Delicious smells filled the small galley, and Ferhat Ben Belkassem sat at the table. He wore a highly atypical air of bemusement and sprawled in his chair without his usual neatness, but then he'd earned a little down time-and hadn't expected to live to enjoy it.
He felt a bit like the ancient Alice as he watched Captain DeVries stir tomato-rich sauce with a neurosurgeon's concentration. Her dyed hair was coiled in a thick braid, and she looked absurdly young. It was hard to credit his own memory of icy eyes and lightning muzzle flashes as she sampled the sauce and reached for more basil. The lid rose from a pot beside her, hovering in midair on an invisible tractor beam, and linguine drifted from a storage bin to settle neatly in the boiling water.
"And what do you think you're doing? I told you I'd put that in when I was ready," she said, and this time he barely twitched. He was starting to adjust to her one-sided conversations with the ship's AI-even if they were yet another of the "impossible" things she did so casually.
Ben Belkassem had boned up on the alpha-synths after DeVries stole this ship. Too much was classified for him to learn as much as he would have liked, but he'd learned enough to know her augmentation didn't include the normal alpha-synth com link. Without it, the AI should have been forced to communicate back by voice, not some sort of … of telepathy!
Yet he was beyond surprise where DeVries was concerned. After all, she'd survived multiple disrupter hits with no more than a few minor burns, killed eleven men saving his own highly-trained self, taken out a few ground-to-space weapon emplacements, escaped through the heart of Wyvern's very respectable fortifications, and polished off a destroyer as an encore. As far as he was concerned, she could do anything she damned well liked.
She murmured something else to the empty air, too softly this time for him to hear, and he sat very still as plates and silverware swooped from cupboard to table like strange birds. Yes, he thought, very like Alice, though a bit more of this and he could qualify as the March Hare. Or perhaps DeVries already had that role and he'd be forced to settle for the Mad Hatter.
He smiled at the thought, and she spared him a smile of her own as she set the sauce on the table and produced a bottle of wine. He raised an eyebrow at the Defiant Vineyards label, and she sighed as she filled their glasses.
"He really was an outstanding vintner. Too bad he couldn't have stopped there."
"Um, you are speaking to me, this time, Captain?"
"You might as well call me Alicia," she said by way of answer, dropping into the chair opposite him as the pot of pasta moved to the sink, drained itself, and drifted to the table.
"Dinner is served," she murmured. "Help yourself, Inspector."
"Fair's fair. If you're Alicia, I'm Ferhat."
She nodded agreement and heaped linguine on her plate, then reached for the sauce ladle while Ben Belkassem eyed the huge serving of pasta.
"Are you sure your stomach's up to this?" he asked, remembering the tearing violent nausea which had wracked her less than two hours before.
"Well," she ladled sauce with a generous hand and grinned at him, "it's not like there's anything down there to get in its way."
"I see." It was untrue, but if she cared to enlighten him she would. He served his own plate one-handedly, sipped his wine, and regarded her quizzically. "I don't believe I've gotten around to thanking you yet. That was about the most efficiently I've ever been rescued by my intended rescuee."
She shrugged a bit uncomfortably. "Without you I'd've been dead, too. Just how long have you been tailing me, anyway?"
"Only since Dewent, and I had a hard time believing it when I first spotted you. You know about the reward?" She nodded, and he chuckled. "Somehow I don't think anyone's going to collect it. How the devil did you get so deep so quickly? It took O Branch seven months to get as far as Jacoby, and we still hadn't fingered Fuchien."
She looked at him oddly, then shrugged again.
"Tisiphone helped. And Megaira, of course."
"Oh. Ah, may I take it Megaira is your AI?"
"What else should I call her?" she asked with a smile.
"From what I've read about alpha-synth symbioses," he said carefully, "the AI usually winds up with the same name as the human partner."
"Must get pretty confusing," another voice said, and Ben Belkassem jumped. His head whipped around, and the new voice chuckled as his eye found the intercom speaker. "Since you're talking about me, I thought I might as well speak up, Inspector. Or do I get to call you Ferhat, too?"
He spoke firmly to his pulse. He'd known the AI was there, but that didn't diminish his astonishment. He'd worked with more than his share of cyber-synth AIs, and they were at least as alien as one might have expected. They simply didn't have a human perspective, and most were totally disinterested in anyone other than their cyber-synth partners. When they did speak, they sounded quite inhuman, and none of them had been issued a sense of humor.
But this one was an alpha-synth AI, he reminded himself, and its voice, not unreasonably, sounded remarkably like Alicia's.
" 'Ferhat' will be fine, um, Megaira," he said after a moment.
"Fine. But if you call me 'Maggie' I'll reverse flow in the head the next time you sit down."
"I wouldn't dream of it," he said a bit faintly.
"Alley did … once."
"A base lie," Alicia put in around a mouthful of food. "She makes things up all the time. Sometimes-" she held Ben Belkassem's eyes across the table "-you might almost think she's shy a brick or two."
"Point taken," the inspector said, beginning to wind linguine around his fork. "But you were saying she and … Tisiphone helped you?"
"Well," Alicia waved at the bulkheads, "you certainly saw how Megaira-by the way, that's 'Star Runner's' real name, too-got us off Wyvern."
"So she did, and most efficiently, too."
"Why, thank you, kind Sir," the speaker said. "I see he's a perceptive man, Alley."
"And your modesty underwhelms us all," Alicia returned dryly.
"Oh, yeah? Just remember, I got it from you."
Ben Belkassem choked on pasta. Definitely not your typical AI. But his humor faded as Alicia replied to Megaira.
"I'll remember. And you just remember I'd still've been dead if not for Tisiphone." She looked back at Ben Belkassem. "She was the one who jump-started my augmentation after that bastard knocked it out."
"Don't sound so dubious." He felt himself blush-something he hadn't done in years-and she snorted. "Of course she did. Who do you think put me back on line after Tannis and Uncle Arthur shut me down? I don't exactly have an on-off switch in the middle of my forehead!"
He took another bite to avoid answering, and her eyes glinted.
"Of course, that's not all she does," she continued, leaning across her plate with a conspiratorial air. "She reads minds, too. That's how I know just who to look for as my next target. And she creates a pretty mean illusion, as well-not to mention sticking the occasional idea into someone else's brain." He gawked at her, and she smiled brightly. "Oh, and she and Megaira do a dynamite job of raiding other people's data bases … or planting data in them, like 'Star Runner's' Melville Sector documentation."
She paused expectantly, and he swallowed. It was too much. Logic said she had to be telling the truth, but sanity said it was all impossible, and he was trapped between them.
"Well, yes," he said weakly, "but-"
"Oh, come on, Ferhat!" she snapped, glaring as if at a none too bright student who'd muffed a pop quiz. "You just talked to Megaira, right?" He nodded. "Well, if you don't have a problem accepting an intelligence-a person-who lives in that computer," she jabbed an index finger in the general direction of Megaira's bridge, "what's the big deal about accepting one who lives in this computer-" the same finger thumped her temple "-with me?"
"Put that way," he said slowly, easing his left arm in its sling, "I don't suppose there should be one. But you have to admit it's a bit hard to accept that a mythological creature's moved in with you."
"I don't have to admit anything of the sort, and I'm getting sick and tired of making allowances for everyone else. Damn it, everybody just assumes I'm crazy! Not a one of you, not even Tannis, ever even considered the possibility that Tisiphone might just really exist!"
"That's not quite true," he said, and it was her turn to pause. She made a small gesture, inviting him to continue.
"Actually," he told her, "Sir Arthur never questioned that she was 'real' in the sense of someone-or something-in your own mind." He raised a hand as her eyes fired up. "I know that's not what you meant, but he'd gotten as far as worrying that something had activated some sort of psi talent in you and produced a 'Tisiphone persona,' I suppose you'd call it, and I think he may have gone a bit further, whether he knew it or not. That's the real reason he was so worried about you. For you."
The green fire softened, and he shrugged.
"As for myself, I don't pretend to know what's inside your mind. You might remember that conversation we had just before Soissons. I can accept that another entity, not just a delusion, has moved in with you. I just … have trouble with the idea of a Greek demigoddess or demon." He smiled a touch sheepishly. "I'm afraid it violates my own preconceptions."
"Your preconceptions! What do you think it did to mine?"
"I hate to think," he admitted. "But even those who accept something exists can be excused for worrying about whether or not it's benign, I think."
"That depends on how you define 'benign,' " Alicia replied slowly. "She's not what you'd call a forgiving sort, and we have … a bargain."
"To nail the pirates," Ben Belkassem said in a soft voice, and she nodded. "At what price, Alicia?"
"At any price." Her eyes looked straight through him, and her voice was flat-its very lack of emphasis more terrible than any trick of elocution. He shivered, and her eyes dropped back into focus. "At any price," she repeated, "but don't call them 'pirates.' That isn't what they are at all."
"If not pirates, what are they?"
"Most of them are Imperial Fleet personnel."
"What?" Ben Belkassem blurted, and her mouth twisted sourly.
"Wondering if I'm crazy again, Ferhat?" she asked bitterly. "I'm not. I don't know who hit Alexsov-it may even have been me, though I was trying to keep him alive-but he was pretty far gone by the time we got to him. But not so far that we didn't get a lot. Gregor Borissovich Alexsov, Captain, Imperial Fleet, Class of '32, last assignment: chief of staff to Commodore James Howell." Her mouth twisted again. "He still holds-held-that position, Inspector, because Commodore Howell is your pirates' field commander, and both of them are working directly for Vice Admiral Sir Amos Brinkman."
He stared at her, mind refusing to function. He'd known there had to be someone on the inside-someone high up-but never this! Yet somehow he couldn't doubt it, and the belief in his eyes eased her bitter expression.
"We didn't get everything, but we got a lot. Brinkman's in it up to his neck, but I think he's more their CNO, not the real boss. Alexsov knew who-or what group of whos-is really calling the shots, only he died before we got it. We still don't know their ultimate objective, either, but their immediate goal is to get as much as possible of the Imperial Fleet assigned to chasing them down."
"Wait a minute," Ben Belkassem muttered, clutching at his hair with his good hand. "Just wait a minute! I'll accept that you-or Tisiphone, or whoever-can read minds, but why in God's name would they want that? It's suicide!"
"No, it isn't." Alicia's own frustration showed in her voice, and she set aside her fork, laying her hand on the tablecloth and staring at her palm as if it somehow held the answer. "That's only their immediate goal, a single step towards whatever it is they ultimately intend to accomplish, and Alexsov was delighted with how well it's going."
Her hand clenched into a fist, and her eyes blazed.
"But whatever they're up to, Tisiphone and I can finally hit the bastards!" she said fiercely. "We know what they've got, we know where to find it, and we're going to rip the guts right out of them!"
"Wait-slow down!" Ben Belkassem begged. "What do you mean, you 'know what they've got'?"
"The 'pirate' fleet," Alicia said precisely, "consists of nine Fleet transports, seventeen Fleet destroyers, not counting the one we destroyed, six Fleet light cruisers, nine Fleet heavy cruisers, five Fleet battlecruisers, and one Capella-class dreadnought."
Ben Belkassem's jaw dropped. That was at least twice his own worst-case estimate, and how in hell had they gotten their hands on one of the Fleet's most modern dreadnoughts?
Alicia smiled-as if she could read his mind, he thought, and shuddered at the possibility that she was doing precisely that.
"Admiral Brinkman," she explained, "is only one of the senior officers involved. According to the record, most of their ships were stripped and sent to the breakers, but that was only a cover. In fact, they simply disappeared-with all systems and data bases intact. As for the dreadnought, she's the Procyon. If you check the ship list, you'll find her in the Sigma Draconis Reserve Fleet, but if anyone checks her berth-"
"Dear God!" Ben Belkassem whispered, then shook himself. "You said you know where they are?"
"At this particular moment, they are either at or en route to AR-12359 /J, an M4 just outside the Franconia Sector. Alexsov was supposed to rendezvous with them after completing his business on Wyvern, and unless Alexsov was wrong, Admiral Brinkman-" the rank was a curse in her mouth "-will be sending them new targeting orders there within the next three weeks. Only they won't be able to carry them out."
Her cold, shark-like smile chilled his blood.
"Alicia, you can't take on that kind of opposition by yourself-not even with an alpha-synth! They'll kill you!"
"Not before we kill Procyon," she said softly, and he swallowed. Fury or no Fury, there was madness in her eyes now. She meant it. She was going to launch a suicide attack straight into them unless he could dissuade her, and his mind worked desperately.
"That's … not the best strategy," he said, and her lip curled.
"Oh? It's more than the entire sector government's managed! And just who else do you suggest I send? Shall we report to Admiral Brinkman? Or, since we know he's dirty, perhaps we should take a chance on Admiral Gomez. Of course, there's the little problem that I don't have a single scrap of proof, isn't there? What do you suppose they'll do if a crazy woman tells them 'voices' insist the second in command of the Franconia Naval District is actually running the pirates? Voices that got the information from someone who's conveniently dead? Assuming, that is, that they forget their shoot on sight order long enough for me to tell them!
"Those bastards murdered every single person I loved, and Governor Treadwell, the entire Imperial Fleet, and even Uncle Arthur can go straight to Hell before I let them get away now!"
Her eyes glared at the inspector, and he shuddered. The amusement of only minutes before had vanished into a raw, ugly hatred totally unlike the woman he remembered from Soissons. And, he thought, unlike the woman he'd observed on Dewent and Wyvern. It was as if learning who her enemies were had snapped something down inside her … .
"All right, granted we can't inform Soissons. Hell, with Brinkman dirty, there's no telling how far up-or down-the rot's spread." He was too caught up in his thoughts to notice he was taking Brinkman's guilt as a given. "But if you go busting in there, the only person who knows the truth-whether anyone else is ready to believe you or not-is going to get killed. You may hurt them, but what if you don't hurt them enough? What if they regroup?"
"Then they're your problem," she said flatly. "I'm dropping you at Mirbile. You can follow up without explaining where you got your lead."
She was right, he thought, but if he admitted it she'd go right ahead and get herself killed.
"Look, assume you get Procyon. I'm not as sure you can do it as you are, but let's accept that you kill Howell and his staff. You'll also be killing the only confirmation of what you've just told me! I may be able to get Brinkman and his underlings, but how do I get whoever's behind him?" He saw the fire in her eyes waver and pressed his advantage. "They may be tapped in at a level even higher than Brinkman-maybe even at court back on Old Earth-and if it starts unraveling out here, you can bet Brinkman will suffer a fatal accident before we pick him up. That breaks the chain. If you hit them by yourself, you may guarantee the real masterminds get away!"
He makes a point, Little One, Tisiphone murmured. I swore we would reach the ones responsible for your planet's murder. If we settle for those whose hands actually did the deed, you may die and leave me forsworn.
"I don't care if he's right!" Alicia snarled. "We've finally got a clear shot at the bastards! I say we take it!"
Ben Belkassem thrust himself back in his chair, eyes huge as he realized who she was arguing with, and made himself sit silently.
Yet what if he speaks the truth? Would you settle for underlings, leaving those who set this obscenity in motion untouched? Knowing they may plot anew, murder other families as they did those whom you loved?
Alicia closed her eyes, biting her lip until she tasted blood, and the Fury's voice was almost gentle in her brain.
You sound more like myself than I do, Little One, but I have learned from you, as well. We must strike the head from this monster if we seek true vengeance … and if we would not have it rise again.
She's right, Alley, Megaira broke in. Please. You know I'll back you, whatever you decide, but listen to her. Listen to Ferhat.
Tears burned the corners of her eyes, tears of pain and hate not even Tisiphone could fully mute, of frustration and need. She wanted to attack, needed to attack, and she had a target at last.
So what would you do? she demanded bitterly.
Lend me your voice, Little One, the Fury said unexpectedly, and Alicia's eyes opened in surprise as she heard her own voice speak.
"Alicia wishes to strike now, Ferhat Ben Belkassem." The inspector stiffened and sweat popped on his forehead at the strange timber of Alicia's voice. "She believes, and rightly, that we must strike our foes now, while we know where we may find them. Yet you counsel otherwise. Why?"
Ben Belkassem licked his lips. He'd told Alicia the truth; he couldn't quite accept that she'd been possessed by a creature from mythology, but he knew it wasn't Alicia speaking. Whoever-whatever-had entered her life, he was face to face with it at last, unable even to pretend it didn't exist, and terror chipped away at his veneer of sophistication, revealing the primitive behind it to his own inner eye.
"Because-because it isn't enough … Tisiphone," he made himself say. "At the very least, we need outside confirmation of the ships they have from witnesses no one can sweep under the rug because they're 'crazy.' That would lend at least partial credence to the rest of what Alicia-to what the two of you have just told me. And we have to hurt them worse than you can, destroy more of their ships and shatter the raiding force so badly they'll need months to reorganize while we go to work from the other end."
"Well and good, Ferhat Ben Belkassem," that dispassionate, infinitely cold ghost of Alicia's contralto replied. "Yet we have but our good Megaira. You yourself have said we dare not seek aid from the Franconia Sector, and no other can reach hither before our enemies depart their present rendezvous."
"I know." He drew a deep breath and stared into Alicia's eyes, seeing her own will and mind within them, behind that other's words. "But what if I could tell you where to find a naval force that could go toe to toe with the 'pirates'? One that doesn't have a thing to do with the Fleet? And one that's right here, already in the sector?"
"There is such a force?" the icy voice sharpened, and Alicia's eyes widened as he nodded.
"There is. You were going to drop me off at Mirabile-why not take me to Ringbolt, instead?"