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As expected, Professor Wordsworth objected. “Considering your condition, she couldn’t expect you to report to her right away. You’re missing an arm!”

“That is incorrect,” Tres replied. “I know where that arm is.”

“That’s not the point and you know it. It’s not attached to your body, the way it should be.”

Tres actually hid more damage than that beneath his clothing. “Affirmative, but diagnostics and repair will take too much time, and I have already spent so much time undergoing a full scan for corrupted files, viruses, and malware, just to be certain she will be safe from me.”

“Your mission report can wait. Caterina will understand.”

“You need my cooperation to do the work, and I won’t comply with you until I’ve given Her Grace the vital data I have. Once I’ve done my duty, I’ll return here. The sooner you let me go, the sooner that will happen. I want to have my arm reattached so I can function with full effectiveness, but Cardinal Caterina and my report to her take priority.” As a servant of the Vatican, the Professor might better understand what drove Tres if Tres expressed it in terms of confession, penance, and absolution--he’d thoroughly failed the mission she’d given him, always inexcusable but especially so in this time when her political position was precarious, and he’d needed too much time and effort to defeat Duo--but the Professor also knew that Tres, a machine, neither wanted nor needed such things. In any case, the Professor would want details, and Tres wouldn’t divulge classified data to him without Cardinal Caterina’s permission. “There are things I can’t show or tell you until after I speak with Her Grace. I’ve engaged in discussion with you thus far out of respect and politeness, but if you continue to attempt to deter me with words I will simply leave.” Interference, no matter how well-meaning, wasted Tres’ time and, more importantly, hers.

“Fine, fine. I just worry about you, Tres. You need to take better care of yourself, if not for your own sake, then for mine so I won’t have to repair you so often.”

“Yet you upgrade me each time.”

“If I’m inadvertently encouraging you to damage yourself, I may have to reconsider some things.”

“Doubtful. Improvement and repair are your reasons for being. I think it’s best for both of us if you continue on as you have. Don’t worry: parts of me can break, but I can be repaired. I take my leave of you,” Tres said as he walked out.

Tres paused a moment at the closed door to her office to further collect himself a final time; he preferred not to come into Her Grace’s presence so damaged, not out of a pride he couldn’t possibly feel, not because she hadn’t seen him in worse states, but for her sake, that he could spare her more ugliness. The guard at the door gave him a nod; he nodded back and knocked to announce himself. When he heard her “Come in”, he entered.

She stood behind her desk with the sunlight from the window behind her making her hair radiant. Thinking of snipers, it always bothered him when she did that, but she refused to live in “fear” all the time and considered this window that overlooked an internal courtyard an acceptable risk.

“Father Tres, you didn’t need to rush to see me while you’re missing an arm,” Cardinal Caterina said.

Kneeling, he answered, “I feel no pain, and I have important data for you regarding the mission as well as the unexpected obstacle I faced from the Department of Inquisition. In addition to the Inquisition operative they sent, they’d alerted the Carabinieri, who fought me at the Rocca Maggiore, out of their jurisdiction, at one point.”

“The Inquisition?”

“They apparently knew I’d be there. Their operative killed Dottore Martini in a way I could not foresee. In the course of our conflict, Martini’s copy of the production records of the gaseous hydrocyanic acid he’d manufactured was also destroyed. I failed my mission. Completely. I have no excuse.”

“But you have reasons and data.”

“Dottore Martini was shot down in a way and from a distance that could be accomplished only by an HC series. We had thought me to be the only survivor, but the Inquisition somehow secured and manufactured parts for HC Duo Iqus, usually pieces from the other HC series members with upgrades. He called himself Inquisition Officer Brother Bartholomew. He intended to destroy my OS and use my combat memory and parts for himself, since he had been offline in the five years since Sant’Angelo. He successfully hacked into my system twice, which is why I submitted to a full scan from Professor Wordsworth before coming to you.

“How did Duo Iqus do this?”

A machine did not have a sense of pride that could be injured. “He brought me down, held me in place, and linked us with a cord he forced into one of my neck ports.”


“Twice.” Tres recalled Duo rifling through his memory by force, with Tres initially unable to stop him, and judging it. Judging and insulting Her Grace, judging Tres’ memories, judging him, calling him inferior, saying he couldn’t be a machine while he failed this hard. Tres wouldn’t tell her how that and his initial poor performance against Duo had triggered in him something a human might--wrongly--consider an existential crisis. “I successfully fought him off, and in the end I sacrificed my arm for the chance to blow his head off.” Duo had been surprised and horrified that Tres would deliberately damage himself that way, but it had turned the course of the battle. “I brought his body and head with me here for the Professor to examine Duo’s so-called upgrades and, if the Professor judges it safe, use his parts as replacements as he’d intended to use mine. I thought it best not to leave any parts the Department of Inquisition might use to try this again. We should examine his memories for information.”

He’d have to warn Professor Wordsworth about the contents of the coffin before he opened it since he seemed to like Tres and might react badly to seeing a decapitated body, with its detached head nowhere near its neck just to be certain, that looked like Tres. (It also contained Tres’ arm.) Seeing “himself” ravaged and deactivated no longer presented any novelty because Tres had seen it nine times five years ago before delivering Duo’s second “death” in Assisi, and those nine times had been much messier, with body parts and fluids strewn everywhere....

“I know there was an explosion.”

“My second confrontation with him occurred at a location not of my choosing, among cannisters of volatile elements that were damaged in the course of combat. An explosion was flashier than you would want for a secret mission, but at least it destroyed some of the evidence of my presence there.” No excuses. “I apologize for my failures.” Any punishment she decreed, he’d take. He waited in silence as he watched her think.

She said, “You made the best of a difficult and unexpected situation. I’m very concerned over the Inquisition’s role in this, their acquisition and supposed improvement of HC series parts, and their intentions in employing HC Duo Iqus. Regardless of how the mission went, Tres, you’ve done me and the AX a great service in permanently defeating him and removing him from the Inquisition’s grasp. Since he looked and sounded like you and shared many of your battle skills, he could have infiltrated the AX as you, and who knows what data and people he would’ve gotten access to before someone discovered the subterfuge.”

Could Duo have gotten close enough to Cardinal Caterina to hurt her, maybe even kill her, while pretending to be Tres? As a sniper with skills in ricochet shooting, Duo wouldn’t have needed to get very close to her. The very thought almost made Tres wish he could put Duo back together and reactivate him so he could forcibly dismantle Duo all over again.

She continued, “I know that, as a machine, you can’t feel outrage over his attack on you but know that I, human and emotional, feel outrage on your behalf. You are precious and irreplaceable to me. Don’t damage yourself unless it’s necessary. I know you would die for me, Tres, but I’m asking you not to throw yourself away too lightly.”

What was this overwhelming, bright sensation her words caused him? He had to let her know how appreciative he was, how right it was to be hers. “I am not ungrateful and do not mean to sound as such.”

“I know you can’t feel ungrateful, Tres. I only realized that a term of our agreement hadn’t been clarified enough.”

Precious. Irreplaceable. Duo could have replaced him. But, actually Duo could not. While they shared an appearance, a voice, speed, and many battle skills, the memories Tres kept as a foundation for his contract with Cardinal Caterina had been deemed useless by Duo, fit only to be deleted immediately for wasting space. Duo had seen Tres’ act of sacrificing his own arm to defeat him and win the battle as shocking and disturbing, whereas Tres would sacrifice all of his limbs--and his “life”--to serve her objectives and protect her. Limbs could be replaced but she could not. Duo would not treat, obey, or protect Her Grace as she deserved, which made him unfit, inferior, contemptible, and lacking in resolve.

“Remember that an attack on you is an attack on me, and treat it as such,” she said. “I want you to undergo full diagnostic tests and report any possible damage from this incident you are aware of, now and in the future. I want to know exactly what we owe the Department of Inquisition. Given the current situation, I can’t move on them openly right now, but I will neither forget nor forgive this assault on you, one of my people. Something will be done.”

Hers. “I defer, as ever, to Your Grace’s judgment.”

“Now go to Professor Wordsworth to get your arm replaced and any remaining damage fixed. That’s an order. I won’t deploy you again until you’ve been restored to full effectiveness. Dismissed.”

“Your Grace.” He really did prefer to be whole, the better to serve and protect her and kill her enemies, to fulfill his reasons for being. “I take my leave of you, my lady.” Withdrawing.

After Tres left the room, Caterina could finally take off the neutral mask she’d managed to retain through his report. She shouldn’t have to go to such lengths to instill a sense of self-preservation in him, but she supposed she should have expected it, given the agreement he’d agreed to live and work for her under.

Tres had been viciously assaulted by someone who looked and sounded exactly like him, someone who shouldn’t have still existed, someone who’d gone through his memories by force, tried to delete his mind, and intended to keep his corpse to use for spare parts. Caterina’s elder brother would probably be quite amused by keeping the remnants of Tres’ body in a warehouse somewhere while using pieces of her former protector to attack her while she wondered whether missing Tres was dead or alive. Or just sending Duo at her as Tres while hoping he scored a serious blow.

(Professor Wordsworth had used some parts from the other HC series members to repair Tres when they’d first gotten him, which had seemed just practical at the time given the massive damage dealt him, but came off as more morbid now. Duo and Tres had both become like Frankenstein’s monster, a collection of pieces from their dead brethren.)

How had the Inquisition even gotten access to Duo’s head? How had they known where Tres and Dottore Martini would meet? Did she have a traitor in her midst? She needed to find out.

Although Tres had been succinct and impassive as usual, she knew him well enough to see the understandable cracks that the encounter, which had no doubt been much worse than he’d described, had left him with. She also knew that his definition of himself as an emotionless machine wouldn’t let him acknowledge it or seek help. She’d have to quietly notify Abel and the Professor to look out for and quietly support him for a while.