Christopher L. Bennett.
To the family I've finally rediscovered.
New forms of power do not obey conservation laws. They can be created, but never again destroyed. Superhumans are here, and you will have to live with us. But by the same token, you may no longer be able to live without us.
-Eliot Thorne, statement to the Transhuman Investigatory Committee, 25 April 2067.
With great power there must also come great responsibility.
-Stan Lee, Amazing Fantasy #15, 1962.
The Sky Is Falling.
Chakra City habitat.
In synchronous...o...b..t of Earth.
Bast fidgeted inside the heavy chador, hating the way it cut off her senses. There were so many sights and sounds and smells she was missing, even down here in the maintenance tunnels, away from the cosmopolitan bustle of the city levels above. Not that she cared about the bazaars, the curry parlors, the orchid gardens, or the other tourist traps this backwater Stanford torus festooned itself with as it tried to build itself up, physically and otherwise, into a major cislunar port city. No, she cared about having her senses free, on the alert for enemies.
More fundamentally, she just wanted to get out of the heavy robes so she could scratch herself and groom her beautiful glossy-black fur. She wanted to set her tail free so she could work the kinks out of it. And then she wanted to kill and eat something.
So far this was a boring mission-just sneaking around in empty tunnels, no enemies to sharpen her claws on. But she didn't dare complain to Wulf. That would just invite another tirade on how she should be more devoted to their Glorious Cause. Yes, yes, she knew all about the Neogaians' sacred mission to reclaim the wounded Earth from the technocrats who subsumed nature beneath cold, dead machines and denied humanity its right to evolve. She knew how the disorder created by the construction of the city's new habitat rings made a good cover for their plan to infect Earthbound travelers with designer polyviral mutagens, a blow against UNECS's restrictions on human enhancement and a step toward bringing humanity back into harmony with Mother Earth's animal spirits. But listening to Wulf spewing dogma in her face with his foul canine breath didn't get her in harmony with her animal spirit. She was perfectly in harmony with her animal spirit, and it was telling her to go kill and eat something. Maybe Wulf.
Well, actually, right now it was telling her to scratch that d.a.m.n itch behind her right ear. So she did-just a little scratch couldn't draw Wulf's ire, surely.
No such luck. "Bast!" Wulf snarled, looking back at her. He looked ridiculous, with the fur shaved off half his face so he'd look like a bearded human, and with the turban pulled down over his big pointed ears. He must hate it-he already resented her for her more advanced transgenic mods, for being closer to "pure animal nature" than he was. But that was what he got for being an older model, born human and chimericized with surgery and stem-cell injections, instead of a germ-line creation like herself. "Stop that," he commanded. "You'll tear your headscarf." She subsided, but hissed and slashed her claws in his direction. "Settle down! Remember, act calm and serene. Look at Caiman there."
Bast thought the croc-man was a lousy example. So still and quiet, always meditating, striving for a perfect animal nonsentience, just existing and watching ... now that was boring. Still, Bast quieted down, hoping to avoid another lecture on how they had to look and act like proper Muslims so n.o.body would suspect them of being terrorists.
But then Bast thought she heard something moving nearby. It sounded big-maybe a nice juicy rat or bird. There shouldn't be many vermin yet in this new ring segment, where the grass and trees were still being planted and few people lived. Maybe this animal had gotten confused by the new layout and lost its way. Or maybe it wanted the chance to play a fun game with a pretty panther-lady before making a nice new home in her tummy.
Except Wulf had to go and tell them they'd reached their destination. No time for play. With a sigh, Bast turned her back on the interesting foodlike noises and followed the others inside.
The corridor opened into an expansive s.p.a.ce containing much of the new segment's nanofabrication machinery. Some of the machines had conduits rising a couple of stories into the s.p.a.ce above-maybe a future mall, but for now there was just a network of girders and pipes where the floor would be. The s.p.a.ce was deserted except for construction robots, due to the newness of the segment and the time of day-and the fact that Wulf had paid off the guard in advance.
Wulf led them to the cell-stock tanks that supplied the new segment's bioprinters and ordered them to stand guard. Caiman's stillness made him good for that at least-but Bast could be still and silent with the best of them, if there was a good pounce in store at the end of it. She hoped that any intruders would come from her direction so she could kill them before Caiman did. h.e.l.l, she just hoped some intruders would show up.
But then Taurean had to go and make conversation. He was here for muscle like Caiman and herself, but also for what little interaction they had with other people, since he had the most normal-looking face (so long as the turban concealed his horns) and an atypically amiable manner for a trained killer. But unfortunately, he wasn't the strong, silent type. He was rambling on about the mission, asking Wulf how the polyviral vectors would work, questioning whether the random animal traits they produced as they spread through Terran humanity could be as viable or safe as their own carefully engineered mods, stuff like that. She didn't listen closely. It did amuse her when Wulf snarled at Taurean for doubting the power of divine Nature to effect this glorious transformation, though her amus.e.m.e.nt faded as he continued his fanatical tirade. Dogs always made too much d.a.m.n noise.
Noise-there was something moving around again. Maybe lunch, maybe an intruder (though what was the difference, really?). She couldn't tell with Wulf blathering and the stupid scarf squishing her pretty ears. She hissed for attention. "I hear something!" She caught a definite scent this time, distinctly animal. Maybe even human ... though it was increasingly hard to tell these days.
"Maybe you should hurry up and finish, Wulf," said Taurean. "I'd like to get out of here without any trouble."
Bast heard a clear movement up above and whirled to face it. A second ago there'd been nothing atop that big machine, but now a woman stood there. She was muscular but curvaceous, with wild hair the color of autumn leaves and an elfin face with enormous, almost catlike green eyes. She wore a green sleeveless tunic with a flamelike trim, matching knee-length boots, tight black hip-huggers, and a faux-leather gunbelt resting at a rakish angle upon her wide hips. This was no local cop or UNECS security trooper. With a flamboyant outfit like that, there was only one thing she could be.
The redhead smirked, tilted an angular brow, and spoke in a honeyed soprano, her c.o.c.ky words confirming Bast's conclusion. "Looking for trouble? You just found her."
Which was good, since Bast was definitely looking for trouble.
Emerald Blair loved making dramatic entrances, watching all eyes turn to her as she came into a room. Of course, she preferred it when the owners of those eyes didn't also possess guns, combat mods, or both. But such was the lot of a Troubleshooter.
Besides, she was tired of being stealthy. Sneaking up on the Neogaian terrorists was one thing, but she and Arkady Nazarbayev had needed to sneak themselves all the way from Luna without the Union of Earth and Cislunar States finding out. UNECS had refused them clearance to operate within their territory even after Arkady had warned them of the impending Neogaian attack, insisting they were more qualified than any "Strider vigilante and his teen sidekick" (apprentice, thank you, and she was twenty-two) to keep their vaunted peace and order. She supposed she couldn't begrudge the Terrans their pride in that order, given how hard they'd fought to build it after the ecological and social upheavals of the past century. But she suspected their disdain for the Troubleshooters had more to do with prejudice than pride. Underneath their n.o.ble talk of equality was a not-so-veiled mistrust toward those who were enhanced beyond the norm.
She and Arkady could have just flown in at maximum thrust-she doubted even the Eunuchs were fanatical enough to shoot down a TSC scout ship-but that would have tipped off the Neogaians. And so the heroic Medvyed, the mighty Bear of the Troubleshooters, and his glamorous apprentice, the Green Blaze, had spent eighteen hours heroically, glamorously stuffed inside a cargo pod, cushioned from the accelerations of mass drivers and capture nets by gel coc.o.o.ns and their own augmented anatomies. On finally reaching Chakra City, they had made an entrance in only the most literal sense, cutting their way through the hull and sealing it behind them, and hoping that the vagaries of orbital mechanics had let them arrive in time.
After all that, Emry was so thrilled to come out in the open that she didn't particularly mind being the decoy. As she delivered her trademark Green Blaze entrance line (or her latest attempt at one, though she thought this one had better staying potential than "Now you're in trouble, Mama spank" or "Hey, look over there!") and drew the attention of the Neogaians, Arkady was already sneaking up behind them, ready to incapacitate them as soon as he got a clear shot.
But it was hard to be sneaky in that bulky antique symbot he wore, at least when your enemies had animal hearing. The leader, a canine chimera who'd already yanked off his turban to free his ears, spun his head toward the sound of the armored exosuit's whirring servos and barked, "Down!" just as the Troubleshooter fired. The therianthropes scattered, and only one of Arkady's tanglewebs. .hit, snaring the tall reptilian's legs. But as the other two males ducked for cover, this one deftly turned his fall into a roll (the sixty-five-percent gravity of this small habitat giving him more time for it) and bit through the polysilk threads with his massive jaw. Despite the Neogaians' anti-tech ideology, this one must've had diamond-coated teeth.
The female had ignored Arkady's shots. Eyes fixed on Emry, she had ripped off her chador, revealing a stunning black-furred cat-woman wearing armor fabric over her vital areas. The leader, whom Emry now recognized as high-ranking Neogaian Erich "Wulf" Krieger, was shouting, "Taurean, Bast, kill them! Caiman, with me!" But the she-cat didn't need to hear it-she was already screaming and leaping at Emry, claws fully deployed from her fingertips. The ferocity in her yellow eyes struck primal fear into Emry, paralyzing her. At the last instant she reacted, dodging right and tossing the panthress into a spin, but not before those claws put four shallow slashes across the reinforced skin of Emry's left arm. They must have been diamond-coated as well. Meanwhile, in the corner of her eye Emry saw the bull-guard firing a Gauss pistol at Arkady, not as quick as Bast to rely on animal instinct. The bullets bounced off the symbot's tough sh.e.l.l. Arkady was firing his plasma gun at Krieger and Caiman in flashbang mode, the laser pulses ionizing the air into blinding plasma b.a.l.l.s with a crackle of miniature thunderclaps. Krieger clapped his hands over his large ears and staggered, but Caiman seemed unaffected and hustled him out of range while Taurean moved in to block his fire.
Bast had landed on her feet on the next air-filtration unit over, facing Emry and looking quite thrilled. "At last! A new toy!" she yowled, her feline muzzle giving her something of a lisp. Like a cat, she studied her foe, waiting for the right moment to pounce. Emry did the same. Bast's ears were in the normal human places, peeking out from her luxurious black mane, but the pinnae were large, pointed, and flexible. Her hands were human except for the claws, but the feet were pawlike and elongated, making her a formidable leaper. Her long tail swished agitatedly even while the rest of her lithe, slender body stayed perfectly still and poised. She seemed young to Emry, though maybe that was a natural feline abandon. Whatever the case, she was gorgeous. The cliche came unbidden to Emry's lips: "Nice kitty!"
"No," Bast replied. "I'm not." She pounced again, effortlessly correcting for Coriolis drift. This time Emry leapt up to meet her, aiming a spin-kick at her head. But Bast pivoted impossibly in midair, seemingly innocent of Newtonian physics, and dodged the kick, slashing at Emry's leg as she went past. This time the armor fabric shielded her, but the blow threw off her recovery, so she fell poorly and almost hit the side of the filtration unit. She caught herself and flipped up and over to land where Bast had just been, facing a Bast who was already crouched where Emry had been, tensing for her next leap.
It's the tail, she realized. That and her flexible spine let Bast shift her center of gravity however she wanted, enabling moves that seemed to laugh in the face of old Isaac. Okay, no more soaring through the air like in a wuxia movie. Emry planted her feet and awaited Bast's attack.
The panthress was quick to oblige, launching herself with great force, claws splayed. Emry grabbed her right wrist and punched her in the gut, but at the same moment Bast shot her legs forward and slashed at Emry's midsection. Light-armor fabric protected both women, but the claws of Bast's free hand dug deeply into Emry's right shoulder. Then the unexpected happened: Bast's tail looped around Emry's leg and yanked, proving itself as much primate as feline. Unbalanced from the collision, Emry fell back and had to fend off Bast's teeth as they went for her throat. She got her forearm bitten for her troubles. Angered, she kneed Bast in the gut and cuffed her head, then kicked the dazed therian off the edge of the filtration unit.
"Now do you see the flaw in the idea of sleeveless armor?" came Arkady's voice over the selfone clip on her left ear.
She rolled her eyes at the rote criticism as she scrambled to her feet. "But tin cans are just so passe."
"Forgive a mere mortal his caution, O demiGoddess. At least try not to get yourself killed while I'm still responsible for you."
"Oh, go f.u.c.k a can opener," she shot back, but her tone was affectionate. The old schmuck was like a-well, like an uncle to her. But she was going to murder him someday; that was a given.
She looked down from the filtration unit, hoping to see Bast unconscious on the ground. But the she-cat stood there in a relaxed pose, purring loudly as she licked Emry's blood off her fingers. How does it feel to purr? Emry wondered. I bet it's amazing. "Rrrr, thick and yummy," Bast moaned, savoring the dense, erythrocyte-rich blood that fed the increased oxygen demand of Emry's muscles. "Come here and give me more!"
"Sorry, we don't deliver!" Emry wasn't about to jump down-the slow fall would give Bast plenty of reaction time. So she leapt still higher into the maze of ducts and girders overhead, taunting, "Come and get it, p.uss.y!"
That proved a mistake. Emry had been hoping to lose Bast in the forest of conduits and get behind her, but all she did was get Bast more excited and hotter on Emry's (alas, only figurative) tail, following her easily through the maze. Bast's lighter, sleeker build let her slink along ducts too flimsy to support Emry's weight and slip easily through gaps Emry had to force her way through. Still, Emry couldn't resist taunting her, hoping to distract her focus. "Aww, no, now you'll get stuck up here and we'll have to call the fire department!"
Emry remembered playing with Kiri and Tigerm.u.f.fin as a child: how they attacked a string or toy mousie most eagerly when it went behind the ottoman or table leg and "couldn't see" them coming. Emry had similar close calls with Bast, and those claws left their marks in Emry's arms a couple of times more, as well as doing a fair amount of damage to the conduits. Regrettably, none of them was carrying anything hot or caustic to spray out in Bast's face, as they surely would have in a movie or sim. Real life was such a rip-off sometimes. "Keep scratching up the furniture and we'll have to get you a manicure!" Bast slashed out with a foot, barely missing her. "And a pedicure. How about a sinecure? Get paid to sleep all day-what cat could pass that up?" The next swipe of Bast's claws raked across the back of her hand. Emry lost her grip and barely managed to catch herself on the pipe below. "Would you settle for a cured ham?" I'll need a cure for disembowelment at this rate.
But Emry had grown up with cats-surely she could use a few of their tricks herself. h.e.l.l, she was wearing tiger-print panties. The next time Bast's claws slashed from around a vertical pipe, Emry swept around the other side and collided with her. They fell together in a Coriolis arc. Emry struggled to hold Bast and make sure the she-cat landed on her back. But Bast's tail gave her the advantage in midair twisting, and Emry ended up on the bottom (not her favorite position), just managing to splay her arms in time to absorb the impact wrestler-style. Which made them unavailable to stop Bast from going for her throat again. So she slammed her forehead into Bast's. Not for the first time, her thick skull came in handy; Bast yowled and fell back, letting Emry get her legs up into the she-cat's midriff, launching her backward. She landed in a three-point crouch, though, and Emry struggled to rise and face her, though she found it hard to get beyond a sitting position. "Anybody got a ball of yarn?"
"Oh, for God's sake," came Arkady's voice, "just shoot her!" Emry grimaced. She hated guns, even the nonlethal kind-nasty things, and they took all the fun out of a good fight. But Arkady had a point-they didn't really have time, what with the other terrorists on the loose.
The clincher was that Bast was pouncing again, all her pointy bits deployed for the kill, and Emry couldn't dodge fast enough. In one smooth, swift move, she fell back, drew her dartgun, and placed shockdarts in Bast's exposed midriff and neck. The she-cat convulsed and fell heavily atop her, burying Emry's face in her thick, silky mane. "Sorry," Emry said. "This was just starting to get good." She rolled the dazed panther-woman off of her, taking a moment to appreciate how soft her fur was, and feeling irrationally tempted to stroke it back into smoothness. But there was no time for that now. She drew binders from her belt and swiftly secured Bast's wrists and ankles before she could recover.
Emry turned to see Arkady hovering nearby in his armor suit, its wingjets keeping him airborne and correcting for Cori drift. She always thought the bulky thing made him look like something out of an old anime. Apparently he'd just lifted out of the way of the bull-man, Taurean, who was extricating his horns from a dented wall panel and shaking his head. He must've given up on the gun or been disarmed. Arkady fired a shock laser, but Taurean dodged surprisingly fast, the electric arc hitting the wall. Arkady deployed his arm-mounted sonic pulser, but before he could fire, Taurean leapt up and took him in the chest, smashing through several overhead pipes. Taurean landed smoothly on his feet, but Arkady fell badly and hit headfirst, a number of heavy conduits landing atop him.
"You okay, Papa Bear?" Emry called-but then noticed Taurean eyeing her and pawing at the ground. "Ohh, bull..." She fired off some shockdarts as he charged her headfirst, but they bounced off his skin as though it were light armor, not holding contact long enough to deliver an effective charge. No wonder Arkady had switched to beam weapons.
But Emry would not be cowed. Like a Minoan daredevil, she seized the bull-man by the horns and flipped over him, letting out a whoop. That's one way to tackle a dilemma! By the time she landed, she'd not only spun to face him, but had holstered her dartgun, drawn her laser pistol, and set it to shock mode. But he'd spun too, with no pause for rumination, and was charging her again. "It's the red hair, isn't it?" she asked, shaking her head a bit. Priorities, kid! she thought, and fired, the laser ionizing a path for the electric discharge. Taurean convulsed from the sustained shock, but still had enough momentum to bowl her over, knocking her sidearm from her hand and the wind from her lungs. She ended up on the bottom again, grateful for the low gravity, although his weight upon her chest was still suffocating.
But he was already stirring, the charge apparently too small for such a massive body. Before she could catch her breath and wriggle free, he had an oversized hand around her throat. His other hand held down her right arm in a vise grip, and his tree-trunk legs pinned hers. She gripped his wrist in her left hand, but he tightened his hold on her throat when she did, giving her pause. "d.a.m.n, you're beautiful," he said in a surprisingly mellow, good-natured voice. "Too bad I have to kill you."
Emry seized the opening. "Well, you don't have to," she lilted with what breath she could muster, lowering her eyelids seductively. "I've known some h.o.r.n.y men, but you take the beefcake. Why don't we have our own little rodeo, see how long I can ride you?"
Taurean looked tempted ... but smiled regretfully. "I'd love to-but I'm not that stupid. I like girls with more fur, anyway," he added with a shrug. "Sorry. I'll make it quick, okay?" His fist tightened brutally around her neck, in stark contrast to his easygoing manner. Emry tried to wrench it free, but his arm wouldn't budge and she was already weakening. She could hold her breath fairly long given a chance to prepare; but she'd already had the wind knocked out of her, and her metabolism was high from the fight, demanding oxygen that just wasn't coming. She choked soundlessly, striving to remain conscious. He gave her a reassuring smile, like an anesthesiologist telling her to relax, count backward from ten, and just let oblivion take her.
But then a plasma bolt erupted in his face. It knocked him for a loop and he reflexively let go. Emry was dazzled herself, despite her corneal filters, but was able to push him off and scramble free. Arkady fired enough tanglewebs to make sure he was securely bound. Still choking and struggling for breath, Emry was tempted to leave the webs across his face and let him suffocate for a while. But his attempt to kill her had been without malice, just a guy doing his job, and she found that she bore him no ill will. So she moved in and extended her diamond thumbnail blades to cut his nose and mouth free as he struggled ineffectually against the restraints. Your loss, bully-boy. Would've been a wild ride.
"You okay?" Arkady asked. Even with the helmet concealing his face, she could tell he was looking her over with concern.
She quizzed her biometrics and got the HUD readout on her retina. The cuts from Bast were clotted, the cells already being knitted back together by her repair nans, and no significant toxins had been introduced. Taurean's impact had bruised a couple of ribs, again nothing her repair systems couldn't handle. The cartilage around her windpipe was bruised as well, but its polymer reinforcements had held up. Her ears were ringing from the plasma bolt, but there was no serious damage. "I'm fine," she said hoa.r.s.ely. "I could've handled him."
"Of course. But I thought I'd save you the trouble."
"I am trouble," she said with self-mocking arrogance.
"As I know better than anyone. You should focus less on your wisecracks and more on the battle."
"What fun is that? Plus it loosens up the imagination, keeps me flexible. Good to have in a-"
Then the habitat rumbled. Then it groaned. Then it heaved.
Arkady Nazarbayev knew s.p.a.ce habitats. Back before Independence, he'd been a construction worker, helping to build the things. It had been a booming business what with all the emigres coming up from Earth-many voluntarily, others not so much, but all needing homes. Once Earth had gone to war with Ceres and Vesta for control of their abundant resources, it had only seemed natural to use his heavy-duty construction symbot-which augmented his strength twenty times over and was hardened against vacuum, radiation, and construction hazards-to defend his home and family. He'd modified the powered exoskeleton into a fighting machine, though he'd striven to keep its weapons mostly nonlethal. After all, many Terrans were still family, as far as he was concerned.
Not everyone had agreed, of course, and matters had very nearly come to a cataclysmic level until the Great Compromise was struck, granting Earth rule over everything in its...o...b..tal s.p.a.ce (including the Moon and all five Earth-Moon Lagrange points) in exchange for the independence of the Main Asteroid Belt. Afterward, the newly independent Striders had perhaps relished their individuality too much, and the wartime coalition had collapsed. Rivalries had erupted-between the powerful states of Ceres and Vesta and the smaller independent habitats, between the Cereans and Vestans themselves for economic dominance, between the puritanism of the pioneer generation and the rebelliousness of the young, between all of them and the new habitats that had relocated, voluntarily or otherwise, from cislunar s.p.a.ce. And many of the mods, both states and individuals alike, had exploited the chaos to assert dominance over the less enhanced. So it had only seemed natural for Arkady to keep using his combat-rigged symbot to defend his home and family. And then it had only seemed natural to help his neighbors when they couldn't help themselves, to fend off the conquerors and raiders and mobsters so they wouldn't keep hurting good honest folk. After all, he was hardly the only vet to do that sort of thing, though others had done it in their own ways, with their own special tech or mods.
But not all of them had been as concerned about nonlethality as Arkady, or as hesitant to profit from their "protection" efforts. Before long, these "Troubleshooters" were fighting each other as much as the bad guys, or at least clashing over methods, jurisdiction, and miscommunications. So when Yukio Villareal, one of the architects of the Great Compromise, had proposed to his fellow Troubleshooters that they found a corps to coordinate their efforts and regulate their own members-an independent, nongovernmental organization recruiting and training the best and brightest from all over the Belt-it had only seemed natural to sign on.
The media may have painted Arkady as some great frontier hero, but he was just a guy who'd done what came naturally. At heart he was still just a simple, brawny lug who was good at driving a symbot.
And he knew s.p.a.ce habitats. So he had a pretty good sense of what was wrong with Chakra City even before he tapped into their security web. As soon as the groaning began, he gathered up Emerald in his arms (something she accepted far more easily now than on that terrible day nine years ago) and rocketed for the nearest exit into the habitat's interior s.p.a.ce. He had to blast out a few conduits to get there, but that was the least of Chakra City's problems-as he and Emerald saw clearly as soon as they were in view of the skylights that arched overhead, forming the inner half of the toroidal sh.e.l.l. The radiators-the two long, narrow panels that extended from the axis on the northern side of the habitat rings, permanently edge-on to the Sun-were gone. White-hot stubs remained where they had connected to the hub, and a glowing scar ripped across the industrial block between them. "Oh, Goddess," he heard Emry gasp, sounding like she actually meant it for once. At least some good might come out of this, then, he thought-though he preferred a more traditional interpretation of the divine.
The security reports and his suit cameras complemented each other in telling the tale. A ship docked to the hub beyond the radiators, no doubt under Neogaian control, had ripped free of its cradle and turned its fusion-drive nozzle toward the station hub, sweeping a cone of exhaust plasma across it and severing both radiators at their connection points. The pressure from the drive exhaust and the vaporized coolant that burst from the ruptures conspired to accelerate the radiators toward the habitat rings, striking their northern side with some force. One had bounced off the uncompleted northernmost ring, smashing a number of the heavy, chevron-shaped mirror strips that directed sunlight into the torus while shielding it from direct radiation. The mirrors had been knocked into the skylight panels below, shattering several and causing an atmosphere breach; however, it would take hours for the pressure loss from that breach to become significant.
But by misfortune or design, the other radiator had snagged on the end cap of the newly added ring section he and Emerald were in. Suddenly imparted with angular acceleration, the radiator had acquired weight, falling down and antispinward. That, combined with its existing motion athwart the rings, had caused the long, flat array of panels to wrap around their top half-or rather, to crash against them, for its weight grew quickly as it fell. The skylight arch on the next ring over was badly damaged; it looked as though it might have caught the edge of the ship's plasma exhaust as well.
Worse-from the way the skylight sagged under the twisted panel, Arkady could tell that the radiator wasn't breaking apart as it should. He cursed the antiquated design of the thing. Now there was a long strip of material massing kilotonnes hanging down over a hundred meters below the ring, weighted down by gravity approaching and maybe even surpassing Earth's. And it was tugging on the rest of the panel, worsening the strain on the mirror strips and skylight and threatening to tear clear through it and smash down on the people below-not to mention the far worse air loss that would result from a breach of that size. It was night, so there were few people outdoors to be hit by falling debris; but that wouldn't matter if the whole sky fell on their roofs. And the sun mirror to the south had already switched from black to reflective as the habitat went into emergency daylight mode.
They forced open the hatch and crossed into the damaged section, where air and debris were rushing out of the growing rift in the skylight. The occupants were running for the exits, and the Troubleshooters hastened to assist in an orderly evacuation. 'We were wrong!' Emerald called, using her subvocal transceiver to be heard over the wind and the groaning of the skylight framework. 'We thought they were gonna let the virus spread through normal traffic to Earth-but they wanted to force an evac, get as many infected refugees as possible in contact with other people!' Hence the severing of the radiators, Arkady realized. Even these hull breaches wouldn't be fatal for the habitat; there was plenty of air to spare if the holes could be patched in time. But with no radiators, a habitat this small and this close to the Sun would become uninhabitably hot in less than a day. And Chakra's daily seventy-odd minutes in Earth's shadow had ended barely an hour ago.
'They must've sabotaged the dock sensors,' Emry went on. 'Kept the drive buildup from being detected!' Arkady had been wondering about that. A ship that even warmed up its fusion or plasma drive anywhere near a habitat would set off alarms and be blown out of the sky if it didn't shut down before its engines were ready to fire. They would've had to bribe or otherwise compromise the human dock monitors as well. This was a bigger operation than he'd realized.
Still, he didn't get one thing. "There wouldn't have been time for the viruses to spread yet!" Not that Arkady doubted Emry's insight-despite her brawn-over-brain impulses, she had it in her to be a fine detective. He was so proud of her for that, even though he'd had nothing to do with it. Arkady was just a big lug who needed things explained to him.
'They would've waited a few days! But we forced their hand! Now Krieger's gonna try to infect as many people as he can in the chaos of the evac.'
"He'll be heading up to the s.p.a.ceport, then." The passage to the docks led through the damaged industrial block, but should be deep enough within it to remain passable.
But a renewed groaning brought Arkady's attention back to the immediate problem, as the skylight framework buckled a little more under the weight of the radiator and mirror strips, causing several more heavy window panels to fall from the sky. Unfortunately the radiator slanted directly over one of the more heavily populated sectors of the ring. "We have to get the people out! We'll worry about Krieger when we reach the port."
After that it was an efficient scramble, coordinating with the Chakran police and emergency crews to manage the evacuation, to hurry the people toward the nearest elevator shaft to the hub, to keep them calm despite the terrifying groaning and the shuddering and the ominous whistling of the air across the twisted girders of the skylight frame. Arkady tried to estimate how long it might take Wulf Krieger to get to the port and infect its ships with his polyviruses. He got on the comm and issued instructions that no escaping ship be allowed to land on Earth or dock with any other habitat until a medical team checked it out, but he couldn't be sure how fully that would be heeded in the chaos. He just had to hope that the crush of the crowd would impede Krieger, giving them time to head him off. If there was any comfort here, it was that the bad guy had been forced to improvise.
But then the skylight frame buckled and gave way with a terrible shrieking sound, and tonnes of glass, metal, and composite rained down as the radiator panel overhead sagged and twisted, its connections to the adjacent panels breaking free one by one, way too late. Arkady realized it would come down virtually on top of the last group of stragglers he was with. "Everybody, run! Move, move, move! Quickly!" he cried, amplifying his voice to shock them into motion. Emerald caught his sense of urgency and began herding them forward as fast as she could.
But a large chunk of the skylight frame was falling right for him, a pair of massive mirror strip panels riding on its back. Without a second's thought, Arkady stopped running and lifted his arms skyward, bracing his legs and locking the symbot's joints. The impact drove his arms and torso down and his servos whined and overheated, but the symbot held, and the last few Chakrans were able to start scrambling out from under once he urged them out of their terrified paralysis.
The problem was, the servos were starting to give out. Arkady realized he wouldn't have the power left to push this thing off, not in the brief moments before the radiator panel gave way and came down on top of him. All he could do was hold it and make sure the Chakrans-and Emry-got to safety.
But then Emerald had to go and turn around. And then his wonderful, brilliant student had to be an idiot and run back to him. "Arkady!"
"Go! Save the others! My suit's shot!"
"No, I won't leave you!" Emry saw what was going to happen, he knew she did. But still she looked around desperately, grabbed a fallen girder and tried to use it to brace the ceiling fragment. She knew it was futile. But the poor lonely child couldn't face it, couldn't bear another loss. She'd blame herself, he knew it, and he hated doing this to the sweet girl. But she needed to live. Humanity needed her, needed the magnificent Troubleshooter she was destined to become.
Oh, God. He longed to tell Emerald how much he loved her, like his own daughter, sometimes maybe more since she needed it so much more. But that would just make it harder for her to leave. "d.a.m.n you, you idiot!" he cried. "For once in your life, listen to me, you foolish child! Go! That's an order! Go!" She jerked her head back as though he'd struck her, and gazed at him with a look of shock and betrayal and abandonment, tears pouring down her face, looking like the little girl he'd met nine years ago, just minutes too late. But she was listening. "You have too many other lives to save," he told her, ramming each word home.
It got through to her. It was the only thing that could have. She was bawling at the top of her lungs like a baby as she turned away. But she turned away, and she ran. Arkady tried to call out his love to her, to say good-bye, but the radiator panel finally tore free with a final, mournful groan.
Arkady accepted the inevitable, finding peace. His old comrade had served him well, but it had reached its limits. At least the breaking of the radiator meant that its remaining pieces would fall free and put no more strain upon the habitat. At least he'd gotten the people out. That was what mattered. He'd just done his job, done what came naturally. He knew Pavel and the kids would understand.
He just prayed, with his last thought, that Emerald would.