The elevator door opened, and Ferhat Ben Belkassem stepped onto the flight deck of the refurbished starship Megaira. Alicia DeVries unfolded herself from the command chair, immaculate as of yore in midnight-blue and silver. Her hair was its natural color once more, spilling over her shoulders in a tide of sunrise, and Ben Belkassem decided it went even better with the uniform than her black hair had.
He held out his hand.
She took his hand in both of hers, squeezing firmly, and he marveled again at the way her smile got inside a person. The fanaticism and hatred were gone, yet they'd left their mark. There was a new depth in her cool, emerald eyes, a softness. Not a weakness, but a new strength, perhaps. The strength of someone who understands how utterly any human, however remarkable, can be reduced.
"Alicia." He looked around with a smile of his own. "How was the shakedown cruise?"
"Why not ask someone who knows?" a voice said from a speaker, and his smile turned into a grin. "As a matter of fact," Megaira continued, "it went even better than the original builders' trials." The speaker sniffed. "I told them we could increase the drive mass."
"Must have been a shock for the yard to have the ship talking back."
"It was good for them," Megaira insisted.
"Probably." His eye fell on the chair still sitting beside Alicia's, and he settled into it with a little sigh. "Never thought I'd sit here again," he said softly, rubbing the armrests gently.
"You almost didn't get to," Alicia agreed. She could talk about it now with only the faintest twinge. She remembered every horrifying moment, yet the memories held no terror. They were only memories-and warnings.
"How's Tisiphone?" Ben Belkassem asked after a moment, and Alicia smiled wryly, stroking her temple unconsciously.
"Still here-though I'm not too sure Tannis and Uncle Arthur really believe in her even now."
"Ha! They believe. The Emperor doesn't hand out citations-not even secret ones-to figments of the imagination. They may not agree on what she is, but they know she's there." He cocked his head and eyed her curiously. "Speaking of whom, I sort of had the impression she'd be … Well, moving on once the job was over."
So did I, a voice said wryly in Alicia's mind.
Should I tell him?
You may as well, Little One. I would prefer not to keep secrets from him-nor am I any too sure we could if we tried!
"I'm afraid she can't 'move on,' " Alicia said to Ben Belkassem. The inspector raised his eyebrows, and she sighed. "Something happened there at the last. I don't understand it-I'm not even sure Tisiphone does, really-but we both came so close to, well-"
She paused and cleared her throat, and Ben Belkassem nodded.
"She stopped me somehow," Alicia continued softly. "There was a … a hole inside me. I'm not sure I can explain it, but-"
I believe I can, Little One. With your permission?
Alicia blinked in surprise, then nodded and sat back to listen to her own voice.
"At first, I did not understand what Alicia had done, Inspector," the Fury said through Alicia's mouth, and to his credit, he didn't even flinch. "I had sealed a portion of her mind-a mistake which almost destroyed her, for she is not a person to submit to transgressions tamely."
Ben Belkassem nodded, watching with fascination as Alicia turned pink.
"She attacked the barrier I had built and breached it, and in the process she accomplished still more. I was made three in one, Inspector. There were … connections between my selves, but I lost them when I lost my sisters. Or so I thought, for in truth, they exist still. One set I extended without even realizing to Megaira, and so we were able to accomplish much, yet I was in control of that linkage, however little I recognized it.
"But I was not prepared when Alicia forced open the other. Sir Arthur, as you know, once speculated that I was some manner of secondary personality, created when Alicia awakened inherent psionic capabilities of her own. He was wrong, but not entirely. She did possess such talents, latent and undeveloped but powerful, and I did not recognize them. I ought to have. There were … signs of them before ever Alicia and I actually meant. But despite that, I did not anticipate the reality of which she proved capable. I am inclined, as you may have observed, to arrogance. I do not apologize. It is my nature, yet because of my arrogance, I had always scorned human minds.
"That," Alicia heard "her" voice turn wry, "is no longer the case. Alicia has cured me. My presence awoke that capability to reach in through the unused link I had forgotten, and through it she tapped my basic structure. Even the best of human minds-even Alicia's-is not equal to that. I have learned much from Alicia, yet I remain what I am, and it drove her mad."
There was a moment of silence before Tisiphone resumed.
"The only way in which I might cure her madness and restore what I had stolen from her was to close the link, yet she had grown too powerful. I would have failed and been destroyed had not a tiny core of her still stood and fought at my side. Between us, we sealed the wound, but our power, our natures, were interwoven in the sealing. In short, I am bound to Alicia now. I cannot leave her, cannot long exist if I separate myself from her."
"Do you mean to say you're mortal now?" Ben Belkassem asked carefully.
"I do not know," Tisiphone said calmly. "With good fortune, I shall not know for many years, for I intend to take very good care of my sister Alicia."
"But … but doesn't it bother you?"
"An impertinent question, Ferhat Ben Belkassem," Tisiphone observed, and Alicia smiled around the words at the inspector's expression, "and the answer-like so many others, I fear-is that I do not truly know. My sister selves are long since gone. Without Alicia and Megaira, I would be alone once more, and loneliness is not pleasant. I will remain with my friends and face what comes when it comes."
"I see." Ben Balkassem shook his head, then cleared his throat. "Well, that seems like a perfect opening for what brings me here."
He laid his briefcase in his lap, opened it, and sorted through the old-fashioned parchment documents it contained.
"Let me see… . First, your official pardon, Alicia." He extended the document with a flourish. "Sorry it took so long. I understand there were some wrung hands back in Old Earth-especially when you kept the Bengal; I think they figured you could at least give it back. But when the Emperor awards the sole living holder of the Banner of Terra his personal thanks for services rendered, it would be downright tacky to send the recipient to prison for grand theft, however grand it was.
"Second, a legal opinion I think you'll all be glad to have." He looked at the wall speaker. "This one's for you, actually, Megaira. As you know, imperial law has always held that artificial intelligences are not persons in a legal sense because of the demonstrable fact that AIs are not only artificial and unstable but simply don't have a true sense of personality. You, however, are a special case, and the judiciary, at the Emperor's strong urging, has determined that you are, in fact, a person. As such, you cannot be considered property without violation of the constitutional prohibition of slavery."
"Sounds like a mouthful of lawyer's double-talk to me," the speaker said suspiciously. "And anybody who thinks I'm a slave is gonna get a Hauptman coil where he lives!"
"A possibility which, I feel sure, did not escape the judiciary's attention," Ben Belkassem said wryly. "The point, Megaira, is that Fleet is now required to officially renounce all claim of ownership. Not, I suspect, without some sense of relief. You own yourself, dear-and I brought a voter registration form with me if you're interested." He smiled beatifically. "I expect the court hadn't considered that aspect of the matter."
"Hey, that's great!" Megaira exclaimed, then paused. "Whoa! Does this mean I have to pay taxes?"
"All the rights-and duties-of citizenship are yours, dear Megaira," he said sweetly, and a disgusted sound came from the speaker.
"And third," Ben Belkassem dived back into his briefcase for a small leather wallet, "and perhaps most importantly, I come bearing an invitation."
"Invitation?" Alicia asked, and he sobered.
"Yes. I know the whole Colonel Watts affair left a bitter taste in your mouth, Alicia, but I hope some of that bitterness has eased now."
He held her eyes and she nodded slowly as she remembered.
Seamus II had summoned her to Sligo Palace.
She'd gone unwillingly, only to find herself alone with him in an unheard-of private audience. He'd faced her, standing before a portrait of Terrence Murphy, and when she'd started to kneel before him, he'd stopped her with a gesture.
"I asked you to come here, Captain DeVries," he'd said, "because this is where you were the day that I betrayed my oath to you and your company."
"Your Majesty, I -"
"No, Captain." His raised hand had silenced her, and he'd looked her directly in the eye. "There was a time, in a courtyard not far from his audience chamber, when I told you and the other survivors of Charlie Company that I owed them and their dead comrades my personal thanks. That was no more than the truth, and over and beyond my debt to Charlie Company as a whole, there was my debt to you, and to your family. Not just to you, but to your grandfather, and to your father.
"But when Baron Yuroba and Lady Canaris came to me, I let myself forget that. It's true that a head of state must be able to think beyond the purely personal, that there are times when he must be ruthless in pursuit of his greater responsibilities to all of the people he governs. But that can never excuse me for having forgotten what Charlie Company did-not just for me, but for all of the people I govern. I owed them justice. I didn't give it to them, and you were right to refuse to serve an Emperor who could dishonor himself by dishonoring his own dead."
Alicia stared at him, unable to quite believe what he'd said, and then he'd bent his head slightly.
"Alicia Dierdre DeVries," he said, "We, Seamus, of Our House the seventeenth and of Our name the second, beg you to accept the apology of the House of Murphy. We have proven unworthy of the service you have rendered so unstintingly to Us and to Our Crown, yet We shall strive to make what amends We may. And," he'd raised his head once more, to look her directly in the eye, "you have Our personal word, as Emperor of Humanity, that there will be no 'deals' for the criminals responsible for this atrocity. Whoever they may be, whatever their names or their positions or the power they expect to save them, they will pay the full price for their actions."
And he'd meant that promise. Treadwell and Brinkman had already been sentenced to death, and a relentless Ministry of Justice was bringing down an amazing number of multi-billionaires and even trillionaires, as well. The money that had backed Treadwell in the name of profit was no protection now, and neither were noble titles or positions of power. Two dukes, both members of the House of Murphy themselves, were awaiting trial, and two Senators representing Incorporated Worlds in the Franconia Sector had already been indicted. There were rumors that at least three more would soon be charged, and two more senior admirals, a half-dozen junior flag officers, and dozens of less senior Fleet and even Marine officers were also under arrest.
None of it could bring back the company's dead or give them the justice they had been denied, but her Empire and her Emperor had once more proven themselves worthy of her devotion.
"Yes, Ferhat," she said now, quietly. "Some of it's eased."
"Good, because in light of what the three of you achieved entirely on your own, I've been empowered to offer you this."
He opened the wallet, and Alicia's eyes widened as she saw the archaic, glittering badge. It was an inspector's badge-an O Branch inspector's badge, with her name engraved upon it.
"As a free and independent subject of the Emperor," Ben Belkassem went on, "Megaira is entitled to a badge of her own-a sergeant's, in her case-assuming you accept. Under the circumstances, I thought it might be best not to ask for one for Tisiphone."
He held out the badge and Alicia reached for it in shock, then snatched her hand back as if it had burned her, and a memory flashed through her mind. Of another day, in an office on Old Earth, and her own hand, laying aside the starship and harp which had meant so much to her.
"You can't be serious!" she blurted. "Me work for O Branch? What about my reserve Cadre commission?"
"I discussed it with Sir Arthur. He sees no difficulty with retaining you on active duty for indefinite assignment to O Branch. We've worked well with the Cadre in the past; there's no reason we shouldn't in the future."
"Before you turn me down, let me point out some of the advantages. First, there's the matter of your logistics. Megaira is a free person, and the starship Megaira, as her 'body,' belongs to her, but operating and maintaining an alpha-synth is expensive-as much as five million a year even without combat. You'd be hard pressed to show that much profit as a merchant ship, but if you join O Branch, the Ministry will cover your operating costs."
Alicia nodded but had to lower her eyes to hide the laughter in them as she wondered how Ben Belkassem's superiors would react to her bank account on Thaarvhld. Megaira had been conservative in her estimate, and three hundred forty million credits, at twelve percent compound interest, would have covered their costs quite nicely.
"But that's only one reason," Ben Belkassem resumed more seriously, leaning forward in his chair. "You believe in justice, Alicia, and you've proved how much you can accomplish."
She eyed him doubtfully, and he shrugged.
"Think about it. We need you. My God, what the three of you could achieve with O Branch backing! An alpha-synth with a mind-reader for a pilot? Alley, my director would paint himself purple and dance naked on the palace lawn at high noon for a combination like that! He's even let me pick your Ministry code name." He grinned again as she raised an eyebrow. "I thought 'Fury' would be fitting."
Alicia sat back in her chair, watching his smiling face, and temptation stirred.
Megaira? she asked.
Count me in, Alley. You know it's only a matter of time before the do-gooder in you gets us back into trouble anyway, and it'd be kind of nice not to have the good guys shooting at us for a change when it does.
Alicia's lips twitched, and she turned to the Fury.
I cast my vote with Megaira. You are what you are, Little One, as I am. I feel the pull yet. After five thousand years, it is difficult to see evil and know it may go unpunished, yet I have learned to respect this concept of justice. It is far more satisfying than meting out punishment on the whim of some irritated deity!
Alicia nodded slowly and cocked her head to give Ben Belkassem a long, measuring look.
"I'm tempted-we all are," she said finally, "but there's one little point that bothers me. Once I start working with other people, they're going to figure out I'm talking to someone they can't see. Aren't they likely to think I'm just a teeny bit crazy when I do?"
"Well, of course they are!" Ben Belkassem looked at her in such obvious surprise she blinked. "Surely you didn't think that would be a problem?" Alicia simply stared at him, and he shook his head. "Alley, everyone in O Branch is crazy, or we wouldn't be here."
He grinned and extended the badge once more.
This time she took it.