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´╗┐Title: The Alembic Plot - A Terran Empire novel
Author: Wilson, Ann
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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THE ALEMBIC PLOT

A Terran Empire Novel

by Ann Wilson



Copyright (C) 1992 by Ann Wilson



CONTENTS

  1. Injury
  2. Hospital
  3. Center
  4. Ordination
  5. Azrael
  6. Tony
  7. Dave
  8. Ambush
  9. Surgery
 10. Dream
 11. Dinner
 12. Flight
 13. Chuck
 14. Bradford
 15. Demon Drops
 16. Marriage
 17. Family
 18. Revelation
 19. Invitation
 20. Lesson
 21. Anguish
 22. Sara
 23. Raid
 24. Revenge
 25. Discussion
 26. Imperial Contact
 27. Interim
 28. Aboard the Lindner
 29. Arrival
 30. Interview
 31. Explanation
 32. Briefing
 33. Discussion 2
 34. Transformation



1. Injury


St. Thomas, Monday, 17 June 2571 CE

Captain Mike Odeon cursed in angry frustration as he climbed out of his
command van into a late fall New Pennsylvania evening and signalled his
Special Operations team forward.  They were too late.

Well, too late to catch them in the act, he amended silently.  This
looked like one of the hit-and-run attacks the so-called Brothers of
Freedom specialized in; with local Enforcement men already on-scene,
the Brothers would be long gone.  But they would catch the bastards
who'd attacked this Royal Enforcement Service convalescent hospital,
sooner or later.  Motioning his second-in-command to him, Odeon gave
the routine orders.  "Check for anything the attackers might have left.
Odds are you'll only find bodies, but do your best while I talk to the
locals.  Call me on Channel One if you do find anything."

"Yes, sir."  Odeon's sergeant led the other three team members into the
building; Odeon himself looked around, and was pleased to find he knew
one of the locals.

He waved.  "Rascal!  Over here!"

The local returned his wave, jogged over, and saluted.  "Mike!  I mean,
'Captain Odeon, sir.'"

"Mike's fine," Odeon said.  "You haven't touched anything?"

"Huh-uh.  Saw the marks the Brothers'd burned into a couple of the
walls inside, and backed off right away to call in the Royals."  Rascal
spat.  "Damn Brothers!  Didn't expect Special Ops, though."

"You'll get SO any time the Brothers are involved, from now on," Odeon
said.  "That came straight from His Majesty not five minutes after we
got word they'd hit a hospital.  It doesn't look too bad from here,
though."

"From here, no.  But, Mike . . . I hope your men have stronger
stomachs than mine turned out to be."

Odeon scowled.  "It's that bad?" Rascal Anderson had been in
Enforcement for almost fifteen years, nearly as long as Odeon himself;
it would take more than the aftermath of ordinary violence to make him
sick.

"Worse," Anderson said.  "Mike, it looked like . . . like a cross
between a battlefield and a mass third-stage interrogation."

"Dear God." Odeon bowed his head in a brief silent prayer for the
victims, then looked up.  "We'll find the bastards who did this, and
make sure--"

His beltcom interrupted him.  "Sir, we've found a survivor.  ID says
Captain Joan Cortin, Royal Enforcement.  Boris is working on her, but
he says she'll need a lot more help than he can give."

"She'll get it," Odeon snapped.  Anderson was already signalling
urgently for the medics, who'd been waiting to bring out what everyone
was certain would be only dead bodies.  "I'm on my way.  Set for homer."

"On homer, sir."  The sergeant's voice was replaced by a series of
tones, increasing in pitch and speed as Odeon more than half-ran into
the hospital and through the corridors.

The scenes he passed were as bad as Rascal had suggested, and Odeon's
stomach needed stern control to prevent rebellion.  Doctors, nurses,
patients, the service staff--all had been bound, then brutally
murdered.  The stench of gutted bodies was enough, even without the
blood and corpses, to stagger anyone.

It wasn't long until he reached his men.  Two of them were checking for
other survivors while Boris and Sergeant Vincent knelt over the inert
form that had to be Joan Cortin.  Vincent was giving her Last Rites
while Boris tended to her physical needs, his posture evidence of his
intense concentration, and Odeon thanked God again that the St. Dmitri
exchange troop he'd drawn for his team was so damn competent.  He'd
love to take his whole team to that world for a bit, he thought
irrelevantly.  He'd worked with a Dmitrian team once, here on St.
Thomas, and thought everyone in SO should have that experience.

"How is she?" he asked, joining the medic.  If the ID said "Joan
Cortin," he'd have to accept that evidence; he certainly couldn't
identify the woman he knew so well in this bloody, mangled body.

"Not good, Captain."  Boris' English had a heavy Dmitrian accent, but
Odeon had no trouble understanding him.  "Badly beaten, raped--more
than once, I believe--and she appears to have a spinal injury.  The
Brothers of course burned their mark into her hands, but that is
minor."  He looked up with a frown.  "I regret having to tell you,
Captain.  She was your protego, was she not?"

"Yes, and she's still my friend."  Odeon stood, making way for the
other medics who promptly began working on the unconscious woman.  So
the Brothers had burned their circled-triangle mark into Joanie's
hands, had they?  That didn't happen often, but he was no more
surprised than Boris had been that they'd given her that distinction.
Not even all Special Ops officers rated that mark of the Brothers'
special hatred, and why Joanie did was something he couldn't
guess--she'd never been on an anti-Brotherhood operation, that he knew
of--but they'd taken a special dislike to her for some reason none had
divulged even under third-stage interrogation, calling her "the damned
Enforcement bitch" in a tone Odeon himself reserved for those who had
begun the Final War.  Maybe they hated her just because she was the
only active-duty female Enforcement officer.  At any rate, they had
marked her--and she was the first he knew about to survive the torture
that accompanied the mark's infliction.

He watched the medics work, his thoughts going back.  It'd started
. . . what, twelve years ago?  Yes, that sounded about right.  A small
town here in New Pennsylvania--and not too far away, if he remembered
clearly.  He'd been on light duty, wounded in his first fight with the
Brotherhood and counting himself lucky to be alive.  It had left him
with a scar across his right cheek, cutting into his mouth and chin,
but it had left five others dead, three disabled.

The scar had upset the young men he was interviewing; most had stared
for a few seconds, then looked away.  Well, they hadn't been very
promising anyway.  Recruiting trips to out-of-the-way small towns like
that Boalsburg were mostly for show rather than out of any real
expectation of finding good Enforcement candidates.

The last applicant's folder had brought a smile.  Joan Cortin . . .
Not many women applied for Enforcement, and even fewer qualified.  He
remembered thinking it probably hadn't been a serious application; more
than likely, she just wanted to meet the "romantic" Enforcement
officer.  Odeon hadn't minded; he'd been rather flattered, if anything.
He'd opened the folder and scanned it, intending to make it look good
before he turned her down.

There'd been only one catch.  Grades, psychoprofile, and physical stats
said she did qualify--and at well above officer-cadet minimums.  He'd
wondered if she knew.

She hadn't.  Her application had been the ruse he'd guessed; she
admitted that immediately, without either staring at or avoiding his
scar.  She thought it added to his appeal, which hadn't hurt his
feelings at all.  It'd been rather enjoyable convincing her that she
really was Enforcement-officer material, and he'd taken real pleasure
in waiting until she was leaving--and her former schoolmates could
hear--to tell her when she'd be picked up by an Enforcement trooper
who'd drive her to the Royal Academy.

He'd been there for her graduation, too, proud that one of his recruits
had been at the top of the class, commissioned First Lieutenant for
that achievement.  He'd given her her first salute, then staggered as
sixty kilos of enthusiastic female officer jumped him for a
congratulatory kiss.

Remembering that kiss--and the night that followed, the others
later--Mike Odeon rubbed the scar crossing his lips.  It hurt to see
medics working over her, hear them sounding pessimistic.  Her injuries
seemed to be even more severe than Boris had said at first, and she'd
been weak to begin with, just recuperating from one of the unnamed
plagues that had devastated the Kingdom Systems during the Final War.
The plagues were no longer common, hadn't been for over a century;
Joanie had simply had the bad luck to pursue a gang of horse thieves
into a still-contaminated area.

The medics were putting her onto a litter, careful to support her back.
As they picked up the litter, her eyes flickered open and she looked in
Odeon's direction.  "Mike?"

A gesture stopped the medics.  "What is it, Joanie?"

"Don't let 'em kick me out . . . while I can't fight back.  I've gotta
. . . get the bastards who did this . . .  Mike, promise . . ."

"I promise, Joanie.  I'll do everything I can, you know that."  He
waved the medics on, looking after them, then turned to his second.
"Find anything useful, Sergeant?"

"Afraid not, sir.  They're too damn good at covering up.  We won't have
a thing, unless Captain Cortin's able to give us some descriptions."

"All right.  Call in a specialist squad from New Denver; they may be
able to find some kind of evidence.  Fingerprints, footprints,
identifiable bullets--damn, but I wish we had what the prewars had!"

"Able to identify a culprit from a speck of blood or a hair?"  Sergeant
Vincent laughed bitterly.  "Hell, if we could do that, we'd have the
Brothers under control in six months."

"Yeah."  Odeon tried to hide his frustrtion.  "No use playing what-if,
though; we could do that forever.  Let's get back to HQ."

Silently, respecting their leader's mood, the Special Operations team
returned to their command van for the copter-lift back to their
Middletown headquarters.  It wasn't until they were landing that anyone
spoke.  "Captain?"

"What is it, Boris?"

"I spoke with the physician, sir.  Captain Cortin will be stabilized at
the local clinic, then sent to New Denver for surgery.  You are due for
leave, are you not?"

"Yeah, and I intend to take advantage of it.  Two years' worth of
accumulated leave ought to give me time to help her stay in."

      *      *      *      *      *

Leave arrangements weren't difficult to make.  Special Operations teams
tended to stay together, but casualties were high; anyone could be
replaced quickly.  By mid-morning the next day Odeon had finished
briefing his temporary replacement, and by noon he'd used his Special
Ops identification to get aboard a plane to New Denver.

He'd only flown twice before, with the exception of command-van
copter-lifts, so he slept lightly when he did sleep, then took
advantage of a rest stop to work the kinks of too much sitting out
before the second leg.  Back aboard, he listened to the engines and
tried to doze off again.  The throbbing roar they made was monotonous
enough to be dulling, but too loud to be soothing . . .

Rather to his surprise, the second landing woke him up.  He hadn't
realized he'd managed to sleep again, and he grinned at  himself as he
exited the aircraft.

The air here smelled as fresh and clean as the newly-fallen snow, so
good it'd be a shame to waste it.  Odeon waved away the SO car that
pulled up, walking to the terminal instead.  By the time he'd made
arrangements for a room in Visiting Officers' Quarters, his luggage,
the single small bag that, with what a command van held, was enough for
an SO man for half a month, was waiting.  He claimed it, made his way
through shift-change traffic to the VOQ, and checked in.

He went to his assigned room, intending to shower and get a few hours'
rest.  Boris had said Joanie would be brought here once she was
stabilized; that could be today, if the doctors decided to fly her in,
or up to a week if they decided she could tolerate surface travel.

He'd just gotten the shower temperature right, though, when he heard
the four sharp knocks on his door that meant official business.  With a
muttered "Damn," he turned the water off, wrapped a towel around his
waist, and went to the door.  Couldn't a man even get a shower without
being interrupted?  "What is it?" he asked the young man in Medical
Corps green when he opened the door.

The medtech looked at the clipboard he held.  "Captain Michael Patrick
Odeon of Royal Enforcement Service Special Operations?"

"Serial 263819.  Yes."  Odeon swore to himself.  Formal identification
meant the leave he'd planned to use helping Joanie was over, in favor
of some special duty.

The tech extended the clipboard.  "Captain Cortin has asked that you be
the one to represent her interests while she is under treatment, sir.
Would you sign here, please?"

Chuckling, Odeon took the clipboard and scanned the form it held.  He
should have expected this; trust Joanie to think of his leave time,
have him assigned to what he would be doing anyway.  Then he frowned at
the length-of-assignment block: Indefinite.  That was bad, tended to
indicate Boris' field diagnosis of spinal injury was right.  He found
the signature block, wrote his name in the small precise script he was
continually kidded about.  "Is there any word on her condition or when
she'll be here?"

"She will be on a special medevac flight from Middletown, sir, due in
at 1815.  I was told nothing of her condition.  By your leave, sir?"

"Dismissed, Tech."  Odeon closed the door and went to finish his
interrupted shower.  She wasn't due in for another ten hours; he had
time to clean up, nap, and eat before he went in to speak to her
doctors.  By then, they'd know exactly what was wrong with her, and
have some idea of what could be done for her.

      *      *      *      *      *

Two hours before the medevac plane was due to land, Odeon was in one of
New Denver Municipal Hospital's briefing rooms.  There were half a
dozen nurses, twice that many technicians, and several doctors in
addition to the one behind the lectern.

By the time the briefing was over an hour later, the only things Odeon
was sure of were that he hadn't understood more than one word in three,
and that the doctor in charge of Joanie's case was as competent as she
was attractive.  Bernette Egan, she'd introduced herself--a
neurosurgeon.

He went up to her as the others began leaving.  "One moment please, Dr.
Egan, if I may."

She tilted her head to one side, crisp gray curls contrasting with skin
the color of rich chocolate as she looked up at him with a smile.  "You
would like a summary in plain English, Captain.  Correct?"

Odeon found himself returning her smile.  "Yes, ma'am, if you wouldn't
mind.  You'd tell Joanie--Captain Cortin--and she's made me her
advocate."

"Indefinitely, yes.  I saw the form.  Come to the coffee shop, where we
can be comfortable, and I'll be happy to tell you everything I can."

"As you wish, Doctor.  I'm buying."

"As you wish, Captain."  Egan smiled again, gestured him out of the
briefing room.  "The coffee shop isn't far."

The short walk didn't give them time to talk, but Odeon had understood
one key item: Joanie had gotten treatment quickly enough that none of
her injuries now threatened her life.  Some were serious, yes--maybe
damn serious, especially the spinal injury--but she would live!

Mike Odeon didn't understand why he felt so strongly about Joan Cortin
and her welfare; all he knew was that he did.  He'd recruited her,
sure, but he'd recruited others; he'd slept with her, but he'd slept
with others; he'd led the team that rescued her, but he'd done that
before, too.  Maybe it was because the other incidents had all involved
different people, maybe it was because none had reacted as positively
to him on first meeting . . . he didn't try to analyze it.  He was in
Special Operations; analysis was for Intelligence.  He simply accepted
facts as he found them.

Odeon let Egan choose pastries while he drew coffee and paid the
cashier.  Once they found an empty table and settled themselves, he
said, "Okay, Doctor.  Tell me."

"To begin with, most of her injuries are what I understand you
Enforcement people call minor.  Fractured skull, three broken ribs,
assorted cuts, burns, and bruises."  Egan frowned.  "However, her
spinal injury is serious even by your standards, and . . .  Captain,
did she plan to have children?"

'Did,' not 'does,' Odeon thought grimly.  "Yes, Doctor."  Until he'd
met Joanie, Odeon hadn't minded that the red crossed daggers of the SO
patch on his sleeve meant he was sterile; his parents had both had
plague-derivatives that made it inevitable, and it was a fate he shared
with almost a third of the Kingdom Systems' population.  That patch
also meant he was one of those trusted to protect his Kingdom and the
Systems from their most dangerous enemies.  No one able to have
children was allowed into SO since the average life expectancy was less
than a year . . .  "As soon as she found a suitable--and fertile--man.
What was it, the rape?"

"Multiple rapes, and not all with . . . natural equipment."  Egan
looked at the grim, scar-faced man across from her, uncomfortably aware
that he was both upset and a trained killer.  That she knew he was a
devout man as well was little help; Church and state both 'overlooked'
acts from Enforcement people that they would condemn in anyone else.
It seemed reasonable to assume Odeon and Cortin had been lovers, that
if he'd been fertile he would have been the father of her children.
"Captain, it pains me to have to tell you this, but she was so badly
injured by them that the doctors in Middletown were forced to do an
emergency hysterectomy, simply to save her life."

"Does she know?"  Odeon kept his voice level, but with effort.

"Not yet.  She should be stronger before she is given any more shocks."

Odeon nodded; that made good sense.  "What about her spine?"

Egan breathed a silent sigh of relief at the change of subject.  "You
know it has what are called discs?"  At his nod, she went on.  "Good.
According to the medevac doctor, a sharp blow to her back has caused
one of those discs to swell and 'float,' or pop out of position from
time to time.  The swelling may subside, but if it does not--which is
most likely--Captain Cortin will be in constant pain.  Either way, when
the disc pops, she will be in agony to match anything a third-stage
Inquisitor can do."

"I gathered from the briefing that you plan to try surgery.  What're
her odds?"

"Not good," Egan admitted.  "I can't be sure until I examine her
myself, but we have had little success in correcting a floating disc.
There is an alternative procedure, spinal fusion--essentially welding
part of the spine together so the disc can't pop.  She will still hurt,
and it will limit her mobility somewhat; the only advantage is that
she'll be spared the agony of the disc moving out of place."

"That sounds like grounds for a disability discharge."  Odeon sipped
his coffee and made a face, trying to lighten his mood a bit.  He
wasn't that fond of coffee to begin with, and this certainly wasn't the
best he'd had.  "Do hospital coffee shops have to boil this stuff?"

"You get used to it," Egan said.  "Yes, that is grounds for discharge,
and at full pay.  I will have to examine her myself, as I said, but if
Dr. Franklin says it's a floating disc, that's exactly what it is.
I'll send her discharge recommendation in to Enforcement HQ first thing
tomorrow."

"No, Doctor, you'll give it to me for endorsement."  Odeon saw her
beginning objection, and raised a hand to forestall it.  "She doesn't
want a discharge; my endorsement will request a waiver.  And she won't
want her mobility limited, since it would hamper her in her work.  So
no spinal fusion, we'll just have to hope that other operation you
mentioned works."

Egan frowned, concern for her patient overcoming her apprehension.
"You're a harsh man, Captain Odeon, even harsher than I expected from
one of your profession.  Do you know what you're condemning her to?"

"I know what you just told me, yes.  But I also know the last thing she
asked me was to  help her stay in.  I am her advocate, Doctor; until
you release her, my word goes."

"Unfortunately, it does," Egan said with a sigh.  "But then she can
countermand your orders."

Odeon half-bowed in his seat.  "That's right, Doctor, and I hope to God
she does.  I don't want to see her hurting, but she asked me not to let
her get kicked out while she couldn't defend herself.  I'm doing for
her what she would do for me if our positions were reversed."

Egan looked at him for several moments, silent, then she nodded.  She
was beginning to understand, she thought.  His grim harshness was real,
but it concealed equally real concern for the woman he represented.
"As you say, Captain.  Be sure Captain Cortin will have the best care I
can give her."

This time Odeon stood to bow and answer, formally.  "My thanks, Doctor
Egan.  When may I see her?"

"Tomorrow afternoon," Egan replied.  "I have her scheduled for
surgery--whichever procedure you decided on--at 0800.  I assure you she
will be given only those drugs which are absolutely necessary."

"My thanks again, Doctor."  Odeon gave her a sketchy salute.  "If
you'll excuse me, I have to pick up some forms."  At her nod he left,
grateful for her last assurance.  It was almost a hundred years since
the Final War--not the nuclear holocaust the prewars had dreaded; there
had been only a few atomics used, and most of those were relatively
clean neutron bombs.  The primary weapons had been biological; it was
their devastation that had wiped out over fifty percent of the
Kingdoms' population, and the passage of time hadn't removed the
remainder's sudden overwhelming aversion to "unnatural substances"
imposed on the body.  Drugs were used, sparingly, by doctors--and not
so sparingly by Enforcement Service Inquisitors.

      *      *      *      *      *

The next morning Odeon woke at dawn as he usually did, but instead of
rising at once, he rolled onto his back and laced hands behind his head.

Joanie.  She hadn't been beautiful when he first met her, so she never
had been.  That suited him well enough; he didn't like the prewar
standard of beauty that still prevailed in many places.  Beauties were
too fragile, didn't have the strength of a real woman the way Joanie
did.  Tall skinniness was fine in a paid-woman, but Joanie's
compactness was better.  Stronger and more suitable for an Enforcement
officer or a mother, anyway--  He pushed that thought aside.  Joanie
might be able to stay in Enforcement, but she'd never be a mother.

He tried to remember her as she had been, 165 centimeters and maybe 59
kilos, mostly muscle, of vigorous womanhood.  But it'd hurt to see her
lying broken and bloody on the hospital floor, her short dark hair
stiff with drying blood; he couldn't get that image out of his mind, so
he made himself study it instead, trying to bring out anything he
hadn't consciously noted then.

There wasn't much.  The hospital hadn't been all that different from
other Brothers of Freedom raid points, except in being a hospital, its
occupants even more helpless than most.  The only oddity was that they
hadn't made sure of the woman they'd marked.  Possibly Rascal and his
locals had arrived before they were able to.

Odeon grinned wolfishly at that thought.  Joanie was alive, and she
wanted revenge.  That kind of personal motivation wasn't really
necessary, but in going after terrorists like the Brothers it didn't
hurt; some of the things necessary in anti-terrorist sweeps were hard
to stomach.  And the Brothers were the worst of the terrorists, as well
as the most wide-spread; they had units in every one of the Systems,
while most groups were restricted to one or two.

He was getting off the subject, though, he told himself sternly. He was
here to protect Joanie's interests, not worry about the Brothers. And
if he was going to do that, it might be a good idea to get up.

He glanced at the clock, then almost tangled himself in the sheets in
his hurry to get out of bed.  It was almost six-thirty!  If he didn't
get a move on, he'd be late for seven o'clock Mass!

He made it, though with barely a minute to spare, and he found peace as
usual in the familiar liturgy.  There were still times he wished his
call had been to the priesthood--he'd been raised in a monastery, by
the White Fathers, after his parents died--but for the most part, he no
longer missed the life too badly.  The Fathers had comforted him when
it became clear that his vocation was military rather than religious;
enforcing civil order, they'd reminded him, was as important to human
welfare as ministering to spiritual needs.  And when he'd been
commissioned, directly into Special Operations, several of them had
been at the Academy to congratulate him.

As he went forward to take Communion, Odeon found his thoughts going to
Joanie.  He shouldn't be thinking about her, not now . . . but he
couldn't concentrate on the Sacrament properly, even as he accepted and
swallowed the Host.  Well, the Fathers had taught him that if he
couldn't, despite his best efforts, maybe he wasn't supposed to--and it
wouldn't be the first time something had resolved itself this way.
Returning to his place in the small chapel, he said a brief prayer to
the Blessed Virgin as the Compassionate Mother for guidance.  Surely,
she would help the only officer of her sex in this dangerous vocation!

      *      *      *      *      *

He was feeling better when he entered Egan's office half an hour after
Mass was over.  He hadn't found a solution, but he had become sure that
one would make itself known; he'd just have to find it.

Egan wasn't there; she was already in surgery.  But she'd left word
that he could use her office while he waited, and he appreciated her
thoughtfulness.  An Enforcement officer in a civilian hospital waiting
room tended to make patients and visitors nervous; a Special Ops
officer tended to make the staff nervous as well, which bothered him.
And a desk was far more convenient for doing paperwork than a lap.
Odeon sighed as he picked up the form she'd left for him.  It was her
recommendation for Joanie's discharge, as promised, and it made no
bones about the seriousness of her injuries, or about the resulting
sterility and constant pain.

Frowning, Odeon read it again--and realized that here was at least part
of his solution.  Joanie was sterile, which meant she was eligible for
Special Ops!

Granted that he didn't like either the fact or what had caused it, she
was eligible, and he was positive that--given the cause--she would want
to apply, which could very well give her a bit of an edge staying in.
And he was equally positive that she'd be as outstanding in Special Ops
as she had been in regular Enforcement work.  He endorsed the discharge
recommendation with a combined request, for waiver and transfer to
Special Ops, then decided to tackle some paperwork he'd gotten behind
on.

It was several hours before Egan returned to her office, obviously
fatigued, and collapsed into an armchair.  Despite his anxiety, Odeon
took time to get her a cup of coffee and let her drink some before he
asked tensely, "How did it go?"

"Better than I expected," Egan said, taking her desk back.  "The
operation was as successful as any I've performed."  She raised a hand
cautioningly.  "That doesn't mean it's good; it isn't.  It's just as
good as it can be.  She'll be in the pain I told you about, and the
disc is still subject to popping, but it could've been far worse."
Egan rubbed her eyes before going on.   "Otherwise, I would say she
will have a complete recovery, with no more than the usual scars.
Except that she refused skin grafts for the brands on her hands."

"Mmm."  Odeon frowned, thought for a moment, then smiled slowly.  "I
hadn't expected that, but it fits."

"Fits how?" Egan asked in near-exasperation.  "I cannot for the life of
me imagine why she would want to live with such reminders, as well as
the pain."

"Not live with them," Odeon corrected.  "You're thinking like a doctor,
of course, but she's not one--she's an Enforcement officer who wants
revenge.  I'd say she intends to kill Brothers with them.  And I'm
trying to get her in a position to do just that."

Egan stared at him, appalled by the pleased anticipation in his soft
voice and pale eyes.  She'd known all her life that Enforcement
people--especially those in Special Operations--were killers, but this
was the first time that knowledge had actually frightened her.  "Yes
. . . is there anything else?"

"Only one."  Odeon retrieved his briefcase, preparing to leave.  He
hadn't intended to disturb the doctor, but if she had any acquaintance
with Enforcement at all, and was that easily upset, she should have
known better than to ask such a question.  "When can I see her?"

"Tomorrow morning, if you want to speak to her instead of just see her.
You know the kind of equipment that will be hooked up to her?"

Odeon chuckled.  "It's been hooked up to me more than once, Doctor.  It
doesn't bother me."  It was enough for now to know his Joanie was doing
as well as humanly possible.  "Thank you for your efforts."

To meet Lawrence Shannon:  1a. Raid Master



2. Hospital

St. Thomas, Thursday, 20 June 2571

Odeon was still perplexed by the previous afternoon's odd meeting when
he got to Joanie's room the morning after her surgery.  The door was
open, but he tapped on it and called her name anyway.

"Mike!"  Cortin hoped he could hear the welcome she tried to put in her
voice.  "Come in, please!"  She watched him approach, holding back
tears.  Mike had been her ideal since the day she'd met him, and she'd
done her best to live up to his example of cool, impartial
professionalism.  He was an outstanding officer, an exemplary son of
the Church; he certainly wouldn't come apart, so she had to conceal her
anguish.  She couldn't forfeit his respect for her by collapsing, even
though the Brothers had maimed and perhaps crippled her.

He entered, smiling as he saw her.  Her head and hands were bandaged,
along with most of one arm; her face had half a dozen cuts and bruises
not worth bandaging; and her ribs had undoubtedly been strapped tight
under her hospital gown, but--  "You're looking a lot better than you
were the last time I saw you.  How do you feel?"

"Right now, I mostly don't.  They've got me so heavily doped up it's a
miracle I'm awake and coherent.  At least I hope I am.  Coherent, that
is; I know I'm awake."

"You sound fine to me," Odeon assured her.  He leaned over, kissed her
forehead.  "Ready for my report?"

"Not until you do better than that," she said.  "I know you can, and as
far as I can tell, my mouth is all right."

"As good as ever, but I don't hug people with broken ribs."  He kissed
her as thoroughly as he thought possible without hurting her, then
pulled up a chair to sit beside the bed.

Her first question gave him an unpleasant shock.  "Have you put me in
for Special Ops?"

"What?" he said, trying to stall.  Dammit, she wasn't supposed to know
she was eligible yet!

Cortin sighed.  "I don't need a doctor to know I've been spayed, Mike.
The incision in my belly, after what the Brothers did to me, makes it
obvious I'll never have a family.  It was unlikely before; now it's
simply impossible.  You can thank God I'm on sedatives right now, or
I'd probably be a raving maniac.  So answer the question."

"I have, yes.  I found out day before yesterday that you'd be eligible,
took the paperwork to Headquarters yesterday as soon as Doctor Egan
told me you'd made it through the surgery with a reasonably good
prognosis, and started to walk it through."  He paused, frowning.

"And?"

"I don't know," Odeon said slowly.  "Personnel didn't seem too
interested in doing anything about the waiver request at first, until I
raised my voice a bit."  He chuckled briefly.  "It seems office workers
are more than a little apprehensive about an upset Special Ops man.  At
any rate, once I convinced them to do more than glance at the forms, I
was very politely escorted to a private office--which is where it gets
odd.  Joanie, there was a colonel of His Majesty's Own there!"

"His Majesty's Own!" Cortin said, impressed.  "So what happened?"

"Not much--which is what bothers me."  Odeon frowned.  "He took the
forms, read them, nodded once, and told me not to tell anyone including
you about the meeting.  I asked what was going on, told him I had to
tell you something--but the only thing he'd say was that it was a
classified project, that you'd be given serious consideration, and that
he'd be in touch as soon as the decision was made.  Typical bureaucrat
talk--but the oddest thing is that I believe him."

"Did he give you any idea of when?"

Odeon shook his head.  "No--but I'd guess not more than a few days.
Full colonels don't work for long in bare-bones offices without even
carpeting."

"True, especially when they belong to His Majesty's Own.  And I've got
a couple of months before I'm well enough I have to make a final
decision--I presume I am eligible for a disability discharge?"

"Yes, of course, at full pay.  But I don't like what I think you're
getting at.  Joanie, don't do anything you'll regret."

"I don't intend to," Cortin said quietly.  "I know what I have to do,
though.  If I can stay in and do it, that's best, of course.  If I have
to get out, though, I'll do that instead.  One way or another, Brother
Lawrence Shannon and the rest of them on that raiding party are
gone--and so are any Brothers who get in my way to them."  She looked
at her bandaged hands for a long moment, then back up at him.  "Which
I'm sure you guessed when Egan passed along the information that I was
keeping their marks."

Odeon nodded.  "Partly--that you'd go after them.  Not that you'd
consider going rogue to do it."  Enforcement took superlative care of
its members and their families, if they had any . . . but when a
trooper went bad, all its resources went into hunting and then killing
him.  Or her.  Odeon had participated in three of those hunts, hating
the necessity but as grimly determined as any to rid the world of them.
Dammit, Enforcement troopers were sworn to protect the Kingdoms and
their citizens--when one went rogue, he had to be stopped!  And yet
. . . the idea of taking part in such a hunt with Joanie as the target
upset him more than it should.  Not that the alternative was any
better! "Joanie, please--don't do it."

"As I said, I don't intend to."  Cortin took a deep breath.  "You know
me too well to believe I'd do something like going rogue if I had any
choice in the matter.  And I need time and resources a rogue wouldn't
get, to do what I have to--but I can't do it if I'm stuck behind a
desk, either."  She frowned, still unable to make sense of the feeling
of absolute certainty that had come over her during the Brothers'
torture.  "Mike, we both know I'm as practical and non-mystical as
anyone could be--but while the Brothers were working me over, I . . .
realized, or discovered, or something, that eliminating them is my job.
It helps that I have a personal reason for wanting to, but that's a
bonus.  Whatever happens to me, whatever I have to do to accomplish it,
I don't have any choice about the fact.  I have to get rid of the
Brothers--and I plan to enjoy it."  She stared at her hands again.
"Then I may be able to get rid of these Hell-marks. Can you understand
that?"

"I think so--and God help me, I couldn't blame you if you did go after
them on your own.  But I'd still have to help hunt you down."  Odeon
was less positive of that than he made himself sound, though.  He
wasn't at all certain he'd be able to, even if not doing it meant he'd
share her outlawry--if the thought of hunting her was upsetting, the
idea of actually harming her was revolting.  Worse than revolting,
really--impossible was more like it.

The sudden awareness of that stunned him.  He hadn't realized he felt
so strongly about her!  He shouldn't; no one in Special Ops should have
any more than professional respect for another person.  There most
emphatically should not be anything like that strong a feeling!  It was
almost like--no.  He was too professional to love anyone, especially a
fellow officer, however many times he might have shared a bed with him
or her.

On the other hand, what else could it be? He'd have no objection to
hunting down Wolf Corbett, say, if it were necessary--and Wolf had been
on his team the longest of any, almost a year now, and was the closest
friend other than Joanie that he had.

He sent up a quick prayer for guidance, and felt an immediate sense of
reassurance.  He did love Joanie, and it was all right . . . but she
didn't love him yet, so there was no reason to burden her with the
knowledge of his feelings.

"Is something wrong, Mike?"  Cortin's voice brought him back to the
present.  "You look like you ate something that's disagreeing with you."

"No, I'm fine.  It's your problems we should be worrying about now,
anyway."  Odeon made himself smile.  "Let's assume you make it into
this classified project, and that it's something that'll let you at the
Brothers."

"We might as well," Cortin said, shifting position slightly.  "The
first thing is to get off these drugs.  The sooner I learn to cope with
what's happened, the sooner I can get to work.  I need to get my
strength back, hone up my hand-to-hand combat, and do some serious
study of interrogation techniques.  I'm okay at first-stage, but
Brothers don't break that easily; I'm going to have to be more than
just good, at all three stages.  Especially third.  Will you help me?"

"Of course."  That was his Joanie, all right, Odeon thought proudly.
No crying or self-pity for her; instead, a plan that would let her
accomplish what she intended.  He took the clipboard from the foot of
her bed and studied it for a moment.  "Dear God!  They do have you in
deep, don't they?  Do you want to make a cold break, or would you
rather taper off?"

"Cold break," Cortin said firmly.  Even though it was probably a
decision she would regret, it was what she was certain he would have
done.

"Right."  Odeon made the necessary notations, initialed each one, then
replaced the clipboard.  "You can't do much about exercise or combat
training until you're out of bed, but you can read . . . mmm.  I think
you should go for an Inquisitor's Warrant, even though you won't be
able to do the practical work right away.  If you want to go that
route, I know an instructor at the Academy who'll give you classroom
credit for reading the course materials and passing a test, then let
you do the practical when you're back on your feet."

Cortin nodded.  "I would--thanks."  The Warrant wouldn't do her any
legal good if she did go rogue, but she'd have the skill, and letting
her subjects know she'd had a Warrant should make it easier to break
them.  "How soon can I get the texts?"

"I should be able to have them for you by visiting hours tomorrow.
Anything else?"

"Newspapers, please--and a pair of gloves, for when the bandages come
off."

"No problem; Sergeant Vincent promised to send your gear along.  I
figure it should be here tomorrow or the next day."

"Thanks--I should have thought to ask."

"You did have other things on your mind at the time," Odeon pointed
out.  He hesitated, went on reluctantly.  "Speaking of which, as soon
as you feel up to it, you should be debriefed."

Cortin would have preferred to keep the information for her own use,
but by the time she was able to do anything with it, it would be
obsolete, useless.  Best to pass it on to the debriefers, then hope her
fellow Enforcement troops would keep the trail warm without taking the
quarry that was rightfully hers.  "I'll be glad to talk to them any
time they want.  And if the team includes an artist, I think I can
describe the ones I saw well enough for him to draw."

"That would help--I'll make sure it has one.  And I'll try to get them
here before the painkillers wear off; I don't think you'd want them to
see you in pain."

"I don't, and I wouldn't be able to cooperate as well, either.  As soon
as you can, then."

"I'll do that."  Odeon turned to leave, then hesitated and turned back.
Joanie went to church Sundays and holy days when she wasn't on duty,
though she wasn't what he'd call really devout.  Still, it wouldn't
hurt to ask.  "Would you like to see a priest?"

Not really, was her first reaction, but on the other hand, why not?  As
usual, she didn't have anything to confess--part of her, with wry
humor, said it was because she hadn't the imagination to think of any
interesting sins, as well as not having any opportunities.  Might be a
good idea to take advantage of this chance, though; if she were
accepted for Special Ops, she'd be given Exceptional Holy
Orders--empowered to carry out time-critical priestly functions, mostly
Last Rites--and she really ought to be sure of being ready for
ordination.  "Maybe I should."  She hesitated, then asked, "Mike--did
you give me Last Rites?"

Odeon shook his head.  "By the time I got to you, Sergeant Vincent had
already taken care of it."

"If you get a chance, will you thank him for me?"

"My pleasure."  Odeon bent to kiss her goodbye, then paused when
bandaged hands took and held his.

Cortin looked up at him, her throat tight.  Maybe he wouldn't fault her
for one bit of weakness . . .  "Mike, I know I'm not a real woman any
more, but . . . maybe I can still function like one.  Will you help me
find out?  Please?"

"As soon as the plumbing's out and you feel up to it," Odeon promised,
stricken by her uncharacteristic vulnerability.  Blessed Mother of God,
he prayed silently, don't let them have robbed her of that, too! She's
lost the ability to have children; don't let her be condemned to the
constant danger we face without even this consolation!   "Just let me
know when, Joanie. I'll be here for you."  He kissed her again, and
left.  Cortin watched him go, relieved.  He'd been reassuring, not
scornful, and that was a big help in itself.

      *      *      *      *      *

She was kept busy the rest of the day, first by the priest, then by
medical personnel, and then--over Dr. Egan's objections--by the
debriefing team, which included the artist she'd asked for.  It also
included a lieutenant wearing the silver question-mark badge of one who
held an Inquisitor's Warrant, and who was treated with a degree of
respect that was highly unusual for a junior officer.  Cortin made note
of that, then disregarded it; if she was under consideration for
something classified, she had to expect some non-standard attention.
And he was a good Inquisitor, whatever else he was, eliciting details
she didn't remember noticing, gaining her confidence even though she
was familiar with the techniques he was using, reading her face and
body language well enough that at times he seemed to be reading her
mind instead.  No, she thought when the team left, he was more than a
simple lieutenant!

The drugs had worn off by early the next morning.  When an orderly
brought her breakfast, Cortin was in physical pain and emotional shock,
but she forced herself to be as polite as possible to the orderly, and
then to eat in spite of her lack of appetite.  Afterward, she endured
the medical attentions that brought more pain, telling herself she had
to go through that and the accompanying humiliation to reach her goal.
She was glad when it was over and she was left alone; the only person
she had any real desire to see was Mike.

He arrived moments after visiting hours began.  She started to greet
him, but fell silent in shock when she saw his face.  Mike had been
crying, and there were still tears in his eyes!  Hesitantly, she held a
hand out to him.  "Mike--?"

He took it, tears again starting to fall.  "Joanie--oh, Joanie, I'm so
sorry!"

Her stomach churned with miserable certainty of his answer, but she
made herself ask, "What is it, Mike?"

"Dr. Egan said nurses had heard you talking in your sleep, that the bad
news would be easier coming from me, but not to tell you yet, not till
you were stronger . . ."  He took a deep breath to steady his voice,
though the tears were running unchecked down his face.  Dammit, there
was no kind way to tell her this!  "She's a civilian, she doesn't
understand that we can't afford false hopes.  Or how important this
is--she told me that except for your back, you'd have a complete
recovery!"  He took another deep breath, trying with a little more
success to calm himself.  "Joanie--I'll never share your bed again, and
neither will anyone else, unless all you want is company."

"I'm totally non-functional, then," Cortin said flatly.

Odeon nodded miserably.  "I'm afraid so.  The Brothers . . . damaged
you too badly.  Egan's team was able to salvage the urinary tract and
make a usable opening for it in the skin graft--but I'm afraid the
other is gone, permanently."

Cortin clung to his hands, her mind numb.  She wanted to scream, cry,
do something to protest this additional, gratuitous despoilment--dear
sweet Jeshua, they had been killing her, why do something so
pointless?--but she didn't seem to have the will.

Odeon took her in his arms, stroking her and speaking quietly,
reassuringly. She was taking it hard, of course--so was he,
dammit!--and it was no wonder.  Most civilians didn't understand, so
they resented the civil and canonical laws that exempted Enforcement
personnel from the sexual restrictions everyone else was morally and
legally bound to observe--but, thanks to Saint Eleanor of the
Compassionate Mother, Church and civil authorities did understand that
people in almost constant danger of sudden, violent death needed more
of a distraction than books or cards or dances could provide.  Not even
sex always helped--but most of the time it could take your mind off the
danger enough to relax for a few minutes, or an hour, or if the
Compassionate Mother was kind, an entire night.  Joanie wouldn't have
that escape any more, which was grossly unfair.

Still, there was a purpose behind everything God did, Odeon reminded
himself, whether a human could perceive it or not.  He couldn't imagine
what purpose would condemn Joanie to constant pain, as well as all of
an Enforcement officer's normal stresses, with no chance of relief--but
he believed there was one, and if he were allowed to, he'd help her
achieve it.

After several minutes, Cortin pulled back, still dry-eyed.  "If that's
the way it is, I guess I'll have to learn to live with it.  Thanks for
giving it to me straight, Mike--you were right, I'd rather know the
truth than get my hopes up and then have them dashed."

"I'm glad. I thought you'd feel that way--but I was praying I wouldn't
just make things worse for you."  He squeezed her hands, debating
whether or not he should kiss her, then decided against it until later.
If he was any judge, she was in no mood for affection at the moment,
especially the fraternal kind that would emphasize it was the only kind
she'd get from now on.  "I have the books," he said, instead.
"Dalmaine's Practical Interrogation Techniques, Gray's Anatomy, and
Wu's An Inquisitor's Manual of Pharmacology.  Major Illyanov sends his
regards, and asked me to tell you that his evenings are free if you
think some tutoring would help."

"I'll take him up on that, gladly."  Anything to help keep her mind off
her pain and loss . . .  "Though I'm surprised to find him so willing
to help."

"I think he's pleased that you're interested in his specialty," Odeon
said.  There were no prohibitions against a woman becoming an
Inquisitor, any more than there were against them entering whatever
other field they chose--but the fact remained that very few women chose
Enforcement, and to the best of his knowledge there had never been a
female Inquisitor.  "Want me to ask him to come over tonight?"

"Yes, please."

      *      *      *      *      *

Cortin had started reading as soon as Mike left, not long after lunch,
and halfway through the first chapter of Dalmaine's book, she was
totally absorbed.  He gave a brief overview of the basic first-stage
techniques taught at the Academy, then continued with the psychology of
willing witnesses and how to help them remember pertinent facts.
Cortin recognized several of the so-called lieutenant's techniques,
nodding as increasing knowledge let her appreciate his skill more
fully.  The next chapter started to deal with reluctant cases, and
within ten pages Cortin had the other two books open and was referring
back and forth.  Supper came; she ate it mechanically, with no idea
when she was finished of what she'd eaten, as she kept studying.

She jumped when a hand covered her page.  "What--!"

"I apologize for interrupting such intense study, Captain Cortin, but I
have been trying to attract your attention for several minutes."  The
tall, attractive man in Enforcement gray, with St. Dmitri collar
insignia and major's leaf, bowed.  "Major Ivan Petrovich Illyanov.
Your instructor--and delighted to have such an attentive student. How
far have you gotten?"

When Cortin told him, he smiled.  "Excellent progress.  Now we see how
well you have absorbed what you have read."  He began questioning
her--without any of the memory-enhancing techniques, Cortin
noted--nodding or frowning occasionally at her responses.  He made her
work, and she did so enthusiastically, disappointed when he finally
called a halt.

"You cannot learn a year's course material in one night," he said
drily.  "Though at this rate you may well do so in a month.  The
classroom material, at any rate."  He touched a bandaged hand.  "May I
see?"

"Of course.  Uh . . ."

"'Uh' what?"  Illyanov asked, gently unwrapping the bandage.

"Mike--Captain Odeon--told you why I want to learn this?"

"He did indeed."  Illyanov paused, smiled at her.  "I doubt there is an
officer in any Enforcement service on this world of ours, perhaps
anywhere in the entire Systems, who does not know of Captain Joan
Cortin and her ordeal.  It should please you to learn that
anti-Brotherhood operations are currently overwhelmed with volunteers
sworn to avenge you.  Although that has driven the Brotherhood to
ground, so I fear I must tell you we are having no more real success
than before."

"I am pleased--and flattered," Cortin said.  "It never occurred to me
that there'd be that much of a reaction."

"But you are also pleased there will be some left to hunt when you
recover."  Illyanov finished undoing the bandage, nodded approvingly at
the burn.  "A good move, keeping these.  You did it on instinct?"

"Yes.  They're obscene, disgusting--a worse violation than the rape, by
far--but it didn't seem right getting rid of them.  Though I probably
will, eventually."

"You will not show them at all times, then?"

"No--I plan to wear gloves except when I'm on a hunt."

"Remove them also during an interrogation, I would suggest."  Illyanov
smiled, replacing the bandage.  "You have not yet reached that point in
your studies, so you cannot be expected to know the psychological
impact, but such touches can appreciably increase your odds of success.
Terror is often more persuasive than pain."

"I will, then.  Thank you."  But she'd still use the pain . . .

"The pleasure is mine."  He stood, bowed again.  "Until tomorrow, then?"


To see more of Shannon:  2a. Musing



3. Center

Late July 2571

As Cortin recovered and the pain in her body eased to what Egan assured
her was the best she could expect without further surgery, the burns on
her hands took top priority, as she'd expected, on her list of personal
grievances against the Brothers.  Any trooper they--or most terrorist
groups, for that matter--captured, was certain to be brutally beaten,
and usually raped.  Coming out alive was the best one could hope for,
and she'd managed that.  The experience would leave psychological as
well as physical scars, she was certain, but like all officers and any
enlisted personnel who wanted it, she'd gone through extensive training
and conditioning of both types in case she were subjected to terrorist
captivity and mistreatment, and she was confident the experience
wouldn't have any lasting effect on her.  Except, probably, the desire
for revenge; that, she had no doubt, would last until she'd personally
done justice on her attackers.  Especially Brother Lawrence Shannon.

She knew, from helping other victims, that rape normally demolished a
woman's desire for sex, sometimes permanently.  In her case it hadn't;
she wanted Mike as much as ever, and would have been glad to enjoy
Major Illyanov, given the chance.  It was a bitter irony that her
training had left her with the desire, while the attack had robbed her
of all capability.  And it still seemed so pointless, when they'd been
in the process of killing her!

Still, terrorists weren't known for reasonable behavior, or they
wouldn't be terrorists.  She'd simply have to live with the fact, she
told herself grimly, of having the desire and not being able to do
anything about it.

Bad as that was, though, it wasn't the worst.  Nothing had prepared her
for the Brothers burning their Hell-marks into her flesh; that was a
totally unexpected violation!  She wasn't being reasonable in keeping
them, and she knew it; the reasonable thing would have been--was!--to
have them covered with grafts.  Much as they revolted her, though, the
idea of having them removed still felt wrong.  And Major Illyanov did
think they'd be useful--so she'd settle for gloves.

As soon as she was free of the medical plumbing, she started
exercising.  The first day, she confined herself to her room, when no
one else was there, to spare herself the embarrassment of being seen
unfit in public--but the room was too small for decent exercise, and
she was in a hurry to get back to duty and the practical side of her
training.

The next morning, too impatient to wait for visiting hours and Mike's
help, she found a hospital robe in the closet.  It was too big, but it
didn't drag the ground and sleeves could be rolled up, so she put it
on.  That gave her her first honest laugh since the attack when she
looked at herself in the mirror, but the robe did cover the hospital
gown's open back, so she felt decently enough dressed to go out into
the corridor.

When she opened the door, she was astonished to find a pair of
troopers, obviously on guard.  One of them, a sergeant she remembered
meeting briefly several years ago, looked startled to see her.
"Captain Cortin!  Is anything wrong, ma'am?"

"Nothing but a strong desire to recover enough to get out of here," she
said, smiling at his grimace of agreement.  "A mere captain doesn't
rate an honor guard, and I haven't done anything to be arrested for, so
how come you two're standing post?"

The sergeant--his name was Kennard, she remembered--chuckled.
"Scuttlebutt says you're still on the Brothers' wipe list.  Colonel
Nguyen has people like Corporal Redden here assigned officially, and
some of us figure they could use a little unofficial help."

"Um."  Cortin gestured acquiescence, bemused.  "I don't really think I
need protection, but I have to admit it's reassuring having you around.
Is there anything in your orders that says I can't go for a walk in the
corridor?"

"Not a thing, ma'am," Redden replied immediately.  "The detail I'm on
is just to stay with you and keep you safe.  Though Dr. Egan seems to
think you'll be safe enough since it'll be a week or so before you're
up to anything even a little strenuous--like going for a walk."

"Dr. Egan's a civilian," Cortin said, appreciating the men's
sympathetic expressions.  "You may have to catch me if I overdo,
though."

"No problem," Kennard said.

"Good.  Shall we go, then?"

      *      *      *      *      *

The day Cortin could get to the far end of the hospital building and
back without having to stop for rest, she got Mike to have her
discharged--over Egan's protests--and help her move into the VOQ.

That evening after supper, Odeon went to her room.  He'd been
increasingly worried about her lack of apparent emotion; he'd seen
others like that go into an abrupt withdrawal and become extremely
depressed, sometimes even suicidal.  Her interest in interrogation and
desire for revenge would both help, but he was determined to give her a
better reason to live.

When they were both settled comfortably with cups of her favorite herb
tea, he grinned at her.  "I meant to mention this earlier--you look a
lot better in uniform than you did in a hospital gown!"

"I feel a lot better, too.  Hospitals are all right, I suppose, but I'm
a lot more comfortable in quarters.  Not to mention wearing a gun."

"Of course you are," Odeon said, chuckling.  In hospital was the only
time an Enforcement trooper, officer or enlisted, was completely
unarmed; even in bed, they always had a weapon within easy reach.
"Going to Mass tomorrow?"

"Why, is it Sunday?"

"No."  Odeon chuckled again; it was easy to lose track of time in a
hospital!  "That was yesterday; I just thought you might want to join
me.  I talked to the Academy chaplain, and he's going to offer a
special Mass of Thanksgiving for your recovery."

Cortin stared at her tea, turning the cup in her gloved hands.  "That's
a little premature," she said at last.  "And I'm not at all sure it's
something I'm thankful for.  It might've been better if you'd been just
a few minutes later."

She meant it--and that was exactly what he'd been afraid of.  "You
shouldn't feel that way, Joanie.  God had a reason for keeping you
alive; you've got to believe that."

"Why?" Cortin asked tiredly.  She'd spent quite a few hours thinking
about that, when she should've been sleeping but the pain wouldn't let
sleep come and nothing seemed to matter except an end to her torment.
"I'm no saint, but I've never done anything really terrible, either.
Certainly nothing bad enough to deserve this living Hell."

That was true, Odeon thought.  Still--"We can't hope to understand His
reasons for what He does," he said.  "We can only accept.  Offer the
pain to Him, Joanie.  Come to Mass with me tomorrow, dedicate yourself
to Him, and ask Him what He wants of your life."

He looked so hopeful she couldn't refuse him.  "All right, Mike.  I'll
go with you, and I'll try to do what you say.  Just don't expect too
much."

"I'll settle for anything that'll help you."  Odeon smiled at her,
raising his cup.  "To your recovery."

"Thanks--are you going out tonight?"

He'd been planning on it, but he quickly changed his plans.  "No, why?"

"I'd like some company, then, if you don't mind."  She grimaced.
"Though if you'd prefer a woman who can do something for you instead of
a counterfeit, I'd certainly understand."

"Even disabled, you're more of a real woman than any I've paid to be
with," Odeon said.  "I've always enjoyed your company, even when one of
us was too tired or too hurt for fun and games--you know that."

"I know--I felt the same way."  Cortin managed a smile.  "But I will
miss the fun and games, and you'll have to be careful about waking up
shooting because you hear something out of place--I haven't learned to
stay in the right position while I'm sleeping yet, so it's at night my
back acts up worst, and I have a bad tendency to scream when it does."

At least her sense of humor hadn't completely deserted her, even though
the humor now was on the dark side.  "I'll be careful," he promised.
"I certainly wouldn't want to shoot my favorite recruit."

      *      *      *      *      *

She found it comforting to lie beside Mike, even though part of her
also found it a near-painful reminder of what they'd shared earlier.
She lay awake for awhile listening to his quiet breathing before it
lulled her into a doze, then into deeper sleep and dreams of a better
time.  It was her Graduation Day; the Duke of Columbia had almost
finished pinning on her classmates' gold Second Lieutenants' bars.  Her
own, the silver of a First Lieutenant since she was first in her class,
already gleamed on her immaculate gray uniform.  She was impatient for
the ceremony to end.  She'd seen her recruiter in the crowd, and she
wanted to carry out the plans she'd made for him, plans that bore no
resemblance to the sometimes-sadistic ones her classmates claimed to
have for their recruiters.  She'd discovered the surprisingly
pleasurable reality of the Enforcement Service's sexual freedom not
long after her arrival at the Academy, quickly losing her inhibitions.
Being the only woman in the class, she had enjoyed her instructors'
attentions--but the corollary was far less enjoyable.  In prewar days,
being a teacher's favorite had supposedly meant having an easier time
than other students; at the Royal Academy, it meant additional work,
more intensive instruction, and more severe testing.  The harder they
were on her, she was repeatedly told, the better her odds of survival
would be when she got out in the field--and she had thrived on the
increased challenge, as she'd proven by graduating at the top of her
class.  But much as she had enjoyed her instructors'--and a few of her
classmates'--beds and bodies, it hadn't taken her long to realize that
Mike Odeon was the one she wanted most, and she was determined to take
full advantage of this chance at him.

The ceremony ended at last; she accepted congratulations--and her first
salute, from Lieutenant Odeon.  She returned it with the proper
dignity, then launched herself at him for a completely undignified, and
equally thorough, kiss.  He cooperated after a second's startlement,
then grinned down at her.  "That isn't the kind of attack I carried out
on my recruiter!"

"Oh, that's just the first sortie," Cortin assured him, pleased to find
that although he was sterile, he certainly wasn't impotent, as quite a
few sterile men were; she'd felt that quite clearly during the kiss.

"I think I'm going to like this attack," he said, still grinning.

"I hope so."  She tightened her arms around him.  "You're staying at
the VOQ?"

"Uh-huh."  Odeon raised an eyebrow.  "You're thinking of a tactical
strike?"

"Not exactly--more like a siege, if you don't mind my using your
toothbrush in the morning.  I couldn't think of a reasonable excuse to
bring my kit to Graduation in case you did show up."

"My toothbrush is yours,"  Odeon said with a chuckle.  "It sounds like
you're anxious to get this siege started."

"I've been taught that unnecessary delay is bad strategy," Cortin said.
"Shall we go, Lieutenant, or should I begin my siege here?"

"We go, Lieutenant," Odeon said, and they did.

When they got to his room, they didn't hurry, but they didn't waste
time, either; once their uniforms were hung in the closet, Joan's siege
began in earnest, and with her target's full cooperation.  Lying beside
him, kissing him, caressing his body with the battle scars few
Enforcement and no SO men escaped, feeling his answering caresses on
her still-smooth skin, was even better than she'd dreamed.

Exploration grew into passion, caresses becoming more direct and
intimate, yet there was still no hurry.  Cortin savored the touch of
his hand skillfully stroking her, the silk-over-steel delight of him as
ready for her as she was for him.  It was she who moved first, eager to
take him in, and she gasped with pleasure as they joined and began
moving in the eternal rhythm.

Then pain stabbed through her, bringing her awake with a choked sob.
As it slowly subsided, she became aware of arms around her, a voice in
her ear, and she tried to tear herself away.

Odeon wouldn't let her.  "It's me, Joanie, Mike--not some Brother.
You're safe.  You know I won't hurt you--and I'll do my best not to let
anyone else hurt you, either.  Relax, try to go back to sleep.  Want
your gun?"

"I've got it under my pillow."  Cortin managed a half-smile.  "The
sovereign remedy for boogey-men, my father used to say.  A 10-mm Ruger
with every fifth round a tracer load."

"Smart man, your father," Odeon said.  "Not much human-size a 10-mm
load won't stop, and tracers'll discourage the rest.  Think you can
sleep now?"

"Yes, I think so."  Cortin sighed, relaxing slowly.  "Thanks, Mike.
For being here, and for . . . you know.  Make sure I wake up in time
for Mass, will you?"

"No problem," Odeon said.  "Sleep in peace, Joanie."

      *      *      *      *      *

Tuesday, 23 July 2571

The Mass had more of an effect on Cortin than she had expected it
to--more than it ever had, even when she was in a mood for religion.
For some reason it seemed more meaningful, more immediate, than it had
before.  Maybe it was the pain that made her empathize with the
tortured image on the cross, maybe it was something else, she didn't
know.  All she was sure of was that for the first time, it felt like
the "collective sacrifice" it was supposed to be, and when she went
forward for Communion reciting the "Domine, non sum dignus," she found
herself hoping the Host would actually heal the hurt in her soul.

It didn't, but when she returned to her pew she did feel less
despondent, and when the service was over, she found to her surprise
that she intended to return the next morning.  As they walked to the
Officers' Club for breakfast, she turned to Odeon with an unforced
smile.  "Thanks for getting me there, Mike.  Mind if I go with you
again tomorrow?"

"Be glad to have you.  It helped, then?"

"Yes.  I don't know how, but it did."

"Good!"  Odeon grinned down at her.  "I thought it had, from your
expression.  Just remember, He doesn't allow any of us to be tried
beyond our endurance--even though He may come right to the brink of it."

"I will."  She started to ask him a question, but they were almost at
the Club; she waited until they had gotten their food and started to
eat, then she said, "You told me once you wanted to become a priest.
Why didn't you?"

"Because my primary calling was to law enforcement instead."  He
shrugged.  There were priests in Enforcement, true--even a few
bishops--but not in the operational sections, which was where his
calling lay.  "I've never understood why the two couldn't still be
combined--the prewars sometimes had fighting priests and bishops--but
since I had to make the choice, I decided I'd rather be a good law
officer than a mediocre priest."

Cortin nodded.  "That makes sense, though I'd bet a month's pay you'd
be an outstanding priest, not a mediocre one.  As well as a great law
officer--have you ever thought of applying for an exception?"

"Quite a few times," Odeon admitted.  "I think the reason I never did
was that I was afraid I'd get my hopes up, then be turned down."

"I can understand that," Cortin said, remembering.  "I think you
should, though.  Maybe if you point out that Enforcement troops,
especially Special Ops, go places regular priests don't get to in
years, it would help.  His Holiness does seem to be willing to accept
that sort of innovation."

"Maybe I should, at that," Odeon agreed.  There were always articles in
the various parish papers bemoaning the lack of vocations, especially
to serve remote areas . . .  "In fact, maybe I should ask for a general
exception.  I'm not the only one who'd like to do something more
positive than just administer Last Rites."

"It's worth a try," Cortin said.  She speared a piece of ham-and-cheese
omelet, ate it, then said, "I can understand how you feel.  It may
sound odd for an Enforcement officer, but I'd love holding a baby for
baptism--they're fun to cuddle."

"Cuddle a baby?" a voice said from behind her.  "I hope that does not
mean you want to discontinue your training; I should deeply regret the
loss of such a promising student."

"Not at all, Major!"  Cortin turned, gesturing to another chair at
their table.  "You must've missed some of the conversation.  Would you
care to join us?"

"With pleasure," Illyanov said, putting his tray down and seating
himself.  "I am personally glad to hear you intend to continue; it
takes no more than fertility to bear children, and anyone with moderate
interest can become a fairly competent Inquisitor--but it takes both
talent and motivation to do truly well in our field."  He smiled at
her.  "Which I am convinced you will.  It is good to see you out of the
hospital."

"It's good to be out!" Cortin said emphatically.  "I'm still
technically in hospital status, and Doctor Egan has made it clear she'd
put me back in bed if I do anything too strenuous--but it's great being
out of there and back in uniform!"

"I am fully familiar with the feeling," Illyanov agreed.  "There are
few things worse than enforced idleness, especially in such
surroundings."  He raised a hand, smiling at her.  "Not that I call
your studying idleness, not at all--I am, in fact, impressed by your
industry--but from your Academy and other records, I am sure you are
impatient to begin practical application of your theoretical work."

"I certainly am."  She wasn't all that eager to practice the first two
stages, though, especially in the beginning when they were on Academy
cadets, with the additional purpose of training them to resist
interrogation.  Her interest was in third-stage, with Brothers of
Freedom as her subjects--but she supposed it was all necessary, to
achieve her real end.  "How soon can we start?"

"Such eagerness!" Illyanov laughed.  "Nor are you the only one; I have
been relieved of my classes and given orders to expedite your training,
once you were out of the hospital.  We are, if you choose, to
concentrate on Stage Three--and the one who gave me those orders said
it was highly likely you would so choose."

"He was right."  Cortin thought back to the debriefing and that
mysterious Lieutenant, certain he was somehow involved--but that the
classified assignment probably was too, so it would be wiser not to ask
about either his identity or his involvement.  She'd thank him for it
later, if she could do so without breaking security.  For now, she
smiled at Illyanov.  "So, when do we start?"

"I do love an enthusiastic student . . . shortly after we finish here,
if you are that impatient.  Any Brothers of Freedom captured in this
area--except, for now, those probably having critical or time-sensitive
information--will either be sent here or held where they were captured
until you decide whether to question them yourself or turn them over to
another Inquisitor." He gave her a raised-eyebrow smile.  "I confess to
being astonished at that, Captain.  I have heard of prisoners being
reserved for a particularly skilled Inquisitor, yes, but never for a
student.  Even one as promising as yourself."

Odeon whistled.  "Neither have I, and I'd thought I'd heard just about
everything."  He'd known for a long time that Joan Cortin was something
special, but Illyanov was right--this was unprecedented.  "Joanie, any
ideas?"

"Not exactly, though I can't help connecting this with the Inquisitor
on the team that debriefed me.  I'm positive he's more than a simple
Lieutenant, and--" she chuckled ruefully, "from what I've learned
since, I'm sure he picked up more from me than I told him verbally.  Or
wanted to tell him, for that matter."

"And what did this more-than-Lieutenant look like?" Illyanov asked,
suddenly attentive.

"A bit over 180 centis, slender build, medium-brown hair receding
slightly above the temples, green eyes, classical features that looked
like he laughs a lot--"  She broke off, seeing recognition in the
others' faces.  "You've both met him, then."

They nodded.  "The . . . officer I spoke to at Personnel," Odeon said.

"Colonel David Bradford," Illyanov said with a slow smile, "of His
Majesty's Own.  Yes, that explains many of the rumors currently
circulating."

After a few moments, Odeon asked, "Are you going to share that
explanation?"

"Indeed, but not here.  Captain Cortin and I must go to the Detention
Center so she may choose her first subject.  I will share my deduction
on the way, if you care to join us."

"Try to keep me away!"

      *      *      *      *      *

As soon as they were on the way to Detention, Cortin turned to her
instructor.  "All right--now why would someone like Colonel Bradford be
taking such an interest in me?"

"Bear in mind that this is speculation based on rumor," Illyanov
cautioned.  "However, I have considerable experience putting together
small pieces of information to form an accurate whole; I am confident
of my evaluations."

"They've got to be better than the nothing I have now," Cortin said.
"Go on, please."

"Very well.  This first item I rate as virtual certainty."  He paused.
"The Monarchs' Council in New Rome this past December did remarkably
little of significance, to outward seeming.  Not true?"

"Very true," Cortin said.  "I'd expected a lot more, after the Kunming
raid."

"Most people did--and from observations I have made since, the
expectations were accurate; the reality has simply not been revealed
yet.  I am convinced that Their Majesties, either at His Holiness'
urging or with his full consent, are in the process of forming an
inter-System--or perhaps all-System, the effect is the
same--anti-Brotherhood elite."

"It's about time!" Odeon exclaimed.

"I agree.  Especially since it appears the members of that force will
be people who have little reason to be overly fond of the Brotherhood.
All but one of the people I believe to be selectees or potential
selectees are Special Operations personnel, and all have suffered some
personal harm from the Brothers."  He glanced at Joan, smiling.  "From
his interest in you, Captain, I think it highly likely that you are not
in full uniform.  You certainly have most of the other qualifications I
have deduced: a personal grievance that would motivate you to accept
extremely hazardous anti-Brotherhood missions, a clean service record,
excellent to outstanding combat skills, regular attendance at church
when possible--all except a specialty, which you are getting now.  I
would say that as soon as you receive your Warrant, you will be
approached about joining that unit."

"It fits," Odeon said softly.  "So well that's got to be it.  But why
did you say it might be at His Holiness' urging?"

"You do not remember the Kunming raid Captain Cortin referred to?"

"When it happened," Odeon said drily, "I was snowbound in the Northwest
Territory, alone in a shelter halfway between Holy Cross and Laredo
Junction.  By the time I got out almost a month later, there wasn't
much talk about it any longer--I don't remember hearing any details."

"It was quite similar to the raid in which Captain Cortin was attacked.
The church was full of schoolchildren and their teachers; there were no
survivors."

Odeon crossed himself, feeling sick.  Schoolchildren in church, staff
and patients in a convalescent hospital--  "What next?"

"Only the Brothers know," Illyanov said grimly.  "But I would be
extremely surprised if they plan to attack anyone who can defend
themselves.  Nor do they seem amenable to persuasion, which leaves no
alternative: they must be eliminated."

"Now that I could enjoy," Cortin said consideringly.  "I could enjoy it
a lot."

"I am sure you will have the opportunity," Illyanov said.  "Perhaps
Captain Odeon will as well, if he is a specialist and has adequate
personal grievance."

"I do.  I'm a specialist, yes, a Tracker.  The grievance I'd rather not
talk about, except to say it gives me a good reason to go after
Brothers.  Any idea when this group will go public?  Because I plan to
apply for it as soon as I can."

Illyanov shrugged.  It wasn't hard for an experienced Inquisitor to
read Odeon's expression, and from that deduce his grievance; the
question was whether Colonel Bradford would consider it sufficient.
"The timing I can only guess at, Captain.  I have heard no rumors on
that subject."

"Living in the capital, though, you'd have a feel for it; what's your
best guess?"

"Until recently, I would have said the next time the Brothers made a
particularly abhorrent raid, but that would have been the hospital one.
I still believe it will be tied to such a raid, though it now appears
there is at least one additional criterion.  The most likely is that
the unit does not yet have sufficient personnel, but it could be any
number of other possibilites; I simply do not know."

Odeon nodded.  "Makes sense--but that could be months, at their current
rate.  If I see him before that, I'll try to apply then."

"There is one other item of interest," Illyanov said as they drove into
the Detention Center compound and toward the gray, windowless main
building.  "That is that many of the new unit's members supposedly
either have been or will be given full Holy Orders.  I find this
plausible, since such a force will of necessity spend much time in
remote areas where priests are extremely rare." He paused, then said
thoughtfully, "I think that a wise decision, if only for reasons of
morale.  A civilian priest would find it difficult if not impossible to
survive under such conditions, yet people in mortal danger should not
be deprived of the sacraments for prolonged periods; I know that I, for
one, would not care to be placed in such a situation."

"Neither would I," Cortin said, then she turned to smile at Odeon.  "It
looks like you won't have to apply for a special exemption after all,
Mike--just get into this new unit, and let them know you're interested
in the priesthood."

"I plan to do exactly that," Odeon said.  "In fact, unless you need me
to help in the interrogation, I don't think I'll wait until I happen
into him; I'll see if I can get hold of the good Colonel and put my bid
in.  Initiative never hurts, and he can't very well say much if I tell
him I'm applying based on extrapolations from rumor."

Cortin glanced at Illyanov, who shook his head.  "No, it doesn't look
like we'll need you.  Go for it, Mike--and put in my application while
you're at it; I don't want to take any chances on getting overlooked.
I should have enough practical experience to qualify as a specialist by
the time the group is activated, especially if the Brothers maintain a
several-month interval between horror raids."

"I'll do that."  Odeon turned to Illyanov.  "Is there a phone in there
I could use for an hour or so?"

"Yes, in the Inquisitors' lounge.  I will have you admitted there as my
guest."

"Thanks."

When they got inside the building, Illyanov showed Odeon the lounge and
introduced him to the three Inquisitors it held, then he and Cortin
went to the Records Section.  The clerk there was a young private, who
looked to Cortin as though he might possibly be a full week out of boot
camp; he was certainly still new enough to the job that he showed
apprehension at the sight of an Inquisitor's badge.  "Yes, Major?" he
asked.

"I wish to see the records of all prisoners being held for third-stage
interrogation."

"I'm sorry, sir," the young private said, obviously nervous.  "As of
the first of the week, all those not currently undergoing questioning
are being saved for Inquisitor-Captain Cortin's evaluation."

Inquisitor-Captain, Illyanov noted, not Inquisitor-Trainee.  Yes,
things were being accelerated for her, indeed.  But if Colonel Bradford
thought it best that she be treated as fully qualified by Detention
Center staffs, there had to be a reason; he would go along.  "Captain
Cortin and I are currently acting as partners," he said.  "However, you
must keep your records in order, must you not?"  He turned to Cortin.
"If you would identify yourself for this young man, Captain, we can
proceed."

"Of course, Major."  Cortin dug out her ID, the first time she'd used
it since before going into the convalescent hospital, and had to hide
her surprise as she showed it to the clerk.  Besides the standard
Enforcement Service card, the little folder held an Inquisitor's badge!
Keeping her voice level, she said, "Now, may we see those records?"

"Yes, Captain--it'll only take me a moment."  While he went to the
files for them, Cortin gave Illyanov a curious look, got only a slight
shrug in return, and took a closer look at her ID.  It was the one
she'd had since making captain, yes--there was where the pen had
spluttered while she was signing it--but it had been altered.  Very
skillfully altered, by someone who knew precisely what he was doing,
and according to it, Illyanov was right; she wasn't in full uniform.
Or . . . was she?  Surely she would have noticed an SO patch on her
sleeve!  She snuck a quick glance, and was relieved to see nothing
there.  At least it didn't look like she was going either blind or
insane!

"Here you are, Captain," the clerk said, handing her a small stack of
folders.  "If you want to go through them here, you can use that desk
by the west door."

"Thank you."  Cortin took them, going to the desk and seating herself,
then opening the first one--but her mind was on the additions to her
ID.  She took out the folder again, staring at the badge and the
Special Operations stamp.  "What's going on?" she asked Illyanov in a
low voice.  "Why do I get a badge while I'm still in training, and why
sneak it all in on me like this?"

Illyanov thought for several moments, frowning.  At last, keeping his
voice as low as hers had been, he said, "Unless you wish to attribute
it to Colonel Bradford's well-known and decidely peculiar sense of
humor, which I consider likely, I do not know.  The speed can perhaps
be explained if he has information not generally available about an
upcoming raid, though I would have expected that as your instructor I
would have been informed when you were granted a Warrant--out of
courtesy, if nothing else--but I can think of no logical reason for him
not to inform you."

"Neither can I, so I guess you're right about it being his sense of
humor."  Cortin put the ID away and began studying the prisoner
records.  They seemed to be arranged in reverse order of capture, which
made sense; the ones deemed to have critical information had already
been removed, so the ones on top would be the ones who had been here
longest, already softened up by the first stages of interrogation.

When she opened the last folder, she bit back a curse, then, at
Illyanov's startled glance, said, "I think I just found out why the
badge." She turned the folder so he could read it easily.  The subject
was a deserter, who had compounded his crime by joining the
Brotherhood, but was so new to it that he was believed to have no
significant information.  "Bradford's making sure I don't do what this
plaguer did.  I told you he was reading more than I wanted to tell
him--he had to know I'd never join the Brotherhood, but he also had to
know I'd go after them, either legally or as a rogue.  And that I'd
much rather do it legally."

Illyanov nodded.  "I read the same things, of course.  I did not,
however, realize that his desire to keep you in Enforcement was great
enough he would have all practical training waived--even for one who
had made perfect scores in all the theoretical material."

"You didn't tell me that!"

"I did not wish to make you over-confident.  That, however, is no
longer a consideration; if you are to function independently, with
little or no notice and limited practical experience, you should be as
certain as possible of your ability to do so."  He smiled.  "As I did
tell you, you were most promising.  Motivation and hard work have let
you live up to that promise so far; I see no reason to doubt that you
will continue to do so.  But now, Inquisitor-Captain Cortin, you have
an interrogation to conduct."  He gestured at the folders.  "Logic will
tell you to choose one who has been through preliminary questioning,
and your emotions will tell you to choose the rogue-turned-Brother.
However, you have been an Enforcement officer long enough to have
learned to trust certain feelings; do any of them indicate which of
these will give you the most useful information?"

Cortin moved her hands across the folders as if she could get her
information that way, wishing she really could.  She had learned to
trust her hunches--they had kept her alive more than once--but she was
less certain of them in these circumstances.  Finally, she picked two
she thought ought to have more information than their records
suggested: a thief suspected of exercising his skills for the
Brotherhood and, though she admitted to herself it might be as much
because of his betrayal of the Service as for any information, the
rogue trooper.  The thief had been through the preliminary stages; the
rogue hadn't, formally, but the Special Ops men who had captured him
had--justifiably, she thought--taken out some of their anger on him, so
he'd been through a crude form of second stage as well.

"These two, I think," she said, handing Illyanov the folders.  "The
thief first; procedures on the renegade weren't exactly by the book, so
I'd like to have a little experience before I start on him."

Illyanov nodded, gathering up the remaining folders.  Cortin followed
him back to the counter, glad that since he was the ranking officer,
he'd be the one to give the orders; she didn't yet know what orders to
give!

"Yes, sir?" the clerk asked.

"Have prisoner 829-A taken to Interrogation Suite Delta's third-stage
room.  Standard restraints, no special requirements."

"Yes, sir."  The clerk relayed Illyanov's orders through an intercom,
got an acknowledgement.  "He will be waiting when you get there, sir.
Ma'am."

"Thank you.  Shall we go, Captain?"

On the way to the interrogation suite, Cortin removed her gloves and
tucked them in the back of her belt, then rubbed the scars on the backs
of her hands.  In a few minutes she'd start getting the first
installment of her revenge for those, and the other hurts they stood
for--and it felt good.  Illyanov read her gestures and smiled.  Most
trainees were nervous about their first practical work, especially
their first third-stage work.  It was understandable enough--he could
remember his own apprehension--but it was those who went into it with
anticipation, as Cortin was doing, who generally became the outstanding
practitioners, those whose very names could be enough to persuade
criminals to avoid their attentions by a full confession.  It was a
shame that if his speculations were accurate, she would be in the field
much of the time, where she was likely to be killed, rather than at a
Detention Center where she would be safe and her skills could be put to
their best use.  However, he chided himself, it would be better having
her working within the law, anywhere, than it would be to have her
outside it, not only useless but being hunted!

When they got to the suite and exchanged tunics for the coveralls that
would protect their undershirts and trousers, Illyanov gave her a final
caution.  "Do not let your enthusiasm make you careless, Captain.  Even
a field interrogation requires both caution and precision."

"I'll be careful," Cortin assured him.  "You've told me often enough
that the line between persuasive pain and unconsciousness is a very
fine one, and I don't intend to let him cross it."

"Very good."  Illyanov smiled at her.  "I will intervene only if you
ask, or if you appear about to do something unfortunate.  Shall we go?"



4. Ordination

St. Thomas, Tuesday, 23 July 2571

About mid-afternoon, Shannon was leaning back in his desk chair,
planning the March raid that would supposedly mark the beginning of the
Brotherhood's real push against the Kingdoms, when he sensed a use of
power that had to be Cortin.  It was weak, barely detectable, but
undeniably there, and he swore viciously.  Even the slightest
deliberate use she made of her power might lead to more . . . did he
dare check to see if it was deliberate?

That should be safe enough, he decided at last.  It was far more
difficult to detect a passive use such as observing than an active one
such as coercion or physical alteration, and Cortin's use was weak
enough it might well be unconscious.

Despite his decision that the risk was low, he was cautious in
extending his sensitivity toward her.  When he made contact, though, he
felt a sense of relief.  Her use was unconscious, which meant there was
no immediate danger.

He could have retreated then, but he was too intrigued; she was getting
her first practical experience as an Inquisitor, and he couldn't resist
the temptation to watch.

The subject was one of the Brotherhood's suppliers.  Too cowardly to
actually join the Brotherhood, but a skillful thief who could generally
get what the Brothers wanted, and sold it to them at about half what
he'd charge anyone else.  It was a shame to lose him, but worth it to
watch Cortin work on her first victim, whether she turned out to be the
incomparable expert he expected if she had the nerve, or the total
incompetent he expected if she didn't.

"Are you a Brother of Freedom?" she asked the prisoner.

"No."

Cortin nodded.  "Then have you worked for them?"

"Not that, either."

"In that case, we can proceed.  I don't suppose you'd care to answer my
questions without unpleasantness?"

"I don't have anything to tell you."

"The choice is yours."  Cortin picked up a scalpel, pausing at the
expression on Illyanov's face.  "Is something wrong, Major?"

"That is not the standard way of beginning an interrogation."

"It will be, for me," Cortin said.  "I'll do whatever is needed to stop
criminals, but I have no intention of hurting innocents."

"He denied everything."

"But he only told the truth the first time.  He's worked for the
Brothers, even though he isn't one himself, and he has some significant
information."

"You never told me you had truthsense," Illyanov said quietly.  "That
is a most useful talent."

"The subject never came up--but I can't be lied to, never could even as
a child.  If a question has a yes-or-no answer, it doesn't matter if he
tells the truth or not.  I'll know."

"As I said, a most useful talent.  Not every Inquisitor can tell truth
from lies intended only to stop the pain, and most of us who do have
that ability have developed it through long experience."  He smiled at
her in a way Shannon sensed was intended to express only approval, but
hid a degree of affection the Raidmaster found both disgusting and
amusing.  "Go on, then."

Shannon watched critically as she began work.  This would be a short
interrogation--despite his bravado, the thief was a coward, and already
terrified of the two Inquisitors--but it would tell him whether or not
Cortin would make the grade.

The first few minutes left him with no doubt that she would.  Oh, she
had some problems--the determination not to hurt innocents, as if there
were any such thing, was one.  Another was giving her prisoner the
chance to answer without persuasion, then not wanting to use any more
than she had to, though neither surprised him particularly; she had
always been overly scrupulous.  Which was probably why her primary
motive was to extract information rather than to enjoy herself.

It was ironic that she was enjoying herself, and thoroughly, even
though it wasn't the same kind of pleasure he experienced in giving
pain.  For her, the only real passion involved here was for justice;
criminals caused pain, so it was just to inflict it on them, either as
punishment or in the interest of preventing further crime.  It was
simply more immediate this way than it had been in the past--and it
gave her victims the unfortunate opportunity to repent.  Even though
right now Cortin was concerned with punishment rather than repentance.

      *      *      *      *      *

Cortin removed the blood-spattered coverall, then went into the suite's
small bathroom to wash her hands, feeling dissatisfied.  She couldn't
quite identify why, though; she had eventually persuaded the thief that
she could tell when he was lying to her, and he had finally told them
of his contacts within the Brotherhood, giving enough details that
those two would be taken into custody next time they appeared in
public.  Neither theft nor contact with the Brotherhood were capital
crimes, so once she'd made sure he knew nothing of Shannon or the
horror raids, she'd called the guards and had him taken away for
sentencing.

Major Illyanov had said she'd done well, she reminded herself as she
put her tunic back on.  So why should she feel otherwise?  The answer,
of course, was that she shouldn't--but the fact remained that she did.
Well, she'd be trying again after lunch, on that trooper who'd gone
rogue; maybe she'd do better with him.

Shortly afterward, she and Illyanov entered the Inquisitors' lounge.
The only one there was Mike Odeon, slouched in an armchair with his
feet up on a hassock and what she could only call a positively smug
look on his face.  It took no effort at all to realize that his phoning
had been successful; she grinned, her mood lightening.  "Is it still
Captain," she asked, "or do I call you 'Father' now?"

"Depends on the circumstances," Odeon said, returning her grin lazily.
"Until after the next horror raid, anyway."  He stood, turning to
Illyanov with a more sober expression.  "Which you're not to talk about
even as a rumor, sir.  Colonel Bradford asked me whose deductions I was
going by--I suppose he knows my records well enough to be sure they
weren't mine--and I'm to tell you the whole thing is rated an
all-Systems secret, until King Mark says otherwise."

"Understood--and I will of course comply."  Illyanov bowed slightly.
"But since I did deduce this much, will you be able to tell me how
correct I was?"

"Now that I can do, along with a bit more," Odeon said, grinning again.
"And our lunch is courtesy of Inquisitor-Colonel Bradford--it should be
here any time.  If you don't mind, I'd just as soon wait till then to
go any further."

"As you wish."

Odeon's prediction was correct; their lunch arrived less than half a
minute later, and not long afterward, they were eating a meal that
might have come from the Royal Palace itself.

All three spent some time in silent enjoyment, then Cortin couldn't
hold her curiosity any more.  "How did you do it, Mike?"

"No problem, Joanie--none at all."  Odeon smiled at her.  "I have the
feeling he expected my call, though I don't know how he could've.  At
any rate, I asked about both of us applying, and made what I think was
a rather eloquent argument on our behalves.  He listened to me, even
though I have a sneaky feeling he knew everything I was going to
say--then he said we were in, and called me to the Palace for
ordination.  Our new Commanding Officer is also Bishop of the St.
Thomas Strike Force, it seems."  He grinned.  "If you still want to go
to Mass tomorrow, I'd like you to come to my first one.  Even if it
will have to be private."

"I'd be honored," Cortin said.  "What about my application?"

Odeon laughed.  "Looked at your ID lately, Inquisitor-Captain?" Then he
sobered, quickly.  "No, I'm sorry--you're in, Joanie.  Probably as a
team leader, if you get anything useful out of your first subjects--as
team-second, at worst.  And we'll be on the same team, whoever's CO."
He frowned.  "But--Joanie, His Holiness has decreed that all Strike
Force Inquisitors be priests, since it's conceivable even a Brother
might repent at the last minute and need the sacraments.  But you never
said anything about having that call."

"Because you just told me about it," Cortin said.  "It's pretty obvious
my primary call is to being a Strike Force Inquisitor; if part of that
is taking Holy Orders, I'll do it.  And I'll do my best to be a good
priest." With a lot of prayers that she never be called on to
administer to a Brother that way . . .  "Do I need to be ordained right
away, or can I take care of this afternoon's subject first?"

"I get the impression he wants us to be ready to go any time, so I'd
say you should get in touch with him sometime today.  How long do you
think this subject'll take you?"

Cortin shrugged.  "No real idea, though I don't think he'll be easy."

"I believe you should count on a minimum of several hours," Illyanov
said.  "Probably no less than a day, perhaps a bit more.  He was an
Enforcement trooper, after all, and was trained to resist
interrogation."

"You've got one of those?"  Odeon smiled, wolfishly.  "My urge is to
tell you to take care of him before you do anything else, but Strike
Force business has to come before even that.  So I'd recommend you see
Colonel Bradford first."

"That's not necessary."

Cortin recognized the "Lieutenant's" voice and and started to rise, but
was stopped by his next words.  "As you were, gentles--and thank you,
Major, for not giving me away."  He pulled up a chair and joined them.

"Pleased to be of help, sir."  Illyanov managed a seated bow.  "I
presume you are not here by chance?"

"Not at all, Major."  Bradford smiled, the expression making him look
years younger.  "My interest in Captain Cortin led me to be sure I was
informed of her choice of subject, and I wanted to review the films
when she was done."  He turned to Cortin, still smiling.  "I hadn't
expected you to choose two, especially not the first time, and
especially not ones with so little promise.  I've got to compliment you
on how well you did with the first one."

Cortin shook her head.  "With all respect, sir, I don't think I did
that well.  I just hope I can do better with the rogue."

"Maybe you can, at that," Bradford said.  "As Major Illyanov said, not
every Inquisitor can tell truth from lies intended only to stop the
pain, and not many of those learn it the first time with a subject; if
you can do that already, there's no telling what you'll be able to do
with a little experience."

"As I told him, it's something I've had since childhood.  I can't claim
any special credit."

Bradford chuckled.  "You don't have to, as long as it works," he said
drily.  "It's still a good sign, as is the fact that you enjoy our work
from the start.  There are those who never do, and they're naturally
free to find something else--but I'd imagine you're anxious to get to
work again."

"Yes, sir, I am."

"Good."  Bradford stood.  "In that case, shall we go to the chapel for
your Ordination?  I'm afraid the secrecy we're under for the time being
means it can't be as elaborate as a civilian ordination, but you can be
assured it will be effective."

"I don't doubt it, sir."  It didn't seem quite proper to have
Ordination without public acknowledgement, but Mike's must have been
that way too, and since it obviously didn't bother him, she couldn't
let it upset her.  "I'm at your disposal."

The brief ceremony over, Bradford returned to the Palace while Cortin,
Odeon and Illyanov made their way to the suite where her prisoner
waited.  It might have been a brief, basic ceremony, Cortin thought,
but it was one she would remember for the rest of her life, from the
unprecedented sight of an armed Bishop in Enforcement uniform and stole
to the anointing of her hands.  She rubbed the oil that was still on
them.  It was hard to believe she was really a priest now, far harder
than it had been to believe she was an Inquisitor when she saw the
badge in her ID folder--but of course she'd had some preparation for
that, where half an hour ago it had never occurred to her that she'd be
a priest.  As she'd told Mike, though, if she had to be a priest to be
a Strike Force team's Inquisitor, so be it.  What surprised her was
Bradford's acceptance of her necessity; the only explanation she could
think of was that the Strike Force needed Priest-Inquisitors badly
enough they'd ordain anyone who claimed both vocations.  That was
unsettling in its own way, but since it served her purpose, she wasn't
inclined to argue.

The three entered the suite and went through the routine of getting
into coveralls.  Odeon wasn't sure why he was there, except that Joanie
hadn't asked him to leave and he'd never seen a third-stage
interrogation--though he'd both seen and helped in several second-stage
ones.  He said as much, then continued, "So if you need me to do
anything, you'll have to tell me."

"I will," Cortin promised.  "I didn't send you away because it didn't
occur to me, but I'm certain to need help in the field from time to
time, and there's no one I'd rather have backing me.  So if you're
willing, you should get used to both third-stage and my methods."

"I'm willing--especially," he opened the door to the third-stage room
where the prisoner was shackled, waiting, "when the subject's someone
like this plaguer.  Renegades and Brothers deserve anything an
Inquisitor does to them."

"Keep thinkin' that, cull," the prisoner sneered.  "You ain't worth the
effort it'd take to spit on you.  You or that other bastard, or the
Bitch."

Cortin looked him over, cooly.  He was naked, spreadeagled between
chains in the ceiling and eyebolts in the floor, and must know he was
completely at the Inquisitor's mercy--but he probably didn't know she
was the Inquisitor.  With all three of them in coveralls, he had no way
of knowing who was who, just that he was faced with two men and a woman.

The Special Ops men who had beaten him had done a fairly professional
job, she decided.  Not enough to eliminate his defiance, but enough to
give her quite a number of tender areas to exploit in addition to the
natural ones.  She smiled, approaching him and showing him the backs of
her hands.  "I'm the one you call the Enforcement bitch, rogue.  I
survived the Brothers' torture, unfortunately for you and the rest of
them.  Because I intend to return the favor without the mistake, and
you will tell me how to find the specific ones who damaged me."

"I'm not tellin' you a damn thing, Bitch!"

"Wrong, and you know it," Cortin said calmly, beginning the examination
that would tell her where his flesh was most sensitive and thus most
vulnerable to her persuasion.  "You will perhaps tell me less than I
wish, but you will tell me as much as you can."

He jerked away as she probed a dark bruise over his ribs.  "Like hell I
will!"

"We shall see."  Cortin hid a smile, a bit surprised at herself.  She'd
noticed a little of it last time, but it seemed to be getting stronger:
when she conducted an interrogation, she adopted Illyanov's speech
patterns--perhaps as a reaction to the prisoner's crudity, perhaps as a
tribute to her teacher, she didn't know, and it didn't really seem to
matter.  "I think that before too long you will be most curious as to
the information I want, and you will be increasingly eager to give it
to me.  When you do, I will release you."

She was pleased to see the prisoner starting to look apprehensive.  He
still had his defiance, though.  "You damn servants of corruption never
let anyone go!  So why should I believe you'll start with me?"

"I did not mean that kind of release, as you should know, having been a
trooper yourself.  I meant only that I will release you from your
pain."  She explored further, identifying areas of promise from his
sounds and flinching.  It was a temptation to relieve him of his
genitals, she thought as she reached them, but that would be
short-sighted; from her own torture, as well as her studies, she knew
them to be capable of some of the body's most exquisite pain.  No, she
would leave them where they could be of the most use--right where they
were.


For Shannon's reaction:  Reaction


Odeon watched in revolted fascination as his Joanie stripped skin, with
precise delicacy, from the screaming renegade's hands.  He'd expected
her to go after the plaguer's manhood in retaliation for what had been
done to her, but--except for a couple of times he'd been lying so
obviously it was an insult--she had left that alone.

When she finished her subject's hands, Cortin stepped back to study
him.  She had discovered quickly that his personal horrors included
being skinned alive, so that had become her primary tactic against him.
It was slow--enjoyably so, for her--and it was working very nicely
indeed.  "Have you decided to cooperate yet?"

"Damn you, Bitch!"  The renegade tried to spit at her, without success.
"Do your damndest--you won't get nothin' from me!"

Cortin smiled.  He was still defiant, true, but Illyanov agreed with
her assessment that he was the type who would remain defiant until he
broke abruptly, and the same sense that told her when he was lying now
told her he was close to that abrupt break.  Give him the proper
physical and psychological stimuli, and he should go from defiance to
surrender in seconds.

She had already planned what to do, a continuation of her primary
tactic--but a little bit of insurance wouldn't hurt.  She turned to the
other two.  "Would either of you gentlemen care to avail yourselves of
our guest while he still has enough spirit to be interesting?  I fear I
am being greedy, keeping him to myself."

Illyanov smiled, bowing to her.  She hadn't been avoiding an extremely
useful technique, as he had been half afraid she was, because it had
been done to her; she had merely postponed it until the optimum time.
"It is generous of you to share, Inquisitor.  It has been some time
since I have had the opportunity to indulge myself in another's
subject.  I will not interrupt your work?"

Both ignored the renegade's protests and insults as Cortin returned the
bow.  "Not at all--your enjoyment of him should make the removal of his
genital skin even more effective."  And enjoyable . . .  "Particularly
if you can make him move enough that it is he who pulls himself free of
it."

"That should pose no particular difficulty."

If it hadn't been his Joanie doing the work, his Joanie who might need
his help, Odeon would have taken advantage of his non-Inquisitor status
to leave.  He'd taken part in some second-stage interrogations, on
occasion enjoyed them if the recipient had done something particularly
revolting--but even the most methodical of those beatings seemed more
human, cleaner, than the cool, meticulous infliction of pain both
Inquisitors so obviously enjoyed.  At first he'd thought Joanie's
enjoyment a pretense intended to make her subject's torment harder to
endure, but he couldn't convince himself of that any longer.  Joanie
was enjoying her subject's anguish, taking a delight in his screams and
writhings that Odeon found sickening.  But it was Joanie; after what
had been done to her, surely she had a right to whatever pleasures she
could find . . .

Cortin was beginning to think she'd miscalculated her subject's
resistance when screams of defiance turned abruptly, as anticipated,
into hopeless whimpering sobs mixed with pleas for mercy.  She looked
past him to Illyanov, who nodded; while he finished, she went to the
instrument table and picked up a slender, razor-sharp dagger.

"Here is the end to your pain," she said softly, laying it against the
raw flesh of the rogue's throat.  "As soon as you answer my questions,
I will give you your release.  You have learned that you cannot lie to
me; try it again, and you will find what has happened so far only the
beginning.  Do you understand?"

"Yes . . . Oh, God, no more!"

"That is up to you, not Him; you gave up any claim on His Mercy when
you pledged allegiance to His enemies."  Though, an inner voice said,
he could still repent . . .  "Tell me about Lawrence Shannon.  Who he
is, where he is, what his plans are."

"I don't know all that . . . please, I don't!"

He was telling the truth, unfortunately.  "Very well.  Tell me what you
do know, then."

"I'm . . . not sure.  No!  Honest--he's the Raidmaster, everyone knows
that--plans all the new-style raids--but nobody knows him.  A Lawrence
Shannon even leads all those raids, but not the same one, maybe not the
one who plans 'em.  An' that's all I know about 'im, honest!"

"I believe you," Cortin said.  It was too bad he knew so little, and
that so inconclusive, but she had no doubt that he was telling her all
he did know, as she'd asked.  "Have you heard anything else?  It need
not be certain--a rumor of his plans, perhaps."

"No . . . no, wait . . . maybe.  I overheard something . . . a hospice
. . . or could be a retirement home, or some sort of hospital.  Old
folks, or sick ones, anyway.  That's all."

"All on that subject, or all on any?"

"All on any . . . please?"

"You have earned it."  Cortin drove the knife up under his ear; he
gasped, shuddered once, and died.

Cortin looked at him for a moment, then smiled.  "Compared to your
present master, my friend, I was easy on you.  May you suffer under him
for eternity."

Odeon tasted bile, knew suddenly he was going to be sick.  "Joanie--"

She turned, saw his pale face, and hurried to him.  "Can you make it to
the washroom?"

"I don't think--"

"No, he cannot," Illyanov interrupted, coming over and holding a
wastebasket.

Odeon had time for a grateful look before his stomach completed its
rebellion.  He felt Joanie's hand stroking his head, heard both
Inquisitors telling him it was all right as they helped him into the
suite's outer room and got him seated.  When he was finished, Joanie
handed him a towel; he wiped his mouth and looked up at them.  "I'm
sorry."

"That is a normal reaction," Illyanov said calmly.  "There is no need
to apologize; you did better than could have been expected."

"You should've left if it bothered you," Cortin said.  "I'd like to
have you backing me, yes, but not if my work's going to upset you like
this."

"I'll get used to it," Odeon said stubbornly.  "I can't promise I'll
ever get to like it, but I will learn to handle it well enough to give
you any backup you need."

"You set yourself a difficult task," Illyanov said.  "I feel safe in
predicting you will not come to like it; observing you, I would say you
lack the quirk of mind required to take pleasure in another's pain.
With adequate motivation, time, and exposure, however, you may develop
enough tolerance to be able to assist."

"I'll settle for that."  Odeon's stomach churned again at the thought
of doing what Illyanov had, unsure whether he was pleased or not at the
Major's prognosis.  In a way, it'd be good to share Joanie's pleasure
even in that . . .  "What do I do, sit in on all her interrogations?"

"I would normally recommend that you begin with a less talented
Inquisitor," Illyanov said, "as that would be less unpleasant for you.
However, Captain Cortin is the one you will be teamed with, so perhaps
it would indeed be as well if you work with her from the beginning."

"Less talented?" Odeon asked, puzzled.  "That doesn't make sense."

"If you think for a moment," Illyanov said gently, "you will find it
makes very good sense.  One with less talent cannot judge tolerances as
well, is not as sensitive to an individual subject's particular dreads,
is more likely to believe lies told to please him and stop the
interrogation, and--although this is also true of Captain Cortin, until
she acquires experience to match her theoretical knowledge and raw
talent--apt to let the subject die before extracting all possible
information."

"Put that way, it does make sense," Odeon admitted.  "I've never
thought about Inquisitors very much--or the talents you have to have."

"Few people do," Illyanov said drily.  "Few people care to think much
about us, fewer still about how we obtain our results--even though they
have no objections to using those results.  We get few thanks and less
praise for what we do, so it is well that God grants us the mercy of
deriving our satisfaction from the work itself."

Odeon nodded.  That was something else he'd never thought about . . .
and again, it made sense.  "I understand, I think.  So I'll work with
her whenever she's doing an interrogation, then?"

"Yes.  When you feel able to assist, you will of course be covered by
her Warrant."  He looked at his watch, then grinned ruefully at Cortin.
"I thought we had been busy for some time, but I had not realized I had
lost track of time to this degree.  It is almost midnight--I think we
had best call it a day immediately, and pray Doctor Egan does not find
out how late I kept you.  I am not feeling sucicidal enough to face her
if she feels I have been overworking you again."

"Neither am I!  Once was more than enough."  The chewing out Egan had
given tham when she'd caught them in a tutoring session after visiting
hours was one Cortin would remember with respect for some time.  "See
you at breakfast?"

"It would be my pleasure."

      *      *      *      *      *

Cortin slept soundly, and when she woke early it was in anticipation of
assisting at Mike's First Mass and then celebrating her own.  She found
herself looking forward to both of them more than she could remember
having done since her First Communion, after the way the previous day's
had made her feel.

Her anticipation suffered a setback, though, when she found a note from
Mike in her message box; he'd been asked to say his First Mass for some
newly-arrived Strike Force selectees, and he said she would have as
well if she hadn't still been on hospital status.  She didn't see how
saying Mass could be more strenuous than conducting
interrogations--though maybe Egan didn't know she'd done any--but she
couldn't object.



For Odeon's First Mass: Odeon's First Mass



She opened the field Mass kit she'd been issued and laid it out on the
bureau, kissed the stole and put it around her neck, then blessed
herself and began her First Mass.  She was surprised at how easily she
was able to speak the Latin; even though she'd heard it almost every
Sunday since she was old enough to remember, she'd never seriously
tried to use it.  She'd heard the Terrans had experimented with using
whatever the local language happened to be, but that seemed almost
sacrilegious; she couldn't imagine Mass without the solemnity and
beauty of Latin.

As she continued, offering her prayers and her pain to the figure on
the crucifix, the ceremony seemed to take on a life of its own, filling
her with a sense of rightness and peace.  At some point Illyanov's
voice joined hers, taking over the responses; she accepted it without
surprise.  Nor was she surprised, when the time came, to find several
men in Enforcement gray kneeling for Communion.

It wasn't until she finished the service that she realized they were
all Inquisitors, or wondered how they came to be in a room she was
positive she'd locked the night before.  When she asked, Illyanov
chuckled and held up a key.  "I did not think it fitting that you have
to celebrate your First Mass alone, so I spoke with Colonel Bradford
and received his permission to act as your server, as well as--since I
convinced him it would be impossible to keep secret the fact of Special
Operations priests, especially from Inquisitors when one of those
priests is also one of us, for more than a few days--to invite several
of our colleagues."  He introduced them, then said, "It is our pleasure
to invite you to breakfast at the Eagle's Nest.  That is one of the few
commercial establishments where Inquisitors in uniform are
welcome--probably because the proprietor was one of us before his
retirement--and has much better food than the dining hall.  Will you
join us?"

Odeon had loaned her a Special Operations patch until she could get to
the Uniform Sales store to buy some, and she was wearing her new
Inquisitor's badge, so she was in full uniform; she had no hesitation
in accepting.  Tucking her stole into a tunic pocket, she said, "I'd be
honored--just let me put my kit away."

      *      *      *      *      *

The Eagle's Nest proprietor, unlike the young private she'd met the
previous day, obviously followed Service news; he recognized her,
welcoming her with almost embarrassing effusiveness, asking how she
felt, congratulating her on becoming an Inquisitor and her success with
her first subjects, expressing delight and asking the Reverend Mother's
blessing when Illyanov told him she was a priest.

When they were seated, Cortin turned to Illyanov.  "Is he always like
that?"

"Only since he retired," Illyanov assured her.  "He misses our
professional discussions and fellowship, although I doubt he would wish
to give up this profession, either."  He grinned.  "It is, after all,
far more profitable than the Service."

Cortin chuckled.  "It would be, yes.  But he seems to keep in pretty
close touch--normal news channels wouldn't have anything on how I'd
handled my subjects."

"He prides himself on it, true--and since we find it useful from time
to time, we help him."

"Useful how?"

"You're a good example," a young First Lieutenant said.  "We all know
you're interested in that plaguer Shannon--those plaguers, I should
say--so we'll see to it you get anything about 'em we come across.
Can't do it through official channels, though--personal revenge isn't
frowned on, exactly, if it can be done in line of duty, but it isn't
exactly sanctioned, either.  So we'll give it to Francis, and he'll get
it to you.  You'll be expected to return the favor if you come across
anything that'll be of special interest to one of us, of course."

"Of course.  Just let me know your interests; I'll be glad to ask about
them."

"No problem; we'll leave notes in your message box."

Cortin chuckled.  "I hadn't expected this sort of mutual support when I
started my studies--but I'm glad to find it.  Would it be proper to ask
Mr. Robbins to join us?"

"Francis," Illyanov corrected her.  "Off duty and among ourselves, we
are less formal than others might think desirable.  To answer your
question, however: yes, it would be perfectly proper to ask him to join
us.  Christopher, would you mind?"

"Sure thing."  The young Lieutenant rose, grinning at Cortin.
"Everyone but Ivan calls me Chris, though, okay?"

"Okay, Chris."  As he left in search of the proprietor, Cortin turned
to Illyanov.  "Ivan--" it seemed strange calling him that--"thanks."
She looked around.  "Thank all of you, for joining me.  It means a lot."

"It means much to us, as well."  Illyanov touched her hand.  "You are
new to our field, Joan, but already you must begin to feel our
isolation.  An Inquisitor who is also a priest is most literally a gift
from God."

"I'm not the only one," she said, uncomfortable with his intensity.
"Colonel Bradford, uh . . ."  She hesitated, realizing that the Bishop
was the only other Priest-Inquisitor she knew of.

"His Excellency's other committments do not normally permit him to
exercise his priestly functions on an individual basis, not true?"

"True."  Most Bishops did have to be more concerned with administration
than with a chaplain's duties . . .  "Okay, I guess you're right.  What
can I do for you?"

"Hear our confessions, for one thing," a graying Captain said.  "I
messed up, oh--three or four months ago, but the chaplain we were
assigned doesn't understand Inquisitors--he couldn't figure out why it
bothers me."  He paused, looking miserable.  "Reverend Mother--please?"

Cortin looked around for a private place--she couldn't refuse such a
plea--but it was Robbins who said, "If you'd like to use my office,
Mother, I'd be honored."

"Thank you--where is it?"

"Through the curtains over there, second door on the right."

Cortin rose, feeling inadequate, but led the older officer--Captain
Gregory Watkins, if she remembered correctly from the group
introduction--through the curtains and into an office decorated with
Enforcement Service pictures, awards, and certificates.  She sat in the
desk chair, putting on her stole; when Watkins knelt beside her and
began his Confession, she understood why he would want a confessor who
could understand the feelings of guilt that, deservedly or not, went
with failure to get necessary information from a subject, then damaging
him so badly, in an effort to correct the first problem, that no one
else could get the information either.  She hadn't done that badly
yet--her clumsiness with her first subject had been due to
inexperience, not lack of judgement--but she was certain she'd do it
some day.  When she did, she too would want a confessor who understood
what she'd done, why it was wrong, and how to help her avoid it in the
future.

She gave him absolution, with a penance of memorizing the third chapter
of St. Jean Grillet's The Inquisitor's Call.  It seemed harsh to her,
but his expression said otherwise, and when he rose, he thanked her.

Breakfast was on the table when they got back, and she was hungry; as
soon as grace was said, she started on a stack of hotcakes and honey.
Illyanov was absolutely right, she decided immediately; the food was
far better than she'd gotten in any Service dining hall.  She grinned
at Robbins, giving him the "first-class" hand signal, then continued
eating and listening to the conversation.

That had settled rather quickly into shop talk, as it usually did when
groups of specialists got together.  She could understand how it might
upset a nearby diner, but she'd been studying during meals for weeks
now; she listened carefully, making mental notes of several
useful-sounding--or just interesting--tips, though she didn't join in
until her plate was empty and she was enjoying a glass of pear nectar.
There was less resentment than she'd expected at Bradford's order that
she get first choice of all non-critical prisoners, though she did take
some teasing about being sure she left some for them, what with the
Brothers still laying low.  She promised, with a bit of return teasing
that if things were all that slow this might be a good time to take
some leave, then she had to make another promise that she'd hold
Confession and Mass for them, in the base chapel if she could get
permission, in their lounge at the Detention Center if she couldn't.

As she was getting ready to leave, a waiter approached and handed her a
note; she read it, grinned, and handed it to Illyanov.  She was
summoned to the Base Theater for a meeting of prospective Team Leaders
and team-seconds.  The note didn't say what kind of teams they were to
be Leaders and seconds of, naturally, but it didn't have to; she and
Illyanov knew.  "I'll see about arranging for the chapel," she told the
group as she rose.  "I'll post the results on the bulletin board,
whichever way it works out, but I've got to go now.  Thanks again."



5. Azrael

St. Thomas, Wednesday, 24 July 2571

Less than half an hour later, she was in the theater along with what
she estimated at fifty others, all with Special Ops patches and
specialty badges--even Odeon, when she spotted him, was wearing his
Tracker's badge, something he didn't normally do.  She would be willing
to bet, now that the operational arms needed them, that a Priest's
badge was being made and they'd both be wearing those as well, not long
after the Strike Force was activated--and she'd also be willing to bet
Mike would love wearing his.  She made her way to him, exchanging
introductions with several others on the way and realizing quickly that
those in the group had more than insigne in common.  There was an air
to them, a feel of anticipation as of a wolfpack scenting its prey, and
she shared it.  "How did it go?" she asked Odeon.

"Not bad for someone who'd never done it before," he said with a smile.
"How about yours?"

"Better than I would've believed," she said.  "I ended up with a server
and small congregation, thanks to Colonel Bradford--and I've already
heard my first Confession.  It's strange being on the receiving end,
believe me!"

Odeon chuckled.  "I do--not wasting any time, are you?"

"I couldn't just let him suffer, could I?" she protested.  "But yes,
things are coming at me pretty fast.  It's almost like someone's
pushing me to get qualified at everything right now.  Not that I mind;
I hope I am able to handle everything by the time the Brothers decide
to break loose again." She rubbed the backs of her hands absently.  "I
want--"

"Ten-shun!" an amplified voice called.

Cortin turned, coming to precise attention when she faced the stage.
It was Colonel Bradford at the microphone; as soon as he had the
group's full attention, he said, "Please be seated, gentles."  When
that was done, he went on.  "We have all met, but some of you know me
only as an anonymous Lieutenant.  In fact, I am Colonel David Bradford
of His Majesty's Own.  I am also, in this case as His Majesty's
Personal Deputy, Commander of the St.  Thomas Strike Force.  You all
know the basics of that, and are all under oaths of secrecy concerning
it for the time being.  Although some of you have made your wishes
known privately, I must now ask you all, formally: Do you wish to be
part of the Strike Force?"

Cortin's shout of assent was lost in the general clamor of enthusiasm
that died only gradually as Bradford stood with both hands raised.
When he could be heard again, he lowered his hands with a smile.  "I
was certain you'd all respond that way.  You're the ones qualified as
Leaders and seconds of Strike Force Teams--is there anyone here who
doesn't want one of those positions?"

When the second clamor died, Bradford smiled again.  "I thought not.
In this case, I am to extend His Majesty's appreciation, and his regret
that the secrecy of getting the Strike Force started prevents him from
being here himself.  We have kept together those of you who have proven
you work well together; that gave us four Leader-second combinations.
The rest have been paired on the basis of records and interviews.  In
either case, you will have the next week to confirm or rearrange these
match-ups and choose your team names, though you can do either
immediately if you prefer.  If you'll look in the package you were
given when you came in, you'll see our team-ups, and a few team names
we hope will give you ideas.  Take half an hour, get together with your
suggested Leader or second, and tell me if you're ready to confirm now.
Refreshments are available in the lobby."

"I finished a big breakfast less than an hour ago," Cortin said as most
of the others rose.  "We know we're paired, and I don't care which of
us is Leader, so if you don't mind, I'll stay here and see what I can
come up with for a team name."

"Suits," Odeon agreed.  "I could stand some juice, but I'll be back
shortly."

"Right."  Cortin opened the briefing packet as he left, finding that
they were paired, as promised, with her as Leader.  Scanning the bios,
she found that their teaming wasn't unusual except in them knowing each
other so long; the pre-selected leadership teams had the one with the
most personal grudge against the Brothers, rather than the senior in
rank, named as Leader--though in some cases, like theirs, the two
coincided; she'd gotten her captain's bars two days before Mike got
his, so technically she did outrank him, if not by much.

Team names, now.  She studied the short list of suggestions, seeing
names of angels, predatory animals, military qualities.  Quite a
variety, she thought--and the list did give her an idea.  She grinned,
then decided not to take any chances on having someone else beat her to
even such an unlikely name; she went into the lobby to find Mike and
then Colonel Bradford.

She almost ran into Odeon when she opened the door; he greeted her with
a grin and a salute.  "I gather you've come up with a name,
Team-Leader?  So've I--I was just coming to see what you thought about
it."  He sobered.  "Better make sure you like the one we settle on; I
overheard Colonel Bradford say the team's name will be the Leader's
code name until we go public, then it'll be the team's radio call sign."

She thought about that for a moment, then smiled.  "I like the one I
came up with well enough for that, definitely.  What's yours?"

He murmured a word in her ear, and she chuckled.  "Great minds,
Mike--that's the same one I thought of.  But if the two of us did,
others may too; let's get to Colonel Bradford and have him confirm it."

"Right.  Last time I saw him, he was over by the juice machine."

The two made their way in that direction.  It was clear than several
Leader-and-second pairs had already confirmed; those were the ones
discussing either team names or possible personnel.  Those who hadn't
were getting acquainted; Cortin saw a couple she thought would confirm
shortly, another couple she thought probably wouldn't at all.  They
found the Colonel still at the juice machine, approaching him with
Cortin in the lead and Odeon a step behind and to her left.  "By the
Colonel's leave?" Cortin asked.

Bradford smiled.  "I thought so--you'll make a good pair."  He took out
a notebook, made a checkmark.  "Have you picked out a name?"

"Yes, sir.  We are agreed on Azrael."

Bradford raised an eyebrow, still smiling.  "That shouldn't surprise
me--but I admit I'd expected you to choose something less openly
descriptive."

"If you'd seen her in action, sir," Odeon said, "you'd know it fits."

"I have, Captain; I've been following her activities with considerable
interest since I debriefed her, which has included watching films of
her interrogations rather than just reading summaries; I certainly
don't argue the appropriateness of her choice.  My surprise is only
that she's being so open about her intentions for the Brothers."

"It's deliberate, sir," Cortin said.  "Major Illyanov told me early on
that terror can be useful; naming my team after the Angel of Death is
on the same order as taking my gloves off for the conclusion of a hunt
or during an interrogation."

"I understand that--but it could also work against you, if they suicide
rather than face interrogation."

Cortin smiled.  "I think I can count on the 'can't-happen-to-me'
syndrome, sir, at least in the great majority of cases.  At worst, a
few of them die quickly and with relative ease."

"True."  Bradford made a note, put the pad back in his pocket.  "Azrael
it is, then."

When the break was over and everyone was back in the theater proper,
Bradford went on with the briefing.  "We have nine confirmed
Leader-second pairs, five of which have chosen names: Wolf, Guardian,
Flame, Falcon, and Azrael.  The rest of you, as I said earlier, have a
week to let me know your decisions.

"During that week, in addition to those decisions, you will start
selecting your team members.  Eligible volunteers have been brought in
on TDY orders, the way most of you were, and are being quartered at the
Academy.  You'll meet them tomorrow morning, and can begin interviews
then; their records will be made available to you as soon as we finish
here."

"In two weeks, you will have your teams together and ready, because you
deploy during the following week."  He paused.  "True, there may be no
need for such hurry--but we don't know, so we want you prepared and in
place as soon as humanly possible.  Now--some details.

"To start with, you--and through you, your team members--will hold
Writs of Immunity good in every system in the Kingdoms.  The scope on
these Writs is even broader than an Inquisitor's Warrant; as long as
you avoid regicide or treason, and what you do is aimed at suppressing
terrorist groups--primarily the Brothers of Freedom--your actions will
carry the license of both the Church and the various Kingdoms.  You'll
be expected to follow normal procedures, as a rule; however, your
primary purpose is to eliminate terrorists, and if normal procedures
interfere, you are to disregard them.  Questions?"

There was a murmur of astonishment both Cortin and Odeon joined.  This
freedom of action was as unprecedented as the Brothers' horror attacks,
but Bradford's orders were clear; there was nothing to question.

"Excellent.  You'll be sent to bases or stations as close as possible
to where the Brothers you're particularly interested in appear to be
located.  You'll use that as your headquarters, but you are subject to
no-notice assignment anywhere in this Kingdom and four-hour-notice
assignment to any other one, so keep your kits up to date and readily
available.  You will also cooperate, as fully as possible without
neglecting your own missions, with other kingdoms' Strike Forces;
they'll do the same if you need to go to their systems.  Any questions
on this part?"

Again, there were none; he went on.  "You Team Leaders and seconds, I'm
afraid, will have to live on base or at the station, in separate
buildings where possible.  Your teams should too, but if that would
cause too much hardship to either them or the personnel normally
stationed there, you can permit them to live up to five miles away."
He raised a hand, forestalling objections.  "It's not as bad as it
sounds, gentles.  You will all be issued personal radios, as well as
personal vehicles; those of you who can't drive or do basic vehicle
maintenance will be taught how.  And you'll use those vehicles any time
you're in areas where they can be supplied and maintained.  You'll use
horses only where there are no facilities for vehicles.  Any questions?"

"I have one, sir."  A tall Major with a missing ear stood.  "Vehicle
fuel and service aren't cheap; they're certainly beyond my pay grade.
How do we pay for them?  And more importantly, how do our people pay
for them?"

"Until we go public," Bradford said, "you'll be given an allowance for
such things, and you'll pass it along to your people.  After that,
you'll use your Strike Force ID, and the Kingdoms will reimburse the
dealers.  The same thing goes for all non-personal expenses."  He
grinned.  "As for personal expenses, you'll be interested to know that
Strike Force personnel get a 50% hazardous-duty bonus.  Which, believe
me, you'll earn!"

There was a mixture of laughter and good-natured complaining, in which
Cortin and Odeon joined.  Yes, they all knew they'd earn any hazard
bonuses; you didn't go into something called Special Operations, much
less into a Strike Force, for the safety of it.  On the other hand,
Cortin thought, they got the chance to go after Brothers with almost no
limitations; that seemed fair enough to her, and it sounded like the
rest agreed.

"That's about it for now, then, though of course you'll get daily
updates on anthing we find out about the Brothers," Bradford said.
"This is my primary duty, so I'll be in the area most of the time; if
you have questions, or just want to talk, I'll be available."

      *      *      *      *      *

Cortin was uncertain what to do after the briefing.  Part of her said
to read the records and start picking her troops; the other part said
to find herself another Brother to question.  After some internal
debate, she went with the first alternative; her fellow Inquisitors had
told her they'd get any information she might be interested in to her,
as soon as possible after they'd gotten it, so she could start picking
her team without worrying that she'd miss something she should know.

With that decided, she and Mike went to the Academy area that had been
set up for such record study and interviews.  She groaned when she saw
the masses of personnel folders she'd be expected to go
through--paperwork had never been her strong point--but she grabbed a
handful, sighing.  "You, too, Mike," she said.  "We may not be able to
tell who we do want from these, but we ought to be able to pick the
ones we don't."

"Right."  Odeon didn't like paperwork any better than she did, but he
did know as well as she how inevitable it was.  "Anything in
particular, or just someone we could both work with?"

"I think it'll be good enough if we get someone we can work with,"
Cortin said.  "Manage that, and we can go from there.  Just look for
good strong motivations, because where we're likely to be going after
Brothers, we'll sure be earning our bonuses."

By the end of the afternoon, the two of them had gone through about a
third of the records, finding a medic and a communications specialist
they definitely wanted, as well as several that looked promising if an
interview showed they had no objection to working for an Inquisitor.
Quite a number of people objected to even working near an Inquisitor,
for which Cortin supposed she couldn't blame them--she'd been
apprehensive about Inquisitors herself, not all that long ago--but
since all the teams would have Inquisitors, it semed reasonable to
assume that those who couldn't work with them at all would have been
removed from consideration.

Her first interview was the following day with the medic, a nun
transferred from St. Ignatius to St. Thomas by her Order, at her
request.  Cortin rose as the young woman in sky-blue slacks and
shirt--the Blue Sisters' field habit--entered.  Sister Mary Piety was
as attractive as her photo indicated, but there was an air of stress
that hadn't shown there.  From her records, Cortin thought it was
probably the residue of her mistreatment by the Brothers--well, she'd
find out.  She introduced herself and gestured the nun to a chair, then
took her own seat.  "I know what's in your records, of course, Sister;
I just want to get to know you as a person, and let you know me well
enough to decide whether or not you can work for me.  So relax; I only
hurt criminals."

"I understand, Captain."  Chang studied the woman in Enforcement gray,
puzzled.  There was something about Captain Cortin that reminded her of
the Raidmaster--but in Cortin, it wasn't frightening.  It wasn't even
mildly disturbing, the way she usually felt around an Inquisitor; if
anything, it was reassuring, even comforting.  "What do you wish to
know?"

"Well . . . it puzzles me that when you reported the attack on the
clinic, you always called Shannon 'the Raidmaster', never by name.  I
admit he's frightening, but that much?"

"I was not aware then that he used that name," Chang said, hiding her
irritation.  "Nor is it fear that keeps me silent.  I tried to tell the
troopers, but I was unable to say his name--or to describe how I
discovered his identity."

"No offense intended," Cortin said mildly.  "Your report said he'd
forbidden you to tell, yes--obviously with more than words."

"That is true, Captain," Chang said, mollified.  "Though I have found
that almost as difficult to describe."  She smiled tentatively.  "It
may be as well I have such difficulty--were I able to identify him as I
know him, I would not be believed."

"If you ever feel able, I'll believe you.  He qualified me for Special
Ops and the Strike Force, too."  Cortin chuckled, though with little
real humor.  "I don't even think I'd be too surprised if you identified
him as Shayan incarnate.  Mind you, I don't think I'd believe it--"
She broke off at the nun's sudden expression of shock.  "Did I say
something wrong?"

Chang sighed with the relief of Shannon's coercion dissolving.  "That
is he.  You have said what I could not, Captain Cortin.  I am in your
debt."

Cortin didn't believe the identification, but her truthsense left no
doubt Chang did.  And she had to admit it was a natural identification
to make, given the plaguer's actions.  "Was there anything special to
identify him?"

"His power and evils are enough, but I believe he wished me to be
certain.  Did he seem a normal man when he attacked you?"

"As normal as a terrorist ever is," Cortin said.

"That was not so in my case.  His general body temperature was quite
high, well beyond a human's survival limits.  His genitals, however,
were extremely cold--the classic description, as you know."

"Yes."  That had to be hypnotism or drugs, Cortin thought, but beliefs
were hard for mere facts to alter; she wouldn't argue pointlessly with
someone who promised to be extremely good for the team.  "Even with
that, you're willing to help hunt him?"

"We are all called to fight evil," Chang said calmly.  "My call was
simply more unmistakable than many.  Yes, I am willing."

She couldn't ask for more than that, Cortin decided.  Excellent medical
qualifications, an "Expert" small-arms rating, plenty of courage--and
she sounded almost as devout as Mike.  Cortin thought it odd that she'd
be concerned about devotion when she wasn't particularly devout
herself, but the fact remained: talking to Piety had made it clear that
it should be one of her considerations.  "One stipulation, and you're
in," she said.  "I don't want any auxiliaries on Team Azrael; you'll
have to trade that habit for a uniform.  There's no proof you're
technically qualified for Special Ops, but since you've gotten a
waiver, that's no problem."

"As this branch of Enforcement now has priests, there is no reason it
should not also have a nun.  I will make the trade."

"Good!  Let me get my second and another witness, and I'll swear you
in."

Cortin was a little surprised that no one questioned her power to
administer a commissioning oath without prior authorization, but she'd
apparently been right in her guess that it was one of her rights as a
Strike Team leader; after all, it was neither treason nor regicide, and
it was in the interest of eliminating the terrorists.  As a side
effect, one she hoped might reduce press attention to herself, it made
her no longer the only female Enforcement officer.

When the ceremony was over and Chang had accepted Odeon's offer to help
her get her ID and uniforms later, that afternoon--"Anything to get
away from stacks of personnel records," he admitted cheerfully--he and
the other witness left the two women alone.  Cortin studied the nun for
a moment before speaking again.

"You're aware, of course, that your Enforcement oath takes precedence
over your vows--and that being Strike Force means you owe obedience
only to your Strike Force superiors, the High King, and His Holiness."

"I am aware of all that."  Which was true, Chang thought.  She was no
longer restricted by her vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience--or
protected by them, illusory as that protection had proven when she had
most needed it.

"And you're a field medic, so you know what tends to go on in a team's
spare time.  Will that bother you, now?"

"No, Captain.  I have been on missions since; shelter parties and the
like do not disturb me."  Chang smiled momentarily.  "In fact, my last
. . . experience . . . with His Infernal Majesty seems to have had a
side effect he did not anticipate and may not like.  Forcing me to feel
sexual pleasure, even with him, has let me appreciate what willing
partners give each other.  Since then, I have found it highly enjoyable
watching them, where earlier I had no particular reaction."

"As long as you don't have to participate, naturally."  Which she most
certainly wouldn't; any attempt to compel sex, at least in Enforcement,
was dealt with harshly--and usually right then.  "If you'd like, I'll
tell the men not to even ask you."

"I would appreciate that.  Even though I am unable to accept their
offers, I would prefer not to hurt their feelings by refusing."

"I'll take care of it, then.  Have you tried therapy, to get over what
happened?"

"And prayer," Chang agreed.  "I shall increase my efforts at both now,
of course; it would be unfair to the rest of the team to do less."

That was true, Cortin thought.  No one could be faulted for not taking
part, but that shouldn't be because of a correctable disability; it
should be either voluntary, or because of permanent disability like her
own.  It seemed a cruel irony that Chang had the ability without the
desire, while she had the desire without the ability.  At least she
could try to take comfort in the fact that one of them had a chance to
be fully functional again . . .  "If there's any way I can help, just
let me know.  And let the men know if you beat your problem."

"I will be certain to."

      *      *      *      *      *

Shannon felt a brief surge of power, traced it--and hastily retreated,
swearing.  That God-loving Cortin had dissolved the compulsion of
silence he'd put on Piety, without even knowing she was doing it!  That
was a minor use of power, of course, but it was more than he'd thought
her capable of, even--or especially--unconsciously.  If she could do
that, he'd have to stop even observing her--not just when she was idle,
but when she should have her full attention on her work.  No more
watching her while he played with Victor, then, unfortunately--no more
watching her, period.

He could do without the entertainment she provided, but it would be
inconvenient doing without the information she let him eavesdrop on.
What really bothered him was the timing.  It might simply be
coincidence that Cortin's first real use of her power took place the
first time she met Piety--but he didn't trust coincidence, especially
not when it involved someone with Cortin's latent power.

He should've killed the nun when he had her, amusing though it had been
to torment her further by letting her live.  Well, that was one mistake
he could remedy! Sister-Lieutenant Eleanor Mary Piety Chang had just
made it to the top of the Brotherhood's wipe list.

There was more than a little risk to that, of course, especially if an
attempt was made on her when Cortin was in the area--it might trigger
the Bitch into using her powers instead of keeping her from them--but
he thought it a risk worth taking.

Wait a minute!  Lieutenant?  He'd barely brushed her mind before
jerking back, but the brief contact had been enough to tell him she
thought of herself differently.  A Lieutenant of Enforcement, and a
member of the whatever-it-was--Strike Force?--the various Kingdoms had
gathered groups of their best to form.

Shannon scowled.  A Strike Force or equivalent, able to attract people
like Piety, was extremely bad news--especially at a time when he was
forced to restrict his own powers.

      *      *      *      *      *

Cortin's next interview, with the communications specialist, was rather
different.  She'd known his size and race, from his records--but facing
a man over two meters tall and built like a weightlifter, with skin so
dark it was almost blue, was an experience she'd never had before.  So
was his reaction, when he entered the interview office; his eyes lit
up, and he gave her a brilliant smile before saluting.  "Lieutenant
Joseph Pritchett reporting to Team Leader Azrael as ordered, ma'am.
And thank you for considering me."

"Be seated, Lieutenant," Cortin said.  As he obeyed, she went on.
"Your enthusiasm is flattering; may I ask why?"

It was impossible for his complexion to get any darker, but she had the
impression he was flushing.  "I've heard about Captain Cortin ever
since my freshman year at the Academy," he said.  "I've always wanted
to work with you, but I was never in the right place at the right time,
and when I heard what the Brothers had done to you, I thought sure
you'd retire.  I'm glad you didn't, and I'll finally get to work with
you--if you want me after this, of course.  I hadn't heard you were an
Inquisitor, though."

"That's quite recent," Cortin said.  "Would it bother you, working for
one?" She was flattered that he'd wanted to work with her that much,
and hoped it wouldn't.

"Not working for one, no, ma'am--but I've got to tell you right from
the start that I'd really rather not help with third-stage."

"I don't see any reason you should have to," Cortin assured him.  "I'm
training my second, Captain Odeon, as my assistant, and I hope to find
someone with Inquisitor as a second specialty for the team.  Any other
problems?"

"No, ma'am."

"Good.  Welcome to Team Azrael, then.  Two more items, before I turn
you over to Captain Odeon for a complete briefing and equipment issue.
Firstly, off duty and within the team, first names are proper; mine is
Joan.  Do you prefer Joseph or Joe?"

"Either is fine, ma'am.  I'm generally called Tiny, though."

Cortin chuckled.  "Tiny it is, then.  The other thing: I will expect
your sexual conduct to remain withing so-called 'normal' bounds while
we're within populated areas.  I'll make sure you have adequate access
to decent, reputable courtesans, or you can find yourself an informal
wife; that's up to you.  Otherwise--as long as you don't involve anyone
who isn't willing, of course--what you do is up to you."

"Couldn't ask for more than that," Pritchett said.  "Ah--does that
freedom include yourself, ma'am?  I've heard how much fun you are,
especially at a shelter party; I'd appreciate being allowed in, either
alone or with the rest of the team."

"And I'd enjoy having you, either way."  She'd liked the pairing that,
even with Enforcement's dispensation, it was wisest to confine oneself
to in civilization--but she'd also liked, and taken full advantage of,
the opportunities offered by an entire team in one of the shelters the
Service put up for its people traveling in remote areas.  She cut off
those memories sternly, before they could become too painful.
"Unfortunately, the attack left me incapable of that pleasure."

"Dear God!" Pritchett said, looking sick.  "There must be something
that can be done!"

"Cosmetically, yes, my doctor says.  Nothing . . . erotically useful."
Cortin grinned sourly.  "Which I don't think upset her unduly.  She's a
good doctor, but a typical civilian.  I'm learning to live with that,
as well as the pain.  I appreciate your concern, but if you'll excuse
me the Terran slang, what can't be cured must be endured; don't worry
about it."  She stood, extending a hand.  "Welcome again, Tiny."

      *      *      *      *      *

It took two dozen more interviews over the next couple of days to find
the other two members she wanted for Team Azrael.  Odeon had conducted
the interviews with both; she promised herself she'd have a private
talk with each of them later, when they were less pushed for time.  One
was Lt. David Bain, demolitions expert and the backup Inquisitor she'd
hoped to find, a tall blue-eyed brunet with an easy grin; the other was
Lt. Anthony Degas, a quiet, self-contained small-arms expert who could
have been the model for Michelangelo's David.  She could have had
more--some teams had over a dozen--but she and Odeon wanted to keep
Team Azrael small and mobile enough to respond quickly.

With the team complete, Cortin had them begin training together every
morning.  She herself started the day with Mass for the Detention
Center Inquisitors and their guests, as she'd promised, losing herself
in the ceremony and coming back to mundane reality only when it was
over and she removed the stole.  After breakfast was the team training,
then lunch, followed by individual work or study.  For her, that meant
interrogations--and she decided quickly to allow Bain to do the
preliminary stages, concentrating her own attention on the stubborner
subjects.  With a limited, if uncertain, time before they had to be
ready, she had to get Odeon past his squeamishness as quickly as
possible so she could start training him as her assistant.

It was Saturday before he managed to get through a session without
throwing up, and she didn't think it proper to conduct interrogations
on Sunday except in an emergency, so it was Monday when she started
teaching him.  The subject was a young Brother that Bain evaluated as
having no useful information, but as being strong enough to survive up
to a week of teaching sessions.  Cortin preferred to go after something
specific, make it a contest between her and her subject, even though it
was a contest she was almost certain to win.  But teaching was as valid
a function as extracting information, and it would insure that the
Brother served at least one useful function in his life while paying
for his crimes against the Kingdoms.

Their subject was waiting when they entered the interrogation suite's
third-stage room, prepared as usual: naked, with some bruising,
spreadeagled between ceiling chains and floor eyebolts.  Cortin
gestured at him, speaking to Odeon.  "You've already noticed I keep our
methods simple, Captain; the reason is that almost all our work will be
done in the field, so I think it best to practice with equipment we can
either take or adapt there.  This method of securing a subject is an
example; you can almost always find trees and ropes, while you'll
seldom if ever find a surgical table.  The same principle goes for
drugs; we use ones like algetin or eroticine that are effective, simple
to administer, and can easily be replaced at a shelter or detention
center.  Any questions so far?"

"No, ma'am."  Odeon had been more concerned with keeping his stomach
under control than with evaluating her methods and techniques, but
thinking back, he realized she had kept them to the basics.

"Good."  Cortin went to the prisoner.  "The preliminary examination
seems simple, but it will give you both physical and psychological
information invaluable to the interrogation process itself."  She ran
fingers over the subject's face and throat.  "For instance, Lieutenant
Bain has convinced this one that arguing back is not a good idea,
although there is little damage visible; that tells me he is easily
intimidated, and would not normally require third-stage interrogation."

"Why, then?" the subject burst out.  "I told--"

Cortin backhanded him across the throat.  "Because I need a training
aid, and you were available.  Now be silent."  She paused, but saw no
sign of disobedience.  "That's better."

She continued her examination and commentary to Odeon.  "No particular
sensitivity around the ears . . . about average for the eyes . . . rest
of the face and throat the same . . . minor sensitivity at the nipples,
promising . . . ribs tender in spots . . . same over the kidneys, have
to be careful there if we want him to last; internal injuries should be
avoided in an extended interrogation."  She paused, turning to Odeon.
"We are getting to a particularly interesting area now.  There are a
few rare subjects who do not seem to mind being naked to an Inquisitor,
or having their buttocks and genitals handled--but in most cases, a
subject's sexuality is his most vulnerable area, in theory especially
so to a female Inquisitor.  Physically, these areas are extremely rich
in nerves; psychologically, they are ego-centers.  Both make them easy
targets, which is why I seldom exploit them early; if the subject
cooperates without that particular pressure, nothing is lost since you
can still use it as punishment if you feel it desirable.  If the
subject does not cooperate, you can be almost positive he will when you
add that pressure to the rest.  A perfect example is the first
interrogation you saw me conduct."

Where Illyanov had raped the subject while Joanie finished her skinning
of him with his genitals.  "Yes, ma'am, I remember--though I'm afraid I
don't understand how the Major could have been . . . able . . . to do
his part."

Cortin grinned without humor.  "You'll see, perhaps with this subject,
probably within another two or three.  It's a reaction I'm no longer
capable of, but it's perfectly normal for pain--usually another's, but
sometimes your own--to provoke arousal.  I'm told it's similar to the
pre-danger form we're all familiar with."

Odeon nodded slowly.  Put that way, he thought he could understand, at
least a little.

"With this one, if you feel the urge, go ahead; in a serious
interrogation, I may need for you to wait till it's most useful."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Good."  Cortin turned back to her subject, probing between his
buttocks, pleased when he whimpered.  "Brothers, in particular, express
a strong revulsion for what they choose to call 'unnatural' sex--but
you would be surprised how many of the older ones show evidence of
having participated in it repeatedly.  I know I was."  She probed
deeper, hearing truth in her subject's cries of horrified denial.
"This one, however, seems not to be party to such, ah, rarefied
pleasures.  Yet."  She moved to his front, stroking the underside of
his penis and smiling at his uncertain response.  "Or to more usual
ones, it seems.  Is it possible you are a virgin, Brother?  I do find
that hard to believe."

"Yes . . ." the subject gasped.

"Intriguing . . . I will have to inform my colleagues.  But you will
cooperate in anything Captain Odeon wants of you?"

"No, please!"

 "Don't bother begging; I am not inclined to show a Brother any more
mercy than they showed me.  The primary difference is that I finish the
job."

The youth stared at her, then shook his head.  "No, you can't be--the
Bitch is dead!"

Cortin started to hit him for his insolence, then paused.  "Perhaps she
is," she said thoughtfully.  "But if they killed the Bitch, they gave
birth to Azrael."  She turned to Odeon.  "I gather the Brothers don't
believe the news stories of my survival.  That is unfortunate; for the
maximum psychological impact, they should."  She turned back to the
subject, frowning as she studied him, her fists on her hips.  "Is that
it, Brother?"

The young man shook his head, then nodded.  "Sort of . . . the
Raidmaster says you're alive, and a few may believe him, but the others
in the raiding party say you can't be--an' since no one wants you to
be, well . . ."

"I see."  Cortin's frown deepened as she thought.  "I had not intended
to permit any Brother who came to me to live--but I begin to think I
should make an exception, use you as a messenger and advertisement."

"You can't just let him go!" Odeon exclaimed.

"No, of course not--that would give the wrong impression."  Cortin
scowled as her subject licked dry lips.  "He is a Brother, by
definition deserving of a painful death and eternal damnation.
Conventional punishment, however--especially mine--would leave him in
no shape for anything except intensive care or a disabled ward.  If you
have any suggestions, I would appreciate them."

"Um."  Odeon thought for several minutes, then said slowly, "I don't
know if it's possible, but what you said about sexual vulnerability
gives me an idea.  He's a virgin, and he had a strong negative reaction
when you mentioned homosex, both of which his superiors must know about
him.  He's also beautiful--so how about turning him into a catamite for
them?"

Cortin turned to him in surprise.  She hadn't expected anything that
creative; it certainly wouldn't have occurred to her.  "It should be
possible, given the appropriate drugs and experiences--I like it."

"What's a catamite?" the subject asked apprehensively.

"A young male prostitute, especially one for older men."

The subject looked sick.  "No, please--it's not right!"

"It isn't as if homosexuality were still banned," Cortin said
reprovingly.  Thanks to St. Eleanor and the Compassionate Mother,
sexual orientation had been recognized as something one was born with,
like blue eyes or black skin, and no more blameworthy; the Church even
recognized stable pairings as equivalent to common-law marriage, though
it still didn't grant them the sacrament of Holy Matrimony.

"Even if I were that, I'm no whore!  I won't--you can't make me!"

"Wrong on both counts," Cortin said pleasantly.  "We can, and on the
physical level, you will find it most enjoyable.  How you feel about it
emotionally may be less pleasant, and I hope it is.  It goes against my
grain to release a Brother, and you may assure the rest that you will
be the only one--but if I must let you live, even for my own purposes,
simple justice demands that you suffer."  She turned to Odeon.  "I can
handle the drugs and overall direction, but I obviously cannot
participate in the operation itself.  We'll need more than you to
partner him, too, if we want him properly promiscuous; if you'll check
with the rest of the team, I'll check with my fellow Inquisitors."  She
grinned.  "I'm sure several of them will find this project interesting
enough to want to participate as their own projects permit."  She
looked around, then chuckled.  "These aren't appropriate surroundings,
though; I'll have to arrange for some redecoration."  She turned to the
subject.  "Under the circumstances, anonymity isn't appropriate either;
what's your name?"

"Charles Powell," he said sullenly.

"Very well, Charles."  She went to the instrument table and loaded a
hypodermic, then returned to him.  "This is eroticine, a potent
aphrodisiac.  Under its influence, you will have no interest in
anything except sex, of whatever type your partner wants.  And I assure
you, you will find it most pleasant."

Powell shivered as she made the injection, but said nothing.

"It will take effect in about five minutes."  Cortin turned to Odeon.
"I'm going to make arrangements for the redecoration, and ask whoever's
around if they'd be interested in helping with his tutoring.  You can
wait if you want, or release him and begin his lessons when you see the
eroticine taking effect.  It'll definitely be noticeable--and as I told
him, he won't be interested in minor distractions like fighting."

Odeon nodded.  "I'll do whatever looks best when he shows a reaction."

"Good enough."  Cortin left, thinking it would be useful if she could
help in the redirection.  Mike, plus any of the other men on the team
and any Inquisitors who were interested, could handle the positive
aspects of Powell's reorientation, but it would be even better if a
woman could provide negative reorientation.  She was incapable in one
way, Piety in another, and you couldn't ask a civilian--even a
paid-woman--to take part in something like this.  There might be a few
female enlisted personnel willing to take part, but by the time one
could be found and brought here, it would be well after the Strike
Force teams had left.  Too late, in other words; she'd just have to
hope the reorientation worked without that.  She scowled, angry at
herself.  If she'd realized, rather than just read, that even a
simulation of sexual function could be this important, she'd have
insisted on what little Dr. Egan had admitted to being able to do.  Too
late for that as well, now, though; she'd talk to Sis later, see what
she could do when they had some time available.  A synthetic vaginal
passage shouldn't be more than minor surgery, well within a medic's
abilities--and Sis would be able to understand why she wanted it, even
knowing its limitations.

      *      *      *      *      *

The Powell project proved even more popular with her team and the
Inquisitors than Cortin had expected.  And, after a night of
considerable thought, she'd reluctantly decided that she couldn't
direct it properly if she couldn't take part, so she'd turned direction
of the project over to Illyanov, who'd promised to handle it as well as
he could, as far as the subject was concerned acting under her
instructions.  She made it a point to spend some time in the
observation center every morning, though, following Powell's progress.

The redecoration she'd ordered was in place the first morning; the
third-stage room of Interrogation Suite Delta now looked more like a
courtesan's room at the New Eden.  Most of the equipment was still in
place, she knew, but the surgical table had been replaced by a wide
bed, the floor now had thick rugs covering tile, and draperies hid drug
and instrument cabinets, with others turning the harsh brilliance of
overhead fluorescent lighting into soft pastels.  Powell was still
apprehensive despite the eroticine, looking as if he wanted to pull
away when the Inquisitor with him began to caress him, but unable to
resist the drug.  Cortin disliked seeing a Brother display even the
little enjoyment Powell did, despite the fact his pleasure was
drug-enforced, but she was pleased that his tutor was obviously
enjoying himself.

The next day, Powell's apprehension had disappeared; when she entered
the observation room, he was absorbed in his tutor's instruction.
Cortin found it amusing that he took to his lessons so readily, and
that his instructors were so gentle and patient.  It wouldn't surprise
her too much, she thought, if they decided they wanted to keep him; she
might even agree, for their sakes, if his testimony to his Brother
superiors weren't so important to her plans.

The day after that, Chang and an Inquisitor were coaching him on
relaxation techniques.  By now, he seemed eager to learn, even more
eager to try what he was being taught, and Cortin found her hostility
to him diminishing.  He seemed more like an innocent boy now than like
a Brother of Freedom, and she found herself hoping, when the Inquisitor
had him roll over for a practical demonstration, that he wouldn't find
it too distressing.

He didn't; when his instructor began penetration, his sounds and
movements were ones of unmistakable pleasure, increasing rapidly as the
Inquisitor rode and manipulated him.  To Cortin's surprise, she was
pleased when Powell's enjoyment peaked at his climax.  When she left
the observation room after telling one of the techs to have Chang
report to her when the session was over, she found herself thinking
Powell would be wasted on the Brothers--but told herself sternly that
he would do well, for both her plan and herself.

An hour later, Chang joined her in the Inquisitors' Lounge.  "Good day,
Captain," she said.  "A most interesting experiment, though perhaps a
bit too reminiscent of what was done to me for complete comfort."

"If you want out, all you have to do is say so," Cortin told her.  "The
last thing I want to do is make things worse for you."

"I do not," the nun said with a brief smile.  "While it is reminiscent,
the purpose is entirely different, and for a good cause.  By God's
grace, that relieves the discomfort.  And as I said, I enjoy watching
others enjoy themselves.  So: is there anything more I can do to help?"

"Not with him, no.  With others in the future, maybe."  Cortin went on
to explain what she would have liked to do, and what she would like
from Chang whenever it was possible.  "Can you do that?"

"Easily; as you say, it is minor surgery.  However, it may--and I
stress may--not be necessary to settle for function without sensation."

"Nerves don't regenerate," Cortin said flatly.  "Dr. Egan was quite
emphatic about that.  And the necessary tissue is gone."

"The latter I can do nothing about," Chang conceded.  "The first,
however, I am less sure of.  With all respect to the good Dr. Egan, I
doubt she follows the doings of Inquisitors on St. Ignatius, while I
have heard rumors that one has had some success in regrowing removed
organs, with restoration of full function."  She raised a cautioning
hand.  "I believe that to be an exaggeration--such regrowth would, I
believe, require a saint rather than an Inquisitor or medic--but there
is a grain of fact behind any rumor.  I would be most happy to
investigate, and, if his actual results warrant, apply his findings to
your problem."

Cortin took a deep breath, held it, and exhaled slowly.  Getting her
hopes up, on the basis of some fact that might lie behind a rumor, was
stupid.  She knew that, she'd resigned herself to her loss--but
apparently not as well as she'd thought, because she found she was
hoping.  Regrowth and restoration of full function would mean the
chance, again, of children--though honesty compelled her to admit that
her failure to become pregnant in years of more than adequate
opportunity meant the chance was vanishingly small.  Even the chance of
restored sensation would be worth a lot, though!  "Please do,
Lieutenant.  Let me know the results as soon as you have something
definite, then we'll base what we do on that."

Chang inclined her head respectfully.  "I shall begin at once,
Captain." She left, and Cortin went on to her next subject.

Powell was released the Saturday before the Strike Force's Monday
reassignments, in an area known to be infested with terrorist
sympathizers.  He was provided with fresh clothing, a month's supply of
eroticine, an authorization to get more from any medical supply center
he happened to be near--which she didn't expect him to need or use--and
a brief message that "The Bitch" was most definitely alive, and was
deeply interested in the Brothers' welfare.



6. Tony

St. Thomas, August 2571-February 2572

During the first week after Team Azrael reported to Middletown, Cortin
got her men assigned quarters and the personal vehicles they were
authorized, then made arrangements for them to have unlimited access to
the Elysian Gardens, the city's most exclusive--and equally
expensive--joy-house.  The proprietor was reluctant--her ladies were
accustomed to New Pennsylvania's nobles and gentry, not common
troopers--until Cortin, with considerable hidden amusement, paid
generously in advance, and promised bonuses if her men were pleased.

She also offered the Base Commander her services as priest and
Inquisitor.  He preferred to retain the base's civilian chaplain, but
did accept her other offer, promising her all the work she could want.
With that done, Cortin discovered that time went by very slowly when
you were part of a group that had to conceal its mission, yet remain
independent and assert special privileges.

Her work helped ease the boredom for her, and she took advantage of
some of her spare time to ease more by practicing her driving.  She'd
never been in a car before her trip to the Academy, hadn't driven one
until Strike Force training.  It had been frightening at first, but
she'd come to like it, and Odeon encouraged her.  Since she no longer
had the consolations of sex, he said, she really ought to make full use
of what she could enjoy--and after all, a tank of gasoline wasn't much
more expensive than an evening at the Elysian Gardens.

She was pleased when, midway through the second week, Degas asked to
join her on one of her after-work drives.  She'd known from their first
meeting that something was bothering him; it was about time he got
whatever it was out of his system.  He was silent as she drove them
through town and past the Ducal Palace, but when they got to open
country, he asked her to pull over.  She did so as soon as she found a
shady spot, and turned to him.  "What is it, Tony?"

Silently, slowly, he drew his pistol and held it to her, butt-first.
"You may want to use this."

Cortin accepted it, stunned.  "In God's Most Holy Name, Tony!  Why?"

"Something I've kept from everyone except the priest I confessed to."
Haunted eyes looked at her from that beautiful face.  "I--Captain, for
almost a year I was a Brother of Freedom."

Cortin's finger tightened reflexively on the trigger, but somehow she
managed not to fire.  "Why, Lieutenant?" she asked coldly.  "And why
tell me, now?"

"My confessor said that when I found the person I really wanted to
follow, I'd have to tell, and accept her judgement."

"Go on."

"I was a kid, idealistic--I believed in what they said they stood for.
I still do, but what they say doesn't come anywhere close to what they
really stand for."

Cortin nodded, relaxing slightly.  "I've never faulted the ideals they
claim, or their courage--just their methods and their real morals."

"I was slow--it took me a while to realize the two didn't match.  Once
I did, and let people know I was sorry I'd joined, my superiors
arranged for me to meet Shannon, and that told me I had to get out."
Degas paused, looking sick.  "He's an attractive man, handsome
and--from the effect he had on the people I was with--damn near
irresistible.  I don't know how I was able to resist, but I've thanked
God every day since that I was."  He shuddered.  "Shannon's evil,
Captain!  There's no other word to describe him.  He may not be Shayan
himself, like Sis thinks--though I tend to agree with her--but if he's
not, he's not far off.  A demon, or possessed by one.  Most of the
Brothers, I think, are just deluded--but Shannon's evil, and as long as
they're under his spell, they'll act that way too."

"Did you commit any crimes while you were a Brother?"

Degas shook his head.  "Not for lack of trying, I'm afraid.  As I said,
I was a kid; I wanted to do everything I could.  But my superiors
wouldn't let me, until I was older and knew more.  So the only thing I
was guilty of was joining, which I've been forgiven for--and I think
I've paid any criminal debt I owed.  I became a trooper because I was a
Brother."

A trooper with a good Academy record, fifteen of his twenty-one active
duty years in Special Ops--critically wounded several times, but living
that long at all in Special Ops qualified as a real miracle--with
numerous operations to his credit that he'd refused well-deserved
awards for, as he'd refused promotion beyond the one to First
Lieutenant he'd had to accept to remain in service.  She'd wondered
about those refusals, but Odeon had said he'd claimed personal reasons.
Now that she knew, she respected him for it; that was his way of
atoning.  "You've decided to follow me, so your confessor said you have
to accept my judgement--and he knew you'd decide to follow a woman.
That sounds peculiar--did he give you any reason?"

"Not exactly, ma'am.  He just told me he knew, with absolute certainty,
that if I lived long enough I'd find the one I needed."

"Um."  That statement made Cortin uncomfortable; she didn't like the
idea of something being predetermined, the way Tony made this sound.
Still, it had been his choice to join Team Azrael.  "Why did you choose
me?"

Degas frowned.  "I'm . . . not positive.  Your record, of course, and
you've got the same sort of odd attraction Shannon does--except that
with him it's lethal, evil, and with you it's . . . I don't have the
words.  'Good' sounds soft, and that it certainly isn't . . . maybe
'creative'?  And definitely not evil; after Shannon, I can feel evil."
He looked at her, his gaze steady.  "Following you feels right, if
you'll still let me."

Membership in a terrorist organization normally carried sentences of
excommunication and death, but there were, on rare occasions,
mitigating circumstances.  Degas had been young, that sin had been
forgiven, and he'd done more than enough to help the Kingdom to repay
any harm he might have done.  Cortin reversed his gun, handing it back
to him.  "You're still in, Tony.  And I'd advise keeping this
conversation between the two of us."

"Gladly!" Degas' expression was one of pure relief.

"We won't mention it again, then."  She started the car and pulled back
onto the dirt road.  "I've got to stop at the Harrison ranch for a few
minutes, then we can finish our drive."

Cortin hadn't intended to let any of her team see the softer side of
her--it didn't seem fitting for an Enforcement officer, much less an
Inquisitor--but she'd thought Tony's willingness to talk too important
to miss.  And she wasn't about to let anything stop her from visiting
the retired priest, his brother's family--and her family, the cat she'd
found in labor on the back seat of her car three days ago.  She'd
always remember the expression on the good Father's face, when he
opened the door to find a desperate-looking Inquisitor with an armful
of very pregnant cat, trying to explain she'd gone into the woods for a
minute to answer a call of nature, and come back to find this, and was
there please any place Mama-Cat could have her kittens?

He'd been kind enough to let her in and find a large basket he lined
with towels.  Mama-Cat had promptly settled in, making it clear Cortin
wasn't to leave while she gave birth.  Not at all reluctant, Cortin had
stayed, getting acquainted with the Harrison family--who'd been
understandably alarmed to find an Enforcement Service car parked in
their front yard--while Mama had eight kittens Cortin assured her were
absolutely beautiful.  Of course, as she'd told the Harrisons, she'd
always had a soft spot for animals, especially baby ones--but they were
delightful!

Father Harrison was waiting, as usual, when she pulled into the drive
and parked.  If he was surprised to see another officer with her, he
hid it well, smiling as Cortin introduced Degas.  "Welcome,
Lieutenant--and come in, both of you.  Andrew's fixing supper; you'll
stay, of course?"

"We'd love to," Cortin said, "but--"

"And Margaret's baking pies, with last year's dried fruits.  She'd like
to send your men some, but they won't be done for another hour . . ."

Cortin raised her hands, grinning.  "You win, Father, you win!  We'll
stay.  Has Starfire foaled yet?"

"This morning, a healthy palomino colt.  We've named him Lifestar, in
your honor--I hope you don't mind."

"On the contrary, I'm flattered--though I don't get the connection."

"In that case, just call it an old man's whimsy.  I thought it might be
a little early."

Cortin was puzzled by that comment, but she didn't have long to wonder
at it; as soon as she and Degas followed the priest inside, she was
mobbed--at least that was what it felt like--by the Harrison children
and pets.  Three children, four dogs, and a cat, she thought, were far
more formidable than it sounded like they should be--and she loved
being their target.  When their greetings settled down a bit, she
picked up Mama-Cat and carried her back to her kittens, smiling
wistfully as the tiny beings mewed, hunting blindly for nipples, then
settling down as they found them and began nursing.  She'd always
wanted a family of her own; if Mike hadn't been Special Ops, she'd have
married him as soon as her Service obligation was complete, and done
her best to have a dozen or so children.  Now that that was impossible,
the wish for it seemed to be getting stronger.

She put that out of her mind, stroking Mama-Cat and, very gently, each
of the kittens before she rose to see a bemused expression on Degas'
face.  "Doesn't quite fit my image, does it?"

"No, ma'am.  But it makes me even more certain you're the one my
confessor meant."

Father Harrison looked from him to Cortin and back, then smiled slowly.
"I thought your voice was familiar, Lieutenant," he said.  Then, to
Cortin's astonishment, the old priest blessed himself and murmured,
"Thank You, Lord."

Degas stared at him, nodded once, and duplicated the slow smile.  "Same
here, Father.  I'm glad we both lived to see it."

This time it was Cortin who looked from one to the other.  "I do not
believe in coincidence," she said firmly, shaking her head.

"What coincidence?" Father Harrison asked, beaming at her.  "This happy
meeting is simply the power of prayer in action.  Needless to say, I'm
delighted to see the troubled boy I counseled has matured into a fine
officer and found the one I predicted would complete his healing."

Cortin couldn't argue the power of prayer--and the children weren't
about to let adult seriousness delay their fun any longer.  They almost
pulled Cortin outside and to the corral behind the barn, to show her
Starfire and the newborn Lifestar.  The colt was a palomino, all right,
in the classic--and rare--coin-gold, his mane and tail gleaming white
as he frolicked around his mother.  If she were any judge, Cortin
thought, he'd be a prize-winner before too long.  And he positively
glowed with vitality--if Father Harrison had seen that kind of
connection between her and the colt, she could only feel flattered.

She wasn't allowed much time to think about that, though.  The children
wanted to show off their Young Farmer projects, so she spent the rest
of the time till Margaret called them in to supper happily admiring
them and giving any help the children asked for.

Once they were seated at the table and the children's father had said
grace, Degas turned to the priest.  "If I'm out of line, Father, forget
I asked--but is there any reason you're all wearing cartridges on
neck-chains?"

Father Harrison glanced at Cortin with a smile.  "We wanted souvenirs
of Captain Cortin's visit, once we got over the shock of her sudden
arrival, and cartridges were all she had extras of.  She was kind
enough to bless them for us, asking special protection from terrorists.
I put them on neck-chains, and we've been wearing them ever since."

"Fortunately," Cortin said, "terrorists seldom show any interest in
farms or landfolk, so we'll probably never know how effective they are."

"On the other hand," Degas said, "we might--I'd like one, and I'll even
provide my own cartridge.  I wouldn't be surprised if the rest of the
team felt the same way, too."

"Okay, as long as you don't expect miracles from them."

Father Harrison smiled.  "But don't be surprised if you get them,
either."  He turned to Cortin.  "A number of the neighbors would like
them, too.  I took the liberty of buying a box of cartridges and making
several up, hoping you wouldn't mind."

Cortin wasn't really sure whether she approved of that or not, but she
couldn't think of any real reason to object, and it would only take a
few minutes of her time.  "All right, as soon as we finish supper."

             *      *      *      *      *

Degas' prediction proved correct; the rest of the team did want
cartridges she'd blessed, and wore them on neck-chains--but attached so
they could be quickly removed if necessary and used as they'd
originally been intended, a precaution Cortin approved of.  From the
team, the popularity of her blessed cartridges spread to the rest of
the base and beyond, gaining in reputation as field teams credited them
with the fact that casualties seemed to be fewer and less serious among
troopers who wore them.

As the team's stay in Middletown lengthened, all of them became
impatient with the sheer frustration of waiting for the Brothers to
make the first move.  It was a frustration law enforcement personnel
learned to live with, since they almost always had to react to
lawbreakers, but that didn't make it any easier as winter became
spring, then early and mid-summer.

At least, Cortin thought, the Base Commander kept his promise.  There
were fewer Brothers or other terrorists among her subjects than she
would have liked, but she was kept busy with other criminals.  They
were less personally involving than the Brothers, though she discovered
as she worked with them that they provided just as much professional
satisfaction.  Unlike terrorists, most of them survived her attentions;
her interest in murderers, thieves, and the like was restricted to
getting the necessary information from them, then turning them over to
judges for sentencing.  As her skill grew to match her talent, that
became both easier and more satisfying, though it had a side effect she
hadn't really expected and didn't like as well.  Her reputation also
grew, to the point where--as Illyanov had predicted--the threat of
being handed over to Inquisitor-Captain Cortin was enough, in many
cases, to elicit a full confession.  Even that had its satisfactions,
though, after the first few times; the point, after all, was to get the
necessary information, and if she could do it by proxy, that only made
her more effective.

And, one late February evening, Chang and Odeon reported to their
commanding officer's quarters with the news that Chang's research had
at long last borne fruit.  When Cortin invited them in, Chang bowed.
"I can report limited success, Captain--and our superior has taken an
interest."  She handed her commanding officer an envelope.  "He wished
me to maintain silence until a suitable donor was found, to prevent
undue anxiety on your part.  Lieutenant Bain and I did so this
afternoon; if you agree to the procedure, Team Azrael will depart
tomorrow morning for a suitable surgical and recuperation area with its
prisoner."

Cortin waved them to seats and took one herself, then opened the
envelope.  It held a single sheet of paper, directing her to place
herself under Medic-Lieutenant Chang's orders if she chose the
procedure, with a handwritten note at the bottom:  "It sounds indecent,
but promising.  If you decide to have it done, keep me in mind next
time you're in New Denver or I'm out East."

Cortin scowled at her subordinates, but couldn't maintain the
expression; it was too hard to keep from grinning, and she finally did.
"For people who've been going behind their CO's back, you two look
remarkably unrepentant--not to mention smug.  So tell me about this
'indecent but promising,' 'limited success' procedure . . . not that I
think I'll need much convincing."

"The team will be ready to go at 0500," Odeon said, doing his best to
look innocent.

Cortin gave him a dirty look, then shook her head in resignation.  "I
must be getting too predictable.  Go on, Sis, spill it."

"As the Captain says."  Chang's face remained impassive, but her eyes
twinkled.  "As I thought, the original rumor was exaggerated.  The
Inquisitor was not regrowing tissue; he was merely reattaching items
that had been removed.  And it was only external items; internal organs
are either too complicated or simply beyond his skill.  However, full
function and sensation were restored in all cases, even when the
reattachment was to another subject, provided the blood type was the
same and the work was carefully done.  And the recipient subject was
maintained on an adequate dosage of algetin."

Cortin winced.  Algetin was a potent pain-enhancer, which made it
extremely useful for interrogations, but this was the first she'd heard
of it having any medical use.  Still . . .  "I gather this talk of
reattachments and algetin is not just theoretical, and is connected
with my problem?"

Chang nodded.  "Inquisitors on St. Ignatius do tend to take more time
with their subjects than do those in other Kingdoms.  This one
discovered that algetin, used in adequate quantity and for an adequate
period, promotes both healing and nerve growth.  While, as I said,
reattachment was successful in all cases, that of genital tissue was
spectacularly so."  She allowed herself a brief smile.  "The Service's
favorite virus, I suspect, is involved there.  So, while any skin
could, in theory, be used for the reconstruction you require, I have
chosen somewhat more specialized material.  You are, of course, aware
of penile nerve density and sensitivity."

Cortin chuckled.  Sis knew perfectly well she did, but she said, "Of
course," willing to play along.  What the medic called a virus wasn't,
exactly; it was called that only because it wasn't exactly anything
else, either, except itself, the cause of the Satyr Plague.  That was
the only "disease" she knew of that people hadn't tried very hard to
avoid, because of its effect: it enhanced sexuality, especially in men,
and gave them capability to match their increased drive--capability
that had been purest fantasy before the virus' appearance thirty years
ago.  "Go on."

"The donor we have found is a Brother with your blood type; I believe
the appropriate skin and nerve layers, inverted and properly placed,
should serve your purpose nicely."  She smiled again.  "We are, of
course, assuming you wish to resume female function.  If not, there is
nothing I can do.  However, from our discussion some months ago and
what Captain Odeon has told me, I believe that assumption is warranted.
Am I correct?"

"You are," Cortin managed to say, staring at her medic.  But it did
make sense--was even just, in an odd way.  If it worked, a Brother
would be providing what several of them had ruined.  "You are
absolutely correct.  It sounds like fantasy, but if you think there's
any chance at all, I'm willing to try."  She glared at Odeon, who was
trying unsuccessfully to keep a straight face.  "What's the matter with
you?  Don't you think it'll work?"

"If Sis's this optimistic, it'll work."  Odeon grinned.  "And I know
you, remember?  You've had a long dry spell--I can hardly wait to help
you make up for that."

Cortin's eyebrows rose.  "Longer than I ever have before, true--and I'm
as eager for the drought's end as you are.  Maybe more so--and from
what you two are saying, that won't be long."

"Not long at all," Odeon said.  "We'll be heading for Dragon's Lair
first thing tomorrow--no need to look so surprised!  Bradford pointed
out that it'd have to be kept between him and us; what better place
than a well-secured Royal retreat?  He may've told His Majesty, to get
us permission to use it, but can you imagine the reaction if the public
found out someone--even a Brother--had been maimed for the purpose of
allowing an Enforcement officer to have sex again?"

"I can imagine it would cause a bit of an uproar," Cortin said drily.
"Even if it's part of the punishment he deserves for his crimes."

"And I imagine that's putting it damn mildly," Odeon said.  "It's
pretty obvious how you feel, but to make it official?"

"I want it--even if it means being under algetin for however long."
That would be days at least, maybe a couple of weeks, of pure
agony . . . but it would be worth it.  She hoped.  "I'm at your orders,
Lieutenant Chang."

"The only one I have at the moment is that you are to eat no solid food
until after the operation," the medic said.  "Let me reassure you about
the algetin, however.  It will cause you no distress; those of my
profession have drugs to ease or eliminate even such extreme pain.  I
can render you unconscious while the algetin is necessary."

"Good."  Cortin had no desire to use drugs for normal pain, but algetin
enhancement was an entirely different situation.  She turned to Odeon.
"You said we leave at 0500, which means getting up at 0300 if we're
going to say Mass and still have time for the rest of you to eat
breakfast.  So I think you'd better have supper, and all of us should
get to bed early."



7. Dave

St. Thomas, Thursday, 20 Feb 2572

The Royal Family, the King's Household and staff, and favored nobles
flew to Dragon's Lair; everyone else rode.  So when Team Azrael and its
prisoner left Middletown for the deliberately-isolated Royal retreat,
they were on horseback.  Cortin, like most people, had learned to ride
almost as soon as she'd learned to walk, and was expert at it, but she
quickly found that riding was another thing she could no longer enjoy.
She was wearing the back brace Egan had given her for unavoidable
strenuous exercise and riding the smoothest-gaited horse in the Base
stables--a black Arab named Rainbow--complete with a lambswool saddle
pad, but within fifteen minutes she was thinking that maybe disability
retirement might not be such a bad idea after all.  Without it she'd be
spending a lot of time in the saddle, hurting worse than usual.  On the
other hand, if she got out she'd be spending even more time in the
saddle, unless she abandoned her crusade--and she had no intention of
doing that.  So she just had to learn to endure this, too.   At least,
she thought, if they had to ride they had a nice day for it.  The
temperature was still comfortable in the morning sun, and by the time
it got too warm in the open, cultivated areas, they'd be in forest
shade.  And the quiet was pleasant, only an occasional word or two and
the soft sounds of leather or hooves on dirt breaking the silence.  She
could see landfolk out working their farms and ranches, but they were
far enough away she couldn't hear them--and they weren't likely to
approach a group of Enforcement troopers, especially one escorting a
prisoner.

Cortin smiled grimly at that thought.  Prewar, even Terran, police,
from her reading, had gotten the same reaction: civilians tended to
stay away, unless they needed something.  And civs were even less
interested in having anything to do with police carrying out the
enforcement part of their duties.  Let one get close enough to see an
Inquisitor's badge, and lack of interest usually turned into active
avoidance of contact; the Harrisons' pleasure at her visits was
unusual.  At one time, she'd disliked provoking that reaction; now she
was accustomed to it, and at times found it useful.

She heard a horse speed up slightly, until Lieutenant Bain was riding
beside her.  "Is anything wrong, Captain?" he asked.  "I've been
noticing you don't look exactly comfortable."

"Nothing that can be helped, thanks.  It seems my back doesn't approve
of horses any longer, is all."

"How bad?"

"Late second stage, maybe early third.  Nothing I can't handle for a
few hours if I have to--though I'll admit I'm already looking forward
to stopping for the night."  She gestured to the rear, where Degas was
leading the unconscious prisoner's horse.  "How far did you get on him
before Sis tapped him for surgery?"

"I didn't even start," Bain said, surprising her.  "She and I were
looking for a blood type match, plus a couple of other factors she
thought might help; when we finally found one she thought would be
right, we put him straight under."  He grinned.  "Don't worry, though.
He'll have to stay out while Sis takes what you need--we don't want to
take any chances on damaging it--but once he wakes up, I'll make sure I
get anything interesting.  Unless you'd rather I save him for you?"

Cortin returned the grin.  "I shouldn't be greedy, and I do have
something else to look forward to from him; you go ahead."

"Thanks."  Bain glanced at her, then obviously decided not to go on.

Cortin hid a sigh.  Having civilians apprehensive about her was one
thing, but her men should feel free to ask or tell her anything.
"What's the problem, Dave?"

"It's not exactly a problem, ma'am . . . uh, Joan."

"What, then?"

Bain looked uncomfortable.  "Uh . . . you're the first lady trooper
I've been around, and . . ."

"Oh."  Yes, that explained his hesitation.  "I've been the only woman
on a team most of my career.  I'm neither a virgin nor a prude, though
I sometimes find it useful to pretend the latter around civilians.  So
spill it."

Bain grinned in relief.  "Right, Joan.  Okay, then--Mike says that
before the Brothers messed you up, you enjoyed using our dispensation
whenever the opportunity offered.  Nothing fancy, but not skimping
anyone, either."

"True," Cortin said, smiling.  "I'm a firm believer in the basics, and
God was generous enough to let me enjoy them in abundance.  If He's
merciful enough to let this work out, I'll do it again."

"Just let us know what you want, and how much; we'll do our best to
oblige."  Bain grinned again.  "Always a good idea to keep the CO
happy, you know."

Cortin couldn't help laughing, in spite of the pain.  She knew that a
commanding officer taking part in a team's sexual activity tended to
have an extreme effect, one way or the other; it could tear the team
apart, or it could weld it into near-unity.  From watching hers work
together, she was certain it would react positively, so she said, "And
from my experience with other teams, I doubt you'll find at least that
aspect overly disagreeable."

"Or at all difficult," Bain agreed.  "I'm looking forward to it, in
fact."  He gestured in a way that told her he was still unsure.  "I've
been with a lot of civ women, paid or curious about an Inquisitor, but
they didn't--oh, hell!"

"You're not the first one to tell me that," Cortin said drily.  "I was
lucky, always had enough willing troopers around I never had to go to a
civ man--but I always got more out of Special Ops men.  The emotional
feel was better, even when physical things were the same."

"You do understand, then."  Bain's look was full of relief and
something else she couldn't quite identify.

"Yes--and if this works, I want all of you to feel free to come to me.
Other duties permitting, I'll be more than happy to help keep up
morale."  She grinned.  "Rank doth have its responsibilities, a few of
them pleasant; a CO is expected to be available for counseling whenever
it's needed."

Bain chuckled.  "'Counseling'--I like that.  You may have the
best-counseled team in the entire Service, here shortly."

"Most counseled, anyway," Cortin said.  "And while you're here, I've
been meaning to ask--if you don't mind talking about it, I'd like to
hear how you ended up in the Strike Force.  Records are all very well,
but there's no feel to them."

"I'd rather not," Bain said slowly.  "Fair's fair, though; Mike told us
all about how you got into this."  He paused, clearly trying to
organize what he wanted to say.

Cortin had suspected Mike might have given them the details of her
background, probably because he'd thought it would somehow help her.
He'd be right, too, if it helped her get insight into her people.  She
waited for Bain to speak.

"I come from a big family," he said at last.  "Four sisters and a baby
brother, with me the only sterile in the bunch.  I enlisted in
Enforcement, beccame a demolitions expert, got a recommendation to the
Academy and graduated about the middle of my class, put in for SO and
got it, made First about three years later.  By that time, my baby
brother was in the Service too, a top-notch medic."  He paused, and
Cortin saw tears in his eyes.  "We weren't stationed together, but we
were close enough we got to see each other regularly.  He loved his
work, would go out of his way to help anyone who needed it, wouldn't
hurt a fly--wouldn't carry a gun, even on a remote patrol.  He had a
great family, wife and two kids with a third on the way, he and Betty
both hoping for eight or ten . . .  He couldn't understand why I wanted
to be an Inquisitor, even though he knew someone had to do it--hell, he
couldn't understand why I went into demolition!--but I was his big
brother, so if I wanted it, he wanted it for me."

Bain paused.  "I'm rambling--sorry.  Anyway, about a week after I got
my Warrant, my team got called out to help search for survivors of a
terrorist ambush on a patrol.  I heard the patrol that got hit was from
Lancaster, but I didn't get scared until I heard the Team-Leader's
name.  It was Jeffrey's team . . . and on the ride out I heard other
searchers had found seven bodies from the ten-man team.  The medic
wasn't one of them, and that scared me worse.  Jeffy didn't have what
it takes to escape an ambush, and you know what's likely to happen to
an Enforcement trooper captured by terrorists."

"Nothing good," Cortin agreed.

"We were the first combat team to get to the ambush site, so after a
quick briefing, the on-scene commander sent us after the ambush
party--fifteen of them, his Tracker said.  With that few, our
Team-Leader decided we didn't need any backup, so we got on their
trail.  When we caught up a few hours later, they'd made camp and were
working on Jeffy.  I couldn't see them yet, but I knew his voice well
enough to recognize it, even screaming and with the overtones algetin
adds."

Cortin nodded.  Screams, to a civilian and even to most Enforcement
personnel, didn't tell much except that the screamer was feeling
intense pleasure or pain.  An Inquisitor learned not only to tell
which, but also several other things; she wasn't at all surprised that
Bain had been able to tell his brother had been dosed with the
pain-enhancer.

"We took out the sentries, which eliminated five of the terrorists and
gave us the advantage of numbers as well as skill, then we moved in on
the camp."  Bain paused.  "Have you ever been in on a mass
interrogation?"

"No, but I know the theory; pick the least likely to be useful and make
a dramatic example of him, to save time with the rest."

"That's what they were doing with Jeffy.  All three of our people were
hanging spreadeagle, but Jeffy was the one their version of an
Inquisitor was working on."  Bain's voice caught, and it was a moment
before he could continue.  "I'd . . . rather not go into the details;
just call it a standard demonstration.  The plaguer was in the middle
of gutting him when we attacked.  I knee-shot him, then went to Jeffy."
He stared at his saddle horn.  "He . . . didn't recognize me at first,
and . . . when he did, he begged for help."  Bain looked at his
commanding officer, his expression haunted.  "Joan, he couldn't have
lived if there'd been a hospital trauma center five feet away, and he
knew it.  I couldn't refuse him, make him live in that kind of agony
until shock and blood loss killed him in spite of the drugs.  So I gave
him Last Rites--then I killed him, as quickly and painlessly as I
could." He looked down again.  "Dammit, I became an Inquisitor to help
find the Kingdoms' enemies, not to kill people I love!"

"I understand."  His Warrant made his action blameless under both civil
and Church law, but that wouldn't have helped his feelings any.  "It
was the only help you could give, and both of us know it can be
welcome.  At worst, he's in Purgatory; I'll include him in my Mass
intentions from now on."

"Thanks--I've been doing it since I was ordained, of course, but extra
Masses never hurt, and it'll make his family feel better."

"How did they take it?"

"Betty understood; the kids are too young to know anything except that
Daddy's gone and won't be back.  She gets a pension, of course, and I'm
'acting Daddy' for the kids when I'm around.  You'll have to come out
for a visit sometime, since we're stationed in the area--I'm sure
they'd love to meet you."

"I'll do that."  She ought to find out if she could still relate to
normal civilians, she supposed; except for visiting the Harrisons,
she'd been in a strictly-military environment since the attack.  And
not even a normal military environment, between the hospital, her
Inquisitor's training, and starting a Strike Force team.  She knew
she'd changed, for what would generally be considered the worse; what
she didn't know was how much.

"Great!  If you don't mind, I'll drop back now and pass your invitation
along."

"Fine."

She rode alone the rest of the morning, glad when they got into the
forest and out of the rapidly-warming sun.  She was pleased to find she
could still appreciate the sounds and smells of the forest, the
squirrels and birds, the green-tinged light.  Lunch was good, though
she was restricted to broth and more grateful for the brief relief from
jarring pain than for the unsatisfying pre-surgery meal.



8. Ambush

Back on the road, about an hour later, Cortin spotted a rider coming in
their direction.  He was apparently daydreaming, because it was a few
seconds before he saw the group--and when he did, he reined around and
galloped back the way he'd come.

Cortin stopped, frowning, and motioned Odeon to join her.  Most people
didn't like getting too close to prisoner escorts, no, but leaving at a
gallop was a rather extreme reaction.  Not necessarily a guilty
reaction, and not one she would normally be justified in having him
pursued or shot for . . . but it bothered her.  When Odeon reined in
beside her, she said, "I don't like the looks of that.  It could mean
nothing, but it could also mean trouble.  Patrol formation, I think,
with you at point; as Tracker, you've got the best chance of spotting
trouble before it spots you."

"Right.  And I'd recommend Tony as rear guard; he's the closest we have
to a second Tracker."

"Agreed."  As he rode ahead, Cortin dropped back to the main group,
briefed them, and sent Degas to the rear.  This wasn't good ambush
country--the woods were open, with the road avoiding rough terrain
wherever possible--and they'd be in secure territory when they got
within an hour's ride of the retreat; even when the Royal Family was
elsewhere, there were security and housekeeping staffs in residence.

When they moved out again, she stayed with the group, all of them alert
for unusual movements or sounds.  Cortin found herself half-hoping for
action, though she also wanted to make it through without having any of
her people hurt or killed.

Odeon moved forward cautiously.  He agreed with Joanie: even though
someone fleeing a prisoner escort didn't necessarily mean trouble, it
was a good idea to take a few simple precautions.  He studied the
other's tracks when he got to them, but they told him nothing he didn't
already know.  The man had been riding at a walk, and had suddenly
turned, galloping away.  If it was because of normal apprehension,
fine, and no real problem even if he was a wanted criminal; he'd cause
them no trouble, and he'd be caught eventually if he kept reacting that
way.  The problem would arise if he were point man for a group of
Brothers or other terrorists--not likely this close to a royal
residence, but certainly a possibility.

He wasn't kept in suspense long; within five minutes, he heard a group
of riders ahead.  They were making no effort to be silent, which didn't
prove anything one way or the other; either they were innocent, or they
were pretending to be innocent to get close to the Enforcement group.
The woods were open enough there was no point in leaving the road to
try to eavesdrop on them; if he were close enough to understand words,
he'd be close enough to see.  So, keeping his hand close to his pistol,
he rode forward.

His appearance clearly startled them, enough to get an honest reaction;
half of the fifteen or so went for their weapons.  He drew and fired at
the same time he was turning his horse and urging it to a gallop.
Leaning low over the horse's withers, he continued to fire, and was
both surprised and gratified to hear a cry of pain mixed with the
return fire; it was damn near impossible to hit anything from the back
of a running horse even if you tried to aim.

Cortin heard the shots, then rapidly-approaching hoofbeats.  So did the
rest, and there was no need to give orders; all had been in similar
situations often enough to know precisely what to do.  By the time
Odeon came in sight, Chang and the prisoner were far enough off to the
side to be out of the firefight, and the rest were behind good-sized
trees.  This wasn't exactly what Cortin had had in mind, wanting
action--it was more like the kneeling-behind-a-barrier segment of a
firing range exercise--but it would do.

When Odeon passed their positions, the team opened fire.  Cortin hit
two, someone else hit two more, and the terrorists turned into a
milling, cursing mob whose return fire was sporadic and poorly aimed.
Cortin smiled, continuing to aim and fire as coolly as if she were on
the target range.  She had no more hits, but others did; three more
terrorists fell, and the rest fled, demoralized.

She stood, brushing off her trousers, then reloaded and holstered her
pistol.  "Anyone hurt?" she called.

"Nope."

"Fine here."

"Nicked by a chunk of flying bark, nothing serious."

"We are unhurt."

Hoofbeats from the rear brought them alert again, but it was Degas
galloping up, his gun drawn.  He holstered it as he pulled his horse to
a stop, looking disappointed.  "I missed all the fun, huh?"

"I'm afraid so," Cortin said, smiling.  "Bad guys zero, good guys
seven."

"Eight," Odeon said.  "I hit one when they started chasing me.  I don't
know if he's dead or just wounded, though."

 Chang had come up and started checking the casualties; now she
reported.  "Six dead, Captain, the other critically wounded."

"Can he be questioned?"

Chang frowned.  "Perhaps, if you hurry.  He is conscious, but will
probably not survive more than a few minutes."

"I'll hurry--which one?"

"Over here."  Chang led the way, kneeling beside the terrorist and
doing what she could to keep him alive for Cortin's questions.

Cortin knelt on the man's other side, pulling her gloves off.  "My
medic says you only have a few minutes to live.  If you've got any
desire to make your peace with God, now's the time to do it."  That
didn't seem a very promising tactic, but it was obvious he wouldn't
live long enough for her usual methods.

"You're . . . Cortin?"  The man coughed, blood speckling his lips.

"Yes."  Maybe her reputation would be a help--except that he didn't
seem as much afraid as hopeful.

"Now I know . . . why th' Raidmaster's . . . afraid of you."  The man
seized her bare hand.  "Protect me from him . . . you're a priest . . .
I'll tell you all I can."

"You'll be as safe from him as you are from me, in a few minutes."

"No!"  The man struggled to sit up, gasping in pain.  "That's no
help--I need . . . th' Sacraments."

Much as she wanted to, Cortin couldn't refuse; this was why Strike
Force Inquisitors were required to be priests.  She got her stole out
of her pocket, calling for Odeon to bring her saddlebags, then kissed
the stole and put it on.  "I'm ready."

The man's Confession was hurried, missing details he must know he
didn't have time for, but to Cortin's surprise it was an honest effort;
he actually did regret what he'd done.  Imminent-death repentance
wasn't as good as trying to live a decent, useful life, but if God
found it acceptable she had to.  She gave him Absolution and Communion,
less disturbed by that than she'd expected--though it still wasn't an
experience she cared to repeat.

When he'd swallowed the Host, the Brother sank back.  "Thanks . . .
didn't know how much I'd missed it . . . once you've taken the oath
. . . he doesn't let you know."  His eyes closed, and Cortin didn't need
Chang's murmur to tell her he was almost gone.  When he spoke again,
his voice was little more than a whisper.  "He's right to be . . .
afraid of you.  So afraid . . . you're to be . . . left alone.  It's
the nun . . . Piety's top of the . . . wipe list . . . more ways than
one . . ."  He tried to laugh, choked instead.  "You'll need 'em both
. . . t' beat him."  That was all he could manage; with a sigh, he died.

Cortin gave him a final blessing, then resumed her gloves, put away her
stole, and wrote a note that this one required burial in holy ground.
She pinned it to his shirt, then rose and looked around.

The Service horses were still there, obedient to their dropped reins,
but only two of the others' had stayed--not enough to transport seven
or eight bodies.  "Check them for ID, then get them off the road and
cover them.  We can inform the residence's security people, and they
can send someone out.  We'll take the horses along, though; they're
royal property now, and they need looked after."

"Right."  Odeon took charge, helping pull bodies off the road and
search them, while Cortin collected the horses and mounted.  None of
them expected terrorists to be carrying identification, so there was no
disappointment when they didn't find any.  Half an hour after the
attack, they were ready to go again, but as Cortin was taking a final
look at the blanket-covered bodies, she got an idea, reached back into
her saddlebag for one of her spare gloves, then tossed it on one of the
bodies.  "Whoever finds these plaguers won't know what that means until
later," she said, "but Team Azrael has claimed its first victory, and
it won't be our last.  They'll learn."

      *      *      *      *      *

The repentant Brother hadn't told her much, Cortin thought as they
rode, but the little he had said was disturbing.  Shannon, so afraid of
her--why?--that he'd put her off limits.  That didn't make sense;
logically, he should be doing his utmost to kill her.  Instead, it was
Piety--and what did that 'in more ways than one' mean?--at the top of
their wipe list.  Which also made no sense.

"Unless Shannon knows something we don't," Odeon said, riding up beside
her.

"You reading minds now?"

"Hardly--but what else would you be thinking about, after what he said?"

"True."  Cortin gave him a sidelong glance.  "So what possible
knowledge would have that effect?  Put an Inquisitor off limits, and
target a medic?  The only thing she and I have in common is that we
were both his victims."

"Surviving female victims," Odeon said.  "Both associated with
Enforcement, and now both, not just one, religious."  He frowned.  "If
Shannon's who--or what--Sis thinks, and Tony won't dispute, God won't
let him operate unopposed for long.  Though it may seem like forever to
us, depending on when he started.  If it's recently, there won't be a
whole lot we can accomplish, though of course we'll have to try to
fight him--but if it's near the end of his allotted free time, it means
the Protector's about to appear.  With him afraid of you and targeting
Sis, I'd say the latter's more likely, and with you two playing
important parts.  Maybe his heralds, maybe part of the staff the
prophecies say he may have if Shayan's strong enough to make him need
one, there's not enough information to say--but whichever, if I'm
right, you and she are the two most important people in the Systems
right now."

Cortin tried to laugh at that conceit, but she couldn't.  Mike had an
uncomfortable habit of being right, especially in this sort of thing.
On the other hand--"That's one possibility, I suppose.  You have to
admit, though, it doesn't sound too plausible: that two women Shannon's
already defeated should be much of a danger to him."

Odeon frowned.  "I agree.  Still, it's the least unreasonable thing I
can think of, assuming he is Shayan."

"Which I doubt, in spite of Sis' conviction.  But we do have to assume
a worst-case scenario, which means we turn around right now and spread
the alarm."  Cortin started to rein her horse around.

"No!" Odeon exclaimed, shocking them both with the intensity of his
refusal.

"Why not?"  Cortin should have been angry at his insubordination;
instead, she was curious.  "You have a hunch about it?"

"Stronger than a hunch," Odeon said, frowning.  "It feels like
something vital now, not just a nice idea."  He shook his head.  "I
don't have any hard evidence, Joanie, but I think Team Azrael's been
chosen--maybe even designed--to take on Shannon.  We've got things to
do before we're ready, though.  Things we've got to do alone, or with
very few and very carefully chosen people to help.  And this is one of
those things."

"You make it sound like we're puppets."

"No!"  Again, Odeon's intensity startled both of them.  "Compulsion is
Shannon's way, not God's.  He'll guide and help us as long as we're
willing to accept His backing, but He won't go beyond that unless we
specifically ask Him to."  He managed a grin.  "Which I did, back at
the White Fathers' monastery.  And I think He just took me up on it,
because I'd never argue a lawful order on my own."

"I know--I think that's what shocked me most," Cortin said.  "But . . .
Mike, you're scaring me.  Sure, Azrael's good--we picked the best.  And
he was telling the truth when he said Shannon was afraid of me, though
I can't imagine why, if he is Shayan.  Dear God, Mike, we're only
human!"

"Humans have been known to work wonders, with God's help," Odeon
pointed out.  "Though I have to admit I'm not too thrilled about going
up against His Infernal Majesty myself."

"But we both will if we have to.  We all will."  Cortin shuddered.
"And we'd better be in a state of grace when we do, because we're not
going to have much of a chance of coming out alive."  She took a deep
breath, exhaled slowly.  "But that's a good idea any time, and I'd
rather think Shannon's just a particularly nasty human.  Under Shayan's
influence, of course, but not supernatural himself."

"So would I.  God willing, that's how it'll work out."

      *      *      *      *      *

It was still a couple of hours before dark when they got to the
retreat's main guard post.  Cortin was surprised when a lieutenant
emerged to check their identification and authorization, until he told
her that Crown Prince Edward and Princess Ursula were in residence, and
went on, "Colonel Bradford and Inquisitor-Major Illyanov are in Their
Highness' party, and asked whoever met you to extend their regards.
They would like to see you when you get a chance; they're billeted in
the Manor, but we were told you and your team need privacy, so you're
assigned a field-type shelter we use when there're too many security
people here for normal quarters.  I hope that'll be satisfactory."

"A shelter is fine, thanks," Cortin said.  Better, in fact, than the
Manor--for her, at least.  Being loaned a corner of a royal retreat was
an honor, but she was certain she'd be horribly uncomfortable in the
actual presence of royalty.  Seeing Illyanov and Bradford again would
be nice, though--especially Ivan, and especially if the surgery worked,
though she was reluctant to admit an Inquisitor had that kind of
attraction for her.  "I do need a couple of things, if they're
possible?"

"My pleasure, Team-Leader.  What can we do for you?"

"Take care of these spare horses, and see about picking up and
identifying some bodies."  Cortin gave him a brief explanation, and a
description of the location.

"I know where you mean," the Lieutenant said.  "I'll be happy to see to
both.  Is there anything else?"

"No, except where this shelter is."  She paused, realizing she was
forgetting something.  "Lieutenant Bain plans to conduct an
interrogation of our prisoner, probably within the next couple of days.
We certainly don't want to disturb Their Highnesses, though; is there
someplace remote we can use?"

"The shelter is about a kilometer from the Manor, Captain; standard
procedures will be fine."  The Lieutenant turned back to the guardhouse
and called inside; seconds later, a sergeant emerged.  "Sergeant
Halvorsen will guide you, then take the spare horses to the main
stable.  If you don't mind him using one of them?"

"Of course not.  Glad to meet you, Sergeant."

"My pleasure, ma'am."  Halvorsen saluted; when she returned it, he
mounted one of the spare horses and led them another half-dozen
kilometers, past immaculate lawns and formal gardens, to a shelter that
looked odd because it was covered in multi-colored climbing roses.
"Here you are, Captain," he said with a smile.  "Enjoy your stay."

"Thank you, Sergeant."  Cortin dismounted as he left, leading her horse
into the shelter's stable.  She needed help unsaddling--her back
wouldn't let her do it by herself any longer--but once that was done,
she was able to care for and feed Rainbow alone.  She wouldn't mind
having the gelding as a permanent mount as long as she was stationed at
Middletown; he did have a smooth gait, even though she couldn't
appreciate it properly any longer, and he was beautifully responsive to
reins, knees, or voice.  Once the Strike Force was activated, maybe she
would lay claim to him.

When they got into the shelter proper, Degas began fixing supper.
That, like clean-up, was normally done by turns, but he'd volunteered
for the job--he claimed in self-defense--any time they were in the
field.  No one argued, after Pritchett had challenged him to show why;
he could do wonders with shelter rations, and was the only human Cortin
knew who could actually make trail rations into something you didn't
mind eating.

A knock on the door brought them all alert, though none were
anticipating trouble here; as Cortin had half expected, what they got
was company for supper, in the persons of Bradford and Illyanov.  She
was glad to see them, and even more pleased that they settled into the
team's non-regulation informality as if it were a group of Inquisitors
like the one at the Eagle's Nest.

She saw Bradford's look of pleased surprise at her men's gloves, and
his slow smile of approval.  "I see Team Azrael has decided on a
trademark.  Did you by any chance leave a glove with the remains of
your attackers?"

Not at all surprised that they'd heard the story so quickly, Cortin
nodded.  "Yes--it seemed like a good idea.  Shouldn't we have?"

"That's your option, as Team-Leader.  Leaving a token that way will
gain your team a reputation, which can be helpful at times--but it'll
also make you targets.  So I'm leaving the choice, as I said, to the
Team-Leaders."

"We'll talk about it, then," Cortin said, a bit disturbed.  "Personal
notoriety for Inquisitor Azrael will be useful--but I've discovered I'm
no longer one of the Brothers' targets, though Lieutenant Chang is at
the top of their list.  I will not turn the rest of my team into
special targets without their consent."

Bradford looked incredulous.  "You're not a target?  I find that hard
to believe."

"One of the Brother casualties lived long enough to talk."  She
explained, including Chang's conviction about Shannon's
identity--leaving out only Degas' youthful indiscretion--watching the
Colonel's face.

After a brief silence, Bradford nodded.  "I've heard similar opinions,
though I'm not sure I believe them either.  In that case, your team may
choose."

"Anyone else with an Inquisitor's badge is automatically at the top of
the Brothers' target list," Bain pointed out.  "Me, I'll take any
advantage I can get to balance that.  Though if we keep on at this
rate, we may all go broke buying gloves."

"Requisition them as team equipment," Bradford said.  "Team Flame has
already put one in for candles."

"I like the idea," Odeon said thoughtfully.  "Anyone on a Strike Team,
not just the Inquisitors, is going to be a prime target as soon as we
go public.  So I agree with Dave--we might as well take the advantages
with the dangers."

"I didn't join Special Ops or the Strike Force for safety and
security," Degas agreed.  "I'm for it."

"Same here," "And I also," came simultaneously from Pritchett and Chang.

"I'd say that settles that," Cortin said, gratified.  "Shall we eat,
gentles?"

That suggestion got hearty approval, and the men served themselves
while Cortin gave her mug of broth a disgruntled look.

"Looking forward to some solid food?" Bradford asked, grinning.  "Oh,
I've cleared Ivan for this experiment, since I could see how close you
two got while he was training you."

"Um."  Cortin looked from him to Illyanov, whose attempt at an innocent
look might possibly have fooled a two-year-old, then back.  So Ivan
wanted in too, did he?  Well, she certainly didn't have any objection!
"Yes, I am," she said.  "Right now, I'm not sure whether I'm looking
forward more to that, or to being able to have sex again.  I suppose
I'll find out when I'm able to have both."

That got chuckles, and Chang smiled.  "I will make sure you are
nourished well enough that you can make your choice without concern for
your strength."

Cortin bowed in her direction.  "Thanks, Sis.  That should make it fair
enough . . . as long as I'm not asked to choose between a chocolate
eclair and one of you ready for action.  In that case, I'd probably try
for both at once."

"No chocolate eclairs, then," Odeon said promptly.  "The other I won't
promise."

Cortin almost choked on her broth, but managed to bring herself under
control.  "I wouldn't put it past any of you gentlemen, and I can't
think of anything nicer to wake up to--but any sedative strong enough
to knock me out under algetin won't leave me able to do any of us much
good for . . . how long, Sis?  About a day?"

"Considerably less than that, I should say," Chang replied.  "I will
discontinue the algetin only when I am convinced you are completely
healed, and the sedative I will use will fade into a natural sleep.
When you wake from that, you should be fully recovered and capable of
any exertions you care to make."

"Better than I thought, then.  When do you plan to operate?"

"Tomorrow morning," Bradford answered for the medic.  "I've had what
would be the armory in a real shelter set up for the operation.  You
should be on your feet again within a week."



9. Surgery

Shannon fumed in helpless anger.  The first direct attack on Cortin's
new team--one he admitted to himself shouldn't have been made, but that
he'd found irresistible--had been a total disaster.  The troopers had
been outnumbered more than two to one, yet they had still routed his
men, as far as he knew taking no casualties while claiming eight kills.
Worse, he'd had to let one of his own go before death.  It was always
unpleasant to lose someone useful, and when that one was sworn to him,
it was humiliating as well.

Worse, though, was his near-certainty of why Cortin and her people
would be taking another of his to a remote security area, when that one
was a near-perfect medical match.  Restoring Cortin's sexual function,
and the use she would make of it, would cause severe and possibly
critical damage to the use he had been making--and intended to continue
making, if she didn't reclaim it--of human sexuality.  Especially the
new virus-enhanced version, which offered such delicious possibilities
if properly redirected and emotionally loaded.

Was there anything he could do to prevent it?  Degas, a former
Brother--though unfortunately too young then to be properly sworn to
him--was on Cortin's team.  It was possible he could be blackmailed
into cooperating . . . though that would mean using his power, since
security at a Royal retreat was so tight.  Cortin would have to be
sedated for the surgery, maybe for part of her recovery time as well,
and it should be safe enough to use them while she was drugged.  If he
only knew when she'd be under!

But without that knowledge, he decided regretfully, it would be wiser
to refrain.  The Adversary had pointed out that timing was crucial; he
simply dared not take the risk of rousing Cortin's power too early.

      *      *      *      *      *

Friday, 28 Feb 2572

Odeon was sitting beside the heavily sedated Cortin, stroking the hand
without tubes, when Bradford entered the shelter.  He started to rise,
but settled back at Bradford's gesture.  "Yes, Colonel?"

"Brad, please."  Bradford looked at the woman for some time, then he
turned his attention back to the scar-faced man who was her second in
command.  "You've known and loved her for years, Mike.  So will you
please tell me why in God's name the most talented Inquisitor I've ever
seen won't take a nice, safe, productive assignment at the New Denver
Detention Center where the most difficult cases can be referred to her?"

"I thought you wanted her in the field!" Odeon exclaimed.

"Dear God, no!  If I had my way, she'd be at the Center with all the
medical and professional support I could provide, not out in the field
getting shot at, torturing herself by making her back trouble worse,
and wasting her talents on criminals a second-semester student could
handle.  If I try to keep her there, though, I'm afraid I'll lose
her--she's never said it in so many words, but if I read her right,
she'd go rogue rather than give up her hunt for the Shannons."

"I think so too," Odeon said.  "She wants revenge, and I can't blame
her.  So I'll help her, and protect her as well as I can . . . and so
will the rest of Team Azrael."

"And any other Enforcement man who's been around her for long,"
Bradford said drily.  "Interrogation isn't her only talent, I've
discovered. She doesn't know about it, I found when I debriefed her--I
can't help wondering if you've noticed."

"Noticed what?" Odeon asked, puzzled.

"How people, men especially, react to her."

Odeon chuckled.  "That?  That's easy!  She's an Enforcement officer, so
civs are apprehensive about her--more than they are of us, but until
Sis came aboard she was the only woman officer.  And our people like
her, probably for the same reason."

"Your observations are accurate, of course--I'd expect that, from a
Tracker.  But not completely so, since I have yet to find an
Enforcement trooper, officer or enlisted, who's been around her for
more than a short time and only likes her.  To the best of my research,
any trooper who's spent as little as ten or fifteen minutes with her
has fallen in love.  I used to believe it was because of sex--you know
how generous she was with herself--but since her maiming, I found that
theory was wrong."  He grimaced.  "The effect isn't even conscious,
much less deliberate.  When I went in to debrief her, I thought it
would be routine, and that I was braced against anything she might try.
But she didn't, and I wasn't--by the time I left, I was in love with
her, and so was every man on my team.  I can't claim I don't feel any
sexual attraction for her, because I most definitely do, even though
I'm a happily married man with a child.  But my primary feeling for her
is protectiveness, and I understand that's how the rest feel.
Including," he grimaced again, "Major Illyanov, the entire
Inquisitorial staff of the Detention Center, one clerk-private, and the
proprietor of the Eagle's Nest.  Probably others as well."

"Mmm . . . that fits."  Odeon hadn't thought about it that way, but now
that Bradford had pointed it out, it did fit.  The team's degree of
protectiveness toward their commanding officer and their concern with
how she came through the operation were both unusually strong; it was
good to have an explanation.  Especially one that also explained
Bradford's presence--and Illyanov's, since he wouldn't normally be a
member of a Royal party.  "I hadn't realized, but you're right.  So
what do we do about it?"

"Damned if I know," Bradford said.  "There's probably nothing that can
be done, since she's not doing it either deliberately or knowingly.  I
mentioned it to you primarily because you're her second and need to be
aware of that effect.  It could be useful--at least if a young civ
falls in love with her, you'll know to send him to a recruiter!"

Odeon chuckled.  "True--too bad all recruiters don't have a method that
effective.  It would've saved me a lot of time, when I had that duty."

"It would save the Service a lot of time, too, getting rid of ones who
don't work out," Bradford agreed.  "If she weren't such an incredibly
talented Inquisitor, I'd want her on that duty--though she'd have to
have a partner who could tell when it happened, because as I said, she
doesn't know she's doing it."

Odeon frowned.  "Do we want her to know?  I don't like keeping things
from her, but offhand I'd say she's better off thinking it's normal
comradeship, with her back trouble as an explanation for any help or
protection out of the ordinary."

"Which is what I was working around to asking you," Bradford said.  "If
you think that's best, we'll keep it between the two of us."

"Us and the team," Odeon corrected, "so they don't mention it by
mistake.  No one else is likely to say they love an Inquisitor, even if
it's true.  I know I'd never dare."

"Did you tell her before she got her Warrant?"

"No--she never seemed to want that kind of tie, so I didn't burden her
with it."  Odeon frowned briefly, then smiled.  "Fortunately for
me--and the rest of us, I guess--she doesn't need that to make love to
us."

"I've heard," Bradford said appreciatively.  "As well for you--us, if
she's willing to go outside her team--that she doesn't put a daily
limit on herself."

"She's never restricted herself to a given team, either," Odeon said.
"Only to Enforcement men.  I'm sure she'd be willing to accommodate you
and Major--I mean, Ivan."

"Good!"  Bradford smiled.  "Both our wives understand and accept the
dispensation, of course, and so does Ivan's mistress, if that matters
to her."

"I don't know if it does or not," Odeon admitted, surprised at himself.
"She's never mentioned it to me, or to anyone else I know of.  If I
thought about it at all, I guess I assumed she assumed any wives or
girlfriends did accept it."

"Okay.  Sis expects her to wake up tomorrow?"

"Late afternoon or early evening, yes."



10. Dream

Saturday, 29 February 2572

Odeon was too edgy to sleep, too nervous about Joanie's prospects for
recovery even to rest well, and more than a little apprehensive about
the Brothers, so not long after midnight he gave up his useless attempt
to sleep.  He dressed quietly in the dim night-lighting, careful not to
disturb the others--especially Piety, napping at the table.  With a
patient to care for and herself the only medical person who knew about
Cortin's surgery, Chang slept grudgingly, not letting herself get
comfortable for fear of not waking if Cortin should need her.  Odeon
didn't think it really necessary, but he wouldn't order anyone to be
less conscientious in their specialty than they thought wise.

He slipped outside, chuckling ruefully at himself.  Sis wasn't the only
one taking unnecessary precautions; here he was putting himself on
guard duty in a Royal residential compound with the Crown Prince and
Princess present!  If that wasn't redundant, he didn't know what would
be; he'd have the proverbial snowball's chance against anything that
could get past the kind of security this place had.  Still, he felt
better when he'd made a tour around the shelter and settled himself in
a lawn chair beside the door.

It was a mild night, a bit cooler than usual for this time of
year--good sleeping weather, and the smell of the roses was relaxing.
Maybe out here he could catch a nap after all, so he wouldn't be a
total loss in the morning--wouldn't want to be a zombie when Joanie
woke up!  And he was a Tracker, trained to wake instantly if he heard
anything unusual.  He settled deeper into the chair, closing his eyes.

      *      *      *      *      *

The man approaching him was impossible.  For one thing, he was
inhumanly attractive, almost beautiful--but the clincher was his
uniform.  Enforcement did have some good-looking older officers; it had
never had a white uniform, or a star for rank insigne, or a Kingdom
emblem that looked like a spiral galaxy.  This had to be a dream, then,
so Odeon settled in to play along and enjoy it.

It seemed reasonable to assume that a star outranked even an eagle, so
he stood, coming to attention as the man neared.

"At ease," the stranger said, smiling.  "You need have no fear for your
Joanie, Michael; she'll be fully recovered when she wakes."

"Thank you, sir."  Odeon had no doubt the man knew precisely what he
was talking about, and it was definitely reassuring.

"But you'd like to know how I know."  The man smiled again.  "I'm an
aspect of the Triune you worship, Michael, in a form I hope you'll
find--" He broke off, chuckling.  "Not comforting, certainly, or even
reassuring, but at least not threatening.  I'm here to give you a
heads-up, and maybe more if you want it.  You've thought for a long
time that Joanie's something special, haven't you?"

Odeon nodded, glad that this was a dream.  If it'd been real, he
would've been too stunned to function--because the man looked like an
older Jeshua, and that was entirely too much for him to accept as
reality with any degree of calm.  As it was, he managed a nod.  "Yes, I
have."

"And you're quite right, she is."  The man paused.  "The White Fathers
taught you well, but human interpretations do tend to modify even the
most accurate prophecies.  Can you accept both that fact, and the
accompanying one that I cannot, for your own sake, give you all the
details just yet?"

Odeon hesitated in turn, then nodded, slowly.  "From anyone else, I'd
say no--but from you, I can manage."

The man smiled.  "You please me, my son.  The White Fathers called this
the Time of Chaos, though Time of Change would be more accurate,
particularly where the lives of those on your team are concerned.  Joan
is the herald of the Promised One, and will act as that one's surrogate
for a time, though she will not be asked to bear that burden
permanently, and would be far happier if she isn't forced to
acknowledge her temporary Protectorship."

Odeon frowned.  "The Protector's Herald and acting Protector herself?"
That didn't seem particularly plausible, though he had to agree Joanie
wouldn't enjoy being put in either position.

"You are a wise man, Michael.  And properly skeptical, as a police
officer must be."  The man raised his hand.  "But it's your devotion
that has to take precedence now, and it has to be focused on her."

"With all respect, sir, I don't understand."

"Remain her friend and guide, as you've begun.  Completing her destined
tasks will be both difficult and dangerous, particularly since she must
remain largely unaware of that destiny, and her powers must remain
mostly latent, until the true Protector manifests."  He gestured, and
they were inside, standing beside the cot that served Cortin as a
recovery room, with Chang on the other side.

The man kept his attention centered on Odeon, though he was clearly
addressing Chang as well.  "When she wakes, the final phase begins.
You will be severely tried, Michael in particular, by pain and loss
great enough that you will be sorely tempted to reject me."  He raised
a hand to forestall Odeon's instinctive denial.  "I said you would be
tempted; I did not say you would succumb, though even Cardinals are not
immune."

Odeon frowned again.  In the light of last month's murder of Pope
Anthony and Cardinal McHenry's near-unanimous election--he was now Pope
Lucius--that had an ominous sound.  "There was something fishy about
the Papal election?"

"Let us just say that were his true identity known, most people would
prefer a fish in that position.  The former Cardinal McHenry introduced
himself to Sister-Lieutenant Chang as the Raidmaster."

Odeon stared at Chang, then at him.  "The Raidmaster--are you saying
that Shayan is the Pope?"

"The Cardinals' free will includes the freedom to accept temptation,"
the man said drily.  "Yes, he's managed that.  But for now balance must
be maintained, which means giving Joan a core group he can't touch, and
nudging temporal authorities to give her mundane power to match his.
All of which will have to be done without her knowledge, or she loses
her temporary immunity before she's strong enough to fight him.  If
that's how she chooses to handle it."

Gently, he pulled the coverlet down to Cortin's waist, then touched her
breasts.  "If you choose, you two will be her chief support--and for
that, you'll need support yourselves.  You've both offered your lives
to me and been accepted.  That hasn't protected you from sin, because
that's part of the Protector's covenant.  And it's too early for it to
protect more than her core group--but if you're willing to surrender
that fragment of your free will so you can serve her fully, I can give
you the help and protection you need to do it."

"You've got it," Odeon said without hesitation, and Chang nodded.

"I expected no less of you," Jeshua said, obviously pleased.  "Then
drink from her, for hers is the protecting and healing Milk of Life."

Chang obeyed immediately, but Odeon hesitated, looking at the drop of
white that had appeared on her nipple.  "Even for that," he said
softly, "I can't take advantage of her.  That's not the way to help
her."

"I admire your integrity," Jeshua said, "but that need not concern you.
I foresaw this possibility; she'll feel and enjoy your drinking.
Though she won't understand it until the time comes to make this
available to everyone."

Reassured, Odeon bent to his Joanie's breast and drank.  Her milk was
warm and sweet, so full of the promised life it was almost
intoxicating--and he could feel her pleasure in it, could feel Sis'
emotional pain and scars fading to nonexistence, could feel God's
Presence surrounding and enfolding them.

He was reluctant to release her even when he could drink no more.  The
unity he'd felt with her, and through her with Sis, was too right for
him to want to leave it.

"There will be other times," Jeshua said.  "Only one drink is
necessary--but once all can partake, she will feed you again and often,
both as part of your loving and as a remembrance and renewal of the
unity you've just felt."  He smiled.  "That doesn't mean she won't
continue to lactate; she and those who accept her will have special
gifts, you and her other staff and priests in particular.  It only
means that until then, her milk will be no more miraculous than any
other woman's.  You and Piety are the ones who'll choose those to serve
her and give them milk or seed."

That part made sense; Odeon was used to both priestly functions and
delegation of authority.  It was what Jeshua said about Joanie's milk
being part of their loving--with Joanie the Protector, even just
temporarily, he couldn't possibly--

Jeshua chuckled.  "Of course you can, and will.  You don't love her any
less because of what you've learned; why deprive either yourself or her
of the most powerful physical expression of that love?  It's also
something both of you want, and I certainly have no objection."  He
smiled.

Odeon returned the smile, unable to resist the other's charisma.  What
he said did make sense; he'd wept when Joanie'd lost that pleasure and
consolation, and now that she had it back, it'd be unfair for him to
deprive her.  Not that he wanted to deprive either of them; it just
seemed incongruous that he make love to an Aspect of God.  Knowing that
she was, anyway; it'd seemed normal enough before.  Still . . .  "You
know I'll do anything she needs--or just wants--me to do."

"I know," Jeshua said.  "To your credit, my son, though you don't
really need it."  He turned to Chang, touching her head gently.  "Any
more than you do, daughter.  You've had the special help you needed;
now your suffering is over, and you may conceive whenever and with
whomever you wish.  I assure you, your child will have a distinguished
family."

Chang bowed to him, her expression at once radiant and serene.  "I will
leave those choices to the One Who healed me, with gratitude."

"So be it."  Jeshua smiled, covered Cortin again, and was gone.

      *      *      *      *      *

Moonlight in his face brought Odeon awake, frowning.  That dream had
been decidedly peculiar, not at all his usual type--much too realistic,
for one thing, so much so that it seemed he could still taste Joanie's
milk.  What had gotten into him?

More disturbed by the dream than he cared to admit even to himself, he
got up and stretched, then made another tour around the shelter before
going in.  The activity helped--until he saw Chang's tear-stained face
and haunted expression.  He joined her at the table, glancing at
Cortin--no, nothing obviously wrong--before touching the medic's hand.
"What's wrong, Sis?" he asked quietly.

"A dream, no more," she said.  "I should not have let it disturb
me--though it seemed so real I find it hard to dismiss as I should."

Two overly-real dreams not only on the same night, but apparently at
the same time . . .  "I just had one of those myself," he said.  "If
yours matches, I think we can count on interesting times ahead--tell me
about it."

When she finished, he rubbed his scar.  "Word for word, and as close to
action for action as possible with you in here and me outside.  Not a
dream, then, was it?"

"No."  Chang managed a shaky smile.  "To live in interesting times is
an ancient curse of my people, did you know that?"

"I'd heard," Odeon said.  "This was a blessing, though."  He fell
silent.  "If we can believe the visions, anyway.  On the other hand,
Shayan is the Father of Lies, and his only absolute limitation is that
he can't create life.  He could be trying to trick us."

Chang shook her head.  "I have felt Shayan's touch, Michael; I would
know it anywhere, and that was not he.  More, what benefit would he get
from such trickery?"

"None that I can think of," Odeon admitted.  "And I don't really
believe the idea myself--comes from a career of questioning everything,
especially when there's no physical proof one way or the other."

"There is a form of proof possible," Chang said.  "If either of us can
do something we know to be sinful, the vision was false.  If not, which
I am certain is the case, it seems safe enough to assume its truth;
even in my most cynical moments, I cannot believe that Shayan would
render a human incapable of sin, even if such lies within his power."

"I can, under one condition, but since I don't believe he's capable of
love--especially where Enforcement people are concerned--I agree with
your conclusion."

Odeon thought for a minute, then made the attempt, with a total lack of
success.  Giving the nun a half-smile, he shrugged.  "Can't violate the
First Commandment, at any rate.  I can consider it intellectually with
no problem, but when think comes to do, no way."  His attempt at a
humorous grin turned into an elated smile.  "Sis, it's great!  I've
been praying for this since I was a boy and learned what the Protector
would do--I not only can't sin now, I can't even want to!"

Chang gestured him to quiet down before his enthusiasm woke the rest;
it was still well before normal time to get up, and waking someone
unnecessarily was rude at best.  His pleasure was infectious, though,
and she couldn't help returning his smile.  "I feel as you do,
Michael--though I still find it difficult to fully accept that I am
actually living in the Protector's time.  I am somewhat surprised that
I am able to accept it at all."

"Me too--so I imagine that's part of the help we were promised.  We
couldn't accomplish a whole lot if we were too stunned to function, and
from what he said, we're going to have to start functioning almost
immediately."

"True--though we will be able to say nothing about this."

"Not right away, no," Odeon agreed, "but we'll have to tell the rest
soon.  And anyone else we think should be part of her core group.  I've
got some pretty good ideas about who I'd like to see in it, too.  Brad
and Ivan definitely, Their Highnesses--odd as it may seem--very
possibly."

"I believe it would be difficult to find better, if they are willing."

"We'll ask when we get the chance.  In the meantime--" Odeon hesitated.
"I don't know about you, Sis, but I never expected to be living at the
end of one age and the beginning of another, even though the monks who
raised me said it was possible and I always wanted to see the
Protector."

"My feelings also," Chang said.  "I had hoped for such, but not really
anticipated it either."  She smiled.  "I always wished to be both a nun
and a mother, and that seemed to be the only way it would be possible.
So while I, like you, am frightened, I am also looking forward to the
experience."

"From what he was saying, you're going to be more a priest than a
nun--but I know what you mean."  Odeon studied her carefully.  "I
gather that being healed means yau'll be able to join the action
now--and want to?"

"Indeed, as eagerly as you.  Were it not that I have responsibilities
to my patient, I would wish to enjoy you immediately."  She looked
toward the sleepers, then back to him.  "I find that strange,
considering the circumstances of my previous sexual experience.  But it
is also undeniably true.  I desire you, and I will undoubtedly desire
the others when opportunity presents itself."

"They'll be as glad to hear that as I am, though they might find it a
little hard to believe at first.  Whatever we tell them later, we'll
have to give some sort of explanation for that almost immediately."

"I see no problem there; the truth, in part, should do nicely.  All
know I have been praying for this; I need only say my prayers have been
answered.  I need not say how directly just yet, though I agree that we
will have to do so eventually."

Odeon chuckled, pleased to find his equanimity returning.  "True.  It
looks like you may not be with us too long, though, if He sends you a
child right away."

"It is in His hands--but He said Joan will need us both, so either I
will not conceive soon, or He will find a way for me to remain with
her."

"Any preference as to the father?"

"Not of the fertile men I know.  Were he one, and the choice still
mine, I would choose Tiny."

The gentlest of the team, except for Piety herself.  A natural choice,
Odeon thought, smiling.  "He'd make a good father, I think.  And it's
not completely out of the question, with the same kind of help you've
already had."

"True."  Chang smiled briefly.  "We shall see, when the time comes."

      *      *      *      *      *

"How do you feel, Captain?"

"Mmm?"  Cortin opened her eyes, to see Odeon and Chang standing over
her.  "Not bad--it's done?"

"It is done.  The procedure went quite well.  You feel no pain?"

"Only the usual in my back.  No sensation where you were working."

Chang gave them a thumbs-up, smiling.  "Precisely as it should be; you
are fully healed, and the algetin has worn off.  You are again capable
of intercourse, and I believe enjoyably so.  Though it may take you a
few times to become accustomed to the different sensations."

Cortin licked her lips apprehensively, sitting up but keeping herself
covered with the sheet.  Mike had said it'd be an order of magnitude
better, Sis said it should be enjoyable, and she trusted them
implicitly--so why in God's name was she suddenly so apprehensive at
the prospect of something she'd enjoyed so much before?  Her last
experience had been horrible, granted, so maybe the apprehension was
normal . . .  She forced herself to calm.  None of her people would
hurt her, she knew that; at worst, she'd have no feeling.  No physical
feeling, she corrected herself.  Making love with Enforcement men had
always been fun, and usually gave her a comfortable, cherished feeling
whether she climaxed or not.  She'd still have that, which was
something to cling to.  A big something.

"There are some things you should know before beginning," Chang said.
"While you are again capable of arousal, you must understand it will
not be the same; you will have to make allowances."

Cortin nodded.  "I understand.  Can you be more specific?"

"I found it necessary to provide muscular support for the replacement,"
Chang said.  "I attempted to tie the necessary relaxation into the
arousal mechanism, but I am a medic, not a surgeon; I do not know if I
was successful.  Should arousal not relax those muscles sufficiently to
permit penetration, you will have to do so consciously."

"I think I can manage that, if I have to.  What about climax?"

Chang shrugged, smiling regretfully.  "You will have to tell me," she
said.  "You are not physiologically equipped for such, yet my studies
tell me it is as much a mental as a physical phenomenon, so I cannot
say you will not experience it."

"That's all I can ask," Cortin said.  "I owe you, Sis; what can I do
for you?"

Chang smiled.  "You owe me nothing, Captain; restoring your ability to
function is reward enough.  And I have news of my own.  You are not the
only one to be restored; my prayers have been answered."

Cortin laughed, her apprehension dissolved in the nun's evident
pleasure.  "Wonderful!  When?  Who'd you celebrate it with?"

"Last night.  No one as yet, not with a patient under my care and
myself the only available medic."

"In which case it's a good thing I don't need medical care any longer,"
Cortin said with a grin.  Then she turned to Odeon.  "Where are the
rest, Mike?"

"Tiny's outside playing gardener; the rest are up at the Manor visiting
Prince Edward's security troops.  We thought it would be a good idea to
let you check yourself out without a crowd."

"I appreciate the consideration, but my team's not a crowd."  Cortin
cocked an eye at him.  "Since I know you wouldn't pull rank for a
personal matter, were you the one to stay because we were lovers
before?"

"That did make him the reasonable choice," Chang said equably.

"And Sis has more than a passing interest in Tiny," Odeon said.

"Then I'd suggest she invite him in," Cortin said.  "While she
does--any news?"

She meant professional, not personal, Odeon knew; he shook his head.
"Nothing worth mentioning.  The Brothers are still laying low, and
aside from confirming what you found out about the Shannons, Ivan says
the Detention Center Inquisitors have been drawing blanks."

"What about the one we brought with us?"

"Dave and Ivan teamed up on him, but unless you count some
entertainment, they didn't get anything useful."

"Blast!  Not wishing anyone anything bad, but I'll be glad when this
stalemate breaks."

"You aren't the only one," Odeon agreed emphatically.  "Morale's as
good as you could expect, maybe a little better, but everyone's itching
for some action."  He made a wry face.  "Group therapy can only do so
much, even when you've got a bunch of compatible enthusiasts.  Which we
definitely do, even with you out of action."

"Good."  Most Enforcement men were heterosexual whenever possible, to
Cortin's gratification, but had no hesitation in enjoying each other
rather than doing without; if they weren't compatible, morale suffered.
"Nobody's getting shorted or exploited?"

"No.  Everything's as smooth as we could hope for, and everyone's
looking forward to having you join in."

"I plan to," Cortin said, then turned to Chang, who had come back in
with Pritchett.  "Unless you'd recommend otherwise?"

"As I said, you are fully healed," the medic said.  "I see no reason to
hesitate, even with our misnamed Tiny."

"Well endowed?" Cortin asked Odeon, grinning.  She'd never seen her
communications specialist naked, to her disappointment; in Middletown
he'd used the Elysian Gardens, and here, she'd been unconscious.

"Nicely in proportion, at any rate," Odeon replied with an answering
grin.  "And his stamina's nothing to sneeze at, either--he gave me a
ride yesterday evening you wouldn't believe."

The big man grinned.  "You flatter me--and I love it."

"No flattery intended," Odeon said, straight-faced.  "Just doing my
duty, keeping the CO informed.  Of course, I imagine she'll see for
herself here shortly."

"If not," Chang said, "I will be most disappointed.  When I was praying
for a normal trooper's sexual attitude and abilities, I did not realize
the strength of the drive I was praying for.  I confess I am finding it
difficult to keep my hands to myself."

"Why try, then?" Cortin asked.  "Neither of you is on duty, there
aren't any civs around, and Tiny looks willing enough."

"More than willing," Pritchett said, extending his hand to the medic.
"I need a shower first; care to join me?"

"That sounds most enjoyable."

"Attractive couple, aren't they?" Odeon asked appreciatively as the
pair disappeared into the bathroom.

"Very," Cortin agreed.  "Sis deserved a miracle if anyone did, and
Tiny'll be good for her."  She let the sheet drop--and found out why
Odeon was wearing a robe at this time of day; he was naked.  And, she
thought with satisfaction, as beautifully and excitingly male as she
remembered.

Odeon looked at her, afraid that what he'd learned of her early that
morning would block his normal reaction to her.  To his considerable
relief, he discovered it didn't; if anything, it made her more
desirable.  The remembered taste of her milk sent a surge of thrilling
warmth through him, focusing in his loins.

Cortin grinned at her second's fast arousal, holding out her arms as
she felt half-familiar, half-strange sensations in her belly.  "It's
nice to have a dependable second--especially one who's properly
respectful."

Odeon glanced down, smiling at her familiar banter.  "Yes, ma'am.  The
Academy did stress respect for one's superior officers, and the
importance of a proper stance of attention."

      *      *      *      *      *

They lay for awhile when it ended, catching their breath, then Odeon
withdrew, caressing her affectionately.  "You seemed to enjoy that--and
it's the best I've ever had."

"Enjoy?"  Cortin looked at him, trying to sort out her feelings.
"That's . . . I don't know.  Too weak a word."  She smiled at him, a
bit tentatively.  "Mike . . . it was like climaxing, the whole
time--and when you did, it was . . ."  She hesitated, searching for
words, then gave it up as hopeless.  Even a poet would have trouble
describing what she'd felt!  "I can't describe it, except that it was
like being filled with liquid fire--and I'm still tingling from it."

"So what's the verdict for tonight?  Rest or recreation?"

"Recreation, definitely.  After supper, though."

"Bradford and Illyanov have been making it pretty clear they'd like in,
if you're willing."

'Willing' seemed like a pretty weak word too, Cortin thought.  It
didn't seem her drive was any stronger than it had been, so maybe it
was the length of time she'd had to abstain, but the idea of as wide a
variety as she could get--and as much--was overwhelmingly attractive.
"I assume you told them I would be?"

"Not exactly, though I did say you'd enjoyed men from outside your team
in the past.  Sweet Mother, I couldn't even be sure you'd want me,
after what the Brothers did to you!"   Until he'd been told this
morning that she would, and he'd only become positive when she'd
claimed him . . .

"There's a major difference between an enemy assault and a friendly
tussle," Cortin said drily.  "I was a little nervous at first, I can't
deny that, but it didn't last long.  I didn't notice you having me held
down, or using broken bottles, or gun barrels along with threats to
blow my head off from the inside."

"You never told me that!" Odeon exclaimed, horrified.

"I . . . had a hard time talking about it until now.  Even during
debrief, with all of Colonel Bradford's skill.  I still do, a little."

Odeon embraced her, swearing to himself.  What he had known was bad
enough--but he hadn't imagined rape with a gun barrel, and he didn't
want to imagine any parts she'd still have trouble talking about.  Brad
was right--they had to get Joanie out of the field, somewhere she'd be
safe, before the Brothers had a chance to get hold of her again, off
limits or not, and maybe do something even worse.  Between himself,
Brad, and Ivan, they should be able to find some way to get her into a
safe job willingly!  "It's okay, Joanie," he said softly.  "We'll take
care of you."

Cortin started to pull away, protesting that she could take care of
herself, then she settled back into his arms.  Mike meant well, she was
sure, and it was nice having him hold her.  "We'll all take care of
each other," she agreed.  "And yes, do invite Ivan and Brad
along--we'll make a real party of it."

"That sounds like fun."  Odeon gave a theatrical sigh.  "Which I
suppose means I should get up and call them."

"No need," Chang said, startling them both; they hadn't realized she
and Tiny were back until she spoke.  "We will do so, though that will
give you only a few more minutes."

"Every little bit helps," Odeon said.  "Thanks, Sis--Tiny."



11. Dinner

Supper was a festive affair.  The meal was sent from the Manor, with
Prince Edward's compliments, and Princess Ursula sent Cortin a
silk-lined brocade evening robe with a note expressing the royal
couple's pleasure at the Captain's recovery.  The robe was nothing like
the utilitarian one Cortin usually wore, but it was attractive, and
proved more comfortable than she'd thought it could be.  It had seemed
too showy when she first saw it, but when the men appeared in full
dress uniforms, it seemed entirely appropriate.  Only the two from the
capital appeared completely comfortable in their finery at first, since
they were the only ones who wore dress uniforms regularly, but by the
time the group sat down to eat, her team looked more relaxed.

When Bradford finished saying grace, Cortin looked at him, letting her
curiosity show.  "A catered dinner from the Crown Prince, a robe from
Her Highness, and everyone in dress blacks--what's going on?"

"Attempted bribery," Bradford said cheerfully.  "For which I can't be
prosecuted, since I'm operating under His Majesty's orders."

Cortin stared at him, her mind momentarily blank.  "What?"

"You may not realize it, but since until recently you were St. Thomas's
only female Enforcement officer, His Majesty follows your career with
considerable interest.  Try your soup; it's much better hot."

Cortin obeyed.  "It's delicious . . . I know I was, and I suppose
that's reason enough for curiosity--God knows I've run into more of it
than I like!--but why bribery?  I took the same commissioning oath you
did, to obey His Majesty's lawful orders."  If she didn't like them,
well, she could go rogue after all . . .  "And why so suddenly?  Before
the operation, everything was strictly routine."

Bradford shrugged.  "That's what I thought, until this morning.  One
thing you'll learn, if you take the bribe, is that His Majesty asks for
information and advice, but he keeps his own counsel and makes his own
decisions.  He won't make this an order because I told him what you
were likely to do if you were kept from your revenge."

She'd been certain he knew; she nodded.  "And?"

"He's always been impressed by the loyalty you inspire in those who
work with you, and he was also most impressed when he saw the films of
your training interrogations."  Bradford smiled.  "Not as impressed by
the films as Ivan and I were, but His Majesty isn't an Inquisitor; he
couldn't see the subtleties that can make such a difference.  Still,
what he could see, combined with your truthsense, not to mention the
reputation you've earned from your work at Middletown, have convinced
him that you're the one he wants for a new position.  It's a major part
of the increased anti-terrorist campaign, and it won't require you to
leave the Strike Force or give up your team.  There'll be less field
work, though--probably a lot less--and you'll be headquartered in a new
building near the Palace compound.  This is a small sample of the life
you can lead there, one both His Majesty and I hope you'll find
tempting."

"I do," Cortin admitted.  It would be hard not to be tempted by the
thought of living close to the Palace compound, eating this sort of
food, and keeping her Strike Force status and team as well.  "What's
the position?  And, with all due respect to you and His Majesty, what's
the catch?"

"The position is High King's Inquisitor, which carries membership in
the Royal Household as well as the rank of Colonel, to match your
counterparts in other Kingdoms."  Bradford grinned at her expression of
disbelief.  "I don't joke about His Majesty, Joan.  Or about a
prospective member of the Royal Household, who'll outrank mere members
of the King's Own if she accepts the job, and might take offense."

Cortin swallowed, hard.  How could she refuse such an offer, whether
she believed it justified or not?  She looked at Odeon, almost
desperately, but saw no help there; he looked both smug and as pleased
as she thought she ought to be, so she turned her attention back to
Bradford.  Worse, this fit in with what she'd experienced--and
preferred not to think about--while she'd been under Sis' drugs.  "The
catch?"

"We're hoping you don't think there is one--or at least not one bad
enough to stop you from accepting the position.  As I said, there'll be
less field work, but to balance that, you'll be able to flag any topic
you want information on, and you'll be able to requisition any prisoner
you want to question yourself.  You'll also be asked to carry out the
most difficult interrogations as well, and executions of the worst
criminals.  What do you say?"

"That it all sounds much too good to be true," Cortin replied.  Jumping
from Captain to Colonel, the highest Enforcement rank, plus joining the
Royal Household, access to any information or prisoners she wanted
. . . it was hard to believe she could be offered all that, even with the
reputation she now took pride in.  And the vision, or hallucination, or
whatever it had been that said this was going to happen.  She sipped at
her drink, a freshly-pressed cider.  She did have to admit it was hard
to refuse, though.  "What else?"

"The clincher, I hope," Bradford said.  "A commander who can resist
personal threats or promises is often vulnerable to the same pressures
on his--or her, of course--people.  So a reminder: your team will
remain with you.  If you're part of the Household, that means they'll
be attached to it--members of the King's Own, reporting to you.  Not as
prestigious as being Household members, and it doesn't carry automatic
promotion, but they'll also live near the Palace compound--in your
Lodge, if they don't mind living in a building that also houses the
High King's Inquisitor and a state-of-the-art interrogation suite."

Not as overwhelming an offer as the one to herself, but Cortin nodded.
"You're right, Brad, that is the clincher.  Even though you might not
have needed it, if you'd given me time to think; I would've realized
what the offer meant for them."

"You accept, then."

"Yes."

"Good."  Bradford smiled.  "On His Majesty's behalf, then, as well as
from me: Congratulations, Colonel Cortin."  He stood, raising his
glass.  "Gentles, I give you Her Excellency Colonel Joan Cortin, the
High King's Inquisitor."

The others followed suit.  Illyanov and Odeon exchanged glances, Odeon
obviously trying to look solemn but spoiling the effect with a smile he
couldn't hide.  Illyanov raised an eyebrow, then nodded, and Odeon
said, "To Your Excellency's continued health and happiness."  The
diners drank the formal toast, then sat back down, and Odeon dropped
his attempt to look solemn.  "High King's Inquisitor--Joanie, you
couldn't've asked for a better place to hunt those plaguers from!"

"No, I don't think I could," Cortin agreed.  "It's still hard to
believe I'd get tapped for it, though--talent or not, I don't have that
much experience."  She paused long enough to eat some stuffed shrimp
and take a drink of cider, then she went on.  "If there'd been a
position like this earlier, I'd've expected it to go to someone like
Brad or Ivan, with experience."

"I do not know about Brad," Illyanov said with a smile, "but I am not
qualified.  I am immediately subject to Czar Nicholas, not to High King
Mark.  Since you express interest, however--I have been informed that I
am under consideration for that position on St. Dmitri.  I should like
to teach you the advanced techniques we did not have time for earlier,
but I should also like to return to my wife and children in New Moscow.
Despite the climate."

"New Colorado's bad enough in the winter," Cortin agreed.  "I'd like to
go to your home world some day, on assignment or leave--but I hope it's
in summer!"

"It is far more pleasant then," Illyanov said, chuckling.  "Should I
get the position and require your assistance, I shall try to assure it
is in summer.  Should you go there at any time, however, I would like
you to meet my family.  You will like them, I think, especially Elena
and the girls, but I must warn you: the boys, especially Pyotr, will
beg you for war stories, and they can be most persistent."

"I think I can handle that," Cortin said, amused.  "You'll all be
welcome at the Lodge, of course."  She turned to Bain.  "That goes for
your brother's family, too, you know."

"Thanks . . ." Bain said, hesitantly.  "But I'm not sure they'd be
comfortable in the capital."

"I'm not sure I'll be comfortable there," Cortin said, then turned to
Bradford.  "Brad, all any of us know about life in New Denver comes
from the news and--if we read them, which I sometimes do for
laughs--the society columns.  What's it really like?"

"I don't want to disappoint you," Bradford said, "but most of the time
it's actually quite ordinary.  You'll wear dress uniform more often,
you'll be expected to attend important Palace functions, and your team
will act as bodyguards any time you leave the Compound; otherwise,
except for taking orders only from His Majesty--no one else can do more
than request--you should find things fairly normal."  He grinned.
"You'll find out, starting tomorrow . . . if Your Excellency cares to
join Their Highnesses on the return flight."

Cortin swallowed.  That shouldn't have surprised her, but it did--a
flight to New Denver with the Crown Prince and Princess wouldn't be
unusual for a member of the Royal Household, and she would get used to
it, she supposed.  Right now, though, it was a shock.  She brought
herself under control and said, "I'd be honored.  Arrangements will
have to be made, of course, to return our horses and pick up our
personal gear.  Oh, and we'll need proper insignia."

"All taken care of," Bradford said.  "We had plenty of time while you
were under treatment."

Cortin absorbed that, starting on her dessert.  It sounded at first
like Bradford or His Majesty had assumed, even before asking, that she
would accept--and maybe they had, she couldn't know--but a little
thought told her that wasn't necessarily the case.  Bradford could
carry all the insignia in a pocket, all of their personal gear wouldn't
strain a single packhorse, and if she refused, they could all be
returned to Middletown with only a slight loss of time.  "Thanks--that
was kind of you."

"Call it enlightened self-interest," Bradford said.  "And I do have
something to ask, when and if your primary duties permit."

"Of course, if I'm able."

"You are; you've done it.  Act as auxiliary confessor and spiritual
advisor to the Detention Center Inquisitors--I heard how much good you
did."

"Gladly--but don't forget Dave; he's a Priest-Inquisitor too."

"I've already said I'd do it," Bain said.  "And I'll probably have more
time for that sort of thing than you will.  I have a very strong
feeling your primary job isn't going to leave you much time for
anything else."

"Probably true," Cortin agreed.  "I enjoyed helping, but if I'm going
to do a good job as King's Inquisitor I may not have time to do that
very well.  And I'd rather not do it if I can't do it right."

"You'll be keeping busy, all right," Bradford told her, "with a whole
Kingdom to draw from.  The whole Systems, if your skills are necessary."

Cortin smiled.  "Good!"

"And it might interest you to know that His Majesty doesn't interfere
in his Household's private lives," Bradford said.  "I don't know your
preferences that well, but as long as you don't flaunt them, what you
do is between you and your partner or partners.  With the security
provided at the Palace Compound and Harmony Lodge, you won't have to
worry about outsiders who might be offended."

"No flaunting," Cortin promised.  "I have very basic tastes; the only
thing most people would frown on is the amount and variety of partners
I like."

Bradford smiled.  "Such as this group?"

Cortin returned the smile.  "Exactly."

"And is Her Excellency interested now?"

"Her Excellency most certainly is."

      *      *      *      *      *

When Cortin woke, shortly before dawn, she was still awed by her new
position.  That sort of promotion and transfer simply weren't supposed
to happen--but all the Kingdoms would have Sovereign's Inquisitors,
according to Brad; soon she'd be one of a dozen, different only in that
she worked directly for the High King.  That made it a little less
daunting--and they were supposed to leave for New Denver today.  She
got up, bathed, and dressed, unable to suppress a thrill when she
fastened the Colonel's eagle and the Household badge to her tunic.



12. Flight

Sunday, 01 Mar 2572

The flight started out as interesting, if uneventful.  Cortin exchanged
courtesies with the Royal couple, then joined her team, taking a window
seat.  It was her first flight--well, she thought, the first one she'd
been awake for, anyway--and she wanted to see everything she could.
She'd had a passing interest in archaeology once, so she was aware of
pre-war population statistics, and knew the unnaturally straight lines
of vegetation in the areas they flew over marked roads or buildings
that no longer existed.  For the first time, the two came together and
became real for her.  There had been so many of them!  Dear God, it
must have been unbearable, especially in the cities, crowded so closely
together!  But it was fascinating, seeing what they'd left . . . and
they'd been thriving, not declining . . .  She forced that thought
aside, not for the first time.  It was for Kings and Popes to concern
themselves with the fact that humanity in the Systems was dying out,
not for Enforcement officers.

As the plane droned westward, though, she discovered she couldn't
dismiss it any longer.  Whatever she'd experienced during her drugged
recovery wouldn't let her.  Like it or not, if she believed the vision
or hallucination or whatever--and it didn't seem to be leaving her much
choice in the matter--she'd been saddled with responsibility for
reversing the decline.

It wasn't fair, she protested to herself.  She was an Enforcement
officer, not a secular or Church noble; she didn't have the kind of
power or backing it would take to make the tremendous changes she'd
been shown were necessary.  Though, she admitted grudgingly, she'd also
been promised help getting the power and people she'd need to do the
job--and a Strike Team Leader/Inquisitor just promoted to High King's
Inquisitor wasn't exactly powerless.  Not popular, which she'd have to
be to gain widespread support for the changes she'd be trying to make,
but certainly not powerless.

Odeon's voice broke into her thoughts.  "You look disturbed, Colonel.
Is it anything we can help with?"

Cortin wanted to say no, but nodded instead.  She couldn't accomplish
either of her objectives alone, and who better for her closest helpers
than the team she and Mike had hand-picked?  "I'm afraid so.  See if we
can use the conference cabin, please, so I can brief all of you at
once."

"Right away."  Odeon stood, then hesitated.  "What about Colonel
Bradford and Major Illyanov?"

"Fine.  And civilian input wouldn't hurt, either, so see if Their
Highnesses would care to join us."

      *      *      *      *      *

Even on an aircraft of the Royal Fleet, space was limited; the
conference cabin was full when Cortin began the briefing.  "Your
Highnesses, gentles--thank you for coming.  This is difficult for me to
talk about, and it will be difficult for you to hear--but it not only
has to be said, it has to be acted on."

She paused, scanning the group's faces.  Yes, she had their full
attention, though both Odeon and Chang looked apprehensive as well as
attentive.  That was all right; everyone here would feel the same
before she got through.  "While I was recovering from Lieutenant
Chang's surgery, I had a series of what I can only call visions.  You
can decide the source for yourselves when you've heard what I have to
say; my own opinion is that the medication I was under either allowed
or forced me to put together a number of facts and arrive at some
uncomfortable conclusions.

"Although we've eliminated war and most illness, leading in turn to the
elimination of poverty in any sense the Terrans or prewars would
understand, the human race faces two great--and immediate--threats.
One is the terrorists, particularly the Brothers of Freedom and their
chief Raidmaster, Lawrence Shannon.  Eliminating them is a job we've
all--except Your Highnesses, of course--sworn to do, and the Strike
Force has personal reasons to do it thoroughly and quickly."

She took a deep breath.  "As bad as that threat is, the other is both
worse and harder to deal with.  Everyone knows, although no one wants
to talk or think about, the facts of human infertility and a declining
population.  The only thing that has been done about that, and it was
against considerable opposition, was the granting of Enforcement's
sexual dispensation.  Although some families are blessed with numerous
children, the average birthrate is less than two per family--and there
are many people who choose not to have families at all.  On the other
hand--Major Illyanov, how many children have you fathered?"

The Dmitrian smiled.  "Three by my wife, six more I am aware of by
other women--the children live with us, their mothers nearby--and my
mistress is currently with child."

"Seven children that wouldn't exist without the dispensation," Cortin
said, "since Major Illyanov honors God in both word and deed.  As does
Bishop-Colonel Bradford.  Colonel?"

"One by my wife, who's expecting our second," Bradford replied,
frowning.  "Three others I know about."

"Less prolific, but still well beyond replacement.  No one else in this
room has had any."

Princess Ursula echoed Bradford's frown.  "Are you suggesting that we
do away with families, or make all married women attempt to have
children by Enforcement men?" she asked quietly.

"Not at all, Your Highness," Cortin said.  "A strong family structure
is necessary to a healthy society, and no woman should be compelled to
have children, by any man.  I'm not advocating anything of the sort.
What I am saying is that family structure has to change in response to
changed conditions.  Monogamy means that if either spouse is sterile,
that couple will have no children--which is the case with almost half
of our families.  And that is as tragic for the individuals concerned
as it is suicidal for the race."  She paused.  "Some infertile couples
adopt, of course, and some seek Enforcement help, but neither is
statistically significant.  Fortunately, a few of those we've helped
have been nobles otherwise unable to fulfill their duty to provide
heirs."

Prince Edward winced, then nodded, looking grim.  A trooper's partner
naturally shared his dispensation for that act, and if a child came of
it, the trooper was almost always named the baby's godfather--though
the legal father was the husband.  "A service the Kingdom cannot
acknowledge," the Prince said, "but one it's nevertheless extremely
grateful for.  Unfortunately, it's one that has been of no benefit to
Ursula and myself.  If you have something that might work, we'll be
glad to consider it."

"Polygamy," Cortin said promptly.  "More than two spouses improve the
odds dramatically.  Four to eight per family, ideally half men and half
women, would do wonders for the birthrate."

"Be better for the children, too," Bain put in.  "Like my brother's
family--when he was killed, they lost the only adult male, and were
left with one adult to care for three young children, no steady role
model for the boys.  Jo--the Colonel's way, that'd be a whole lot less
likely.  One parent's death would still be tragic, of course, but it
wouldn't cause complete disruption."

"Which," Cortin said, "--and I admit to considerable personal interest
here--would mean Special Ops personnel could have families.  That
includes my team, though according to what I saw it doesn't include me."

It wouldn't, Odeon thought regretfully, at least not until the real
Protector manifested.  Her family, until then, had to be all the humans
in the Systems; she couldn't be restricted to a few individuals.  If he
were permitted a family, though, Joanie'd be as much a part of it as he
could manage--and he had a pretty good idea how.

The Royal couple whispered to each other for a few moments, then Prince
Edward looked back at Cortin.  "We agree, Excellency.  Show us how it
can be done legally and without sin, and Ursula and I will bring others
into our family."  He raised an eyebrow at them.  "Although we have
come to love each other, it's common knowledge that isn't necessary to
a Royal marriage, the primary purpose of which is to beget heirs.  If a
polygamous marriage can permit us to fulfill that purpose it is--as you
pointed out--our duty."

Cortin swallowed, uncomfortable.  "I intended no offense, Your
Highness."

"None taken, Your Excellency.  Although it's not by intent, we have
failed."  He turned to Bradford.  "How do you think Enforcement
personnel and their families would react to the idea, Colonel?"

"Favorably," Bradford said.  "Many of us already have such arrangements
informally, as I'm sure Your Highness knows, and quite a few--myself
included--would like to formalize them."

"And most of the nobility," the Prince said, "would be more intrigued
than offended, if it could be shown not to be sinful.  The Church would
resist that, though, I'm afraid, and the landfolk would probably have
strong objections."

"I know," Cortin admitted.  "I don't have any choice but to try,
though.  I saw two possibilities in the vision, or whatever it was, and
I've got to work for the second.  In the first, humanity kept on the
way it's going now, a slow decline with the terrorists getting stronger
until they reach a critical number and Shayan takes them over openly,
uses them to wipe out the rest of us in a final bloody massacre, then
amuses himself by torturing them to death one by one--which he and his
demons continue, of course, once they're in Sheol.

"The other wasn't quite as clear, maybe because there's more than one
way for it to go--I can't be certain.  In it, we recognize the Satyr
Plague for what it is--"

"Shayan's attempt to corrupt us," Princess Ursula declared.

"With all respect, Your Highness," Cortin said firmly, "that's not
possible.  I can't deny that Shayan has tremendous power, but there's
one power God has reserved to Himself, and that is the creation of
life.  The satyr virus isn't very high on the scale, I agree, but it is
life, with no detectable connection to any other form in the Kingdoms.
So the Satyr Plague is from God, and it must be His Will that we use
it, within the limits of morality He's given us, to reverse the
decline."

"The Satyr Plague used within the bounds of morality?" Princess Ursula
sounded highly dubious.

"It can be done," Cortin said.  "Troopers don't use their dispensation
to spend all their time having sex, do they?"

"No," the Princess admitted, "not even all their spare time. But
troopers are far better disciplined than the average civilian--give
landfolk the freedom to indulge their drives the way troopers do, and I
dread to think of the consequences."

"I think you're underestimating them, Your Highness," Cortin said,
allowing herself a smile.  "I was raised in a farming family, and I can
assure you they're every bit as disciplined as troopers, although in a
different way."  She grimaced.  "I'll take drill, and transfers, and
orders, and getting shot at, any day, over milking and plowing and
feeding and getting up before dawn every day!  Even with the virus'
help, farm life doesn't leave enough energy for overindulgence.  I'm
sure most would be happy to keep their sexual activity within the
family."

"Happier than now, I'd bet," Bain said.  "That way, they'd get the
variety the virus makes you want, without having to go outside the
family--which would be a major reduction in adultery all by itself."

"That sounds reasonable," the Princess said.  "Your argument about the
virus being a new life form is one I can't refute either, so go on.  We
recognize the Satyr Plague as God's gift; then what?"

"The first thing, as Your Highness has already agreed, is to get
polygamy approved," Cortin said.  "And, as His Highness has pointed
out, convincing the Church to sanction it is going to be difficult.
Assuming we can manage that, even on a small scale to demonstrate its
effects on the birthrate, the next step is to eliminate the terrorists.
I don't know for sure, but I think that's going to mean a showdown
between me and Shannon--the real one--and that, gentles, terrifies me."
She took a deep breath, exhaled slowly in an attempt to calm herself.
"Assuming the new family structure and Shannon's defeat, what I saw was
God's Kingdom, here in the Systems.  That tells me the Final Coming
must have taken place sometime between now and then, with the
protection from sin Jeshua said the Protector would bring to those who
sought it.  I didn't see that part, though."

The Princess crossed herself.  "The Spirit Who will come to correct and
comfort," she said softly.

"'Who will come in a form none can predict,'" Bradford quoted,
"'bringing God's Wrath to those who persist in sin, and His Eternal Joy
to those who forswear it.'  Are you claiming to be His Herald, Colonel
Cortin?"

"I'm not claiming anything, My Lord Bishop.  All I'm doing is telling
you about some things I saw in what may have been nothing more than a
drug-induced hallucination.  But it's one convincing enough I have to
believe and act on it, even though I'm certain it's going to kill me."
She shrugged.  "Not that I expected to live long when I went into
Special Ops.  All I can ask is to go out doing my best."

"That's all any of us can ask," Bradford agreed.  He'd have to talk to
Odeon about this soon, in private; the scar-faced man's expression,
though he was trying to remain impassive, told the Bishop-Inquisitor he
knew something he wasn't saying.  "I wouldn't tell anyone else about
this until we get some hard evidence one way or another, and I'd
suggest the rest of you keep it within this group as well."

"As the Colonel commands," Illyanov said.  "I, however, intend to act
as if Colonel Cortin's vision was precisely that."  He gave Cortin a
deep, seated bow.  "I am yours to command, Excellency."

"So's the team, of course," Odeon said.

"And I'm willing to give serious consideration to anything that will
give us an Heir," the Prince said.  "I'll speak to my father about
this, and I'll expect you to keep us informed.  For now, we should be
getting ready for landing."  He paused.  "Before we return to the main
cabin, though, Your Excellency, I have a favor to ask."

"If I can, Your Highness."

The Prince took four cartridges out of his pocket.  "For us and my
parents, then, if you would be so kind."

Cortin sighed, but only to herself.  "Of course.  I'll need holy water;
is there any aboard?"

"At your service."  The Prince handed her a small vial.

Cortin took it, blessed the cartridges, and returned them.  "With my
personal hope you're never in a position to need the special blessing,"
she added.

"Which would be a form of protection, wouldn't it?"  The Prince smiled.
"Thank you, Colonel."



13. Chuck

Nobody had thought to brief them on the welcoming ceremonies at the
airport, but Bradford had mentioned her team acting as bodyguards, so
when it was their turn to leave the plane, Odeon took point and the
other four formed a square around Cortin.  That might or might not have
been the right thing to do, but it was effective; as a member of the
King's Household, she got some press attention--as the High King's
Inquisitor, surrounded by Special Operations officers, that attention
was both brief and extremely respectful.

Once they got through that, Cortin and her team boarded a passenger van
with "Harmony Lodge" emblazoned on the side for the brief trip to their
new home.  The Lodge was more impressive than Cortin had expected,
though she'd gathered from Bradford that it was adequate for a larger
team than hers.  It was close to the Palace Compound, not a kilometer
from the Palace itself, but the way it had been landscaped, it could
have been far from anything: thick hedges and a formal garden made it a
private place.  The building itself was huge, and looked more like a
medieval castle than the simple, probably rustic building she'd
expected from something called a lodge.  She wondered with some
amusement if it had a dungeon; that was, after all, the classical place
for interrogations in a castle.

The van dropped them off at the main door, then headed toward the rear
of the building.  As they approached, the door swung open to reveal an
elderly man in black-and-scarlet livery, who bowed to them.  "Welcome
home, Colonel--gentles.  I am Michael Brady, Your Excellency's butler
and head of Harmony Lodge's staff."  He gestured them inside.  "May I
show you around, or would you prefer to rest until supper?"

"Thank you, Mr. Brady," Cortin said.  "I'd like to see the place,
especially my work areas.  My men may make their own choices."

Odeon and Chang chose to join her, the others decided to rest.  Brady
called servants to show them to their rooms, then said, "Your
Excellency has not had servants before?"

"No . . . it shows?"

"It does.  Servants are addressed and referred to by first name, not by
an honorific and last name."

Cortin didn't like that; if she used first names with a person, she
expected to be referred to that way herself.  Still, she didn't like to
defy custom in public, and while the servants might work for her, they
weren't part of her team.  She inclined her head in agreement.  "As you
say, then, Matthew.  My apologies if I offended."

"No offense, Excellency.  You wished to see your work area first?"

"Please--and brief me on the rest of the place as we go, if you would."

"Of course," Brady said.  "If you will follow me?"  He led them through
a doorway to the left of the broad, sweeping entrance stairs.  "The
entertainment areas and public offices are here, on the main floor;
living quarters are on the upper floors--private bedrooms and baths,
common eating and recreational facilities, including an excellent
library; and the work area is below ground.  Servants' quarters are in
a building behind this one."

"Sounds nice," Cortin said appreciatively.  "I do have an honest-to-God
dungeon, then?"

"Yes, Your Excellency."

"I'm new to Royal circles, Matthew--is it usual for members of His
Majesty's Household to have households of their own?"

"No, Excellency."  Brady paused, looking uncomfortable.  "With all due
respect to the Inquisitor-Colonel, she is the only one whose position
makes it desirable.  The rest live in the Palace itself."

Cortin had gotten used to an Inquisitor's normal isolation, but she
hadn't expected it to be this extreme.  It was fine with her, though;
she'd rather have her own place.  "I gather I won't be expected to do
much entertaining or go to many parties, then."

"No, Excellency, though you will of course receive all the usual
invitations.  The only functions you will actually be expected to
appear at will be ones hosted by His Majesty, and you are free to miss
those if you are in the midst of an interrogation.  He has instructed
me to inform you that your work is to take priority over anything else,
and that you are to contact him personally at any time if you believe
you have obtained valuable information."

"I'm not to report to him, then?"  Cortin was both relieved and a
little disappointed at that.

"Not immediately, Excellency; as I said, your work is to take priority,
and there are four prisoners in the holding cells awaiting the
attentions of the High King's Inquisitor."

Cortin smiled, changing her plans for the evening's entertainment.  "In
that case, I'll pass on the rest of the tour for now.  Captain Odeon,
would you do me a favor?"

Odeon nodded, grinning.  "Call Major Illyanov and tell him no guests
tonight, right?"

"Right, then join me downstairs."  She thought for a moment, then asked
Brady, "What shape are they in?"

"Untouched, to the best of my knowledge, Excellency."

Four, and none softened up.  Cortin nodded to herself, pleased, then
asked, "What's the setup like down there?  Colonel Bradford said one
state-of-the-art suite, other conventional ones."

"Yes, Excellency.  There are five complete interrogation suites, though
only Suite Alpha--yours, of course--has the highly sophisticated
equipment."

"Thank you."  Cortin turned to Chang.  "Lieutenant, would you ask
Lieutenant Bain to join me after supper?"  When she agreed, Cortin
turned back to Brady.  "Let's go."

Someone with a sense of humor she appreciated had posted signs in the
prisoners' passage showing the way to the dungeon, and one over its
door quoting the ancient poet Dante: "Abandon hope, all ye who enter
here."  They stopped there, and Bradford gave her a set of keys.  "My
responsibilities end at this door, Your Excellency.  Enforcement
Service personnel from the Detention Center are responsible for caring
for the prisoners and cleaning up after you; the first is done at
midday, and they are on call for the other.  Now that you have assumed
your duties, no one else will enter except by your order or with your
permission."

"What about record films of the interrogations?"

"That is handled by the Palace security monitors, Excellency."

"Fine.  What about spare keys?"

"There is a set for the Enforcement personnel I mentioned."

"We'll need three more, then.  One each for Captain Odeon and
Lieutenant Bain, and one for anyone else in the team."

"I will see to it.  By Your Excellency's leave?"

"Granted."

The keys were marked; Cortin had no trouble finding the one for the
main entrance, or for the cellblock.  She'd wait for Mike before taking
any of them to the suite, but she could make a preliminary evaluation
and pick her first subject.

The block held twenty cells, four of them, as Brady had said, flagged
as having occupants.  She didn't get beyond the second one, though.
Its occupant startled her at first--she hadn't thought of him since
leaving New Denver months ago--then she chuckled and turned on the
cell's speaker.  "Powell--I would've thought you, of all people,
would've avoided Enforcement troopers."

Startled, the young man stared at the one-way glass in the door.  "Uh
. . . Captain Cortin?"

"Colonel, now--but it's me, yes.  What're you doing in custody again,
much less at Harmony Lodge?"

Powell managed a tentative smile.  "Congratulations, Colonel."  Then it
faded, and his shoulders slumped.  "You won't believe me--they didn't,
at the Center, so they sent me here for the High King's Inquisitor."
To Cortin's astonishment, she saw the beginnings of hope in his face,
and his eyes brightened.  "That's not--  You're not--?"

"It is, and I am."

"Oh, thank God!  They said the King's Inquisitor would have
truthsense--please, let me talk to you!"

Cortin hesitated.  He certainly sounded sincere enough, but he'd been
conditioned once; possibly he had been re-conditioned, this time to
kill whoever turned out to be King's Inquisitor.  On the other hand,
that Brother had said Shannon had put her off limits, and Powell had
submitted to her will once; he'd do so again easily.  So she was
unlocking the cell door when Odeon arrived.

"Find a promising one?" he asked.

"I'd say so--one who wants to talk to me, at least."  Cortin opened the
cell's door, beckoned its occupant out.  "You remember our young
friend?"

"Of course!  What's he doing here?"

"That's what he wants to talk about.  Shall we go to my suite?"

"Just a second, please?"  The young man was looking at her with
adoration so open it was almost embarrassing, and Cortin wondered where
that had come from.  "I haven't seen Captain Odeon in ages . . ."

"I don't mind if he doesn't."  Cortin watched them embrace, one hand
close to her pistol, but it seemed that all Powell wanted was a kiss.
At least that much of his conditioning held, she thought.  When they
broke, she repeated, "Shall we go to my suite?"

This time they made it.  Suite Alpha's office was simple, but
comfortably appointed, designed to give the subject a feeling of
relaxation and trust.  Cortin took her place in a grouping of furniture
intended to help the subject feel more at ease that the normal
desk-centered version of first stage, and gestured the other two to
adjoining seats.  "Now, Charles, what is it you don't think I'll
believe?"

"That--"  The young man gulped, tried again.  "That I . . . had to come
back.  The Brothers . . . some of the older ones had me, the ways
Captain Odeon and the others helped me find out I liked, but it . . .
with them, it wasn't right, and I finally figured out that was because
Captain Odeon and the others also helped me realize the Brotherhood
itself was wrong.  Especially to hate you, when you're the one who let
them help me."  He gestured, helplessly.  "So I had to go back to the
Center, and find you, and . . . offer to help you any way I could, in
return for the help you gave me."

Her truthsense told her he was being absolutely honest.  "Did you tell
the Brothers how you felt?"

"No, ma'am--that didn't seem like a very good idea.  I let troopers see
me, but they didn't do anything--maybe because you'd had me released.
Anyway, I didn't manage to get arrested until I hit one of them--and
then no one'd believe I'd done it to get arrested!  And that's how I
ended up here."

So Mike and the Inquisitors had modified the conditioning she'd set up,
had they?  Powell was supposed to be terrified of her, if not of
them--justifiably so, she admitted to herself--but he was grateful
instead, enough so that he'd risked his life to get back.  He could
easily have been shot for attacking a trooper, not simply gotten
arrested.  As it turned out, their modification should prove more
useful than her simple revenge, so she couldn't get too upset with
them--but she would definitely have to find out how it had been done!
"That's good, then.  What help do you think you can give me?"

"To start with, I overheard them planning a raid.  I don't think it's
the big one--nobody down at my level is supposed know anything about
that, except that it's going to happen--but maybe it'll help?  Even
though I didn't hear much?"

Cortin leaned forward, not trying to hide her interest.  "It will,
Charles.  Tell me about it."

Powell frowned.  "It's supposed to be on the main convent of the Blue
Sisters--you know the one, just south of Carthage Mountain?"

"I don't, but I can find someone who does.  Go on."

"It's supposed to be on their main feast day--that'd be the
Annunciation, the 25th.  But they're afraid the Service'll find out
somehow, so if you post troops--even watchers--they won't show."

Cortin scowled.  The Blue Sisters--formally, the Order of Succor of the
Compassionate Mother, Piety's order--were dedicated to caring for the
seriously ill or wounded, especially Service troopers.  So perhaps they
were a natural target--and they definitely needed protection.  "The
most important part is keeping the Sisters and their patients safe,
even if it means the Brothers escaping.  I personally hope that can be
done without alerting them, but--" she shrugged, "once I pass the
information along, I'm out of it unless they pick up some prisoners.
Do you know if one of the Shannons will be involved?"

"I'm afraid not--that I don't know, I mean.  But I'd think one would;
it's the kind the Raidmaster would want to lead, either in person or by
proxy."

"Good enough; I'll report it as a possible, then."  She smiled at the
young man.  "I'm afraid I'm not as good at this type of questioning as
I should be, Charles; I'd like to call in a friend for it.  Will you
talk to him as well as you have been to me?"

"Of course, if that's what you want."

"Good."  Cortin went to her desk and picked up the black phone, asked
Brady to come escort a guest, then turned her attention back to Powell.
"You've been a lot of help already, Charles, and I'm sure you'll be a
lot more--but have you given any thought to what you'll do when you've
given us all the information you have?"

The young man shrugged.  "A little, but it depended on someone
believing me.  Like I said, I'd like to go to work for you, if I could."

Cortin nodded; she'd definitely be questioning Mike next!  "Think about
it some more, talk to my men--then if you're sure that's really what
you want, I'll see what I can do.  For now, go with Matthew; he should
be at the main door shortly."

When Powell left, Cortin turned to Odeon.  "All right, Mike, give!
Last time I saw him, I revolted and terrified him--now he's like a
puppy eager for my approval, and I swear he has a crush on you.  Why
and how?"

To her astonishment, Odeon looked abashed.  "Uh . . . Ivan had an
experimental drug he wanted to try, just to see how thorough a
conditioning was possible and how much trouble it'd be.  Well, you'd
already set up a program for our young friend, so Ivan figured he might
as well work on him.  He outranks us--outranked you, then--so we went
along."

Cortin nodded; they'd had no choice, and Ivan had been polite enough
not to tell her he'd modified her intentions.  "It looks like the
conditioning was complete, all right--but how permanent?"

"Till he dies, Ivan says, or till he's put through the same type of
conditioning again, which Ivan doesn't think is possible anywhere
outside a Detention Center.  So if you take him on, it'll be for good."

"I don't see that you left me any choice," Cortin said with resigned
amusement.  "Kicking him out with conditioning like that would be like
. . . kicking a puppy, I suppose.  Though I have no idea what I'll be
able to do with him!" She paused, frowning.  Joining the Brotherhood of
Freedom, or any other terrorist group, meant automatic excommunication,
and she didn't care to make her people associate with an excommunicate.
"I don't suppose you also saw to his spiritual welfare, by any chance?"

"Of course we did, and not by chance," Odeon said.  "Better than that,
though we blocked the memory in case you turned him down.  Uh--"

"Don't tell me," Cortin said, half-grinning.  "You enlisted him and put
him on the team."

"Close," Odeon said.  "Commissioned him, since you wanted all officers.
He doesn't meet the normal Strike Force criteria, but Colonel Bradford
waivered them in his case.  He's a good rider and a damn good marksman,
but otherwise his main qualification is absolute dedication to his
Team-Leader.  I wouldn't call him a puppy, young as he is; I'd call him
a guard dog.  The cue to make him 'remember' he's been an agent of
yours is you welcoming him to Team Azrael."

"I'll do that next time I see him." Cortin sighed.  "Pritchett saying
last night that he's in love with me, Powell conditioned into
devotion--what next?  No, don't answer that; I don't think I want to
know."  She paused, then changed the subject.  "So Ivan's experiment
was successful--but how useful will it be?"

"Practically, very little or none.  It worked, yes, but the drug's
expensive and scarce, and the procedures take too many people too long,
to be worth using in normal circumstances.  It may be done again, but
it'll have to be a pretty special case."

"Too bad; I can see where it could've been useful."  Cortin dismissed
the subject with that, hesitated, then picked up the red phone that
almost had to link her interrogation suite directly with the Palace.
According to Brady, His Majesty wanted any significant results she got,
as soon as she got them.  The phone rang once, then a half-familiar
voice said, "Yes, Colonel?"

It was a direct link, then.  "His Majesty wanted immediate reports,"
Cortin said.  "Are you authorized to take them?"

"Anyone who answers this phone is so authorized, Colonel.  Go ahead;
your report is being recorded."

"Good."  Cortin gave a concise but complete report of what she'd gotten
from Powell, pleased at the quick response.  Too bad not everything in
the Kingdom went this smoothly!

"Excellent," the voice said when she was done.  "I had, of course,
hoped for quick and substantial results from you, but this exceeds my
expectations.  Good work, Colonel."

Cortin swallowed hard, finally placing the half-familiar voice.  Of
course he was authorized to answer his own phone!  "Th . . . thank you,
Your Majesty.  This was an easy one."

"Easy or not, it was effective.  Keep up the good work, Colonel; we
have to crush these terrorists, especially the Brothers of Freedom."

"Of course, Your Majesty--I'll do my best."

"I would expect no less, Colonel."  The line went dead.

Cortin stared at the handpiece for several seconds before replacing it
carefully in the cradle.  It was hard to believe she'd just spoken to
High King Mark--but she knew his voice, she had to believe.  "I'll get
you more, Sire," she said unneccessarily, then she stood.  "Okay,
Mike--I suppose we ought to get supper, then I'm going to start another
subject."  She grinned.  "I really shouldn't say this, but even though
he gave me some good information, Charles wasn't much fun, and I
promised myself some entertainment tonight.  If you and one of the
others will help me set the next one up, I'll play with him awhile,
then if he's being stubborn, we'll get serious in the morning."



14. Bradford

Cortin climbed the stairs to the second floor, Bain following her,
satisfied with the results of her evening's work.  Her fear that Sis'
work would leave her vulnerable to sexual stimulus from anyone,
including a Brother of Freedom, had proven unfounded; even when she'd
used eroticine to force an erection on the prisoner she'd chosen for
her evening's work, her only response had been anticipation of a
challenge, no arousal at all.  She could relax, then, concentrate on
doing her new job to the best of her ability.  And she'd found Dave
next door; when he'd settled his prisoner for the night, she'd been
eager to share her discovery with him.

When she entered the common-room, she had to hold back a gasp of
astonishment.  She'd expected a certain amount of showiness on the
public floor, and it was in the Kingdoms' interest to have the
interrogation areas as well-equipped as possible--but she hadn't
expected to find much more than average living conditions, comfortable
and with the promised privacy.  This was luxury, the kind she hadn't
believed real even in stories about royalty.  Carpets so thick she
seemed to be wading in them, rather than walking on them--it felt
almost criminal wearing boots on them--paintings even she could see
must be worth at least a small fortune, couches and chairs she wasn't
sure she'd dare to sit in, some covered in fur . . .  Then her
admiration was interrupted; Illyanov embraced her, kissing her
thoroughly.

"I know you sent a message about no visitors," he murmured, "but after
last night, I thought you might wish the opportunity.  If not, there is
no harm done."

"True, and you're right," Cortin replied with equal quietness.  "The
prisoner didn't affect me, but Dave sure did."  She raised her voice to
a normal level.  "Want to introduce the colleagues I haven't met yet?"

"My pleasure, Excellency."  As he was doing so, Illyanov saw Odeon
gesturing him to where her team had gathered.  When he joined them,
Odeon said, "You've been in on this as much as any of us, Ivan; Dave's
got some information that may put a different light on Joanie's
sexuality.  Go ahead, Dave."

Bain did so, telling them about Cortin's lack of reaction to her
prisoner.  "It seems odd," he finished, "that she wouldn't react,
especially with him dripping on eroticine, if it's as involuntary as
she--and we--thought."

"That agrees with what happened this morning," Illyanov said.  "We
slept linked last night, and were still so when I woke."  He smiled.
"You are all aware of her new ability to intensify climax?"  When they
nodded, also smiling, he went on.  "That ability can also be most
stimulating if you happen to be within her and relaxed.  My point,
however, is that she did not let it continue; she removed herself
before either of us became too aroused.  I agree with David: she has
some control, though it may not always be conscious control."

Odeon traded glances with Chang.  That sounded as reasonable as the
truth about Cortin, and considerably more believable; they'd go along.
"Then maybe it wasn't a fluke, or fear, when she came down after the
first time," he said.  "What about it, Sis?"

"Unconscious control?" Chang said thoughtfully.  "I should like to
believe so, and from what you all say, it does sound reasonable.  As a
hypothesis, then: she indulges herself based on--if you will excuse the
term--available, acceptable resources and time.  I should like more
evidence to either confirm or refute that, however; I have obviously
been wrong on that subject before."

Odeon grinned at her. That was a more reasonable hypothesis for the
others--and for Joanie herself, until it was time for her to go
public--than he could've come up with.  "We'll get it for you, though I
don't know if we'll be able to tonight."  He waved at the group around
Cortin; they had her almost undressed, with her full cooperation, and
were getting out of their own uniforms as all of them moved toward her
bedroom.  "But if one of us can arrange to be her last for the night,
he can do what Ivan did last night.  If he's the only one with her, and
doesn't let her move away, the results should be conclusive."

"A good indication, at least," Chang agreed.  "And I will put a
sedative doser in the bedside table in the event the conclusion is not
what we currently believe."

Cortin didn't have time to wonder why none of her team were in the
group surrounding her; Illyanov's embrace and kiss had been quite
enough to start the ache in her belly, and the Inquisitors' caresses
had turned it into a burning need--one they seemed to sense and perhaps
share, because almost as soon as they got her to the huge bed, one of
them was sliding into her, his urgent thrustings sending her into a
spiral of sheer pleasure.

      *      *      *      *      *

When she fell asleep, it was with Pritchett holding her, relaxed inside
her, murmuring that Ivan had said she liked sleeping that way.  And he
was still there when she woke, a comfortable strong presence in spite
of the fact, since the two of them were alone, that she must have
overslept.  He was smiling at her, and when she started to pull herself
reluctantly away, he held her gently but firmly where she was.  She
started to object--her body was already reacting to him--but he
silenced her with a kiss.  "It's okay, little fox," he said
affectionately.  "Just relax, trust me.  You'll be fine."

"But--"

"Just relax, I said."  Pritchett kissed her again, rolling so she was
beneath him as she preferred.  "Sis says your drive may very well be
self-regulating, and I'm the lucky one who gets to find out with you.
If not, she left a sedative."  He paused, smiling.  "It is something
you--and we--need to know."  He began moving gently.

He was right, Cortin thought.  They should all know her reactions--and
he felt far too good, growing and stiffening inside her, for her to
want him to leave.  "Mmm," she agreed, yielding.  Last night had been a
feast, she'd loved it and intended to repeat it whenever she had the
time and interested partners--but it would be nice if she could snack,
too, not have to gorge all the time.

"That's my little fox," Pritchett said indulgently.  "Are you all
right?"

"I'm fine."  He was at his full size now, solid and delightful, his
gentle movements arousing her more slowly than she'd have believed
possible after her recent experiences.  "And you feel so good . . ."

"Slow and easy this time, hmm?  I think so, too."  Pritchett smiled,
kissing her, caressing her breasts.  His little fox--their Joanie--was
something special, all right.  Even if other women had shared her new
endowments, he didn't know of any who'd have been either willing or
able to delight a group of men the way she had two nights running.  It
was too bad she didn't love her Enforcement partners the way they did
her--she must think they came to her only for the sex, which was
laughable.  That you could get anywhere, with the right money.  But she
was still willing--hell, eager!--to have them.

Their lovemaking was unhurried and thorough, different from any she'd
had since her surgery, but Cortin enjoyed it just as much.  When they
were done, they bathed and dressed--to Cortin's amusement, Pritchett
had a complete set of clothing in her room; she'd have to make sure the
rest did, too--then they went to the common-room with Pritchett happily
carrying the still-full sedative injector.

The only one there was Powell, who smiled when he saw the injector.
"It went all right, then--great!  The rest of us have all been to Mass
and had breakfast, and they're getting settled in.  What do you want me
to do?"

Cortin didn't know enough about his conditioning to give a good answer,
so she said, "You tell me.  You need debriefed by an expert, of course,
but since you joined us have you had any gear issued, or been paid, or
taken care of personal matters?"  She saw a puzzled expression,
remembered, and added, "Oh, by the way--welcome to Team Azrael."

He looked dazed for a moment, then his expression cleared.  "I was
working for you the whole time, then--thank you!  About the other,
though--no, none of it."

"Um."  She thought for a moment, then went to a phone and dialed
Bradford's number.

"Colonel Bradford's office, Corporal Callahan speaking, sir."

"This is Colonel Cortin.  I'd like to speak with Colonel Bradford,
please, if he's available."

"Yes, ma'am--one moment, please."

Seconds later, Bradford was on the line.  "What can I do for you,
Colonel?"

"I'm not sure.  Does being the High King's Inquisitor let me borrow you
to debrief someone?"

"It lets you borrow anyone you need to do your job.  Who do you need
debriefed, and how soon?"

"My new team member, Lieutenant Powell.  As soon as you can, please."

"Half an hour soon enough?"

"That'd be fine, thanks.  I've already gotten some useful information
from him, but I'm not good enough at the memory-enhancing techniques to
do a really thorough job."

"He's the one who told you about the raid on the Blue Sisters' convent?"

"Yes."

"I'll be over as soon as I can.  I'm in charge of the task force
protecting them; I'll need all the good information I can get."

"I'll probably be saying Mass when you get here, then.  You can talk to
him in our quarters if you want, or you're welcome to use my public
office on the main floor.  Any idea how long it'll take?"

"That's hard to say exactly, but two hours is about average.  And since
you haven't said Mass yet, I'd appreciate it if you wait till I get
there; I like to attend all my priests' services at least once."

"Of course."  She couldn't refuse her Bishop, and since no one had
commented on her bearing during Mass, her absorption was either normal
or not noticeable, so it shouldn't be a problem.  "Then this afternoon
I can have someone help Powell get the Service formalities straightened
out--payroll, uniforms, ID, all that sort of thing."  She shook her
head, even though he couldn't see the gesture.  "Things are going too
fast and working out too well, Brad.  I'm living in luxury, doing
valuable work I enjoy, having an incredible sex life--I ought to be
overjoyed, but I'm not.  It scares me."

Looked at from her point of view, Bradford could understand that.  But
since he'd helped with much of the maneuvering that had gotten her into
the first two situations--that the third had worked out so well had
been by God's mercy, not human skill--he didn't share her apprehension.
But he also couldn't reveal any more of that maneuvering than she
already knew about, so he tried to reassure her instead.  "I don't see
anything to worry about, Joan.  Think back--everything that's happened
to you since the attack has been perfectly reasonable, given your
talent as an Inquisitor and Their Majesties' determination to put down
the terrorists.  If you weren't High King's Inquisitor, someone else
would be--someone less talented.  As for the speed, well," he let his
smile show in his voice, "from what I hear, you were the one in a hurry
to qualify as an Inquisitor and get to work--and I know you didn't
waste any time getting your team together."

"I can't argue that," Cortin said.  She had pushed hard to learn, and
learned faster than she'd expected even with that amount of work.
"Motivation does work wonders--but it still bothers me."

"We'll talk about it more this afternoon, then, if you're not at a
point in an interrogation where you can't take a break for an hour or
so."

"I should be able to manage; the one I'm working on seemed to be coming
along nicely when I left him last night, and I doubt it'll take me more
than a couple of hours to finish him."

Bradford was both astonished and pleased.  Except for Powell, he'd
chosen these subjects himself, as being particularly resistant.  Either
he'd been wrong about one, or she had an even more accurate sense for
individual weaknesses than he'd realized.  "I'd have expected at least
two days of concentrated effort for any one of them--what did you do?"

"Thought aloud for his benefit, then left him alone under a twelve-hour
dose of eroticine.  Not very original, but effective."

"That's what counts."  Bradford shook his head, glad she couldn't see
the chagrin on his face.  "Sometimes simple methods are the most
effective." And the hardest to spot special vulnerability to, he
reminded himself.  "I'll be at the chapel in about fifteen
minutes--talk to you more this afternoon."

"Right."  Cortin hung up, turned to the two waiting.  "He mentioned a
chapel--where is it?"

"On the main floor," Pritchett told her.  "Dedicated to St. Eleanor, of
course."

The patron saint of Enforcement, yes, since there were no Inquisitor
saints.  "Good--I'd hoped for a chapel, but I hadn't really expected
one."

"I'll show you where it is."  Pritchett grinned.  "I go to Mass every
day, when I can--glad I didn't miss it today."

"Can I go too?" Powell asked hesitantly.  "I've been once, so I can't
take Communion, but . . ."

"Certainly!" Cortin exclaimed.  "Whenever you want, as long as it
doesn't interfere with your duties.  Shall we go, gentlemen?"

Not at all to her surprise, after seeing other parts of the Lodge,
Cortin found the chapel to be exquisitely--and expensively!--equipped
and decorated.  She went into the vestry for some private meditation,
then put on her stole and went out to say Mass.

Bradford was struck by the change in her when she went to the altar and
began the preliminary prayers.  She was still attractive, rather than
beautiful, but there was an aura about her now that made her seem as
beautiful as the ceremony itself.  She was completely wrapped up in it,
obviously unaware of those in the chapel with her except for the little
time it took her to administer Communion.  He couldn't be sure if she
even needed her Missal, or if her references to it were simply as part
of the ceremony; somehow, he believed it was the latter.  He'd only
seen this sort of absorption twice before, he thought in awe.  He'd
have to report it to his superior--and he'd definitely have to talk to
her later.  After talking to Odeon!

      *      *      *      *      *

As soon as Mass was over, Bradford took advantage of Cortin's offer to
borrow her main-floor office.  He should have summoned Powell for
questioning, but what he'd just seen wouldn't let him; it was Odeon he
called for.  And, as he'd half expected, Cortin's second in command was
trying to conceal something, his cold pale eyes revealing to the
Inquisitor what his impassive expression hid: he was afraid.  Not for
himself, though; for Cortin?

Bradford gestured Odeon to join him in the informal seating area.  When
he did, Bradford leaned forward.  "Mike, I have no intention of doing
anything to hurt Joanie.  But it's pretty clear you and Sis are hiding
something you've found out about her--something her Commanding Officer
and Bishop ought to know about."

Odeon was silent.  Bradford had a point, but was it a strong enough one
to justify risking Joanie's life?  No, he corrected himself, not her
life--her mission.  Their lives.  It was true that Bradford could be
helpful, as Bishop of the Strike Forces--but again, helpful enough to
justify the risk?  Well, he'd been promised support, so there should be
a way to find out.

Bradford watched, initial puzzlement quickly turning to awe as Odeon's
eyes lost focus and he seemed to glow, despite the bright office
lighting.  Yes, there was definitely something highly unusual happening
in and around Team Azrael!

When Odeon became aware of his surroundings again, he grinned.  "You're
in, Colonel.  What's going on is hard to believe, but you'll get help."
He sobered.  "And you'll get help keeping it from all except the very
few with a need to know--plus one who has a need not to know."

"Something else we have to keep from her for her own good?"

"Hers and the entire Systems'," Odeon said.  "It's why she attracts
people in spite of being an Inquisitor.  Brad, she's the Herald and
acting Protector--and she doesn't  know it, can't afford to know it
until we've gotten people ready to accept her changes.  As long as she
doesn't know her identity and powers, Shayan can't use his against
her--in fact, he's afraid to use them at all, for fear of waking hers."

Bradford had gone pale.  Hard as it was to believe, he couldn't
disbelieve.  "But she'd win!"

"There's no guarantee of that," Odeon said grimly.  "I think she
would--but the only limit I'm sure of on Shayan's power is his
inability to create life.  Joan's limited herself to restrain him and
give us a chance."  He grimaced.  "That's how I understand it, anyway;
I could be misinterpreting what I was shown.  But I'm positive we can't
afford to tell her who she really is.  We've got to act normal as long
as she does--with a few exceptions."

"Normal."  Bradford shuddered.  "Around the one who's supposed to judge
us for eternity?  Or, from what you said about being acting Protector,
maybe not make the final judgement?"

"I can't be sure myself," Odeon said.  "I have the feeling that
anything she does in that capacity will be permanent, or there'd be no
reason for an acting one, but it is just a feeling."  He paused.  "And
acting normal around her's possible.  Not easy, but possible, because
Sis and I are doing it--and essential."  He quirked an eyebrow, smiled.
"Fun, too, at times.  One thing she's doing is reclaiming the
jurisdiction over sex that Shayan claimed in the Garden.  If you've got
any doubts on that score, just remember the shelter party."

Bradford did, his mind going back to her enthusiasm and the incredible
pleasure she'd given her men and her guests.  "That is going to be one
of the hardest things to convince most people of," he said eventually.
"Is that going to be the Seal of Life God said the Protector would
bring?"

"No--though that's not a bad guess."  Odeon told him about the
early-hours visit by the man in the white Enforcement uniform,
including himself and Sis drinking from the still-unconscious Cortin.
"From that and everything else I've seen," he concluded, "the New
Kingdom--for lack of my ability to imagine a better name--is going to
be a lot more enjoyable, as well as a lot more challenging."

"A lot more sensual, at any rate," Bradford said drily.  "Do you think
that means all Her priests will be women?"

"I doubt it," Odeon said after a moment's thought  "Even though
Jeshua's were all men until not long before the War, which would only
be fair.  But we have a life fluid of our own, and knowing our Joanie,
she'll want it used both ways." He paused, then grinned.  "And it
wouldn't surprise me if the normal arrangement was to celebrate this
Sealing with a priest of the opposite sex."

"Normal--but not necessary?"

"No, or Sis wouldn't have been able to take it from Joanie."  Odeon
hesitated, then went on.  "I wouldn't have been able to tell you all
this unless it was highly probable you'd want to be on her team if you
knew.  If that's right and you do, either Sis or I can Seal you to her;
if not, you'll have to wait till she goes public."

"I do," Bradford said without hesitation.  "From you, since I agree
that there's no time to waste."

"Good."  Odeon rose as Bradford knelt in front of him.  "Drink, then,
the Seed of Life."

Bradford was hesitant at first, taking only what welled out--and that
was enough for the union to form.  Odeon felt the hesitancy dissolve,
felt Bradford's awed pleasure as God's Presence filled and cleansed
him, shared his fear that it would end--and then his joyous realization
that it wouldn't, that he'd been accepted and was wholly God's now.

When it was over, Bradford shook his head, looking dazed.  "I had no
idea . . . and Mike, I don't feel like conducting even a Stage One
after that.  I need to come down, if you don't mind."

"Me too," Odeon said.  "The repetitions, or whatever they end up being
called, won't be that prolonged or intense, of course, but I'm
beginning to think the Sealing itself always will be.  And that we'll
have to allow for a wind-down period--most likely sexual, the way I
felt and felt you feel.  Though Sis and I didn't, until after Joanie
was on her feet."

"Of course not," Bradford said.  "I'd like sex--but what I need is
talk.  To help Joanie effectively, I've got to know exactly what she
and we are trying to accomplish, and--if possible--why."  He found a
chair without looking, settled into it.  When Odeon had followed suit,
he went on.  "Since you and Sis were chosen directly by Jeshua, you two
are the obvious leaders of our group.  If she's around, maybe she
should join us."

"If she's awake, you mean," Odeon corrected, grinning.  "When I saw her
last night, she and Ivan were heading for her room, looking like they
intended to make a night of it."

Bradford looked at him quizzically, then echoed the grin.  "And a
disciple of him, I'd be willing to bet."

"A bet you would win, Colonel."  Chang stood just inside the door, her
arm around the St. Dmitri Inquisitor's waist.  "He, and the rest of
Team Azrael--including Lieutenant Powell.  Pardon the intrusion, but I
felt we would be needed, and no one answered when we knocked."  She
smiled at Bradford.  "It is good to have you in our group, Colonel."

"Thanks--I'm happy I could be.  And we are off duty."  Bradford
gestured the newcomers to seats.  "At least off Enforcement duty, and
you and Mike outrank the rest of us in this field."

"As we heard you tell him, yes."  Chang and Illyanov took seats.
"However, it is we four, not two, who are her primary staff.  Your
responsibility will be liaison with the Church.  Mike and I must guide
her into her temporary role.  Ivan is to show her that her dual role of
judge and exalter is complementary rather than contradictory."

"That's going to be hardest, I think," Bradford said.  "I know who she
is, and I still have trouble with the Lifegiver as an Inquisitor."

Illyanov smiled.  "Did your parents never punish you, then?"

"Yes, and I get the connection--punishment, and hopefully correction
before it's too late to change.  But the scale is so different!"

"And right now she's more interested in the punishment part than the
correction one," Odeon said.  "That's not surprising--but helping her
change that emphasis has to be Sis' and my first priority."

"That will not keep her from carrying out her punishment and execution
duties, will it?" Illyanov asked.

"How could it?" Chang countered.  "She is Judge as well as
Guardian--and even if it were not so, she could not deliberately fail
to perform any legal duty she is sworn to.  Even with her knowledge of
her destiny deliberately hidden, she is Protector if only for a time,
as well as being the true one's Herald, and therefore incapable of sin."

"Which doesn't mean she can't make mistakes," Odeon added.  "Being
human, she can--both has, and will."

Bradford frowned.  "Any idea when she'll realize who she is?"

"Nothing firm, but logic says not until she has to--maybe as late as
when she confronts Shannon, or the real Protector surfaces."

"Which gives us time to discuss this more later," Bradford said,
glancing at the wall clock.  "I did promise Joanie I'd question Powell
for her, and . . ." He hesitated, then went on.  "I . . . now that I
know who she is, I feel I have to watch her work."

"Understandable."  Odeon nodded, then gave the Bishop-Inquisitor a
half-smile.  "Does questioning Chuck have to be formal, or can you
enjoy yourselves in the process?"

"Hmm?" Bradford frowned in puzzlement, then smiled.  "Since he's
already agreed to cooperate, I don't see any need for a formal
interrogation.  Why?"

"Let's go up to the common-room, and I'll show you."

When they got there, Powell was sprawled comfortably in front of the
record player, listening to Melnyikov's "Musical Explorations" and
caressing himself.  Odeon grinned, at last able to fully appreciate the
composer, and tempted to follow Powell's example.  Melnyikov's previous
works had hinted at eroticism; this one embraced and celebrated it.
That made it a popular piece with Enforcement and much of the nobility,
frowned on by the Church and most landfolk.  Rumor had it that
Melnyikov had used biological research--or Shayan's aid--to make
"Explorations" so effective; after what he'd learned recently, Odeon
suspected a different source.  He glanced at Bradford, saw a
speculative look, and raised a curious eyebrow.

"You were right to suggest an informal session," Bradford said
appreciatively.  "I'd almost forgotten his training--I'll probably get
better results this way than by the more conventional methods."

"No doubt enjoying yourself in the process," Illyanov said.

"No doubt at all," Bradford agreed, removing his tunic and undershirt.
"You're welcome to stay and participate, of course, either with him or
setting an example."

"He is strongly attracted to Michael," Illyanov pointed out, "so if the
two of you concentrate on him--"

"Ivan and I will set the example," Chang finished.



15. Demon Drops

"Good morning, my dear."  Cortin greeted her subject cheerily as soon
as she entered the third-stage room.  Yes, Mike had had it cleaned;
except for the misery and fatigue in her subject's attitude, there was
no evidence of what he'd been through the night before.  "Are you ready
for today's session?"

The man licked his lips, then said, "That captain who was here before
called you Azrael.  What's that mean--who are you?  What're you gonna
do to me?"

"Your education has been sadly neglected if you do not know the Angel
of Death," Cortin said easily.  "I will carry out the sentence you
earned when you joined the Brotherhood, eventually.  Before that,
however, we will share some entertainment, and you will tell me
everything you know about the Brothers of Freedom."

"Like hell I will!"  But the man's voice held no conviction, and Cortin
smiled.

"Oh, not without some resistance, of course."  She turned to the
cabinets, began laying out instruments and drugs where the subject
could see them, taking her time to give him plenty of opportunity to
study each one.  "I have restricted myself to  field-level drugs and
instruments until now; I really should be experimenting with the more
advanced techniques, now that I have easy access to them.  Some of
these do look interesting."  She picked up several of the instruments
again, one at a time, looking thoughtfully from instrument to prisoner
and back, but there was no unusual reaction from him.

"The simple infliction of pain holds no particular terrors for you, I
see," she commented.  "Good, then you can demonstrate some of the drugs
for me."  That got a reaction, as she'd expected from the previous
night; he tried, with little success, to hold back a gasp.  "Not
algetin, I am quite familiar with that, and you have already given me
an excellent demonstration of eroticine."  She studied labels on
various little jars, again taking her time, stretching his anticipation
and fear.  "We can also eliminate these, I think, as they are primarily
for medical purposes; my medic can handle them, if necessary.  That
still leaves quite a selection, however.  Hmm, this looks interesting."
She filled a syringe, turned to him.  "Hallucinogens are not really too
useful as interrogation drugs, because of both their primary function
and their unpredictability.  But I cannot resist one called 'demon
drops' and described as causing both hallucinations and rapid mood
changes--so you get to try it."

"Keep that hell-stuff away from me!"

"There is no point in fighting, you know," Cortin said as she
approached him.  A light coming on caught her attention; she raised a
hand in greeting to whoever had entered the observation room, surprised
when she saw the clock at how long she'd been working.  She dismissed
that, though, and made the injection in spite of her subject's
ineffectual struggles.  As she'd told him, there was absolutely no
point in fighting when you were shackled by wrists and ankles, but she
had no real objection if one of her subjects wanted to; it merely
emphasized their relative positions.  "There--now we will see what
happens."

"You go straight to Hell, Bitch!"

"Your colleagues tried to send me there once," Cortin reminded him with
a smile.  "Now I return the favor, more successfully.  Should that be
my destination, I have excellent reasons to believe you will be there
waiting for me."  There was nothing more she could do until the drug
took effect, which according to the label should be quickly, but even a
brief time should be enough to see who the observer was.

Bradford greeted her as she entered the dimly-lit room with its large
window of one-way glass.  "Lieutenant Powell didn't have very much
except what he already told you--that was one reason you got him to
practice on, after all--so I thought I'd come down and watch for a bit.
What'd you give him?"

"Demon drops."  Cortin shrugged.  "I know hallucinogens aren't
recommended--but I learned a long time ago to play my hunches, and I
think this'll break him."

"I was curious, not objecting," Bradford said mildly.  "I've never had
any luck with it, but others have; I don't argue with what works."

"I hope this does," Cortin said, watching her subject closely.  "If
it's what the prewars called a bad trip, and he remembers, it should."

"It doesn't look like it's going to be a good one," Bradford said,
chuckling.

"I think you're right," Cortin agreed.  Her subject was showing signs
of fear, small as yet but promising.  "And it looks like I ought to get
back to him.  If you have any suggestions, I'll be glad to hear them."

"I don't expect to, but if I do, I'll let you know."

Cortin returned to her subject, pleased to see his fear become more
open when she entered the room.  She wondered what he was seeing; he
hadn't been visibly afraid of her only minutes ago, so it had to be
something more than a woman in gray coveralls.  As she approached him,
he started to sweat, trembling, his eyes bulging as he fought to escape
whatever he saw.  "No--go away, please--leave me alone--don't touch me!"

She must be something impressive, Cortin thought.  A demon such as the
one the drug was named for, perhaps, to get such a strong reaction.
"Why not?" she asked.  "What do you think I am?"

"Lord Azrael," the man sobbed.  "Go away--send the Inquisitor back!
I'll tell her everything--just leave me alone!"

So he'd taken her code name and clothed her in that persona, Cortin
thought.  Fitting, that he should think he was dying at the hands of
the real Angel of Death.  "Tell me, mortal.  Thy life is forfeit, but
if thou shouldst speak quickly and truthfully, I will make thy passing
easy.  She will not be so merciful."

"You're burning me . . . not so close . . ."

True enough, his skin was reddening as if from sunburn.  Cortin had
read that something believed strongly enough could affect the body, but
this was the first time she'd seen it.  She wanted to go closer, test
the phenomenon further, but getting information was more important than
indulging her curiosity; she stepped back instead.  "Speak to me,
mortal.  Quickly, before the Inquisitor returns and I must leave thee
to the slow, terrible death she intends for thee."  Cortin had used the
"good cop/bad cop" tactic before, many times--it was, for all its age,
astonishingly reliable--though this was the first time she'd played
both parts for one prisoner.

The man sagged in his chains.  "Better you than her, I guess . . . what
do you want to know?"

His fear was still there; Cortin read the signs easily.  But she could
also see defeat, almost resignation.  He believed the Angel of Death,
where he'd had some hope, however small, under the Inquisitor.  "Tell
me first of the attack planned on the holy Sisters of Succor."

He confirmed what Powell had told her, adding that the time was set for
the High Mass celebrating the Order's founding, and the force involved
would be about fifty men.  Yes, it was to be a massacre like the one at
the convalescent hospital the previous year, but he didn't know why
such attacks were carried out or what the Brotherhood's purpose was; he
had joined because farm life was boring and he wanted adventure.  He'd
tried for Enforcement, but been refused because they thought him
unstable.  He was quite bitter about being called unstable by a bunch
of oversexed killers in uniform, and liked taking part in raids just to
get back at them for the insult.

No, he didn't know how many Lawrence Shannons there were; no one did,
except the Raidmaster himself and maybe the Brotherhood's High Council.
Ten or fifteen, he thought, but that was only a guess.  He wasn't sure
whether or not the real Shannon would lead the convent raid, but he
didn't think so; he'd heard rumors of a major raid around Christmas in
one of the other Systems, and the Raidmaster was supposed to be working
on that one.  No, he didn't know any more about it; it had been only a
rumor.  The lesser Raidmaster on the convent job might know, yes,
though he didn't think it likely.  No, he didn't know who'd been
Raidmaster on the hospital job; he thought probably the real one,
though.  That was all he knew, honestly; now he would be grateful if
Lord Azrael would let him see a priest before killing him.

Cortin swore silently.  She wanted to send his soul to Hell, where she
was sure it belonged--but it looked like his hallucination had thrown
the fear of God into him, and he was about to make a deathbed
repentance.  At least she wouldn't have to officiate this time, she
told herself; she couldn't be Azrael and Reverend Mother Cortin at the
same time.  "Thou hast that right," she conceded, beckoning Bradford to
join them.  Blast it, from now on she'd simply have to make it a point
to have Mike or Dave nearby, in case it happened again!

When Bradford entered, Cortin left the room.  She didn't care to even
witness a Brother's repentance and forgiveness, though she admitted
unhappily to herself that she would carry them out again if she had to;
she simply wouldn't like doing it, any more than she had the first time.

She took advantage of the break to use the red phone and pass along the
additional information she'd gotten--not to His Majesty directly this
time; the one who answered didn't sound at all familiar, and promised
to pass it along as soon as His Majesty was free.  Then she waited,
with growing impatience, for Bradford to finish with her subject.

What, in God's Most Holy Name, was going on in there?  Surely it
couldn't take this long to confess even a Brother's obviously-lengthy
list of sins, then receive absolution and Extreme Unction!

When Bradford finally emerged, he was smiling.  "He's all yours, Joan.
Nice job you did, getting the information and saving a soul--that
doesn't happen often.  Of course, not many Inquisitors have the help of
a blazing Angel of Death, either."

"Mike told him my code name; the demon drops and his own imagination
did the rest."  Cortin's mouth quirked.  "I would've preferred a more
conventional interrogation, but I have to admit he had good reason to
be afraid of drugs.  And I'll keep 'Azrael's' promise; he'll die as
quickly and easily as I can manage, even though by rights he ought to
suffer as much as his victims did."

"I think you can safely trust God to take care of that," Bradford said
drily.  "I can't tell you what he confessed, of course, but I can tell
you I'm positive he'll be spending a long time in Purgatory."

Cortin grinned.  "I'm sure he deserves every year of it."  All that was
left was killing him, so she got out of her coveralls, put her tunic
back on, settled her gunbelt into place, and re-entered the third-stage
room.  Bradford had freed the prisoner; he was kneeling facing away
from her, toward the room's crucifix, his attitude making it obvious he
was praying.  Cortin frowned, then nodded to herself, silently drawing
her pistol.  There were far worse ways to die than quickly, while
speaking to God, and while he deserved one of those, she had promised
otherwise.  She took careful aim and shot him in the back of the head.

That, she thought immediately, had been far kinder to him than it had
to her!  She'd forgotten just how loud a heavy-caliber handgun could be
in a confined area, and her ears were ringing painfully.  It also made
quite a mess at this close a range; blood and brains splattered most of
the wall he'd been facing, including the crucifix.  The clean-up crew
could handle the wall and body, but she felt like taking care of the
crucifix herself; careful to avoid getting the mess on her uniform, she
took it into the bathroom to clean it.

As she did, she found herself thinking about the man the crucifix
represented.  Jeshua had become incarnate and sacrificed Himself to
protect humanity from the results of sin, though protection from sin
itself would have to wait for the promised Protector.  In the meantime,
Jeshua's sacrifice was on behalf of anyone willing to take advantage of
it--and Ivan had told her often enough it was as much an Inquisitor's
job to correct as to punish.  Maybe, she thought, she was starting to
get that through her thick head, because despite her personal distaste
for the idea of a Brother's repenting, there was a sense of
accomplishment at this one's.  It also helped, of course, that Brad had
complimented her on being able to manage both information and
repentance!

She grinned at herself as she dried the crucifix and put it on the desk
in the suite's office.  If Shannon was Shayan, which since her vision
looked more likely than not, turning Brothers from him to God would be
an even better revenge on him than the traditional version would be on
them . . . even though she still intended to take that kind on the ones
who'd helped rape and maim her.

      *      *      *      *      *

There was a message on her ground-floor office desk: His Majesty wanted
to see her at her earliest convenience between interrogations.  It
didn't specify dress uniform, and this close to the Palace she didn't
need bodyguards, so less than fifteen minutes later she found herself
sitting--sitting!--beside His Majesty's desk, sipping a cup of the best
ginger tea she could remember tasting and still shocked by the warmth
of His Majesty's welcome.  It was awesome enough meeting him, though
really it was no odder than paying a routine courtesy call on one's new
commanding officer; it just felt that way, having the High King himself
as your direct superior.  His Majesty was clearly familiar with such a
reaction, because he was carrying the burden of the conversation until
she had a chance to recover.  When she began to settle down, he smiled.
"Reports of your ability weren't exaggerated, Colonel.  I'm quite
pleased with the results you've gotten so far."

"Thank you, Your Majesty.  I'll keep doing my best."

"I'm certain you will.  Is Harmony Lodge to your liking and adequately
equipped?"

"More than adequately, Sire.  I'm still overwhelmed by all of it."

"You are to let me know immediately if there's anything you need or
want.  We can't take major action against the Brotherhood without the
information you provide, which makes you the most important single
person in this operation."

"Yes, Your Majesty."  Cortin took a sip of her tea, savoring the ginger
tang.  It was hard to believe she was all that important--she certainly
didn't feel it--but her truthsense said His Majesty did believe it, so
she had to.  "If I may make a suggestion?"

"As one of my Household, that's both your privilege and your duty; go
ahead."

"Then I'd say the attack on the convent would be a good time to
activate the Strike Force.  And with Your Majesty's permission, my men
and I would like to participate in the convent's defense."

"That's three things," King Mark said.  "Activating the strike force at
the next terror attack is something I had already intended; it will be
done.  Your men may participate in the convent's defense if they wish
and Colonel Bradford permits."  He paused.  "I am afraid, though, that
I must forbid your participation in action against anyone except those
you have a personal interest in.  You're far too valuable to risk that
way, and if I weren't afraid of losing you, I'd forbid you
participating in action against even personal enemies.  It would be
best for the kingdom if you could resist doing so, but--" he paused,
giving her a rueful smile, "while I pray for miracles for my people,
I've learned not to expect them."

Cortin wanted to object, but reminded herself that she'd known about
the restriction when she'd taken the job.  "As Your Majesty
commands--but it was worth a try."

The King chuckled.  "And I can't fault you for making the effort; you
wouldn't have joined the Strike Force if you hadn't wanted to see
action.  I'm afraid you'll see more than I want you to, at that.  Now,
if I may change the subject, the Royal Press Office has received a
number of requests for interviews with you.  Whether you give them or
not is your choice."

"In that case, Sire, I'd rather not, at least until I finish settling
in." She'd rather not do it even then; she'd given more than enough
interviews at the Academy and after graduation.  One reason she'd done
so much field work was to get away from reporters.  But she needed
publicity--favorable publicity--to get support for her family changes,
so she'd have to at least pretend to overcome that dislike.

"They'll have to content themselves with the official biography for the
present, then," the King said.  "The Press Office will need a current
photo, though; you can go by sometime this week and provide it.  You'll
be safe from reporters as long as you're in the Palace compound or
Harmony Lodge, but I can't guarantee the same outside; that will be up
to your team."

"I don't really see any need to leave, except on missions," Cortin
said.  "Harmony Lodge alone has everything I need."

"As you wish," the King said.  "I certainly won't insist on you being
exposed to any unnecessary danger.  But there will be an official
reception tomorrow in your honor; you should come, unless you're in the
middle of an interrogation."

Cortin was tempted to arrange it so she was, but as far as she was
concerned, His Majesty saying she should come made it an order.  "I'll
do my best to be there, Sire.  Full dress uniform?"

"Or formal civilan wear.  Though that would mean being unarmed, so I
don't expect it."  The King raised an eyebrow.  "You do realize you are
the only person other than members of my personal guard who is allowed
in the Royal Presence with a firearm?"

"What?"  Cortin stared at him for an instant, then glanced at the
pistol on her hip.  "No, Sire--I hadn't even thought about it."

The King smiled, then stood.  "We have no doubt of Your Excellency's
loyalty, and We wish you a long and healthy life as Our Inquisitor."

The audience was over, obviously; Cortin rose and bowed, then began
backing out of the office.

"Those who carry firearms in Our presence," the King said drily, "also
have leave to turn their backs on Us."

Cortin bowed again, then turned.  As she left, the King allowed himself
a brief frown.  He was certain of his Inquisitor's loyalty, or she
wouldn't have the position--but he couldn't deny that she made him
uncomfortable.  Male Inquisitors were disturbing enough to be around; a
woman who enjoyed the deliberate infliction of pain seemed worse,
somehow.  And one with Colonel Cortin's incredible talent at it was
decidedly unnerving.

On the other hand, both Edward and Ursula were thoroughly taken with
her, which was unusual for both of them, so Her Excellency must have
qualities he couldn't see, even allowing for her scheme to let them
have heirs.  He touched the cartridge at his neck, frowning again.
Unusual qualities, for these to be so popular with the troops that many
insisted on having one before going out in the field and swore by their
efficacy.  Maybe he ought to have her bless a couple of cases of them,
make them standard issue . . .

Back to the subject, he thought, leaning back.  The idea of polygamy
had seemed obscene when Edward first mentioned it, but the longer he
thought about it, the more reasonable it seemed to become.  As a matter
of morality, her argument that monogamy at this point was tantamount to
racial suicide had a certain validity, and suicide was a sin.  And her
argument that marriage laws could be changed was also valid; the Modern
Saints had been branded heretics not because of their polygamy but
because they had claimed Shayan to be Jeshua's brother.  And the
theologians were still arguing about that . . .

Then there was his responsibility, as Sovereign, for his subjects'
welfare, which tied in with his personal desire to leave his
descendants a prosperous, expanding group of Systems . . . which he
wouldn't be able to do without some fairly drastic action.  If he
didn't, in a few generations there would be no Kingdom Systems--a fact
he'd known for some time, but had avoided thinking about because there
seemed to be no solution.

Now, though, he'd been handed a chance, if he could arrange to
implement it.  Keep Cortin the focus of whatever happened as a result,
of course; even the best Inquisitor was more expendable than royalty.
From Edward's report on the airborne conference, Bishop-Colonel
Bradford ought to be willing to help get Church approval for
Enforcement to formalize the informal group marriages it was rumored
they had in some of the more remote areas.

Remote areas?  The High King smiled as an idea took form.  He'd have to
discuss it with his lesser monarchs, because of their agreement that
all Royal Inquisitors hold the same rank--but it promised a place for
Cortin to offer anyone who wanted a group marriage but didn't want the
notoriety that would inevitbly accompany the first ones.  It would
also--a not inconsiderable benefit--silence My Lord of New Colorado's
complaints about having to administer territories that cost his Dukedom
more than the revenues they generated.  Those complaints were
justified, the King admitted--but he was incredibly tired of hearing
them!

That would have to wait, though.  The King switched on his intercom,
spoke to his secretary.  "Peter, get hold of Bishop-Colonel Bradford.
I want to see him as soon as he can get here."

      *      *      *      *      *

Cortin disliked the reception, leaving as soon as she thought it would
be socially acceptable, intending to indulge herself with a new
subject.  Once she got back to the Lodge, though, she decided she was
too tired to do a proper job of starting an interrogation, and Brady
said most of the men had gone to the New Eden joyhouse.  So she might
as well make an early night of it; after a hot soaking bath, she went
to bed and quickly fell asleep.

Fifteen years disappeared; it was the night after Graduation, and Mike
was holding her close after their first lovemaking, smiling down at
her.  "Marry me, Joanie?"

"Of course, beloved."  Cortin returned his smile, giving him a
lingering kiss.

They were married soon after, and she found that married life agreed
with her; she remained in the Service, but instead of going into the
field as she'd planned, she took postgraduate work and became an
Inquisitor.  That let her spend time with her husband, when he wasn't
out on a mission, and with the three children they had.  The youngest
was almost a year old when Mike came home with a pleased expression
that told her he'd contracted the Satyr Plague.

They lay together in the dark warmth, savoring each other, not hurrying
their caresses in spite of their desire.  He wanted her to lie still,
let him pleasure her with his new capacity--

Her bedroom door opened, bringing her awake with her gun in her hand.
"Who's there?"

"Mike--I hadn't expected you to be asleep this early.  I hope I didn't
interrupt a good dream."

Cortin put the gun down.  "Only the best I've had in years.  Come on
in, if you want; is there something wrong?"

"No, just thought you might like some normal company after that Palace
to-do." He entered the room, the hallway light showing, to her
pleasure, that he was already undressed.  "What was the dream?"

"Graduation night, then the first time we got together after you
managed to catch the satyr bug."  She was not going to tell him about
the impossible marriage and children . . .  Letting amused irritation
show in her voice, she went on, "Or would have, until you interrupted
yourself.  Interested in starting over?"

"Any time," Odeon said with a chuckle.  "Especially since it seems this
is one I owe myself!"



16. Marriage

Cortin lay awake, listening to Odeon's soft breathing and thinking.
The dream had been almost pure wish fulfillment, a wish she'd both had
and known was impossible since the day she'd met him.  She'd never had
the slightest interest in any of her schoolmates, or any marriage
interest in the Enforcement men she'd met after Mike . . . but Special
Ops men didn't marry, couldn't have children, so she'd settled for what
they could have.

The dispensation helped, no doubt about that, but it wasn't enough!
Even if they couldn't have children, they ought to be able to have some
sort of stable relationship--and the only way she could see of giving
it to them was to have her new family structure accepted.  In fact,
everything seemed to hinge on that, from maintaining social
stability--although in a new form--to the continued existence of
humanity in the Systems.  Good as it would be for the parents and the
Kingdoms as a whole, though, it would be best for the children--and for
Special Ops troops, giving the trooper a real home and the family he
married into a second father/husband--or in her case and Piety's,
mother/wife--and provider.  A mostly-male marriage might be a bit much
at times for the wife or wives, though, unless it did include
troopers . . .

Cortin felt briefly complacent at that; she could satisfy a shelter
full of troopers without a bit of strain!  Mike was right that God had
been more than generous to her; even the attack had been only a prelude
allowing her the increased pleasure men now gave her.  It was too bad,
in a way, that other women were limited to what she'd had before . . .
but they couldn't know, any more than she had then, what they were
missing.  And they had something she no longer did: the hope, at least,
of children.  She couldn't help envying them that, the joys of home and
family she'd never know.  Still, she told herself sternly, she'd
accepted that fact months ago, and without the consolations God had
granted her since.

She thought about those consolations, frowning.  There were a lot of
troopers who'd been hurt as badly as she, some maimed far worse,
without any corresponding compensations.  Maybe Mike was right about
that too, and God did have some kind of purpose for her--which was a
frightening thought.  If He had a purpose for anyone on Team Azrael, it
should be Mike; he was the most devout, a natural priest, and he'd been
raised by religious.  Even though she was making a conscientious
effort, at Mike's urging, to dedicate her entire life rather than just
her pain to God, she didn't believe she could be called truly devout.
Or, much as she enjoyed the exaltation of saying Mass, that she was a
natural priest.  Yes, Mike was far more suited to serving a divine
purpose than she was.

And he was waking; this would be as good a time as any to bring up the
part of her vision she was most frightened by.  And maybe the part
she'd liked best . . .   When he started to sit up, she spoke.  "I need
to talk to you, Mike.  Got a few minutes, or do you need to get up
right away?"

"I've got all the time you want," Odeon said, settling back.  "What's
the problem?"

Cortin moved toward him.  "I . . . didn't tell everything about what I
saw when I was under.  Part because it was too frightening, part
because it was too . . . personal.  I'm not even sure I can tell you."

Odeon took her in his arms.  "Okay.  The frightening part first."

"I . . . believe Sis now.  Shannon is Shayan, or under his direct
control."  Cortin shivered.  "I was in a prewar bio-lab--you know, the
kind we've all seen pictures of?"  When he nodded, she went on.  "It
was a Brothers of Freedom lab.  I know that, somehow, even though there
were no symbols and no one heard of the Brothers for another fifty
years.  Shannon was there, looking exactly like he does today, and he
was engineering the worst of the plague strains.  Working with his
mind, the equipment was there just for show.  And he was proud of
himself; he'd just persuaded the ruler of one of those tiny asteroid
colonies that if they used his plagues they could take over St.  Monica
without bloodshed.  Mike, the Final War was no accident, or innocent
mistake, or even a human horror--it was Shayan, turned loose!"

Odeon stroked her back, trying to comfort her.  "The Bible does say
he'd be set free for a hundred years before the Protector begins
working against him."  And that fit too; history said work on the
plagues had started in 2464, and she'd graduated--begun work against
him and his Brotherhood--in 2564.  "So the Protector's here, and
working--just not openly yet."

"But why not?"

Odeon shrugged.  "I'm only human; you can't expect me to know why God
does what He does.  All we can do is trust Him, try to help in whatever
ways we can."

"That's not terribly comforting."  Cortin snuggled closer.  "I'd feel a
lot better if I knew who the Protector is, at least.  Are you him?"

"No."  Odeon didn't dare elaborate; she was too likely to pick up on
the smallest mistake.  Instead he decided to change the subject, hoping
to distract her.  "What's the personal thing--if you can talk about it?"

Cortin was silent for a moment, then she sighed.  "I guess I wouldn't
have brought it up if I hadn't intended to tell you, even though it's a
little embarrassing--I don't think of you as a child!"  After another
brief hesitation, she went on.  "It was pure wish fulfillment, I'm
afraid--the part with you, at least."  She moved slightly away, just
enough that she could bring his hand to her breast.  "You and Sis were
nursing, and I was actually able to give you milk.  It felt so
incredibly good, especially you even though it wasn't exactly sexual
. . . I can't describe it, not really.  You can't believe how much I wish
I could do it again, and not in a dream!"

Odeon cupped her breast, feeling the nipple harden as he stroked it
with his thumb.  It stood to reason, given the additions he and the
other "staff" had developed since being sealed to her, that she
could--though possibly, to protect her secret from herself, not until
she was sealed to the true Protector.  "Maybe you can, Joanie.  I'm not
the Protector, but while you were under, Sis and I were empowered to
carry out some of those functions."  He grinned.  "The main one is the
Sealing--and its purpose, of course, is protection from sin for those
willing to give up that option."

"You and Sis?" Cortin was a little disappointed that she hadn't been
included, but admitted to herself that the two of them did make more
sense.  "Mike, you know I've been doing my best to do His will; can you
give me that protection?"

"Gladly!"  Odeon thought for a moment, then got out of bed.  "Here, the
common-room, or the chapel?"

Her bedroom didn't feel like a proper place for a religious ritual,
Cortin thought, and she wasn't sure it would be polite to carry out one
of the Protector's rituals in a chapel belonging to Jeshua, even though
they were Aspects of the same God.  "The common-room, I think," she
said, getting up.  "Do we need icons or symbols, anything like that?"

That hadn't occurred to Odeon, and he said so.  "I like the idea,
though," he continued.  "We can't have icons yet, with the Protector
not wanting to be identified, but we should be able to manage something
with symbols.  For Justice and Life, do you think?"

"Those are supposed to be His main concerns," Cortin agreed.  "Scales
or a sword for Justice--probably a sword, since we all have those with
our dress uniforms.  What for Life, though?"

Something sexual, was Odeon's first reaction, because that was the
life-creating act--but the Sealing itself wasn't, not really.  "The One
Who empowered Sis and me mentioned flowers; how about those?"

"Sounds good," Cortin said.  "If you'll get the sword, I'll see if I
can improvise an altar."

Not long afterward, they had done so.  A small table she'd covered with
a white silk sheet held Odeon's dress sword and a vase of Peace roses,
plus a chalice of milk and a piece of bread he promised she'd
understand soon.  It was improvised, true, and not even consecrated,
but Cortin found herself deeply affected by it.

"What do you think?" Odeon asked.

"I like it, very much," Cortin said.  "It feels right--a simple altar,
no fancy vestments--"  She looked at herself, then at him, and smiled.
"None at all, in fact.  Is this how He wants it, do you think?  An
intimate kind of worship, maybe just family and close friends, with the
senior spouses as celebrants?"

"Sounds reasonable to me," Odeon said.  It was an odd feeling, having
her ask his opinion on the proper way to worship the Protector; after
all, if it felt right to her, acting in that capacity, who was he to
say otherwise?

"To me, also."

Cortin turned, not really surprised to see Sis and the rest of those
who'd been at the airborne conference.  Under normal conditions she
would have been astonished, and probably suspicious as well--but these
were hardly normal conditions, with Shayan on the loose, the Protector
manifesting to Mike and Sis, and herself having visions.  It was
normality, now, that would have surprised her.  "You and Mike will
celebrate it for us?"

"And each other, yes."  The nun smiled.  "Neither altar nor ceremonial
is truly necessary for the Sealing or its celebration, but since we
expect both, they add to the pleasure.  Unfortunately we have not yet
devised a ceremony, so we will have to content ourselves with informal
prayers."  She approached the altar, embracing Odeon as Cortin and the
rest knelt.

As she'd said, the prayers were brief and informal, praising God in His
Aspect of the Protector, asking His blessings on those who were worthy
of and wanted Sealing but couldn't be given it until the Protector came
into the open, offering the milk and bread on the altar in their behalf
until they could partake of the true Milk or Seed of Life.

That reference puzzled Cortin, until the two celebrants asked that God
make use of them to do the Protector's work, and were accepted.
Something seemed to twist inside her, then she felt the exaltation of
Consecration taking hold and she was praying for the new salvation the
celebrants offered, not just from the effects of sin but from sin
itself.  As at Mass, the celebrants took the new Communion first,
drinking from each other.  The physical actions were little different
from some of the things that went on at a shelter party--but the
feeling wasn't sexual, it was like her dream of both of them feeding
from her: reverent joy.

Then the celebrants were finished, inviting those who hadn't yet
partaken and wished to place themselves under the Protector's care to
come forward.  Almost as if Odeon were pulling her, Cortin approached
him and knelt.  Except that it was Mike only in form; he had become
God, in the same way bread and wine became God at the Consecration
during Mass.  "I surrender myself to Thee," she said.  "I ask for Thy
protection and guidance, that I might serve Thee to the best of my
ability."

"They are thine, Daughter."  Hands on her head guided her to the
whiteness welling from him.  "Drink thy fill of the Seed of Life, that
thou mayst be Sealed to thy Protector."

Cortin obeyed.  The droplets were sweet, not the slightly bitter taste
she remembered.  Taste was minor, though, next to the exaltation that
washed through her.  His thick sweet fluid was a generous feast,
filling her with His love and life.  It was forever and no time at all
that she finished, reveling in His glorious bounty so freely given.

When He raised her to her feet, the exaltation faded as it did after
Communion--not completely, but to a far lesser intensity.  She stepped
back; Princess Ursula took her place, while the Prince went to Chang.

It was beautiful, Cortin thought, in large part because it was real
rather than hidden by symbols.  She didn't object to such concealment
in its proper place, such as the Mass--letting flesh and blood appear
to be bread and wine was easier on celebrant and communicants both!
Milk and seed, though, could be given not only without pain but with
obvious pleasure; Mike and Sis were both positively radiant.  Some
people, she knew, would think this obscene, be uncomfortable or worse
at taking such nourishment directly from its source instead of from
chalice or plate.  She knew, but she didn't understand.  Breasts were
made to give milk, testes to give seed; given and taken in the
Protector's Holy Name, how could it be other than beautiful?

The royal couple was done; they returned to kneel with Cortin.  The
Princess was the last woman in the group, so Odeon waited, relaxed,
while Chang fed the rest.  Her last communicant was Pritchett--and
unlike the others, he had a visible response when he drank.

Cortin found that a good sign, as well as being enjoyable to watch.
Chang very much wanted a baby, preferably Pritchett's, though that
would take a miracle.  It'd be an even better sign to those who hadn't
been here if they were granted one today; it'd have to be seen as an
obvious indication that this was God's Will.  Chang stroked him briefly
when he raised his head, then she turned to Odeon and they faced the
group for a final prayer.



For Shannon/Shayan's reaction:  16a. Shayan



17. Family

As she experienced, for minutes almost becoming, each of the Sealed
men, Cortin's appreciation of them grew.  Tony's quiet, unobtrusive
competence, Ivan's culture and dry humor, the Prince's devotion to his
wife and the Systems, the others' varying individualities--and all of
them loving her, she returning it.  The full unity proved to be only
between man and woman, which she found out when Princess Ursula suckled
while Edward was merging with her--but she felt Ursula through him,
knew the Princess shared her through him as well, sharing love with
both.

Later, it was Tiny and Sis who joined her, Tiny's seed still filling
the nun's womb though Cortin smiled, trying to project her delight that
its work was done.  The fourth person in this union was unformed as
yet, but undeniably there, conceived in their unity and bathed in all
three's when she and Tiny merged, erupting into each other.

When the unity faded, Cortin kissed both of them.
"Congratulations--what're you going to name him?"

"Name who?" Powell asked.

Cortin glanced at Chang, got a nod, and called, "Gather 'round,
people!" When they did, she said, "Don't ask me how I know, because I
can't tell you--but it's my honor and pleasure to tell you all that Sis
is pregnant.  The child's a boy, and Tiny's the father."

There was a tumult of congratulations until Pritchett interrupted,
looking stunned.  "But I'm sterile!"

"You were, legally," Chang said with a serene smile.  "That is defined,
of course, as a class three or lower sperm count and motility
rating--but as long as sperm are present at all, there is a chance of
conception, however remote.  Since we did conceive, that definition no
longer applies; you are demonstrably fertile."

Pritchett hugged both women, then disentangled himself from Cortin to
give his full attention to the mother of his child.  Cortin stretched,
catlike, then stood.  Once with each of them had been enough to satisfy
her need--though it had also left her with a nagging apprehension.
Could a team so emotionally involved with each other, and especially
with its CO, continue to function properly?

At least they were gathered around the expectant parents, not her, and
seemed to be coming to rapid agreement on something.  Of the others,
the Prince and Princess looked wistful, and Bradford and Illyanov were
approaching her.  Bradford seemed worried, Illyanov buoyant.  "Problem,
Brad?" Cortin asked.

"Maybe, depending on what His Majesty decides to do about two fertile
Strike Force troopers, the waivered one of whom is pregnant."  Bradford
frowned.  "Normally, you know, she'd be transferred to base duty or
discharged at her option and he'd be transferred to the regulars--but I
happen to think moving either of them would be a mistake.  So I'm going
to recommend waivering both of them as long as you're willing to keep
them on Azrael."

"Which will be as long as they're willing to stay," Cortin said.
"Thanks, Brad, but that's not the only problem.  We also have a Team
Leader who's just found out she's in love with her entire team--as well
as Their Highnesses and the two of you."  She sighed deeply.  "I
wouldn't want to change a bit of it, but this does put us in one
horrendous mess, and if we can manage to salvage anything we've
planned, it'll be a major miracle."

"I see no serious problems," Illyanov said cheerfully.  "After the
miracles we have just experienced, how can you doubt that God will
continue to help us?"

His confidence was reassuring; Cortin found herself able to grin.  "I
don't doubt it a bit.  Just remember that we can't count on Him until
we've done all we can do for ourselves."

"I am fully aware of that," Illyanov said with a smile.  "And I believe
you can do more than either you or Colonel Bradford have allowed
yourself to realize."  He turned, gesturing a request to the Royal
couple to join them.  When they did, he bowed.  "Your Highnesses, what
limitations are applicable to a Strike Force Team Leader who is also an
Inquisitor?"

"No treason or regicide," Prince Edward said promptly.  "Anything else
they do, as long as it's directed toward stopping the terrorists--or
done in the Kingdoms' interests, a proviso I persuaded my father to get
the other Sovereigns to agree to a few days ago--is covered by their
Writs of Immunity."

"An excellent addition, Your Highness," Illyanov said.  "And if such an
Inquisitor/Team Leader's opinion of what is in the Kingdoms' best
interest happens not to coincide with current canon or civil law?"

The Prince frowned.  "I don't know," he said slowly.  "I was at all the
Strike Force planning conferences, and I don't remember that
possibility ever being discussed."

Illyanov turned to Bradford.  "The same question, My Lord Bishop.  As
Strike Force commander, you must know the answer."

Bradford shook his head.  "His Highness is right--the possibility was
never brought up.  I know it never occurred to me; now that you bring
it up, it frightens me."

"It should reassure you instead," Illyanov said.  "If it occurred to
none of those charged with the Kingdoms' protection, I think it safe to
assume it will not occur to any in a position and with a desire to harm
them."  He turned back to Cortin.  "I would suggest, beloved, that you
take your Writ at face value and do whatever you think best."

Odeon had left the team group to listen; now he nodded.  "I second
that, Joanie.  The best way to make a change is to do it--and Sis has
agreed to marry us.  Will you perform the ceremony?"

"Wait a minute!" Cortin protested.  "Are you all telling me that His
Holiness and Their Majesties gave us more power than they have
themselves?"

"It would appear so," Illyanov said, "since they must obey the law, and
you need not if you believe disobeying to be in the Kingdoms' best
interest."

Cortin felt a sudden brief hysteria.  Standing here naked and sweaty,
in definite need of a bath--and they were telling her, with absolute
seriousness, that she was more powerful than King or Pope!  That was a
frightening idea--but Mike was right, making changes required action.
Still--  "I . . . let me clean up and think about it.  It's too
tempting--sounds too easy."

"We do all need baths," Illyanov agreed, putting his arm around her
waist and starting to urge her toward her rooms.  "It will be far less
easy than it sounds, beloved; this merely makes it possible.  But we
will all help you."

Before, that sort of presumption would have irritated her, or
worse--she might not have wanted to bathe with him, maybe not with
anyone.  Now, though, she realized that she did want company,
specifically Ivan's, and she slid her arm around his waist.

They were silent as the tub filled, Illyanov respecting Cortin's need
to think.  He'd had no trouble accepting her as the Protector, unlike a
couple of the others, but he did have the advantage of Dmitrian
traditional prophecies and a mother who'd been matter-of-factly certain
her eldest son would meet the Promised One and fulfill those prophecies
with Her.  He'd guessed it might be Joan when she fulfilled part of
them by becoming an Inquisitor who assured herself of her subjects'
guilt, had thought it highly probable when she'd fulfilled another part
by celebrating her restored sexuality with all of them, and had become
positive when Michael told him she knew nothing of her mission, also as
prophesied.  Becoming one with her hadn't been necessary to his belief
in her, though he admitted to himself that it was good to know rather
than simply believe.  The awesome vastness of even the body-limited
part of her Self was both humbling and a promise of what humanity in
the Systems could become under her protection and guidance.  The
permanent Protector's later, of course--but most definitely Joan's for
now.

Cortin stirred the rising water with her foot, watching the ripples,
comforted by the man sitting on the edge of the tub with her, his arm
around her shoulders.  Taken at face value, her Writ did give her
almost unlimited power, and she'd like nothing better than to use it to
give those she loved the first expanded Family.  Most of them, anyway
. . . the royals would have to find other spouses at their own level,
Ivan and Brad already had families and intentions of expanding them
with friends/lovers, and she . . . well, she knew perfectly well she
couldn't be part of the marriage.  She'd give them a nice Nuptial Mass,
though.

The thought of Mass made her think of Communion, the rapturous
absorption in Divinity she experienced sharing Jeshua's Body and Blood.
And had experienced earlier today, first drinking from Mike, then in
union.  It was confusing that three such different experiences could
affect her the same way . . .

"Shall we get in before the water gets cold?"

"Huh?"  Cortin glanced at her companion, seeing amused sympathy on his
face.  "Sorry, Ivan.  I was thinking about something else."

"Are you trying to teach your instructor to suck eggs?" Illyanov asked,
one eyebrow raised.  He slid into the thigh-deep water, turned to help
her in.  "Have you decided?"

"Decided?  Oh--yes.  I've got to make the effort; I'll marry them
whenever they want.  And pray the Pope or someone doesn't annul it."
She frowned.  "I wouldn't be too worried if it was still Pope
Anthony--but Lucius is as conservative as they come.  I'm not sure what
he'll do . . . and for no reason I can pinpoint, I don't trust him."

In that case, Illyanov thought, neither did he--but he kept to the
primary subject.  "A valid marriage cannot be annulled, and that will
be one, under the provisions of your Writ."  Illyanov picked up the
shampoo, began washing her hair.  "It seems to me a good idea to marry
them as early as possible, although--like your suspicion of Pope
Lucius--I have no specific reason for the idea."  He paused, then went
on.  "I am also concerned with what will happen when he and the
Sovereigns realize the power they gave you and those like you.  Ex post
facto laws are invalid, so they will be unable to negate what you
do--but it would not surprise me if they act quickly to restrict those
powers."

"How quickly is quickly?"  Cortin returned the favor, grabbing the soap
and lathering her companion.

"All were involved in issuing the Writs, so all must agree on their
modification.  I am astonished that Prince Edward's modification was
accepted so rapidly, though it was relatively minor; this is major, so
it should take a Sovereign's Conference.  Even with preparations made
as fast as possible, I would be surprised if it could convene in less
than a month.  Most, you know, take a year or more to arrange."

"I never thought I'd be grateful for bureaucratic delays," Cortin said,
"but this time I am."  She thought of something, frowned.  "Wait--I
can't use the Writ yet!  Not until we're activated, and who knows how
long that'll be?  If they catch on before then, either modify the Writs
or simply never activate us, I won't be able to do anything!"

"Not true," Illyanov said.  "You simply cannot use it openly until
then." He grinned.  "You are too straightforward for politics,
beloved--one of the reasons I love you.  Your Writ has been valid since
it was issued, as is whatever you have done or will do under it.  Marry
the team, then lay the groundwork, bring together the rest of those you
need for what you must accomplish, let the public--through a reporter,
of course--see you at prayer and play as well as work, continue giving
out the blessed cartridges."

"Play?"  Cortin cocked her head, looking up at him.

"Not this kind, of course."  Illyanov returned the look, affectionately
stroking her breast.  "As Michael said, this can truly be shared only
with those we love.  I had in mind perhaps a pair of kittens?"

Cortin gaped at him, then grinned and splashed water on his chest.
"You learned that about me during unity, while I only get feeling?
That doesn't seem quite fair--not that I can complain about what I do
get!"

"You know better than to jump at conclusions," Illyanov chided.
"Anthony, who has seen you with them, is not the only one who is aware
of your fondness for the young of all species, particularly the feline
one--a knowledge I got, not from your men, but from your reactions to
things like calendar pictures."

"Oops--not thinking too clearly at the moment, I guess.  Too many
distractions.  Sorry, Ivan."  Cortin ducked under the water to rinse
her hair, but more to hide embarrassment.  She did know better than
that; her only excuse was the shock of finding she loved--and was loved
by--so many people.  She'd get over the shock--probably very soon, as
nice as it felt--but right now she was almost as much of a mess as the
situation they were all in.

"No apologies necessary," Illyanov said when she surfaced.  "The . . .
total involvement shocked all of us.  You may believe me suffering from
an excess of my ancestral Russian mysticism, but I felt I was one with
God.  Turn around, I need to get your back.--You do realize that
Eleanor and Joseph's baby is the first human since the Blessed Virgin
to be conceived free of Original Sin?"

Cortin turned her head to stare at him.  "Is that more of your Russian
mysticism?"

"Simple logic, beloved.  A child conceived by parents incapable of sin
must share that protection, at least until it reaches the age of reason
and must decide for itself."

Cortin thought for a moment, then nodded.  "That does make sense.  I
haven't figured out all the implications of not being able to sin, yet."

"None of us have," Illyanov said.  "It is possible we will receive some
surprises as to what is and is not sinful, as well.  While God is
infallible, human interpretation of His Will is not."  He smiled.  "I
also have a feeling that we other Sealed Inquisitors will have to
imitate you in assuring ourselves of a subject's guilt before going
beyond the first stage of interrogation.  I pray we are given
truthsense to do so accurately, lest we release those who will harm the
ones we are sworn to protect."

"That would have to be a part of it," Cortin agreed.  "Try some test
questions on me.  I'll try to lie on one of them; if you've got the
same kind of truthsense now that I do, you'll be able to feel which
one."

"Questions I do not know the answers to.  Having been your instructor,
I know you well enough for that to be difficult; let me think."

He had finished bathing her and was being bathed in turn before he was
able to think of any.  As he'd told her, he knew too much about her for
most conventional questions to be evidential, and the unconventional
ones he really wanted to ask would tell her too much.  "Do you believe
the Protector's appearance will make our profession obsolete?"

"No," Cortin said promptly.  "We'll be just as necessary, though not
always in the same way, I'm sure."  She grinned.  "Not everyone's going
to be willing to give up even the little free will we did, either to be
sure of Heaven or to avoid Hell.  Criminals still won't give up their
information without a fight, and they'll still need mortal punishment;
there'll definitely be a place for Inquisitors!"

"That is good to know.  Ah . . . let me see.  I do not remember that we
ever went into your pre-Academy background, with the exception of your
family being a farming one; if the subject would not be too painful,
that might be a possible area of evidence."

"My adoptive family," Cortin corrected him.  "But I can't say my
childhood was any more painful than average, so go ahead."

"Do you remember your biological parents at all?"

"No.  As far as I know, I never saw either of them; I was the classic
orphan left in a basket on someone's front porch."

"What about siblings?"

"One, an older brother.  Though Mother and Father would have dearly
loved more; I remember regular Masses for that intention."

"And how did they feel when you went into Enforcement?"

"As surprised as I was, and I think a little disappointed, though they
tried not to show it.  We . . . lost touch . . . not long after I went
to the Academy."

"Not a close family, then."

"Not particularly," Cortin agreed.  "When I gave up farming, we had no
interests in common any longer, so I suppose it was natural to lose
contact.  It was my fault as much as theirs; I got so absorbed in my
studies that I took longer and longer answering letters, and when I
did, it was about the Academy and my classmates.  Also . . . I didn't
mention it, but I'm sure they knew I was using our dispensation, and
they didn't approve."

"Fortunate for us, though not for them."  That seemed to close that
subject; Illyanov sought for another.  "Ah . . . assuming the Protector
defeats Shayan and we are able to expand beyond the Systems' present
limits, do you believe we will be able to avoid contact with the
Empire?"

"I think so, for another couple of centuries at least."

Illyanov quirked an eyebrow.  "And that, beloved, is true only as a
hope, not a conviction.  So we have proven two things."

"That at least under test circumstances lying isn't sinful," Cortin
agreed, "and that you--by extension, Dave and Brad too--have a reliable
truthsense."

"And we will find out more as we go." Illyanov studied her for a
moment.  "What do you truly believe about the Empire, beloved?"

Cortin rubbed the back of her neck in a gesture she'd picked up from
Odeon.  "I'm afraid of them," she admitted slowly.  "I can't say it's a
totally justified fear--there's been no contact since the Flight, after
all, and all the comm intercepts I've heard confirm their
non-interference claims.  But that's hard to believe of any government."

Illyanov nodded.  "I share that particular reservation, though not
strongly.  I believe contact will be traumatic, but ultimately
beneficial.  Like your fear, my optimism is not totally justified.  It
is stronger than a mere hunch, however, and I confess I would like to
meet some of them face to face."

Cortin looked at him quizzically.  "Even the non-human ones?"

"Perhaps especially those," Illyanov admitted, smiling.  "But I fear I
am monopolizing your time; perhaps we should rejoin the others."  He
helped her finish rinsing him, then got out of the tub and gave her a
hand up.

Clean and dressed--someone had thoughtfully laid Illyanov's uniform out
on Cortin's bed--the two returned to the common-room.  The rest were
already back, and Brady was serving herb tea and small cakes.  Cortin
took one, though she wasn't really hungry, and nibbled at it until
Brady left.  Then she got the group's attention and said, "Ivan came up
with an idea a few minutes ago.  I don't particularly like it, but I
can definitely see where it could be useful: let a reporter spend some
time with us, enough to get to know us as people instead of symbols."

That got a mixed reaction, from Degas' wince to Odeon's thoughtful nod.
"Personally," her Team-second said after a moment's thought, "I don't
like it any better than you do . . . but otherwise, it sounds good.
And we can handle anything, for a short enough time."

"A week should be about right," Bradford said.  "And I think I know the
ideal reporter to invite."

Cortin cocked her head.  "That expression says you're up to something,
Brad.  Just who is this ideal reporter?"

"Sara Blackfeather, of the New Roman Times."

Cortin stared at him in shocked disbelief.  "Are you feeling all right?
She not only despises Enforcement, rumor has it she's Pope Lucius'
mistress!"

"Not just rumor," Bradford said.  "You have to remember, though, that
in that part of this world, an unmarried man is almost required to have
a mistress.  If he's faithful to her--and everything I've heard says he
is, from the time he acknowledged her when he was Cardinal
McHenry--it's only a venial sin.  As for her being hostile, what would
it prove if, say, Patrick James did a series?  He's always been an
Enforcement supporter.  But if you can turn Blackfeather into a
friend--even a neutral--she'd sway a lot of her followers.  Even her
worst enemies can't argue her honesty; if she does change her opinion,
she'll say so."

"True," Cortin agreed.  "She's done it before, two or three times that
I know of.  All right, as soon as I decide on a good time, I'll send
her an invitation.  And while we're on that subject--Dave, have you
asked Betty yet if she and the children want to move here?"

"No--until this morning, I didn't understand how you really felt."
Bain smiled.  "I'll call her after Mass."

"Why wait?"  Cortin returned the smile.  "Call now, so we'll all know.
It's a good time to move--nice weather, and the children'll have time
to make friends before school starts.  And if they do come, I'd like to
have them here when Blackfeather arrives--I have a feeling I'm going to
need the kind of atmosphere only children can create."

"Besides which," Bain said, "your secret's out, to us--you just plain
like children."  He went to the phone, dialed, and moments later was
speaking to his sister-in-law.  He explained the new family structure
and his part in the first one being formed, then went into the
advantages for the children even if she chose not to marry into the
group--then he grinned, giving the group around him the thumbs-up, and
began discussing logistic details.

"Good!" Cortin exclaimed.  "Sis, Mike--we'll need a playground, and the
third floor set up for children, and--a nanny, do you think, or--"

"Next weekend be okay?" Bain interrupted to ask.

"The sooner the better," Cortin said.  If they could move in that
quickly, it might not be a bad idea to invite that reporter for the
week around the Brothers' attack on the convent.  If she'd never been
to a fresh raid scene, she could only have a rough, second-hand idea of
the suffering a raid caused.  Seeing that might jar her enough to let
her really look at what Enforcement did, and why--including the
necessity for Inquisitors and the methods it took to stop the
terrorists.  Cortin wasn't sure it would, but with Blackfeather's
reputation for honesty, it seemed to be worth the gamble.  "If they'll
need help, fly out with whoever you need."

Bain spoke into the phone again, then hung up and turned to the rest.
"Two of us will be more than enough, she says.  Who wants to be the
other?"

Pritchett raised his hand quickly.  "I've always been good with kids."

"I would also like to go," Chang said.

Cortin shook her head.  "Sorry, Sis.  Even if you weren't pregnant,
it'd be too dangerous.  I know you're no more worried about yourself
than any other Strike Team officer would be, but with you at the top of
the Brothers' wipe list, if they tried for you, the Bains would get
caught in the crossfire."

"I had not thought of that," Chang said.  "I would not wish to endanger
others, of course.  Dave and Tiny, then?"

"Right.  On permissive TDY--and," she turned to the designated ones,
"with orders to call me if the Transportation Office gives you any
static about storing whatever she can't or doesn't want to bring along.
Not that that's likely, with both of you members of the King's Own."

"True."  Bain grinned.  "I kind of hope they do, though.  You cannot
believe how much I'd like to see their faces if Her Excellency the
King's Inquisitor had to talk to them."

 "Oh, I'd believe, all right," Cortin said.  "I've had all the usual
experiences with them myself, which is why I'm kind of hoping you have
to call."

      *      *      *      *      *

Prince Edward tapped on the King's half-open office door.  "Good news,
Father."

The King looked up from the papers he was working on.  "Come in and
close the door."  When Edward had obeyed and seated himself, the King
asked, "How good?"

"Colonel Cortin's just turned Strike Team Azrael into a family, and
Lieutenant Chang is pregnant with Lieutenant Pritchett's son.   I don't
know what the new family name will be, yet."

"That's excellent news," the King said, smiling widely.  "I was hoping
she'd do something like that, and of course she'd take care of her own
people first.  Let's see--Chang was waivered with undetermined
fertility, but Pritchett definitely tested sterile, so I think that can
safely be classed as a miracle.  Most gratifying."

"You're not surprised?" Edward asked, a little disappointed.

"I had some information you didn't," the King said drily.  "Remember at
the Sovereigns' Conference, Pope Anthony called Czar Nicholas and
myself to a private audience?"

"Yes, of course."

"His Holiness told us that he'd be murdered soon, and that we should
take that as evidence for the rest of what he had to say.  He was, and
we did.  I don't think I need to tell you what the 'rest' was."

"Not if it's that this is the time of the Final Coming," Edward said
cautiously.

"And that the Royal Inquisitor either Nicholas or I would choose would
be, without knowing it, the Protector.  From what we know of Colonels
Cortin and Stepanov, she's the one.  Is that true?"

Edward hesitated, trying to absorb the idea that Cortin's true identity
was known--or at least suspected--outside her immediate circle.  On the
other hand, Pope Anthony had been holy in fact as well as title; it
shouldn't be that much of a surprise that God would lay the same sort
of groundwork, through him, that Shayan had undoubtedly laid for
himself.  "Acting Protector, yes, until the real one manifests," Edward
said at last.  "Ursula and I are Sealed to him through her, along with
all of Team Azrael, Colonel Bradford, and Major Illyanov.  Captain
Odeon and Lieutenant Chang are her priests, as well."  He paused, went
on.  "She's worried about what you'll do with Pritchett and Chang now
that they're going to be parents.  And what Pope Lucius will do about
the marriage."

"I'm certainly not going to take her people away from her," the King
said.  "Team Azrael isn't subject to the conventional Strike Team
dangers, so I can justify exempting them from the sterility rules.  The
dangers they--and you--will face are of an entirely different nature.
One no mortal, I'm afraid, can do anything to protect you against.  As
for Pope Lucius acting against the marriage--" the King smiled, grimly.
"I'm sure he'll try, but considering the celebrant, I doubt very much
he'll get very far.  'Whom therefore God hath joined together, let no
man put asunder.' The marriage is valid under His--" He paused, with a
bemused expression, then went on, "or Her--Law.  Though I admit it
would be helpful if it were also valid under some temporal laws as
well, which I'm working on.  I don't suppose she's part of this family
she's just created?"

"Not yet--but Captain Odeon is working on a way to correct that."

"Very good.  Let me know as soon as he does; if this is going to work,
she'll have to have heirs."

"Of course, Father.  Uh . . . what about additional spouses for Ursula
and myself?"

"I'm working on that, too.  God willing, arrangements will be complete
for you a new husband and wife by the time I activate the Strike Force,
and she'll perform the ceremony."



18. Revelation

Wednesday, 4 Mar 2572

When Cortin got to the breakfast table after Mass, she was amused to
find a heated discussion in progress, about what the family name should
be.  It seemed an odd subject, she thought as she helped herself from
the hot-table rather than calling an order to the kitchen--but on
second thought, it did make sense.  Women were used to giving up
maiden-family names on marriage, though a professional with an
established reputation would often hyphenate it with her husband's, but
the men didn't think too highly of the idea.  She listened without
interfering; it was their Family, using a new system, so it seemed
reasonable to let them determine how it should be identified.  If their
method looked as if it would work out well, she'd recommend it to His
Majesty for general implementation.

It didn't take them long to decide hyphenating all the names together
alphabetically was much too unwieldy to work.  Hyphenation was fine,
they agreed, but more than two names was excessive--the problem now was
which two.  Cortin favored Odeon's thinking, that everyone take the
name of the senior spouse at the Family's founding, with the other
spouses hyphenating their surnames, and that argument seemed to be
winning, with the focus changing to whether seniority should be in age
or rank.  The debate was getting intense when Powell raised both hands.
"Since I don't class as senior either way, and Joan's interest seems to
be purely academic or she'd have said something before now, why not ask
her opinion?"

"Good idea," Odeon said, after looking around at the rest and getting
their agreement.  "What do you think, Joanie?"

"Senior in rank seems most reasonable to me," Cortin said.  "After all,
this is going to apply to nobles and royalty, as well as commoners, and
you can't expect a monarch or fief-holder to change names.  As an
alternative you didn't mention, at least for commoners, pick a name the
initial spouses can all agree on, since it only has to be established
once."

"Now that idea I like even better," Odeon said.  "People?"

There was momentary puzzlement, then what he was suggesting dawned on
his spouses, and he got nods and murmurs of agreement from the rest.
"That's settled, then," he said, turning to Cortin.  "Subject to Your
Excellency's veto, of course, this will be Family Cortin.  With you at
its head, equally of course."

Cortin stared at him, then found herself unable to hold back a wide,
delighted smile.  "No veto, Mike.  That's the nicest present I could
ever get!  Thanks, all of you!"

"No need for thanks," Chang said.  "The honor and pleasure are ours.
On St. Ignatius, we would now be entitled to call you Mother; is that
true here?"

"You've made me head of your--our--family, and I'm a female," Cortin
said, "so I suppose that is the proper title.  And that means I'll be
grandmother to your children!"  She smiled again, thoroughly pleased.
"Though I hope you'll keep calling me Joan or Joanie, too, and of
course we'll have to observe correct protocol in public."

"Of course, Excellency," Chang said with a perfectly straight face.

      *      *      *      *      *

The news was just too good to keep to herself, and Cortin knew His
Majesty had to be the first to know about the Family and her new status
in it--though it would surprise her if Prince Edward hadn't already
told him about the first part.  She was nervous about the result,
enough so that she was reluctant to call at all--certainly not before
His Majesty could reasonably be expected to have been to Mass, had
breakfast, and gotten his morning briefing from his chief advisors.
God willing, there'd be nothing in the briefing to upset him--maybe
even some news to put him in a good mood.

In the meantime, she told herself she really ought to brief Matthew to
expect new residents and a visitor, then write the invitation to
Blackfeather.  And there was all that mail and paperwork that had been
accumulating in her main-floor office; she should at least go through
it enough to sort what had to be taken care of from what could be
thrown out.

She had alerted Brady, who proved enthusiastic about having children in
the house once she assured him they'd be kept very strictly out of her
profession, written the invitation, and was starting to work her way
through the stack of mail when Powell looked in the open door.  "Need
some help?  I'm pretty good at that sort of thing."

Cortin looked up at him gratefully.  "I sincerely hope so, because this
is the one part of my job I really don't like.  Pull up a chair and see
what you can do."

Powell did so, taking a stack of mail, opening and going through it
with considerable assurance and more speed than Cortin herself was
managing.  After a few minutes, she discovered she was doing more
watching than working--and being impressed.  When he finished with the
stack, she took it and scrutinized his work.

That was even more impressive than watching him, because he had dealt
with every piece exactly as she would have.  Impressive, and a little
frightening--but she wasn't about to question a gift from God.  "What
do you do during the day, Chuck?"

Powell flushed.  "Not much, I'm afraid.  Read, mostly, between Mass and
supper--and entertain myself, of course.  It's fun, but I'd like to do
something more . . . productive."

"Productive as in?"

"This sort of thing.  I'm pretty good at it, I think, and you don't
like it--maybe I could be your secretary, or aide, or whatever you'd
want to call it?"

Cortin chuckled.  "'Great minds' . . . You're more than pretty good,
you're incredible--almost as if you were reading my mind.  The job's
all yours, with my thanks."

Powell flushed again.  "It's easy--when we were so close to being one
person, you wanted me--maybe all of us--to know you as well as we
could.  I can sort of put myself in your place, at least enough to
handle routine things the way you would.  And I enjoy doing it."

"As I said, it's all yours."  Cortin handed him the invitation to
Blackfeather.  "I thought I ought to write this myself, and I'm never
sure when I'll have time free, but I don't want it going out until we
can be sure she'll get it after the Bains arrive.  Can you handle that?"

"No problem."  Powell took the paper.  "They'll be arriving a week from
Saturday, right?"

"That's what I understand, yes."

"Mail it a week from today, then."  Powell clipped a note to the
invitation and put it in the middle basket of her stack.  "Okay,
anything else?"

Cortin glanced at the clock and winced.  "I have to call His Majesty
and tell him about the Family--stick around and give me moral support?"

"Of course."

"Thanks."  Cortin made the call, almost wishing the King wouldn't
answer.  When he did and she identified herself, though, she could hear
a smile in his voice.

"Good work, Colonel.  Our congratulations to the newlyweds--please
bring them to the Palace when you're free, to accept them in person."

"My pleasure, Your Majesty--but there's more."  Cortin took a deep
breath, hoping she didn't sound as nervous as she felt.  "They've
adopted me as mother, and taken Cortin as the Family name."

"Outstanding," the King said with obvious satisfaction.  "A slight
change, then.  Bring them all over as soon as possible--Edward will be
waiting to bring you to the Throne Room."

"But what--"  Cortin cut herself off.  She'd find out soon enough; this
was just another example of His Majesty keeping his own counsel.  Good
thing Dave and Tiny hadn't left yet . . .  "Yes, Sire.  Ten minutes,
unless you want us in dress uniform."

"Service uniform is fine.  Ten minutes, then."

      *      *      *      *      *

As promised, Prince Edward was waiting when they got to the Palace.
All except Cortin left their weapons with the armorer, then the Prince
led them to the Throne Room.  His Majesty was seated on the Throne, in
everyday clothes but wearing the Crown and holding the Sword of State,
and the rest of the Sealed ones and Her Majesty the Queen were in
attendance.  It looked like an informal Grand Audience, Cortin thought,
but that was a contradiction in terms--yet she'd never heard of Crown
and Sword being used at the same time except at a Coronation or Grand
Audience, and this certainly wasn't a Coronation!

The King smiled.  "Thank you for your promptness, gentles.  We
congratulate you on your marriage and your choice of a Family head, and
We offer Our best wishes for a long and happy Family life."

"Thank you, Your Majesty."  His congratulations and good wishes were
welcome, Cortin thought, but hardly call for ceremonial . . .

"Neither your marriage nor what We will shortly do must be made public
until after the Strike Force is activated, but since it will require
you to make major changes in your lives, We have chosen to give you
some time to adapt in private."  The King stood, descended from the
dais to stand in front of the Throne.  "Joan Cortin, approach Us and
kneel."

Cortin obeyed, puzzled.  Whatever was going on certainly wasn't normal!
When she knelt, the King said, "We believe your extended family
structure to be in the best interest of Our realm and subjects.  To
demonstrate Our support and approval and to give you temporal power to
assist in establishing more such Families, We hereby name Joan Cortin
and her heirs to head the Northwest Territory, now the Archduchy of
High Teton, as long as this Kingdom shall stand."  He touched both her
shoulders with the flat of the Sword.  "Rise, Your Grace."

Too stunned for immediate reaction, Cortin did as she was told.  She'd
barely gotten used to being King's Inquisitor; now she was suddenly
Arch-duchess as well.  Granted that His Majesty was close-mouthed about
his plans until he acted on them, he could have given her some warning!

Not long afterward the group was in the Sable Room, a large version of
Harmony Lodge's common-room, having hot drinks and cinnamon-cake.
Cortin was starting to recover, and realizing it was probably a good
thing His Majesty had surprised her.  If he'd asked, she would have
turned it down; now, it was too late.  But--"Your Majesty, I don't see
how I can do both jobs properly."

"You can't, of course, and I don't expect you to.  I assume you want to
keep on as Royal Inquisitor?"

"I think I can do more good in that position, yes, Sire.  At least
until the Brotherhood is eliminated."

"I agree," the King said, surprising her.  "And I have no intention of
separating you from your Family, though under normal circumstances your
heir would act as your regent while you carry out Royal
responsibilities.  My son has agreed to act in that capacity until you
feel free to relinquish your Inquisitorial duties, or until you want
your heir to take over."  He paused.  "And who is your heir, Your
Grace?  Since you do not and cannot have children, I must require you
to designate your successor."

"I've hardly had time to think about that, Sire."  He was absolutely
right, she did have that responsibility to her new lieges--and she
dared not waste any time fulfilling it.  She was still positive she'd
have to face Shannon, and that whatever restraints held him back now
were unlikely in the extreme to do so then.  Whether he was just
Shayan's tool, or Shayan himself, it was the Hell-King's power she'd be
facing then, and that was power no mortal could match.  She'd probably
be killed outright; if not, she could only pray that God would be
merciful and not leave her subject to Shayan's torture.  At least she
had the certainty of dying in a state of grace . . .

"In that case," the King's voice interrupted her thoughts, "might I
suggest that the next-senior Family member would be a reasonable
choice?  That would logically be Captain Cortin-Odeon, true?"

"True, Your Majesty."  Cortin glanced at Mike, savoring the sound of
his Family name.  He was the logical choice--and designating him would
have an extra benefit, as far as she was concerned.  Once all this was
made public and he was openly heir to a major fief, he'd be kept out of
unusually difficult situations.  He might not particularly like that,
but it would certainly be easier for her, not having to worry about
him.  The same would be true of the rest, though to a lesser degree, as
members of the nobility.  Yes, it was just as well His Majesty hadn't
given her an opportunity to refuse!  "An excellent suggestion; I so
designate him."

"Designation confirmed," the King said promptly.  "As heir to an
Archduchess, that makes him a Duke and his spouses . . . hmm."  The
King frowned, smiling at the same time.  "I can see where we need some
new terminology to fit the new Families.  Calling a man 'Duchess'--or
the equivalent for lower ranks--could lead to all sorts of confusion,
even though it was the proper term for the spouse in a conventional
family.  And 'Duke-spouse' is clumsy.  Suggestions, anyone?"

There was silence for a while, then Powell raised a tentative hand.

"Yes, my Lord?" the King said.

Powell looked startled, an emotion Cortin echoed until it made her grin
instead.  She wasn't the only one who'd have some adjusting to do!
Then Powell gathered himself and went on.  "It's a made-up word, but
what about something like 'Dukida'?  It's neutral sexually, and in
zoology '-ida' is used in forming family names . . ."

"Sounds odd," the King said thoughtfully, "but then new words usually
do.  And the suffix fits with the other titles of nobility, takes a
classical plural . . .  Very well, so be it.  Thank you, my Lord."

"I'm honored to be of service, Your Majesty."

"Now that we have that settled," the King said, "I understand Family
Cortin is expecting its first child?"

"Yes, Sire," Cortin said.  "And I hope soon becoming step-parents to
three more."  She explained about Betty and the children.

"Excellent.  That makes me wish even more that I could forbid this
entire Family from going into action, but that would defeat one of the
new structure's purposes."  The King frowned, addressing the entire
group.  "I have forbidden Colonel Cortin to go into danger except
against those who personally harmed her, a ban that will also apply to
Duke Michael after the convent raid and to Dukida Eleanor for the
duration of her pregnancy.  Unfortunately, I have to let the rest of
you set an example.  Just for God's sake, be careful!"

Odeon glanced at Cortin, then looked at the King.  "For the Protector's
sake, Your Majesty," he said quietly, "you can be sure we'll all be as
careful as humanly possible."

      *      *      *      *      *

The week and a half between Family Cortin's sudden promotion and the
Bains' arrival was one of the busiest Cortin could remember.  Besides
her regular work, she tried to spend a couple of hours a day helping
get the Lodge ready, then in the evenings the rest of the Sealed group
came to help the Family get used to its new status and prepare for the
responsibilities involved in running a new Archduchy, and after that
for the Protector's Communion.

And the first Friday evening, Illyanov startled Cortin by announcing
that he'd asked for discharge from St. Dmitri Enforcement, which he
expected would be formally granted within two weeks, and that his wife
and children would be moving to St. Thomas as soon as travel
arrangements could be made.

Cortin stared at him in shock.  "Ivan, why?"

"Because I cannot serve in two forces at once.  Your Grace is going to
require an Archducal Enforcement Service, and I wish to help establish
it." He smiled.  "I also wish to establish a Family, a desire both my
wife and my mistress share.  That will be difficult anywhere except in
High Teton for some time."

"For anyone except the nobility, at least," Bradford agreed.  "Which is
why, with Your Grace's permission, I would like to move Strike Force
Operations there as soon as practical."

"Granted."  That was something she hadn't really considered, but she
could see why it would be true; her new fief had a small population,
which made it seem safe to assume its inhabitants would be in favor of
a change that would allow them to expand.  "Have we had enough practice
for one night?"

"I'd say so," Bradford replied.  "You only slipped once, when Ivan gave
you what I admit was a shock."

"Good!" Cortin unfastened the collar of her tunic, sighing with relief.
"It certainly was, even though I suppose I should have expected it.
He's certainly hinted about moving to this world."

"He won't be the only one," Edward said.  "From what I've heard, High
Teton is going to have quite an influx of people wanting Families--a
large percentage of them Enforcement, with their various Sovereigns'
backing.  Not all permanent, though."

"They'll be welcome," Cortin said.  "I'm glad of the Sovereigns'
reaction--but I'm still worried about Pope Lucius', when we go public.
I simply cannot see him giving Church approval.  I'm a little surprised
that he hasn't revoked the Enforcement dispensation, in fact."

"Such a revocation would have little effect," Chang said.  "Those I
speak to during my work at the hospital have made that clear."

Cortin frowned.  "They'd disobey the Pope?  I wouldn't, even if I
didn't agree with him."

"On the contrary," Illyanov said.  "If his decrees conflict with what
you think right, or what Michael and Eleanor tell us of the Protector's
will, you will have no choice but to disobey.  Which is true of all of
us who are Sealed, and thus guided directly.  We must prepare the
Protector's way, and also encourage devotion to all three Aspects of
the Triune--they are, after all, complementary--in hopes of protecting
as many people as possible from Shayan and his deceits."

Chang nodded.  "There is a certain protection available even to those
not yet Sealed.  I refer, of course, to the cartridges Joan has
blessed."

"Oh?"  Illyanov cocked his head.  "I know they are growing in
popularity, with civilians as well as troopers, but I am unaware of any
special protection they might offer."

"I cannot say they truly do," Chang cautioned, "but many troopers, of
late, refuse to go into the field without them.  It is said that those
who wear cartridges suffer fewer and less serious wounds than those who
do not.  More importantly, not one person with such a cartridge is
known to have died under the shadow of mortal sin.  There is growing
belief that if Colonel Cortin is not the Protector herself, she must be
the Protector's Herald."

"To the best of my knowledge, I'm neither one," Cortin said.  "I don't
want to mislead people, even by omission--but what if that misdirected
belief helps pave the Protector's way?  Should I say something, or
should I keep silent?"

They were getting onto shaky ground, Odeon thought.  Their belief
wasn't misdirected; it was only Joanie who was unable to believe the
truth, and he wondered if she'd noticed the phrasing of her denial.
"If it were me," he said slowly, "I'd keep my mouth shut.  No one's
being hurt by that belief, and it may help.  That Brother said piety
was necessary, in both senses of the word--this could be what he was
talking about.  Piety the person, and a pious faith and hope--belief,
if you will--in the Protector and His or Her imminent appearance."

"In which case," Illyanov said, "it is a belief worth promoting."  He
turned to Cortin.  "If the idea makes you uncomfortable, beloved, I
would suggest you ask Michael and Eleanor to dedicate this evening's
service to your guidance, and pray that it be revealed while you sleep.
I am sure God will not deny such help to one who has given herself to
His service."

"Sounds reasonable," Odeon said.  "We'll do it."

      *      *      *      *      *

Cortin knew in a remote way that she was dreaming, even though it
seemed real enough--the clean smell of the mountain air, the
sun-warmth, her Family surrounding her with the Archducal Palace behind
them.  All were in white Enforcement uniforms, like none she'd ever
seen, but that seemed right somehow, and she was buoyed by the love she
felt from all of them.

In the distance she saw a bright glow.  As it grew, she saw it was a
man, also in a white Enforcement uniform, his rank insignia a single
silver star.  When his feet touched the ground in front of her, he
hugged her and gave her a thorough, highly enjoyable kiss.  When he
released her, he smiled.  "You asked for help, Joanie; I'm here to give
it.  The first order of business, though, is to tell you that you're
doing as well as anyone could, under these circumstances."

"Thanks--that's good to know."  Cortin was calmer than she thought she
had any right to be, with the certainty it was Jeshua Himself talking
to her--probably His influence, she thought.  "You know the problem;
what should I do?  Or not do?"

"Don't deny the beliefs that concern you," he said promptly.  "They're
natural ones, since you're fulfilling the prophecies that show the
Protector's about to appear."

"But they're supposed to apply to the Protector or His Herald--and both
of them are men!"

"Not in anything I've said."  Jeshua chuckled.  "That's a human
assumption I allowed to stand, as harmless.  Those with enough power
can choose what sex to appear as--see?"  With that, he became a woman,
wearing the field habit of a Blue Sister.  After a few seconds, he
changed back.  "I'm not exactly what you believe me to be, Joanie, but
then neither are most people or things.  That isn't particularly
significant in this instance, any more than my looks are--or than the
Herald's or Protector's sex."

Cortin couldn't help it; she grinned at that before continuing.  "I'm
certain I'm not the Protector, but you say I'm fulfilling prophecies I
never heard of.  That sounds like I'm being used as a decoy--or am I
the Herald?"

The man returned her smile.  "In part, yes.  Get Ivan to tell you about
the prophecies some day; he grew up with the accurate ones.  In the
meantime, you shouldn't worry about them.  Mike and Sis will guide you,
and your Family will support you, as will the rest of the Sealed ones."
At this point it would be counterproductive, he thought, telling her
she was also acting Protector; she would simply reject the idea.  He
wouldn't lie to her, but he also saw no point in burdening her
unnecessarily, since she could use the aspects of her borrowed powers
that she'd need without accepting that temporary part of her identity.
And he had no doubt the true Protector would grant her her fondest wish
when he arrived.

In part? Cortin wondered, but she decided against going into that; it
sounded like something likely to make her uncomfortable if she
investigated too closely.  Instead, she decided to change the subject.
"Am I . . . really going to have to face Shayan?"

"Yes, though not until after the Protector manifests fully, and it
probably won't be as you expect."

"Is Shannon Shayan?"

"Yes."

Cortin was getting a little irritated.  He was answering her questions,
true, but he certainly wasn't being very responsive!  What else did she
need to know?  "You sound like you approve of the Families, but I can't
believe Pope Lucius will."  She shook her head, bewildered.  "And how
can your Worldly Vicar oppose you?"  She paused, a frightening thought
forming.  "Unless the Pope's somehow Shannon, as well."

Jeshua sighed.  "Pope Lucius is indeed Lawrence Shannon in different
physical form.  I can't explain to you exactly what's going on; you
don't need, or really want, to know.  Suffice it to say that his hatred
and basic opposition are intact, but his powers, in that position at
this time, do serve my purposes."

That was a shock, but Cortin was aware he was shielding her from most
of the impact, and she was extremely grateful for the protection.  Dear
God, Shayan the Pope!

"It's not a desirable situation, true, but as I said, it is necessary,
and I promise you as much of an explanation as you can understand when
this stage is complete."  He gave her a brief smile.  "It may help you
to know he has no spiritual authority over those who are Sealed, as
Ivan told you--and it's Mike and Sis who have that authority over those
who are devoted to the Protector.  Pass on to them, would you, that the
time has come to institute the bread and milk Communion of Promise?
It'll give limited protection to those who want to be Sealed but can't
until the Protector manifests fully."

"Of course I will."

"Then except for two small personal items, I've done all that is
appropriate at this point.  Let Mike and Sis guide you, accept the
support of the others who are or want to be Sealed, and work for the
Protector's objectives."  He smiled at her.  "The first personal item
is to reclaim the symbol Shayan stole and marked you with.  You belong
to me, not him--as do the other Sealed.  Please remove your gloves."

Cortin obeyed, finding as she did that the circled triangles no longer
disturbed her.  And they didn't look like burns any more; instead they
seemed to glow with blue light, somehow comforting.  "Will . . . the
others have these?"

"If you and they want, yes.  It isn't a requirement; being openly
Sealed will mark them for Shayan's personal torture if his people
capture them, and he needs no supernatural powers to make that weeks of
agony.  His millennia of practice are enough."

"My team would never forgive me if I left them out of anything, even if
it was risky.  They'll want these marks, but I don't know about the
others--I can't choose for them."

"True.  If they want them when they see yours, they'll get them.  The
other item is a trade, if you wish.  Your back pain for the Stigmata,
which will show you act with my approval.  To compensate for the
inconvenience of bleeding periodically, they won't cause you any pain."

"I could hardly refuse anything you offer--I'll make the trade."  She
hesitated.  "Uh, what about the cartridges?  Was Sis right about them?"

"She was indeed, so long as the wearer doesn't commit a mortal sin
deliberately.  You'll forget about the symbols and trade both until the
latter takes effect."  He kissed her again, in a brotherly way this
time, and vanished as he had appeared.

      *      *      *      *      *

Cortin woke with a feeling of imminent disaster.  It had seemed like a
nightmare, especially Shayan on the Papal Throne . . .  Still, Jeshua
had said there was a purpose to it, and he'd outlined what sounded like
the only reasonable thing for her to do.  She got up, but instead of
dressing--the message she'd been asked to pass along sounded like one
that shouldn't wait--she put on a robe and went to Odeon's room.

He'd apparently had a quieter night than she; when he called for her to
come in he was still in bed, stretched out in a way that reminded her
of a large and perfectly contented cat.  "Join me?" he invited.

"Uh-huh."  Cortin slipped the robe off and slid under the covers,
comforted by his warm strength.  "I'm not sure how much help it was,
but I did have a visitor last night.  He asked me to tell you it was
time to institute the Communion of Promise, and I got the impression he
meant today."

"Good--I've been waiting for word I could.  What about what you wanted
to know?"

"I found out, sort of.  He said I'm the Herald, 'in part'--I was too
chicken to ask what he meant by that--and that I shouldn't deny what
I'm being called, even if it's the Protector."  Cortin shivered,
huddling against his chest.  "I found out a couple of other things,
too.  You know the Protector could be a woman?  And that Pope Lucius is
Shayan, and you and Sis're the Protector's version of a Pope?"

"The last I'd guessed, the rest I knew, yes."

"And that we're on our own now?"

"I thought that was getting close."  Odeon kissed her, holding her
snugly and stroking her back.  "We need two more people, Ivan says,
then we'll be in position to hold the fort till the Protector's ready
to surface.  I expect Betty'll be one of them, but I don't think we've
met the other yet."

To her surprise, Cortin found herself becoming aroused.  That didn't
seem possible, much less appropriate, after her vision--but it was
happening.  "Mike--"

"What better way to put what you've just been through into perspective?
It took a shelter party to straighten Sis and me out, but I don't think
you need anything that extreme."  He raised himself as if to get out of
bed.  "Of course, if you think otherwise . . ."

"I don't, even if a shelter party does sound nice."  Cortin shook her
head, bewildered.  "Shouldn't we be getting ready for Mass, though?"

"Is it your conscience or habit asking that?"  Odeon stroked her hair,
then caressed a breast.  "Trust your feelings, Joanie.  You can't sin,
remember?"

"I remember."  And Jeshua had been specific about telling her to follow
Mike and Sis' guidance . . .  She closed her eyes, trying to analyze
what she actually felt.  That was complicated by Mike's continuing
caresses, but it did seem her feelings said this was the right thing to
be doing now.  Mass was important, yes, but she shouldn't go to it in
the mood she'd had when she wakened, of impending doom; this was the
Protector's way of comfort and reassurance.

      *      *      *      *      *

Cortin kissed Odeon one last time before getting up.  "Thanks,
Mike--I'm feeling human again, and I'm in fit condition to say Mass."

"I could tell."  Odeon smiled at her.  "Glad I could help."

"So'm I.  Mind if I use your tub before I go get dressed?"

"Only if you're willing to have company," Odeon replied with a grin.

"I was hoping you'd say that.  Come on."

They bathed in comfortable near-silence, then Cortin went to her room
to dress.  She was feeling better, and it surprised her.  The
circumstances hadn't changed, the odds against her and her team were
still bad, she was still sure she wouldn't survive her next meeting
with Shannon--but Mike was obviously a sovereign remedy for what had
ailed her.  It was hard to believe he wasn't the Protector, but that
couldn't be, if the Protector might be a woman.  Sis, maybe?  Jeshua
had appeared in a Blue Sister's habit . . .

She forced herself to stop that line of speculation; the Protector's
identity would be revealed at the proper time.  In the meantime,
speculation was pointless; she'd have enough to occupy her doing
whatever the Herald was supposed to do without having instructions.
Follow her instincts and Mike's guidance, she supposed.

When she opened the vestry door to approach the altar, she was
surprised to see the entire team--except Bain and Pritchett, who were
probably at Betty's by now--waiting, along with the rest of the Sealed
ones, Their Majesties, and some others of the Household, who normally
attended Mass at the Cathedral.  Her surprise didn't last, though; as
usual, when she approached the altar her mind had no room for anything
except the ceremony.

That went normally until the Consecration.  When she raised the Host
and the bell rang, the pain in her back vanished, and she remembered
the trade she'd agreed to.  As she raised the Chalice, she felt warm
wetness circling her head, and on her wrists, back, side, and feet.
Her absorption in the Mass was complete enough she couldn't spare real
thought, but she was able to include a wordless prayer of thanks with
the Remembrance and other prayers before Communion.

The rest of the Mass went normally--the bleeding stopped as soon as
she'd administered Communion to the last of those who wanted it--until
the after-Mass prayers were finished.  Then she was able to notice a
small table had been set up just inside the altar rail--a table like
the altar in the common-room--and she knew this was the beginning of
the Communion of Promise.  But . . . should she give it, or should Mike
or Sis?  She glanced at them, got the thumbs-up from Mike, and took a
deep breath.

Addressing the entire congregation, she gave a brief explanation of the
Protector--what she understood, at least--and the Families.  She could
see doubt on several of the Householders' faces as she described them,
mixed with revulsion at her bloody state.  She could understand that,
from civilians; the Enforcement people, to her relief, seemed more
intrigued and willing to believe her.  "All of my team, myself
included--and a few others--are Sealed to the Protector, with Captain
Odeon and Lieutenant Chang as His or Her chief priests."  She paused,
cocked her head, then smiled.  "To simplify things, I'm going to use
the male pronoun; just remember the actuality could be either."

She paused again, sobering.  "Under their authority as His
representatives, I invite those of you who wish to support Him, giving
up the ability to sin when He comes into the open and you can be
Sealed, to come forward and take His Communion of Promise."

She was pleased that all the Enforcement people did so, followed by the
King and Queen.  More slowly, a few of the civilian Household followed
suit, though most held back.  That was too bad, Cortin thought, but
she'd known not everyone would accept the Protector fully--some not at
all.  And she had to admit her condition wasn't the most reassuring; it
was entirely possible they'd respond better to another celebrant.

When it was clear that everyone who wanted the Communion of Promise had
taken it, she dismissed the congregation and returned to the vestry,
where she began removing her bloody uniform.  If this was going to
happen every time she said Mass, she'd have to have a shower installed
here--and get something to wear that wouldn't be ruined, or that didn't
matter.  Whatever her position, she didn't care to ruin either a
uniform or a set of vestments every day!

There was a knock on the door, then Odeon's voice.  "Need some help,
Colonel?"

"Yes--come in, please."

He did, along with Chang.  "That was a little more spectacular than
anything we'd guessed at," he said quietly.  "How do you feel?"

"Fine," Cortin said.  "No pain at all, even in my back.  I just look
like a mess."  She grinned at them.  "Jeshua said this trade would
help, and I think it did, with the Enforcement troops--but it looks to
me more like it scared most of the civs in the congregation."

"Sure it did," Odeon said.  "Here, let me give you a hand with that
tunic--  What would you expect, the first time?  We're trained to cope
with the unexpected, they aren't--and I've got to admit I was shocked.
Next time everyone'll expect it, and it will help.  But--why didn't you
tell me?"

"Because I didn't remember till it happened."  Cortin pulled herself
free of the sticky tunic, looking at it in dismay.  "Sis, could you ask
someone to get me a fresh uniform?  And I'm going to need some help
with sponge baths until I can get a shower put in--  Oh, dear God."
Her memory of the other "little thing" Jeshua had mentioned was
triggered.  "Mike, Sis--take off your gloves."  She pulled off her own;
yes, the burned-on symbols were now smooth pale-blue flesh.

"What in God's Name!" Odeon exclaimed, examining his hands and the
symbols that matched Cortin's.  Chang's reaction was less emphatic; she
merely smiled, then went to pass along Cortin's request for clean
clothes.

When Sis returned, Cortin answered Odeon's question.  "Was I wrong?"
she asked when she finished.  "I was sure, but--"

"And you were right; if you'd left us out, you'd've had a major morale
problem.  We were marked the minute we put on Special Ops patches, if
you remember."  He studied the marks on the backs of his hands again,
smiling this time.  "It's a difference in degree, not in kind."

"But it's a big degree," Cortin pointed out.  "I got the impression
that Shayan's skill is to mine as mine is to a first-year recruit's.
And that's without using any of his powers--if he does use them, he
could make it last for . . . years, maybe, knowing you'd be free of him
as soon as you died."

"True, but years is still better than forever.  And if playing with us
keeps his attention away from civs . . . well, that's why we all joined
the Service, isn't it?"

"Yes--though I doubt any of us thought, then, that it was Shayan
himself we'd be diverting.  I know I didn't."

"Not directly, no," Odeon agreed.  "But some of the ones under his
influence aren't much of an improvement."  He paused, changed the
subject.  "You did a nice job with the Communion of Promise."

"Thanks."  Cortin tested the water temperature in the vestry's small
sink, then began washing blood off her arms.  The wounds on her wrists
were as painless as she'd been promised, and looked freshly healed,
though she was certain they'd be open again every time she said Mass.
"Word of these and the Communion of Promise should reach Rome in three
or four hours, which means Pope Lucius will guess--or know--I'm the
Herald.  He'll have to take some sort of action, even if it's not a
direct physical assault."  She turned to Odeon, her expression grim.
"Much as I don't want it to, Mike, I'm afraid this is going to tear the
Church apart."

"So did the Great Revival, back in the 1500s," Odeon said.  "It came
out of that stronger and healthier than ever--it'll do the same this
time, if the Protector wins."

"And if not, Shayan destroys humanity, at least in the Kingdoms."

      *      *      *      *      *

Being acknowledged as the Protector's Herald--even "in part," whatever
that meant; she still wasn't sure she wanted to know--was a relief,
Cortin decided.  At least also "in part", since she hadn't wanted that
kind of responsibility and wasn't at all sure she was up to it--but if
nothing else, it did explain why so many things had happened to her so
fast.  She'd do her best to live up to the position she'd been given,
whatever her doubts; as Mike had said, God would test you to the
absolute limits of your endurance, but not beyond them.

And she had help.  Not only the Sealed ones, but civilians, which had
been proven over the last week of getting ready for the Bains,
especially the children.  She'd expected help from the team and
servants; it had astonished her to have the ladies from the New Eden
joyhouse show up, several with children, to make the third floor--to
quote Madame Bernadette--"a proper place to raise healthy, happy
children."

Since the children who'd come along were obviously both, Cortin wasn't
at all reluctant to defer to someone who clearly knew what she was
doing.  While they worked, Cortin got to know several of the ladies,
discovering that their enthusiasm for the new family structure
shouldn't have surprised her; in spite of the fact they were paid for
sex, what they had was more like a Family than she would have thought
possible.  Most of the men were regulars, and it was common for them to
visit for other than the obvious reason--mostly to play with the
children.  Many contributed to their support, some quite generously.
And it wasn't unusual for working wives to board their children at the
New Eden during the day.  After all, as one of the ladies pointed out,
where else would they get more adult supervision?  Or, with so many
Enforcement troopers as clients and supporters, better protection?

Cortin had to agree.  She still hadn't been able to work out a way to
provide for unmarried women who wanted--or had--children; the Families
were almost certain to face enough popular resistance without their
main proponent advocating the legitimizing of prostitution as well.  In
spite of that, she had to agree there was considerable validity to the
ladies' arguments that they performed a public service and should have
the same sort of dispensation Enforcement did.  Before the satyr virus'
appearance, she might not have thought that way; since it was a fact,
it had to be considered, and there were times people would be away from
even a large Family.  Something would have to be done to accommodate
them, male and female both.  That would have to wait, though;
establishing the Families had to come first.

In the meantime, she extended a standing invitation to the New Eden
ladies: they would be welcome at Harmony Lodge, with or without their
children, whenever they cared to visit.  Prostitutes were becoming more
respectable; having the High King's Inquisitor/Protector's Herald
welcome them shouldn't hurt the process.

Despite the help, though, she was keyed up when the Family gathered in
the downstairs ballroom after Mass to wait for the Bains' arrival.
There was no reason for her apprehension, she kept telling herself;
she'd never had any trouble making friends with children or animals,
and Betty had been married to an Inquisitor's brother; she wouldn't be
afraid of one, and the children were too young to have any real idea
what an Inquisitor was.  Her position as Herald wasn't anything to
frighten them, either, and word of her stigmata had hit the news hours
after they'd appeared; even those wouldn't come as a surprise.  So what
in the Protector's Name did she have to be worried about?

Certainly not the Bains' reactions, she discovered as soon as they came
into the room and Dave started introducing them around.  The two she'd
sent to help had obviously given them a thorough briefing; they fit in
as if they'd been part of the group for months, leaving Cortin with no
doubt that Betty'd be marrying in fairly soon.

She was the last to be introduced, and she saw concern on the two men's
faces as they approached.  Bain made the introductions, then said, "We
heard what's started happening to you at Mass.  Does it . . .  Are you
all right?"

"It's painless, and I'm fine.  Once I get cleaned up, anyway.  What
about you?"

Pritchett looked at his gloved hands, then at hers.  "No pain--but what
do they mean?"

Cortin explained as she had to the others earlier, then went on to tell
them the rest of her vision, pleased to see their expressions go from
worry to satisfaction.

"What about the others?" Pritchett asked.

"Brad and Ivan yes, Edward and Ursula I don't know; I haven't seen them
since."

"Doesn't seem right, somehow, to keep them covered," Pritchett said
slowly.  "Now I know what they mean, I think they should be seen."

Cortin looked at him in momentary puzzlement, then shook her head
ruefully and removed her gloves, tucking them in the back of her belt.
"You're absolutely right, Tiny--with the meaning changed, they should
be.  I suppose wearing gloves has gotten to be so much of a habit it
simply never occurred to me not to."

The older boy tugged on her sleeve.  "Can I see, Gramma Joan?"

Cortin knelt, extending her hands to the three children.  "Of course,
Luke--and Kateri, and George.  God willing, you'll have them yourselves
some day."

"Pretty," Kateri stated unequivocally.  "Want now."

"Sorry, sweetheart," Cortin said.  "You can't have them till you're
older--but I can offer you some milk and gingerbread our cook made
special for you."

"Okay."  With that, the three hurried unerringly toward the refreshment
table and Cortin rose, chuckling.

"I apologize for their rudeness, Excellency," Betty said.  "I am
teaching them better manners than that--I'm afraid the trip and the
excitement have taken their toll."

"I understand perfectly," Cortin said.  "Despite what some people say,
I was a child myself once.  And Dave should have told you: in private,
I'm Joan."

"He did--but I wasn't sure."  Betty hesitated.  "He and Tiny have told
me so much about you and the team that I feel I've known you all for
years.  I don't know how to thank you for inviting us into your home,
though.  Or wanting us to be part of your family."

"No thanks necessary."  Cortin gestured at the children, who were
eagerly devouring milk and gingerbread.  "They, and the child Sis is
carrying, are the reason for families--or Families."  She smiled.  "I
think I'm going to like being Gramma Joan.  I gather you intend to
accept their proposal, then."

"Yes--though I'm not at all sure about taking part in group sex."

Cortin raised an eyebrow.  "You don't have to if you don't want to;
Dave must have told you that.  And who knows, you may get to like it."

"From Dave and Tiny's descriptions, I may; I'll try, at least."

"I think that's my cue," Odeon said.  He bowed to Betty, extending his
hands.  "Elizabeth, would you do us the great honor of becoming our
wife?"

"I would be delighted."  Betty took his hands and kissed him, repeated
the gesture with the rest of her spouses-to-be.  "When?"

"That," Odeon said firmly, "is the bride's prerogative.  Privately, at
least; publicly, not for at least ten days."

"As soon as possible, then, once the children finish."  Betty looked
around, defensively.  "Pete taught me never to put off anything
important, and this is."

"He was absolutely right," Odeon agreed.  A trooper's life was too
risky to procrastinate; if you did, you were like as not to get killed
before you did what you'd been putting off.  That didn't mean rushing
into things--but once you thought something through and made your
decision, you did it--even if the decision was to wait.  "We've all had
the same training," he told her.  "When the children are done, then."

Betty smiled at him.  "Thanks--civilians think I'm being impatient, or
even impetuous, when it's not that at all."

      *      *      *      *      *

The children were upset at first about not being allowed on the
"grown-up" floor except for meals, but got over that quickly when they
were shown their floor.  And Betty was pleased with her room, though
she said it would take her a while to get used to the luxury.  And to
the servants, and living next door to the Palace, and--  "Well, right
now I'm just overwhelmed.  Even though Dave and Tiny described it all,
that's nothing like actually seeing it."  She gestured, taking in the
common-room where they'd finally settled.

"You'll get used to it," Cortin assured her, smiling.  "The only part
of Harmony Lodge that isn't luxurious is the dungeon level, but you
won't be going there.  And you'll get used to high-ranking visitors,
too--though aside from Dave's and my colleagues from the Center, and
the rest of the Sealed ones, we haven't had many guests."

"That may change now--"  Odeon frowned.  "Dave.  Betty called Joan
'Excellency'--didn't you tell her about the promotion?"

"No--I was afraid I'd scare her off."  Bain turned to their new wife.
"Joanie's still Her Excellency the High King's Inquisitor, and you know
about her being the Protector's Herald--well, she's also Archduchess of
High Teton, what used to be the Northwest Territories."  He went on to
explain what had happened the morning he and Pritchett had left to pick
her up.

"'Dukida Elizabeth'," Betty said slowly.  "You wouldn't have scared me
off, Dave, it's too good for the children--but if I'm one of those who
can be Sealed this early, I think we'd better take care of that, too.
I can see where I could be tempted into misusing a noble's power."

"You are," Odeon said.  "I'll take care of it at this evening's
ceremony."



19. Invitation

Monday, 16 March 2572

Sara Blackfeather read the invitation for the third time, still not
sure if it was real or a poor joke.  Inquisitors were most emphatically
not known for their hospitality, and it seemed incredible that the
notorious Cortin, of all of them, would invite a journalist into her
home for a week.  Especially a journalist who made no secret of her
antipathy for Inquisitors in general and Sovereigns' Inquisitors in
particular.

It would be a professional triumph, of course, which was what made it
an almost irresistible temptation.  On the other hand, it could as
easily be a trick, to find out if her stated sympathy for the
Brotherhood hid actual membership in the organization--though it would
seem more logical, if that were the case, not to bother with such
niceties, simply have her picked up for questioning.  Though, she
thought a bit smugly, they weren't likely to be quite so blatant with a
reporter!

Fortunately, she didn't have to depend purely on her own judgement,
which could be flawed by considerations like professional glory; in
something that had this much potential for benefit or harm, she could
ask her patron for help.  He'd be busy, of course, at this time of day,
but she was free to interrupt him--on this, he'd be upset if she didn't!

So, minutes later, she was on the way to his home, the invitation
tucked carefully in her purse.

      *      *      *      *      *

Lucius studied the invitation, both amused and disturbed.  So Cortin
wanted Blackfeather to visit for a week, did she?  That could be either
good or bad, and he couldn't decide which.  On the whole, though, he
couldn't argue against the visit, since Sara had no valid--no
believable, for that matter--reason to turn down such a professionally
valuable invitation.  "It should be safe enough," he said at last.
"She wouldn't dream of hurting an invited guest unless you do something
stupid, and you certainly know better than that.  You can also find out
for me just what the hell is going on."

Blackfeather nodded; he'd made no secret, from her, that he had to be
extremely careful about using his "psychic gifts" where Cortin was
concerned.  "You don't think she knows I'm your mistress?"

"She must--I did acknowledge you as such." Lucius smiled.  "By this
time I'm sure she has guessed--or been told--my real identity, but that
can make no difference to her publicly."

Blackfeather returned his smile.  He claimed to be Shayan, and
sometimes he used his gifts to assume some of the Hell-King's
attributes, but she didn't believe he really was; he was too different
from the Shayan she'd been told about while her parents were alive.
Her first meeting with him was still vivid in her mind, though she
tried to remember only the part where he'd rescued her--something the
real Shayan never would have done.

Shannon smiled to himself, reading her thoughts.  Rescuing Sara had
been little more than an impulse triggered by his respect for courage;
a five-year-old who killed one of the men trying to rape her was hardly
usual.  She'd interested him enough to keep her alive against his men's
wishes, taking her home until he could decide what to do with her.
She'd proven interesting to have around, and he'd almost immediately
discovered that she also added a dimension to his McHenry identity, so
he'd quickly decided to adopt her--a procedure his McHenry identity
made both fast and simple.

But his then mistress hadn't wanted to be burdened with a child, and
hadn't been worth the effort of reconditioning, so she'd left.  He
really should have replaced her; not doing so, and raising a child
alone, had caused a minor scandal.  Sara had claimed all his free time,
though, and he'd been fascinated by the idea of making her his
mistress.  She'd agreed, a formality he insisted on from all his
live-in partners--except Victor, who'd made himself the exception by
his presumption--in spite of the fact that she couldn't possibly know
what she was agreeing to.  Some simple physical modifications had made
her capable of accommodating him, and some judicious conditioning had
insured she would enjoy, but never reveal, their "touching games".
Even then he'd refrained until her birthday, wanting the first time to
be special for her.

It had been, with him changing shapes and techniques to amuse her.
She'd enjoyed all of them, not surprising since that was how he'd
conditioned her--but he was surprised that she had decided she liked
his "classical" shape and technique best, especially that early.  And
she'd kept that preference through the years.  She'd become his
mistress openly at 16, causing another minor scandal, but that had only
amused her.

He came back to the present, reading her apprehension at the upcoming
visit, and held out his arms.

Blackfeather clung to him.  "I know you said she wouldn't hurt a
guest--but I have a horrible feeling I'll never see you again."

"Don't be silly," Shannon said.  "Of course you will--unless you decide
Enforcement and Inquisitors are respectable after all, and stay with
them.  She can be quite persuasive."  And, an unwelcome thought said,
there was more to it than persuasion.  Cortin had dissolved the
compulsions he'd imposed on Chang without even knowing it; what if the
same happened to Blackfeather?  An even more unwelcome thought said
that would be for the best, and he concealed a scowl.  Sara was the
first human he'd cared about as anything more than a plaything; did he
really want her spending eternity in his realm, even as his Queen?

"Not that persuasive, I don't think."  But Blackfeather's apprehension
was still there, and she was reacting as she usually did before a
dangerous assignment, with growing desire.  "Could we, just in case?"

If she were that worried, Shannon thought, it wouldn't hurt to indulge
her.  Indulge both of them, rather, because the idea of letting the
Enemy have her was becoming more attractive.  Most humans were
disgusting weak things, not fit to be more than toys for his minions,
but Sara was different.  She was strong, attractive--and she loved him.
Part of that was the conditioning he'd given her, of course, but even
at first that hadn't been all of it; she'd taken to him without any
prompting, unless you counted the rescue itself.  And he hadn't felt
Cortin using her power, even unconsciously, for some time, so perhaps
it wouldn't be too much of a risk using his own.  It would take so
little to transport them to his realm, and Cortin should be either
asleep or too preoccupied to notice anyway.  Giving in to temptation,
he kissed Blackfoot hard, pulling her blouse open to grasp her breast
as he set himself for the transfer.

Blackfeather gasped in startled joy as her lover's power surrounded
them for the first time in months that seemed like years.  She felt a
sensation of movement, and they were standing before ruby thrones at
one end of a great hall hung with rich dark draperies, brightly lit by
flames that moved at random, without burning anything.  This had to be
an illusion, she told herself at more normal moments, because they
could be here for hours, even days, with no time having passed when
they returned--but it felt real, and while she was in it, she didn't
question that reality.  This was Hell's throne room, he its King, and
she his Queen.

She remained herself, only her clothes changed; instead of a proper
tailored suit, she now wore gold streamers generously sprinkled with
rubies.  They hid almost nothing even when they fell quietly from
shoulders to feet; stirred as they usually were by her movements, they
swirled open at random times and places.

But he changed completely, more spectacular in his nudity than even the
most ornate robes could make him.  Flame-red hair and amber
slit-pupilled eyes emphasized alabaster skin, as did huge wings with
gleaming jet-black feathers.  This was her favorite of his
forms--though it shocked her to see that for the first time, he wasn't
erect.  Taken aback, she stared at him.  "Is something wrong, beloved?"

"That is."  His wings spread, shadowing them.  "I love you as well, you
see, which is why I cannot continue to let you love me.  It must be
love, because I find your welfare more important to me than my
pleasure, which is the classic definition.  It is also an emotion I
never felt before, in all my millennia, and one I find both unfitting
and remarkably inconvenient."

Blackfoot started to speak, but he stopped her.  "Let me finish.
Despite your disbelief, I am Shayan, and I will prove it to you
shortly.  Although I am inclined to keep you here with me, your welfare
demands otherwise.  So you will go to Cortin, and you will become one
of her followers, perhaps even--"  He broke off.  There was that
possibility, yes, and if it worked it would guarantee her spiritual
safety and happiness, though not her bodily survival.

"Perhaps even what?"  Blackfeather was confused, a little hurt--though
she could feel his harshness was because he had her welfare at heart.

He bent to her, brushed her forehead with his lips.  "Let me
concentrate, beloved.  The Enemy has, by this time, undoubtedly given
her a priest or priests to build her a personal staff equivalent to
mine; there may still be a place on that staff for you."

"But . . ."  Blackfoot was getting even more confused.  "Even if there
is a place, what makes you think they'd accept me?  Or that I'd want
it?"

"They would accept you because you know me and are almost sinless--and
you will want it once the compulsions that have held you for over
fifteen years have been dissolved.  Now be silent; what I need to do
will be dangerous, even without distractions."

Without waiting for an acknowledgement, he reached out, searching for
mental traces he'd never felt before but didn't think he could mistake.
The Protector's priests should feel both free of sin and erotic, an
unmistakable combination he'd kept from coming together for millennia
. . . yes, there was one . . . another.  One male, one female--Sister
Mary Piety and Father Mike Odeon.  Piety was no surprise, but he'd have
thought it too early for Odeon's tempering, and he frowned at the
timing.  He'd expected perhaps another year; now, it seemed, contact
and final testing would be within months.  Part of him regretted that
the speed would cut short his enjoyment of Odeon's suffering--at his
hands, anyway; if Odeon survived the tempering and made the correct
final decision, his foes in the wars to come would insure far more
suffering than Shayan himself could hope to inflict.  Well, time to
begin the tempering, with a lesson his "student" would never forget.
*Wake up, Priest!*



20. Lesson

Odeon woke, a scream caught in his throat, pain knifing through his
head.  When it eased, he found himself gasping, staring around in the
dark.  "Who--"

*Do you always ask foolish questions, priest?  You belong to the one
you call Cortin; you should be able to sense who I am.  And you need
not speak aloud; survive, and this will be only your first taste of
mental speech.*

*With that clue, I think I do know who you are.*  Odeon braced himself,
wondering what Shayan wanted with him.

*A service that will be to both my benefit and Cortin's--and so
indirectly to yours.  And you're right--I do not generally do things
for others, especially enemies.  Nor am I changing that policy; this is
primarily for myself, if that will relieve your mind enough to listen.*

*Do I have any choice?* Odeon asked.

*About listening, yes, though only because I choose to give you the
choice.  About doing what I ask, the choice is totally yours.  Will you
listen?*

*In that case, I don't see any unavoidable danger; go ahead.*

*You're so kind.  I gather you're one of Cortin's holy staff?*

*Of her core group, if that's what you mean,* Odeon replied cautiously.

*The same thing.  Is the group complete?*

*No comment.*

*It isn't, then.  So you have room for my protege, who will be arriving
this coming Saturday.*

*What!* Odeon was startled, though only briefly.  Because someone had
served Shayan didn't mean that person was beyond redemption;
theoretically, Shayan himself could be saved, as he'd once commented to
Joanie.  *I'll consider her when she gets here, but that's all I'll
promise.*

*That'll be adequate--you'll be surprised, I think, at her spiritual
state.  She's committed few sins.*

That statement was almost as surprising as the Hell-King's
peculiar-seeming chattiness.  Odeon knew better than to relax his guard
too much, but his investigator's curiosity was aroused.  *That's hard
to believe.*

*Nevertheless, it is true.*  Shayan gave the impression of a sardonic
smile.  *I'm called the Father of Lies, priest, but that's to salve the
feelings of those who don't want to believe me.  The truth is a much
more versatile and useful tool--and usually a far more painful one.
Sara has acted under my compulsions most of her life, so most of what
you'd call her sins are chargeable to me instead.  And the fact that
she's been taking the Sacraments from me doesn't alter their validity,
which I find highly amusing.*

It was a good thing for the girl that was true, Odeon thought.  *And
will you remove those compulsions before sending her here?*

*I think not,* Shayan told him.  *I could, easily--but if I have to
lose her to you, you must be willing to pay my price.  You will be the
one to remove my compulsions, if you want her.*

*You know I don't have any choice,* Odeon replied.  *You'll have to
show me how--and tell me the price.*

*Showing you how is the price.  Giving you that ability involves
restructuring part of your mind, which I promise will make you pray you
were enduring Inquisitor Cortin's professional attentions instead.  I
won't injure you--for reasons you do not and cannot now understand,
that would not be to my benefit--but I can and will make you suffer.
I'd suggest you find a place where you can't be heard screaming, and
where you won't injure yourself.  It might also be a good idea to use
restraints.*

It went against Odeon's grain to take anything from Shayan willingly,
but as he'd said, he didn't have a choice under the circumstances,
either as law officer or as priest.  He'd take the instruction--and the
suggestions.  *What about another of the team, to help?*

*If you wish.  You'll feel me again when you're ready.*

Odeon shivered as he felt the contact snap.  He'd known he'd have to
face Shayan eventually, and he'd been sure it would be an unpleasant
experience--but he hadn't expected it this soon, for even a remotely
similar purpose, and he'd underestimated the unpleasantness.  This
definitely classified as something he'd much rather avoid, even though
he knew he wouldn't.  He prayed for the strength to do it right, then
tried to decide who he should get to help.

Joanie was out for obvious reasons, he didn't care to have Sis see him
screaming, and Chuck didn't have the experience to handle a situation
like this promised to be.  That left Tony, Dave, and Tiny--with
Priest-Inquisitor Bain the most logical choice.

      *      *      *      *      *

"Are you sure you want to go through with this, Mike?"

Odeon tested the shackles that held him.  Dave had padded them, but
otherwise he could have been the Inquisitor's subject instead of his
senior officer, spouse, and friend.  "Of course not--got an
alternative?"

Bain shook his head.  "No, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.
Okay, you're as ready as I can get you."

Odeon stiffened when he felt Shayan's mind-touch, but the promised pain
didn't come immediately.  *I had intended to show my lady the less
pleasant aspects of my realm,* the Hell-King told him, *but she
believes it to be an illusion.  So I will show her this operation
instead.  She will also believe it to be an illusion--until you remove
my compulsions.  Then she will know the truth, that they could be
neither imposed nor removed by a normal human agency.  And beneath it
she has considerable empathy.  Enough to fit into the group you--and
you, Priest-Lieutenant Bain--are part of.*

*Get on with it!* Odeon sent.

*Such impatience for torment!  Would that I could promise you eons of
it--but hours will have to suffice.*  Both men were fully aware of
Shayan's regret at that--and his anticipation.  *Still, I can make it
last that long, though it isn't truly necessary; the procedure need
take no longer than seconds, and would be equally effective if you were
unconscious.  Either would rob it of what little pleasure I can extract
from my lady's loss, however.  So, priest--suffer my pleasure.*  All
true, Shayan thought, as far as the ability to remove compulsions was
concerned--but Odeon's pain, including that of believing the anguish
unnecessary, was essential to the tempering process.  Seizing the
other's mind, Shayan began his mental surgery.

Odeon screamed, convulsing.  Bain shuddered as they continued, going on
and on, pausing barely long enough for Odeon to inhale.  The Inquisitor
was sickly grateful to Shayan for recommending restraints; without
them, Mike's struggles would be breaking bones.  There was no skill
involved here, no subtlety, no hope for the subject to end it by
confessing when the pain became unendurable--which it did, as quickly
as Shayan had promised.  Though Bain was no longer sharing their mental
contact, his Inquisitor's training let him know when Odeon reached his
breaking point and was forced beyond it, to agony no drug could keep a
man alive through, much less conscious.

But Odeon did remain conscious, with full awareness that it was
Shayan's power keeping him that way--and the understanding, at last,
that this was what Joanie and Sis had suffered from the Hell-King.
Rape was rape, be it physical or mental--and horrible as the pain was,
the worst part was the degrading violation.

Bain prayed.  There was nothing else to do until, eventually, it ended.
With a final convulsion like he was being shaken, Odeon went limp.
Bain hurriedly freed him from the restraints and carried him into the
bathroom.  Mike'd need a hot soak to relax strained muscles, then days
of recuperation--God, what would Joanie think when she saw him?

      *      *      *      *      *

Cortin didn't sleep well.  Her dreams were troubling, nightmares of
Shayan tormenting her team in ways she couldn't stop, gloating over
them, taunting her with her helplessness.  And it didn't improve when
she woke; the feeling of something wrong with her people wouldn't go
away, even when she told herself it was nothing more than a bad dream.

After a quarter hour of being unable to get back to sleep, Cortin got
up and put on a robe.  Foolish as it was, it looked like the only way
to settle her mind was to make sure everyone was all right.

It didn't worry her too much that Odeon wasn't in his room, though,
when she checked there first; he was probably with Sis or Betty.  But
Sis was in with Tiny, Betty with Chuck, and Tony was sprawled out
alone, with a contented expression on his face.  It wasn't until she
checked the common-room without finding either Mike or Dave that her
worry got serious.  Dave hadn't said anything about having a subject he
needed to work on overnight, and Mike didn't have any plans she knew
about.  Their not being in their rooms or the common-room didn't prove
anything, necessarily--but she couldn't help being concerned.  She went
back to her room for her dungeon keys and gunbelt, then went below
ground.

Her worry got worse when she saw the "In Use" light at Bain's suite.
She went into the observation room, which didn't help--padded shackles
in the third-stage room?--but still nothing of the missing two.

She left the observation room and stood before the suite's main door
for several seconds, debating with herself.  If Dave was conducting an
interrogation with Mike's help, she'd feel foolish intruding--but if
one or both of them was hurt, she'd never forgive herself if she
didn't.  Deciding, she opened the door.  "Mike?  Dave?"

"Oh, God," a muffled voice said.  More strongly, she heard, "In the
bathroom, Joanie.  Sis with you?"

"No."  Cortin covered the distance to the bathroom in record time,
appalled at what she saw when she opened the door.  "What happened?  Is
he alive?"

"Yeah--but he needs help.  Take a look."

Cortin did, and crossed herself.  There were no apparent injuries, but
Mike looked horrible--so pale the scar across his face looked
bloody-fresh, his muscles spasming in tiny tremors.  It was obvious
he'd been severely tortured, though she couldn't imagine how, with no
wounds.  She still wanted to know what had happened, but that desire
was nothing next to her need to remedy whatever had been done to her
second-in-command and heir.  "Go get Sis--she and Tiny are in his room.
Have him bring down as many blankets as he can carry.  Then call Ivan,
he may have information I need."

"Right."  Bain hurried out.

Praying as hard as she could, Cortin knelt beside the tub, touching
Odeon's forehead.  He wasn't chilled, so Dave was treating him for
shock rather than cold.  Wrists and ankles were bruised, consistent
with the padded shackles--but it didn't make sense!  Even if she
ignored the impossibility of Dave interrogating one of the team, he
wouldn't use padded shackles, and his subject would certainly have more
serious injuries than simple bruises!  Yet Mike had been terribly hurt,
despite his lack of wounds, and Dave had been there--watching, if
nothing else.  What was going on?

At least Mike didn't seem to be in immediate danger, as far as she
could tell.  His pulse was weak but steady and his breathing was
regular, not labored, though also not as strong as she'd like.  The
muscle tremors were slowing too, which was a good sign.

Moments later she heard the door open, and turned.  "Sis?  We're in
here."

"Dave told me."  Cortin moved aside, making way for the medic to kneel
beside her patient.  Chang opened her kit and began checking Odeon's
condition.  "What was done to him?"

"I don't know," Cortin said, controlling her frustration with an
effort.  "I can't even make a realistic guess--didn't Dave tell you
anything?"

"He was too upset to tell me more than the basic information I
required--that Mike had been hurt, but only minimally injured."  Chang
continued her examination for a few minutes, then stood.  "He is
exhausted, and there may be some muscular strain in addition to the
bruises; otherwise, he is well.  He requires only warmth, rest, and
time for complete recovery."

"He'll get all he needs."  Cortin turned to Pritchett, who'd come in
while Chang was working.  "You brought the blankets?"

"In the office."

"Good.  Sis, how soon can we move him someplace more comfortable?"

"When he stops trembling--a few minutes, I should say."

"Will it be safe to take him upstairs, or should I have a bed brought
down?"

"It will be safe."  Chang smiled.  "His hurts are not life-threatening,
though he will be easily fatigued and probably uncomfortable for three
or four days.  Possibly longer, though I would be surprised if he is
not fully recovered within a week."

They had Odeon upstairs and settled in his own bed by the time Illyanov
arrived, and the entire Family--the rest awakened by the commotion--was
gathered in the common-room.  Bain had told them he'd really rather not
have to go through the story more than once and Cortin had agreed--his
distress was obvious--so it wasn't until she'd apologized for getting
Illyanov up on what now looked like an unnecessary errand that Bain
explained.

As Cortin listened, she got coldly angry.  Shayan was Evil personified,
true, but that gave him no right to torment one of the Protector's
priests!  Kill him, yes--they'd all die, and Service personnel didn't
expect an easy death--but not subject him to agony for no reason except
the sheer pleasure of it!  She was the one who was supposed to face
Shayan--and while the thought frightened her, she'd prefer it to having
her people do so.

When Bain finished, she said as much.  "Not that he had any choice
under the circumstances, of course," she added.  "But try not to get
into similar circumstances, would you all?"

"We will try," Chang said.  "However, we may have no more choice in the
matter than Mike was given.  And you should be in no hurry to face him."

"I didn't say I was in a hurry," Cortin said.  "It might be a good idea
to get it over with, though.  I won't win, but I might weaken him
enough the Protector will."

"You must not act prematurely," Illyanov cautioned, frowning.  "You
have not found all the Protector's staff yet, and there may be other
things equally necessary to prepare His way."

"Not act prematurely!" Cortin snorted.  "At this point, I don't really
feel like I'm acting at all, much less prematurely!"

"If you consider leading an attempt to completely restructure society,
extracting information vital to fighting terrorists, and preparing for
the Final Coming, to be not acting, I will agree.  Otherwise, I would
suggest you remain cautious; direct action against Shayan, unless
unavoidable, is the Protector's prerogative."

Cortin grimaced.  Illyanov's quiet, level words stung; she knew she was
doing useful work.  It was just that it didn't feel like enough,
and--especially after Mike's gratuitous torture--she wanted to take the
sort of direct action Ivan said she shouldn't.  It would be so
satisfying to go into the Vatican during a major public event and
challenge Lucius with his real identity, force him to take some sort of
action that would prove it!  He'd kill her, of course, but it'd be
worth it to bring him into the open.  "I'll behave, I promise--even
though I'd rather not.  Isn't there anything I can do for Mike?"

"There is a possibility," Illyanov said thoughtfully.  "According to
some of our writings, the Herald may be granted the use of some of the
Protector's powers--your truthsense may be one.  Another should be
healing--though as Michael's problem is not life-threatening, that
might not come into play."

"It might, though, since it's due to Shayan's direct action."  Cortin
stood.  "I've got to give it a try--if it works, I'll be back with him."



For Shayan's reaction:  20a. Decision



21. Anguish

Tuesday, 17 March 2572

Cortin prayed harder than she could remember ever having done before,
resting her hands on Odeon's forehead and chest, trying to give him her
own strength in case the Protector didn't see fit to intervene.  Mike
had been hurt doing the Protector's work; if there was any justice at
all, He should at least give Mike back the strength he'd spent on His
behalf!

Apparently He agreed, Cortin thought as she felt her hands grow warm.
It was a peculiar sensation, as if she were absorbing energy through
every pore of her body, channeling it, and pushing it into Odeon.  His
color improved and he grew visibly stronger, until he seemed to be in a
natural sleep rather than a coma.  At that point the power-flow
stopped; as she removed her hands, he opened his eyes.

When he did, his expression frightened her almost as much as his
weakness had.  Granted that no one could face Shayan and come out of it
unchanged, Odeon looked . . . haunted.  "Dave told us about it," she
said softly.  "So you don't need to talk about it unless you want to."

Odeon sat up, putting his arms around his knees, looking away from her.
"I don't want to--but you deserve to know that I may not be much good
to you any more.  I . . . I don't think I could go through that
again--I don't see how you and Sis can even consider facing him."

Cortin sat beside him, resting her hand on his shoulder.  She'd
suffered the most physical damage, but it was obvious from Sis' and
Mike's reactions that she'd been spared Shannon/Shayan's worst torment:
he'd kept out of her mind!  There was therapy, good therapy, for
physical rape; she didn't know of any at all for mental rape.  They'd
do what they could for him, that went without saying, but she could
only hope that'd be enough.  "We'll help you, Mike, all of us.  And the
Protector loaned me some of His power to bring you out of the shock he
sent you into.  Just remember what you told me: God will test us to our
utmost limits, but not beyond them.  I know words aren't a lot of help
right now, but maybe the Family will be--if you feel up to it, we're
gathered in the common-room.  Ivan's here too; I thought he might have
some ideas how to help you, and he's the one who suggested I might be
able to borrow some of the Protector's power."

Odeon didn't really feel like seeing anyone, or even moving--what he
did want was to crawl in a hole, pull it shut, and forget what had been
done to him.  But he couldn't betray Joanie that way, or the rest of
the team and Family; reluctantly, he straightened and got out of bed.
"Okay . . . I'll be out as soon as I get dressed."

"I'll stay; you're in no condition to be left alone."  Cortin grimaced.
"I remember how it was when I woke up a couple of times on the flight
to New Denver.  The medics did their best, but I'd have given anything
for a familiar, friendly face.  At that point I couldn't have handled
anything else, and I don't suppose you can, either--but at least you've
got the faces."

"Yeah."  Odeon went into the bathroom, took some refuge in the routine
of getting ready for a new day.  Joanie was right about one thing, at
least; he didn't feel able to handle much of anything, especially
intimacy of any sort.  He wasn't at all sure he could manage to get
through his responsibilities as Team-Second and heir to High Teton,
though he'd have to try.  He couldn't simply shrug off his duties just
because he felt like he'd been torn into contaminated shreds, however
much he might prefer to.  Joanie'd put him back together, at least
enough to go through the motions, and he could trust God to keep
providing the support he needed to carry out his priestly functions.
As Shayan had said, the priest's character--or, in his case, feelings
of contamination--had no effect on the validity of the Sacraments.

When he and Cortin got to the common-room, it took an effort to let
himself be embraced and kissed; it was impossible to return either more
than perfunctorily, and he couldn't bring himself to touch Illyanov's
offered hand.  Their understanding and sympathy helped, but he felt
distanced, remote--as if Shayan had stolen something in the process of
breaking him.  He looked around at them, shook his head.  "Sorry,
people.  God willing, I'll get over this soon--but right now the only
thing that seems to have any meaning at all is that I . . . don't feel
like I'm worthy of you.  Nothing else matters."

"Which is foolishness," Chang said.  "Natural, after what you have been
through, but foolishness nonetheless.  You will indeed get over it, as
Joan and I have.  Soon, as you say, if the Protector sees fit to aid
you further--which would not surprise me, since He chose you as one of
His first two priests."

"In the meantime," Illyanov said, "I am intrigued by this ability
Shayan has given you to dissolve his compulsions.  Does it apply only
to those he imposed on Miss Blackfeather, I wonder, or can you dissolve
any of them?"

The change of subject was a relief for Odeon.  "I don't know," he said
thoughtfully.  "Either way makes sense.  He wouldn't want me dissolving
any except hers, but he probably only used one technique for all of
them, since he didn't know--then--that he'd be giving anyone the
ability to eliminate his tampering.  We'll have to find out, when we
have someone else who's been conditioned."

"And I'm intrigued by what he called mental speech," Bain said.  "His
touch wasn't exactly what I'd expected--more awesome than repulsive,
until he started working on Mike.  And can you imagine how much more
convenient it'd be if we could communicate that way?  Especially in
action?"

"He said if I survived, that would be just the first taste of mental
speech," Odeon said.  "I don't know if he meant just me, or the Family,
or the Protector's Sealed--I wonder.  Dave, do you think his using it
with the two of us could've sensitized us enough we could use it
without him?"

*I don't know,* Bain replied silently, *but it's worth trying.  Can you
hear me?*

"No need to shout," Odeon said.  "I heard you fine."  He looked around
at the rest.  "Anybody else pick it up?"

Cortin shook her head.  "Not me."

"I heard nothing either," Illyanov said.  "That is unfortunate; it
could have been useful."

Cortin frowned.  "It sure would.  Sounds like it's something he does to
you by touching your mind, maybe sort of a side effect.  What he did to
me was purely physical, but--Sis, he mind-touched you; did you hear
Dave?"

Chang nodded.  "Quite clearly."

"I think I'm jealous--for the first time, I wish he'd mind-touched me."

"Never wish for that," Odeon said grimly.  "It's a horrible sensation,
though the mind-speech itself isn't bad."

"The mind-speech is called telepathy," Illyanov said.  "It is part of
what is called Talent, and some rare humans have enough to be trained
in its reliable use."

Cortin stared at him, puzzled.  "What are you talking about--how do you
know that?"

Illyanov smiled.  "Since our discussion something over a week ago, I
have spent my free time studying the Terran Empire.  That particular
fact came to light approximately three years ago, when the first
non-human Ranger found Talent in one of her human colleagues."

"The Empire!" Cortin exclaimed.  "Why in God's name would you study
them?"

"Because I had a dream that night.  It may have been no more than a
normal dream, triggered by that discussion--but dreams, in this group,
have of late been highly significant.  Treating this one as such can do
no harm, and may be of benefit, so I have been doing so."

That was an even better change of subject, and Odeon seized on it.
"What was the dream about?"

"The arrival of two Imperial ships, a small one followed by a large.
As I say, the dream may have been nothing more than a reaction to
Joan's and my discussion, but my personal feeling is that we should be
preparing for contact--perhaps soon."

Odeon frowned.  "Before the Final Coming?  Or are you saying they're
part of the Final Coming?  I don't think I like that idea--it makes me
uncomfortable."

"I do not like it either, and it may not be the case.  Some of the more
ambiguous prophecies of that time, however, can be interpreted in the
light of such contact without distortion.  What, for instance, if the
Great King references were to the Emperor rather than the High King?
And what if the Protector's form, which 'none can predict', is not
human, or at least not fully so?"

Odeon winced.  "Ouch, Ivan!  That's even worse."

"I am not sure I find it so," Illyanov said thoughtfully.  "As I told
Joan, I believe contact will be to our ultimate benefit, though it may
be difficult at first."

"Even if one of them turns out to be the Protector?"

"Perhaps especially then."

"Do you think Shayan would permit contact if that were the case?" Chang
asked.

Illyanov chuckled.  "I doubt he will have any choice in the matter.
The Protector will manifest, that promise is definite; the questions
are only when, and in what form."

"Yeah."  Odeon shook his head, rubbing the scar across his mouth, and
stood.  "I'm sorry, Joanie, folks--I need to be alone for a bit."

"Go ahead, then."  Cortin watched him leave, frowning.  "Sis--is that a
good idea?"

"I believe so, for him.  I would be happier if I could be sure he would
be doing something other than brooding over his mishandling--but I
think it likely he will be; Ivan's speculation could well be providing
him that distraction."

"I can distract him further," Illyanov said with a smile.  "I received
word late yesterday that my resignation has been accepted; with Your
Grace's permission, I will ask Michael's help in setting up the High
Teton Enforcement Service.  Although I do not as yet belong to it,
since it has not been officially established."

Startled, Cortin looked at him more closely.  He was in uniform, but
now she saw he wasn't wearing any rank or territory insigne.  "That can
be remedied easily enough.  As of right now, there is a High Teton
Enforcement Service, commanded by Colonel Ivan Petrovich Illyanov.
You're out of uniform, Colonel--would somebody please get him an eagle
from my room?"

A grinning Powell left on that errand while Illyanov stared at her.  "I
had not expected to be put in charge, Joan.  To the best of my
knowledge, no Enforcement Service has ever been headed by an
Inquisitor, due to the public opinion of our profession."

"You're the only qualified candidate," Cortin said, grinning.  "High
Teton's not going to be a normal fief, Ivan; all of the top people are
going to be Sealed.  And I think the public perception of a Sealed
Inquisitor is going to be different from that of a non-Sealed one.  So
you're it."

"Yes, Your Grace."  Illyanov managed a seated bow.  "I will, of course,
do my best."

"Prince Edward's going to administer it for the present; get in touch
with him for what you need.  And coordinate with Brad and his Strike
Force people."  Cortin grinned again.  "I don't think you'll have much
trouble finding recruits, in spite of the climate.  Just make sure you
find a good-sized house for your Family, and let me know when the
wedding's to be."

"Of course.  If you are free at the time, I would be honored to have
you perform the ceremony."

"I'll make a point of it," Cortin assured him.  "Oh, thanks, Chuck."
She took the silver eagle from her aide and pinned it on Illyanov's
collar.  "There, that's better.  Not quite complete yet, but that'll
have to wait till you can have territorial insigne made.  Go to it,
Colonel."

"As Your Grace commands."  Illyanov rose, smiling.  "If I may be
excused, I shall find Michael and discuss the details with him."

      *      *      *      *      *

Odeon had gone to his room, made himself a cup of herb tea, and settled
into his seldom-used armchair to do some thinking.  First Shayan's
torture, now Ivan studying the Empire and speculating that the
Protector might be one of them--maybe not even human!

He stared at the circled-triangle marks on the backs of his hands,
deeply disturbed.  Maybe he shouldn't be--the idea of the Protector
coming from the Empire didn't seem to bother anyone else, though Joanie
seemed troubled by the prospect of contact itself.  He couldn't
pinpoint why it bothered him, since the Protector was by definition
divine rather than human, loaning Joanie some of His or Her powers; why
should he be disturbed if the physical body was non-human as well?

After several minutes' thought, he still couldn't come up with a
reason; all he knew was that he didn't like it.  He finished his tea
and was going over to the prie-dieu when there was a knock on his door.

He swore briefly under his breath--the last thing he wanted right now
was a visitor!--but went to answer it, grinning despite himself when he
saw Ivan's new collar insignia.  "Come in, Colonel sir.
Congratulations."

Illyanov bowed, smiling.  "Thank you, Michael.  May I ask your
professional assistance?"

"Of course.  What can I do for you?"

"Assist me in setting up the Enforcement Service Her Grace has just
established, with me as its head."

"Gladly.  Want some tea?"  Odeon put his problems out of his mind, more
than ready to exchange them for some practical work.

      *      *      *      *      *

Friday, 20 March 2572

Cortin lay awake, seriously worried about Odeon.  Physically there was
no longer anything wrong with him, but his emotional state was
frightening.  He'd withdrawn further into himself over the past three
days, despite Ivan's efforts to draw him out, not speaking except when
it was necessary to carry out his duties, not smiling at all even
during the Protector's services--though he still seemed to take some
pleasure in those--and not touching anyone when it could possibly be
avoided.

There had to be something she and the rest could do to help, she kept
telling herself, but nothing they'd tried so far had had any effect.
She, Sis, and Betty had all tried to get him to make love, but he'd
rejected all of them with what seemed like near-panic, and she and Sis
were agreed on the reason: he was convinced Shayan had somehow
contaminated him, and was terrified of passing that contamination on to
them.  That, as Sis had told him, was foolishness--but they couldn't
convince Mike.

Maybe that would change when Blackfeather arrived and he broke the
compulsions Shayan had put her under.  If she was really suitable for
the Protector's staff, uncontaminated despite being the Hell-King's
mistress, then Mike surely couldn't keep believing a single contact had
fouled him too badly to touch.

On the other hand, Cortin admitted to herself, that sort of belief
didn't have to have logic behind it, and she wasn't the one who'd felt
Shayan's mind invading hers.  How would she have felt if she'd had to
accept the invasion the way Mike had, without resistance, to save
someone else?  She and Sis had been able to fight, at least, except for
Sis' compelled welcoming of Shayan's last embrace--and yes, that had
been the worst of the nun's memories, even knowing the welcome had been
compelled.  So had Mike's, in a way . . . but his had been
self-compelled, by the knowledge that if he didn't allow the invasion,
he'd be condemning Blackfeather to Hell.

Cortin scowled at that.  She'd changed her opinion of Hell, recently.
A place of eternal torment no longer seemed to square at all with the
idea of a just and merciful God.  Purgatory still didn't bother her; of
course you'd have to pay for your sins before being admitted to Heaven,
but even the longest and most painful stay there would end in triumph.
Hell didn't end, and if what Mike was suffering was a fair sample, its
torments went beyond any punishment a human could justly deserve.
Even, she thought, the ones she'd sent there believing they did deserve
it.  If she had it to do over again, she would, of course; the
sentences she'd carried out were legally mandated, and she'd carried
them out, as required, when she'd satisfied herself she'd gotten all a
subject's useful information.  Terrorists were a cancer on society and
had to be eliminated for its health--but maybe she could use her skill
to persuade them to repent.  She could manage a mortal approximation of
Hell, and that, even if it meant some extra time under her hands, was
surely better than an eternity of the real thing!  She couldn't do away
with Hell, but she could certainly see that Shayan got as few of her
subjects as possible!

That, however, didn't solve the problem of how to help Mike.  The best
possibility, she was convinced, was the emotional unity sex now
included, but his fear of touching made that possibility a remote one.
Still, if she--or Sis, or Betty--could become one with him, show him
that he wasn't fouled . . . but the only way she could think of to
accomplish that was feeding him eroticine, which he wouldn't take
voluntarily, and it wouldn't be right to trick him even to help him,
would it?

Finally deciding that she wasn't going to be able to solve the problem
by herself, she got out of bed and dressed.  She'd accepted an
invitation to say morning Mass at the Cathedral--probably extended out
of curiosity about her stigmata, she thought, but still a chance to
talk about the Protector's coming and offer the Communion of Promise to
civilians.  Lucius/Shayan hadn't forbidden it yet, to her considerable
surprise; if he didn't after today's, she'd have to do some serious
wondering why.

She'd decided to make it a Mass for Travelers, with Edward and Ursula,
Bradford and Illyanov starting for High Teton's capital, Archangel, at
noon, and she was pleased to see all of them at the Cathedral when she
and her team arrived.  There was no time to talk; traffic had been
heavier than expected, and they were running late, so she and her
concelebrants, Odeon and Bain, had to go straight to the sacristy to
get ready.

Bradford had agreed with her about ruining a uniform or set of
vestments every time she said Mass, and since the purpose of her
stigmata was to show Jeshua's approval of her, she couldn't wear
bandages, so he'd given her permission to wear just the alb, cincture,
stole, and sandals.  It looked odd to someone used to seeing mostly a
chasuble, but no odder than her fellow priests in uniform and armed; it
was being weaponless that bothered her most, though she didn't want to
ruin a perfectly good gunbelt and holster, either.

The Cathedral was packed, highly unusual for a weekday and flattering,
though it also made her nervous--until she got to the altar and began
the ceremony.  As always, she lost herself in it, unaware of her
surroundings except while she was giving Communion.  It was then she
realized there were far more troopers here than their percentage of the
population would have suggested, which pleased her.

It pleased her even more after Mass, when she explained the Protector's
impending arrival and offered the Communion of Promise, that
practically all of them came forward to accept it.  Some civilians did
so as well, though most held back, their expressions either uncertain
or disapproving.

When that was over too and she'd gotten dressed, ready to leave, she
discovered that the troopers had other plans.  Their spokesman, Captain
Watkins--she remembered him, the first person she'd administered
Confession to--invited her and her team to a breakfast banquet at the
Royal Hotel.  She accepted gladly; much as she enjoyed being at Harmony
Lodge, the idea of going out for breakfast was appealing.  It wouldn't
do Mike any harm, either, and she liked the idea of having Chuck seen
as one of her team by people who might otherwise have trouble believing
it.

And Chuck did seem to enjoy being at the head table.  "Having fun?" she
asked with a smile.

Powell returned the smile.  "Sure am!  Last time I saw some of these, I
was a prisoner remanded to the High King's Inquisitor, thinking sure
I'd be dead in a day or so--now I'm your private secretary, Sealed to
the Protector, and happy as a puppy with a new kid.  What more could
anyone ask?"

"Put that way, nothing," Cortin replied, amused.  "You also look better
in uniform than you did in civvies, if that matters."

"I think so, too."  Powell hesitated, then glanced briefly at Odeon and
mouthed, "What about Mike?"

Cortin shrugged, wishing again that she and the rest of the team shared
the telepathy Shayan had given Sis, Dave, and Mike.  Even limited to
themselves, unlike the telepathic Talent Ivan described, it would have
been useful.

There was no point in fruitless wishing, though, so she turned her
attention to the meal and her hosts.  "This was very thoughtful of you
and the rest, Captain Watkins--we all appreciate it.  I, for one, have
gotten more out of touch than I intended, that morning at the Eagle's
Nest."

"You have had a lot to occupy you, Excellency."  Watkins ventured a
smile.  "It's an honor to have you with us--but I must confess it's a
little unnerving sitting next to the Protector's Herald."

"It's more than a little unnerving to be the Herald," Cortin said.  "It
might not be as bad if I had a decent idea what I was supposed to do,
but I'm operating by guesswork.  On the other hand, it'll give me a
better chance of establishing the Families."  She wished she could tell
everyone here about her Family, and fief, and coming grandchild, but
that would have to wait . . .  "Do you have an understanding chaplain
yet?"

"Not exactly, but Lieutenant Bain hears Confessions at the Center often
enough that we're in a lot better shape than we were."  This time, his
smile wasn't tentative.  "Having the Communion of Promise, and the
Herald being an Inquisitor, helps even more.  Civs still don't like us,
but I've seen less hostility since you got the stigmata."

"That'll help," Cortin said.  "I have a feeling we're supposed to be
the leaders of the Protector's . . . guardians, I suppose, for lack of
a better word.  Not to guard Him, of course, He won't need it, but to
guard His people from the ones who don't accept Him and aren't willing
to let those who do live in peace.  As I told Colonel Illyanov once, as
long as humans have free will, Enforcement's still going to be
necessary."

"Colonel Illyanov, yes."  Watkins looked at her quizzically.  "Four of
the ones Sealed so far are Inquisitors, and two of them have gotten
sudden promotions to the top rank; one other was already there.  The
rest of the Sealed are high ranking themselves or closely associated
with rankers--not at all like Jeshua and His disciples."

Cortin shrugged.  "That's how I'm told it's supposed to be, this time
around.  This is the Final Coming, and if the Protector defeats Shayan,
He'll be reigning over at least the Kingdom Systems; His mortal staff
will have to have some top-level experience to give Him proper support.
I think you can expect to see more promotions and other changes in the
fairly near future."

"God willing, He'll come into the open soon--promotions or not, I want
to be Sealed myself."

"And he's not the only one," an intense-looking young Lieutenant said.
"Don't get us wrong, Excellency, we sure wouldn't turn down any
promotions, but over half the staff of the Center--maybe three-quarters
of the Inquisitors--mostly want Sealed.  Myself included."

Cortin's truthsense said they were understating the intensity of their
desire for the Protector's chief benefit.  Their yearning to be Sealed
seemed to be every bit as strong as her desire to avoid the
confrontation with Shayan she was sure would cost her her life--and if,
she thought grimly, the Hell-King could manage it, with pain even
greater than Mike's.  She forced that thought back; the confrontation
would happen, and a Strike Force member's job description practically
guaranteed death in the line of duty--the questions were when and how,
not if.

It didn't surprise her particularly that it was the Inquisitors who
most wanted to take advantage of the Sealing.  Their work, done
properly, was a constant strain, with the accompanying urge to take out
their frustrations on a subject--or not do what was needed to get vital
information.  The line between the Warrant-protected violence of their
duties and the sin of giving in to personal weakness was a thin one,
easy to rationalize crossing . . .  "I'm praying for you and everyone
else who wants His protection," Cortin said.  "And I'm beginning to
believe being Sealed is going to be necessary for Inquisitors in His
Kingdom.  We may never be loved, but having truthsense and being in a
constant state of grace, we should at least be trusted, and only
criminals will have any reason to be afraid of us."

Watkins smiled.  "Theoretically that's true now--but in fact, I'd like
to be able to walk down the street in uniform and not have half the
sidewalk to myself."

Cortin chuckled.  "That's a problem I haven't had lately, but I
remember the feeling.  I hope you get it soon."

Watkins frowned.  "That doesn't sound like you expect to, Excellency."

Cortin looked at the red crossed daggers on her sleeve.  "I'm Special
Ops, Captain, and I've been told I'll be going face to face with
Shayan.  That has to mean it's my death that'll signal the Protector's
arrival.  So no, I don't expect to see His earthly Kingdom."

Watkins nodded.  "I understand, Excellency.  But I'll pray for it
anyway."

"I'd appreciate that.  Something else I was told was that piety was
crucial--spread the word, would you?"

"Of course."  Watkins hesitated.  "What about--what you just said, that
you'll have to face Shayan yourself?"

Cortin shrugged.  "If it had to be kept secret, I wouldn't have been
able to say anything about it.  Say what you want."  She took a deep
breath.  "I'd rather not think about it any more right now, though, so
would you mind if we change the subject?  This breakfast looks and
smells too good to spoil with that sort of discussion."

"As you say, Excellency."  Watkins thought for a moment, then cocked
his head.  "I've heard Your Excellency is fond of animals?"

"Yes--why?"

"Because I have some six-week-old kittens I'm trying to find homes for.
They aren't purebred, though."

"Neither am I," Cortin said.  "Yes, I'd like one--two, if that isn't
being greedy."

"Two is fine.  Whenever you have time to come by and pick them out."

"How about as soon as we're done here?"

"My pleasure, Excellency."

      *      *      *      *      *

For the first time since learning to drive, Cortin was glad that her
rank meant she sat in back while someone else drove.  She'd ended up
with three of the kittens, and they were currently playing tag around
her lap and shoulders, with occasional forays to Odeon.  He didn't seem
to object to their touch, and once he even seemed to smile for a second
when the orange tiger-striped one purred in his ear.  He hadn't worked
up to stroking them yet, but she hoped that would only be a matter of
time; animals were supposed to be good therapy, as well as being fun.

Even the kittens, it seemed, couldn't distract her completely from
Mike's problem.  He needed help too badly for her to ignore it long,
especially when he was right there beside her!  He'd helped her when
she was hurting; why in God's Name wouldn't he let her help him?  She
hadn't planned on saying anything, but--"Mike, you must know I'm
willing--eager!--to do anything in my power for you."

"I do know," he said.  "Blast it, Joanie, you can't think I enjoy
feeling this way--afraid of intimacy with any of you!"

"I don't think that at all," she said quietly.  "I just wish I could
convince you--you must know you can't contaminate us.  You're Sealed,
Shayan can't corrupt you!  Sis and I both know it feels that way, but
being victimized doesn't make you any less of a person."

He was silent so long she didn't think he was going to answer, but
eventually he said, "Intellectually, I understand that.  It's my
feelings that're the problem."

"Yes, they are."  Cortin paused.  "Have you considered taking the
advice you gave me once?  Offer the hurt to God.  You're Sealed to the
Protector, His priest as well as Jeshua's; if you ask, I'm sure one or
both Aspects will help you gladly."

"I've done that, of course.  So far it hasn't worked."  He glanced at
her, then looked down at the kitten.  "Joanie, it's not just what
Shayan did to me.  That's most of it, but . . ."

Cortin frowned.  "What Ivan was saying about the Protector?"

"Yeah."

"I'm scared of the Empire myself--but if it does produce the Protector,
I'd have to change my opinion."  She sighed.  "I'm not sure whether I
like the idea or not, but if that's the way it works out, I'll have to
accept the fact.  So will you."

Odeon nodded grimly.  She was acting Protector, so he couldn't argue
that; if the true Protector came from the Empire, he would have to
accept Him or Her, and by extension, His or Her place of origin.
"Should I start studying the Empire, then, like Ivan did?"

Cortin cocked her head, thoughtful, then she nodded.  "It might not be
a bad idea at that.  I don't have any cosmic hunches or anything, but
if he's right, we should be prepared."

"Okay.  It might actually be interesting."

Cortin smiled.  "I'll settle for that.  Between study and little Orange
there, you may be combat-ready in time for the convent defense."

"I hope so.  But she's Tangerine, not Orange."  Odeon's lips twitched
in a near-smile as he kept the kitten from crawling into the sleeve of
his tunic.  "I'll work it out, Joanie--just give me time."

"All I can, but we know there isn't much, and I will not have someone
under my command going into combat in that condition.  If you haven't
straightened out by noon Tuesday, either you let me try unity or you're
on the inactive list until you do recover."

"Permanently, you mean," Odeon said bleakly.  "After Wednesday, if you
remember, His Majesty has ordered me out of action."

"Of course I remember," Cortin said.  "Mike, please believe I don't
want to hold you back--but I won't let you go into action with almost
no chance of survival unless there's absolutely no choice."

"I understand."



22. Sara

Saturday, 21 March 2572 CE

Blackfeather was still apprehensive when she arrived at Harmony Lodge.
She'd been met at the airport by a staff car driven by a young man who
introduced himself as Lieutenant Charles Powell, Colonel Cortin's aide,
though he looked too young to drive, much less be an Enforcement
officer.  He'd helped with her luggage, then driven her silently but
efficiently to the Palace Complex, gotten her through the formalities
of a temporary pass, and brought her to the Lodge's main entrance, near
the front of the estate.

Servants approached as Powell opened the door for her and helped her
out of the car.  "They'll take your luggage to your room, Miss
Blackfeather," he said.  "Her Excellency and Captain Odeon are waiting
in her office; I'm to escort you to them immediately."

"I would prefer to clean up first."

"Sorry, Miss Blackfeather," Powell said, not sounding at all regretful.
"Her Excellency was most specific; if you will come this way, please."

Young or not, Blackfeather thought, he had the false-polite presumption
of an Enforcement veteran.  Still, what else could she expect from an
Inquisitor's lackey?  "Very well, Lieutenant, take me to Her
Excellency."

Moments later, Powell showed her into a large office with Cortin seated
behind the desk and a tall, grim-looking scar-faced man who had to be
Captain Odeon standing to Cortin's left at a stiff parade-rest.

Cortin rose as the reporter entered.  "Thank you for coming here first,
Miss Blackfeather.  While I'm sure you would have preferred to bathe
and have a brief rest before meeting my team, we have a compelling
reason to've asked you here.  Captain Odeon assures me it will take
only seconds, then Lieutenant Powell will show you to your room."

Despite her irritation, Blackfeather was intrigued.  "What reason, Your
Excellency?"

It was Odeon who answered.  "Something your . . . patron . . . wanted
me to do.  You don't remember that you were there when he . . . made it
possible for me, but you'll remember once it's done.  It won't hurt at
all, and it'll only take a few seconds, as Colonel Cortin said.  It'd
be easier on me if you make eye contact, but that isn't really
necessary."

Although Blackfeather normally had no interest in making anything easy
for an Enforcement killer, there was something in Odeon's expression
that made her waver; she stared into his pale blue eyes.

The promised seconds later, she collapsed in shock, to be caught by
strong arms.  Larry was Shayan, and he'd had her under compulsions to
do things she never would have dreamed of on her own, and he'd done
things to her body that were horrible, and she'd enjoyed them and what
he'd done with his changes, and oh dear God the horror he'd done to the
man who'd helped her in spite of what had been done to him and--
"Sis!" she heard Cortin snap.

"I am here, Colonel," a soft voice said.  "Miss Blackfeather?"  A
pause.  "Miss Blackfeather?"

"Go 'way."

"I am a medic.  With your permission, I can give you something for
shock.  Otherwise, I can treat you only with warmth and quiet."

Drugs were bad . . . but the horror of these sudden disclosures was
worse.  "Do what you think best," she managed.

An immediate needleprick startled her; the quick blackness that
followed came as a distinct relief.

Cortin watched Pritchett carry the reporter out, Chang accompanying
them, then she turned to Odeon.  He looked tired and a little shaken,
but nowhere near as bad as he had after Shayan's "lesson".  "Are you
all right, Mike?"

"I will be, after a nap."  Odeon rubbed his temples.  "He said the
operation would be nothing compared to the lesson, and he was
right--but it was rough enough.  I don't have the kind of strength he
does."

"You're a human, not a fallen angel," Cortin said drily.  "I was
thinking about emotionally, though--you don't look quite as wound up as
you have been."

"Not quite," Odeon admitted.  "I do feel a bit more human, now I've
made some constructive use of what he put me through.  My studies are
helping, too, but . . ."  He shook his head.  "I'm not back to normal,
no."

"Close enough for unity?  I'm still convinced that's what you need."

Odeon thought for a moment, then shook his head again.  "No, I don't
think so.  I'd like it, but I'm still afraid of touching you.  Give me
another day or two of Tangerine and studies, though, and I think I'll
be okay."

Cortin looked at him curiously.  "Really?  A kitten and studying the
place our ancestors fled from seem like odd therapy.  On the other
hand, I'm not about to argue with anything that works."

"Truth to tell, I'm surprised how much the studies, especially, do
help."  Odeon rubbed the scar across his lips, unsure of himself.  "I'm
just scratching the surface, of course--can't do much else with nothing
but comm intercepts and what's left of the records the Founders
kept--but even this early, I'm starting to develop respect for the
Imperials.  Maybe a little bit of liking, too."

Cortin's expression became quizzical.  "That's pretty fast, isn't it?
Especially for you?"

"Faster than I'd expect, yeah."  Odeon paused, frowning.  "I'm not even
as upset as I was yesterday about the Protector maybe coming from
there."

Cortin grinned.  "I'd be looking forward to contact instead of it
scaring me if I could believe that; at least then I'd know for sure it
couldn't possibly be me.  And the Empire'd be less likely to attack us
if one of their own became our ruler.  Did those ambiguous prophecies
Ivan mentioned say anything about the Protector's relationship to the
Great King?"

"Nothing I could make any sense out of, though Ivan might be able to.
Unfortunately--for me; fortunately for him--Shayan never touched his
mind, so I won't be able to check with him till he gets back from
Archangel.  As for the Empire attacking us--" Odeon smiled briefly, "I
don't think I'd waste time worrying about it.  They've got a whole new
Sector full of non-humans to cope with, as of three years ago; I can't
see them wasting resources on a mere dozen planets."

"If Ivan's right, we'll find out soon enough, and frankly, that's a
subject I'd rather avoid as long as possible.  What's the verdict on
Miss Blackfeather?"

"About what he said," Odeon replied.  "She's in shock right now, but I
got the feeling she's pretty resilient; she should be settled down in a
few hours.  And she's basically a good person; outside his compulsions,
she hasn't committed more than the normal venial sins.  She's confessed
them, too, as of just before her flight left New Rome, and been
forgiven.  By him, but as he pointed out to me, the sacrament's
validity doesn't depend on the priest."

"And acts committed under compulsion are chargeable to the compellor,
not the compelled.  Other than that?"

"I think I could get to like her.  She's intelligent, honest, and given
the chance I think she'd have a decent sense of humor.  No more devout
than usual, which is hardly surprising considering her patron; if
anything, I'm surprised she's as devout as she is.  After the shock she
just got, she may even be willing to listen to us about the Protector."

"And be Sealed, become part of His staff?"

"I'd bet so.  Probably not immediately, though I think we should let
her attend services."

Cortin frowned briefly, then nodded.  "If Sis agrees.  I'm not sure how
Blackfeather will react with her background, though.  She can't
possibly be used to public nudity, much less anything like the
Protector's celebration."

"She was Shayan's mistress," Odeon said drily.  "He's taken her to
Hell, though only his palace--we might both be surprised what she's
seen.  And she's adaptable."

      *      *      *      *      *

Blackfeather wasn't feeling particularly adaptable when she woke from
Chang's drug; she was still too shaken by what she'd found out when
Odeon had released the compulsions that had held her for so long.  It
was a relief to find a woman sitting beside her bed--and almost a
relief that the woman wore Enforcement gray, with a medic's specialty
badge.  "You're the one who gave me the shot?" she asked as she sat up.

"I am.  Medic-Lieutenant Eleanor Chang, otherwise called Piety or Sis.
I regret that your welcome to our home was so traumatic, though the
drug should have helped.  We have waited lunch, in case you cared to
join us."

To Blackfeather's astonishment, the medic's words made her realize she
was hungry--and the idea of eating with Enforcement troopers was more
attractive than not.  After what Odeon had suffered to help her, she
was willing to believe there might really be more than talk to their
motto of "We Serve, to Protect".  She might not manage to feel
protected just yet, but at least she no longer felt threatened.  "Do I
have time to clean up a bit, Lieutenant?"

"Of course.  Colonel Cortin has asked me to apologize for her earlier
insistence on meeting you immediately, and hopes you will understand
and forgive her."

"Let's just say I'll withhold judgement until I find out more.  Though
. . . I can't deny I'm grateful to Captain Odeon."

"He is a good man, Miss Blackfeather, a priest of both Jeshua and the
Protector.  He is also, though he would probably laugh at the term, a
wise man.  He is, however, deeply troubled by the Hell-King's touch, so
if he should seem wary of you, please realize it is nothing at all
personal."

"I think I can manage that," Blackfeather said.  She went into the
bathroom to take care of her needs, then emerged to dress.  When she
was done, Chang led her to the dining room--where she was astonished to
find three young children munching on cookies, and an
apologetic-looking Colonel of Enforcement.

"They were hungry," Cortin said.  "I'm afraid I'm not as strict as I
should be--but they did want to see you.  Do you mind?"

"Not at all," Blackfeather said.  She'd never been all that fond of
children; on the other hand, she did know they were humanity's future,
and fewer than a replacement number, here in the Systems, were being
born.  "They aren't yours, I know; more company?"

"Not exactly."  Cortin studied the reporter.  "If I give you some
background information, will you treat it as confidential until I say
you can publish it?  That should be less than a week."

"Of course!"

"I'll brief you while we're eating, then."

      *      *      *      *      *

When the meal was over, Blackfeather was full, but scarcely aware of
what she'd eaten.  Taken as a whole Cortin's revelations, even
delivered in the unemotional tone of what she'd called it, a briefing,
were a shock.  Blackfeather had anticipated or guessed at parts, which
along with her training helped her conceal that shock, but didn't
lessen it.  Especially since she remembered that Larry had expected and
intended her to become part of the Protector's staff, opposing him.

She didn't want to go into that right now, though.  A nice safe neutral
topic would be better . . . if she could think of one, and something
touching her ankle provided the perfect subject when she bent down to
pick up the tiny culprit.  "Children, and now a kitten--not at all what
I expected when I got your invitation, Excellency."

"More normal and civilized, right?"  Cortin smiled.  "I'm not offended,
Miss Blackfeather, so you needn't look defensive.  Until recently, I
was careful to conceal such things; a reputation can be most useful to
an Inquisitor.  Since the situation's changed, I can let the truth be
known."  She grimaced.  "And since I've found out myself what the truth
is, which was a shock at times."

"I can sympathize," Blackfeather said with feeling.  "All these years
I've thought I was free . . ."

"And I thought I was immune to love--free in a different way.  But I'm
glad I was wrong."  Cortin looked around the table at her Family,
smiling.  "In my admittedly biased opinion, you won't find a better
group of people in the entire Kingdom Systems, and I couldn't be more
delighted that they adopted me.  I'm sorry Mike had to break your
conditioning so abruptly, but I hope that having it broken will let you
enjoy your stay here."

"It'll make it possible, at least," Blackfeather said.  "What I'm sorry
about is what he had to go through to help me."

"I was simply doing my duty, Miss Blackfeather," Odeon said, startling
her.  "I had no choice, and given the same circumstances, I'd have to
try doing it again.  Though I'm not sure I'd be able to, a second time."

"Since I don't think I could have done it the first time," Blackfeather
said, "I certainly couldn't fault you for that!  And duty or not, I am
grateful, and I feel I owe you a debt."

"No debt," Odeon said.  "You don't owe me--us--any more than you owe
anyone else you write about.  All we ask for is objective observation
and reporting, in spite of the fact that most of us are Enforcement."

"My word on it," Blackfeather said.  "I can't promise favorable
reports, but they'll be as honest as I can make them."

      *      *      *      *      *
Monday afternoon, 23 March 2572

Cortin grinned as Odeon entered her room and took one of the armchairs,
his lap immediately occupied by the kitten who'd become his
almost-inseparable companion whenever he was available.  "I know it's a
day earlier than the deadline I gave you, but--"

Odeon chuckled.  "I'm fine, Joanie, between Tanj here and the
studying." He rubbed the kitten's ears, smiling at her loud purr.
"She's a little darling, and I'm almost afraid to say I'm really
enjoying my research, as much as I got teased for it in school.  I
don't think that's what you called me in for, though."

"To find out exactly how you're doing, yes; the details of your
research, no.  And I hadn't expected you to bring your little friend
along."

"Who brought her?  I can't keep her away!  Don't worry, though, she
won't interfere."

"And just how do you know that?"

"A trip to the New Eden in the wee hours this morning, when I started
feeling interested for the first time since Shayan worked on me.  If I
recall my explorations here correctly, you were with Chuck and Dave,
Sis and Betty with the other two, and I didn't want to wake anyone.  I
also didn't want to take Tanj, but you know what a sucker I am--even
worse than you, where kids and animals are concerned.  So she went
along, in my pocket.  She watched, the first couple of times, then went
to sleep.  A pillow on the floor, if you're curious."

"Not primarily about that," Cortin said.  "May I be nosy and ask how
many you enjoyed?"

Uncharacteristically, Odeon flushed.  "Uh--I can't match you, but--all
the ladies who were awake.  You know what it's like when you've been
dry for a while."

"I sure do."  Cortin tried to look stern, but failed miserably and gave
up, grinning instead.  "I should chew you out for not waking me,
Captain.  I assume, however, that you're back to normal and willing to
demonstrate?"

"Willing and eager, Excellency."

      *      *      *      *      *

Both of them were far more relaxed when they dressed for dinner, though
Tangerine meowed plaintively at Odeon and tried to climb his trouser
leg.  He shrugged, grinning at Cortin, and sat down.  "Part of her
routine this time of day, I'm afraid," he apologized as the kitten
jumped to his shoulder and began nibbling at his earlobe.

"Has you pretty well trained, doesn't she?" Cortin said, chuckling.

"Uh-huh."  Odeon dug into a pocket, unwrapped and handed the kitten a
piece of something Cortin couldn't identify but Tangerine obviously
could; she hopped down to his lap with a sound halfway between a purr
and a growl, eating her treat.  Odeon let her finish, then put her on
the floor.  "I'm cleared for the convent defense, then."

Cortin nodded.  "You are.  I just wish I were, too."

      *      *      *      *      *

The following evening, Cortin went to Odeon's room shortly before
supper.  "Mike, got a minute?"

"Any time.  What's up?"

"Not that, this close to supper--will you and Sis be holding services
this evening?"

"Of course.  Are you going to bring Blackfeather?"

Cortin hesitated.  "I don't know," she said at last.  "She'll have to
be exposed to it sooner or later, but I'm not sure an evening before
the team goes into combat is the right time.  If she reacts badly to
either the nudity or the ceremony itself, it might make things harder
on them."

"She's going in too," Odeon pointed out.

Cortin grimaced.  "I know, blast it!  She can and I can't--so you tell
me which would be less damaging."

"In your place, I'd brief her, then let her decide whether she thinks
she can accept it as a religious function."  Odeon grinned.  "As I
may've said, I don't think anyone who's spent time in Hell is going to
be shocked by anything as mild as that--my only hesitation is about how
she'll react otherwise."

"Understood.  All right, that's what I'll do."

      *      *      *      *      *

In spite of Cortin's briefing, Blackfeather had trouble at first
accepting a nude man and woman as real priests conducting a real
religious rite.  That changed quickly, though, in large part because of
the Family's obvious acceptance of precisely that, and their
equally-obvious devotion to the Protector.  She didn't--yet,
anyway--share that devotion, and if it hadn't been for Larry's
certainty that the Protector was real, she thought it unlikely she'd
have believed what was going on was an act of worship.

But Larry--no, she chided herself; she ought to start thinking of him
by his real name--Shayan was certain of the Protector's existence and
imminent arrival.  Or . . . Blackfeather looked sharply at Cortin.  Her
lover hadn't said it in so many words, but now that she thought back,
he'd certainly given the impression that Cortin was the Protector!

Even though it had seemed pointless at the time, Blackfeather now found
herself wishing she'd paid more attention to prophecies of the Final
Coming.  Nothing she could remember from them said Cortin couldn't be
the Protector instead of simply the Herald, which was disconcerting
enough.  A lot of things, in fact, pointed to it, now that she began to
analyze everything she'd heard and read about Cortin and her
unprecedented, rapid rise from being a curiosity as the only female
Enforcement officer to High King's Inquisitor and Archduchess--not to
mention her tumbling of some of Enforcement's strictest regulations,
such as Special Ops' lack of close family, not only with impunity but
with the backing of all the Sovereigns.  And working for drastic
changes in the social and religious systems with divine sanction that
became obvious every time she said Mass.

Cortin wasn't reacting the way Blackfeather would expect from a divine
incarnation, though.  Desire for revenge after rape and maiming was a
human thing the Protector should be beyond.  So was becoming an
Inquisitor, nothing like Jeshua's forgiveness of His enemies and His
gentle nature.  Still, she thougt, there was precedent, if you went
back to the First Testament; she'd never been comfortable with things
like the innocent Job being tormented simply as a demonstration to
Shayan, or the she-bears being sent to kill forty-two children whose
only offense had been to tease Elisha about being bald.  Cortin at
least confined the punitive parts of her Inquisitorial attentions to
criminals, and her truthsense let her be certain who those criminals
actually were.



23. Raid

Wednesday, 25 March 2572

The next morning, when Powell offered to help her into lightweight
Enforcement body armor, Blackfeather accepted gladly.  She'd found out
the previous evening, at the same time she'd found out what the term
'unity' meant to those who were Sealed, that his Enforcement commission
was another of the exceptions surrounding Cortin; he was barely
seventeen, and his pose of being a veteran was exactly that, a pose.
But he was no rookie inside, and that unity had given her considerable
respect for the Protector's youngest Sealed.

"How does that feel, Sara?" he asked when she was suited up.  "I can
adjust it some, if it doesn't fit quite right."

Blackfeather moved experimentally, then grinned at him.  "It's fine,
Chuck.  Now what about Sis?"

"She doesn't need armor; she won't be going in until after the action's
over.  Mike doesn't want her going in at all, but she says if he can,
so can she, and he couldn't argue that.  At least she's promised
this'll be the last time till after she has the baby."

"And the Colonel?  Even if His Majesty has forbidden her, I'm surprised
she'd stay out of her team's--and Family's--first official action."

"She doesn't have any choice," Powell said regretfully.  "It's a legal
order and her Enforcement oath is valid; disobeying would be a sin, and
that's something none of the Sealed can do.  If we had reason to
believe any of the ones who tortured her would be among the attackers,
she'd be free to go with us, but none of the information we have even
hints at that.  So she's stuck here."

"In her place, I'd hate that," Blackfeather said, feeling more sympathy
for the Inquisitor than she'd have thought possible a few days ago.
"At least we can make sure we give her a complete report."

      *      *      *      *      *

The only thing that helped Cortin's frustration at being kept out of
the convent defense was saying Mass, and that only helped for the brief
time it was going on.  By the time it was over, though, she'd come to
one conclusion: His Majesty had ordered her not to get into the action,
but he hadn't said anything about not going to the Palace
communications center to listen to the tactical radio!

But following the defense that way was less informative than she'd
hoped.  She wasn't familiar enough with the terrain to visualize the
deployment, which made movement orders impossible to follow.  About all
she could be sure of was that the Royals were winning, even though they
were taking heavier casualties than she liked or had expected.  She
couldn't help praying that none of her people were among the dead and
wounded, though she felt a little uncomfortable asking for that sort of
special consideration; if the casualties weren't from her team, they
had others who'd care as strongly about them.

At last it sounded like the fighting must be about over; Bradford was
ordering the prisoners taken to a holding area and calling in the
medevac units.  As further transmissions showed things were winding up,
she decided she might as well go back to the Lodge and make one final
check of her preparations before prisoners started arriving.  She was
thanking the communications techs for their courtesy when Bradford's
voice again came from the radio.  "Palace Com, this is Strike Leader.
Request Azrael be contacted and asked to join us at her earliest
convenience."

"Azrael is on scene, Strike Leader," the tech said.  "One moment,
please."

Cortin took the microphone he offered.  "Azrael here, Strike Leader.
What's the problem?"

"Prisoner evaluation.  We have some here who present unexpected
problems, and I would appreciate your expertise."

"Unexpected problems?"  That didn't sound too likely, Cortin
thought--Brad and Dave both had more specialty-time than she did,
though she had to admit that her position had probably given her a
wider variety of cases.  Still, likely or not, she wasn't about to
argue with anything that would get her out into the field, however
briefly.  "I'll be there as soon as I can find transportation.  Azrael
out."

To her surprise, fifteen minutes later she was airborne and well on her
way to the convent.  His Majesty had both ground and air transportation
available at no notice, of course, and as one of the King's Own she was
allowed to use elements of the Royal Fleet--but she hadn't expected to
be able to use one of the alert craft!

The pilot circled the battlefield, more to avoid throwing dirt and
rocks on the wounded than to let her observe--though it did that as
well--following a ground controller's orders to land on the convent
lawn near the temporary prisoner holding pen.  Before, she'd always
been in combat gear, exiting a helicopter; this was easier, in her
service uniform, though she did have a little trouble holding onto the
wide-brimmed hat.  When she was clear and the copter had lifted off,
moving back several hundred meters to wait for her, she took another
look at the battlefield from this more familiar perspective.  It was
clearer to her this way, a bigger scene of carnage than she'd imagined
it could be, and she found herself appalled at the unnecessary damage
and loss of life.  Compassionate Mother of God, what could the Brothers
hope to gain from all this?  At least the convent showed no major signs
of damage, nothing worse than a few bullet pocks, and the Blue Sisters
were working with Enforcement medics, as usual, to help the wounded.

She heard the rustle of heavy cloth behind her, and turned to see
Bradford--who looked surprisingly comfortable, for a senior officer, in
battle gear--and a nun she supposed to be Reverend Mother Superior Mary
Gabriel.  She returned Bradford's salute, bowed to the nun.  "I hope
none of the sisters were hurt."

"No, thank God," Bradford said.  "We were able to warn them, then
ambush the terrorists far enough away the Sisters were never in any
real danger.  Would Your Excellency care for a copy of my report?"

"Thank you, Colonel, but it won't be necessary; Team Azrael will brief
me.  I would appreciate it if you have time to visit Harmony Lodge this
evening, though.  Ah--were any of Team Azrael hurt?"

"Not seriously," Mother Gabriel said.  "Lieutenant Degas was hit in the
side, Lieutenant Powell in the leg.  They are in no danger, and are
able to travel, but I think it would be best if Your Excellency
permitted them to remain here for three or four days."

"Whatever you think best, Mother Superior.  May I see them?"

"There would be no point, Excellency; they are still under anesthetic.
I will be glad to tell them you asked for them, however."  She smiled,
more warmly than Cortin had learned to expect from healer to
Inquisitor.  "I understand we have Your Excellency to thank for
Enforcement's timely intervention and the welfare of our patients."

"And Lieutenant Powell," Cortin said.  "He's the one who infiltrated
the Brothers and came back with the original information that let me
know what questions to ask."

Mother Gabriel frowned briefly at that reminder, then her expression
smoothed.  "It has become obvious Your Excellency does God's work with
His full approval, whatever I may think personally of the means
employed.  We are grateful for your help, and we would appreciate your
blessing."

That was a perfectly understandable attitude from a healer, Cortin
thought.  Raising her hand, she drew the Triune's symbol in the air.
"May all three Aspects of God protect and guide you and the holy
Sisters."

"And pray for the Protector's appearance," Odeon said, approaching.
"The prisoners are ready for you, Colonel."

"Thank you, Captain.  If you'll excuse us, Mother Superior, I'd like
Colonel Bradford to accompany us."  When Mother Gabriel nodded, she and
Bradford followed Odeon toward the holding pen.  Her second-in-command
had a bloody bandage around his left bicep, but it didn't seem to
bother him, and Mother Gabriel hadn't mentioned it, so it was probably
no more than a flesh wound--not worth worrying about, so she didn't
comment on it.  Instead, she asked, "How did Blackfeather react?  Did
she give you any trouble?"

"Not at all.  In fact, if she hadn't called a warning, Chuck would be
dead instead of wounded, and she's the one who gave him first aid."

"Oh?  Quite a change from her former attitude, isn't it?"

"Considerable," Odeon agreed.  "Enough that I told her I'd ask if she
could listen while you interviewed the prisoners.  She won't interfere,
I'm sure of it."

"In that case, all right."  Cortin stopped while they were still out of
earshot of the prisoners.  "Ask her to join us, then go get Tiny; I
think the two of you flanking me ought to provide a certain amount of
incentive for the Brothers to answer my questions."

Odeon grinned.  "Will do--I like that idea."

As he left, Cortin turned to Bradford.  "Okay, Brad, what's this about
unexpected problems?  You and Dave should be able to handle anything
that came up in the field as well as I could.  Especially with your new
truthsense."

"In that respect, yes," Bradford acknowledged.  "But he and I think
what we've found out is going to take your authority to deal with.  I
don't want to prejudice you, though, so I'll let you do your own
questioning and deciding."

Cortin was both puzzled and intrigued by his statements.  Something
unusual was definitely going on here, and since she'd be finding out in
a few minutes anyway, she decided not to push Bradford on that subject.
She didn't see Odeon on the way back yet, so she changed the subject.
"How was the inspection trip?"

"Better than we expected," Bradford said.  "A lot of Archangel's public
buildings survived better than we had any right to expect--not intact,
but not needing major repairs, either--so there are facilities
available with minimum expense for both Archducal Enforcement and
Strike Force HQ.  The Governor's Mansion should make you a decent
Archducal Palace, and some of the hotels can be modified for Family
living."

"What about the people?  They must have gotten some idea of what's
going to be happening."

"Just speculation, so far, but what I heard was pretty accurate--and
popular.  I'd say His Majesty knew what he was doing when he picked you
a fief."

Cortin grinned.  "From everything I've seen, His Majesty usually does.
I'm glad to hear it went so well--did Ivan come back with you?"

"Yes--and he's come up with a 'territorial' insignia I'd love to wear."

Cortin would have pursued that, but there was no time; Odeon was
returning, with Blackfeather and Pritchett close behind him, and Bain
was approaching from the holding pen.  She moved forward, signalling
Bain to stop.  When the group had joined him, now within earshot of the
prisoners, she asked, "Have you done any preliminaries, Lieutenant?"

"Yes, ma'am, but with some exceptions Colonel Bradford has probably
told you about, nothing very productive.  None of the hard-cores want
to volunteer anything, and Mother Superior won't hear of an Inquisitor
working on a wounded man under her care."

"Of course not." Cortin couldn't blame her for that, though getting
immediate information would have been helpful.  "All right, bring them
over one at a time.  It shouldn't take more than two or three questions
to separate them--though with you and Colonel Bradford talking about
unexpected problems, I could be wrong."

"Not exactly," Bain said.  "Best you see for yourself, though; to me,
it's at least close to the worst of the Brothers' atrocities."

Cortin frowned, more puzzled than ever.  A Brothers' atrocity she
hadn't heard about seemed impossible, but Dave believed what he was
saying, and Brad was nodding agreement.  Well, she'd learn about it in
a few minutes, from the ones who'd done it.  "All right, have the first
one brought over."

Bain turned to face the holding pen and gave the appropriate hand
signals, then turned back; moments later, troopers brought the first
prisoner out.  He looked about 45, his expression frightened, but
seeming hopeful as well--not at all a normal reaction, and it puzzled
her.  She frowned to herself, but decided her curiosity would have to
wait.  "Were you in charge of this raid?" she asked.

The man shook his head.  "No, Lady," he said  respectfully.  "I wasn't
in charge; I'm not even a Brother."

"True.  Well, then, do you have any information you think I might find
useful?"

The man shook his head.  "I'm afraid not, Lady."

Cortin frowned again, this time openly.  He was afraid, yes--but his
fear seemed to be of the idea she'd think him a Brother or have any
information, which was interesting.  And worth pursuing, even though
she was supposedly here to evaluate prisoners.  "Not likely that you
have any information, or not likely I'd find it useful?"

"Either, Lady.  I'm an honest farmer.  Or was, till those bas--uh,
Brothers--killed my wife and kidnapped my little girl.  They said
they'd kill her too, unless . . . unless I helped them."  His shoulders
slumped.  "They've probably killed her anyway--or worse.  But I can't
take that chance."

Cortin took a deep breath, let it out slowly.  Dave was right, she
thought; this was one of the worst of the Brothers' atrocities, and it
made her coldly furious.  Forcing outsiders to help in horror-raids by
threats to their families went beyond her conception--until now--of
even the Brothers' depravity.  "I believe you," she said, and showed
him the back of one hand.  "Any Inquisitor who wears this mark knows
when someone's telling the truth, and no one who hasn't committed a
crime will be punished.  You'll be taken to the Detention Center,
though, for detailed questioning.  Enforcement will use any information
you can give us to try to rescue your daughter, so be as thorough as
you can; sometimes a tiny detail you think useless can be the key.
After that, I'm afraid, you'll be kept in protective custody--"  She
broke off at his expression.  "Protective custody, I said!  Think,
man--if we turn you loose, the Brothers can still use that threat
against you.  There's no guarantee what'll happen with you and whoever
else is in the same situation in custody, but there's no doubt what'll
happen if you're not.  And I'll see it's as comfortable for you as it
can be.  Do you know how many others are in your situation?"

The man shrugged.  "Maybe half of this group; I couldn't say how many
anywhere else.  You will save Catherine?"

"We'll do our best," Cortin promised.  "In fact--  Colonel Bradford?"

"Yes, Excellency?"

"Can you arrange for a special Enforcement task force devoted to
finding these . . . hostages?"

"As soon as we return to base, Excellency.  And may I suggest you offer
these men employment in Archangel under Strike Force protection until
their families can be rescued, or confirmed dead?"

"Mmm.  It would give them something to do and provide income . . ." She
turned to the man.  "Would you be interested in that sort of offer?"

"Yes, if it was something I could do--better than sitting around
sweating it out."

"Reconstructing and fixing up some prewar buildings," Bradford told
him.  "Headquarters for His Majesty's Strike Force, and Her Grace's
Archducal Palace and Enforcement headquarters."

The man looked from Bradford to Cortin.  "I can do that, Lady.  Thank
you.  And I believe you will find Catherine, if she's still alive."

"As I said, we'll do our best."  Her job-related questioning over with
this man, she thought it reasonable to ask about his odd phrasing.
"Now--why do you keep calling me Lady?"

"I can't think of any other good term, Lady."

"Interesting," Cortin said slowly.  "I have plenty of titles, yet you
pick one of the few I can't claim.  Who or what do you think I am?"

"Not think, Lady Protector--I know."  The man knelt, bowing his head.
"I've just confessed to the Priest-Captain--may I have Your blessing?"

Cortin looked at Odeon, feeling a twinge of dismay.  This man honestly
believed she was the Protector, not just His Herald--and that was a
frightening idea, one she wanted to deny.  Odeon was nodding slightly,
though, and Jeshua had told her not to deny it if she were called
either Herald or Protector--so she blessed the man, then raised him to
his feet, disturbed by the expression of open worship on his face.  If
she couldn't deny being the Protector, she supposed she'd have to learn
to live with that attitude--but she didn't think it would be easy.

"One last favor, Lady, if You don't mind?" the man said hesitantly.

"What is it?"

"I'd . . . like to pay You the proper respects, if I knew how.  The
right ceremonies, any special devotions . . . You know."

That was something Cortin could understand and agree with; even if the
man was misdirected, piety was important to the Protector's success.
And if one Aspect told her not to deny being its object, surely the
Triune would take it as it was intended . . .  She turned to Odeon.
"Will you and Lieutenant Chang see to that, Captain?"

"With pleasure, Excellency," Odeon said, then turned to the man.  "Want
a cartridge, until Lieutenant Chang and I can brief you?  I usually
carry a couple of spares."

"Cartridge?  Oh!"  The man's initial puzzlement turned to eagerness.
"Yes, Captain, please.  Does that mean you're Her priest as well as
Jeshua's?"

"Lieutenant Chang and I, yes; Her priests'll generally be working in
pairs."  Odeon dug into a pocket and handed the man one of Joanie's
holy-medal equivalents.  "This isn't as helpful as the Communion of
Promise, of course, and certainly not up to the Sealing, but we'll get
those to you too, as soon as we can."

"I appreciate that, Father."  The man turned to Cortin, genuflected.
"Thank You, Lady."

"My pleasure," Cortin replied--realizing, to her surprise, that it
really was.  She turned to Bain.  "See that he and the rest who turn
out to be press-ganged are interviewed, thoroughly but courteously,
then interned according to the terms Colonel Bradford and I discussed."

"Of course, Excellency."  Bain turned to the man.  "Shall we go?  Her
Excellency has a lot of work to do."

As they left, Cortin signalled for the next prisoner to be brought.
This one also turned out to be a conscript, but the next two were
actual Brothers, and the one after that looked like Shannon, though his
eyes told her he wasn't; he was the leader, despite his attempts to
deny it.  She had him held separately, to be taken to the Lodge, then
continued the evaluation.

She'd lost count of how many she'd questioned, but only a few remained
in the holding pen when she realized she'd seen this one before, in far
different circumstances.  Smiling grimly, she rubbed the backs of her
hands as though the Seals on their backs were still scars.

"Colonel?" Odeon said softly.

"He helped put the originals there," Cortin said, just as softly.  "I
recognize him; I want him to recognize me too, and I look a lot
different from the way they left me."  The man's face was burned as
deeply into her mind as the Brothers' marks had been into her hands;
while this one hadn't been the leader, he'd had no hesitation in taking
part in the massacre, or in helping to beat, rape, and maim her.  She
planned to really enjoy this first truly personal part of her revenge,
she thought as the guards brought him to a halt facing her.  "You know
me," she said, making sure he saw the backs of her hands.  "You helped
inflict the originals of these, among other things; I'm sure you
remember."

The Brother's lip curled.  "I remember all right, Bitch.  Next time you
won't get off that easy--the Raidmaster says we're going to have real
Inquisitors of our own soon, with His Holiness' blessing--so we can
free the Systems of you and your blasphemies!"  He grinned at her, not
pleasantly.  "And dear God, how I'd love to see them playing with you!"

"If you enjoy threatening, go ahead," Cortin said, a little surprised
at herself.  She'd thought she might be frightened if--or rather
when--she came to confront her torturers again; she was pleased to find
that this time, at least, that wasn't the case.  She was more disturbed
by the idea of trained terrorist Inquisitors working with Shayan's
backing.  At the moment, though--  "I doubt you'll be around to know if
your threats are realized, much less enjoy the results.  Lieutenant
Pritchett?"

"Yes, Excellency?"

Odeon's voice interrupted, urgently.  "By Your Excellency's leave!"

Cortin glanced at him in surprise.  "What is it, Captain?"

"This is one of the Brothers I also have a personal matter to settle
with, Excellency.  A severe beating of someone I love, in addition to
the other things done to her."

So that was his personal reason for joining the Strike Force!  It'd
taken her long enough to learn it, Cortin thought, since she hadn't
thought it a good idea to ask him.  "In that case, Captain, yours had
best take precedence.  Just make sure, please, that he isn't damaged
too badly for questioning."

"No worse than second stage," Odeon promised.  He'd like to do more,
but he wouldn't interfere with either her job or her revenge.
"Lieutenant Bain has agreed to monitor, to assure that."

"In that case, he's in your custody; secure him in Suite Bravo when
you're finished, and inform me.  Lieutenant Pritchett, please provide
any assistance Captain Odeon requires."

"With pleasure, Excellency."  Pritchett reached out a big hand and
pulled the Brother toward him, grinning widely.  "Come with me, little
man.  We've got some real interesting plans for you."  He turned to
Cortin.  "We'll turn him over to guards for the trip to the Lodge, Your
Excellency, then be right back."

"Very good, Lieutenant."  When they left, Cortin continued the
separation, but her primary concern remained her former tormentor and
what he'd said about the Brothers soon having real Inquisitors of their
own.  They'd always had amateur Inquisitors, of course, and
occasionally--temporarily--a real one who'd gone rogue.  That was
something else she'd definitely have to question him about, but just
the information she had so far was enough to disturb her deeply.  Civil
Inquisitors were necessary to investigate, and in many capital cases
punish, crime.  That was difficult enough, sometimes, even though crime
for the most part was objective, not dependent on intent.  Sin, on the
other hand, was dependent on intent, and the ancient Terran Holy
Inquisition had proven that religious Inquisitors were more likely to
drive people away from God than bring them to Him.

Which, she thought grimly, would serve Shayan's ends perfectly.  She
couldn't be certain why he wanted souls, but the fact that he did was
beyond question.  Any people his Church Inquisitors drove away from God
would end up as his subjects in Hell--and if they were effective enough
at that, there could be an Infernal population explosion.

Population explosion.  Cortin frowned at that thought.  If they were
accepted, Families could, and hopefully would, provide that sort of
increase in the Systems.  Which would give Shayan a chance at the
larger number, which would explain why there'd been nothing from the
Vatican objecting to that part of what she was trying to do.  Her
theory might be wrong, she acknowledged, but it felt right, and she
knew nothing that would contradict it.  At least it was some sort of
explanation, better that the total lack she'd had before.

      *      *      *      *      *

Cortin joined her team for the return to Harmony Lodge, riding in a
command van for what felt like the first time in years.  It took longer
than the Fleet helicopter would have, but by the time they got home,
she'd been fully briefed on the action, and her opinion of Blackfeather
had gone up several notches.

As they entered the outskirts of New Denver, she turned her attention
to the reporter.  "The convent raid ends the cover on the Strike Force,
Sara.  Their Majesties agree that news should be broken by a Sealed
representative; as the only Sealed member of the press, and the only
reporter who was there, you're the logical one to do so.  At my
request, you'll also be allowed to do the first stories about the
existence of Family Cortin and the new Archduchy; no other reporters
will be officially briefed until tomorrow morning.  That should give
you adequate time, I think."

"More than adequate," Blackfeather said.  "Since I knew I'd be able to
publish soon, those two stories are already written--but I hadn't
expected that much of a lead.  Thanks!"

"You've earned it.  And thank you for saving Chuck's life."

Blackfeather shrugged.  "I've changed my opinion of Enforcement,
Colonel.  Before Mike did what he did for me, I'd probably have enjoyed
watching a trooper die, though I can't be sure since it never came up.
I'm glad to find out that now I'm not like that."  She shook her head,
her expression rueful.  "It seems my attitude's become exactly the
opposite of what it was, in fact.  I used to defend the Brothers, you
know."

Cortin nodded.  "I know, and say the troopers who were hurt or killed
fighting them deserved what they got.  The only thing I could find in
your favor then was that you believed what you were saying."

"I couldn't do that now," Blackfeather said.  "It's not just seeing
Brothers and troopers in action for the first time, though that did
help crystallize my new feelings.  Mostly it's seeing the Family being
a family, seeing the Special Ops troopers I thought were the worst
playing with kids and kittens, and . . . well, the part I'm not going
to be able to write about because no one who hasn't at least been
around it could possibly believe it.  But being troopers--especially an
Inquisitor--gives you a whole new kind of understanding."

"You liked being part of Dave, in particular?"

"Oddly enough, yes."  Blackfeather hesitated.  "They're all good men,
but there's something special about Dave . . . something I have a hard
time describing, even if I am a reporter.  A special kind of idealism,
maybe . . . tougher, not that any of them are soft . . ."

"I know what you mean," Cortin said, glancing around at the rest of the
team and getting nods.  Unity during sex was most intense between man
and woman, but it was there between any Sealed; they'd all felt what
Blackfeather was talking about, with her, Bain, or both.

"He reminds me of Larry, in a way," Blackfeather went on, surprising
them.  "So do you.  Because in his own way, he's an idealist too--even
though I'm not sure he knows that, or would believe it.  An idealist
who's turned cynical, soured against just about everything--but I
believe there's still a tiny bit of him that wants the same things we
do."

Chang gave the reporter an appraising look, then turned to Cortin.  "I
believe we may have a truly virtuous person among us, Joan.  Not merely
sinless, but virtuous--willing to believe the best of people, which I
find surprising for a reporter."

"I doubt I'll be a reporter much longer," Blackfeather said.  "What Sis
calls a virtue isn't, in my particular field; once I've filed these
three stories, backing Enforcement, the Families, and Colonel Cortin, I
fully expect to be fired.  So would any of you happen to know of any
job openings for an ex-reporter?"

"How about historian?" Odeon asked.  "We need one, with a reporter's
training, while it's still early enough to get an accurate account of
what's happening.  The First and Second Testaments were written by
groups, edited by others, and translated by still others; after that
many opportunities for intentional or accidental change, we might not
know what the originals really said."  He made a wry face.  "Yes, I
believe everyone involved was inspired.  As investigators, though, we
all know humans are fallible--with or without inspiration.  But they
didn't have modern publishing; given a press run of ten or fifteen
thousand, by one writer and in the original language, there'll always
be a totally genuine version somewhere."

To Odeon's surprise, Blackfeather snickered.  "You've got your
historian, Mike--but if you believe a press run as low as ten or
fifteen thousand, it's sure clear you're no publisher!  On this
particular subject, especially with Colonel Cortin involved, go up a
couple of orders of magnitude.  A million or million and a half copies
wouldn't be an unreasonable estimate of sales, even at a price double
or triple that of a standard book.  A copy she autographed would be
worth . . . well, even my imagination isn't quite that wild!"

"Even better," Odeon said.

"You do know, though, that it'll mean interviews to get everything you
remember that has anything to do with Joan--and that the result won't
leave you much, if any, privacy.  You don't get a major social
revolution by hiding the sort of personal behavior you're trying to
encourage--even though other people may choose to do so."

"Sis and I figured as much," Odeon said.  "We talked it over, between
us and with the rest of the team, and it's necessary.  There's going to
be a lot written about what we're doing, one way or the other, and
we're agreed one of them has to be accurate.  So you'll get full
cooperation."

"Including an Inquisitor's help," Bain said.  "Colonel Bradford's the
best you'll find at the memory-enhancing techniques we use with
cooperative subjects, but I'm no slouch; you may get more information
than you can use."

"More than I can include, maybe," Blackfeather said, "but not more than
I can use, if only as background."  She turned to Cortin.  "What about
you, Colonel?"

Cortin grimaced and looked pleadingly at Odeon.  "Do I have to, Mike?"

"You're my Family head, Archduchess, and Commanding Officer, not to
mention the Protector's Herald; I can't say you have to.  But I'd
recommend it pretty strongly."

 Cortin sighed.  "Mike, for someone who claims to be a subordinate, you
give the most convincing orders . . . all right, all right, I'll
cooperate." She turned to Blackfeather.  "I will, too.  But I don't
promise to like it--and you probably won't like what you hear if you
think you need to go into what I do in my interrogations."

"I'd rather not, but I probably will."  Blackfeather made a face.
"Being both Larry's mistress and several Enforcement officers has given
me a new perspective on that, too.  Especially, as I may have mentioned
before, being Dave."

Several of the team chuckled.  "You did," Bain said, "and it was
flattering--but if you want to be two of the best in the business, ask
Brad and Ivan.  I'm good, or I wouldn't be on Team Azrael; those two
are second only to Joan."

"I'll have to ask, then, next time I see them," Blackfeather said.

"That should be tonight," Odeon said.  "I invited Brad, and he said
he'd pass it on to Ivan; if they possibly can, they'll both be at our
home Communion service."

Blackfeather smiled.  "Good!"  Then she sobered, turning back to
Cortin.  "I don't like to mention this, Colonel, and I'll like getting
involved with it even less, but the history should definitely include
your work, too."

Cortin was silent.  Blackfeather was right, inarguably so; the
Protector whose Herald she was embodied Justice as well as Love, and
Justice wasn't always pleasant.  It could be, of course, when rewarding
virtue, but punishment was usually pleasant only to the punished's
victims or their survivors--never to the punished, seldom to observers,
and only through God's Mercy was it satisfying to the punishers.

"Very well," she said at last.  "You may have access to the films of my
interrogations, and observe any you think necessary from now on.  But I
have to warn you, you won't find any of it enjoyable."

"I don't expect to," Blackfeather said.  "My job's gotten me into
unpleasant situations before, though, and I can cope.  I think I should
start with the one you and Mike have personal reasons to work on."

"You know our reasons?"

"I'm sure of yours--it was in the news enough--and I can guess at
Mike's, yes."

"As you wish, then," Cortin said.  "It's too late to get started
tonight, though, and Brad and Ivan should be here any minute.  Why not
get your stories filed, then we'll take the rest of the night off?"

      *      *      *      *      *

Their guests arrived while Blackfeather was still working.  The Family
adults greeted them warmly, but waited for more till Blackfeather was
finished and had rejoined them in the common-room.  When she had,
Cortin pointed to the new insignia on both men's collars.  "Ivan, I
know I told you to design a territorial emblem--but isn't that a bit
presumptuous?  And Brad, how come you're wearing it?"

Illyanov smiled.  "It is not presumptuous at all, beloved, nor is it
really territorial.  I could think of nothing, so I prayed, and that
night dreamed of this.  We are the Protector's, after all; what more
natural than that we should wear the sword and rose you and Michael
chose for our first altar?"

"And as he said," Bradford continued, "it isn't really territorial.  It
didn't make much sense to us to have Sealed troopers limited to one
jurisdiction, and Their Highnesses agreed.  So did His Majesty when
they approached him, and the other Sovereigns when King Mark approached
them--because we were informed shortly after my return to the Palace
that we are now extraterritorial.  Not just Strike Force, but all
Sealed troopers--so all of you need new insigne, which we've brought."
He smiled, handing them out.  "Ivan had several hundred made, for when
the Protector manifests, but these are all we need for now.  I sent
some to Tony and Chuck, too, so they'll be in correct uniform when
Mother Gabriel releases them."

"That was thoughtful of you--thanks."  Cortin smiled, then glared at
both of them.  "One of you could have called me with a little advance
warning, I should think!  Isn't it bad enough that His Majesty keeps
pulling this sort of surprise on me?"

"It is fun to surprise you when we have the chance," Illyanov said.
"Would you deny us a bit of harmless entertainment?"

Cortin chuckled ruefully.  "Put that way, of course not--how could I?
But someday I may be able to pull the same thing on you, be warned!"

"We shall consider ourselves properly warned indeed," Illyanov agreed.

"Good enough."  Cortin moved her shoulders uncomfortably, but maybe it
would help the discomfort she still felt if she did talk about what had
happened with the farm-folk this afternoon.  "Until then, I need some
moral support.  Something scary happened while I was questioning the
first conscript today--since you weren't all in earshot, and Ivan
wasn't there at all, can I describe it?"

"Please," Illyanov said.

Cortin did.  When the description was over, she said, "I can't really
describe how it felt, though.  He honestly believed I am the Protector,
was worshipping me.  I was told not to deny that identification, so I
didn't--but dear God, it was frightening!  And several of the others
were almost as bad.  Being treated like the Herald is awful enough;
being treated like the Protector Herself is . . . I don't know, I don't
have the right word.  I don't think I'd like it even if I were Her.  Or
Him."

"Whether you did or not would have little bearing," Illyanov said.
"God does not need to be worshipped; He--or She--requires it of us
because it is we who need to worship, and if we do not worship God, we
will worship someone or something less worthy."

"That makes sense," Cortin said.  "It's not what I'd choose, but I've
been frightened and embarrassed before, without a Family for support.
I suppose I'll learn to live with it--I'll have to, since I don't have
any choice."

"You also have the support of the rest of us who are Sealed," Illyanov
said, leaning over to kiss her.  "Would you like me--or us--to spend
the night?"

"Either or both, any time--which you know.  But what about your
families?"

"Mine went directly to Archangel and is busy moving in, with Delia's
help.  Brad's, I believe, is preparing for the move."

"They are," Bradford said, "so I can't stay past Communion--I have to
help, as long as I'm in town."

Cortin grinned, her mood lightening.  "Too bad for you, Brad; that
means Sara'll have to wait for unity with you.  Though not with Ivan,
if he's willing."

Both men bowed in the historian's direction, and Bradford spoke first.
"I'm sorry to have to postpone something so delightful, but hopefully
it won't have to be for long."

"I, on the other hand, will be pleased to join you as soon as you
wish," Illyanov said, smiling.

Bain grinned.  "Don't waste any time, Sara; grab him right after
Communion."

Blackfeather was definitely attracted to the handsome
Inquisitor-Colonel, but she wasn't used to such openness about sex yet;
though she remembered the previous evening's post-Communion lovemaking
clearly, it didn't seem quite real.  Now she was being urged to make
love to a man she'd barely met . . . at least she'd known the Family
men, if only briefly . . .

Chang chuckled.  "It is not difficult to see you find him attractive;
with both of you Sealed, that is a strong indication you are
compatible.  Given that, what better way to become friends?"

Odd though it seemed, Blackfeather thought, that was reasonable.
"After Communion, then, if that's agreeable."

"Most agreeable," Illyanov said.  "Michael?"

"Just a minute," Cortin said.  "Can I get a couple of quick updates
first?"

"Of course."

"Thanks.  Brad, what about the special rescue teams?"

"Being organized.  I put Major Grunwald on it, so they should be ready
to go in a week."

"Good!  Sis, Mike--the press-ganged ones?"

"They are in the Detention Center's spare barracks," Chang said.  "Dave
and Mike heard confessions, then Mike got permission to say Mass a
second time for them, and we gave them the Communion of Promise.  I
believe we shall also have to devise some additional forms of both
public and private devotions."

"I suppose so."  Cortin sighed.  "Brad, do you have anyone who can
handle that?  None of us are liturgists."

"As it happens--" Everyone, Bradford included,
laughed--"Inquisitor-Lieutenant Andrews at the Center is good, and
would appreciate the challenge.  I'll call him as soon as I get home.
And this time I will warn you: he's one of those who believes you are
the Protector, so you probably won't appreciate his efforts.  But
they'll be well-done."

Cortin grimaced.  "As Ivan said, devotions are for the devotees, not
the objects of that devotion.  If He doesn't mind, I don't suppose I
can.  And I suppose I should take a look at whatever your liturgist
comes up with.  So should Mike and Sis."

"He'll expect that, and to have you critique his work.  He's
conscientious; he'll want to be sure it's right.  Can we dedicate
tonight's service to that intention?"

"I don't see why not," Odeon said.  "Sis?"

"It seems most fitting.  I would suggest we also ask that the Protector
ordain more priests, either through us or through the Herald, to be
prepared when we may begin Sealing those outside the current group."

"You're Herald, Joanie," Odeon said.  "What do you think?"

"Since we don't have any idea when He'll manifest, I'm in favor of it.
Anyone who feels the call should be ordained, even though the only ones
who can feel it are the ones Sealed to Him."

"Right.  Everyone ready for services, then?"


For Shayan's reaction:  23a. Waiting



24. Revenge

Thursday, 26 March 2572, New Denver

After Mass and breakfast, Odeon, Bain, and Blackfeather went to the
dungeon.  There was no question, Blackfeather thought, of her giving up
her work as Cortin's historian, even though she'd joined Family
Illyanov during her unity with Ivan last evening; while both of them
regretted the separation, it would be only until Family Cortin and
Strike Force HQ moved to Archangel--probably, Cortin and Illyanov
estimated, by late winter or early spring.

To give them time to do whatever Odeon intended to the Brother both of
them had claims on, Cortin went to her main-floor office and read the
morning New Denver Times, which had picked up Blackfeather's reports
and front-paged them, along with news of the Brothers' raid on the
convent and Enforcement's successful defense.  The Times maintained its
reputation for strict reportorial impartiality; Cortin had to turn to
the editorial pages to find reaction rather than the facts she already
knew.

Not much to her surprise, the reaction was cautious.  The editorial
writers acknowledged that Families probably would stop or reverse the
population decline, but were doubtful that they would be widely
accepted, even though the Pope, when approached, had said he could see
no objection.  The creation of her Archduchy and her ennoblement were
acknowledged, along with the creation of Family Cortin, as probably
good for the new Archduchy and definitely good for the Family, an honor
the Inquisitor-Colonel had earned, though she sensed the writer was
relieved not to be in her fief.  The Sealings weren't commented on at
all.  On the other hand, praise for the convent defense was unstinting,
and Cortin was singled out for taking swift action to protect the
press-gang victims and find the hostages, with the writer expressing
the hope she would carry out equally swift justice on the captured
Brothers, particularly the one who had helped maim her.  There was no
mention of revenge, but there was the implication the writer thought it
would be appropriate for her.

Cortin put the paper down, frowning.  It was true that she had been
looking forward to her first chance at personal revenge ever since the
attack on her--but now that she had it, the opportunity didn't seem
anywhere near as attractive.  There was no question but that the
Brother deserved the revenge she'd planned for him, and more; his
crimes undoubtedly deserved more punishment than she could possibly
inflict.

But punishment wasn't the problem with this one, any more than it had
been with any of her earlier subjects.  It was the revenge part that
bothered her, though it certainly wasn't illegal--or sinful, for
Enforcement troops, since they were carrying out God's vengeance even
when it had a personal component.  So why had the idea of taking her
revenge on this Brother suddenly lost its savor?

She mulled that over for some time before she was able to come to what
seemed like a reasonable hypothesis.  The Father had claimed vengeance
as His own, but Jeshua had concentrated on mercy, even though some of
His priests had been fighters.  The Protector emphasized love and
justice; possibly those who represented Him weren't supposed to indulge
in vengeance.  She'd have to talk to Mike about that, find out if he'd
run into the same thing.

Maybe she could tell without talking, though, so she went down to Suite
Bravo's observation room--Suite Alpha held the Brother team-leader--and
joined Blackfeather.  The reporter looked pale and had turned the
speaker off, but was managing to control herself; Cortin greeted her
with approval, then turned to watch Odeon.

Odeon's back was to her, so she couldn't see his expression.  His
manner, though, was more professional than passionate, which supported
her hypothesis so far.  The same went for Bain, who was holding the
prisoner, though that was less evidential; to the best of Cortin's
knowledge, he'd never expressed any desire for personal revenge against
the ones who'd maimed her.  She'd only be sure of it regarding him if
they happened to capture one of the terrorists who'd tortured his
brother.

"If he was on one of Larry's personal teams, he won't be able to tell
you anything," Blackfeather said, interrupting Cortin's train of
thought.  "Larry did something to them, and to all his doubles, so they
couldn't."

"Unfortunate, but not entirely unexpected," Cortin said.  "Whatever I
think of him otherwise, I know he's not stupid; it stands to reason
that he'd give his closest associates the best protection he could.
Especially if it also protected him at the same time."

"What will you do to him, then?  Turn him over to the courts?  Or take
your revenge?"

Cortin looked at her sharply, but saw none of the disapproval the words
implied, only curiosity.  "Neither.  If I gave him to the courts, he
would simply be turned over to another Inquisitor for punishment and
execution--probably one who wouldn't give him the time or opportunity
to repent."

"Repent!" Blackfeather exclaimed, looking confused.  "Joan, you can't
believe--"

"I'll try, but I don't expect him to take the opportunity."  The
historian still looked uncertain, so Cortin continued.  "He deserves
far more punishment than I can impose, but I no longer believe
anyone--even Shayan himself--deserves Hell for eternity.  So I'll put
this one through as much as he can survive of the kind of torment he
gave his victims, though my methods will be different since I have both
skills and equipment he didn't--but I will also pray for him, and if he
repents, give him the Sacraments and allow him to finish his punishment
in Purgatory."

"You don't want revenge?"

"Not any more.  I think vengeance is for those who can't accept
justice, and maybe for those who've been denied it.  From the way I
feel, I'd say it's not for the Protector or His people--though Mike may
feel differently."

"He said about the same thing before he and Dave got started.  At the
convent, he wanted revenge, but by this morning, he was past that
stage.  And I think that frightened the Brother more than the revenge
did."

Cortin thought for a moment, then nodded.  "It probably would me, too.
You can get to someone who's emotionally involved, if only to egg them
on and end it quicker; a professional doing a job doesn't have that
kind of handle."

"I can see that--"  Blackfeather broke off as Odeon turned, rubbing his
knuckles, and switched the sound back on.

"Is Colonel Cortin with you, Sara?" he asked.

"I'm here, Captain," Cortin said.  "You have the subject ready for me?"

"Yes, Excellency.  How would you like him?"

Cortin hesitated before answering.  She had intended to start by raping
and gelding this one, but since she now had to take Sara's history into
consideration, that no longer seemed appropriate.  Although he'd
undoubtedly raped and maimed quite a few besides herself, making it
appropriate in that sense, the fact that he had done it to her would
give it the appearance of personal revenge rather than impersonal
punishment.  Better to use techniques with less chance for
misinterpretation.  "Standard position, I think.  At least to begin
with."

"Our pleasure, Excellency."  Odeon bowed slightly, then he and Bain
took care of securing the prisoner as she'd asked, and Bain left.

Cortin explained her change of plan and the reason to Blackfeather, and
got a nod.  "I made the assumption you'd want to see at least one
session," she finished, "but if you'd rather it be later, that's up to
you."

"I don't want to, but I definitely should," Blackfeather said.  "And I
suppose this is as good a time as any."

"Let's go, then."  It wasn't until she was entering Bravo's third-stage
room that Cortin thought to ask, "Do you want me to describe what I'm
thinking as I work?  Though I doubt it'll be suitable for publication."

"As I said earlier, even what I don't publish will be useful for
background--knowing your thought processes will be a big help."

"All right--but it'll mean leaving the speaker on.  Want me to mute him
after I finish the preliminary, so you don't have to hear screams?"

"I--  Yes, please."  Blackfeather managed a shaky grin.  "I never
thought I was the squeamish type, but there's something about this kind
of violence that bothers me, even when I know it's necessary."

"That's normal," Cortin said.  "Nothing to worry about, as long as you
don't get carried away, like some Terrans did, and worry more about the
criminal's pain than the victim's.  Compassion is good, but you have to
remember who deserves that and who deserves punishment."

"I know--being squeamish doesn't mean I've gone soft in the head.  I'd
rather not butcher my own meat, either, but I'm grateful to the ones
who do it."

"Fair enough."  God willing, she thought, Sara would never get over
what she called squeamishness; humanity needed far more of that type
than it did Inquisitors, or even regular Enforcement troopers.

The prisoner spat as she approached him to begin her preliminary
evaluation.  "Do your worst, Bitch--you'll get nothing from me!"

"So I have been informed, by a far more reliable source.  I will be
asking you no questions."  Wait, though.  And think aloud, for Sara.
"Not immediately, at least.  You have been protected against
conventional questioning, even an Inquisitor's--but that means only
that you cannot be forced to speak; it does not mean you cannot speak
if you choose.  Preliminaries first, however."

Those went better than she had expected.  Mike was developing a good
ability to anticipate the way she intended to work on a subject, and
had been careful selecting the areas to sensitize.  When she finished
her evaluation, she went to her cabinets, studying their contents.
"I'm ready to silence him.  Something that won't do more than minor
damage, preferably, which leaves out surgery . . . yes, this should
do."  She removed a vial, filled a syringe, and returned to her
subject.  "My observer prefers that you not scream, and since I can
tell from your reactions if you should wish to confess, I am free to
oblige.  Paralyzing your throat muscles should serve the purpose
nicely."

To her surprise, he didn't fight the injection.  "Do you expect him to
save you somehow?"

The man shook his head, sneering.

"To give you an easy death, then?"

He shrugged.

"You believe it possible, though he avoids me and did nothing to save
you from Captain Odeon's beating."

"On the other hand," Blackfeather said through the speaker, "he could
very well be using your punishment for his own ends.  He told me once
that letting a failure die under an Inquisitor's questioning was a good
preliminary to what would happen once said failure died and arrived in
Hell."

The man stiffened, mouthing Blackfeather's name.

Cortin nodded.  "I see he did not tell you he sent her to us.  Miss
Blackfeather is now Sealed to the Protector, and a part of His team.  I
cannot offer you either, but should you repent during this part of your
punishment, I will see that you die in a state of grace."

"Go to Hell, Bitch!" the man mouthed.

"Sara, were you able to read his lips?"

"No.  What was it?"

"The usual; he wished me in Hell."  Cortin's attention went back to her
subject.  "That is not my destination.  In an attempt to keep you from
going there, however, I will provide you the closest approximation I
can manage to its torments.  You will die painfully here, and continue
to suffer afterward--but as long as you live, you have the chance to
reject Shayan, make your torment a brief prelude to Heaven."

      *      *      *      *      *

After a couple of hours, Cortin could no longer ignore a niggling
feeling she'd had since entering the dungeon; she broke off her
interrogation, signaling Odeon and Blackfeather to join her in the
suite's office.

"You feel him too, huh?" Odeon asked, as soon as the door closed behind
him.

"I feel something like being watched, yes.  It's not Sara, but she's
the only other person here--what 'he' are you talking about, and how
could he be watching anything?"

"Shayan," Odeon said flatly.  "There's a different feel to his
mind-touch--I couldn't sense any menace from him--but after what he did
to me, I can't mistake his identity."

"Shayan!" Cortin and Blackfeather exclaimed in unison.

"But I didn't sense anything," Blackfeather continued.  "I would've
thought any time he was around, physically or otherwise, I'd know it."

Odeon shrugged.  "I can't say about that, Sara--all I know is what I've
just told you.  He's watching us, for whatever reason, yet I feel very
strongly that he's not going to interfere."  He rubbed the scar across
his mouth, frowning in puzzlement.  "Impossible as it sounds, I get the
impression he intends to help us somehow.  Not that he likes us--any
but Sara, anyway.  The feeling's more like . . . it's vague, not based
on deliberate communication, but I'd call it something like a
determined, if reluctant, alliance."

Cortin frowned.  "Are you sure?"

"It's vague, like I said, but I'm as sure as I can be under the
circumstances.  I don't think it's possible to lie, mind to mind--could
be your truthsense is a special form of telepathy."

"Shayan helping us.  That doesn't sound possible."  Cortin paused,
still frowning.  "I hate to ask, Mike, and I'll understand if you don't
want to--"

"But you'd like me to ask him directly."  Odeon rubbed the back of his
neck, sighing.  "Okay.  Just don't be surprised if I go into another
funk." He turned his attention to the Hell-King.  *You've been
listening; you know what I want.*

*You are quite correct about both the alliance and the reluctance,*
came the reply.  *This, however, is not the time to go into that; the
discussion we need to have will take longer than Cortin should give her
prisoner to regroup.  I am observing primarily so I will know when you
are free for that discussion; I will not continue it now.  For the
moment, suffice it to say I will be pleased if her efforts to obtain
this one's repentance are successful, though I very much doubt that
will be the case.*  With that, the direct contact broke, though Odeon
still sensed the observation.

"Are you okay, Mike?" Cortin asked anxiously.  "You look pale."

"Yeah, just a little shaken.  By what he said, not the contact itself
this time."  Odeon repeated what he'd been told, seeing astonishment to
match his own on the women's faces.

"He'll be pleased if this one repents?" Cortin asked in disbelief.

"Uh-huh.  And he doesn't want you giving him too much of a break."

"That doesn't sound like Larry, unless . . ."  Blackfeather paused,
cocked her head.  "He's got something to gain.  Something that
outweighs all his other interests--so I'd recommend very strongly that
Your Excellency take his advice and return to your subject."

"Since it would seem what he has to gain coincides with our interests,
at least temporarily, that would seem to be the best, yes."

      *      *      *      *      *

Cortin peeled off her coverall and went upstairs with the other two,
feeling a peculiar combination of satisfaction and disappointment.  Her
subject had been punished as thoroughly as she could manage for nearly
ten hours--but he'd been as intransigent as Shayan had hinted, and he'd
died cursing the Protector.

That was a blow, though she'd known she couldn't possibly turn
all--maybe not even most--of her subjects to God.  She'd tried her best
with this one, she reminded herself, and if she hadn't been able to
turn him, no one could have.

The odd part was that Shayan had wanted her to turn him, which she
still didn't understand.  While most of her wanted to avoid any
possible contact with him, a small part was so curious about why he was
cooperating that she couldn't help wanting the discussion he'd
mentioned.



25. Discussion

The rest of the Family had waited supper, except for the children,
who'd already finished and, to Cortin's relief, gone back to their
floor.  She and Odeon showered and got back into uniform while Sara
told the rest about their brief communication with Shayan.

There was little conversation during the meal, though Cortin did
comment that she'd expected him to make contact again as soon as her
subject died.

"He says there isn't that much of a rush," Odeon reported.  "He also
wants to know how you'd prefer the discussion to take place: phone,
mind-touch, or in person.  He's offering to heal Chuck and Tony, too,
then bring them home, to seal the alliance."

"An offer I'll definitely accept," Cortin said.  "And I'd prefer a
meeting in person, if he can get here without frightening the servants."

"He says he can.  Tony and Chuck will be here as soon as they get
dressed, and he'll join us himself when we're in the common-room and
ready for him."

      *      *      *      *      *

The reunited Family had spent a few minutes celebrating, then Cortin
had ordered refreshments set up in the common-room.  When that was done
and the servants had left, the Family pulled chairs into a circle and
seated themselves.  Moments later, with no fanfare, the empty spot was
occupied by what looked like a slim elderly man in a white cassock.

"Shayan," Cortin said, keeping her voice level.

"I prefer Lucius, if you don't mind."

"Lucius, then.  I knew I'd have to face you eventually; let's get it
over with."

The Pope held up both hands, shaking his head.  "This is a simple
discussion, Colonel, not the decision point.  You must have realized
that for yourself, to have accepted the alliance and this meeting."

Cortin sighed.  "It could've been a ruse.  I was almost hoping so, just
to finish the matter."

"No ruse," Lucius assured her.  "My motives must remain my own, but it
is in my self-interest to support the Strike Forces and the Families,
as well as promoting devotion to both Jeshua and the Protector.  For
that reason, and that reason alone, you may count on my unstinting
support for . . . I would estimate the next couple of years, perhaps
more."

"Why should I believe you?"

"Because of your truthsense."  Lucius smiled briefly.  "I like you,
Colonel Cortin."

"Which is a flat lie."  Cortin nodded.  "All right, between that
evidence and your claim that your support is due to your own
self-interest, I'll accept it as real.  What about the Brotherhood?"

"I have ordered it disbanded and recommended the members repent their
sins and return to the Church."  Lucius paused, smiling again.  "Don't
expect much from either order or recommendation, however; I recruited
among, and accepted only, the most disaffected of those susceptible to
the idea of becoming terrorists.  I can think of only one major error
in that selection process, and he is presently a member of your team
and Family."

"Me, right?" Degas said.

"Yes.  I would tend to believe, now, that I was under outside influence
when I selected you--but I doubt very much any of my other selectees
have your characteristics."

"Considering the ones I met, I'd tend to agree," Degas said.

"To get back to the subject," Cortin said, "which of your personas
ordered the Brotherhood disbanded?  And what reason did you give?"

"Shannon gave the order, of course, as you'll see in the news.  That is
the only one with any chance of influencing them, though as I said, the
results will be minimal.  'Peace and Justice' may be their slogan, but
it is not their true desire, and it is extremely difficult to lead such
men where they do not wish to go.  As for the reason--Lawrence Shannon
seldom gives reasons, but I did say the Brotherhood had outlived its
usefulness."

"That's easy enough to understand.  What about Shannon himself?"

"Good question.  I'm sure, given what I observed today, that your
choice would be for him to repent and surrender?"

Cortin nodded.  "It would, but considering Shannon's true identity, I'd
say that's not likely."

"Correct, since I have no intention of repenting, and you wouldn't
cooperate in such a pretense.  He can simply disappear, or I can
arrange the murder or suicide of one of my doubles, to provide a body."

"Which wouldn't give the victim even a minimal chance of repentance."
Cortin shook her head.  "Of those options, I'd prefer the
disappearance."

"So be it; Lawrence Shannon no longer exists.  Nor do the compulsions
he imposed, to prevent Brothers from seeking the Sacraments.  Some of
the lesser members will take advantage of that, though I doubt any of
the leadership will do so."

"Which you regret, even though you won't do it yourself," Odeon said.
"That doesn't make a whole lot of sense."

"To you, perhaps.  I am doing what I see as necessary, which does not
include my own repentance."  He paused, studying the scar-faced man.
"Has it occurred to you, Captain Odeon, that I may be too set in my
ways to change, particularly in such a basic way?"

"It hadn't, and I don't believe it for a minute."  Odeon returned the
other's scrutiny.  "I told Colonel Cortin once that not even you are
beyond redemption, and what you're doing now just reinforces that
conviction.  It may take something drastic to convince you, but I'm
positive enough that I'm going to add it to my Mass intentions from now
on."

Lucius was silent for almost a full minute, then he nodded, once.  "I
can hardly tell you not to, Captain, though after what I did to you, I
would expect you to hate and curse me instead."

"I hate what you've done, but I keep remembering that you were once one
of the greatest princes of Heaven, and I'd like to see you back in that
position."

"We shall see."  Lucius made an abrupt gesture with his hand, then
turned his attention back to Cortin.  "Would you care to concelebrate
Mass with me Sunday, Excellency, then be present for my announcement of
these policies?"

Cortin thought about that, then said, "What do you think, Captain
Odeon?  Would that be appropriate for the Protector's Herald?"

Lucius frowned, sent Odeon a thought.  *She is still unaware of her
true status?*

*Yes.  Jeshua said she'd be happier not knowing, and I agree.*

*Happier, perhaps, but what makes you think she will be able to remain
ignorant, now that she is being hailed and worshipped as Protector?
Although it is small as yet in her case, that worship does generate
energy, and it is focused on her; she will soon begin to feel and
manipulate it, whether she recognizes it or not.  I suppose trying to
protect her as you are doing is praiseworthy, but I question both its
wisdom and its fairness.*

*Umm.  I don't like it, but you may have a point.*

*I do indeed.  Will you tell her, or shall I?*

*I'll do it, since you don't seem to be leaving me much of a choice.*
Odeon looked around at the Family, then concentrated on its head.
"Joanie . . . I've just been told I've--we've all--been doing you a
disservice, thinking it was a favor."

Cortin frowned.  "What are you talking about?"

"Michael--" Chang said cautioningly.

"If I don't tell her, he will."  Odeon sighed, rubbed the back of his
neck.  "And there's no way to break it easy--"

"I am the Protector, then," Cortin said flatly.  "When that man called
me that yesterday, I had the oddest feeling . . . tried to tell myself
it was only because he believed it, but . . ."

"Acting, but yeah.  He says you're going to start feeling the worship
directed at you soon."

"I already have, I think.  The other part of what made me think he was
right.  Sort of a cross between extra energy and feeling like I've
eaten too much."  Cortin smiled at him.  "Keeping it from me this long
was a favor, Mike--and now, telling me that I'm only Acting is a
definite relief.  I can handle it for awhile, knowing I won't have to
do it forever."  She turned to the Pope.  "How long, and who's the real
one?"

"Less than six months, and I do not know.  If I did, I am certain I
would not be allowed to tell you."  He gave her a thin smile.  "Despite
my powers, I do operate under constraints; only the Creator is
all-powerful, and I, like you, am one of the created."

Cortin chuckled.  "Less than six months I can handle, and I'm sure I'll
know the real one when He or She appears."

"At the proper time, if not immediately.  In the meantime, can you
answer my question?"

"Mike?"

"I don't see any harm," Odeon said.

"I'll do it, then.  Provided Mike and Dave are also concelebrants."

"That would be even better," Lucius agreed.  "It would also be well if
Lieutenant Chang were to offer the Communion of Promise afterward."

"I would be pleased to do so," Chang said.  "Does your change of heart
include reparations for the damage you did to Colonel Cortin?"

"I hadn't considered that, but I suppose it should include correcting
the damage, though I will not modify the added sensitivity you gave
her; that is the best I can do in the way of reparations."  He paused
for a few seconds.  "There, done.  I can do nothing about your
fertility, Colonel; that, if it is done at all, will be up to the true
Protector."

Cortin smiled.  "I never thought I'd be saying this, but thank you.
This whole thing is a great relief to me--the real Protector coming,
the Brotherhood ordered disbanded even if most of it won't obey, you
supporting the Families and promoting devotion to the Protector . . . I
wouldn't have believed any of it a day ago.  Everything coming together
so well, and so suddenly--a much better ending than I'd dared hope for."

"Ending, Colonel?"  Lucius shook his head, his expression grim.  "An
end to this phase, perhaps, and some time to prepare for the next--but
this phase has been nothing but a preliminary.  We have not yet even
reached the decision point--which will, by the way, not be the sort of
confrontation you fear; no one will come to harm there.  The decision
made at that point will be the true beginning, and the best-case
outcome will be a war more destructive of life than any so far in this
universe's history."



26. Imperial Contact

St. Thomas, Monday, 27 July 2572 CE

A soft knock on the door and a barely-audible "Excellency?" from
outside it woke her.  It was Matthew's voice, so she let the gun stay
under her pillow and got up, grumbling to herself as she put on a
bathrobe and went to open the door.  "What is it, Matthew?"

"A call from His Majesty, Excellency.  He apologizes for waking you,
but we've just captured an Imperial scoutship, and he would like you to
be ready to interrogate the prisoners as soon as they're brought in.
That should be about two hours."

"So they finally got this far out.  Damn.  Is His Majesty still on the
phone?"

"No, Excellency; he was confident of your response."  Matthew smiled.
"Breakfast will be ready as soon as you finish Mass--shall I wake
Captain Odeon to assist?"

"What time is it?"

"Five o'clock, Excellency."

"Late enough he'd be upset if I didn't--go ahead."  As her butler left,
Cortin scowled. The Kingdom Systems couldn't avoid Imperial notice
forever--they'd been lucky to get the roughly four hundred years they'd
had--but she wasn't at all sure she cared to live under the Terran
Empire's rule.

Not, she thought as she showered and got into uniform, that they'd
probably have much choice in the matter.  The Empire claimed to be a
benevolent umbrella government, that it didn't interfere in local
affairs unless absolutely necessary, which Mike's studies of comm
intercepts tended to confirm--but it was hard to believe that their
non-interference policy could stretch to include the Kingdoms.  Well,
she'd find out--at least she'd find out whatever the scoutship's crew
knew or believed about it.

She got her usual deep pleasure out of saying Mass, assisted by both
Mike Odeon and Dave Bain, who claimed he'd been awake anyway. Cortin
had her suspicions of the reason, with Sis at the unusually early Mass,
and approved heartily.  Sis was five months pregnant, but that was no
reason to deny herself the pleasures of any of the Family's husbands,
and Cortin was of the opinion that Dave was good for her.

After Mass, the clean-up that had recently become necessary afterward,
and breakfast, Cortin, Odeon, Chang, and Bain went to her ground-floor
office to wait for the prisoner.  They were silent at first, but at
last Bain said, "Joanie?"

"Hmm?"

"We're in trouble, aren't we?"

Cortin sighed.  "I can't be sure, but I think so.  That's because they
scare me for some reason--even though there's no evidence I can point
to that'll justify that fear.  But I'm the wrong person to ask about
the Empire; Mike's the one who's been studying them."

Bain turned to his co-husband.  "Mike?"

"I can't agree with Joanie on that issue," Odeon said.  "As I told her
a few months ago, I'm only able to scratch the surface--comm intercepts
and the little bit of the Founders' records that survived the Final War
don't give you much.  Still, what I've seen in those don't scare me at
all--truth to tell, I think it's reassuring.  You know they ended a
ten-year-long war about three years ago?"

"Vaguely.  Some sort of non-humans surrendered, didn't they?"

"Not exactly.  The Traiti were losing badly, but if I'm reading the
intercepts right, they have a psychological block against surrender.
Instead, they took a Ranger prisoner, and a couple of months later,
their leaders petitioned for membership in the Empire."

"Huh?"  Cortin looked at him in astonishment.  "They petitioned to join
their enemy?"

"That's how I read it," Odeon confirmed.  "My point, though, is that
the Empire accepted them and is in the process of integrating their
worlds and military--to the point where the Traiti leaders are now
Imperial nobles, and quite a few of their fighters have transferred to
the Navy and Marines.  They kept their previous ranks--hard to believe,
but since a couple are now in command of Imperial warships, that part
has to be true."

"One of them's the non-human Ranger I heard about?" Cortin asked.

Odeon shook his head.  "No.  You're thinking of the felinoid--I can't
remember the race's name, though hers is Losinj--who reported a
rebellion and was found to have the abilities one of those needs.  I
can't tell you what the abilities are, unfortunately; I'm not sure
they've ever been mentioned."

Cortin started to say something, but the familiar sounds of a
prisoner-escort team interrupted; seconds later, the team brought half
a dozen handcuffed men and women in Imperial Navy working khaki into
her office.  "The first group of prisoners, Excellency," the officer in
charge said.  "Would you like us to stay?"

"That's not necessary," Cortin told him.  "Just ask Matthew to have the
rest of my team report, and wait till they arrive.  In the meantime, I
assume the one with what looks like major's leaves is in charge?"

"Yes, Excellency.  He says his rank is Lieutenant Commander, but since
his position is Captain of the IAS Columbus, he goes by that rank as
well."

"Odd."  Cortin turned her attention to the Lieutenant Commander/Captain
while the trooper left to speak to her butler.  "Which should I call
you, Imperial?"

The man shrugged.  "Whichever you want, Colonel.  Either one's correct."

"And your name?"

"Ivan DeLayne, Lieutenant Commander, Imperial Terran Navy, ident code
HERIE-1935-8586.  Your Excellency."

Cortin chuckled, amused at the man's insolent tone.

"Excellency--" Odeon said behind her, sounding angry.

"Take it easy, Captain," Cortin said, smiling.  "He doesn't know any
better."  She studied the Imperials for a moment, then said, "But I
should caution you that my team is more protective of my position than
I am myself, Captain DeLayne.  It would be wise not to agitate them
unnecessarily."

DeLayne stood silent, and Cortin nodded.  He wasn't going to carry on a
conversation, lest he inadvertently give her some information he didn't
want to--but he wasn't reckoning with her truthsense.  She didn't want
to go to extreme measures with him unless she had no other choice--he
wasn't a criminal, after all--but she did need some basic information,
and yes-or-no questions would give her that whether he cooperated or
not.  "Were you looking for our worlds in particular?"

No answer, of course, but his reactions were clearly negative.

"No.  All right."  She turned to the troopers guarding the Imperials.
"How far into our space did they get?"

"We caught them a parsec from St. Michael, Excellency.  They sent off a
message shortly after we came into sensor range, before we could
destroy their transmitting antennas."

"Damn.  So the Empire knows we exist."  Cortin sighed, not bothering to
hide it.

"What's so bad about that?" a young Imperial asked.  "There's no reason
to be afraid of the Empire!"

"Shut up, Conley!"  DeLayne ordered.

"I don't think she ought to," Cortin said quietly.  The other members
of her team were entering by then, replacing the regular troopers.
"Miss Conley--I can't read your rank insigne, to use your proper
title--although my second in command disagrees, I believe we have every
reason to fear an Empire we fled from some four centuries ago because
our religious views were condemned.  A number of conditions we've
encountered since, causing changes in our way of life, can only make
that condemnation worse, possibly--even probably--causing persecution
that would wipe out the Kingdom Systems.  Three ships held us then;
now, we don't have enough to carry a tenth of our population to safety."

"Should you be telling them that, Excellency?" Odeon asked.

Cortin shrugged.  "What can it hurt, Captain?  They weren't looking for
us in particular--but they did send off a message, so more Imperial
ships will be coming.  Which could doom most of our people, whether I
talk to these honestly or not."

"NO!" Conley burst out.  "The Empire's not like that, truly it's not!"

"Whether that statement's true or not, you believe it," Cortin said
dryly.  "Would you mind talking to me in more relaxed surroundings?"

The young Imperial didn't notice DeLayne's beginning objection or Tiny
Pritchett's silencing of him.  "Yes, sir, if you think it would help."

"At worst, it can't hurt."  Cortin stood, addressing her team.  "Take
the rest to . . . hmm.  The small guest suite, I think.  Captain Odeon,
Lieutenant Chang--let's talk to Miss Conley in the common-room of our
floor."

As soon as the team and other prisoners left, Cortin signalled Odeon to
remove Conley's handcuffs.  When that was done, she smiled at the
younger woman.  "Since you're willing to cooperate, I see no reason to
treat you as other than a guest.  Would you care for anything to eat or
drink?"

"Uh . . . do you have coffee?"

"Certainly.  Sis, would you ask Matthew to serve us coffee in the
common-room?"

"Of course.  I'll meet you there."

"Thanks.  Mike, Miss Conley--shall we go?"

As they left the office and went upstairs, the young Imperial said,
"Excuse me, Excellency . . . may I ask you something?"

Cortin was amused at the not-quite-apprehension in her voice.  "Go
ahead."

"The ones who captured us called you the High King's Inquisitor.  What
does that mean?"

Cortin chuckled.  "Exactly what it says.  St. Thomas--this world--is
the foremost planet of the Kingdom Systems, ruled by High King Mark.
I'm the best Inquisitor in the Systems, so when the Sovereign's
Inquisitor positions were established, I was persuaded--" bribed, she
thought, would have been more accurate, "to take the position.  So I'm
the Systems' chief Inquisitor, though we all hold the same rank of
Colonel.  That's why the first captured Imperials were brought to me
for questioning."

"Do you . . . hurt people?"

"If necessary, but you don't have to worry; I don't even make faces at
people who cooperate with me."

Odeon chuckled at that; after a second, Conley joined in, and by that
time they were at the head of the stairs, entering the common-room.
The young Imperial caught her breath, looking around.  "It's beautiful!"

"Yes, it is," Cortin agreed.  "I don't really need this kind of
luxury--at times I still feel guilty wearing boots on the carpet--but
His Majesty says my position is such that I have to make a proper
showing.  Not that the High King's Inquisitor gets many casual guests;
usually the only ones here are family and Enforcement Service friends."

"Uh-oh."  Odeon made a quick grab, intercepting an orange streak
heading for the guest.  "Forgot to warn you about Tangerine," he
apologized, stroking his prey's soft fur.  To his combined relief and
disappointment, Tanj was no longer fixated on him, though he told
himself she did still like him best.  "She's not called the attack
kitten for nothing--she'll go after whoever's closest, just to get
attention, though I'm her favorite target.  And she likes to land about
rump-high, with all claws out."

"Thanks for the rescue, then--I like cats, but that sounds painful."

"It is," Cortin assured her.  "Worse now than when we first got her,
since she's bigger, but even at six weeks old, she made herself felt."
She gestured to the couch in front of the fireplace.  "Have a seat.
Matthew should be here soon with the coffee."

"Thank you."  Conley sat down, Odeon joining her, while Cortin pulled
up a nearby chair.  "Will the others be okay?"

"Unless they do something stupid," Odeon said.  "Like attack someone
who's armed when they aren't."

Conley chuckled.  "None of our crew is Sandeman--for one of them, it
might work."

"The genetic warriors."  Cortin frowned.  "The ones you forced into the
Empire--what, about thirty years ago?"

"That's when, yes, but we didn't force them," Conley objected.  "We had
to stop their invasion of Sector Five, of course--we couldn't let them
just take over!  I've talked to some, though. They weren't happy to be
stopped, but when Ranger Medart showed them our weaponry and told them
that if they joined the Empire they'd be able to use it, well, they
jumped at the opportunity."

"I was impressed by how quickly and completely that war ended," Cortin
admitted.  "I'd like to meet one of your Rangers, especially Medart, if
it weren't for the consequences--"  Forget that caveat, she told
herself.  The Columbus had gotten a message out; the consequences would
happen whether she met a Ranger or not.  Though--she felt a sudden lift
of hope--maybe a Ranger could mitigate the damage to the Systems.  "Is
there any way you could get him to intervene on our behalf?"

"Huh?"  Conley gaped for a moment.  "Sure, but you can do it yourself,
and it'd mean a lot more coming from a Colonel than from a Spacer
Third.  Since you're obviously of Terran origin, you're legally
Imperial citizens; you have the right of direct appeal to the Sovereign
if you don't think there's any other solution."

Cortin stared at her, bemused.  "It can't be that simple!"

They were interrupted by Sis and Matthew entering with the coffee
service.  Sis pulled up a chair opposite Cortin while Matthew served;
when he left, Sis asked, "What can't be how simple?"

Cortin recapped the conversation, seeing Sis' growing hope.  "What do
you think?" she asked at last.

"The same thing I believe you do," the nun replied.  "Either you or
King Mark should call the Emperor and request Ranger Medart's
assistance in determining our position in regard to the Empire."

"Mike?" Cortin asked.

"Agreed.  Though His Majesty's not likely to either do it or be willing
for you to, despite--"  He broke off, glancing at the Imperial, and
finished, "the regard he holds you in personally."

Cortin grimaced.  "True; His Majesty's even more apprehensive about the
Empire than I am.  That means it's up to me."

Odeon nodded.  "I agree."

"Good."  Cortin turned her attention to the Imperial.  "Now, Miss
Conley, how do I go about contacting your Emperor?"

"You call the Palace--you must have ultrawave?"

"Yes.  We avoid transmitting on your frequencies, of course, but we can
use them; we do monitor.  I believe your contact channel is One?"

"Yes, sir.  Do you know the access codes?"

"No; do you?"

"Of course.  I can punch them in for you, if you'd like."

"I'd appreciate that."  Cortin led the younger woman to a small table
beside the door; it held both a telephone and one of the rare private
ultrawave terminals.  "Go ahead."

Conley did so, rapidly going through a number of screens till she got
one that seemed to read "Palace" in the odd Imperial English letters.
"Okay, Colonel.  When Palace Comm answers, explain to them; they'll
probably transfer you to someone in the Admin Service, but if Emperor
Davis was given our message, he may want to speak to you directly."

"Thank you, Miss Conley."  It was only a few seconds before the screen
cleared, to show a human operator.

"Palace Comm," the man said.  "How can I help you?"

"I am Colonel Joan Cortin, High King's Inquisitor for the Kingdom
Systems.  The crew of your scoutship Columbus is in my custody--"

"One moment, please, Colonel," the operator interrupted.  "His Majesty
left orders that any communications about the Columbus be transferred
directly to him."

The screen blanked for several seconds, then cleared to show a lean,
gray-haired man Cortin recognized from intercepts as Emperor Charles
Davis.  "I understand you have information about one of my ships," he
said calmly.

Cortin repeated her introduction, then went on.  "I don't intend them
any harm, Your Majesty, in spite of the fact that they intruded in our
space and I fear what their arrival means for our Systems.  Since we
cannot resist you, I ask that you send Ranger Medart to ease your
annexation of the Kingdom Systems; he seems to have done that quite
well for the Sandemans."

"It isn't as inevitable or as horrible as you seem to think," the
Emperor said mildly, "but if you have that kind of misapprehensions
about us, I agree that sending a Ranger in would be a good idea. And
James Medart is our cultural specialist, so he's the logical one; he'll
be on his way within the hour.  Should he talk to you, or one of your
Kings?"

"That is something I cannot answer at the moment, Your Majesty.  That
is up to High King Mark; I do not know who he will choose to handle
it." Probably her, she thought, considering she was acting Protector as
well as High King's Inquisitor and Archduchess of High Teton--but she
couldn't be certain.

"You're doing this without his knowledge?"

"Yes, because I believe it to be the least bad of the options open to
us, now that contact has been made."

To her amusement, the Emperor looked dismayed.  "I . . . see," he said
slowly.  "I hope Ranger Medart will be able to improve your opinion of
us, Colonel.  If your Systems should choose to become part of the
Empire, I'd like you to be my guest in the Palace for a month or so."

Cortin inclined her head.  "That is most gracious of Your Majesty.  In
that event, I would be honored."

"Until that time, then, Colonel."

The ultrawave screen went blank, and Cortin picked up the telephone
handset, dialing High King Mark's private number.  When that screen
lit, she said, "Is Your Majesty aware that the Imperial scouts got a
message out before they were captured?"

"I was not, Colonel.  I assume that means we can expect more of them
soon."

"I can guarantee it, sire."  Cortin took a deep breath, released it
slowly.  "Rather than risk an automatic military response that could
destroy the Systems, I took advantage of information one of my
prisoners gave me. I appealed to the Emperor, based on their laws
granting citizenship to anyone of Terran origin, and direct access to
the Sovereign if necessary; at my request, he is sending one of his
personal representatives to ease our inevitable absorption into the
Empire."

There was a long silence, then the High King sighed.  "If you think
that best, Protector, I can hardly argue.  I assume you'll take
complete charge of the negotiations?"

"If that is Your Majesty's wish."

"You have resources I do not, and at least as much devotion to our
mutual home; yes, it is my wish.  I'll make the necessary announcement
immediately."

"I feel inadequate, Your Majesty, but I will carry on as well as I
can." Cortin stood silent for a moment, then returned to her seat.
She'd hoped King Mark would take over, and was disappointed he hadn't.
She had no diplomatic experience, and, she suspected, no skill in that
field; how could she possibly bring about the sort of non-destructive
Imperial takeover that would save the Systems and her Family?

"Joanie?"  A voice finally broke into her abstraction.

"What is it, Mike?"

"Is there anything we can do to help?"

"I can't--  Yes."  Cortin straightened.  "If I'm in total charge of our
relations with the Empire, I'm going to work on the assumption that we
can become a fully functional part of it, with as much independence as
it allows--as much as I understand the Sandemans and now, according to
you, the Traiti, have.  Tell Dave to release the rest of the prisoners
and ask Captain DeLayne to join us, then have Matthew assign them all
guest quarters.  Find out if their ship will fit into the Lodge's
grounds, and if so have it brought here; otherwise, they're to have
free access, including transportation, while it's at the spaceport.
Miss Conley?"

"Yes, Colonel?"

"Do you have any idea how long it'll take Ranger Medart to get here?"

Conley shook her head regretfully.  "I'm afraid not, sir.  I don't know
where he is, and I'm not even too sure where we were when your warship
captured us. Captain DeLayne might know."

"Thank you."  Cortin wasn't sure whether to hope for no delay or a long
one.  The first would get the suspense over with; the second would mean
a longer true freedom for the Systems.  "Will you be subject to any
discipline for cooperating with me?"

Conley grinned.  "Since it worked out, no--I might even get a
commendation.  If it hadn't, well . . . but I had a hunch I could trust
you."

"I'm the last one to argue against following hunches," Cortin said,
"but I should point out that doing so can sometimes get you in trouble."

"I know, sir.  Uh . . . your King called you 'Protector'.  What's that?"

Cortin studied her guest.  "I'm not sure I ought to go into that
particular subject, Miss Conley.  It's a religious title, and since it
was our beliefs that caused our Founders to flee the Empire, I think it
wise to avoid religious discussion as much as possible."

"Yes, sir--though it may relieve you to know that religion's not a very
big deal in the Empire, most places, and the Empire itself is strictly
neutral."  She paused.  "I'm sorry, Colonel, but I have a bit of a
personal problem.  Is there a 'fresher anywhere around?"

"A what?"

"A 'fresher.  Let me think--restroom?  Bathroom?"

"That we have, yes," Cortin said with a chuckle.  "We call them
bathrooms.  Sis, would you show Miss Conley the nearest one, then her
guest room?"

"Gladly."  Chang put her arm around the Imperial, smiling.  "This way,
Miss Conley--may I use your first name?"

"Please--it's Gwen."

The two had barely gone out a side door when Odeon led the rest of the
team and their former prisoners through the main entrance.  Since they
were guests now, Cortin gave them a courteous bow before asking, "How
much did you tell them, Mike?"

"Only that they're free; I thought you'd want to tell them the rest."

"Where's Conley?" DeLayne asked, his voice concerned.  "Is she all
right?"

"She's fine," Cortin assured him.  "She asked for a bathroom, then
Lieutenant Chang's taking her for a brief tour.  They should be back in
a few minutes.  It's thanks to Miss Conley's cooperation that you're
free and Ranger Medart will soon be on his way to the Kingdom Systems."

"Huh?"  DeLayne, Cortin thought, looked like he'd been hit with a
sledge-hammer.

"You heard me correctly," Cortin said.  She explained briefly, amused
by the changes in his expression from disbelief to comprehension, then
to determination.

"For someone who's afraid of the Empire," he said when she was done,
"you're making one hell of an effort to bring it in.  If you'd like
some help, I'll ask for a temporary assignment here when I report we've
been released."

Cortin considered that briefly, then nodded.  "Any preliminary
groundwork we can lay should help reduce transitional problems.  Thank
you for your offer, Captain."  She paused, then said, "The troopers who
brought you in mentioned you were the first group.  How many of you are
there in all?"

"Four hundred ninety-eight.  Except for me, they decided to bring you a
random sample; the only Navy ship class that has this small a crew is a
courier."

"I can't offer all of you rooms here, then.  Is your ship small enough
to fit on a ten-acre estate?"

"Yes--equatorial diameter's two hundred meters--but since you can't
have a dock, we'd leave a rather large hole.  Just how big depends on
how solid the ground is."

"Fairly solid, and if the Kingdoms survive this, filling a hole will be
no problem.  As soon as King Mark makes his announcement, then, it
might be a good idea to bring your ship here."

"Agreed, Excellency.  My Marines can supplement your troops if you
think there's a chance of attack, that way."

"Very little," Cortin said.  "Being prepared is never a bad idea,
though."  She turned to Odeon.  "Mike, would you call Brad, brief him,
and ask him for the loan of any Strike Force troops not on
anti-Brotherhood operations?"  She grimaced.  "Not that I like asking
them to camp out this time of year!"

Odeon grinned.  "Be glad to, Joanie--and I don't think they'll mind,
for you."  He went to the phone to call Colonel David Bradford,
Commander and Bishop of the St. Thomas RES Strike Force.

DeLayne shook his head.  "I don't know what you've been taught about
us, but it must've been fierce.  And you're on our side!"

"I am not on your side," Cortin said.  "If I didn't believe aiding a
peaceful transition to be the Kingdom Systems' only chance to survive
as a society, I would be fighting you to the best of my ability.  You
may be able to change my mind--under the circumstances, I'd like
nothing better than to believe the best of you and your Empire--but
right now, I'm no more than a reluctant ally."

"A reluctant ally's better than an active enemy, Excellency."  DeLayne
grinned.  "You must have an ultrawave, to've spoken to His Majesty; may
I use it to report in and request assignment here?"

"Yes--it's beside the phone Captain Odeon is using.  If you can, please
also find out how soon Ranger Medart will be arriving, and ask that he
be informed I have been named sole negotiator for the Kingdom Systems."



27. Interim

DeLayne's call was fruitful, more quickly than Cortin had expected.  As
soon as he identified himself, he was transferred to Ranger Medart.
Cortin studied him while DeLayne reported.  She'd seen photos of the
Ranger before, but that had been before she had any expectation of
meeting him, or having her society's future depending on how she dealt
with him.  But now everything about him was meaningful.

Except for some graying around his temples, he looked young--normal for
an Imperial officer, with the anti-aging treatments they got.  But
there was something in his bearing that made it obvious he was no
innocent, even if she hadn't been acquainted, however vaguely, with his
handling of the Sandeman annexation.  He was, she decided, the sort of
man she could respect--which meant she'd have to be careful not to let
that feeling hinder her judgement during the negotiations.

She frowned when Medart, informed she'd been named negotiator, asked if
she were available--long-distance negotiations didn't strike her as a
good idea--but when Delayne replied that she was, she had no choice but
to go to the ultrawave.  "I am Colonel Cortin."

"Ranger James Medart," the man on the screen replied.  "Pleased to meet
you, Colonel.  I'm also pleased to hear you'll be the one I'll be
talking to.  Do you have any objection to Captain DeLayne and his crew
acting as Special Liaison until I get there?"

"I would appreciate their assistance, though I am not sure what you
mean by Special Liaison."

"In this case, a demonstration of what Imperials are really like,"
Medart said.  "Maybe by the time I get there, you'll have decided we
aren't the sort of monsters you've apparently been taught."

"That is possible," Cortin said.  "I gather you do not intend to carry
out our discussions long-distance?"

"No."  Medart grinned.  "All our experience says long-distance
negotiations are much less productive than face-to-face ones,
especially something that looks like it might be tricky--such as
working with a culture I know nothing about.  So I don't plan on
anything except this type of talk, and that only if you insist; I
prefer to get my data in person.  If there's anything you think I can
do to help, of course, don't hesitate, but I won't be able to go beyond
advice.  Unfortunately, even an IBC can't go over three lights per
hour, and I'm over five hundred hours away."

Roughly three weeks, Cortin calculated.  "I should be able to manage
for that time; if not, I am the wrong person for this job.  Until your
arrival, then."

"Agreed.  Medart out."

Cortin looked around, spotted one of her team and a couple of the
Imperials watching TV, what looked like a news special.  "Chuck!" she
called.  "What's up?"

"Aaron Spence's analysis of the Imperials' arrival and His Majesty's
designation of you as the sole authority regarding them," the young man
called back.  "He doesn't like the first, but he's in favor of the
latter, of course."

"Of course."  Cortin chuckled.  Spence was the only commentator who
supported her completely, so he was naturally Family Cortin's favorite.
But the fact that he'd gotten past the news to the analysis told her
what she needed to know: her authority in regard to the Imperials was
public knowledge.  Odeon was done with the phone; she dialed the main
spaceport, told its commander the Imperial scoutship was being
transferred to Harmony Lodge, and asked him to connect her to its
Bridge.

When that was done, she turned the phone over to DeLayne and listened
as he gave the necessary orders for its move to her estate.  She wasn't
sure that was the right move, but with the Brotherhood becoming
increasingly active, it seemed the safest one.  Her team, the Imperial
Marines she knew better than to underestimate, and possibly--  "Mike,
did you get through to Brad?"

"Uh-huh.  He'll be glad to lend us any local Strike Force troops not
otherwise occupied--though he warns you he may need to take 'em back if
the Brothers stage any more terror raids--and says to tell you he's
asking all the Strike Force priests to include you in their Mass
intentions until further notice.  Which Dave and I, at least, will do
gladly."

Cortin grinned at him.  "All of which I'm grateful for.  I'll have to
thank him personally next time he comes over--did he give you any idea
how soon they'll start arriving?"

"About an hour," Odeon replied.  "Shelters will be here about an hour
after that.  I told Matthew to have the groundskeepers get things
ready."

"Good.  That should be after the Columbus lands--or will she need more
time, Captain DeLayne?"

"Less, Colonel.  She should be airborne by now, landing any minute.
Scouts sometimes have to lift off at almost no notice, so regulations
forbid a complete engine shutdown outside Imperial space."

"Sensible," Cortin agreed.  "I seldom get to watch spacecraft land;
would it be safe to go out and watch yours?"

"I don't see why not, as long as we stay close to the house."

      *      *      *      *      *

Even a small spacecraft was large--fitting hyperdrive in anything less
than a hundred meters long seemed to be impossible--and Cortin knew
this scout was one of the smallest of the Imperial ship classes.  But
that didn't seem to help as she watched it descend into her side yard.
Nothing that big should be able to move under its own power!

But it did, settling slowly onto the grass, sinking until she wasn't
sure it would ever stop.  Finally, though, it did, and she thought
ruefully that her head gardener was probably wishing her in Hell for
what she'd done to his beloved lawn.  And this wouldn't be the worst of
it; the entire estate grounds would soon be a mess, with troops camped
and living on them.  Well, so be it; she'd been consigned to Hell often
enough, especially by the Brothers and assorted other terrorists and
criminals.

When the ship's main hatch opened, DeLayne turned to her.  "Normally I
wouldn't invite someone from outside the Empire aboard my ship, but
under the circumstances, you're welcome any time."  He grinned at her.
"Someone who's called for Imperial help isn't going to sabotage us,
after all."

"Quite true, and I'd like to take advantage of your offer when time
permits, but His Majesty didn't say anything about my workload being
reduced.  So until he does, or Ranger Medart arrives and I don't have
time for anything else, I think I should keep to my usual schedule."

"Or lack of it," Odeon put in.

"Or lack of it," Cortin agreed.  "As active as the Brotherhood's been
of late, I don't get much time off; my only semi-free day is Sunday.
If you have no objection, I would like to visit then."

"As I said, you'll be welcome any time."  DeLayne hesitated.  "You've
mentioned this Brotherhood several times, in context that makes it
sound like it could be a threat to my crew.  What is it?"

"The Brotherhood of Freedom," Cortin said.  "They're a collection of
terrorists, the worst in our history.  Their leader, Lawrence Shannon,
ordered them to disband before he disappeared about four months ago,
but except for a few low-ranking ones, that didn't happen.  Yes, they
could be a threat to your people.  I doubt they'd be stupid enough to
attack Harmony Lodge, though I prefer not to take chances--which is why
I wanted the extra Strike Force troopers.  Outside the grounds is
likely to be a different story, though, so I'd strongly recommend any
of your people leaving the compound have at least one trooper with
them, and that they be armed.  If they are attacked, I'd appreciate it
if they'd shoot to wound, rather than to kill; we can't get information
from the dead."

"We can do that easily enough," DeLayne said.  "I'll order blasters set
on stun--with that request, I gather you don't have that option?"

"Bullets don't stun, no," Cortin said.  "You intrigue me--could I try
one of those blasters?"

"I don't see why not," DeLayne replied.  "The ship wouldn't let your
people into our armory, so we have plenty.  Let me get my quartermaster
to bring you one."

"I'll be glad to do it, sir," Conley put in.

"Very well, Miss Conley.  Have it logged as a permanent transfer, along
with a spare powerpack and charger."

"Yes, sir."  Conley boarded the ship, emerging moments later with the
specified equipment, as well as a holster and pouch for the blaster and
spare powerpack.  She handed them to Cortin, smiling.  "I'll be glad to
show you how to use them, if you'd like."

"I would, if your Captain doesn't mind."

"No objection," DeLayne said.  "In fact, if you don't mind, I'd like to
appoint her as our individual Special Liaison from the Empire to the
Kingdom Systems until Ranger Medart arrives.  She can stay at your
Lodge, but I think the rest of us should go back to living on the
Columbus."

"If you wish, Captain." Cortin smiled at the young woman.  "But the
final decision will have to be yours, Miss Conley.  I should warn you,
associating with an Inquisitor will do nothing to improve your social
standing in the Systems; we may be respected, but we certainly aren't
popular."

Conley laughed.  "Since I won't be in the Systems long, I'm not
worried--I'd love to learn what I can about you and your people, and--"
she glanced at her Captain, hesitating.

"And a stint as Special Liaison would look good on your record, I would
imagine."  Cortin chuckled.  "We share that much, at least.  Consider
yourself accredited, Miss Conley.  And Family Cortin's guest, until
your superiors require you to return to your duties."

"I'd like that--thank you, Excellency.  When would you like to learn
how to use your blaster?"

"As soon as I can.  What facilities do you need?"

"A standard target range will do fine for the blaster function.  If you
want the stun function demonstrated, you'll need a volunteer and some
good strong headache medications."

Cortin frowned.  "I thought stunning wasn't harmful."

"It isn't," Conley said.  "At least, it doesn't do any physical
damage--unless the fall itself injures you, of course.  But it does
leave you with a nasty migraine for most of a day."

"Interesting," Cortin said thoughtfully.  A weapon that caused pain
without injuring its target sounded like an extremely useful tool for
an Inquisitor.  "Does it cause actual unconsciousness, or is it the
pain itself that's incapacitating?"

"At standard intensity, it causes about four hours' unconsciousness.
The headache's just a side effect we can't seem to get rid of."

That was even more interesting, Cortin thought.  If Kingdoms scientists
could isolate the "side effect" and eliminate the unconsciousness, the
severe migraine would do very nicely to intensify an Inquisitor's other
attentions.  She didn't want to upset the young Imperial with that line
of thought, though.  "I should be able to find a suitable test
subject," she said.  "Not right now, though; I need to get to work.
Let's go back inside; you can explain the controls, then I can
familiarize myself with it if I get any breaks."

"Just a moment, please, Excellency," Odeon said.  "I know you're busy,
but there are going to be a lot of troopers here soon, and if the
Imperials go into town, they may stop at the joyhouses; don't you think
they ought to know about our favorite plague?"

"Plague!" DeLayne exclaimed, his expression horrified.

Cortin chuckled.  "Yes--the only one I know of that most people wanted
to catch.  But you might not want to export it to the Empire, so
Captain Odeon's right; I ought to warn you.  It's called the satyr
plague, which should give you some idea of its nature."

DeLayne nodded.  "I think so--but I don't care to guess at the details,
so tell me about it, please.  And what a large number of troopers has
to do with it."

"The troopers first," Cortin said.  "Because of the hazardous nature of
our work, the Royal Enforcement Services have both Church and civil
dispensations from the sexual restrictions that apply to everyone
else--except their partners at the time, of course.  So they won't have
any hesitation asking any of your people they find attractive, or
accepting offers from them.  The joyhouses don't have that dispensation
yet, but since the plague appeared, working in or patronizing them's no
more than a venial sin and a misdemeanor the RES pays attention to only
if there's a complaint; we have far more serious crimes to worry about.

"The plague itself, of course, is sexually transmitted.  There's no
danger of infection from casual contact, only about a one percent
chance from kissing, but the odds improve with the intimacy of contact.
As far as we can tell, intercourse with someone who has the plague
guarantees you'll get it; other genital contact is high-probability but
not certain."

"But what does it do?" Conley asked.

Cortin grinned at Odeon, who answered.  "What it does, Miss Conley, is
increase both sexual desire and capability.  That's most noticeable in
men, though it affects women as well.  As you can probably imagine,
it's had quite an effect on our society the last three decades."

"What about immunization or a cure?" DeLayne asked.

"Who'd want it?" Odeon asked in reply.  "I damnsure wouldn't; I like
what it's done for me.  And for our wives and Family head."

DeLayne raised an eyebrow, then shrugged.  "We'll work on both, then,
if you could provide a blood sample from someone who's infected."

"How big a sample?"

"A few drops should be enough."  DeLayne grinned.  "Scouts may be
small, but we get state of the art medical equipment, and people to use
it who want a challenge."

Odeon turned to Cortin.  "If you don't mind, Colonel, I'll give him his
sample, then come help you."

"Fine.  Take as long as you want, maybe get a tour of the ship."  She
paused, thinking.  "Yes . . . under the circumstances, I think I'd
better change your primary duty."  She turned to DeLayne.  "Captain
Odeon has been studying your Empire as well as possible from comm
intercepts and what's left of our Founders' records.  If you're willing
to loan him books or have some of your people talk to him, I'd like to
make those studies his top priority.  He can then brief me on whatever
he considers important."

DeLayne nodded.  "Comm intercepts and fragmentary records won't give
you very good information, especially since your Founders obviously
weren't at all fond of the Empire--I'll be glad to help him learn as
much as he wants."  He turned to Odeon, grinning.  "Come on,
Captain--we'll go by Sickbay for the blood samples, then I'll give you
a ship tour and introduce you to teaching tapes.  Can you read Imperial
English?"

Odeon looked up at the ship's name as he followed DeLayne up the
gangplank, then shook his head ruefully.  "If that's a sample, no--I
can recognize most of the letters, but they don't make sense."

"Easy enough to remedy."  DeLayne saluted the armed guard at the hatch.
"Permission to come aboard, sir?  Myself and one of our hosts."

The woman returned his salute.  "Granted, sir.  Are you permitting him
aboard armed?"

"Yes.  And no one's to leave this estate--definitely not the
compound--unarmed.  I'll make that--"

"Captain?" Odeon interrupted.

"Yes?"

"If I were you, I'd have them armed any time they leave the ship.  And
I'd have Miss Conley sent one of those blasters as soon as possible."

DeLayne frowned.  "The Brotherhood's that dangerous?"

"Probably not here at the Lodge, as Colonel Cortin said--but we don't
know how they'll react to the Empire's presence, and I don't think we
should take any chances."

"Neither do I.  Okay, I'll make the announcement and put it in the
standing orders."  DeLayne turned to the guard.  "No one's to leave the
ship without a sidearm, Corporal; pass that on to your relief.  I'll
make the all-hands announcement as soon as I show Captain Odeon to
Sickbay."

"Aye, sir."

Odeon wasn't sure what he'd expected the ship's interior to be
like--similar to an airplane, maybe.  Once they got past the airlock
and a series of large lockers, though, what he saw could have been the
inside of a large, modern building.  If he hadn't just watched it land,
he wouldn't have believed himself inside a vehicle.  "Your guard's
uniform was black--a Marine?"

"Right.  SecuDiv--sorry, Security Division; I doubt you know our
abbreviations--like all the ones assigned to Columbus."  DeLayne smiled
at his guest.  "I'd better warn you, Captain--my medical people will
probably want more from you than a blood sample.  I don't know how your
people feel about doctors, but don't let Drulet intimidate you into
more than you're comfortable with."

"I won't.  I don't have anything against doctors; I owe my life to
several of them."  Odeon paused, thinking.  Joanie was taking them into
the Empire, which knew even less about the Kingdoms than the other way
around, so--  "Since you've got to start learning about us, too, I'll
go as far as a complete physical--provided it doesn't include the use
of any drugs."

"It doesn't.  He'll be delighted."

      *      *      *      *      *

The examination didn't take as long as Odeon expected, less than three
hours, but it was the most complete he'd ever had--and the least
understandable.  The doctor tried to explain, but Odeon didn't have the
background to make sense out of body scans, biochemical and genetic
analyses, or other procedures.  After a bit he told the doctor so, to
Drulet's amusement.  "Okay, Captain, no more jargon.  I'll wait till
we're done and just give you the results, okay?  If you want them."

"The results, sure, if you can keep them down to a layman's level.  I'm
not even trained in our medicine, and this--" Odeon gestured to the
equipment around them, "is so far ahead of ours it isn't funny."

"I think I can manage that.  Okay, nothing but chit-chat until we get
to my office.  Do you like coffee?"

"I'll drink it, but given a choice, I really prefer herb teas.
Something with a tang, like cranberry or ginger."

"I know just the thing."  Drulet grinned.  "I'll stick with coffee, and
you can try Blue Ginger.  That originated on Herbert's World--have you
heard of it?"

"Afraid not."

      *      *      *      *      *

Odeon sipped his tea, then nodded appreciatively.  "This is good,
Doctor.  Okay, what's the verdict?"

"You're healthy as the proverbial horse, Captain.  More injuries than
I've seen on a single individual before, but no lasting damage--and
contrary to what you told me about your medical history, you've never
been sick a day in your life.  No chickenpox or measles, no colds--and
no satyr plague."  He shook his head as Odeon started to object.  "Oh,
you're a carrier, all right; the pseudo-virus is in your body fluids.
It just isn't inside your cells."

"But I've got all the symptoms!"

"Yes, you told me--the diagnostic ones being the increased sexual
capacity and the penile moistening during arousal.  The tests are
conclusive, though; in your case those are genetic, not disease-caused."

Odeon frowned.  "Then how come none of it showed up till the day after
I had intercourse the first time?  Because that's when the urge got
strong and I started getting wet."

Drulet shrugged.  "That question I can't answer; I don't know enough
about the disease.  Could be pure coincidence, or maybe the virus'
presence in your body pulled the genetic trigger, so to speak.
Possibly any physical stress or trauma could've set it off, once
puberty hit.  But that's all guesswork."

"I understand."  That part, anyway, Odeon thought.  Why he'd have a
genetic condition that mimicked the satyr plague was a whole 'nother
question, and one he knew the doctor wouldn't be able to answer, so he
dropped the subject.  "Would you mind sending my commanding officer a
copy of your report, so it can go in my medical records?  I'm due my
annual physical next month, but with this one so recent and so much
more thorough, that can be waivered."

"Be glad to.  If you don't mind, I'll forward a copy to Ranger Medart
as well.  His eyes only, of course."

Odeon didn't particularly like that idea, for no reason he could
pinpoint--he'd taken the examination so Imperials could learn about
Kingdoms people, after all--but he nodded.  "I suppose so."

"In that case," DeLayne's voice broke in, behind Odeon, "you wouldn't
mind if I also send him anything I learn from you."

"No--but he did say he wanted to get his data in person."

"What's the difference if I send him the ship's record tapes of our
conversations, or he talks to you himself?"

Odeon frowned.  "The ship tapes everything?  You don't have any
privacy?"

"Everything in the public areas, yes.  Admiral Columbus, please tell
Captain Odeon how you handle monitoring of private quarters."

"Yes, Captain," came from the air, startling Odeon.  "I monitor those
only for sounds of distress or people requesting my attention, and
permanently tape only those situations; everything else is wiped
automatically within approximately one microsecond."

"Your ship talks to you?"

DeLayne and Drulet both chuckled at Odeon's incredulity.  "Yes, she
does.  All Imperial ships of this class or higher--which means all but
couriers or landers--have AI-level ship-comps."

Odeon was silent for a moment, then he said, "Okay, I'll bite; what
does that mean?"

"Sorry," DeLayne said.  "That's a ship-wide computer complex enough to
be classified as an artificial intelligence.  That means that if you
didn't know you were talking to a computer, you'd think it was a very
intelligent human.  I gather you're not too familiar with computers?"

"That's one way to put it; I've never used one, and only seen a few.
None of those talked, and I never heard of any being intelligent!"

DeLayne chuckled.  "Any time you want to talk to one, address her the
way I did.  She'll answer you, as long as you don't get into classified
information."

"That may take me a while to get used to.  No offense intended, Admiral
Columbus."

"I do not have feelings, so I cannot take offense, Captain Odeon, but I
thank you for the courtesy."

"You're welcome," Odeon replied automatically, before turning to
DeLayne.  "Even the little bit I've experienced so far--this Sickbay
and talking to your ship--is awesome.  It makes me feel . . . I don't
know.  I'm competent enough in the Kingdom Systems, but it's pretty
clear none of us are anything but total incompetents in your terms.  I
don't like that feeling."

"Neither would I, in your place.  But don't worry about it; as I told
Colonel Cortin, we aren't monsters, and we don't force ourselves on
anyone.  If she does decide the Systems should join the Empire, we'll
offer but not impose education about us and our science.  Also whatever
you need to bring yourselves to our level."

"Like you offered to teach me?"

"Exactly.  Ready to get started?"

"Definitely."  Odeon allowed himself a brief smile as he stood.  "Let's
go see one of these 'teaching tapes' you mentioned.  Are they anything
like a book?"

"Nothing at all.  They aren't really tapes, either; they just got
called that, back when they were invented, and the name stuck.  Let's
go to my cabin, and I'll introduce you to them.  Admiral Columbus,
please have a reader and basic-language tape waiting in my fabricator."

"Yes, Captain."

"Fabricator?" Odeon asked as they left Sickbay, going deeper into the
ship.

"Yes.  Do you know anything about molecular physics?"

"No."  Odeon sighed.  "I'm really in over my head, aren't I?"

DeLayne chuckled.  "Not really; that's one of my degrees, is all, and I
enjoy discussing it when I get the chance.  Most people haven't the
faintest idea how fabricators work; they just use them.  We don't
manufacture small items any more; once a prototype's developed, the
pattern is scanned and recorded.  When you want one of that item, you
code it into your fabricator, and the fabricator constructs it, with
any modifications you specify in the coding, from reconstituted raw
materials.  When you're done with it, you feed it back into the
fabricator's raw material storage for re-use."

Odeon whistled.  "That's incredible.  Things like your uniform?"

"Among others, yes."

"And I thought the plague and Families were causing a major social
upheaval.  What you're going to do to us . . .  Maybe Colonel Cortin's
right to be afraid of you after all, though not for the reason she
thinks."

"I can't deny there'll be stress," DeLayne said soberly.  "You won't
have to join, and you won't have to accept anything from us that you
don't want--but just making open contact will cause changes, yes.  It's
a good thing for your Systems that Colonel Cortin was able to get
Ranger Medart, too.  Any Ranger would be good, but he's the Empire's
best at anything involving cultural differences--which we don't try to
destroy, as you probably already know.  To quote a twentieth-century
writer by the name of O'Sullivan, our aim is to 'preserve the unique
viewpoints of different groups, but at the same time require that each
group be tolerant of the others'.  We see harmonious diversity as a
good thing."

"I'd gotten that impression, but not in so many words.  The Sandemans
and Traiti, from what I've studied, both maintain their own cultures
within their Subsector and Sector."

"And so do the cloudcats, on Ondrian.  They're another race Ranger
Medart managed to bring into the Empire peacefully--damn good thing for
us, since that's the only place miracle-weed produces usable
rapid-heal."

"I never heard of any of those."

DeLayne chuckled.  "Learning from comm intercepts would tend to be
fragmentary, especially when the ultrawave beams aren't aimed at you
and you don't have the cultural background to understand a lot of what
you do hear.  That's what we're in the process of remedying.  And
here's my cabin."  He put his hand to a small plate beside the door,
which promptly opened onto a small living area.  "Have a seat while I
go get the tape and player--my fabricator's in the bedroom."

Odeon obeyed, rubbing the back of his neck.  He wasn't afraid of the
Empire, and as he'd told Joanie months ago when he first started
studying them, he already had some respect for them.  DeLayne was
adding to that, even as he was overwhelming Odeon with casually
incomprehensible references.  Fabricators, cloudcats, miracle-weed,
rapid-heal . . . and teaching tapes.  DeLayne was emerging from the
bedroom carrying what looked like a small book and a thin box of
matches, though Odeon was sure those had to be the reader and 'tape'
he'd mentioned.

"Here we go," DeLayne said, pulling up a chair.  He handed Odeon the
reader, which turned out to be a screen with a row of words
underneath--all of which, to Odeon's gratification, he was able to
puzzle out--and showed him how to insert the tape, then explained the
touch controls for tape direction and speed.  "The older models have
electrodes that have to go on the temples," he added, "but the new ones
don't need them.  Some people have a mild reaction, disorientation or a
touch of nausea; if you do, slowing the tape down usually gets rid of
it.  Whenever you're ready, just touch the "Go" button."

"Okay."  Odeon did so--and promptly doubled over.

Alarmed, DeLayne grabbed the tape player and shut it off.  "What's
wrong, Captain?"

"I thought you said . . . mild nausea and disorientation.  Not stomach
cramps and . . . the worst headache I've ever had."

DeLayne frowned.  "I've never heard of a reaction that bad, or I
would've warned you.  Let me get Dr. Drulet to prescribe you something."

"Thanks, but no thanks; I'll be okay.  It's fading already."  Odeon
straightened cautiously, shaking his head.  "I don't think I'd care to
repeat the experience, though.  Do you have any ordinary books I can
use instead?"

"No, but I can have the ship print you out what's on the tapes.
Normally I'd suggest you try a standard reading tape, but after that
reaction, printouts would probably be the best idea.  They're a hell of
a lot slower than teaching tapes, though; it'll take you a day or so to
learn what the tape would've given you in a couple of minutes."

"I'll take the day, and the printouts."

"You've got them.  Imperial English, or should I have the ship
transcribe everything into the pre-Imperial alphabet?"

"Imperial," Odeon said, after a moment's thought.  "I'm going to have
to learn it sooner or later, so why put it off?"

"That makes sense.  And I don't think I'd better let any of your people
try taking a tape till the Lindner gets here.  An IBC has better
research facilities than a scout; they may be able to find out why you
reacted so badly, whether it's an individual reaction or something
everyone in the Systems shares, and how to avoid it."

"That makes sense, too.  Thanks, Captain.  Aside from the alphabet,
what would you recommend I study first?"

"In your place I'd start with basic history and Imperial structure.
Once you know that, you're in a better position than I am to decide
what else you'll need."

"I'll do that, then."


27a. At Harmony Lodge



28. Aboard the Lindner

James Medart was looking forward to his arrival in the Kingdom Systems.
Another new culture to study, this time a group whose ancestors had
fled the early Empire in an attempt to escape religious persecution.
From Captain DeLayne's reports, that had been about four hundred years
ago, and even though they refused to discuss religion, DeLayne said
that from their symbols and occasional references, they were a Roman
Catholic variant.

DeLayne's primary informant was Cortin's second-in-command, who was
also studying the Empire with considerable interest, DeLayne said, but
making slow progress because he had a strong negative reaction to
teaching tapes.  That was unfortunate, Medart thought, but Odeon's
attitude was a distinct improvement on Cortin's fear.  He admitted to
being a priest, once DeLayne asked about some of his insigne, but was
reluctant to go beyond that, and said most of their Founders' records
had been destroyed in the Final War.  He couldn't provide the
historical background Medart would have liked, then, so the Ranger
decided to see what he could find from the Imperial side.

After several days' research, he studied what he'd been able to put
together from obscure and also incomplete records--not typical of the
time, and he found himself wondering if that could be deliberate.
Sabotage, maybe, by some who had stayed behind, to protect those who
had left?

The group that founded the Kingdom Systems had begun as a large Roman
Catholic parish in the Southwestern United States, conventional except
that it was allowed to use the Latin Mass.  In 2148, however, they were
assigned a new priest.  Until his arrival there, he had seemed equally
conventional, though he had already gained a reputation for great
charisma and persuasiveness.  When he became parish priest, however, he
began preaching about the Final Coming--not of Christ, but of a Third
Aspect of God he called the Protector.  This Aspect would appear after
Satan had been released from Hell and allowed to wreak his will for a
hundred years.  He also called for the ordination of women, a
priesthood allowed to marry, and numerous other changes.

To the Vatican's dismay, he attracted a large number of followers from
all over the world.  Many moved to his parish, while those who
disagreed with him moved out.  The entire group was excommunicated in
2156, branded a heretic cult, and generally scorned by outsiders.  At
this point, it began implementing the priest's suggested changes,
including new terms for Satan and Jesus--now Shayan and Jeshua.

All this got them greater notoriety and contempt.  To escape that, the
priest persuaded his followers that it would be best to flee this
persecution and the Empire that permitted it--though in fact the Empire
was simply maintaining its strict neutrality regarding religious
matters--and, in 2158, the group left Terra, fleeing in three
surprisingly large and well-equipped ships.  Nothing had been heard of
them since, and apparently no one had particularly cared; there had
been no investigation or follow-up of any kind.

Another deliberately self-"lost" colony, Medart thought.  At least this
one wasn't fighting them, and from Odeon's medical records there didn't
seem to be any genetic tampering, as in the case of the Sandemans--just
a pseudo-virus, one that enhanced the sex drive, which had surfaced
about thirty years ago, and a mutation in Odeon that somehow mimicked
it.  That, Medart was certain, was natural rather than engineered; the
Kingdoms' medical care was more advanced than the Sandemans' had been
at Annexation, but it certainly wasn't up to genetic engineering.

He spent the rest of the trip studying the tapes DeLayne transmitted,
including what teaching tapes he'd transcribed for Odeon, and brushing
up on Roman Catholic theology of the mid-twenty-second century.  The
church had been starting to splinter then, but from what little Odeon
let slip, it seemed safe to concentrate on what was currently called
the Traditional branch--while keeping firmly in mind that this was a
variant, possibly in more than the Persons of the Trinity and the names
of God and Devil.



29. Arrival

The Columbus left as soon as Medart's ship, the Empress Lindner,
entered orbit.  Battle cruisers were far too large to land in a gravity
field as strong as St. Thomas', so he came down in one of the bus-sized
landers along with a single pilot/bodyguard.  There was none of the
pomp or ceremony Cortin would have expected when royalty from one realm
visited another, but Colonel Bradford had decided to leave the Strike
Force troops in place because of the Brotherhood, so she was able to
have a proper military formation, at least.  The Ranger had asked for
informality, though, so she and Odeon were the only ones who approached
to greet him when he emerged from the lander, followed by his
bodyguard.  They exchanged introductions, and Medart confirmed Cortin's
guess that the small, dark-skinned blond was indeed one of the
genetically engineered Sandeman warriors, Lieutenant Keith DarElwyn.

"I thought it might reassure you," Medart said, "if I brought along one
of the people we were able to make friends with thirty years ago.  I've
got Traiti aboard as well, but I don't think you're quite ready for
them." Cortin, he thought, was more impressive in person than on
screen.  She was medium height and build, with straight brown hair not
quite shoulder length, wearing a gray uniform with wide-brimmed
hat--but it was her eyes that struck him.  They were a light brown,
with pupils that seemed blacker than space, making them seem to look
through you.

Even though he was familiar with Odeon from DeLayne's tapes, he found
the scar-faced man more impressive in person, as well.  He was a good
twenty-five centis taller than his commander, strongly built without
looking like a weight-lifter--and the nasty-looking scar that cut
across his right cheek down across his mouth and into his chin seemed
more a distinction than a disfigurement.  Both officers reminded Medart
irresistibly of predators, though he couldn't pinpoint the reason . . .
maybe that neither seemed to have any softness about @.

It had become almost a reflex for Medart to do a quick mental scan of
anyone he met, and under the circumstances, he would've scanned Cortin
and Odeon anyway.  Mike Odeon was average, with no mind-screen or
perceptible Talent other than very minor telepathy, but Cortin was an
entirely different story.  She had an incredible degree of Talent
latent, though it wasn't like any he'd felt before.  Still, three and a
half years of experience didn't make him an expert in Talent
varieties--especially human ones, since that had been discovered only
the same three and a half years ago.  Her mind-shield had a potential
strength even greater than a Sandeman warrior's, though she wasn't
using it.  She also had a strong telepathic potential, of which she was
using a small, untrained portion--and there was another aspect, one he
hadn't encountered before, that it felt like she was using fully,
though unconsciously.  It was a good thing, Medart thought, that he
seemed to be immune to that particular aspect.  His focus had to remain
on the Empire as a whole; he couldn't afford--and had no desire--to
fall in love.  He was less sure about Keith's immunity, though; even in
this brief a time, he could sense a sort of mellowing.  He'd have to
keep an eye on that, he thought; if Cortin could affect a Sandeman,
even one of the rare unshielded warriors like Keith, it might be risky
letting her around too many Imperials.  On the other hand . . .  He
made a mental note to contact DeLayne when he was alone, and find out
what effect she'd had on the Columbus' captain and crew.  Probably
none, since he hadn't said anything about it, but best to double-check.

Cortin nodded to the Sandeman.  "It would be interesting to get his
reactions to the Empire first-hand."

Keith bowed.  "I look forward to the opportunity, Excellency."

"Let's go inside, then, and I'll introduce you to the rest of my
Family.  Did Captain DeLayne brief you about the satyr plague?"

Medart chuckled.  "And the Strike Force's . . . ah . . . 'enthusiastic
use of their dispensation' was how he phrased it.  We've both been
immunized, just in case."

"Yes.  Well, one of the social changes it triggered, and I helped bring
about, was an expanded family structure to allow for the variety it
makes you want, while still providing stability for the family itself,
particularly the children.  Family Cortin began as Strike Force Team
Azrael, and most of it still is, though we've added a civilian wife.  I
understand Sandemans have a strong privacy drive?"

"Very strong," Medart agreed.  "Why?"

"Because Family behavior on the private floors can best be described as
uninhibited, particularly in the evening," Cortin said.  "If open
sexuality disturbs him--either of you, for that matter--I'm not sure
what to do.  You want to learn about us by living with us, and that's
part of our life.  I certainly can't put one of your rank in a field
shelter!"

Medart chuckled.  "It doesn't disturb me, but Keith would probably be
seriously embarrassed."  He enjoyed it, in fact, any time he was on one
of the worlds where open sexuality was the norm--particularly where
outsiders were allowed or encouraged to participate.  That was a
preference, though, that Sandemans definitely didn't share.  He turned
to Keith.  "Would you prefer staying in a shelter or the lander,
Lieutenant?  With this many troops around us, I don't think I need a
full-time bodyguard."

"I would, thank you, sir.  The lander, by preference."

"You will still eat with us, won't you?" Cortin asked.  "We don't
generally relax to a degree that should make you uncomfortable until
after supper, and the ground floor is always formal."

"I intend no disrespect, Excellency.  I will be honored to eat and
visit with you."

"Good.  Let's go introduce you to my Family, then."  As they entered
the Lodge and went upstairs to the common-room, she said, "To spare you
some confusion about our names: we're all Cortin, since Mike and
Sis--the senior spouses--wanted me as head of the Family and named it
after me.  So Mike's full name is Michael Patrick Cortin-Odeon, but
around the Lodge or people who know us well, he's Mike or Captain
Odeon, depending on circumstances.  Since he's also a priest, you'll
sometimes hear adults calling him Father, too."

They were in the living room by then, where the rest of Family Cortin
was waiting; she introduced them to the visitors.  "Medic-Lieutenant
Eleanor Chang, otherwise known as Piety or Sis, the Family's senior
wife; Elizabeth Bain, our only non-military adult;
Communications-Lieutenant Joseph Pritchett, generally called Tiny;
Armorer-Lieutenant Anthony Degas; Demolitions-Lieutenant David Bain,
who's also a priest like Mike and myself, and my backup Inquisitor;
Lieutenant Charles Powell, who doesn't have a rated specialty but acts
as my secretary; and our children--legally my grandchildren, though I
can't have children of my own--Luke, Kateri, and George."

The two Imperials bowed slightly, and Medart did the honors on that
side.  "I appreciate your hospitality," he said then.  "Before Colonel
Cortin and I can do any productive negotiating, we have to get to know
each other and each other's cultures.  You got a bit of a head start
with Columbus' crew, but I'm deliberately starting from scratch, except
for the little Captain Odeon gave Captain DeLayne."

"With first names," Cortin said, "since you're guests in our home;
formality's for the ground floor and below.  Unless that's considered
rude in the Empire, which I doubt from the time Gwen spent with us."

"In the Empire it'd be undue familiarity from anyone except my parents,
other Rangers and the Sovereign, or the captain of my ship.  But this
isn't the Empire, so we go by your customs, not ours; I'm Jim."

Cortin smiled.  "Joan--maybe Joanie, if you feel like joining our
Family pleasures some evening."  She sobered.  "Now--I agreed to let
you observe me, and I won't go back on that.  But I do have to warn you
that, based on people's reactions here, you'll probably find my work
extremely unpleasant.  I know Mike didn't go into detail about it with
Captain DeLayne, because I told him not to."  She paused, using the
brief silence for emphasis.  "I'm an Inquisitor, Jim.  Normally, that
would mean I question prisoners, and turn them over to a judge for
sentencing if the evidence warrants it.  But I'm the High King's
Inquisitor, which means I deal only with capital crimes of the worst
type; by the time a criminal gets to me, he's either proven too
stubborn for other Inquisitors, or he's under sentence of prolonged
death.  So far, only one of the prisoners remanded to me has left
Harmony Lodge alive, though with your help there may be a second."

"That," Medart said with considerable aversion, "sounds like you
torture people to death."

Cortin nodded.  "If you restrict 'people' to 'heinous criminals',
you're absolutely right.  I have never gone beyond first stage
interrogation--simple questioning--with an innocent, and truthsense
lets me be sure the ones I kill are guilty of the crimes they're sent
to me for."  She smiled, grimly.  "I don't even have to ask, since they
all protest their innocence."

"You said that if I help, a second prisoner may leave here alive.  What
help do you need?"

"Your mind-probe, if it doesn't require the subject to answer
verbally." Cortin explained about her anomalous prisoner, then said,
"It's probably nothing significant, but I don't like it.  I can't find
the Inquisitor who conducted the interrogation, and there are rumors
the judge who sent him here has ties to the Brotherhood.  If he was
sent here under false pretenses, my prisoner should be freed and given
compensation, and the judge should take his place."

"The probe doesn't require verbal answers, no," Medart said.  "And
since it may mean saving a life, I'll have a probe unit and operator
come down."  He paused, considering.  He could use telepathy to get the
answers she wanted, and her own--the small part she was calling
truthsense--would let her be sure he was reporting accurately.  That
would be quicker than waiting for the probe; the question was whether
it would be wiser to reveal his Talent or not mention it at all.

Use it, he decided.  Odeon had read about the White Order rebellion and
Corina's discovery of human Talent in Medart, then others; he might not
know the details, but he did know the basics, and it would be logical
to assume he'd passed the information along.  "That'll take several
hours, though, and there's a faster way, if you want.  I'm a fairly
powerful telepath; I can read his mind as well as a probe could, and
I'm already here."

It was Cortin's turn to hesitate.  Mike had mentioned Talent, yes, and
had some telepathy himself, with anyone Shayan had mind-touched; the
idea wasn't that odd, really, and Medart's offer would save time.
Still--"Are you reading my mind?"

"No.  I touched you briefly when we met, enough to learn you're not a
threat, though I did pick up a little other information.  Otherwise I
seldom use it unless I'm invited or there's an emergency."

Her truthsense agreed, so Cortin nodded.  "If an injustice is being
done, it should be corrected as soon as possible; I accept."  She
turned to her people.  "Mike, Dave--would you take that prisoner to my
first-stage room, please, while I give our guests a brief tour of the
dungeon?"

"Of course," Odeon replied.  The two left, and Cortin turned back to
the Imperials.

"I was making an assumption perhaps I shouldn't," she said.  "It's your
choice to accompany us or not, Lieutenant DarElwyn."

The Sandeman bowed.  "I would be honored to do so, Excellency."

Something in his tone made Medart glance at him, then do a quick
surface scan.  Cortin's unconscious Talent had done its job; the
warrior was thoroughly in love with the High King's Inquisitor.  That,
Medart thought, was a complication he didn't need--but it was also one
he couldn't do anything about, so disregard it for now.  Just make a
point of getting hold of DeLayne as soon as he could find a reasonable
excuse to be alone.

"Let's go, then."  Cortin led them outside and to the rear of the
Lodge, where a cave-like entrance led underground.  Above it was
carved, "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."

"Dante's Inferno," Medart commented.  "I take it, then, that this is
the prisoners' entrance?"

"Right," Cortin agreed.  "It isn't really Hell, of course, but it is
the anteroom to it for most.  A few escape that by repentance, but they
still have to pay the worldly penalty for their crimes.  What happens
after that is between them and God; all I can do is administer the
Sacraments and finish my work.  If it's an interrogation, though, I'll
kill one who repents as soon as he's given me any information he has."

"You don't even try to save them?" Medart asked.

"Their bodies, no," Cortin said, leading them down the stairs.  "I told
you, I get the stubborn ones.  By the time I break them, forcing them
to live longer than necessary would be a torment even Cortin the Bitch
doesn't care to inflict."

At the end of a short passage, she unlocked a massive door and gestured
them through, into a dimly-lit corridor with doors along both sides,
some with small lights turned on above them.  "These are the holding
cells, under constant monitoring from the Detention Center and periodic
monitoring by my people.  Troops from the Center take care of the
prisoners, then remove bodies when Lt. Bain and I are done.  Or our
colleagues, who're free to use any suites we aren't, if they have an
overflow."

Halfway down the passage, she unlocked another door.  The corridor this
one led to was wider and brightly lit, much like a hospital corridor;
she led them straight across, to a door marked "Interrogation Suite
Alpha", the "In Use" light above it lit.  "This is the one I normally
use," she said, ushering them into the office area.  "The layout's
standard, but it's bigger than usual, and I have quite a bit of
experimental material, both equipment and drugs.  This section's
normally used for Stage One, which rarely happens here; today is
unusual."  She nodded in the direction of her desk, and the chair in
front of it which held a prisoner, flanked by Odeon and Bain.  "He's
all yours, Ranger.  Do you need anything special?"

"A chair would help, so I'm not standing over him; otherwise, no."

Cortin nodded; Bain left, returning moments later with a folding chair
he handed to Medart.

Medart positioned himself facing the prisoner and introduced himself,
then said, "Colonel Cortin has some doubts about your guilt, but since
you can't talk, she can't question you very well.  I can read minds, so
I don't have that problem.  Do you understand?"

The man nodded, but his attention was obviously on Cortin, not the
Ranger, and when Medart mind-touched him, all he could read was fear.
He turned to the Inquisitor.  "He's so terrified his fear's acting like
a mind-shield, Colonel.  I could get through, but not without hurting
him; is there anything you can do to calm him down?"

"That might be difficult," Cortin said.  "I generally want my subjects
afraid of me; this is the first time I've had to calm one."  She turned
her attention to the prisoner.  "Kenneth Shelton, isn't it?"

The man nodded.

"I'm sure you've heard the usual rumors of my methods; it should be at
least a little reassuring that you're dressed and in this suite's
office, rather than hanging naked in my third-stage room."

The man nodded, mouthing, "Why?"

"Because, as Ranger Medart said, I have several reasons to wonder about
your guilt."  She detailed them, ending with, "In particular, the fact
that you were muted, apparently to keep you from talking to me--which
is the only way I can rely on my truthsense for more than basics.
Since I knew the Imperials were coming, and that they had a method--not
this one, though it should be equally effective--which would insure
truthful, if non-verbal, responses, I used my prerogatives as High
King's Inquisitor to postpone your execution, and if my suspicions
prove well-founded . . . we'll see.  Does that help?"

Shelton nodded, with Medart agreeing.  "The fear's going, Colonel; his
primary emotion now is gratitude.  When that fades a bit, I'll be able
to read him."

"Gratitude," Cortin said, her expression grim.  "He is innocent, then.
I owe you a personal debt, Ranger; I have never harmed, much less
executed, anyone who didn't deserve it.  Thanks to your assistance,
this will be no exception."

"My pleasure," Medart told her.  "I think he's settled down enough now
for me to get through without hurting him."  He closed his eyes,
concentrating on the prisoner.  The light touch needed for simple
communication wouldn't be enough, though he paused briefly at that
level to reassure the other.  *Mind-reading is painless, Shelton,  even
though I'm going to have to go deep enough for direct memory access.  I
won't trigger the memories, so you won't have to relive them; I'll just
copy them to myself, so I can report accurately to Colonel Cortin.*

*I understand.*  The man was nervous--naturally enough, Medart
thought--but there was a basic stability to him the Ranger liked.  *Do
what you have to--and God bless you for helping.*

*Thank you.*  With that Medart went deeper, scanning memories until he
found the relevant set.  They were as nasty as he'd expected, and he
didn't like the idea of experiencing them, but to accomplish his
objective, he didn't have any choice.  He "reached" for them.

Cortin watched with interest but no understanding as the Ranger closed
his eyes and sat silent for several seconds.  Then he shuddered,
tensing, and she watched sweat stains appear and grow on his uniform.
By the time he opened his eyes again, almost half an hour later, he was
soaked and looked exhausted.  She wanted to ask about her prisoner, but
instead said, "Are you all right?"

"I will be after a bath and nap," Medart replied.  "Reading minds,
except for the simplest communication link, isn't like reading a book;
on any deeper level, you share the other person's thoughts--and
feelings.  This is my third time at that level, and by far the worst."
He stood, moving around to ease the kinks.  "He's committed no crimes,
Excellency, but he's damnsure been the victim of some.  He's a small
farmer; he and his family were sitting down to supper one evening when
several men broke in.  They restrained him while they killed his
family, making sure he knew they were making it look like he'd done it.
Then they changed to Enforcement Service uniforms and took him to an
Inquisitor.  The Inquisitor already had his report written; all he did
was cut out Shelton's tongue and beat on him to make it look like he'd
resisted interrogation.  When that was over, the phony troopers took
him to a judge, who sentenced him to you.  The rest you know."

Cortin didn't even try to hide her cold anger.  "I'll need more
details, of course, but that's enough to let me get started.  Did you
happen to check on whether he was given the Sacraments?"

"Sorry, that didn't occur to me."  Medart sent a quick thought.  *Were
you?*

*By the Brotherhood?*  Shelton's thought was bitter.  *No, and I need
them--if you'll help me with Confession?*

"I'm Omnist, not Catholic," Medart cautioned aloud.  "I'll relay if you
want, though, and anything you say will be treated as Empire Secret."

*Please.*  Shelton's thought held a trace of wan humor.  *You have some
of my memories; why should I mind you reporting some of my sins?*

Medart managed a chuckle.  "Put that way, no reason."

      *      *      *      *      *

"Ego te absolvo in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.  Amen."

"Amen," Medart relayed.  "He'd like Communion, but without a tongue,
he's not sure he can manage."  He paused, grinned.  "We may be able to
help there, too, unless you've developed regrowth techniques."

"Spiritual Communion is as effective as physical," Cortin reminded the
penitent, "though I admit it doesn't feel the same."  She turned to the
Ranger.  "We don't have regrowth, no, but I do seem to remember hearing
something about it.  Only as a rumor, though."

"It's quite real.  We learned it from the Traiti, and the Lindner's
doctors are trained in the procedures.  Initiating it will only take a
few hours, but the regrowth itself usually takes a couple of weeks."

"A couple of weeks shouldn't matter, and since it's possible, it should
be part of his restitution.  What will such treatment cost?"

"No charge," Medart said.  "Civilians can be treated at military
facilities if there's space and what they need isn't otherwise
available, both of which are true here."  He turned to the Sandeman.
"Take him up to the ship when Colonel Cortin's done, please."

"Yes, sir."

"I'd suggest," Cortin said, "that you bring a few extra bodyguards when
you come back, Lieutenant.  I learned from an earlier prisoner that
Imperials are at the top of the Brotherhood's wipe list, and after the
way he helped me today, Ranger Medart will be a particular target."

Medart frowned.  "A Sandeman warrior's the only bodyguard I've had
since they joined the Empire.  And that's more symbol than necessity."

"In the Empire, maybe so," Cortin said.  "For a major Brotherhood
target, a bodyguard is a necessity.  And it's a good idea to have
physically impressive ones.  Despite their abilities, Sandemans are
impressive only to people who're familiar with them, which most in the
Kingdom Systems aren't."

"You're the expert here," Medart said.  "Okay.  Keith, ask Colonel
Williamson to detail me a standard team, the biggest people he's got.
You'll be in charge of them, of course.  Oh, and you can stay aboard
overnight, if you'd like."

"Yes, thank you, sir."  Keith smiled briefly, and Medart hid a grin.
If Cortin thought he should have physically impressive bodyguards, that
could be arranged--along with an evaluation of the Systems' attitude
toward non-humans, though if it weren't for her suggestion, he'd have
put that off for a while yet.

"Good," Cortin said.  "Captain Odeon, would you show Ranger Medart to
his suite, please?"

"Of course, Colonel.  If you'll come with me, sir?"



30. Interview

Upstairs in the Family section, Odeon turned to Medart.  "Thanks for
helping her, Jim.  That's one the Brothers hadn't tried before,
tricking her into executing an innocent man."

"It was a nasty frame, all right, for both of them," Medart agreed.
"She seems to take a lot of pride in confining her torture to
criminals; killing someone who didn't deserve it under your laws, even
if it was on false evidence, I'd say would be a major blow."

"One that would lessen her effectiveness, and that'd be a major victory
for the Brotherhood."  Odeon led Medart to one of the Lodge's guest
suites and showed him in.  "This is yours as long as you want to stay.
If you'll authorize one to go aboard your lander, a servant will bring
your baggage."

"Damn--I forgot you don't have fabricators."  Medart touched his
throat, activating his comm implant.  "Empress Lindner?"

When the ship answered, he went on.  "Have a standard travel kit made
up for me, please, for an indefinite stay.  Lieutenant DarElwyn will be
up shortly; he can bring it with him when he comes back.  Medart out."

"You can communicate with your ship with no equipment?" Odeon asked.

"Not exactly; the equipment's in my throat and behind my ear.  It's
called a comm implant, and most senior Imperials have them.  Normally I
initiate the contact the way you just saw, but the ship can contact me
if necessary, or I can tell it to monitor full-time if I think there
could be a need."

"Still a lot I don't know," Odeon said ruefully.  "I'd recommend the
latter whenever you leave the Lodge."  He hesitated, then asked
abruptly, "How do you feel about Joan?"

"I'm not in love with her, if that's what you're asking."

"It was, but how--oh.  You felt it when you mind-touched us right at
first.  I'm not surprised; you don't seem the type to become an
Enforcement trooper.  In case you're worried, that's the only
personality type she has that effect on.  I'd say the Sandeman is,
though."

"He is," Medart said, then, "You felt my mind-touch?  That's never
happened before, unless I did it deliberately."

Odeon grimaced.  "I had some . . . mental surgery . . . a few months
ago.  It left me able to release the compulsions Shannon could impose,
and it gave me a strong sensitivity to mental contact.  I can't do
anything with or about the contact, unless it's with someone else he
mind-touched, but I know when it happens."

Medart sensed the other's reluctance to pursue that subject, so he
returned to practicalities.  "Since you don't have fabricators, and
what I'm wearing is all I've got till Keith gets back with my kit, is
there any way I can get my clothes cleaned in the couple of hours I'll
be napping?"

"Easily," Odeon said, clearly relieved.  "We sometimes have unexpected
overnight company, so the guest suites are equipped with robes,
pajamas, and standard toiletries.  If you'll change, the servants can
have what you're wearing clean and back to you in about an hour."

"I'd appreciate that."

      *      *      *      *      *

When Medart woke, his uniform was hanging up inside the bathroom door,
his underwear was folded neatly on top of the clothes hamper, and his
boots and other leather items had been polished.  He showered and
dressed, decided not to call DeLayne since he'd gotten the necessary
information about Cortin's odd Talent from Odeon, and checked the time.
He'd slept longer than he expected; it was about 1730 Standard, about
an hour later local time.

He left his suite, followed sounds of talk and laughter to the living
room--and was pleasantly surprised to be greeted with a hug and
enthusiastic kiss from the Inquisitor.  He returned both with equal
enthusiasm, got a similar greeting from Sis and a more restrained one
from Betty--right, she wasn't a trooper, didn't share their
dispensation, so more wouldn't be appropriate.  Then Odeon approached,
his expression inquiring.

Medart shook his head with a smile.  "I'm flattered, Mike, and I don't
want to offend you, but I'm afraid you aren't my type."

"Thanks, and none taken," Odeon said.  "Too bad, though--does being
around it bother you?"

"No, not at all--it just doesn't do anything for me, either."

Odeon chuckled.  "It would if you'd had the plague and been out on
remote patrol.  There aren't many women in Enforcement, so all but a
very few troopers go both ways, especially in the field."

"I can understand that," Medart said.  "The ones I've seen, on a couple
of worlds where sex is considered an art form, didn't leave any doubt
they were enjoying themselves, either."

"That's all very well," Cortin said, sounding plaintively amused, "but
would you mind going into reminiscence and philosophy later?  I, for
one, am ready for supper and after-dinner relaxation."

Her semi-complaint drew chuckles and agreement; the Family and guest
went to the dining room.

      *      *      *      *      *

After breakfast the next morning, Cortin asked Medart to accompany her
to her ground-floor office.  When they were seated in the conversation
area there, she said, "While you were napping yesterday, I called
Colonel Bradford and asked him to go into the details of what you found
out from Shelton.  I'm the best in the Kingdoms at third-stage, but
he's the best at first, especially the memory-enhancing techniques we
use with cooperative witnesses.  I'd like you to work with him this
morning; you can join me this afternoon, if you want to observe an
execution."

Medart grinned briefly, then nodded.  It was almost half a century
since he'd taken orders from anyone except the Sovereign--but he wasn't
in the Empire now, he was Colonel Cortin's guest; he'd go along with
her arrangements, as long as they didn't interfere with his duty.  "As
you say, Colonel."

Cortin returned the grin.  "Pretty good, for someone Captain DeLayne
told me gave orders rather than taking them."

"That depends on circumstances.  One of my colleagues, not quite twenty
years ago, took orders from a fourteen-year-old who'd rescued him from
rebels--but if I may change the subject, did DeLayne and his people
have any effect on your attitude toward the Empire?"

Cortin sobered.  "In that they were all proud to be citizens and part
of your military, a little.  They got along well with the troopers, and
Spacer Third Class Conley made a very favorable impression on my
Family, so I can say your ordinary citizens would probably get along
with ours.  And Mike is convinced that joining the Empire would be good
for us, after a transition period he does think would be difficult--he
says that's the only thing I have any real reason to worry about.  None
of the Columbus' people were on a policy level, though."

"And I am.  Yes."  Medart was silent for a moment.  "Our basic policy
is pretty simple, really, though some of the corollaries can get
complex.  People everywhere in the Empire have the same basic wants and
needs: a stable environment, a secure home, safety for their family.
Those can be achieved in any number of ways, and a way that's ideal for
one person may be totally abhorrent to another.  That's why we try to
preserve cultural diversity, even at the cost of some order and
efficiency, and whatever we may think of some aspects of a given
culture.  If it can provide most of its citizens with the opportunity
for those basics, the Empire won't try to change it."

Cortin frowned.  That matched what Mike had reported, and Medart
believed it implicitly, but it was still hard for her to believe it
could be true.  She started to say as much and challenge him, but was
stopped when Matthew knocked on the door and announced Colonel David
Bradford.

Cortin made the introductions, then smiled.  "You two don't need me, so
if you'll excuse me, I have a multiple rapist-murderer I've been
looking forward to."

Bradford chuckled.  "I've heard about him--how long do you think he'll
last?"

"I think I can stretch him a day and a half, maybe a little longer."

"Good.  I may come down and observe for a bit, if this doesn't take too
long."

"Fine.  If not, I'll see you Sunday."

"I wouldn't miss it."  As Cortin left, Bradford turned to Medart.  "I
understand you actually have Shelton's memories, in full detail?"

"Of that particular series of events, yes.  Not of his entire life."

"That series is all we need."  Bradford smiled, though Medart didn't
think he meant it.  "You should be as relaxed as possible for this
interview; I'd suggest you lean back, or perhaps lie down on the couch."

"In a moment.  How long will this take?"

"That depends on several factors, but probably not over two hours.
Why?"

"My new bodyguard team's due down sometime this morning, and I want to
be there when they arrive."  Medart touched his throat.  "Empress
Lindner, what's Lieutenant DarElwyn's departure time?"  Subvocally he
added, "Monitor till I tell you otherwise."

"Yes, Ranger," came the answer only he could hear.  "He is preparing
for launch now."

"Ask him to delay for two hours, please," Medart said aloud.  "And make
sure he's bringing a shelter for the team; they'd be pretty cramped in
the facilities available here."  He paused.  "Oh, and program my chrono
to display local time as the primary."

"Yes, sir.  Is there anything else?"

"That's it; Medart out."  Turning his attention back to the Inquisitor,
Medart settled back in his chair.  "All right, Colonel.  I'm ready."

      *      *      *      *      *

Bradford's questioning, Medart thought when it was over, was the most
thorough and probing debrief he'd ever been through.  It hadn't been
pleasant reliving those memories of murder, family loss, torture and
maiming--his, even though he hadn't been the one the originals happened
to--and he was relieved when Bradford called a halt, saying he'd gotten
all the useful information Medart had.  His smile this time was more
genuine.  "You're a good subject, Ranger.  You've given me all I need
to have that judge arrested, as well as identify and arrest the rogue
Inquisitor and the rest of those Brothers."

"If they haven't gone into hiding."  Medart checked his chrono and
rose.  "My bodyguard team should be down in ten minutes or so, if you'd
care to meet some non-humans."

Bradford hesitated, then nodded.  "I don't really care to, but if
Colonel Cortin's right, I'd better start getting used to them."

Medart smiled.  "If you join the Empire, yes.  I'd planned on giving
you a bit more preparation, but Colonel Cortin suggested my bodyguard
be the biggest people we have, and those are Traiti.  The Empire
includes standard humans, human variants like the Sandemans and the
Narvonese Dragon-Kindred, and non-humans, like the Traiti and
Irschchans.  One of my fellow Rangers is Irschchan, and I wouldn't be
at all surprised if she became Empress some day.  Plus there are
occasional genetically-engineered variants who're so far from the human
norm they'd be classified non-human if that weren't their root stock."

"I understand."

Medart was thinking hard as they went outside to wait.  He would have
liked to get a reaction uninfluenced by prior information to his
bodyguards' appearance, but from Bradford's response to the mere
mention of non-humans, that didn't seem like such a good idea.  He'd
warn the spectators, then, and see about having pictures circulated
before he went out in public with them.  Bradford was right: if there
was a chance these people would join the Empire, they'd have to start
getting used to their fellow citizens.

He'd barely finished a brief description of the Traiti when the sound
of null-grav engines made him look up.  It was the lander, making a
fast but otherwise sedate approach.  Medart hid a grin as spectators
drew back, expecting a crash.  Sandeman reflexes made the speed
perfectly safe, and if they thought this was something, they should see
the type of landing a pilot trained at Clan Leras preferred.  Given a
choice, especially on a non-Sandeman world, those would stunt a craft
till it was barely a couple of meters off the ground.  That usually
resulted in one of the watchers panicking and calling the local
emergency services before a safe, if overly dramatic, landing.

The lander touched down, and moments later the hatch opened.  Keith
disembarked, followed by four enlisted Marines.  Despite Medart's
caution and description, the massive gray-skinned Traiti drew sounds of
astonishment--and, Medart thought, some fear--from the troopers, and an
exclamation of "Dear God!" from Bradford.

The team stopped about a meter from Medart and saluted.  When he'd
returned the salute, Keith introduced the team members.  "Do you have
work for us right away," he asked then, "or should I have them set up
their shelter?"

"The shelter," Medart said.  "And it might not be a bad idea for them
to circulate, let these people get used to them.  You can do that as
well, or join Colonel Bradford and me; we'll be observing Colonel
Cortin at work."

"I'd prefer to join you, sir."  Keith turned to the senior NCO.
"You're in charge here, Sergeant Tovar."

"Yes, sir."  The sergeant smiled, exposing shark-like teeth.  "You need
not worry, sirs.  This is not our first time among humans who haven't
seen Traiti before.  It's just too bad there are no children here."

"Children!" Bradford exclaimed in disbelief.

"Children," Medart confirmed with a chuckle.  "Traiti adore children,
anyone's children--and the youngsters have some way of knowing it.
Five minutes or so after they meet, they're fast friends."

"I think I would like my children to have such friends," a woman said
behind Medart.  He turned, to see all of Family Cortin except Cortin
herself, Odeon, and the children.  Chang stepped forward, one hand
brushing the bulge of her abdomen.  "I do not know why, but I find
these Traiti . . .  comfortable."

Medart smiled.  Sis had a trace of empathy, not enough to be called
Talent but clearly enough for her to sense the Traiti regard for
children and women--especially pregnant ones--of whatever race.

Betty looked from the Traiti to the Family's senior wife, thought for a
moment, then nodded.  "I trust Sis' feelings; they can come out after
lunch."

Breakthrough! Medart thought as all four Traiti smiled and Tovar bowed
to the women.  If Cortin's Family allowed their children to play with
non-humans, it would have to have a favorable effect, at least on those
who saw them.

"We thank you, ka'naya," Tovar said.  "Not having children around is
one of the most difficult parts of military life; we will treasure this
opportunity."

"They will, too," Medart told Bradford as the three made their way to
Cortin's underground suite.  "If they can't be at home, the Traiti
version of perfect shore leave is a park-full of kids."

Bradford didn't have anything to say to that, so the three were silent
until they got to the observation room door, where he paused with his
hand on the knob.  "Colonel Cortin says she told you briefly what she
does.  I have to add that she's extremely good at both making the
punishment fit the crime, and at making that punishment last.  If
you're at all squeamish, I'd strongly recommend that you not follow me
through this door."

"I'm here to observe," Medart said.  "I don't expect to like it, but I
can't form an accurate assessment of this society if I only observe the
positive side.  Would you mind telling me what this one did?"

"Of course.  He's attacked three families, in all cases raping and
killing them one at a time, while the survivors watched.  Children
first, then the mother, with the father last.  Grandfather, in one
case.  He claims more, but Enforcement has found only those fifteen
bodies.  Even Colonel Cortin can't make him suffer for that many, so
any more would be academic as far as his punishment is concerned."

Medart grimaced.  "I see what she meant about getting the particularly
nasty ones.  Do you know what she has in mind for him?"

"That depends mostly on how he reacts to her preliminary examination.
Most people have one major fear, criminals usually more; when she
discovers his, that's what she'll concentrate on.  But since he's a
rapist, that'll definitely include sexual pain."

"She'll geld him, of course," Keith said.

"Probably," Bradford agreed, "but not immediately; intact genitals are
too useful for producing both physical and psychological pain to waste
them early. Especially with one like this, where they're powerful ego
points."



For the torture scene:

30a. Cortin's point of view

30b. Medart's point of view

30c. Odeon's point of view

30d. Keith's point of view



31. Explanation

Medart wasn't hungry at all by the time Cortin and her new sworn man
were finished with their prisoner, but he did feel better when they
left the third-stage room, better still when they left the dungeon.  As
soon as they got to the main floor, he touched his throat, activating
his comm implant.  "Empress Lindner?"

When the ship replied, he went on.  "Show Lieutenant Keith DarElwyn
released from Imperial service effective this date; reason is oath of
personal fealty to Colonel Joan Cortin of the Kingdom Systems.  All
back pay and allowances are to be sent to her in whatever form she
specifies.  Have his personal belongings--and copies of all reference
materials we have pertaining to Sandemans, transcribed into
pre-Imperial English--sent down as soon as possible.  And I'll need a
replacement pilot."

Cortin frowned.  "Why me?  It's his money."

"How to explain best is difficult," Medart said slowly.  "I've been in
a 'na's mind, and I'm still not sure I understand it completely.  When
you accepted his oath, he became a part of you--literally, by their
reckoning, to the point where Sandemans would consider you the father
of any children he might engender."

"Dear God!  I thought the oath was extreme, but I didn't dream . . ."
Cortin trailed off, staring at her 'na.

"Going to extremes is a Sandeman characteristic," Medart said drily.
"As another example, he'll want the tattoo I mentioned on his face to
show he's yours.  Their custom entitles him to it--and if he does
anything against their custom with other Sandemans around, it protects
him from punishment or dishonor, because they'll see it as doing your
will."

And, Cortin thought, if their negotiations took the Kingdom Systems
into the Empire, there would definitely be other Sandemans around.  She
turned to Keith.  "Do you want that?"

"Yes, Thakur, very much."

"It's your face; is there any particular mark you'd prefer?"

Keith thought for a moment.  "Since you're an Inquisitor, a question
mark like the one on your badge might be appropriate."

"It would, yes--and since I'm High King's Inquisitor, there should be a
crown on top."  She cocked her head.  "I don't know much about the
local tattoo artists, but I'm sure someone here does; if you're as
eager as you look, I can find out who's best and have him brought here
to do the job."

"I am eager, Thakur, but not enough for you to go to extra trouble."

Cortin grinned.  "Sometimes I enjoy going to extra trouble for my
people.  Let's get up to the Family floor and see who knows about
tattooing experts."

"Thank you, Thakur!"

"My pleasure."

On the way upstairs, Keith began to feel something odd.  Not really
odd, he corrected himself; just inappropriate in these surroundings and
certainly not the sort of thing he'd expect a proper 'na to feel toward
his thakur!  Honor, respect, devotion, of course--but desire?  Custom
was silent on the subject--naturally, with almost all such
relationships between warriors--so sex wasn't forbidden, exactly.  On
the other hand, it didn't quite seem properly respectful, either.

The feeling subsided a bit as his thakur spoke to her team, then had
Tony call an artist he knew, but it didn't go away completely.  And,
oddly enough, he seemed to be sensing her feelings, maybe even a shadow
of her thoughts, in spite of his lack of Talent.  That was a blessing
he hadn't expected, and he sent a quick prayer of thanks to the gods
for it; if he could know her thoughts, it would make doing her will far
more certain.

They had supper while waiting for the artist to arrive; Medart excused
himself as soon as the meal was over, saying he wasn't in the mood for
sex and had some thinking to do.


For Keith's experiences: 31a. Tattoo



32. Briefing

Medart went to his suite, preferring to be alone rather than spoil the
Family's evening.  It wasn't their fault he didn't consider torture a
valid form of punishment--and never would, though he had to accept that
in many cultures it was exactly that--or that watching it made him feel
he wouldn't be comfortable company for several hours.  The best thing
for him in a mood like this was privacy, a long hot soak, and either
something to study or an action-adventure tape that didn't take much
thought.

The suite's 'fresher provided the first, and there was a bookcase in
the suite's sitting room that, while it didn't have either of the other
two, did have enough variety and interest to keep him occupied until a
reasonable time, local, to go to bed and do some thinking until he fell
asleep.  If you were alone, he'd found, bed was one of the best places
possible for concentrated thought: dark, quiet, and with no
interruptions.

One thing he'd have to do fairly soon, he decided, was have a serious
discussion with Odeon about religion.  It was clear even from the
little he'd seen, never mind Odeon's conviction that God and Devil had
cooperated in healing Cortin, that religion was far more important in
the Systems than it was in the Empire.

After that, though, what?  The Brothers of Freedom seemed to be the
Kingdom Systems' biggest problem; it would have to be a big plus if he
and the rest of the visiting Imperials could help wipe out that sort of
threat.

He wasn't prepared for what happened next.  He felt a mind-touch, more
powerful than he would have believed possible.  *You needn't be
concerned about the Brotherhood, Ranger.  They are my concern, and the
Protector's.*

*What the--  Who are you?*

*I have many names.  You call me Satan, people here call me Shayan, and
at present I call myself Lucius.  You are absolutely correct about the
other, however; you should indeed have a talk with Michael Odeon, and
soon.  Tonight, I think.*

*Satan, huh?*  The other believed that, and his mind-touch was
definitely both powerful and non-human, though it reminded him in a way
of Cortin's.  But the actual Christian Devil?  *That's a bit hard to
swallow.*

*You will come to accept it.  I would say, from what I sense going on
in the common-room, that Cortin is in the process of transferring her
Protector role to the one who will hold it permanently.  That means a
decision point crucial to this entire universe will arrive within days,
perhaps hours, and you should have the same information I was permitted
to give Family Cortin.* Medart got the impression of a sardonic smile.
*Cortin's role in the primary drama has ended, save for the formality
of bringing the Systems into your Empire, and the Protector will be, as
I am, restricted to the Systems, at least for a time.  The true focal
point here is, and always has been, Michael Odeon; his birth and
development are the culmination of the history you studied on the way
here, and his decision will determine the fate of this universe.  He
does not know that, and you will be no more able to tell him than I
am--but I would urge you most solemnly to influence him in the Empire's
favor, to the point where he would leave his family to serve it.*

Medart frowned, sitting up.  *If I can't tell him, why tell me?  Who'll
stop us?  How could one man's decision affect an entire universe?  And,
most important, if you're who you claim, how come I sense anxiety from
you instead of hostility?*

*The last question first, then.  This universe is going to be invaded
soon, by beings who frighten even me.  If Odeon's decision is for the
Empire, that invasion will lead to the most life-destructive war in the
universe's history.  If he decides for his family, instead of war there
will be simple massacre, which will include me and my demons.  So I act
as I do out of pure self-interest.  That also answers your first and
third questions.  Knowing my identity, you should be able to tell me
who will stop us.*

*Assuming you are who you claim to be, it'd have to be the Creator.*

*Yes.  While He--A, in your Omnist terms--wants the same choice we do,
Michael must be allowed his freedom.  An odd concept, to me, but one He
insists on.*

*Mike's more than he seems, then.  And that's got to be one rough
enemy, to have someone like you worried; even if you're not Satan,
you've got the strongest Talent I've ever felt.  When's the invasion,
so I can tell His Majesty?*

Medart sensed amusement.  *Your skepticism should anger me, James
Medart, but I find it refreshing instead.  If Odeon makes the proper
decision, you will come to belief in the appropriate god at the
necessary time.  It is indeed 'one rough enemy', but I am not allowed
to identify them to you further, and since the timing of numerous
incidents in the defense is crucial, I doubt you will be able to tell
anyone except Odeon any of this conversation.  It is even possible
that, once the decision point is passed, my Adversary may edit some of
your memories to prevent inadvertent premature revelations.*

*I don't like that idea, but if you're right, I won't have any say in
the matter, so there's no point in worrying or complaining.  What about
Mike?*

*I am not permitted to go into his background.  I can, however, tell
you that, should he decide in favor of the Empire, the Protector will
give him Ranger-level abilities--including, if he chooses, the
necessary mind-set.*

*Umm.*  Medart got out of bed and put on a robe.  An invasion he
couldn't report, by an enemy that frightened someone as powerful as the
one who was briefing him, with the best-case scenario for the Empire a
devastating war--that didn't sound good at all.  And it all hinged on
one man!  Well, at least it included the possibility of a new Ranger,
which was definitely to the good.  Tarlac assassinated right after the
Traiti War, Menshikov, Ellman, and Steinhauer killed during the brief
White Order revolt--even though he'd recruited Corina Losinj during
that revolt, they were still three short of the average, and even that
wasn't enough.  *Will I be able to use that possibility in convincing
him?*

*I believe so, though he does not at present have the scope to fully
comprehend what a Ranger is.  I have told you what is possible to me
and necessary to you; we will not be in contact again until the
decision point.*

With that, the contact broke.  Medart shook his head, then went into
the living room and made himself a cup of coffee.  Instant from a
microwave didn't match what he got from a shipboard service panel, but
it was coffee, and he had a bad habit that way.



33. Discussion 2

A knock on Medart's door didn't surprise him.  "Come in, Mike--I've
been waiting for you."

Odeon entered, tying the belt of his robe.  "You've had some sort of
odd experience too, then?"

"Yeah.  A mental visit from someone who calls himself Satan, or Shayan,
or Lucius.  Want some coffee?"

"I'll make myself some tea, thanks."  Odeon busied himself doing so,
thinking that it was clear both of them were in seriously unfamiliar
territory.  "Did he tell you anything useful?"

"Yeah, sort of, though it seems I can't talk about all of it."

Odeon snorted a laugh.  "That doesn't surprise me!  So much of this is
keeping secrets from various people, I'd be astonished if you could
tell me everything.  At least I can tell you that the permanent
Protector's shown up, so Joanie doesn't have that problem any longer."

"Whoever it was did tell me that was happening.  What nobody's told
anyone in the Empire is what the Protector is."

Odeon frowned, staring at his cup.  "That's because Joanie told us to
avoid talking about religion.  But I don't think we're going to be able
to avoid it any longer.  You know I'm Catholic, and the bio sketch I
read on you says you're Omnist--which I'm afraid doesn't mean much to
me."

"Not practicing, but yes.  And your version of Catholicism is a
variant; I studied Traditional theology on the way out here.  In that,
and in other Christian faiths outside the Systems, there's no mention
of a Protector.  Instead, it's Christ's second coming that's supposed
to start God's kingdom."

Odeon's frown grew deeper.  "No Protector?  But the Bible says--"

"Your Bible," Medart corrected.  "I'm a little surprised you didn't do
any religious study, even though Joan told you not to discuss it.  If
you want, I'll have my ship make you a copy of the Traditional Catholic
version, along with an outline of their teachings; except for the
doctrine of the Protector, that seems to be the branch your Founders
belonged to."

"I'd . . . appreciate that," Odeon said slowly.  "You're telling me
we've been lied to?"

"Not necessarily."  Medart paused, studying the other.  "Will you be
offended if I give you the Omnist position on different religions?"

"I'll try not to be."

"Good.  The primary tenet is that all religions are true in part, none
in totality--Omnism included.  While the Creator's both infallible and
unchanging, the creations aren't; we change, hopefully mostly for the
better, and He gives us different religions to reflect our changing
needs.  I'd say that for some reason, your Founders were given a
revelation about the Protector.  I can't say how faithfully they
recorded it, or if any interpretations were accurate, but another of
our primary beliefs is that the Creator plays fair with His creations.
He doesn't lie, though we may misunderstand or otherwise screw up what
He shows us."  Medart grinned.  "You told me yourself the real
Protector's shown up, which should ease your mind on that score.  Do I
know @, by the way?"

Odeon managed a smile.  "You brought him.  Joanie had Keith given his
tattoo, then made a comment about being anxious for the permanent
Protector to take over.  Keith offered to take that burden from her and
had that offer accepted--I'm not sure by Joanie.  Then he sent me here
to visit you, telling me I had a lot to learn."

"Keith, huh?  Mind telling me what you believe the Protector is, now
that we know who he is?"

"Until a couple of minutes ago, I was certain the Protector was the
Third Person of the Trinity.  Now you tell me there's nothing known
about him outside the Systems, when God is universal.  So . . . I don't
know.  Did Lucius tell you anything about him?"

"That he and the Protector are both restricted to the Systems, at least
for a time, and that the Brotherhood's their problem.  Of course, if
he's who he claims to be, that could be a lie."

"Damn."  Odeon rubbed the back of his neck.  "He told me months ago
that his reputation as Father of Lies comes from humans who don't want
to believe him, that the truth was more useful and painful.  Since that
hurts, it probably is true."

"It makes you feel betrayed."

"Yeah."  Odeon sighed.  The Ranger wasn't mind-touching him, but he was
certain that wasn't necessary; he'd never been very good at hiding
strong feelings, and his current feeling of betrayal was as strong as
his anguish at Joanie's maiming had been.  "What would he be, then?"

Medart shrugged.  "All I can give you is a guess."

"I understand."

"Okay.  Bear in mind that I don't share your faith and ours uses
different terminology, so I'll have to do some more explaining, and you
may find that sacrilegious.  Especially since you're a priest."

"I'm properly warned; go ahead."

"We'll start with the basic point we agree fully on, then.  There is
one Creator of all the universes, right?"

"I only know of one universe, but other than that, yes."

"There are more.  You'll have to take my word for now, but I'll give
you proof later.  Anyway, you believe the Creator is three beings in
one, a belief I don't share.  We do agree, though, that there are
lesser supernatural beings.  Right again?"

"The various kinds of angels and demons, yes."

"And the souls of those who've died?"

Odeon thought about that, then nodded slowly.  "I suppose so, though I
don't usually think of them that way."

"Even the saints, who work miracles?"

"God works the miracles through them," Odeon corrected.  "Okay, I can
go along with all of that."

"Good, because the next step is where you're going to get upset.  Since
everything ultimately comes from the Creator, including the power to
work miracles, Omnists don't see any practical difference whether these
lesser beings intercede, as you believe, and the Creator works the
miracle directly, or He delegates the power and they work the actual
miracle independently.  Since demons in almost all theologies can work
the negative equivalent of miracles, and I don't think it likely they'd
ask the Creator's permission, I tend to the latter view."

Odeon didn't like that, but looked at from a purely logical viewpoint,
he couldn't argue.  It was for damnsure Shayan could do things on that
order.  "Go on; I can handle it so far."

Medart smiled.  "You're doing better than I expected.  Maybe you won't
blow up on me at this stage after all."

"I've heard a couple of Imperials swearing 'by the Creator and all the
gods', so I can make a guess.  I don't like it one little bit, but I'd
say what we agree on as the lesser supernatural beings are what they
mean by the last part of that phrase."

"Exactly right!  The Omnist definition of a god is a being subordinate
to the Creator who is the proximate cause of a miracle.  It's not a
judgement of good or bad; it's a simple term to distinguish those who
work miracles from those who don't.  And if the Creator chooses, He can
grant a material being the powers and knowledge normally restricted to
those on the supernatural plane.  From what you tell me, He loaned
Joanie those powers temporarily, and has just given them to
Keith--maybe permanently."

"Umm."  Odeon mulled that over for almost a full minute.  That was a
little better than the absolute betrayal he'd felt before, but not by
much.  "We were promised the Final Coming of God, and His Kingdom--not
a human transformed into an embodied angel or saint."

Medart sighed.  "Mike, I wish I could offer you what you really need,
but that's the best I can do.  If it's any consolation, I know and
respect Sandemans very much; you couldn't get anyone better for a
Protector than one of their warriors.  The only change I can see
necessary for him to function that way, besides enhancing his natural
attitudes and abilities, would be for him to be given a more open
outlook sexually."

"I think he's been given that; at least he undressed when we did, and
said he'd take my place conducting his service.  But--part of the
protection is from sin.  How can he do that when he doesn't even know
what our sins are?"

"How do you know he doesn't, now?  Giving him that information would
hardly be beyond the Creator's power."

Odeon rubbed the back of his hand, studying the blue circled triangle
on each.  "Do you know what these mean?" he asked abruptly.

"No.  I'm curious, but elsewhere it's one of the symbols of the
Trinity, so I didn't think I should ask just yet."

"It is?  Here it started out as the Brothers' symbol, and when you see
it burned into someone's hands, it's a mark of their particular hatred.
When it's normal skin with a blue glow, like mine, it's the Protector's
Seal--means the person with them has given up the ability to sin."  He
studied them for several more seconds.  "Considering what I think about
being tricked the way we have been, I'm a little surprised he hasn't
taken these away."

"You're thinking standard human, not Sandeman warrior.  I'm sure he
thinks you're perfectly justified in feeling betrayed, since he's not
what you were promised.  While he can and will carry out the functions,
since he accepted the position, and in Omnist terms has apparently
become a god, he certainly isn't the Creator."  Medart paused,
wondering if this were the time to broach the subject of Odeon becoming
a Ranger, or at least claiming his Imperial citizenship and moving to
Terra.  Before he could decide, Odeon solved that problem for him.

"Jim--can I ask you something?"

"Of course.  I'll answer it as the private individual I am here, or as
a Ranger, whichever you prefer."

"What's the difference?"

"As a private individual, I can take your feelings into consideration,
and the answer doesn't have to be complete.  As a Ranger, you get it
all, with no shading.  And I'll warn you in advance: most people don't
ask us questions, because they don't have the first option and they
know they probably won't like our professional answers."

Odeon managed a grin.  He didn't mean it all the way, but Jim's
response did deserve something.  "At this point, I'm feeling like
nothing can go right, and I don't know what to do about it.  I've got
to work something out, so you might as well give me the professional
version."

"Okay.  In that case, I'm going to give you one more out.  Lucius told
me something that makes me want--need, under our present
circumstances--to get you into the Empire and a job that'll regularly
get you into dangerously interesting situations."

"I'm Strike Force, Jim, even though I was taken off active duty four
months ago because I'm Joanie's heir.  Danger's normal for us; it's
only by God's grace I survived my first year, much less made it to age
thirty-seven.  And right now, I've got to admit I wouldn't exert a lot
of effort to avoid getting killed.  What job are you talking about?"

"Let me get to it more gradually, okay?"

"Okay, if that's your professional opinion."

Medart chuckled.  "It is--and that answer gives me a lot of hope.
Besides feeling betrayed, I'd bet that being relieved of active duty,
and now having Keith take over your work with Joan, have you feeling
useless as well.  Am I right?"

Odeon nodded, reluctantly.  "I've been trying to avoid thinking about
that, but . . . yes, you're right.  With Keith the Protector now, he
probably won't be helping her the way I did--she probably won't need a
helper any more, if he gives her the gifts the Herald was promised--and
I didn't really like the work, but it was the only productive thing I
was doing.  Betrayal, uselessness--and I'm damn close to losing all my
faith."

Which sounded like it was tearing him apart, Medart thought.  A lot of
people, even a few Rangers, needed a religious faith to feel complete;
it wouldn't be a violation of the separation doctrine to try and help
him regain his.  "Don't give up till you read the Traditional church's
Bible and teachings, Mike.  They might be just what you need."

"I hope so."  Odeon hesitated, then decided to go on; as a police
officer, he knew that having all the facts was essential to reaching a
good decision, and he wanted the best Medart could manage.  "The night
I was Sealed to the Protector--Joanie then, of course--Jeshua appeared
to me in a vision.  One of the things he told me was that I'd be tested
by pain and loss great enough I'd be seriously tempted to reject him.
I thought earlier that Shayan torturing me was that, but I was wrong.
This is, and I hate it.  It's a horrible feeling."

"I can tell," Medart said sympathetically.  "Hang on; let me have that
material brought down right away instead of waiting till morning."  He
touched his throat, gave the necessary orders.  "Okay, they'll be here
in half an hour or so.  Unfortunately, we don't have any Traditional
Catholics aboard, or I'd have asked one to come down and talk to you."

"The Bible and outline should be enough, if it's going to work at all.
I have a funny feeling I'm going to be up all night reading and praying
. . .  Would you mind if we get back to the main subject?"

"Sure.  I can't do much else about your feeling of betrayal, but I'm
hoping to get rid of the useless feeling for you."  Medart paused,
smiled.  "Even if you decide against the job I want you to take, if
those feelings are strong enough that you feel you have to leave the
Systems, all you need to do is claim your Imperial citizenship, then
exercise your option to change your world of residence once at Imperial
expense--in this case, aboard my ship."

"They're strong enough," Odeon said, "but I've still got a Family I
love and responsibilities I can't just run away from.  I'll claim
citizenship, yes--the other, not unless you can persuade me the Empire
has more of a claim on me than my Family and the Archduchy of High
Teton do."

"I think I can manage that.  Welcome to the Empire, Mike--I think
you're the first Systems person to take that step officially.  Now
what's this about being Joan's heir, and an Archduchy?  I don't
remember anything about you being part of the nobility."

"What?"  Odeon frowned, thinking back over the past three weeks.  "You
know, I don't think the subject ever came up.  Joanie's Archduchess of
High Teton, and she named me her heir, which makes me a Duke.  Local
nobility only, of course."

"Of course," Medart agreed, pleased that Odeon was showing even that
tiny trace of humor.  "Shall I start calling you 'Excellency'?"

"I don't feel much like an Excellency at the moment.  Just stick with
Mike, please."

He'd better slow down, Medart told himself.  Mike was good, but he
wasn't Ranger-level yet, and if Medart screwed up, he never would be.
"Sorry; I was just trying to lighten things up a bit.  If you decide to
take the job, you won't be able to inherit.  Is the succession set up?"

Odeon nodded.  "If anything happens to me, Sis' baby would inherit,
with her acting for him until he's of age."

"Good.  No extra arrangements to make if you accept, then.  Okay, Mike,
let me talk you through working out what job I want you to take; you
don't have the background to accept it if I just come out and ask."

"I asked for your professional help; we do it your way.  I think I'm
starting to see where you're going, though."

"I hope so; that'll make it easier for both of us.  I know you've read
about recent Imperial history, so you're aware of our losses during the
Traiti war and the White Order rebellion."

"Uh-huh--specifically the four Rangers, if I'm reading you right."

"You are.  I was incredibly fortunate to find Ranger Losinj during the
rebellion, but we're critically short even when we have the average of
ten, and right now we're down to seven."

"You want me to be number eight, I'd say.  We both know I don't have
even the widely-known qualifications, and I can't believe you'd
consider for a second lowering the standards, so--" Odeon broke off.
"Who's supposed to make the changes?  If it's Shayan, forget it!"

"He told me about it, but it's the Protector who'll make you
Ranger-level, if you agree to the changes.  Including the mind-set we
have to have, but again, only if you agree."

"That's a tremendous offer, Jim, and I can't deny it'd be a useful and
satisfying job--but I can't give you an answer just yet.  First I've
got to work out my spiritual problem, and decide whether or not I'd be
willing to leave my family even for something like that."

"I can't do anything for you about the first, but maybe I can ease your
concern about the latter a bit.  The one who mind-visited me said he
gave Family Cortin some of the same information he gave me; did that
include anything about an upcoming invasion I'm not going to be allowed
to warn the Empire about?"

"He didn't mention that part, but yeah, a super-nasty one.  Why?"

Medart chuckled.  "You don't need me to answer that; you can do it for
yourself, but I'll give you a hint if you want."

Odeon thought for a moment, then shook his head.  "Don't bother.  It's
pretty clear that someone who can command fleets would have a lot more
effect against invaders than a Strike Force officer who's been ordered
off active duty.  Which means I could do more for the people I love by
leaving them than I could by staying with them."  He paused, then shook
his head.  "And that hurts too--especially since one of the public
things is that Rangers don't have any close personal ties, so if I take
the job, I won't even love them any more.  Will I?"

Medart hesitated, but he couldn't either lie or refuse to answer.  "No,
you won't.  That's an emotion I've never had, other than maybe for the
Empire as a whole.  Liking and respect for individuals, yes--love, no."

"And I won't miss it.  I think that may be the worst."  Odeon sighed.
"But you hit me in my vulnerable spot, Jim, and I think you know it.
I've spent my entire adult life doing my damndest to protect and help
people; if I can get past my spiritual problem, I'm going to have to
accept the job."

"If it's any consolation, none of us asked for the job, or particularly
wanted it--my own plans were to go through the Academy, have a Naval
career, and then retire to Herbert's World with a cattle ranch.  Every
one of us, Corina included, took it on out of a sense of obligation."



34. Transformation

Odeon was right; he didn't get any sleep.  He'd left Medart as soon as
a messenger from the ship delivered the materials the Ranger had
ordered, and spent the next few hours comparing the Traditional
Catholic Bible with the one he knew so well, and studying their
doctrines.

With the exception of a couple of name changes, the Final Coming, and
the Third Aspect being the Holy Spirit instead of the Protector--and,
of course, the accommodations the Systems Church had made for
Enforcement and the Satyr Plague--the two were almost identical.  Where
they differed otherwise were matters of discipline, with the Systems
version stricter.  It was even possible, he told himself, that the
Third Aspect used both names, and the Protector's appearance in the
Systems didn't rule out Jeshua's Second Coming to the rest of the
Empire.  It did bother him that Jim had said the Protector was limited
to the Systems, but he reminded himself yet again that a mortal could
never truly understand the Mind of God; all he could do was accept.

It wouldn't be difficult for him to make the necessary adjustments,
either, though he'd definitely have to see the Terran Pope if he
decided to take up either of Jim's offers.  It probably wouldn't be a
good idea to tell him Pope Lucius' true identity, even though he was
certain it wouldn't be believed.  But it wouldn't hurt to tell him
about having the Systems Pope's permission to celebrate Mass more than
once a day, and find out what would be expected of a priest who was
also a Ranger.

Odeon sighed when he got to that point.  He'd managed to avoid facing
the fact so far, but he couldn't put it off forever; by bringing his
Family's welfare into the equation, Jim had made it impossible for him
to turn the job down.  He'd known that even then, he thought, but he
hadn't wanted to accept it.

And he still didn't want to.  He loved his Family too much to want to
leave them, particularly when it would mean he'd no longer be able to
love them.  But as Jim had made him work out for himself, he could do
them a lot more good in the upcoming war by leaving to take a high
Imperial position than he could by staying.  Dear God, but the prospect
hurt, though!

He sighed again.  For the first time in his career, he was reluctant to
act on a decision as soon as he made it.  This was the first one that
would bring about major changes in his essential self, and that
prospect frightened him.  Even Shayan's mental surgery hadn't changed
what he was; it had only given him a couple of new abilities--very
minor ones, from what he'd read of Talent.

The memory of that surgery didn't help, either.  Even though Shayan had
assured him it could've been done painlessly and in seconds, he
couldn't shake the association of mental changes with agonizing,
prolonged pain and violation.  As he'd told Sara, though, if someone
needed his help as badly as she had, he didn't have any choice but to
try giving it, even though he wasn't sure he could endure such surgery
again.

That lack of choice was even more emphatic since the ones needing his
help included his Family.  He had to submit to that surgery, endure it
to the best of his ability, and pray he'd have the strength to survive
it.

Live or die, he thought grimly, he'd be losing those he deeply
loved--and he wasn't sure whether he should indulge himself, tell them
all goodbye, or if it would be better to just go ahead and do it.  That
decision could wait, though; he didn't want it to be obvious he hadn't
slept or--yet--that he was bracing himself to leave.  He had just about
time to clean up and say Mass before he'd have to go in to breakfast.

      *      *      *      *      *

Odeon removed his stole and kissed it, then folded it and put it in his
tunic pocket.  Saying Mass had helped more than he'd expected; he was
feeling somewhere between resigned and serene when he went to the
dining room for breakfast.  He'd also decided or been guided, he wasn't
sure, that since he was going to go, he might as well get it over with.
Brief goodbyes after breakfast, then ask the Protector to make the
necessary changes.

Fortunately for his peace of mind, he thought, the children weren't
there--maybe deliberately, because the Family's expressions told him
they knew something was going on.  And, to his surprise, the new
Protector was sitting between Joanie and Jim, his plate holding more
food than Odeon would've thought reasonable for someone his size--if an
Aspect of God had to eat at all.  Still, Jeshua had . . .

As Odeon sat down and began filling his own plate, Keith chuckled.  "As
long as I'm in body," he said, "I do have to eat.  And a Sandeman
warrior has a pretty high metabolic rate, so I have to eat a lot.  Yes,
your Family knows what you've decided to do, and that you made that
decision primarily to help them.  They also know I won't hurt you in
the slightest.  We'll take care of it after breakfast, as you're
thinking.  All right?"

"As you will it, Lord."

Keith grinned.  "Better start getting used to giving orders instead of
taking them, Michael.  Do you want just the abilities, or the mind-set
as well?"

Odeon tried to return the smile, but was sure it came out more like the
grimace he really felt.  "I don't think you need to ask, Lord
Protector.  If I'm going to do it, I'll do it right; I'll take whatever
you see fit to give me."

At that, he felt the other's approval.  "So be it, Michael.  You'll be
a real asset to your--and your Family's--new home."

      *      *      *      *      *

After breakfast, the entire group went to the common-room.  Odeon said
his goodbyes, embracing and kissing his Family head and spouses while
tears ran down his face.

Medart watched sympathetically.  Odeon's feelings of betrayal and
uselessness might not have been enough to bring him to this point;
protecting his Family to the best of his ability, even if it meant
giving them up to do it, had done the job--something Medart had seen
the previous night, though Odeon hadn't yet realized it.  He regretted
the man's present pain, but he was certain that once the Protector made
the necessary changes, Mike would find he job every bit as challenging
and satisfying as Medart himself did.

When Odeon was finished with his goodbyes, he turned to the Protector.
"I'm ready.  What do you want me to do?"

"Find a comfortable chair, and tell me whether you want to remain
conscious for the procedure or not."

Odeon sat down in the nearest armchair, grateful to his Family for
gathering around as the Protector stood in front of him.  Medart held
back, which made Odeon grin briefly.  "You ought to be here too, Jim; I
made the decision I did because you forced me to face the fact I could
do my Family more good this way than I could any other."

"Decision?" Cortin asked sharply, as Medart joined the group.  "The
decision point was Mike's?"

Keith saved Medart from having to answer.  "Yes.  You all protected him
by your certainty that the decision would be Joan's; now it's his turn
to protect all of you."  He turned to Odeon.  "Which would you prefer?"

"Since you say it won't hurt, I'll take it straight.  I don't think I
could handle that kind of pain again."

Keith smiled.  "You underestimate yourself, Michael; you are far
stronger than you believe.  The only part of your basic personality
I'll need to modify at all is detaching you emotionally enough that
you'll no longer have or form close personal ties that would affect a
Ranger's necessary impartiality.  The rest will be additions, or
speeding up attitude changes you'd be going through anyway."

"I think that's a relief," Odeon said.  "Let's take care of it, okay?"

"Okay."

      *      *      *      *      *

Keith stepped back and smiled.  "Done, Michael.  You and James need to
take care of some details, so we'll leave in a couple of minutes.  I
gave you everything a Ranger needs, in some cases more, and took care
of a couple of your problems--such as removing your allergy to teaching
tapes; you'll be able to use them now, and you'll need them.  Your
intelligence has doubled; you have and know how to use a powerful
Talent that includes telepathy, mind-shield, teleportation, and
materialization; and you have the other abilities and attitudes proper
for a Ranger.  I also removed the satyr virus from your body, so you're
no longer contagious, a service I will perform for anyone else who
leaves the Systems.  I made only one overt physical change, since
you've chosen the Traditional Church, which means you can't be my
priest or devotee any longer.  I've reset your biological clock to
where it would be if you'd been selected in the usual manner, but to
maintain it there, you'll have to go on anti-agathics; my powers, as
James told you, don't extend beyond the Systems.  Otherwise you look
and feel exactly the same--but if you should need them, I've given you
a complex of hidden changes, all of which will activate if any one of
them is required.  Again, with improvements."  He smiled again.
"You'll do well, Michael, both as Christ's priest and as a Ranger.
Joan, you reached a decision yourself while I was working; you ought to
tell them what it is."

Cortin looked from Medart to Odeon, then back.  "If Mike thinks
anything about the Empire is important enough that he'll give up Family
Cortin for it, I'll trust his judgement; as sole negotiator for the
Kingdom Systems, I am empowered to say the Systems will join the
Empire.  I ask that you give us all the help possible to reach the
level of the rest of the Empire, and show us how to take our proper
place in it."

"Gladly, Excellency, and welcome.  We'll be happy to help our newest
citizens.  Do you need military support as well?"

"Familiarization and upgrading only," Keith said.  "They have the basic
tech level, with minor exceptions.  Medical training and learning about
the Empire are their primary needs, though other things will be needed
as they gain the population base to support them."

"Right.  Admin Service teachers and a couple of heavy destroyers ought
to take care of those; anything else you'd recommend?"

"Not at this time, Ranger, though it might help if you could leave a
detachment from the Lindner.  I'm sure Colonel Cortin would provide
them lodging, and Lucius and I will protect them from the Brotherhood."

"I'll see to it."

"We'll leave you to brief Mike, then."

"Thank you, Protector."

      *      *      *      *      *

Once they were alone, Medart spent a few moments studying Odeon.  "You
do look the same, except for your hands." he said at last.

Odeon looked at his hands, which no longer had the blue circled
triangles.  That was a relief, now, not the terrible loss it would have
been before his talk with Medart last night.  "You heard him confirm
that I'm still a Catholic priest, Jim.  I would've thought that would
violate the separation doctrine."

Medart shook his head.  "Not necessarily.  Most of us are Omnist or
agnostic, that's true.  Once in a while, though, there's a deeply
religious one, and there's nothing prohibiting a priest."  He grinned.
"If you want to get technical, I'm a priest myself, and so are a couple
of the others--but since that's true of all adult Omnists, nobody pays
much attention to it.  They'll pay attention to you, since you're the
first non-Omnist priest, but that attention in itself doesn't violate
the doctrine.  As long as you don't try to impose your beliefs on
others, or imply that the Empire in any way favors one religion over
another, your beliefs and devotions are between you and your God or
gods."

"I can handle that, I think, if it won't prohibit me from exercising my
priestly functions for Catholics who need them."

"It won't, though it'd be best if you do any of that in private.  It
may never happen, either; I'll warn you right now that Catholics are a
tiny minority, the Traditional branch only one of half a decade or so."

"That's the impression I got from the studying I did on Columbus.  I'm
not thrilled about it, but it isn't unexpected."  He paused.  "Mind if
I change the subject?"

"Go ahead."

"I had limited telepathy before, as a side effect of Shayan's mental
contact.  I'd like to try the Talent version, but mind-touching you
might not tell me anything, since he spoke to you last night."

Medart chuckled.  *The feel is totally different--see?*

*Yeah.  I like this version a whole lot better.*

*So do I.  Ready for me to introduce you to His Majesty, so he can name
you one of us officially?*

*How--  Oh.  Mentally, of course.*  Odeon hesitated, shook his head.
*Jim, what's happened to me?  I couldn't have figured that out
before--or at least not that fast.*

*I'd venture to guess it's the doubled intelligence,* Medart sent
drily.  *You're the first person to be given Ranger-level abilities,
rather than growing up with them, so I can't be positive, but that's my
best guess.  Don't worry, you'll have time to get used to it; the trip
to Terra will take us about three weeks, and even if you weren't very
adaptable before, you are now.*

*Getting used to the way my mind works now may be the hardest part of
this whole thing.  But I've known everyone except Shayan that I've
mind-touched before, and he initiated that one; how do I contact His
Majesty?*

*You know me, and I know him, so you ride along, so to speak, when I
contact him.  Just let me know when you're ready.*

*Any time you are.*

*Okay, let's go.*

Odeon felt Medart's mind reaching out, and strengthened his contact so
the illusory "movement" wouldn't lose him.  Almost immediately he felt
another mind-touch, similar in general feel to Medart's but different
in detail, and Medart made the introductions: *His Majesty Emperor
Charles Davis, Ranger-candidate Captain Michael Odeon.*  Then he
briefed Davis, in a series of rapid thoughts.

The Emperor sent a chuckle.  *That's quite a background, Captain Odeon.
A unique way of qualifying as a Ranger, but I have no doubt you are
qualified, particularly with a Sandeman warrior making the necessary
changes.  Jim didn't describe what being a Ranger involves, other than
being dangerous at times, so did that process inform you?*

*Yes, sire, it did.  But it didn't intimidate me into changing my mind.*

*Glad to hear it.  Welcome to Imperial service, then, Ranger Odeon.*

*Thank you, sir.*  Odeon paused briefly, then continued.  *I'm
qualified, yes, but I was given only the most basic information about
the Empire--not much more than I'd studied on my own.  If I'm not
needed for immediate assignment, I think I should spend some time
learning about it.*

*We'll make that your first assignment, then.  You can start on your
way to Terra, then do as much more here as you can till a more urgent
assignment comes up--which shouldn't take too long, there's never a
shortage of work for Rangers.  Normally I'd have you work with Jim for
two or three years as OJT, but none of the others came from out-Empire,
so your suggestion is the most sensible--and the reason for putting a
Ranger on the job immediately is that most of the jobs you'll get are
unique; there isn't usually any real preparation possible.*

*Both my studies and Jim made that perfectly clear, sir--but the
Protector removed my allergy to teaching tapes, so I'll be able to cram
in a lot more information than I would've been able to earlier.*

*Understood, but there's still a tremendous amount of information for
you to absorb.*  Davis sent another smile.  *You know how much getting
a new Ranger means, and I'd like to spend more time with you, but I'm
getting ready for a Grand Audience I can't put off just to chat. So
I'll talk to you later.*

*Yes, sir.*

With that, contact broke, and Odeon's consciousness returned to the
common-room.  "What now?" he asked Medart.

But it was Keith who answered, entering the room.  "You change
uniforms, Your Highness.  Don't worry about the change in your sidearm;
you know how to use a needler, and you're as accurate with it as I
am--a lot more so than you were with your slugthrower."

With that, Odeon was wearing comfortable forest green, rather than the
snug gray he was used to.  "Thank you, Lord Protector.  I don't care to
wear a uniform I'm no longer entitled to."

Cortin followed Keith into the common-room, looking to Odeon like she'd
been crying.  "Mike--the Protector told me I should ask your advice, if
you were willing to give it."

Medart swore to himself.  This didn't sound like a promising start for
his new colleague . . .  *Mike, don't say yes unless you're willing to
face the consequences.  This is part of the Empire now, you don't have
the option I gave you yesterday of answering as a private individual.*

Odeon's answering thought was grim.  *I know, but I can't refuse her.
I can give her the same warning, though.*  "Make sure you want the
advice, Joanie.  As Jim told me last night when I asked him for some,
most people don't ask Rangers questions because they won't like our
answers."

"Keith told me the same thing.  I'm still asking."

"In that case, I'll answer.  What's the question?"

"What's the best way to handle your . . . change?  You're still senior
spouse of Family Cortin and my heir, among other things."

Odeon thought about that briefly, then the answer was obvious--and as
unpleasant as Medart had suggested it might be.  "We both know that,
even though I haven't changed much physically, I'm not the same person
I was at breakfast.  The fastest and most economical way to handle my
change would be to have Captain Michael Patrick Cortin-Odeon declared
legally dead, a declaration Ranger Odeon will not contest."

Cortin winced, then nodded.  "It makes sense, Mike--too damned much
sense.  Okay, that's how I'll handle it . . . but in that case, it'd be
best if you weren't around."

"I won't be, for long; the Emperor wants me to go to Terra, and I need
to start learning a whole lot more about the Empire as soon as I can,
so I'll be going up to Jim's ship, probably within an hour or so.  It
would probably be better if I don't come back to the Systems unless I
have to on assignment."

"Yeah."  Cortin started forward as if to embrace him, then dropped her
arms and stepped back.  "That wouldn't work, would it?  Keith told me
about your detachment . . ."

"No, it wouldn't.  I won't forget any of you--but I don't feel anything
beyond liking for you any longer, either.  The kindest thing to do is
break off now."  Odeon studied her for a moment, then decided it would
be best to make the break with no delay at all.  He made the sign of
the cross in the air between them.  "God bless you and Family Cortin,
Colonel."

She returned the gesture.  "And you, Ranger Odeon.  You will have our
prayers."

Odeon bowed, then turned to his colleague.  "I'm going up to the ship,
Jim.  See you later."



This continues in the novel Resurrection



[Preparer's note: This is the end of the main story.  The material
following this note is the supplementary material linked to from
elsewhere in this file.]



1a. Raid Master

St. Thomas, Wednesday, 19 June 2571

"The goddamned Bitch is still alive, Raidmaster."

Lawrence Shannon looked up from the shabby table he was using as a
desk, smiling as one of his doubles threw a newspaper down in front of
him.  "Yes, excellent.  Thank you, James."

"Excellent!" the double snarled.  "I said she's alive!"

"You weren't mumbling," Shannon assured him.  "If I'd wanted to kill
her then, I would have.  I chose to let her live for now, maimed and
crippled; that will make it all the more satisfying when I do decide to
kill her."  He smiled in a way that made his double flinch.  "Isn't it
better to have her alive and in pain than dead and free of it?  Doing
something of the sort to her was my purpose in leading that raid, after
all."

"But I thought--"

"Yes, I know."  Shannon raised his hand, silencing the other.  "For you
Brothers, the hospital was the target; for me, Cortin was.  We both
accomplished our objectives, without casualties and with bonuses.  I
also warned you from the beginning not to question my motives.  I use
my powers on your behalf because our desires generally coincide and
your help is convenient, not because you are necessary to me."

"You've made that clear often enough," the double admitted.  "If I had
your powers, though, I'd wipe out the Church, the aristocracy, and
Enforcement so we could rebuild from scratch."

"Which is precisely what you would be doing."  Shannon chuckled at the
man's turn of phrase.  "But there's a much more artistically satisfying
way of accomplishing the same end--one which will also increase their
suffering many-fold.  Would you deny me that little pleasure?"

"Not me, Raidmaster!" the double exclaimed hurriedly, his face paling.
Shannon was normally a charming man, polite and undeniably attractive,
his blue eyes and wide smile almost irresistible--but the double had
seen what happened to a Brother who cut short Shannon's enjoyment of a
priest's slow death, and the memory still sickened him.

"Good."  Shannon read his subordinate's discomfort, and projected
encouragement.  "You really must learn to control your sympathy for the
oppressors, James.  Our work is difficult enough without that."

The Raidmaster smiled again, and this time his double relaxed.  "Damn
straight!  It just seems so slow!"

"Anything worthwhile does take time," Shannon said, "and you have to
expect setbacks.  The raid was a success, the whoring Bitch can't any
more, and she bears the marks of those who brought her justice on her
hands.  Not a bad accomplishment, all in all, don't you think?"

"Not bad at all, Raidmaster.  What's next?"

"I haven't decided," Shannon said thoughtfully.  "Any raid will be far
more hazardous now that Special Operations is going to be responding to
all of them, and for at least a couple of months we can count on them
being after revenge for the Bitch as well as doing their jobs.  So
we'll have to pick our targets carefully."  He tapped one of the papers
he'd been working on.  "Until we get them out of our hair, we can't do
anything constructive.  And we haven't enough people or resources yet
to strike their strong points, so while they're on an increased state
of alert, it might be interesting to attack their recreational
facilities."

The double smiled.  "I like your thinking, Raidmaster.  Such as the
whorehouses they frequent?"

"Exactly," Shannon agreed.  "Pass the word along to your colleagues,
please.  And I'd say you've had enough theoretical training; unless you
need specific help, I'll expect you to plan and carry out your
operations with as little inter-group communication as possible.  Keep
me informed, of course--but as far as others are concerned . . . well,
what they don't know, an Inquisitor can't force them to tell."

The double grimaced.  "True--but can't you protect us against them?"

Shannon smiled briefly.  "It's more economical to use them.  Anyone
incompetent enough to get captured deserves their attentions, and it
saves me the bother of reprimands.  Maintain reasonable security, and
you should have no serious problems."

"Yes, Raidmaster."  The double would have expected Shannon to prefer
handling his own punishments, but he did have a good point about making
use of the Inquisitors.  "If that's all, I'll go pass along your
orders."

"Thanks, James."  Shannon sketched the Brothers' sign in the air.
"Revenge for the oppressed."

"And death to the oppressors."  His double returned the gesture and
left.

Shannon looked after him for a moment, then stood and went to look out
the window.  He was putting a good face on it, he thought, but in truth
he'd like nothing better than to have Cortin dead and in Hell, or at
least lying bloody at his feet.

But that wasn't to be.  Not yet, at any rate, and perhaps never.  She
was as vital a part of this damnable charade as he himself, so he could
neither kill her nor cause her death, at least until after her role was
played out.  He couldn't even use many of his powers against or around
her until she realized and began using those that would be hers for a
time.  He could do anything short of those, however--and he smiled at
the delicious memory of torturing her.

Although he'd known it would cause her relatively little distress--far
less than a normal woman, and certainly far less than being branded
with the marks he'd suggested to the Brotherhood--he had particularly
enjoyed raping her.  It would have been even better if she'd been a
virgin, but given what she was being primed to accomplish--whether she
realized it yet or not--and the fact that she was an Enforcement
trooper, he'd known better than to even hope for that.  Still, it was
the rape she'd get support and treatment for, when the marks were the
real violation; he could take comfort in that.

He cursed the fate that was making him fight to preserve the prewar
morality.  It served his purposes, true, but having to live by it
himself--having to set a God-loving example!--was going much too far.
Celibacy was definitely not his style.  At least his favorite
sado-sexual activity was expected behavior from terrorists, even those
calling themselves freedom fighters--but it was so hellishly long
between opportunities, and when they did arrive, he usually had to
restrain himself!

The Brotherhood of Freedom had, after all, started out as the champions
of freedom, family and justice they still claimed to be.  To lead it,
he had had to seem the most conservative of them all--and much as it
went against his personal inclinations, he reminded himself yet again
that it did serve his purposes.  The Adversary's as well,
unfortunately, but the Adversary was willing to tolerate his existence;
those who were going to invade this universe could and would destroy
him as easily as any human.  So he had no choice but to cooperate.
He'd be living with these attitudes for some time yet, so he really
should learn to tolerate them, at least in others.

That thought made him smile.  In others, yes, as long as it was he who
controlled their behavior--and really, he should only have to live by
those old standards himself for a brief time.  There was ample
precedent for a charismatic leader like himself to be free of the
constraints that bound his followers--and to be so with their full
knowledge and consent, because of his "special needs and burdens".  It
wouldn't hurt, either, that they were already accustomed to the idea of
special dispensations, such as the one Cortin had enjoyed until he took
the ability away from her.

Cortin!  Shannon fumed at that name.  Maimed and crippled as he'd left
her, he had no illusions that she was harmless.  Not that she could be
and still fulfill her role, he conceded grudgingly, and the other two
currently alive would be worse yet, never mind the one who would be
returning from his tomb.  But they were all necessary to his continued
existence, even though they would seriously reduce his influence.  The
living one yet to arrive in the Systems would provide no entertainment,
but much of Cortin's and the other's development involved considerable
stress and pain, for them and those around them--which he could and
would enjoy.


Return to main storyline:  2. Hospital



2a. Musing

St. Thomas, June 2571

Within five days of Cortin's arrival at the New Denver hospital,
Shannon had managed to get three Brothers working there, with orders to
keep him informed of anything and everything she did.  His agents'
first report, the following day, told him that Cortin was under
constant guard by a minimum of two troopers, and usually had Captain
Michael Odeon with her during the day.

As the report continued he frowned, wondering if he shouldn't laugh
instead.  Odeon had brought her texts for the Academy's
Inquisitor-specialist students, and that evening the course's ace
instructor had spent several hours with her.  Cortin, studying to
become an Inquisitor?  Not only didn't it seem her style, he wouldn't
have thought her capable of the toughness or the deliberate violence it
required.

He could be wrong, he acknowledged--he'd been wrong before, about her
and other humans too--but it seemed impossible he could be that far
wrong.  In his harshest moment, he couldn't truthfully call her exactly
soft . . . but on the other hand, he'd never respected her for her
resolve.  He'd be astonished if she turned out to have the necessary
toughness now--but if she did, he certainly wouldn't hesitate to make
use of it. Because if she were able to pass muster as an Inquisitor at
all, the Bitch would be the Systems' best--a suitable punishment for
any of his men who managed a particularly bad foulup.

As reports continued to come in, it became clear that she was not only
excelling in her studies--Illyanov's evaluations said she was doing
quite well, which for him was extravagant praise--she was apparently
enjoying them, which Shannon found almost impossible to believe.  This
was only the theoretical work, though, he reminded himself.  While he
conceded that she could endure considerable pain, the question was
whether she could deliberately administer it.

And that answer would have to wait.  In the meantime, he had a campaign
to plan.

      *      *      *      *      *

Cortin was recovering faster than Shannon liked.  That she was
recovering at all, of course, was unfortunate--but given that, he
couldn't honestly be surprised at the speed of her recovery.  It looked
like her return to duty would be about the time that collection of
Special Ops men--and the woman auxiliary who'd once been his
"lover"--was complete.  He was concerned about that; the necessary
limitation of his powers made him dependent on normal systems of
information, and security around the gathering was unusually tight.
Since there were similar gatherings in every Kingdom, it was obvious
the Sovereigns were planning something that promised no good for the
Brotherhood and his plans, but he couldn't find out what without taking
a risk of alerting Cortin.

Since there was nothing constructive he could do about that, he let
himself reminisce about the auxiliary.  Eleanor Chang, since age
eighteen a professed Sister of the Order of the Compassionate Mother of
Succor and known as Sister Mary Piety.  Shannon had a particular
dislike for that order, since they specialized in caring for seriously
wounded or ill Enforcement troopers, sometimes accompanying them as
medics.

That was Sister Piety's specialty, and she'd been handling one of its
more difficult aspects when he'd encountered her almost a year ago.
He'd been on St. Ignatius then, picking and training some of his
subordinate raid-masters, and he'd given in to the urge for some
recreation.  That had taken the form of a raid on the clinic where
she'd just brought a trio of wounded from her last mission, and it was
a raid he remembered with considerable satisfaction.

The clinic was in the country, to let the troopers recover or die in
the most pleasant surroundings the Order could manage--and it was
remote enough that Shannon and his raiders could take their time, with
troopers and nuns alike.  Piety caught his attention immediately, being
the youngest and most attractive of the women as well as the most
spirited, and he promptly claimed her for himself.  His subordinates
were welcome to the rest.

To his satisfaction, she fought him.  Not with any skill, but with
enough energy and determination to excite him as no woman had in far
too long.  Stripped of her habit, she was even more attractive--and
better yet, she continued to fight, even as he pinned her arms and
forced her legs apart.  Starting into her, he felt resistance that told
him his hopes of her had been fulfilled.  He paused, relishing that for
some moments while he made certain adjustments to his body.  He
respected courage, even in an enemy; add that she'd managed to remain a
virgin, surrounded by Enforcement troopers, and he was inclined to give
her a fair chance.  Like the pre-Empire Terran game show, if she said
the magic word, she would win--not money, but her life.  And her
fighting had bought her a clue to that word.

Her eyes widened as she felt the change.  She struggled harder, shaking
her head and gasping negation, but her sudden panic was no match for
his strength.  He rammed into her all the way, savoring the hot blood
that flowed out of her when he ruptured the membrane.

She screamed his name, winning her life--though Shannon took pleasure
in the certainty that she'd rather die.  She shivered under him, her
screams gradually subsiding to sobs, until she was close to passing out
with pain and horror.  Shannon could have kept her conscious, but he'd
be having her again later, and there were the troopers to play with; he
finished in a series of rapid, violent thrusts, then kissed her roughly
and pulled out.

      *      *      *      *      *

"One more before we go, sweet Piety."  Shannon's voice was almost
gentle; over the last six days, he'd developed an unusual--and, he
thought, delightfully perverse--fondness for the nun.  It was nothing
like his feelings for Sara, his mistress; those were totally
unprecedented, not simply unusual.  He couldn't pinpoint the reason he
had taken to Piety, though it probably had something to do with the
fact that she managed not to hate him.  Fear, disgust, revulsion--he
could read all of those and more, even pity.  But there was no hatred.

"Please," she said tiredly.  "Not again . . ."

"One last time, then we will part."  It was unfortunate that she no
longer fought him physically, but he'd learned to get the same
excitement from her emotional upheavals; when he picked her up and they
began to boil, he came to his full size almost immediately.  "I'm
afraid there won't be a show to entertain us this time, though.  Your
former companions and patients are beyond even my power to revive."
Not precisely true--it was more accurate to say he no longer thought
them worth the effort--but it was close enough for her.  "Still, the
act itself should be entertaining enough."

He put her on the floor, and was starting to mount her when an
intriguing idea occurred to him.  He smiled slowly and stood, picking
her up again, and carried her outside to a sweet-smelling grassy area
surrounded by peonies.  He put her down again and this time lay beside
her, gently caressing, using his powers to soothe her.

There was still fear when she stared at him.  "What . . . what are you
doing?"

"Making sure, sweet Piety, that this time it's you who enjoys me." Yes,
that revolted her very nicely.  He stilled her beginning objection with
a long kiss, then smiled down at her, continuing both his physical
caresses and mental pressure.  "I've kept you sane," he said softly.
"The refuge of insanity is one you can never take, now, and there's no
point in hoping I can't do something else equally simple.  You will
remember this week clearly, and today will be by far the worst.
Because you are going to enjoy me, in the full knowledge that I'm
compelling your pleasure as thoroughly, if not in the same way, as I
compelled your pain and the others'."  He smiled, running a hand down
her belly to tease thick curls.  "I'm sure you've heard I can be a
skillful lover when I want, not so?"

"Yes."  His compulsion was working; he could sense her starting to
relax.

"Good.  I had planned to leave in a few minutes, but a proper
demonstration takes time; you'd like that, wouldn't you?"

"I . . . think so."

"You will, believe me."

      *      *      *      *      *

She did, though it wasn't as easy as he'd told her or expected it would
be.  He'd felt her mental strength, but her tenacity and resilience
still surprised him, finding any gap in the net of compulsion he
imposed, which made it nearly half an hour, instead of a few minutes,
before he was able to make her feel the pleasure he wanted.  He paused
then, thinking.  While he respected her courage, her unexpected
resistance at this late hour had irritated him, and he wanted to take
it out on her.  So should he make her cooperate with him, rather than
simply remain passive and enjoy whatever attentions he chose to give
her?

He smiled slowly.  Yes, that would certainly add spice, and it would
make her memories all the more painful. With the groundwork laid, that
took only a few moments, and she was eagerly returning his caresses.

He took his time with her, knowing that the thoroughness of her
enjoyment now would determine how much she suffered later.  He'd told
her there would only be one more act of intercourse, so that was what
it would be.  He'd said nothing, however, about details, so he played
with her, teasing her with repeated small orgasms by mouth and hand,
letting her know silently that these were only preludes.  He felt--and
helped--her desire grow with each one, building into desperate need,
until she was writhing against him, begging and frantically struggling
to get him into her.

It was a temptation to reject her at this last moment, but he resisted
in the interest of future pleasure.  He obliged her, giving her the
tremendous orgasm he'd teased her with--starting with his entry,
prolonging it through a coitus that would seem to her like hours, and
peaking it when his own climax sent jets of icy fire into her.

He left her body first, smiling down at her.  "You liked that, didn't
you, sweet Piety?"

The nun sighed happily.  "You know I did . . . does that really have to
be the last time?"

"I'm afraid so."  Shannon rose, still smiling.  "I've enjoyed you a
lot, but I have to get back to work, and it's time for you to report
our little party to the nearest Enforcement post.  You can tell them
everything except my name and how you knew me; all they need to know on
that subject is that I'm the Raidmaster.  Not just a raidmaster, the
Raidmaster.  You'll be sure to point that out for me, won't you?"

"Of course."

"Very good."  Shannon double-checked the barriers he'd raised to keep
her from the refuge of insanity, then he released his other
compulsions.  She reacted beautifully, her expression turning from
pleasure to revulsion as she retreated from him, turning to run but
falling to her knees racked with convulsions of nausea.

      *      *      *      *      *

Shannon's attention returned to his surroundings.  He'd left St.
Ignatius then, thoroughly satisfied with the interlude, and memories of
Sister Piety had cheered  him  several  times  since. It was an
interlude he dared not repeat now, though.  Cortin might sense
something as simple as using his power to modify his physical
attributes, and now that she was personally aware of him thanks to the
attack, she'd have to sense his use of it on others.


Return to main storyline: 3. Center



4a. Shannon's Reaction

Shannon had decided to take advantage of Cortin's skill during the
afternoon session.  It had been some time since he'd combined his two
preferences purely for pleasure instead of as an "object lesson"--since
Piety, in fact--and he was overdue for some recreation.  He'd told his
aide he was tired and would be napping after lunch; Cortin would
provide the violence, Victor the sex.  Victor was homo, raised in a
family that saw the Church's increased tolerance in the last two and a
half centuries as abhorrent.  But Victor couldn't deny his drives; the
best he could do was conceal them, feeling guilt whenever they became
strong enough to make him take action.

Shannon had picked him for that, perhaps more than for his
administrative ability, then arranged for Victor to find him apparently
asleep, naked.  Since then he could count on the man sneaking into his
room several times a week; it relieved some of the tension, and
Victor's guilt not only added spice to the affair, it made him even
more devoted to the one he thought he was victimizing.  And, Shannon
thought smugly, he couldn't possibly be faulted for being an innocent
victim.

Stretched out, with only a sheet covering him, Shannon waited for
Victor to decide he was asleep.  In the meantime, he considered the two
ordinations that had just taken place.  He found them abhorrent, even
though he was aware of their necessity.  His continued existence could
well depend on four humans who would, except for the approaching
invaders, be major enemies--two here, one in the Terran Empire, and one
currently dead.  Three of the four, to his disgust, had to be priests
of the Crucified One.  That was galling enough, but the worst part was
that he had to promote faith himself!  Not necessarily in that
particular deity, though it would benefit most, he thought bitterly.
There were times he was tempted to rebel again, tell the Adversary to
do it all, instead of having to drive people toward that one, rather
than urge them away as he preferred.  Existence, though, wasn't
something to be given up, even if maintaining it meant doing some
things he found truly repugnant.

Cortin, of course, was his immediate concern, though Odeon would
ultimately be the source of far more difficulty for him.  Before then,
though, the scar-faced man could be made to suffer--which would be a
very enjoyable procedure indeed, after the problems that particular
individual had caused him since their last encounter.  And there was
always the chance Odeon would make a bad decision--though considering
the effect that would have on Shannon himself, he couldn't seriously
wish for it.


To main storyline: 5. Azrael



4b. Mike Odeon's First Mass

Odeon smiled as he entered the Detention Center chapel's small sacristy
to prepare for his First Mass.  He'd gone to Mass every day it was
physically possible since childhood, made Spiritual Communion
otherwise, and he'd thought himself long since resigned to not being
the celebrant.  That resignation, he realized now, had been only
superficial; the anticipation he felt as he took out the stole Bradford
had given him made it clear he'd never really given up hope of actually
going to the altar.

He studied the stole, glanced from it to the vestments hanging up, and
smiled again.  He'd like to wear those, but it didn't seem too likely
he would; except in very unusual circumstances, Bradford had told him,
a Strike Force priest would remain in uniform, his only vestment the
stole.  Odeon kissed the piece of cloth, then murmured the proper
vesting prayer as he put it around his neck.

The congregation and a server were waiting when he entered the main
part of the chapel, so he contented himself with a brief introduction
to the latter before turning to the altar.  Since he hadn't had any
formal liturgical training, he was a bit apprehensive about how well
he'd be able to perform the ceremony, but his apprehension vanished as
soon as he blessed himself for the opening prayers.  He was filled with
a sense of rightness and certainty, feeling himself absorbed in an
awesome Presence that would give him flawless guidance.  He gave a
silent prayer of thanks, then lost himself in the glorious joy he'd
always imagined saying Mass would be.  Joy became exaltation at the
Consecration, lasting until he finished giving Communion, then
returning to the lesser joy until he finished the final prayers.

When he returned to the sacristy and removed his stole, it was with
another prayer of thanks.  That sort of direct guidance wasn't normal,
he knew, and he had no idea why an undistinguished Enforcement Service
officer would be granted such an exceptional--and marvelous!--grace,
but he certainly wasn't going to reject it.  He also wasn't going to
bring the subject up, he decided.  He wouldn't lie about it, of course,
if anyone noticed and asked, but he didn't care to make any claims that
might get him investigated by Church authorities.  It wasn't that he
had anything to hide; he'd committed few sins beyond the chronic mild
profanity he couldn't seem to break himself of, despite his
intentions--and he'd confessed those and gotten absolution, especially
before saying Mass.  He was definitely no saint, though, and with
Cardinal McHenry in charge of investigating miracle claims, he'd just
as soon avoid even a suspicion of claiming anything unusual.


Return to main storyline: 5. Azrael



16a. Shayan

Shannon's stomach churned in sick disgust, and he found it hard to keep
from vomiting.  He'd known that she'd be given a dozen helpers roughly
equivalent to his doubles, so he hadn't been surprised when she, as
acting Protector, was helped to set her seal on the first two, or when
they passed it along to others.  He hadn't even needed to eavesdrop;
that was such a potent use of power it was impossible for anyone with
the slightest degree of sensitivity to miss.

So, unfortunately, was the revolting spectacle going on in Harmony
Lodge.  It was positively obscene!  He'd done humanity a favor, letting
it couple without real involvement being necessary; why couldn't the
Adversary have left it at that until after the decision point?

It did have one advantage, he conceded grudgingly, an advantage he was
astonished the Adversary would yield--though since this wasn't truly a
conflict, perhaps the advantage was also illusory.  When they were
broadcasting those repulsive emotions to each other and at him, they
were also broadcasting information--especially in the throes of unity.
For the first time since he'd decided it was no longer safe to
eavesdrop, he knew Cortin's thoughts and intentions--and knew them more
thoroughly than if he'd managed to plant a spy in her private office.

Shannon sighed in relief as the broadcast stopped.  He'd have to find
some way to screen those emotions, without losing the information
carried with them.  Damn the weaknesses of human bodies!  In one of his
own forms, or able to use his powers, he wouldn't be affected so
severely--if he were affected at all.  The obvious way to avoid the
worst of her excesses was to have sex himself, properly isolated from
his partner's feelings; was there anyone here who could serve the
purpose?

Too bad he'd had to leave Victor on St. Michael, but his aide was
needed to deal with the Brothers there while he set up the Dmitrian
operation that, if the crucial decision was made incorrectly, would
trigger a Systems-wide conflict.

And Sara was too valuable to get involved in the conflict, even so
marginally. Drugs, then--they were no more acceptable for his image,
but they didn't require a partner, and he should have no trouble
getting some from the pharmacy unobserved.

Damn, she was starting again!  Degas this time, with Illyanov at her
other breast eager for a chance at her--information or not, if she was
going to keep this up, he had to find shielding!  Worse, there was
another couple starting at it, broadcasting less strongly but no less
sickeningly--that unspeakable Piety and a big black she thought of as
Tiny.  Cursing in an effort to keep his mind clear, he hurriedly left
his office to get the drugs he needed.


Return to main storyline: 17. Family



20a. Decision

Monday, 16 March 2572

Shannon had sent Blackfeather home to get ready for her trip, and was
distracting himself from her loss by studying.  He hadn't wasted his
time in Odeon's mind; besides teaching the priest how to remove the
compulsions he'd put Sara under--and, more pleasantly, just how much
agony a human could be subjected to with the proper support--he had
extracted considerable information.

Most of it was useless, though some was mildly interesting; it was
Cortin's fears that intrigued him.  She was primarily afraid of the
confrontation--decision point, actually, which concerned him as well,
though for different reasons--but there was fear for her people, for
the Church, and of what he would do about the Families.

Shayan sighed, feeling all too human in his frustration.  He had
enjoyed Odeon's pain, no question about that, but the tempering did
mean the confrontation both he and Cortin dreaded was less than half a
year away.

Which meant he had his own choice to make, right now.  Just how badly
did he want to live?

There was no guarantee he would, of course, even if Odeon made the
correct choice; there was no guarantee any life at all in this universe
would survive the invasion that was to come.  It had been easy enough,
four centuries ago, to promise cooperation--but he'd had private
reservations, cooperating on the surface while continuing to pursue his
own goals and pleasures.

Now, though, with the decision point so close and the invasion to
follow shortly afterward, that no longer seemed adequate.  To improve
his odds, he'd have to go further.  As much as the idea galled him,
he'd have to put aside his own agenda until things returned to normal
after the invasion--if they did--and cooperate to the best of his
ability.

That would be tremendously difficult.  Even his grudged cooperation
hadn't been easy . . .  He took a deep breath, sighed again.  Life was
more important than the pride that had been his downfall; he'd do what
was necessary to preserve that life now, and worry about pride later.
If Odeon made the correct decision and the invasion resulted in war
rather than simple massacre, faith and worship would be far more
important weapons than ships and disruptors; he'd have to begin
actively promoting both, even though he didn't share either.

He took time to grimace at that repulsive thought, then he settled down
to work with the information he'd gotten from Odeon.  What should
his--and the Church's--official position be?  Positions, rather, with
this Communion of Promise Cortin had instituted at Odeon's urging.
That, unlike the Sealing he couldn't officially know about, was both
public and taking place in church, though not--quite--as part of the
Mass.

He would be expected to condemn both that and the Families, as Cortin
anticipated--but should he?  It was a delicate question, since his
first priority had to be doing what little more he could to prepare
Odeon for his critical choice, working through and around Cortin while
awaiting the Protector-to-be's arrival.  Then came the propagation of
faith and worship.

He smiled slowly.  He might be able to derive some amusement, if not
pleasure, from this full cooperation after all, if he did it properly.
He'd never been accused of moderation, for excellent reason, and saw no
reason to change that particular aspect of himself.

Back Cortin and her team--now become a Family--to the hilt, then.  That
would serve both his modified purposes, with the side benefit of
confusing the Sealed ones, who knew his identity, no end.  Since the
only thing he could know about by normal means right now was the
Communion of Promise, and he wanted to make the greatest impact he
could on the Sealed ones, he'd simply announce he was studying the
prophecies and would issue a decision later; conditionally, he'd allow
them to continue.

As for the Families and Strike Force, he could undoubtedly trust Sara
to publicize them as soon as she was permitted to, probably after the
convent raid.  That would be good timing, since the raid's aftermath
would provide Odeon and, incidentally, Cortin, the last of his
pre-decision lessons.  He'd contact them after Sara's stories were
published, invite the Protector's Herald and acting Protector to
concelebrate Mass--though since he was now helping her, perhaps he
shouldn't mention the Protector role.  Nor would he have to be
concerned about her powers any longer, since her truthsense would
assure her he was no longer--for now, at any rate--a threat.

And what about the Brotherhood?  It had served him well, his doubles
and Victor in particular, increasing the population of his realm quite
nicely.  That, however, was no longer his objective--worked against the
faith-and-worship weapon system, in fact.  He'd have to order it
disbanded, urge the members to repent their sins and return to the
Church and sacraments.  They'd still have to pay the worldly penalty
for their crimes, but as long as they ended up in Purgatory rather than
Hell, they could still contribute.  Again, not until after the convent
raid, and he'd have to work through one of his doubles.

Unfortunately, he'd also have to change his plans for the Imperials
once that crucial contact was made.  It would have been pleasant to
torment them, make them special targets--but that would be
counterproductive.

Ah, well, life over pride, he reminded himself.  And he'd wasted enough
time; he had an audience to conduct, then he should see what he could
do about special devotions that large numbers of people would find
attractive.


Return to main storyline: 21. Anguish



23a. Waiting

Thursday, 26 March 2572 (Morning, New Rome)

Shayan smiled as he read the New Roman Times while eating breakfast.
Sara had done excellently; these stories gave him all the details he
needed to take action.  The Strike Forces, the Sealing, Cortin the
Herald and acting Protector being hailed as Protector despite her own
disbelief in the role, a liturgist working on services to her--she
undoubtedly hated that--yes, there was plenty revealed openly now for
him to take action on.  Not just yet, though; his announcements would
have more impact if he made them with the Herald's knowledge and
approval, perhaps even in her presence.

It was too early, in New Denver, for her to even be awake, and Odeon
had to learn one thing yet today, so he shouldn't make contact until
they were done for the day.  Since he'd decided on full cooperation, he
no longer needed to fear waking her powers prematurely; that would take
her perceiving a threat, and he no longer provided even a minimal one.
So he would be able to observe, then phone her when she had her
prisoner settled for the night.

Or should he mind-call her, thus giving her the limited telepathy three
in her Family already had?  Since it would also let him sense her
feelings at his unexpected support, that was an attractive thought.  He
had a couple of hours yet before she woke, then several more until she
called it a day, and he had work of his own to do; he'd decide what
method to use when the time came.


Return to main storyline: 24. Revenge



27a. At Harmony Lodge

The next three weeks went by both too quickly and too slowly for
Cortin's taste.  It took the Imperials only a couple of days to find a
plague vaccine, but they were unable to find a cure; according to their
medical people, it caused permanent physical changes.  That was fine
with Cortin.  She'd put a lot of time and effort working for the social
changes the plague had made necessary; she had no particular desire to
have that work wasted, and she wanted even less for her Family and
herself to go back to their pre-plague selves.

To Cortin's amusement, when Conley was introduced to the rest of the
Family she developed an almost instant crush on Tony Degas, the most
classically handsome of the Family men.  That, since Degas enjoyed the
attention, kept them both busy while Cortin was working, and often
afterward.

There were only two untoward incidents during the three weeks before
Medart's arrival.  The first was the arrival of a prisoner for
execution, which wasn't at all unusual in itself--but the interrogation
report she got with him didn't feel right, and the prisoner had been
muted, which, with the other, could mean someone didn't want her
questioning him.  She didn't normally do that with execution
subjects--they'd been questioned and sentenced before coming to
her--but she decided to delay executing this one until Medart arrived.
Mike said the Empire had something called a mind-probe, and thought it
likely a battle cruiser would have one, unlike a scout; with that, she
should be able to question the prisoner and get responsive answers.

The other was an attack on half a dozen Imperials and two Strike Force
troopers on the way back from town, by twice that many Brothers of
Freedom.  There were casualties on both sides, but to Cortin's
unconcealed delight, no fatalities on either.  She left interrogation
of all but the leader to the Detention Center's staff of Inquisitors,
since they were unlikely to be either knowledgeable or particularly
difficult to break.  Even the leader wasn't too promising, given the
Brotherhood's secretiveness, but Cortin took him anyway; these
Imperials were her responsibility, and she wanted to personally punish
the one in charge of harming them.

And she did get some useful information from him.  The Brotherhood's
still-anonymous new leader was no fonder of the Empire than she was,
but instead of bowing to the inevitable and making the best of it, he
vowed to destroy all he could.  Killing Imperials was to take priority
even over killing Strike Force members, including Cortin the Bitch
herself.  When Cortin passed that information along and it reached the
public, the general attitude toward the Imperials became more
favorable; for most people, anything the Brotherhood wanted to destroy
must have its good points.


Return to main storyline: 29. Arrival



30a. Torture (Cortin's point of view)

Cortin was conducting the first part of her preliminary examination
when Odeon interrupted.  "Someone in the observation room, Excellency."

She turned that way.  "Colonel Bradford?"

"Yes," Bradford replied over the intercom, "with Ranger Medart and Lt.
DarElwyn."

"If you'd care to, you're welcome to join me in here."  Normally, she
wouldn't permit anyone except Mike or another Inquisitor to be in the
same room while she was working, but these were unusual guests.  And
there was something particularly appealing about the Sandeman . . .

"The interview went all right?" she asked, as soon as the three entered.

"Quite well," Bradford replied.  "I'll get the operation moving as soon
as I get back to my office."

"Good--thanks, both of you."  Cortin turned back to her prisoner, still
addressing the observers--primarily, for some reason she didn't
understand, Keith.  "This one's nothing special, except in the number
of his crimes and the fact that he wanted witnesses until he got to the
last victim in each series.  It was the rapes that were his particular
thrill; the murders were enjoyable, but more of a side effect.  So I'll
be concentrating on the punishment for rape."

She continued with the preliminaries, both enjoying herself and trying
to evaluate the Sandeman as well as she could when her primary
attention had to be elsewhere.  He, unlike Odeon and Medart, seemed to
have a true appreciation of her intent, which she wouldn't have
expected--but which she found highly gratifying.  It was several hours
before she was satisfied with the prisoner's general condition: his
entire body except the genital region so bruised or abraded that even a
light touch brough curses.

She stepped back to survey him, then smiled at her audience.  "That
takes care of the preliminaries; now we can get to the real
punishment."  She went to a cabinet, removed a vial and syringe.

"This is eroticine," she said, forcing the liquid in the vial down her
prisoner's throat.  "In small doses, it's a male aphrodisiac.  In
larger ones, like this, it forces an erection and increases semen
production by several hundred percent.  He has no way to stimulate
orgasm, so that is forced out by simple hydraulic pressure--quite
uncomfortable, I've been assured.  This dose is oral, so he'll be that
way for about twelve hours."  She picked up a syringe, cleared it of
air.  "And this is algetin, a pain-enhancer that's most effective on
swollen tissue such as an erection.  It's a combination I think
particularly appropriate for a rapist."

"An intriguing combination," Keith said.  Moments later, when the
prisoner's erection firmed and grew moist, she saw curiosity.  "Is that
wetness normal, or is it a drug effect?" he asked.

"Neither, Lieutenant; it's a side effect of the satyr plague."

"I see."  Keith paused, cocking his head.  "You said he can't bring
himself to climax, Excellency, and this does seem effective--but what
would happen if he did?  Would it be a temporary relief, or would the
algetin make it as much an agony as it usually is a pleasure?"

Cortin stared at him in astonishment.  That was the sort of question
she'd expect from an Inquisitor-Trainee, not an Imperial Marine!  After
several seconds, she said thoughtfully, "We're cautioned against it in
training, since it's presumed orgasm would bring relief; if anyone had
experimented and found otherwise, it should've been reported in the
professional literature.  Since I've never read about such an
experiment, I doubt it's ever been tried--but now that you suggest it,
the idea seems plausible.  If you'd like to try, Lieutenant, be my
guest."

"No," Medart said firmly.  "He can observe, since this is within your
law; taking part would go against a number of the laws that govern the
Imperial military."  He turned to the Sandeman.  "What's wrong,
Lieutenant?  You're not acting like any warrior I've ever
met--including yourself, a couple of days ago."

"I feel fine, sir--I'm just not embarrassed by his display, the way I'd
have expected, and I . . . admire Colonel Cortin's work, which I
wouldn't have expected at all."

"Just how strong is this admiration, Lieutenant?"

Keith looked from Ranger to Inquisitor and back, his expression
answering Medart's question before he spoke.  "Strongly enough that if
I thought there was any chance of acceptance, I would offer her my
fealty."

Cortin looked at him thoughtfully, then smiled.  "If that means what I
believe it does, Lieutenant, you'd be in no danger of refusal."

Keith returned the smile, then acted on her promise and knelt.
"Colonel Joan Cortin, I wish you as my chosen lady, if that should be
your will.  I offer all that is in me to give: body and mind, will and
honor, whatever courage is mine.  And death itself may not deny the
service I offer, in whatever afterlife is to come."

Cortin had no idea of the words a Sandeman would use in such a
position, but she doubted if Keith would care.  She extended her hands,
smiling again.  "I accept your service and yourself with thanks,
warrior."

Keith took her hands and rose, then bowed to her.  "You do me great
honor, Thakur."

"The honor is mine," Cortin replied.  "Are there any formalities that
need to be taken care of?"

"I'll handle those when we finish here," Medart said.  "His release
from service, back pay and allowances--but it'll be up to you to notify
his clan and make arrangements for his tattoo."

"When we're done here, as you say."  Cortin turned to her new sworn
man.  "To give you a status recognized here, I'm commissioning you a
Royal Enforcement Service officer.  Now, would you like to test your
theory?"

"Very much, Thakur."  Keith paused, then continued apologetically.
"I'm afraid I don't know how, though.  One of our strongest customs
forbids any same-sex physical intimacy.  Since it seems yours doesn't,
that no longer applies to me, of course--but the fact remains that I
have no such experience."

Cortin chuckled.  "That can be remedied easily enough, if you decide
you want to, but for your present purposes you don't need experience.
All you have to do is take hold of him, snugly enough to provide a
friction surface but not tight.  The eroticine will make him take care
of the rest."

"That sounds simple enough."  Keith reached for the prisoner.

Cortin watched critically as her new sworn man began his experiment.
It went against conventional theory--but then one of her more
spectacular successes had come from the use of a hallucinogen, a
procedure theory said was useless.

Hmm, that was interesting . . . Keith had told her, truthfully, that he
had no sexual experience with men, but he was starting manipulation as
effective as she'd ever seen.  That surprised her almost as much as the
fact that he had time to--with such a strong dose of eroticine, she'd
have expected the prisoner to erupt within seconds.

She wasn't quite sure what he'd meant by saying his people's strongest
custom no longer applied to him--his oath, it had to be--but if he
could get the idea this quickly, and implement it, she was willing to
bet he'd enjoy the other parts of homosex.  It would be almost as nice
seeing him enjoying himself with Mike or one of the others as it would
be enjoying him herself--  She told herself firmly to stop daydreaming.
She had no idea if his oath covered sex with his chosen lady--she
suspected it could if she wanted it to--but either way she was supposed
to be evaluating a new technique, not thinking about who to take to bed.

Wait a minute--that was a smile on the Sandeman's face as the
prisoner's show of pain increased!  Keith was actually enjoying his
first attempt at third stage, something so rare she knew of only three
others beside herself who'd done so.  Mike had been ill at first just
watching her work, had taken a week to get where he could help at all,
worked as her assistant only because she needed him.  Keith could free
him of that unpleasantness.  Get the Sandeman some training to go with
his talent, and he'd be awesome . . .  Very good, he was able to keep
stimulating the prisoner as movements grew frantic, gasps and cries
turning to screams of agony as semen spurted--dear God, what an
Inquisitor Keith would make!

Keith turned to his chosen lady.  "Was that satisfactory, Thakur?"

"Most satisfactory," Cortin said with unconcealed admiration.  "You've
just given me--all Inquisitors, once I get it published--what promises
to become an extremely useful standard technique, especially with
rapists.  I'll see you're given full credit, of course."  She smiled at
Keith.  "You've also changed my plans for him.  That degree of pain,
administered repeatedly, can be lethal--and I can't think of a more
fitting end for a rapist.  We'll let him drip overnight, then give him
a fresh dose and see how many times he can take what he forced on
others.  What do you think?"

Keith looked flattered that she asked his opinion, but . . .  "I don't
share your expertise, Thakur, so my opinion may not be valid.  Still,
it sounds appropriate to me."

"So be it, then."  Cortin smiled at him, approvingly.  "Would you like
to help?  You seemed to enjoy yourself as much as an Inquisitor would,
and Mike doesn't have that particular quirk; he helps because he loves
me, not because he likes the work."

Keith hesitated briefly before answering.  "It surprises me, Thakur,
that I did enjoy it.  But I would not displace Captain Odeon from
something that brings you two close."

Cortin looked at her second in command.  "What do you think, Mike?"

"If he wants it, he's got it," Odeon replied promptly.  Turning to the
Sandeman, he went on.  "As she says, I don't have the mental quirk that
lets me like hurting people; I'd be glad to get out of the job."

"It seems I do," Keith said.  "At least since she wants this one to
hurt, I took a great deal of pleasure in causing him as much pain as I
could."

"It's all yours, then," Odeon said promptly.  "With my thanks, by the
way--which I'll demonstrate later, if you want."

"In the meantime," Cortin said, "I'm hungry.  Let's go up to supper."


Return to main storyline: 31. Explanation



30b. Torture (Medart's point of view)

The scene through the observation room window wasn't as bad as Medart
had expected.  Or not as bad yet, he cautioned himself; it appeared
that Cortin was still conducting her preliminary examination.

What she'd called the third-stage room resembled, more than anything
else Medart could think of, a twentieth-century operating room, with
cabinets of supplies and equipment, monitoring machinery, even a
surgical table.  But operating rooms didn't have chains hanging from
the ceiling, and patients weren't held spreadeagled, naked, between
those and eyebolts in the floor.

A couple of minutes after they entered, Odeon glanced toward the
observation room, raised a hand in acknowledgement, and said something
to Cortin.  She turned toward them.  "Colonel Bradford?"

"Yes," Bradford said, "with Ranger Medart and Lt. DarElwyn."

"If you'd care to, you're welcome to join me in here."

"Thank you, Excellency."  Bradford switched off the intercom and turned
to the others, looking surprised.  "That's a first; she doesn't
normally allow anyone in there except Captain Odeon or other
Inquisitors.  The disadvantage is that you can't avoid her prisoner's
screams by shutting off the intercom."

"Even so," Medart said thoughtfully, "if an invitation's that rare, we
ought to accept."

The three entered the larger room, which smelled of antiseptic--rather
to Medart's bemusement.  Why should Cortin care about infection in
people she was torturing to death?  He kept that question to himself,
though.

"The interview went all right?" Cortin asked.

"Quite well," Bradford replied.  "I'll get the operation moving as soon
as I get back to my office."

"Good--thanks, both of you."  Cortin turned back to her prisoner, still
addressing the observers.  "This one's nothing special, except in the
number of his crimes and the fact that he wanted witnesses until he got
to the last victim in each series.  It was the rapes that were his
particular thrill; the murders were enjoyable, but more of a side
effect.  So I'll be concentrating on the punishment for rape."

Medart tried not to pay too close attention to what she went on to do,
sometimes with Odeon's assistance.  He had to learn about this
culture's less pleasant aspects as well as its more enjoyable ones, and
he definitely had to learn all he could about Cortin herself; that
didn't mean he had to like, or even approve of, what he found out.

This was one of those things.  Medart couldn't reasonably argue against
the criminal's execution; most societies, the Empire included, had
death penalties for some crimes, and Medart himself had ordered or
carried out a few.  Those, though, had been quick; Imperial justice
didn't demand vengeance.

Kingdoms justice did, and by the time Bradford left a few minutes
later, Medart had no doubt Cortin enjoyed exacting that vengeance.
Before he had to raise his mind-shield to protect himself from the
criminal's pain, Medart got the feelings both she and Odeon were
broadcasting.  Odeon didn't like the work; he helped only because he
loved Cortin, and there were things her own torture and maiming by the
Brothers had left her physically unable to do, until Jeshua, and later
Shayan, had healed those injuries.  Medart caught a strong
visualization of a seriously injured Cortin before Odeon forced his
thoughts away from that subject.

After that image, Medart was surprised to find no trace of personal
revenge in Cortin's broadcast. She was determined to exact vengeance,
yes, but as she'd said, on behalf of the criminal's victims and their
families.  She got considerable pleasure out of it, but again it wasn't
the type Medart would have expected.  There was no sadism involved;
what he felt from her was, in a sense, worse.  Her emotions in causing
the most prolonged and agonizing death possible were intellectual--the
pride in skill and workmanship of any professional doing a challenging
job to the best of @'s ability.  As for the healing--Medart frowned
to himself at that.  Odeon seemed like the practical sort, yet he was
firmly convinced that God and the Devil had cured Cortin.  He'd have to
get one of them past that reluctance to talk about religion, and given
their differing attitudes, Odeon would be the one to work with.  Later.

Keith, unlike Odeon and Medart, seemed to have a true appreciation of
Cortin's intent and ability.  Not, Medart told himself, that that was
really unexpected; Sandemans considered it perfectly honorable to
torture a captured enemy for information, and certain offenses against
honor or custom demanded the offender's lingering death.  But they were
more direct about it; a beating was the usual method.

That, bloody as it was, seemed somehow cleaner than Cortin's cool,
meticulous precision.  It was several hours before she was satisfied
with the prisoner's general condition: his entire body except the
genital region so bruised or abraded that even a light touch brough
curses.

She stepped back to survey him, then smiled at her audience.  "That
takes care of the preliminaries; now we can get to the real
punishment."  She went to a cabinet, removed a vial and syringe.

"This is eroticine," she said, forcing the liquid in the vial down her
prisoner's throat.  "In small doses, it's a male aphrodisiac.  In
larger ones, like this, it forces an erection and increases semen
production by several hundred percent.  He has no way to stimulate
orgasm, so that is forced out by simple hydraulic pressure--quite
uncomfortable, I've been assured.  This dose is oral, so he'll be that
way for about twelve hours."  She picked up a syringe, cleared it of
air.  "And this is algetin, a pain-enhancer that's most effective on
swollen tissue such as an erection.  It's a combination I think
particularly appropriate for a rapist."

Medart didn't agree that an aphrodisiac combined with a pain-enhancer
was necessarily appropriate for anyone, but it was clear the Sandeman
did approve.

"An intriguing combination," Keith said.  Moments later, when the man's
erection firmed and grew moist, he looked curious.  "Is that wetness
normal, or is it a drug effect?"

The question was so out of character for a Sandeman that Medart was
shocked, but Cortin seemed to take it as a matter of course.  "Neither,
Lieutenant; it's a side effect of the satyr plague."

"I see."  Keith paused, cocking his head.  "You said he can't bring
himself to climax, Excellency, and this does seem effective--but what
would happen if he did?  Would it be a temporary relief, or would the
algetin make it as much an agony as it usually is a pleasure?"

Medart and Cortin both stared at him in astonishment, for different
reasons.  After several seconds, Cortin said thoughtfully, "We're
cautioned against it in training, since it's presumed orgasm would
bring relief; if anyone had experimented and found otherwise, it
should've been reported in the professional literature.  Since I've
never read about such an experiment, I doubt it's ever been tried--but
now that you suggest it, the idea seems plausible.  If you'd like to
try, Lieutenant, be my guest."

"No," Medart said firmly.  "He can observe, since this is within your
law; taking part would go against a number of the laws that govern the
Imperial military."  He turned to the Sandeman.  "What's wrong,
Lieutenant?  You're not acting like any warrior I've ever
met--including yourself, a couple of days ago."

"I feel fine, sir--I'm just not embarrassed by his display, the way I'd
have expected, and I . . . admire Colonel Cortin's work, which I
wouldn't have expected at all."

Neither would Medart, because of both his heritage and the Academy
psych testing that weeded out people with such inclinations.  That
meant Cortin's peculiar Talent was going beyond influencing Keith to
love her, it was giving him some of her personality quirks.  The first
was probably due to his lack of mind-shield; the second, since her
Talent hadn't affected Odeon to anywhere near the same degree, was
probably due to the Sandeman tendency to extremes.  Medart hid a sigh.
"Just how strong is this admiration, Lieutenant?"

Keith looked from Ranger to Inquisitor and back, his expression
answering Medart's question before he spoke.  "Strongly enough that if
I thought there was any chance of acceptance, I would offer her my
fealty."

Cortin looked at him thoughtfully, then smiled.  "If that means what I
believe it does, Lieutenant, you'd be in no danger of refusal."

Keith returned the smile, then acted on her promise and knelt.
"Colonel Joan Cortin, I wish you as my chosen lady, if that should be
your will.  I offer all that is in me to give: body and mind, will and
honor, whatever courage is mine.  And death itself may not deny the
service I offer, in whatever afterlife is to come."

Cortin extended her hands, smiling again.  "I accept your service and
yourself with thanks, warrior."

Keith took her hands and rose, then bowed to her.  "You do me great
honor, Thakur."

"The honor is mine," Cortin replied.  "Are there any formalities that
need to be taken care of?"

"I'll handle those when we finish here," Medart said.  "His release
from service, back pay and allowances--but it'll be up to you to notify
his clan and make arrangements for his tattoo."

"When we're done here, as you say."  Cortin turned to her new sworn
man.  "To give you a status recognized here, I'm commissioning you a
Royal Enforcement Service officer.  Now, would you like to test your
theory?"

"Very much, Thakur."  Keith paused, then continued apologetically.
"I'm afraid I don't know how, though.  One of our strongest customs
forbids any same-sex physical intimacy.  Since it seems yours doesn't,
that no longer applies to me, of course--but the fact remains that I
have no such experience."

Cortin chuckled.  "That can be remedied easily enough, if you decide
you want to, but for your present purposes you don't need experience.
All you have to do is take hold of him, snugly enough to provide a
friction surface but not tight.  The eroticine will make him take care
of the rest."

"That sounds simple enough."  Keith reached for the prisoner.

Medart frowned as the Sandeman carried out his torture.  It was hard to
believe anyone, particularly a Sandeman, could change so drastically in
such a short time.  His mindprobe of Gaelan DarShona, thirty years ago,
had given him the experience of briefly being a Sandeman warrior, so he
felt, as well as knew intellectually, how deeply unacceptable Keith
would have found his present actions before he came under the influence
of Cortin's Talent.  Seeing a man stripped as part of punishment was no
problem, that was normal Sandeman procedure for particularly serious
violations.  But handling another man's genitals was enough to earn
death in disgrace if you lived that long--unlikely, since it was far
more likely to get you killed on the spot.  And while warriors enjoyed
fighting, would torture for information, and a chief would inflict slow
death for serious violations of custom, they didn't get any real
pleasure from doing it.  Nor would Keith have, earlier--but it was
clear he enjoyed what he was doing, now.

The Sandeman's smile grew as the prisoner's moves became faster, more
urgent--and he climaxed in a prolonged series of spasms, screaming in
agony.

Keith turned to his chosen lady.  "Was that satisfactory, Thakur?"

"Most satisfactory," Cortin said with unconcealed admiration.  "You've
just given me--all Inquisitors, once I get it published--what promises
to become an extremely useful standard technique, especially with
rapists.  I'll see you're given full credit, of course."  She smiled at
Keith.  "You've also changed my plans for him.  That degree of pain,
administered repeatedly, can be lethal--and I can't think of a more
fitting end for a rapist.  We'll let him drip overnight, then give him
a fresh dose and see how many times he can take what he forced on
others.  What do you think?"

"I don't share your expertise, Thakur, so my opinion may not be valid.
Still, it sounds appropriate to me."

"So be it, then."  Cortin smiled at him, approvingly.  "Would you like
to help?  You seemed to enjoy yourself as much as an Inquisitor would,
and Mike doesn't have that particular quirk; he helps because he loves
me, not because he likes the work."

Keith hesitated briefly before answering.  "It surprises me, Thakur,
that I did enjoy it.  But I would not displace Captain Odeon from
something that brings you two close."

Cortin looked at her second in command.  "What do you think, Mike?"

"If he wants it, he's got it," Odeon replied promptly.  Turning to the
Sandeman, he went on.  "As she says, I don't have the mental quirk that
lets me like hurting people; I'd be glad to get out of the job."

"It seems I do," Keith said.  "At least since she wants this one to
hurt, I took a great deal of pleasure in causing him as much pain as I
could."

"It's all yours, then," Odeon said promptly.  "With my thanks, by the
way--which I'll demonstrate later, if you want."

"In the meantime," Cortin said, "I'm hungry.  Let's go up to supper."


Return to main storyline: 31. Explanation



30c. Torture (Odeon's point of view)

Maybe an hour after Cortin began her preliminary examination, Odeon
glanced toward the observation room, raised a hand in acknowledgement
when he saw the light on above the window, and spoke softly to Cortin.
"Someone in the observation room, Excellency."

She turned that way.  "Colonel Bradford?"

"Yes," Bradford replied over the intercom, "with Ranger Medart and Lt.
DarElwyn."

"If you'd care to, you're welcome to join me in here."

"Thank you, Excellency."  Moments later, the three entered the large
room, while Odeon hid his surprise.  Joanie didn't normally allow
anyone around during a third-stage session except Odeon himself or
another Inquisitor!

"The interview went all right?" Cortin asked.

"Quite well," Bradford replied.  "I'll get the operation moving as soon
as I get back to my office."

"Good--thanks, both of you."  Cortin turned back to her prisoner, still
addressing the observers.  "This one's nothing special, except in the
number of his crimes and the fact that he wanted witnesses until he got
to the last victim in each series.  It was the rapes that were his
particular thrill; the murders were enjoyable, but more of a side
effect.  So I'll be concentrating on the punishment for rape."

Although he'd been her assistant for a little over a year, Odeon--as
Illyanov had predicted--still didn't like the work; he helped only
because he loved Cortin, and there were things her own torture and
maiming by the Brothers had left her physically unable to do, until
Jeshua, and later Shayan, had healed those injuries.  She could do most
of them now, everything that didn't require a man's extra muscle, and
he could've asked to be excused, but she liked having him around, and
they were both used to the routine.  So he stayed--though part of him
regretted the end of his three-week "vacation", studying with DeLayne.

Keith, unlike Odeon--and Medart, from his expression--seemed to have a
true appreciation of Cortin's intent and ability.  Not, Odeon told
himself, that he should be surprised; from his studies, Sandemans
considered it perfectly honorable to torture a captured enemy for
information, and certain offenses against honor or custom demanded the
offender's lingering death.  But they were more direct about it; a
beating was the usual method.

It was several hours before Cortin was satisfied with the prisoner's
general condition: his entire body except the genital region so bruised
or abraded that even a light touch brough curses.

She stepped back to survey him, then smiled at her audience.  "That
takes care of the preliminaries; now we can get to the real
punishment."  She went to a cabinet, removed a vial and syringe.

"This is eroticine," she said, forcing the liquid in the vial down her
prisoner's throat.  "In small doses, it's a male aphrodisiac.  In
larger ones, like this, it forces an erection and increases semen
production by several hundred percent.  He has no way to stimulate
orgasm, so that is forced out by simple hydraulic pressure--quite
uncomfortable, I've been assured.  This dose is oral, so he'll be that
way for about twelve hours."  She picked up a syringe, cleared it of
air.  "And this is algetin, a pain-enhancer that's most effective on
swollen tissue such as an erection.  It's a combination I think
particularly appropriate for a rapist."

"An intriguing combination," Keith said.  Moments later, when the man's
erection firmed and grew moist, he looked curious.  "Is that wetness
normal, or is it a drug effect?"

"Neither, Lieutenant; it's a side effect of the satyr plague."

"I see."  Keith paused, cocking his head.  "You said he can't bring
himself to climax, Excellency, and this does seem effective--but what
would happen if he did?  Would it be a temporary relief, or would the
algetin make it as much an agony as it usually is a pleasure?"

Odeon frowned to himself.  That sounded more like Joanie than it did
like the Sandemans he'd read about.  Still, this was the first one he'd
actually met . . . and Joanie was considering her answer.

After several seconds, Cortin said thoughtfully, "We're cautioned
against it in training, since it's presumed orgasm would bring relief;
if anyone had experimented and found otherwise, it should've been
reported in the professional literature.  Since I've never read about
such an experiment, I doubt it's ever been tried--but now that you
suggest it, the idea seems plausible.  If you'd like to try,
Lieutenant, be my guest."

"No," Medart said firmly.  "He can observe, since this is within your
law; taking part would go against a number of the laws that govern the
Imperial military."  He turned to the Sandeman.  "What's wrong,
Lieutenant?  You're not acting like any warrior I've ever
met--including yourself, a couple of days ago."

"I feel fine, sir--I'm just not embarrassed by his display, the way I'd
have expected, and I . . . admire Colonel Cortin's work, which I
wouldn't have expected at all."

"Just how strong is this admiration, Lieutenant?"

Keith looked from Ranger to Inquisitor and back, his expression
answering Medart's question before he spoke.  "Strongly enough that if
I thought there was any chance of acceptance, I would offer her my
fealty."

Cortin looked at him thoughtfully, then smiled.  "If that means what I
believe it does, Lieutenant, you'd be in no danger of refusal."

Keith returned the smile, then acted on her promise and knelt.
"Colonel Joan Cortin, I wish you as my chosen lady, if that should be
your will.  I offer all that is in me to give: body and mind, will and
honor, whatever courage is mine.  And death itself may not deny the
service I offer, in whatever afterlife is to come."

Oh, dear God! Odeon thought in a mixture of fear and awe.  An oath like
that, to the acting Protector?  And Ivan's prediction that the true one
could come from the Empire, which he'd accepted without really
believing.  And the timing--over four months ago, Shayan had declared
himself their reluctant and temporary ally, informing them the true
Protector would manifest in less than six months.  He sent that ally a
thought.  *It has to be Keith, doesn't it?*

He felt Shayan exploring his recent memories, then agreement.  *It
would seem so.  I cannot say when or how the exchange will be made,
however.*

*Then will come what you've been calling the decision point.*

*Indeed.  Were I you, I would increase my devotional activities,
particularly the Mass--I give you leave to say it as often as you
wish--the Rosary, and the Litany of the archangel whose name you share.
Now I would recommend you get back to work.*

*Yes, Your Holiness.*  Odeon's attention returned to his surroundings
in time to see Cortin extend her hands to Keith, smiling.

"I accept your service and yourself with thanks, warrior."

Keith took her hands and rose, then bowed to her.  "You do me great
honor, Thakur."

"The honor is mine," Cortin replied.  "Are there any formalities that
need to be taken care of?"

"I'll handle those when we finish here," Medart said.  "His release
from service, back pay and allowances--but it'll be up to you to notify
his clan and make arrangements for his tattoo."

"When we're done here, as you say."  Cortin turned to her new sworn
man.  "To give you a status recognized here, I'm commissioning you a
Royal Enforcement Service officer.  Now, would you like to test your
theory?"

"Very much, Thakur."  Keith paused, then continued apologetically.
"I'm afraid I don't know how, though.  One of our strongest customs
forbids any same-sex physical intimacy.  Since it seems yours doesn't,
that no longer applies to me, of course--but the fact remains that I
have no such experience."

Cortin chuckled.  "That can be remedied easily enough, if you decide
you want to, but for your present purposes you don't need experience.
All you have to do is take hold of him, snugly enough to provide a
friction surface but not tight.  The eroticine will make him take care
of the rest."

"That sounds simple enough."  Keith reached for the prisoner.

The Sandeman didn't look too sure of himself, Odeon thought, when he
took hold of the prisoner's erection and the man began moving.  Well,
Keith had said he had no experience with men . . .  It looked like he
was a quick study, though--starting to rub and squeeze in a way Odeon
was sure he'd like to experience.  Without the drugs, of course.

And, Odeon thought, it seemed pretty clear that Keith enjoyed the pain
he was inflicting.  That brief smile as moans became cries reminded him
again of Joanie; Keith's reaction to his first third-stage was a far
cry from Odeon's own.  Still, he told himself, maybe Keith's pleasure
shouldn't be a surprise, since the Protector's role included the
punishment of sinners.

The Sandeman's smile grew as the prisoner's moves became faster, more
urgent, and Odeon was surprised he could keep hold, but he managed--and
the prisoner climaxed in a prolonged series of spasms, screaming in
agony.

Keith turned to his chosen lady.  "Was that satisfactory, Thakur?"

"Most satisfactory," Cortin said with unconcealed admiration.  "You've
just given me--all Inquisitors, once I get it published--what promises
to become an extremely useful standard technique, especially with
rapists.  I'll see you're given full credit, of course."  She smiled at
Keith.  "You've also changed my plans for him.  That degree of pain,
administered repeatedly, can be lethal--and I can't think of a more
fitting end for a rapist.  We'll let him drip overnight, then give him
a fresh dose and see how many times he can take what he forced on
others.  What do you think?"

"I don't share your expertise, Thakur, so my opinion may not be valid.
Still, it sounds appropriate to me."

"So be it, then."  Cortin smiled at him, approvingly.  "Would you like
to help?  You seemed to enjoy yourself as much as an Inquisitor would,
and Mike doesn't have that particular quirk; he helps because he loves
me, not because he likes the work."

Keith hesitated briefly before answering.  "It surprises me, Thakur,
that I did enjoy it.  But I would not displace Captain Odeon from
something that brings you two close."

Cortin looked at her second in command.  "What do you think, Mike?"

"If he wants it, he's got it," Odeon replied promptly.  Turning to the
Sandeman, he went on.  "As she says, I don't have the mental quirk that
lets me like hurting people; I'd be glad to get out of the job."

"It seems I do," Keith said.  "At least since she wants this one to
hurt, I took a great deal of pleasure in causing him as much pain as I
could."

"It's all yours, then," Odeon said promptly.  "With my thanks, by the
way--which I'll demonstrate later, if you want."

"In the meantime," Cortin said, "I'm hungry.  Let's go up to supper."


Return to main storyline: 31. Explanation



30d. Torture (Keith's point of view)

Keith was surprised to find himself more intrigued than anything else
at the scene through the observation room window.  What she'd called
the third-stage room resembled, more than anything else the young
Sandeman could think of, was a museum exhibit of a twentieth-century
operating room he'd seen once, with cabinets of supplies and equipment,
monitoring machinery, even a surgical table.  But operating rooms
didn't have chains hanging from the ceiling, and patients weren't held
spreadeagled, naked, between those and eyebolts in the floor--and he'd
had no particular feeling toward the doctor in the display, where he'd
developed a strong fondness for the Inquisitor.

A couple of minutes after they entered, Odeon glanced toward the
observation room, raised a hand in acknowledgement, and said something
to Cortin.  She turned toward them.  "Colonel Bradford?"

"Yes," Bradford said, "with Ranger Medart and Lt. DarElwyn."

"If you'd care to, you're welcome to join me in here."

"Thank you, Excellency."  Bradford switched off the intercom and turned
to the others, looking surprised.  "That's a first; she doesn't
normally allow anyone in there except Captain Odeon or other
Inquisitors.  The disadvantage is that you can't avoid her prisoner's
screams by shutting off the intercom."

"Even so," Medart said thoughtfully, "if an invitation's that rare, we
ought to accept."

The three entered the larger room, which smelled of antiseptic--rather
to Keith's surprise.  Why should Her Excellency care about infection in
people she was torturing to death?  He might ask her later, if it
looked like she wouldn't mind discussing her work.

"The interview went all right?" Cortin asked.

"Quite well," Bradford replied.  "I'll get the operation moving as soon
as I get back to my office."

"Good--thanks, both of you."  Cortin turned back to her prisoner, still
addressing the observers.  "This one's nothing special, except in the
number of his crimes and the fact that he wanted witnesses until he got
to the last victim in each series.  It was the rapes that were his
particular thrill; the murders were enjoyable, but more of a side
effect.  So I'll be concentrating on the punishment for rape."

Keith watched attentively.  These were the preliminaries, obviously,
but he was interested in anything and everything she did.  It was
several hours before she was satisfied with the prisoner's general
condition: his entire body except the genital region so bruised or
abraded that even a light touch brough curses--and by that time, Keith
was admitting to himself that what he felt for her was more than
fondness.

Cortin stepped back to survey her prisoner, then smiled at her
audience.  "That takes care of the preliminaries; now we can get to the
real punishment." She went to a cabinet, removed a vial and syringe.

"This is eroticine," she said, forcing the liquid in the vial down her
prisoner's throat.  "In small doses, it's a male aphrodisiac.  In
larger ones, like this, it forces an erection and increases semen
production by several hundred percent.  He has no way to stimulate
orgasm, so that is forced out by simple hydraulic pressure--quite
uncomfortable, I've been assured.  This dose is oral, so he'll be that
way for about twelve hours."  She picked up a syringe, cleared it of
air.  "And this is algetin, a pain-enhancer that's most effective on
swollen tissue such as an erection.  It's a combination I think
particularly appropriate for a rapist."

"An intriguing combination," Keith said.  It sounded rather like a
peculiar form of induced need, with no intent of release--and he had to
agree with the Inquisitor; it did seem appropriate for a rapist.  That
reaction made Keith more than a little surprised at himself.  Since
this was a punishment situation, the prisoner's nudity hadn't bothered
him; that was a normal part of punishment for serious violations of
custom at home.  But that didn't include sexual arousal, even
drug-induced.  He should have been seriously embarrassed, to the point
of having to leave; instead, he found himself intrigued by the
phenomenon as the man's erection firmed and grew moist.  "Is that
wetness normal, or is it a drug effect?" he asked curiously.

Cortin glanced at him.  "Neither, Lieutenant; it's a side effect of the
satyr plague."

"I see."  Keith continued watching, pleased by the prisoner's
increasing discomfort, his moans and small spasms as semen began
oozing.  "You said he can't bring himself to climax, Excellency, and
this does seem effective--but what would happen if he did?  Would it be
a temporary relief, or would the algetin make it as much an agony as it
usually is a pleasure?"

After several seconds, Cortin said thoughtfully, "We're cautioned
against it in training, since it's presumed orgasm would bring relief;
if anyone had experimented and found otherwise, it should've been
reported in the professional literature.  Since I've never read about
such an experiment, I doubt it's ever been tried--but now that you
suggest it, the idea seems plausible.  If you'd like to try,
Lieutenant, be my guest."

"No," Medart said firmly.  "He can observe, since this is within your
law; taking part would go against a number of the laws that govern the
Imperial military."  He turned to the Sandeman.  "What's wrong,
Lieutenant?  You're not acting like any warrior I've ever
met--including yourself, a couple of days ago."

"I feel fine, sir--I'm just not embarrassed by his display, the way I'd
have expected, and I . . . admire Colonel Cortin's work, which I
wouldn't have expected at all."  And herself, to an even greater
degree . . .

"Just how strong is this admiration, Lieutenant?"

Keith looked from Ranger to Inquisitor and back, certain his expression
was answering Medart's question before he spoke.  "Strongly enough that
if I thought there was any chance of acceptance, I would offer her my
fealty."

Cortin looked at him thoughtfully, then smiled.  "If that means what I
believe it does, Lieutenant, you'd be in no danger of refusal."

Keith returned the smile, feeling a blast of elation, then acted on her
promise and knelt.  "Colonel Joan Cortin, I wish you as my chosen lady,
if that should be your will.  I offer all that is in me to give: body
and mind, will and honor, whatever courage is mine.  And death itself
may not deny the service I offer, in whatever afterlife is to come."

She extended her hands, smiling again.  "I accept your service and
yourself with thanks, warrior."

Keith took her hands and rose, wishing he could display his elation,
but that would be improper with others around.  Instead, he bowed to
her.  "You do me great honor, Thakur."

"The honor is mine," Cortin replied.  "Are there any formalities that
need to be taken care of?"

"I'll handle those when we finish here," Medart said.  "His release
from service, back pay and allowances--but it'll be up to you to notify
his clan and make arrangements for his tattoo."

"When we're done here, as you say."  Cortin turned to her new sworn
man.  "To give you a status recognized here, I'm commissioning you a
Royal Enforcement Service officer.  Now, would you like to test your
theory?"

"Very much, Thakur."  Keith paused, then continued apologetically.
"I'm afraid I don't know how, though.  One of our strongest customs
forbids any same-sex physical intimacy.  Since it seems yours doesn't,
that no longer applies to me, of course--but the fact remains that I
have no such experience."

Cortin chuckled.  "That can be remedied easily enough, if you decide
you want to, but for your present purposes you don't need experience.
All you have to do is take hold of him, snugly enough to provide a
friction surface but not tight.  The eroticine will make him take care
of the rest."

"That sounds simple enough."  Keith reached for the prisoner.

He grasped slippery flesh, pleased when the man winced and tried to
pull away.  That should be a good sign.  He followed the flinch,
keeping the snug hold his thakur had recommended--and she was right,
the prisoner began pumping, almost immediately accompanied by cursing
and moans.  For a bit, Keith remained still, getting used to the feel
and rhythm.  This was all he had to do, she'd said, and Keith was sure
it would have the desired effect--but she wanted the man to suffer as
much as a human could.  Sure that there had to be a way to elicit more
pain on the way to its peak, he tried modifying his grip, going with
the prisoner's movements, kneading gently at the end of each thrust.

He was rewarded when moans grew louder and curses became incoherent
cries.  He wanted to turn, see if his thakur was pleased, but he didn't
allow himself the distraction, contenting himself instead with a brief
smile.  He was surprised at the ease with which he'd been able to make
even this sort of sexual contact with another man, but his primary
emotion on that subject was gratitude; since his thakur clearly had no
objection to man-loving, even seemed to actively approve, he had to do
so as well, and it was kind of the gods to make such a drastic change
so easy for him.

He was less surprised, though still a bit so, by his unexpected
enjoyment of a painmaster's role, since Sandeman did have some
circumstances where such was appropriate, though it had no
professionals.  That was a fortunate turn, since it saved him another
adaptation--though if he were to serve his thakur properly in this
capacity, he really ought to get some training; a true painmaster
should be getting at least some screams by this time.

The prisoner's movements became faster, more urgent, and Keith smiled
again.  A few more seconds . . . yes, good!  The prisoner convulsed,
thrashing as wildly as his bonds would permit, but warrior reflexes let
Keith keep his grip while the man climaxed in a prolonged series of
spasms, his screams eloquent testimony to his agony.  Keith felt a
sense of accomplishment at that, a deep pleasure that didn't end even
when the climax was over, the flesh in his hands softened slightly, and
the prisoner sagged, going limp but kept from fainting by the algetin.

Keith turned to his chosen lady.  "Was that satisfactory, Thakur?"

"Most satisfactory," Cortin said with unconcealed admiration.  "You've
just given me--all Inquisitors, once I get it published--what promises
to become an extremely useful standard technique, especially with
rapists.  I'll see you're given full credit, of course."  She smiled at
Keith.  "You've also changed my plans for him.  That degree of pain,
administered repeatedly, can be lethal--and I can't think of a more
fitting end for a rapist.  We'll let him drip overnight, then give him
a fresh dose and see how many times he can take what he forced on
others.  What do you think?"

Keith was flattered that she asked his opinion, but . . .  "I don't
share your expertise, Thakur, so my opinion may not be valid.  Still,
it sounds appropriate to me."

"So be it, then."  Cortin smiled at him, approvingly.  "Would you like
to help?  You seemed to enjoy yourself as much as an Inquisitor would,
and Mike doesn't have that particular quirk; he helps because he loves
me, not because he likes the work."

Keith hesitated briefly before answering.  "It surprises me, Thakur,
that I did enjoy it.  But I would not displace Captain Odeon from
something that brings you two close."

Cortin looked at her second in command.  "What do you think, Mike?"

"If he wants it, he's got it," Odeon replied promptly.  Turning to the
Sandeman, he went on.  "As she says, I don't have the mental quirk that
lets me like hurting people; I'd be glad to get out of the job."

"It seems I do," Keith said.  "At least since she wants this one to
hurt, I took a great deal of pleasure in causing him as much pain as I
could."

"It's all yours, then," Odeon said promptly.  "With my thanks, by the
way--which I'll demonstrate later, if you want."

"In the meantime," Cortin said, "I'm hungry.  Let's go up to supper."


Return to main storyline: 31. Explanation



31a. Tattoo

To Keith's amusement, the artist did his work after using a topical
anesthetic, saying it was to prevent a flinch from spoiling the design.
Remaining still and with no more than minor sensations of pressure on
his face, though, seemed to be making him more receptive to what had to
be his thakur--the things he was feeling certainly couldn't have had
their origin in a properly-raised warrior!

For one thing, the idea of the Family's sexual activity no longer
bothered him, even with the certainty that it would include man-loving.
His thakur's approval and enjoyment of watching such things meant he
should as well, and he seemed to be making the adjustment.  He might
not be able to take part himself just yet, though the men on his
thakur's team were beginning to seem more desirable . . .   It was
generous of the gods, he thought, to make even such a drastic change to
his thakur's values and standards so easy for him.

Eventually the artist was finished, and handed Keith a mirror.  "What
do you think?"

Keith studied his cheek for a moment, then nodded.  "Your skill is
worthy of my thakur.  I thank you."

"You're quite welcome."  The artist turned, bowed to Cortin.  "By Your
Excellency's leave?"

"Granted; Lieutenant Degas will take you to your home or your studio,
as you prefer."  She turned to Degas.  "Tony, give him his fee--plus a
bonus for the house call and inconvenience.  Double should be about
right."

"I'd say so," Degas agreed.  "Maybe a little extra since Keith's happy
with it?"

Cortin grinned.  "Triple, then.  And get back as soon as you can."

"Yes, ma'am."  Degas returned the grin, then escorted the artist out of
the common-room.

As soon as they were gone, Keith got his first experience of Family
informality; within minutes, he was the only one in the room with
clothes on, and he seemed to sense his thakur's desire that he also be
nude.  That wasn't what she said when she smiled at him, though.  "If
you'd rather not join us, Keith, we'll all understand; you're free to
do what you wish.  I don't want you to be uncomfortable."

"I'm not, Thakur."  To his gratified surprise, that was true; his only
discomfort was being dressed when she wasn't, and that was easy enough
to correct.  When he did so, he could feel her approval--and her
arousal, as she looked at his genitals.  "Thakur . . ."

Cortin smiled at him.  "Take it easy, Keith.  You're a beautiful man,
and I'd like to have sex with you--but I don't want to get you in just
because you feel obligated from having sworn to me.  Is that clear?"

"Perfectly, Thakur."  Keith smiled.  She seemed to be projecting the
idea that sex in any consenting form was good, but she also didn't want
him doing anything he considered wrong.  That was simple, since by
definition nothing she wanted of him could be wrong for him, and her
words confirmed what he seemed to be feeling from her.  "Now?"

"We have a family religious ceremony first.  I know you're not a
Catholic, and this is an extension of the Catholicism practiced
elsewhere, so if you'd rather not attend, I don't want you to.  The
choice is entirely yours."

"I appreciate that, Thakur.  I don't think I'd be comfortable
participating, at least not yet; may I simply watch?"

"Of course.  If it makes you uncomfortable, and you want to leave, go
ahead."

"I will, Thakur, but I don't expect to."

Cortin smiled.  "Somehow I don't expect you to, either.  Right now I'm
the object of that ceremony, as acting Protector, but I've been
promised the true one will appear soon, so don't be upset when someone
else takes over.  I sure won't be; I'm looking forward to it."  She
grimaced.  "I don't mind being the Herald, but I have to admit I don't
like being Protector.  It's more of a burden that I feel capable of
carrying, even as long as I have."

Keith knelt, looking up at her.  "If it is a burden I may free you of,
Thakur, I would do so gladly."

Cortin studied him for a moment.  If she'd known this might happen, she
wouldn't have accepted his fealty--while she wasn't fond of being
Protector, she wasn't fond of passing the burden along to anyone else,
either.

Keith was fully aware of her thought this time, and he smiled up at
her.  Freeing his chosen lady of an unwanted burden would be a joy, not
an imposition!  "You wouldn't be, Thakur--as Ranger Medart said, in
accepting my oath you made me your other self.  Let this part take over
and rejoice in what that one finds intolerable."

"Oh, dear God."  Cortin felt a sudden surge of power, her hands going
to his head on what felt like their own accord.  "You better mean that,
because it's happening."

"I mean it with all my heart, Thakur."

Odeon watched as the two began to glow, and went slowly to his knees.
So Keith was the permanent Protector!  That would be a relief for
Joanie, but the Sandeman's apotheosis meant the confrontation--what
Shayan called the decision point--was imminent, and that frightened
him.  It meant the war or massacre she had to make some decision about
was also imminent, and with Shayan afraid enough of that to promote
devotions to his Adversary and His saints . . .

He was never sure how long the apotheosis took, but when it ended,
there was no doubt of either Joanie's relief or Keith's new power.
What was going to happen now?

Keith rose, turning and smiling at him.  "You please me, Michael, but
there is much you must learn yet.  It might be wise for you to visit
Ranger Medart, this evening; I will conduct my own service."

"As you wish, Lord."  Odeon rose and bowed, then left the common-room,
grabbing a robe on the way out.


Return to main storyline: 33. Discussion 2





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