As I approached the venue, my concern grew. The corridors were busier than usual. I had to push my way through the students to get to it, the bag on my shoulder knocking into them. I was constantly apologising.
When I reached the auditorium, my worst fears were confirmed. The attraction was the enquiry. Everybody wanted to witness it. I felt sick. I hadn't been prepared for the event's popularity.
At the door, two officers were on guard. They let me pass, but held the crowds back. Inside, a small amount of relief washed over me. The audience was small, consisting of just two dozen staff and Starfleet officers spread out around the room. It was still more than I had expected, but a lot fewer than the throng outside.
I descended the stairs towards the stage which had been set up court-style. The podium had been removed and in its place was a long desk behind which the Dean, Charles Lorian Tucker, and four other members of the teaching staff sat. Memories of a similar hearing the last time I was at the Academy flooded back to me. On that occasion the Dean had earned my respect and admiration with his fairness and statements of fact. I didn't doubt that he would be equally fair here and that reassured me.
Between the bench and the audience were two smaller tables: one for prosecution and the other for defence. I took my place behind the desk traditionally reserved for defence and began pulling out my datapads and notebooks. At the bottom of my bag lay three other things, but I left them there: my phaser and both of Lizzy's brushes. I have no idea why I brought any of them. I couldn't really see how the fact that she brushed her hair and cleaned her teeth could prove her humanity. As to the phaser, I had even less excuse for that. It wasn't like I could blast my way out of this mess or anything.
The murmuring in the room subsided, and I looked up to see that Steven Firth had entered. He threw me a look so cold, it would have frozen Andorian ice. Our eyes locked and remained that way as he descended the stairs and took his seat. He looked away first but only because he needed to organise his materials. My gaze slowly left him to drift around the room. T'Roc was there in the front row, Rosie sat beside her. Was that a wink she threw me?
The sound of a gavel being pounded against its block made me start.
"Ladies and gentlemen," began the Dean. "This meeting is to determine the sentiency, or otherwise, of the being known as Alpha-B9, aka Elizabeth Buffalo, aka Bella Delores."
Steven Firth stood up.
"Sir, with all due respect, I fail to see how we can clarify this issue without the robot being present."
That was a bit below the belt, calling her a robot, but I chose to ignore it. There were more important matters to address. I stood up and responded.
"I apologise, sir, but I have no intention of producing Elizabeth—"
"The robot," interrupted Firth.
"Objection, sir, but as a cyberneticist, Mr Firth knows full well that Elizabeth is not a robot. She may well be an android, but she is most definitely NOT a robot."
"Nevertheless, it isn't—"
"Objection, but the android is most definitely female and should be accorded the respect and title as such."
The gavel came crashing down, silencing us both.
"Enough!" commanded the Dean. "I realise that this is a very contentious issue, but it is also an important one that will go down in the annals of history, both for the Academy and cybernetics in general. With that in mind, we will remain civil. We will also follow in the spirit of the maxim 'innocent until proven guilty' so, until such time as it is proven otherwise, we shall accord Alpha-B9 the level of respect due to a sentient being. We will refer to her by her given name, Elizabeth Buffalo, and in the feminine form."
Steven Firth heaved a pained sigh.
"The fact remains, sir, that without ... Elizabeth ... being present, we cannot determine the point in question."
A kerfuffle at the rear of the room distracted us. We all turned to see. A couple were pushing their way past security and into the room. I felt sick to the pit of my stomach. It was Lizzy, arm-in-arm with Peter Targo.
She was beaming a smile and looking positively radiant. Peter was also grinning as the pair of them walked proudly down the stairs. There was no fear or trepidation in them at all. They seemed confident in themselves.
"Then it's a good job I'm here!" Lizzy chirped happily.
"Sir", shrieked Firth, delighted at Lizzy's appearance. "Can I recommend that we seize the ... Elizabeth to ensure its detention?"
The Dean looked at him, quite startled.
"On the basis that she has committed no criminal offence, no."
"But it may flee."
"As she has attended here today, of her own free will that is unlikely."
"But if it—she realises that the case is not going well, it may decide to abscond."
"Such a reaction would be possible if Elizabeth is sentient, but unlikely if she is not. Are you suggesting that she is sentient after all, Mr Firth?"
Was the Dean rooting for Lizzy?
No. He was just pointing out the obvious.
"Not at all, but it is my property. I designed and built it."
"With materials provided and owned by the Academy," the Dean added.
"Then I beg you, detain it as the property of the Academy."
Peter stepped forward, raising an arm to speak. The Dean looked at him curiously.
"Actually, she belongs to neither of you now," he said.
"Targo, Lieutenant Commander Peter Targo."
"Ah, yes! I remember you, Targo. Do go on."
The Dean's gaze dropped to his datapad on the desk in front of him. He frowned as he began tapping away at it.
"Because Federation law 'acknowledges, respects and upholds the laws and regulations of member planets so long as conflict does not arise', and under that statute, Elizabeth Buffalo is my property."
Firth audibly scoffed.
"Go on," commanded the Dean, his voice low and tolerant.
"Fellsian law dictates that when a woman marries, she becomes the property of her husband 'for so long as he honours, defends and provides for her'. Lizzy and I were married yesterday on Fellsus IV, in a ceremony witnessed by the vice-chancellor himself. Therefore, Lizzy is my property."
"Ahhh," responded the Dean, a small, dry smile spreading across his lips. He flipped his datapad over so that it lay face down and leaned back in his seat but did not look up. "I see you have chosen to abuse your position gained as a Starfleet officer, and the trust you gained on a Starfleet mission, to secure your marriage."
"It was not an abuse, sir. The chancellor and vice-chancellor were quite adamant that if ever I should need anything, I had only to ask. It was a very small favour in their opinion, sir."
Without lifting his head, the Dean looked up at Peter. His gaze was expressionless.
"Objection, sir," interrupted Firth. "But a man cannot marry a machine. I own a vintage 1985 Ford Capri. I love it but I can't marry it!"
"Objection," I retorted, but the gavel came down again hard, silencing me.
The Dean leaned back in his seat, closed his eyes and scratched his eyebrow as he thought. Moments later, he sat forward again.
"With the appearance of Elizabeth Buffalo-Targo, I suspect that both parties would like a moment to reconsider their strategies."
His eyes passed between Firth and me. I nodded, eager to do just that. Her appearance, though welcome, had blown my game plan completely out of the water. Having said that, it should be easier to prove her sentiency now that she was here.
"Then we shall recess and reconvene in one hour."