found the idea of becoming the organic half of a bipolar intelligence in a union only death could dissolve far from appealing.

She paused with a short, sharp bark of laughter. One or two heads turned, and she smiled cheerfully at the curious, amused by the way they whipped their eyes back away from her. One more indication of her looniness, she supposed, but it really was humorous. Here she was, uneasy about the possibility of merging with another personality-her of all people!

She chuckled again, then drained her glass and stood as Tannis entered the lounge. Her slightly fixed smile told Alicia it was time to debark and face the dirt-side psych types, and she sighed and set down the empty glass with a smile of her own, wondering if it looked equally pasted on.

* * * | In Fury Born | * * *