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.