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56.4 - Checking In


Edited 1542759961
Chapters 1. Joa 2. Ivan 3. Gregory Joa sits, waiting, nervous. The Mistress has summoned her, and her research is not yet complete. Unless, of course, she's been summoned for something she's done wrong, some matter of dissatisfaction.  In which case, this can end in pain and blood. She's seen that happen. But rightfully. Rightfully! The Great Mission, she knows, is paramount. She joined it willingly, she knows for what they fight. All too painfully she knows. The chaos, the pain, the hatred, the false -- She closes her eyes. This is important. I must not fail. I must not. "Ms Nyobé." Joa's eyes snap open. She tries to get to her feet, an automatic reaction, but the table of the booth restrains her. "Mistress --" The Mistress gives her a look. "Oh!" Joa feels her face get hot. "Miss. Ma'am. I --" "My error," the Mistress says. "I should have used your first name." An error? Joa blinks. "And I yours, A--" "Alice Chan," the Mistress says.  "Alice ... Chan." Joa slips out of the booth. "Alice. Its good to see you again." The casual English come naturally from her now, after a decade in the States, even if she still has the accent of her native Fulfulde, overlain with some French (never English!) learned as a child. "And you, Joa." She holds up a plate with a quartet of cookies. "They have good baked goods here, I'm told." The Mistress -- Alice -- gestures, and Joa slides into the seat, the other following suit. "I have a coffee ordered," Alice tells her. "Did you want anything?" "The coffee here is --" Joa pauses. "We have limited resources, and do not spend them on coffee in places such as this." Alice makes a face. "Yeah -- I understand." She smiles. "You're wise with the the resources you have. I approve." "All is for the Great Mission. Any surplus of what we earn to our expenses goes to a reserve for that purpose." Alice nods, her expression serious. "The purpose of the Great Mission is the happiness and fulfillment of all, beyond the artifice of money and the control of soul-crushing orders from supposed betters." A half-smile, then. "It's all right to occasionally indulge in something that brings you joy."  Joa furrows her brow. "I -- the goals of the Great Mission are wise, of course, but to celebrate before it is achieved is an indulgence that --" "Discipline is important, but a system with no relief valve is unreliable and cannot be trusted." Joa nods. She thinks of life before she entered the service of the Master, the small joys and happinesses of that time. How they came to an end. "As you say, M-- Alice." Alice takes a bite of the cookie, cocks her head. "I believe they make these here, though the dough comes from an outside source. The health risks of the additives are negligible, probably less than from the refined sugar and flour in use. But, for the moment, please, enjoy." Joa nods. Thoughts of the old times disturb her, and she remembers a blessing her father used to say over food at the table. She banishes it from her mind; the Mistress would righteously strike her down for such sentimental religiosity. "How are things going at the store, Joa?" She smiles. "Well, Alice, quite well. We have improved operational efficiency by 12.3%. The other employees there have adopted the changes with little resistance. I have submitted to the FedEx corporate headquarters recommendations around the most significant improvements, so that they may be used elsewhere." The smile grows larger. "I have been told that I will receive one of the monthly commendations for one of them." Alice arches an eyebrow. "That seems positively corporatist of you, Joa." Catecholamines shoots through her system, filling her mind with panic. She restrains herself from fleeing, or from groveling for forgiveness, but sits shock-still, unable to speak. The Mistress frowns. "That was a complement, not a critique, Joa. Blending in, establishing credibility, increasing the financial resources you glean from the oligarchs -- those are all good things for the Great Mission." Relief floods through her, as abrupt as the panic had. Joa nods. "Thank you -- Alice." "And the trail?" "I have removed or damanged most of the records and information that helped us find you. Other elements remain in play, but scattered. I am working on them." "And your other assignment ?"   "I -- I have data, but no analysis as of yet. The dataset remains small for the addresses you provided, so no patterns can be provided with confidence." Alice nods. "Good. I would worry if you were too quick to find a pattern." "There are some odd correlations, but outside of normal analytical rigor. If this is an emergency --" She holds up some fingers from where her hand sits ont he table. "Take your time, Joa. It is better that your analysis be correct than that it be overly-swift." "Yes, Alice." Alice frowns, and Joa realizes that her response was too formal in tone. She might as well have said "Mistress" or "Ma'am" as the cover name the Mistress is using. She tries again, letting her voice be as casual as possible. "Yes ... thanks." That draws a smile. Then, "How are the others doing?" Joa tenses. She had feared this was coming. Speak with confidence. "Ivan is working hard. He is most efficient, and has taken point on the management of our apartment. He --" She pauses, then continues, "-- he is an excellent cook. We do not indulge in valueless consumption of food, but he is skilled at taking staples, plus spices and cooking techniques, and making them quite tasty." "Better than ration packs, I'd guess." "Much so!" "And that is what I spoke of when I talked about allowing some joy into your life. Ascetic discipline would call for you to eat the most flavorless food, lest you be seduced by flavor into indulgence and gluttony. A wise discipline allows for some pleasure amidst self-control." That actually makes some sense, and Joa is about to comment when the young man at the counter calls out Alice's name.  "Can I get you something?" she asks Joa. Joa hesitates, then, "Black tea, if you would." Alice smiles. "I'll be right back." Joa sits at the table, quietly, nibbling her cookie. She ponders the similarities and differences between the Mistress and her father before her. She encountered Dr. Achilles Chin in person twice in her life -- the first time, when she was saved, and the second time, shortly before his death, when he staged his operation out of the Arlington Cell. On that first occasion, she could only remember his power, his kindness, his determination. On the second -- He is a great man. Was a great man, gone to his reward. His devotion to the Great Mission explains much, justifies much. She bows her head. The Mistress appears more like that first encounter. Do the seeds of the second rest within her as well? She glances over to the counter. The Mistress is gesturing sharply with a pointed finger at the person working the counter. Joa cannot hear her voice, nor see her face, but the young man -- tall, gangly, ginger -- looks pale. He rushes over to the back counter, busying himself with, it looks like, Joa's tea. Joa flushes. There is a line of people behind the Mistress. Joa would not have queue jumped in such a fashion; that the Mistress would makes her feel ... uncomfortable. In a few moments, the Mistress -- Alice -- is walking back with a tray bearing both her own coffee and what must be Joa's tea. She hands the cup, a tea bag dangling in it, over to Joa. "Here you are. Sorry, it's in a tea bag." "Thank you. You needn't have troubled yourself." "Nonsense. I take care of my own." Joa bows her head. "So, Ivan is doing well. What of Gregory?" This is the part where Joa knows she must tread carefully. After what happened to Enrico -- "Gregory is a diligent and hard worker," she replies. "He applies himself to our mission, often manning the front desk during our shift. His work allows me to use the computer systems at the store in service of your assignment -- Alice." Alice takes a sip of her coffee -- black, Joa notices -- and nods. She looks serious. "And outside of work?" "He -- labors hard at our apartment, keeping everything tidy, making sure that all chores are done." She shrugs. "He's our Fourth, but the work assignments are fair and he pitches in willingly for his part." "Is he happy with your assignment?" Joa stops her nibbling for a moment, then covers that by setting the cookie down and picking up the tea, taking a sip. It burns her tongue, but that's necessary. "He is eager for action. As are we all. Until then, we await your orders." Alice raises an eyebrow. Joa has seen that expression on her father's face, in person and on the viewscreen.  "M-- Alice, it is not my place to question my Fourth." Her face softens slightly. "Joa," she says. Her hand makes a slight movement, as if abortively reaching out to touch hers, but that would be far too scandalous, and if that is her intent, Joa is glad she changes her mind. "Your loyalty does you credit, and I will not ask you to test your faith and friendship in Gregory, with your Fourth, against that which you owe to me." That stings. Her loyalty to her Mistress should be paramount. That is the fourth tenet of the Great Mission, is it not? But ... Joa realizes with a small jolt that Alice has cut to the heart of the matter. Greg has been there for her and Ivan -- protected her, seen that she had food and shelter (and though sometimes both were scant, he shared and shared alike).  And she knows, she's seen -- the Master's cause attracted those who were cast out of normal society, sometimes for their poverty and politics, sometimes for their ability to fit in -- and there were many cases where their fervor, their zeal, even their madness, made them brutal and erratic masters of their own parts of the Mission. But Grego has none of that -- yes, a temper, to be sure, a willingness to violence at times that Joa both shrinks from and feels guilty at her fear in the face of his true belief. But he can  be kind, companionable -- he even has a finely honed humor that rarely comes out but which has lifted their spirits in their darkest hours.  (She puts aside in her mind what had happened to Gene, the erstwhile traitor in their refugee group. Gregory acted with firmness and dispatch, and could have rightfully punished him far worse before ending his life.) That is an immediate loyalty. She knows Greg, knows him as her personal leader, comrade-in-arms, even friend (within the bonds of discipline), for the past few years of desperation. She cannot betray him. But she owes so much to the Great Mission as well -- a sworn oath of loyalty for her rescue, of course, and of fealty to the man who led it, and to the cause which burns as a fire in her heart. The Mistress is the Master's heir, and hads shown in turn a loyalty to her people that cannot but help influence her. She cannot betray Alice, but -- She hasn't realized this challenge even existed. Now that she does -- Joa takes a deep breath. "Greg is a loyal soldier to the Great Mission, Alice. He has proven himself again and again." Alice smiles, though it is not a joyful expression. Again, she has seen that face on the Master as well. "Joa, you are one of my intelligence gathering and analysis experts. You, above all others, known the importance of complete information in making an assessment. I did not question Gregory's loyalty or devotion to the cause -- or to me --" Alice pauses there just a moment, then continues. "-- but whether he is happy. Is he driven solely by duty, or is he finding fulfillment in the mission given to him at this time." "Are happiness and fulfillment important?" Alice cocks her head slightly, then leans forward, and when she speaks, her voice is low and intent, her eyes drilling into Joa so that she cannot look away. "Remember, what we do is not for some faceless cause, some abstract call to duty. The Great Mission -- when we forget about the individuals for whom we fight, their particular happiness and fulfillment, then we treat them as soulless machines, faceless, even disposable, the same way the oligarchy and power structure see them. We become no better than that which we will overturn." She drums her fingers on the table. "But that also includes those who fight for the cause." Joa draws back a bit from that intense gaze, but does not break from it. "We sacrifice all for --" "-- for the Mission. Yes, I've heard the mantra." Joa can hear anger behind those words. "And each of us is called to do so, in small ways and great. But that doesn't mean we should seek out misery, or expect mindless drudgery in duty, or simple obedience. We are not robots, none of us. The whole cannot be great if the individual parts are not, if they are malnourished in body or in spirit. Seeking happiness is not an indulgence: it is a way to grow strong, better able to fulfill the Great Mission." Joa nods slowly. That all makes a strange sense, even if I cannot imagine the Master saying such words. But from the Mistress, here, now, it makes sense. "I -- yes, I believe I understand." Alice smiles, a wry twist to her lips. "It's an easy lesson to give, not so much to follow. Believe me, I do know." Joa returns the smile, though not sure why. It is a lesson she has had to fight with, I can tell. The Mistress is human, even if touched with the divine. That is -- something for me to remember. It makes her seem both lesser and greater. Her tongue touches her upper lip, then she says, "Gregory -- is not happy. He burns to act. He has been focused on finding you, to rejoin the cause, but now that he has, he aches for more direct action. He is frustrated, and that frustration ..." She trails off. Alice's smile thins. "As I thought." At Joa's attempt to speak again, to defend her Fourth, Alice holds up a hand. "I do not count that against him. He is a warrior. Give him a warrior's assignment and he is focused. Take that from him, and he is restless, looking to strike out at something." She snorts, again an oddly human expression. "I know the feeling." Alice leans back. "I'll need to find a way to better direct him. Meanwhile, Joa, I have a favor to ask of you." "Of course!" "I need you to keep an eye on him. Not --" She holds up a hand again. "-- spy on him, or plot any action to his detriment. Just -- if you can soothe his urge to war before the time is right, that would be of help." "I have. I've tried to urge patience." A smile. "Good. Excellent. You are a voice of reason, something that should help him. But -- if he seems to be planning something -- contact me." "Mistress?" An eyebrow. She feels her cheeks warm again.  Conne ! It's difficult to fight against the customs of over a decade. "Alice. I --" "Take no action. Just contact me. I -- need to have a meeting like this with him, but that may take some time. If he is about to act precipitously, I need you to let me know, so that -- so that the Mission is not endangered, or the other threads I have built for the right moment are not disrupted." This time she does reach out, put her hands on Joa's where they are rested on the table. "Can you do that? For me?" "It would -- it would be an honor. Alice." A slight squeeze -- Alice's hands are warm, strong -- and she releases Joa. "Good." Her eyes flicker to the side. "I need to go." She takes a last sip of coffee. "I am well-pleased with you, with all of you, Joa. What you are doing is important, and your devotion to the Great Mission is clear." "And to you -- Alice." Something else flickers across the Mistress' face, too fast to recognize. She merely nods, shoots her with finger pistols (!), and slides out of the booth. "We'll talk again soon, Joa. Thank you." Then she's gone. Joa leans back and sips her tea, which has gone cold. The Mistress -- Alice -- is very different from her father. Younger. More human. More approachable. Even more caring. Her words are at variance with those of the Great Mission, but not in spirit, at least not as she explains it . She closes her eyes. One similarity remains. I would die for her. I would not be happy to give up my life, but she would be a worthy cause for it, no matter what doubts Greg has. Joa gets out of the booth, carefully counts out some change to leave on the table, and leaves. [to be continued] #Cutscene
Ivan looks at the menu. It's an odd phenomenon, this American obsession with breakfast-lunch cafes. So many of them here in Halcyon, almost as many as coffee shops, and they always have "Egg" somewhere in the name, directly or indirectly. "The Egg and I". "The Little Chicken". "Egg Daze". Would a place named "The Brunch Cafe" be too prosaic to succeed in this country? Perhaps, when the Great Mission is fulfilled, if it is within his lifetime, he will find out. He looks across the table at his dining companion. "Is this where I say something that shows I am Russian? Maybe a comment about food shortages, or waiting for service, or perhaps a microphone in the flower bouquet?" Alice -- that is her preferred address, he again reminds himself -- smiles. "Not if you don't wish to. I imagine it gets tiresome." "Russian humor is very strong. It carries quite the burden for us. But, yes, I'd as soon skip it." He shifts over to his mother language. "Besides, it never sounds quite right in English." She holds up a finger. "But we will speak only in English. It makes it easier for someone to overhear, but less likely that they will be inclined to. Foreign languages always draw attention -- especially in this country." He nods. "Of course." The waitress, an older woman with a name tag that says "SOPHIE," finally steps up. "All y'all know what you want?" Alice looks at him. He knows his civilian clothing is not quite military-sharpness, but good enough for the storefront. He wishes he'd had time for a haircut, but her personal message directly to him had not given him that chance, only to trim his beard.  He nods again, as does Alice. "I'll have the lunch Caesar, dressing on the side," she says. "Iced tea." When Sophie looks querying at him, Ivan says, "Breakfast Burrito. No meat added, just the smothering with green chili. Coffee, black." She reads back the order. "Be right back with those drinks," Sophie says striding off toward the kitchen. Alice looks at him. "I like the Breakfast Burrito," he says, feeling strangely defensive. "One of America's best culinary inventions. They make it here with the hash browns inside, a bit crisped, so it gives a nice texture." A thin smile touches the edge of her lips. "I might have to try it next time." "If this is to be a regular meeting, then, yes, I concur. I am told I am a passable cook, so take that as a professional recommendation." She doesn't reply, but lets her eyes drift around the room. Finally, in the face of the silence, and more nervous than he dares to show, he says, "So to what do I owe a fine breakfast and time with my, ah, employer?" "Do I need to justify my actions, Sixth Chernikov?" "Hardly, Miss Chan. I simply want to be sure that whatever it is that you seek that I am able to provide. We sacrifice all for the Mission, yes?" She nods. "The Mission is all." They sit in silence, until, several minutes later, Sophie returns with their food. Ivan looks at her salad, than at his breakfast burrito, which is huge, almost overlapping the plate, smothered in aromatic green chili and cheese. "We could ask for a second plate, if you would care for --" "No, no," Alice says. "This will be fine." He shrugs, and digs in.  After a few bites, he lets himself become aware that she is watching him. "Would my --" He catches himself. "Would you care for a bite?" "No, the salad will be suffice." Ivan nods. Takes another bite. "They do, in fact, make excellent green chili --" "Po'shyol 'na hui!" she growls, and shoves her fork in his direction. He smiles, pleasantly, and cuts off a bite that includes some chili, eggs, and the hash browns inside.  As she chews, he says, "There, see? Was I not correct?" She nods. "My service to the Mission is in research, finding useful information." He gestures at his plate, a sly grin on his face. "You see the value I can provide." She smirks, sips some of her tea, and nods again. "You are a most interesting man, Ivan Chernikov. How did you come to my father's service?" "Ah. There is little to tell. I was sixteen, seventeen, when everything changed in my motherland." He takes another bite. "By which I mean, nothing changed in effect, only in motivation. Rather than the commissars stealing what they could on behalf of the People and the Revolution, we had oligarchs stealing what they could on behalf of themselves and free enterprise." He grunts. "For those from whom all is stolen, there is little difference." She nods. "So, economic deprivation --" "No," he interrupts, though  his voice is polite. He gestures with his coffee mug. "When I was attracted to a meeting where your father's agents were, ah, recruiting, that aspect provided an immediate, short-term incentive, yes. Three hots and a cot, as the Americans so poetically put it. But as the Russian-American Maslow indicated, meeting basic bodily needs only goes so far. A cause must engage the imagination, the passion, the revolutionary fervor." He takes another bite of burrito, pushing it around in the green chili. "And the Great Mission ...?" "Hallowed be its name," he says, without irony, and sips his coffee. "Those without in Mother Russia have sought redemption and salvation through many means. The Mother Church. The Revolution. The Great Patriotic War. The war against the West." He shrugs. "Now there is no great cause, save a self-serving patriotism that feeds no bellies and stirs no hearts. The Great Mission, though -- now that is a different matter." Alice takes a bite of salad. "In what way?" she asks in a casual tone. Too casual for him to take it as such. "It is, perhaps, like the Revolution. It promises the overthrow of the corrupt, the powerful. It has a charismatic leader. It promises a better tomorrow for all, where all are cared for, where all serve, where all are served. It is not a war of the powerful against the weak; it is a war of the weak against the powerful. It is a cause one can believe in." "And do you believe in it, Ivan?" she asks, softly. "Miss Alice, I am Russian." He snorts, smiles. "You see? Stereotypes are impossible to avoid. But, to continue -- to be Russian, means to believe the cause that will make things better for the self, the family, the village, the city. But also to know that such causes are forlorn, at best." Alice frowns. "That seems a recipe for despair, Ivan." "A great doctor is to perform a surgery in a medical theater. He stands before the patient, ready to begin the operation that will save the man's life. Just as he prepares to cut with his scalpel, an old woman in the tiers above shouts out, 'Give him an enema!' The great surgeon glares at the interruption, then turns back to the patient, and raises his scalpel. Again, the woman's voice comes, 'Give him an enema!' At this time, the great doctor turns to the audience above, tears off his mask, and shouts, 'This man suffers from a ruptured appendix! How could an enema help him?' The old woman shouts back, 'It couldn't hurt!'" He takes another bite of breakfast burrito. She snort, then nods, slowly. "When all is desperate," she says, considering the words as she speaks them, "even those things one has no faith will succeed are pursued. 'It couldn't hurt.'" "Yes!" he says, with a fierce grin. "That. Now you understand Russia." "Now I understand you, Ivan Chernikov. Thank you." He nods, takes another bite. Chews it, savoring the texture, the flavor. If a last meal, it is a good one. "Mistress ..." "My name, Ivan." "A cat may stare upon a queen, Mistress. If I am to utter lèse majesté , let me do so honestly." She is still a moment, then nods. "Mistress, you ask many questions about the Great Mission. About me. About my faith in it." He inhales slowly, enjoying the aroma. "It seems, as a Russian, from a Russian perspective, that you, yourself, entertain doubts." Alice is quiet for a minute. He enjoys another bite. At length, she says, "Explain." Ivan shrugs, his gaze down at the table, at his food. "For the true believer, to inquire if, or to understand why, another believes ... this makes no sense. There cannot be disbelief, save for an act of will. An intentional sin, if you will. One does not believe for a reason; reason can only lead to disbelief. Ah, belief in the great Truth is the default, as it is the natural order of things. Only dis belief can be asked after." She nods, takes another bite of her salad. "Go on." "It so follows that, should someone ask about belief, about why another believes, then that person's belief itself is a fragile reed at best." He shrugs again. "Or it is a test to see whether the person so inquired is prepared to blaspheme, to commit heresy against the great Truth, the axiom of the ideology." He takes another bite. It is not quite as good as the previous one. It is an interesting observation that the keen edge of anticipating death can only heighten sensation so much, so long, for such a short interval. "Ivan," she says, her voice soft, the weight of her gaze palpable even if he dare not look up. "The cause, the Great Mission -- I believe in these things with all my heart, with all my soul. The need to free humanity from its oligarchs and overlords, from the power of the plutocrats and autocrats -- this I truly believe." He nods. "That is -- a fine thing to know, Miss -- Alice." "But I tell you also, for your ears alone, Ivan: I have no faith in my father's method of pursuing that mission." Ivan bows his head lower. "Is the cause then lost, Mistress?" "No. It must be pursued by other means -- less bloody, less violent." She pauses, then adds, "Less disregarding of each person for whom we fight, less focused on some grand, glorious future at the expense of those in the present." A sigh. "This is a better way, I think." He snorts, and feels the smile wreath his face as he looks up at her. "Then, you, Miss Alice, are truly worthy of the crown I suspect sits heavily upon your head." He barks out a laugh, and holds up his coffee cup. "Ha! To revolutions for each man, rather than all men, Miss Alice! To remembering each revolutionary by name, rather than just bragging about a number sacrificed for the greater good!" She meets his smile, with cautious reluctance -- but also sincerity, if he is any judge, holding her tea up to strike against his mug. Ivan quaffs down the rest, while she sips. He leans forward, across the small table. "But this, this change in course -- it is not without danger. And closer than you might wish." He lowers his cup. "But, in great Russian tradition, before we talk of the truth, I must relieve myself. If you will excuse --?" He pauses, patiently, until she starts at processing his question, and says, "Of course, don't be an idiot." She leans forward. "In the revolution, nobody will need to ask permission to take a piss." "Hah!" He grins, and heads to the restroom hallway in the back of the shop. She's still sitting there, picking at her salad, seemingly lost in thought, when she hears the trio of gunshots. The table they are in is along the wall opposite the hallway that leads to the WCs -- not a truly safe "corner" but as close as Ivan could manage. Alycia burns precious seconds making her way past people shouting and running away (and a few shouting and running forward). She pushes her way through these at the last. Ivan is slumped against the wall, beside a stack of high chairs, opposite the Men's door. A trio of dark red stains is already turning the front of his flannel shirt to a gory mess. She tears the shirt aside. Exit wounds. He was shot from behind. "Call 911," she screams at the idiots crowding around. Ivan is still breathing, a bad burbling noise and weak spasms in the chest.  She can see a fire door to the alley behind standing slightly ajar at the end of the hallway, and longs to dive through it, find who did this, smash their head into -- But Ivan is still breathing. "I need towels, all the towels you can find! And call 911, dammit!" She's no idea if anyone's already done it, but -- "It can't hurt," she mutters. Ivan makes a sound. His right hand reaches up, feebly grabs at her jacket. His mouth moves, but words can't make it past the blood welling there.  His eyes slip to his left, at his other hand, lying limp on the floor. Next to them, on the tile, he's scribbled something in his own blood, the letters facing toward her.  d L The eyes turn back to hers, wide, pale, bore into hers as if trying to convey a message by thought alone. Then they roll up into his head and he passes out. "Towels!" she shouts again, just as someone, Sophie she thinks, pushes a stack of clean white towels at her and she tries to apply enough pressure to the wounds to keep him from bleeding out -- only one of the life-threatening conditions he face. She's still there, performing what battlefield care she can, when the paramedics arrive, pull her out of the way.  He's been dead five minutes by then, from her estimate. She slips back into the main room of the cafe, now deserted. She slips her silverware into her pocket, moves the iced tea glass to the stack of dirty dishes by the door, then goes out a supply door from the kitchen to the alleyway. Her eyes flicker around, but see no obvious clues. The police will be here shortly, and if there's anything to find, they most likely will. She slips Ivan's wallet into her pocket as well, carefully lifted during her care of him. It will delay, at least, the authorities tracking him down, if not prevent it. No, the latter's not likely, even if Joa scrubbed all records of them from police databases. Too many other things -- his being a regular at the restaurant, for example, will point to his identity. At best, she might have days before he's tracked down, and, with him, the others. At least, though, his name will eventually be known to them. No faceless, nameless martyrs for the Great Mission, not any more. And she doesn't need days, only hours. She knows who did this. Ivan told her. The finger painting in his own blood. It wasn't what anyone else would have read. Ivan was Russian.  The writing, facing toward him, was Cyrillic. Г Р Or, in Latin lettering: G R. Gregory Ramirez. [to be continued]
The cycle hisses its way down the city streets. Its powerplant can probably go up against any conventional bike in the city, and its ductless fans converted into wheels give it amazing maneuverability. I use it all. This is all my fault.  Everyone told me Ramirez was twitchy. Hell, I saw it myself. And I know enough about the action teams to have anticipated it, if I hadn't been so sure that I, alone, needed to take care of this. Summer was right. And Ivan died in my arms, and I might as well have killed him myself. I clamp down on that set of sense memories and recriminations, and simply let the cold, glowing edge of fury steer the bike as I try to analyze this as dispassionately as I can. Ramirez killed Ivan -- make that a 92.8% probability. It's possible Ivan was warning me that Ramirez was the next target, or that Ramirez should be notified, but those seemed far more remote. Wishful thinking. Make it 94.7%, compensating for my own subjectivity.  Shot in the back. Ivan would not have turned his back on someone with a gun unless he was sure they wouldn't shoot. I guess we're both piss-poor judges of character, then. Only you're off the hook. I still have to do something about it. Ramirez will go after Joa next -- 98.6%. To kill her or to get her away. And if Ivan was merely warning that Ramirez was in danger, too -- well, there's just one place for me to go: the FedEx shop. Ramirez has a lengthy head start, but he can't have gotten there more swiftly than me, especially not without the study of the city's streets I've been doing. I know every shortcut, every alley, ever side street that can shave seconds off my trip. And I don't mind breaking every traffic law in doing so. I can call her. I should call her. Warn her. Will she believe me? Will she tip off Ramirez I'm coming? Is she in on this? I don't know. I crank up the power and hope my driving is better than my judgment about people today. I should call for help. But I don't know enough yet. I'm not sure -- I'm acting as though I'm sure. I'm making another mistake here. But I have to do this myself. Whether I'm a horrible leader or a great one, one thing I know about leadership: it's responsibility. It's accountability. "The buck stops here," a war criminal US President said.  I made this mess. I thought I could handle it, but whether I did or not, I have to clean it up myself, and hope I don't make things worse. I steer the cycle from a side street into the rear of the strip mall where the FedEx shop sits, between an Indian buffet and a tattoo parlor. Assets:  One (1) small ceramic hold-out pistol, six rounds, all of them tranq gel. Parker was fine with my having a firearm with me at all times. But she insisted on non-lethality.  "As if I actually need lethal rounds," I hear myself say to her, ignoring I'd just been lobbying for same. Two (2) custom combat sticks, clipped to the side of my cycle, designed to look like struts. I don't have my gloves, so I can't power them up, but I can certainly use them the way Mixcoatl intended. I slide the sticks over my back, under my shirt, held in place by my sports bra ( a use case I never shared with Daph ). I pull out the pistol from the ankle holster, tuck it into my pocket. I know I can draw it from there with minimal delay, or shoot from within the pocket with practiced accuracy. I want my hands free, for a number of reasons. I sidle up to the back door, slide the card key through the slot (of course I asked Jason for a copy), hope that neither of them are in the box room in back, and slip inside as quickly and quietly as I can manage. The box room is well lit. Stacks and bins of outgoing shipments are queued in zones by the loading dock door. Supplies fill the shelving on the far wall.  I feel vaguely proud of my team. They've done good work here. Except for all the bloodshed, and the bloodshed to come. When I step to the door to the front of the shop, I can hear voices through it. "We don't have time for this, c'mon!" Ramirez. "I don't understand! Why do we need to flee the Mistress?" Joa. "Because she's coming for us! She -- she killed Ivan!" That son of a bitch. The fury in my heart pushes its way through my whole body, like there's a keen high note at the top of my hearing, the chime of a fine crystal glass, and my entire form is vibrating to it. "I don't believe it! Why would she --?" "She'll be here any minute." His tone abruptly shifts. "Fifth Nyobé, comply!" I open the door, gun out and extended extended. He spots the movement, his own pistol drawn and pointed at the same moment. I can kill him. I know I can. I know I'll have to. I don't want it -- never wanted it -- a part of me shrinks from it, from deliberately killing again. But he's gone mad. I -- If I can capture him, I will. I can make sure he's punished. I can turn him in to AEGIS, be rid of him. It won't bring Ivan back. Nothing will. My mind takes in the room, the geometry, the space. If we fire, his bullets may very well go through a wall, hit bystanders in the buffet behind me. If his shot goes wild, he could even hit Joa.  If it hits me, I'm not sure it matters, except that he'll get away -- if not from my own miss (ha!) than when the sedation gel wears off. Joa will never turn him in, or call the police. Not right now. Neither weapon wavers. "Is that the gun you used to kill Ivan?" I ask him. My voice doesn't sound my own -- calm, when I want to scream. "I -- don't listen to her, Joa. She killed Ivan. She -- she's been plotting against us all along, betraying the Great Mission." "I believe in the Great Mission more than you ever did, Gregory Ramirez. Enough to know that killing -- killing innocents, let alone your own people, your own comrades -- is the greatest blasphemy." "She's lying, Joa!" "I -- Mistress --" "Joa, there's a gun taped under the counter. We put it there, remember? In case of someone coming in to rob the store?" "Gregory, I can't --" "Reach down, get the gun, and turn it on 'Miss Alice Chan.'" He spits out the name. "She can't shoot you without my getting her. Once we both have her, we can end this." "Joa --" I begin. "Mistress," she interrupts. " I don't understand. Ivan is dead?" "Yes. Ramirez killed him, at the restaurant where we were eating." I pause. "He shot him in the back." "She's lying, Joa! I couldn't kill Ivan. Not after all we've been through. It's her! She did it!" His eyes are wide, pleading. Joa's are narrowing. "She's betrayed the Great Mission! She's -- she's sleeping with the enemy , Joa -- with Byron Quill's son! She's betrayed us all." Joa turns back to me. "Mistress." I can't lie to her. I won't. My eyes stay fixed on Ramirez. If he decides to shoot, I'm sure I can read it.  "He killed Ivan, Joa. I was having lunch with Ivan, just as I did with you -- just as I should have done with Ramirez." "More lies!" "Ivan went to the WC. What happened there, Ramirez? Did you simply wait for him to exit and gun him down from behind? Or did you talk with him first, and he turned his back on you?" "He was betraying the mission as well!" Ramirez shouts. "He'd sold himself to you. traitor. I tried to convince him, to enlist him, but he refused to assist -- refused to comply! He said he wouldn't tell, but I knew he'd betray me, too. Just like you did!" Joa turns abruptly, sweeping the items atop the cash register -- form holders, a box of key fobs, a stack of brochures -- straight at Ramirez. He spins as they do, ducking, firing at her, and my shot goes high, my second and third are blocked by the debris in the air, as he shoots out the picture window in the front of the store and jumps through it. "Joa!" I vault over the counter to where the shot knocked her around and slammed her into the wall. It's her left arm, and she's clutching it tightly with her right hand, slumping to the floor. I don't ask to see the wound -- there's not enough blood for a major artery to be hit, but I can't tell if the bone's been broken as well. "Bravely done," I tell her. "Can you ride?" "I -- don't think I can steer --" She winces. She's pale beneath her dark skin. "-- whatever vehicle --" "Autopilot. My bike is in back. Press green, blue, green, and stand back. Get in, and press the red triangle three times. Only three. Got it? It will take you to safety." "Where --?"  "A friend." Her brow furrows, despite the pain. "Not --" "Comply, Fifth. I'll explain later. But you need to be out of here before the police respond to the gunfire. And I have to go after Ramirez." "Mistress --" She hesitates, then, "-- don't kill him." I look at her arm, then back at her. "He's -- it's been too long a battle. He's a good man. I --" There's something in her face that I don't think she's even aware of.  "I'll avoid it if I can. Now go! And -- don't attack anyone on the other end. Please." She gives a tight smile that's part grimace, climbs to her feet, and runs out the back door. I pocket my pistol, pull my sweatshirt's hood up and as far forward as I can, carefully step out the door in a crouch (ignoring the people peering about from the other storefronts). I spot a figure running down the avenue, and light out after him.  This is not a good part of town, though in Halcyon that's always relative. This patch of near-suburbia is not far from the rail switchyard. There are a few apartment buildings, some signs of actual life (like our strip mall, an exception to the food desert), but most of this zone is light industrial and warehouses. Ramirez has a good 47 seconds on me, but he's around the corner two blocks down. Trying to break line of sight? Too late for that. Nearly, nearly too late for anything as far as he's concerned. You killed one of my people. You nearly killed another. You would betray and kill me, after all I've done, all I've tried to do. "Mistress -- don't kill him." Dammit. I'm strong, I'm a near-peak physical capability, I'm a Second Generation Hyper-Genius -- but I'm no better than Ramirez at sprinting. I might have better luck over the long haul, unless he's been keeping up his physical training (as I suspect he has), but it's a struggle to keep from losing him. Even my geographical knowledge of the area is of limited use. The blocks tend to be single businesses, either warehouse buildings or large, fenced grounds, nothing that won't take more time to cross than go around. Further, I have to slow, at least slightly, each corner we turn, to make sure he's not there with his pistol, ready to take the shot. Even rolling across, or parkouring off a telephone pole to pop out at a level he's not expecting, takes precious seconds. And he turns several corners -- -- but he's gone when I round the last. No vehicles on the street for him to be behind. No alleyways. Nothing -- I still zig-zag down the sidewalk, in case he's in a recess I can't spot. That slows me further. He can't have rounded the block, and there are no open manholes, or storm drains that would accommodate him, and the back of the building on the right, a paint and body shop, is locked up tight -- too tight for him to have slipped through, unless he had something planned. That leaves the massive structure of the Aeolus Beer Company* -- closed on a Saturday . The massive rolling truck doors are securely padlocked down, but the employee entrance ... is not quite closed. It all smells like a trap, but if it's not, Ramirez is getting away. And Vishnu only know what he'll do next. I run across the door, left to right, yanking it open as I pass, then make a tight loop and dive through the doorway, rolling on the concrete pad beyond, my eyes spotting the thin wife stretched across the doorway at ankle height. I tuck up and come to rest against a tall stack of wooden palettes. That's when the trap hits. A loud buzz and the employee door slams shut. I can hear it electronically lock, just before the lights come on and packaging machinery all around starts up with a deafening roar -- but not quite deafening enough to mask the sound of a high-powered rifle from somewhere above, or the crack of the concrete as a round strikes at my feet, forcing me to run ... Moments ... ... A baton flies through the air, clatters to the ground, drawing attention and a shot as I sprint to better cover ... ... I jump past two tripwires in one alleyway off crates, only to not quite miss another; the blast battering me, knocking the useless-ranged pistol from my hand, and, worse, confirming where I am ... ... a floodlight from the ceiling pins me against a wall, dazzling my sight with its incandescent blaze -- and I lose the second baton, smashing it from afar before avoiding the incoming fire ... ... a crazy leap from a catwalk, too far and long for safety, but giving me a chance to see the space as a whole, the allies, the machinery, the upper levels, to create an indelible map I can use in searching for Ramirez ... ... climbing up to the overhead cargo crane, hidden in shadows, sliding down a cable -- then jumping down on him on the narrow platform around it, slamming his arm into the machinery, causing his pistol to fly into the air, even his other fist hits my jaw, sending me falling away, rolling, getting to my feet ... It's been half an hour, and it's almost over. I just don't know in what direction.  The crane is two floors up in the cavernous building. I'm a bit battered from the jury-rigged explosives, the jump to see the room, and the shot I just took in the face. I haven't been shot, but not for lack of Ramirez trying, but all I'm armed with any more are my hands and feet and any other part of my body I can use as a weapon. I've been in worse positions. Ramirez is in pretty good shape, form what I can see. The hunting rifle on the ground beside him is out of ammo, though, empty boxes scattered around, and he's without his pistol. I might have done some other damage to him when I slammed him against the crane machinery, but I can't tell yet. Now we're both standing there on the textured metal grill, fighting for breath, glowering at each other. It's been a long battle, and a stupid one. I've been the stupid one, manipulated by a master, running headlong into a trap. One mistake by me after another. I can't afford any more. "It's over, Ramirez." "It certainly is 'Mistress Alycia.'" He spits. "Fourth Ramirez, to attention!" I snap out, in my best parade ground imitation. He twitches -- not enough to take advantage of, unfortunately. "I am no follower of yours, bitch . Your betrayal of everything, your trying to make us soft, compliant, parts of the world order ..." "I was trying to help you three. You came looking for me. I -- I didn't want you running amok in the city, following my father's bloodthirsty path."  He nods, sharply, a satisfied grin tightening one side of his face. "Out of your own mouth. Words to meet your actions. Soft words. Corrupted words." He spits again. "I told Ivan. I told him I had the proof of it. That I had prepared this trap for you. If he'd -- if he'd listened, he would have lured you here. The two of us could have taken you easily." "You killed him because he wouldn't turn on me?" "Because he was a good man, even for a Russian. Because you had already corrupted him, turned him from the Great Mission. He was going to tell you. I had no choice -- the blame, the guilt of it, is on you . Now -- now it's up to me to administer the punishment you so richly deserve." "You think you can take me?" "I've had the advantage over you this whole time. Your new allegiances, your treason, have made you soft." I clamp down on the obscenity I want to utter. Instead, I try, once more, reason. "Ramirez -- Gregory -- I am no traitor. Father was mad. He lost his way. He --" "Achilles Chin was a great man -- a great man! He saved me, gave me purpose! He opened my eyes to the evils, the iniquities, the sins of the world order. Sins that can only be washed away in blood." I shake my head slightly. It's still ringing. "That doesn't sound like Father, Gregory. That sounds like a preacher. Are you mixing up the Great Mission with some fire-and-brimstone --" "Shut up!" he screams. "I followed you. I followed you, watched you, watched him touch you, kiss you. Treasonous, treacherous whore! How much did that Quill bastard pay to turn you, to fuck you? How much?!" I scream incoherently as I leap toward him with a high, sweeping kick by my left leg, which he parries aside with a tight forearm and shoulder. That lets me pivot, drive my other foot down toward his left knee. He steps back, then snaps a kick of his own upward with the the same foot, which I cross-block, then meet his step in with a punch to his nose.  But he continues stepping in, grappling me, driving me down to the hard, sharp metal of the platform grate. I try to roll with it and flip him over my head with my legs, but he twists to the side, rolls his own direction, and we both scramble painfully back to our feet. Ramirez is taller than me, and heavier. It's possible he knows more dirty tricks in fighting than I do -- more likely, we know different ones -- but as a general rule a bigger person will usually win against a smaller person. Ramirez knows that as well as I do, and he smiles even as the blood flows from his nose down his face, knowing that my own anger makes me an even easier target. But I know two things he doesn't. First, while the icy fury I felt walking (running, stumbling, tripping) into this conflict is still there, supplemented by a hot fury at his daring impugn my relationship with Jason (which, for all that it has been, in turn, problematic and frustrating and delightful, has never been about compromising my beliefs, let alone some sort of -- rrrrg) ... while both of those rages are there, I know I don't have to let them control my actions.  Second-Gen Hyper-Genius, remember? I can segment my mind, process in different threads. Those furies can sit up in the grandstands and cheer on the passionless, incalculably swift, highly-programmed battle computer that was built in my head by my father and his twisted ambitions. The second thing? The whole purpose of that "screaming" attack was fulfilled, albeit with some bad bruises. Ramirez' right arm is slightly impaired, probably from where I wrenched it to get the gun out of his hand. He grins at me. "Did that hurt? Try learning that the heir to everything you believe in, everything you know is true , turns out be a treacherous whore who --" "Oh, do shut up," I say, with an incongruous smirtk. "You're repeating yourself. Just come here and get it over with." And I shoot him with a pair of finger guns. He lets that shift to my guard act as the trigger for his attack, as well as using his greater height and reach. He steps in and to the right, swinging his upper body to batter my arms aside, to follow up with a more direct attack against my head or side. Except that I twist with his move as well, turning completely around and lowering my body to bring a kick up against his injured arm from the outside, faster than he can block it. He grunts with pain and tries to grab the leg, but I've dropped still further. bracing myself against the floor with my arms, and with both legs push him back with all my strength, applied to just the right point below his center of gravity ... He staggers backward, off-balance, tottering two steps, three -- and steps back into air. "Mistress -- don't kill him." I've already pushed myself up on the floor in a hop, landing in a crouch then up on my feet, and I close the distance to Ramirez just in time to grab his  right arm as he's falling, bracing myself against his weight, the metal grill cutting cruelly into one knee. "Hold on!" I shout. He grabs my forearm back with his hand, his face twisted in anger. He bends himself double, bracing his feet against the bottom of the platform and pushing ... ... trying to pull me down with him ... ... and ... ... I ...  ... let him go. And watch him fall, his mouth working words I cannot hear, do not want to hear, in the brief seconds before he hit. Lycia u ok?!?! Yeah. Package arrived, then your bike back raced out On its way here. Will be heading there. ETA ... I dunno. Package looking at me like I eat babies Be gentle. Get her first aid. Please. Of course! See you soon b careful kk U really ok? See you soon. I collect my batons, my gun, take another long look at Ramirez' body, sprawled across a bottling line, eyes as dead as the rest of him.  "Some leader," I say. Then, to him, "Sorry, Fourth."  By the time I get to the front of the building again, the bike is pulling up. It's shifted back to two wheels, per my remoted command. I climb onto it, hit the autopilot back to the Quill Foundation, and let the bike drive. I call the HCPD along the way, scrambling the cell connection and voice, to let them know someone was seen carrying weapons and explosives into the Aeolus Beer plant, and they should send the bomb squad. The bike pulls into the Foundation's residential garage. Jason is there, a worried look on his face. I let him help me off the bike. "Jesus. You look -- are you okay?" "No." "No shit. C'mon, let me get you in and take a look at those injuries." "That's not --" I stop moving. "I failed them, Jason." "Failed ...?" I shake my head. "Where's Joa?" "The package? She's in a medical bay. I -- she was kind of twitchy, like I said, so I locked it down." "Take me to her." "Yeah, you need --" "Take me to her!" The door hisses open. Joa is in front of an open wall panel beside it, playing with wires. She freezes. One arm is neatly bandaged -- say what you like about how Jason was raised, he knows how to patch an injury. I try to smile at her, even though I feel like I'm wading through mud, physically and emotionally. "You should not have been locked in." I turn to Jason, try to glare. "You shouldn't have locked her in." "I didn't --" "You. Should not. Have locked her. In." Joa looks at Jason, then back to me.  I shake my head. "I'm sorry, Joa. I failed you." "Mistress?" "I --" I stop, my voice catching. "I thought I could -- I just wanted to help you. All of you. To keep you safe. To --" I bow my head. "Alycia --" I feel his hands lightly on my shoulders -- not controlling. not even embracing, just to let me know he is here. "Mistress Alycia," Joa says, "you have not failed us -- failed me." "Ivan is dead!" I tell her, glancing at her, then lowering my head again. "Ramirez -- Gregory, is dead. I -- didn't want -- I tried to stop it, but he tried to -- tried --" "Mistress --" I look up at her, glaring. She nods. "Alice. You have shown us nothing but care and kindness. Gregory -- he -- he was broken, ma'am. He worked so hard to keep us together, to keep us safe, but it was for the Great Mission, or his -- his vision of it. He --" She bows her head. "If he killed Ivan, then his death ... he said you were a betrayer, but he betrayed us . His unit." "It was my responsibility, Joa. You came to me. Now two of you are dead." She smiles, though it's not a smile of happiness. "I don't understand what is happening here, why you are ... with him." She throws a darksome look at Jason, who makes a noise. "But," she continues, "I have faith in you, Alice." "Aaaand, for what it's worth," Jason says from behind me, "I don't understand what's happening here, either, but ... I have faith in you, too, Lycia." That gets a nod and an almost-smile from Joa. Suck it up. The buck is still stopping right here. Being a leader means you have to get it right -- and when you get it wrong, you have to make it right. I take a deep breath. "Joa Nyobé, I'd like you to meet Jason Quill." Joa is silent a long moment, looking between him and me. "Joa, not only is Jason the owner of where you have been working -- making him your nominal employer -- but he is also my boyfriend --" That gets a stir from both of them. "-- and the person who has given you hospitality and medical care, if, out of caution, under closer confinement than I would have preferred. He's also not his father, any more than I am mine." Joa eyes him, then does a quick salute, left fist to chest, head bowed. "Fifth Rank Nyobé, Joadden." "Um ... hi. Jason Quill." He extends his hand. She looks at it then at me, then tentatively shakes it. "Jason, this is Joa Nyobé. She is an operative in my father's erstwhile operation, and now is a loyal agent of mine. She is an experienced intelligence gatherer and analyst. Since I suspect her current position -- which has actually done well for you, as I understand it -- is probably no longer viable, I'd take it as a personal favor if you would find something within your organization for her to do." "What?" "Mistress?" "Um, can we --?" Jason puts his hand on my arm as if to guide me back to the hallway.  "No. I trust Joa. You trust me. I would ask you to extend your trust to her." "She an agent for Dr. Chin!" "No, she's an agent for Alycia Chin. There is, I am told, a difference between those two, is there not." "But -- um, shouldn't we at least let AEGIS know --?" Out of the corner of my eye, I see her stiffen. "No. She is my responsibility, not theirs. I trust her, they do not. Jason, I'm asking this as a favor." "I --" "Mistress, I am not sure -- the Quill operation --" The name drips off her mouth like something dirty.  "-- is no hotbed of tyranny and oppression. It actually does a lot of good things, if in a very conservative fashion. I hope to correct that, over time." Jason makes a noise, and I raise an eyebrow at him. "And if you do find something going on that violates your conscience, or is in opposition to the goals of the Great Mission, then tell me: we can fix it together." "I'm not sure --" they say simultaneously, then look at each other. "Dammit!" I snap. "Joa, this is the best I can do. If you don't care for it, if you don't trust me, I will give you as much cash as I can raise right this minute and send you on your way to find your own fate, with my blessings. And, you, Jason, if you can't trust her, then how can I believe you trust me?" They meet my eyes, then turn back to each other. "The -- Mistress is wise," Joa says, slowly. Jason grins, though not without tension. "Yeah, I find it best to take that attitude, too." I roll my eyes. He holds out his hand again. "Welcome to the Quill Foundation." She hesitates, then takes it, more firmly than before, and gives it a shake. I'm slumped in a heavily cushioned chair in the Quill family room. "At least I saved one of them," I say, the words heavy in my mouth. "I hope." "She'll be okay," Jason says. He's been sitting down in the pit, listening to the whole sordid tale. "We'll get her a place to stay tomorrow. Probably need new ID as well -- I got a call from the police, telling me that two of my employees from the store have been found dead under violent circumstances, and that the third is missing, but that there's blood." I shake my head. "A lot of clean-up on this one. New ID, yeah ... I should get into their apartment tonight to scrub it, gather up anything that Joa might value. With luck, Parker won't find out about all this." "I wish --" He stops, then looks up at me. "I wish you'd told me. That you'd trusted me with this." I close my eyes. Best I don't tell him that I did let Summer know -- and that I ignored her. "I thought I could do it. Take care of it by myself. Keep that old part of my life segmented away. Be the great leader that everyone keeps telling me I can be." Jason snorts. "Being a leader doesn't mean being alone," he says. "That was a lesson I didn't learn until after my Menagerie days. Relying on others for advice, for emotional support, for a kick in the butt when you're doing something wrong, for a hug when you do something right -- that's part of being a leader, too." "Someone has to make the decisions." "Maybe, maybe not. But for everything else besides, asking for help, trusting that others want to help, being willing to listen to their advice, and then make the decisions -- that's important, too." "I just wanted what was best for them. To protect them. To --" "To be the parent and leader you never had when you were growing up. To make up for what you lacked, for the sins you saw committed and could do nothing about." I snort, softly. "I guess." "I can appreciate that, too. Believe me. I've -- made some mistakes. Trying to be too much like Dad. Or, more often, too much not  like him." "Nobody died, though." "No. That but that wasn't your fault." "Whose was it." "Ramirez." "I'm responsible." He shrugs. "Maybe. But ... if you learn from it, if you're better for Joa, or for the next people you're leading -- if you actually made actionable mistakes, right, and take action on them ... then it won't happen again."  "I could just decline being a leader again." "Then when things go wrong you could have stopped, you'll blame yourself for that, too." A soft snort. "Probably." I can feel his eyes on me. "For all you're the hard-bitten genius pragmatic warrior goddess loner, you sure default to blaming yourself for stuff. I'll bet I know who's responsible for that, too." A slight smile. "You're probably right about that, too." "See? Listen to others. Like me." "I'm hardly your -- wait, 'warrior goddess'?" "Like Xena." "Xena?" "Oh, do I have something for our next TV night. I --" A soft chime comes from overhead. I look over at Jason. He looks a bit abashed. "Just the hallway monitor. Trust but verify." I roll my eyes, but I can't tell him completely he's wrong. "Mistress?" comes Joa's voice a minute later, her French accent more pronounced than usual. "Mr. Quill?" "In here," Jason call out. I put on my game face, as Joa walks into the room. She's wearing some tightly cinched lounge pants of Jasons, and a borrowed t-shirt that says "got qphone?" on it. "I have something for you, Mistress." "Joa, I'm going to give you one final order. If you never comply in anything else, do it in this. Call me Alice. Or Alycia, whichever you prefer. Not Mistress or Ma'am or Princess of Storms or anything else. Ever again. Understand? Please?" "I will comply." She smiles. "Perhaps if I consider it your title, rather than your name, it will be easier." "All hail the Alycia, warrior goddess," Jason murmurs. I shoot him a dirty look. He just smiles, and adds to Joa, "And I'm Jason, not Mr. Quill." She nods at him, a bit more stiffly. A work in progress -- but one I will monitor. I owe that to both of them. And to the ghosts of Ivan and Gregory. "Alycia," she says, enunciating clearly, "I have the preliminary results of the analysis you set me to." "Oh," I say, feeling vaguely guilty. She hands me a thumb drive with the FedEx logo on it, then she spots something and her eyes widen. "Oh, is that your dog?" "Yeah, his name's Brigand," Jason says. The corgi hears his name and raises its gray-muzzled head, tail thumping on the conversation pit cushion.  Joa crosses over and down, but stops a few feet away. "May I?" she asks Jason. "Of course." "Hello, Brigand," she says to the dog, holding the back of her hand for him to sniff. "I'm Joa." Dog petting and chit-chat about pet dogs present and past take up the next few minutes, and I can see the tension -- from both of them -- melting away. "Look, Joa," I tell her, sitting up in my chair. "In all honesty, you didn't have to bring this to me." "I always fulfill my assignments -- Alycia." "I know, but this one was -- well, it was a dummy. I mean -- Gregory was right to at least this extent: your jobs, your assignment, they were all to keep you three out of trouble. To help you assimilate, while I figured out how best to give you lives back that didn't involve espionage and terrorist attacks." "I understand that now," Joa says, stroking Brigand's side absently. "But the assignment you gave me -- I found the patterns you were looking for." I stare at her. "I gave you some mostly-random addresses -- including HHL HQ and here --" "What?" Jason says. "-- but a number of others picked out of a hat, for you to do traffic patterns of shipments, incoming and outgoing and contents. But it was all random -- there shouldn't have been any correlations." "But -- but there are, Alycia. Quite distinct ones, including regular shipments from the Quill Foundation to the HHL." "What?!" Jason says, more insistently. I'm on my feet. "Show me," I say. "Jason, we need a sandboxed computer." "Way ahead of you," he says, also on his feet. Joa looks confused. "Alycia, I do not understand." "Neither do I," I tell her, fatigue banished. "But between the three of us, we're going to." - Never the End - *Aeolus Beer is a national brand, headquartered in Halcyon City, officially founded the same year colonists first landed in Halcyon Bay, blown here by a storm and finding shelter in its harbor. Its mascot, the kingfisher flying over the waves on a tan and aqua label, is world-famous. In Greek mythology, Aeolus was the father of Alcyone , whence Halcyon.
And that's a wrap on that dangling plot thread, with hooks for the future. Plus, a bit of combat for Alycia, and the Return of Brigand!