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Thorne remained unfazed. "I'm tempted to say I outgrew it. But that would be disrespectful, considering how you've followed Richard's example." His chiseled brow furrowed. "Indeed, I find it surprising that he never became a Troubleshooter himself."

"He was no fighter," Emry replied. "He helped in other ways."

"And yet he condemned my refusal to become involved in the Belt's turmoil ... even though he knew what form such involvement would take."

"You could've done rescue work, like he did. Or used those great minds to negotiate a peace."

"We tried that at Earth, and only alienated both sides. Would any of the sides here have accepted us as representatives? The newcomers blamed us for their exile, and to the Striders, we were just one more set of immigrants. And what did we-"



He broke off. "No. There is nothing to be gained by rehashing a decades-old argument. The truth is, Richard may have been right. People with the power to make a difference should not stand by while chaos looms. Things have only grown more dangerous in the decades since-organized crime, inter-habitat strife, terrorism, all exacerbated by the abuse of human modification."

"Hey, we do our part!"

"No question, the Troubleshooters have saved many lives. But have you really made any headway against the root problems?"

"We're working on it. We've been expanding our operations, getting into preemptive crisis management, diplomacy, the whole deal."

"Ahh, yes, the initiative spearheaded by Mr. Gregor Tai and his Cerean consortium."

"You're not so out of touch after all."

"Oh, I've made a point of becoming familiar with Mr. Tai's activities. Particularly since he sent one of his pet Troubleshooters to spy on my people."

Emry choked on her orange juice. "Wha-excuse me?"

Psyche stopped her brushing and put an arm protectively around Emry's shoulders. "Dad, what are you saying?"

"I didn't want to believe it either, my dear. But don't let sentiment blind you. Tai sees our conference as a threat, a power play. He doesn't trust the Neogaians, the Zarathustrans, us-anyone who wouldn't readily play along with his idea of utopia." Thorne's voice grew harder as he spoke, and he rose to his full two-and-a-sixth meters' height. "So he sent in a mole. One of our own who could exploit her family ties to gain our confidence-all the while reporting to her new master, an agent of the very world that hounded us into exile, to give him fodder for a new witch hunt!"

Emry had risen to face him, insofar as she could at three-quarters his height. "I don't know what book of fairy tales you've been reading. But I don't have to sit here and take this kind of suit-fart." She strode toward the laundry unit to retrieve her uniform, trying not to make it look like a retreat. But she might need her light armor, from the look of things.

But Thorne followed, caught her left arm, and spun her around-not violently, but with irresistible force. "Were you watching her microexpressions, Psyche?"

His daughter grew sad as she gazed at Emry. "Yes, Dad. They weren't very subtle. She's lying." Emry winced. She'd been through the training to repress her microexpressions-the split-second "tells" that showed on the faces of even skilled liars. But it wasn't an area she'd scored highly in. She should've known she couldn't fool someone with Psyche's enhanced social perceptions.

"Good girl." He turned his gaze back to Emry, his grip still firm around her arm. "You aren't a very good bluffer, Emerald. Tai should never have assigned you to a mission like this, even with the advantage of blood ties. His mistake was defining you too much by your genes."

Emry struggled to wrench her arm free, but his fingers only clenched it more painfully. She shot out her right hand at the nerve cluster that should weaken his grip, but in a flash he caught her right arm with his other hand. She tried to sweep a leg around to take his out from under him, but he yanked her into the air by her wrists. She swung back and started to pull up her legs to kick at him, but he spun her around and tossed her clear over the couch.

"Dad!" Psyche cried. "Don't hurt her!"

But Emry was back on her feet, and she was grinning. "Don't worry, honey," she said confidently. "He won't." She ran forward ... only to find herself flung back the way she came, this time landing on the couch.

Emry was disoriented, and not just from being tossed around. She hadn't been overpowered this easily since she was ten. But as her stomach settled, she reminded herself that she enjoyed a challenge. Sure-this is just starting to get interesting.

But she wasn't going to attack recklessly again. Coming to her feet, she circled Thorne, sizing him up while she called subvocally for Zephyr. Only static returned. "My ship. What have you done to him?"

"Merely locked him in his docking bay and jammed his comms," Thorne told her. "We have no wish to harm anyone. You are the aggressor here."

"And why should I believe that?" she countered, engaging him verbally to keep him occupied while she readied her next move. "First you abandoned the Belt when it needed you ... now you get in bed with militants, murderers, and terrorists!"

"And whom have you been getting in bed with?" Thorne replied coldly.

"You don't get to be holier-than-thou, mister-not the way you pimp your own daughter!"

Psyche let out an indignant "Hey?!"

Thorne's eyes darted to her for a split second, and Emry took the opening to strike at his blind side. But Psyche interposed herself, a hand extended to block each of them. "All right, that's enough! Stop this!" Her usually gentle, warm voice took on a striking air of command, bringing Emry to a halt as effectively as her physical intervention.

"Psyche," Thorne began.

"No, Dad! This is my home, and we'll do this my way." She put her hands on Emry's shoulders. "Emry? It's true, then? You were sent here to, to gather evidence against us? All this, it was just an act?"

The sadness on her face, in her voice, was wrenching. Emry hated the idea of betraying her. She tried to remind herself that she hadn't really done anything wrong-and that Psyche was hardly in a position to judge her for employing a little seduction. "Look ... it's not like that. I was just sent to observe. To find out if the conference was really about what you said. As long as you weren't up to anything bad, we weren't gonna get in your way."

"And who is the arbiter of good or bad?" Thorne demanded. "Gregor Tai?"

"Dad." Psyche led Emry over to the laundry unit and retrieved her uniform at last. As Emry dressed, she wondered if she was being good-cop/bad-copped here. But she'd scored much higher in reading deceit than in concealing it, and she could sense none in Psyche's own microexpressions or IR signature. "Emry, you didn't have to deceive us. We don't have any secrets here. Not from you."

"Well, you can't blame us for wondering. You haven't been good neighbors for a long time, and now you're dealing with some pretty shady characters."

"So that makes us guilty by association?" Thorne asked. But Psyche threw him a look, and he subsided.

Once Emry was dressed (aside from her utility belt, which had apparently been confiscated), Psyche guided her and Thorne to seats in the living-room area. Thorne continued from where the discussion had left off, but took a more conversational tone. "So tell us, Emerald: what is the alternative to engagement with powers like Neogaia, Zarathustra, Wellspring? Sanctioning them? Oppressing them? Denying them a voice in Solar affairs? Perhaps forcing them into exile, again? To the Kuiper Belt or a risky interstellar voyage? Those are the kinds of policies that created them in the first place."

"So you'd rather negotiate with terrorists?"

Thorne seemed disappointed. "I expected better from you than shibboleths. Governments always insist that negotiating with terrorists only encourages more terrorism. But refusal to negotiate never seems to deter terrorism, does it? That's because the very reason people allow terrorism in support of their causes is usually because no one will negotiate with them. Because no one will give them any other avenue to address their agendas."

He shook his head. "I spent years battling people like this, decades reviewing my successes and failures. But I found nothing you couldn't learn simply by studying history. Policies of containment, sanctions, 'regime change'-those never bring down oppressive states. But engagement can always make a difference. A society that is connected with the broader world gains access to a wide range of ideas, resources, and opportunities that empower its people to challenge their oppressive leaders and question their ruling ideologies. A society that is cut off from the broader world is at the mercy of its entrenched establishment, and more inclined to remain hostile to other states that have chosen to be hostile toward them.

"This is the answer Tai sent you to find, and it isn't one he'll want to hear. The reason I organized this summit is because of people like him and what I see them doing. The Cerean States are using Chakra City as an excuse to sanction or contain societies that they don't approve of-most likely with the tacit encouragement of Earth itself. But they've been using the Troubleshooters to spearhead that operation, turning you into Cerean shock troops, their own pet mods to contain other mods-and Striders as a whole."

"That's a lie!"

"Someone here is lying to you, Emerald Blair, that much is certain. But I ask you to entertain the possibility that it isn't us."

"Then tell me something credible! Okay, maybe I'm not the most experienced Troubleshooter around. But there are dozens of good, honest people there, people who wouldn't let themselves be fooled into something like that! If Greg Tai were the kind of man you say he is, Sensei Villareal would never have supported him."

Thorne leaned back, steepling his fingers. "Have I said what kind of man he is?"

She frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Emerald, I have no doubt that Gregor Tai has only the n.o.blest of intentions, and wishes only to bring peace and order. But he believes that the good of the many is endangered if too much power falls into the hands of the few. And he is right about that, which is exactly the problem. He has now been given a powerful tool to pursue his ends-the Troubleshooter Corps, made larger and more organized than ever. When you have that kind of power, the temptation to use it can become more and more irresistible, and ever more extreme actions can be rationalized in the name of the greater good."

"Now who's shibbolething?" Emry said, though her tongue faltered on the last word. No wonder the ancient whoevers used it as a code word. That's hard to say.

"Can you really deny it? Think about this new Troubleshooter policy. To apply your power proactively rather than reactively. To head off trouble before it starts. Certainly it sounds good in principle. But what does it mean? Investigating people who have committed no crimes. Judging cultures whose values appear threatening and putting pressure on them to conform. Isn't that what you've begun doing? Can you really say you haven't been uncomfortable with some of it? You must have wondered: what happens when they refuse to change their 'inappropriate' ways? How will you be asked to exert your power to bring about their compliance? Foment the overthrow of their leaders? Blackmail them into cooperation? I can prove to you that some of your fellow Troubleshooters are on such missions as we speak."

"I don't believe that!"

Thorne smiled. "And you are still a poor bluffer."

Reflecting on his words, Emry had to admit that Thorne was echoing some of Zephyr's concerns, and indeed her own, about this assignment from Tai. Still ... "Okay, yeah, maybe we're going farther than we would've before. But we have to. The old, reactive approach, it wasn't working! We never would've stopped the Michani in time that way."

"Granted."

"And if we are ... supporting people who want to kick out tyrants anyway, maybe that just means they'd have a better chance of succeeding. And I guess if we're, well, putting some pressure on certain people ... it's like Psyche said, sometimes it takes a little extra incentive to get people to do the right thing. h.e.l.l, it's better than going to war."

"All of that is also true, and that is why this is so insidious. It is always possible to find rationalizations for exerting power. And once you have accepted that exerting power is the right course of action, it becomes easier to justify compromising your ideals, imposing greater restrictions, being less careful of others' rights."

Thorne rose from his seat. Emry tensed, but he merely folded his hands behind him and began to pace-not nervously, but in the slow, stately manner of a panther surveying his domain. "Tai's approach might prove effective at quelling the immediate chaos. But ultimately it means Ceres unilaterally imposing its will on the rest of the Striders, and they-we-will never stand for that. It will only create more tension, more resentment, and require Ceres to crack down harder to maintain control-lest Earth feels compelled to come in and do it for them. It could mean a war that tears the Striders apart."

What he said made sense. But she still had doubts. "How is that any different than if we let things keep going the way they were? Striders fight each other plenty already."

Moving closer, he extended a hand to her. After a moment's thought, she took it and allowed him to guide her to her feet. His hand was warm to the touch, his grip firm yet gentle. "That's true. The Cereans are right about one thing: the current fragmented state of the Belt is untenable. The Troubleshooters, valiant as they are, simply are not sufficient to balance the chaos. There is a glamour to such frontier vigilantes-to 'superheroes'-but in reality their power to do good is severely limited."

Emry answered softly. "When Vesta launched that asteroid at Earth, who diverted it?"

Thorne conceded the point. "Shashu, the Troubleshooter. Now your Sensei."

"And who managed to hold Earth off from retaliating until they could see the danger was past?"

He gave a small smile. "True, my colleagues did play a role in that. But we and Villareal were only able to halt the immediate danger. Our role in negotiating the Great Compromise thereafter has been exaggerated. It was the effort of other, less glamorous individuals and institutions that made that a reality."

He met her eyes again. "In the final analysis, superheroics are just another instance of the unilateral application of force. That is not enough to bring real, lasting change, and it creates too many complications of its own.

"If real change, real peace is to be achieved, then all the involved parties must have a voice, a hand in shaping their destiny. It wasn't the Vanguardians who restored order on Earth, it was the global government. All the nations working together to solve their common problems, with no one voice dominating the others."

He went on thoughtfully. "The early Striders understood the need for self-discipline, cooperation, the acceptance of restrictions for the greater good of all. But the Terrans exploited that to oppress their colonists, making the Striders suspicious of authority, particularly when it comes from outside. It has become an excuse for isolation and rivalry. It has made it almost impossible for the Striders to cooperate in addressing global problems. It has fragmented the mods, kept us bickering and fighting among ourselves rather than cooperating in exploring the endless possibilities of augmented evolution.

"Earth fears that transhumanism will mean the conquest or extinction of traditional humanity. Groups like Neogaia and the Michani believe they must transform all of humanity in their image. What they all fail to understand is that evolution, natural or artificial, is not an ascent toward a Singularity, but an endless branching into multiplicity. That multiplicity is becoming a reality all around us, genetically, politically, and philosophically. And it must be acknowledged as a strength rather than a menace or an obstacle to our goals. We do need to unite into a systemwide community, but it must be one that balances power rather than centralizing it, that preserves its members' individuality and their say in their own destinies. That is what I hope to begin building with this conference. We need to unite, Emerald-not just the mods, but all Striders, for traditional humanity is as valid as any other branching of the species. And we need to begin now, before Cerean power becomes too widespread."

Emry's head was reeling. All this was far bigger than she was prepared to deal with. So she focused on the concerns she could get a handle on. "And that includes uniting with Wellspringers? Neogaians? Mars Martialis ... ans?"

"With fellow mod nations, yes. You of all people know that it takes transhuman abilities to counter the threats we face today."

"I thought you said superheroes couldn't make a difference."

"Not as vigilantes or volunteers. But as the organized defense force of a Beltwide alliance, they would be essential. Such an alliance can only be effective at keeping the peace if it has the ability to enforce it." Thorne shook his head. "The Troubleshooters themselves would be ideal for such a role, but Tai already has them in Ceres's pocket, and thus in Earth's. We need our own mod communities to counter them." He held up his hands reassuringly. "Not in open combat, I hope. But to provide a balance of power, to hold them in check long enough to deal with them diplomatically. With luck, we can eventually persuade the Sheaf to ally with us as an equal partner rather than a dominant power."

"But these mods, Thorne ... the kind of people you're talking about bringing in...."

"People? Emerald, you disappoint me. The people of any given nation are far from uniform. However misguided the state may be, it is still home to many good people.

"And that is the value of engagement. If we invite these nations to partic.i.p.ate in our alliance, it would promote reform, improve the lot of those good people within them-the kind of people we would need to join us in making Sol System a better place for all its inhabitants."

Psyche stepped forward and took Emry's hands. "He's right. n.o.body's denying that states like Neogaia and Wellspring have committed some atrocious acts. But what state hasn't, at some point in its history?"

She stroked Emry's hair. "What about us? The Vanguard has made its mistakes. Turning our backs on the Belt-and on your father-was perhaps the worst one. But we're trying to redeem ourselves for it now. And so we're motivated to believe that everyone is capable of redemption. That everyone can be forgiven-deserves to be forgiven-for their past wrongs, and given a second chance. You can understand that, can't you?"

Emry gazed at her, blinking back tears. She didn't trust herself to speak. But the desire for redemption ... that was something she could understand very well indeed.

10.

Origin Stories: Great Power January 2103

Bhaskara habitat

3:1 Kirkwood gap

Emry's hand was twitching again.

The new nanofiber servos she'd gotten installed as a Christmas present to herself had made her muscles significantly more powerful, their reaction time faster than ever. But Doc Kamiyama's adjustments had been off in her right arm, and she had to deal with periodic bouts of feedback, sometimes producing muscle spasms, other times stabbing pain. She had to force her muscles to hold still against the pull of their own reinforcements.

Still, it was worth it. It gave her an edge the Freakshow needed more and more these days. She'd managed to keep them safe for nearly two years since the Tong Robo incident. She'd paid the Tong back, getting Hack and Crack to crash their bionics and fuse their neural connections in the process, leaving them helpless in the hospital until their nerves could regenerate enough to take new grafts. The act had shattered their influence and reputation and left them helpless to pursue retribution. Since then, the Freakshow's own rep had grown and the gang had prospered. But that meant becoming a target for rival gangs and drawing more attention from the cops of various habitats, so fighting had become more and more a necessity.

But sometimes it was a pleasure. Recently, one of Ruki's old "colleagues" from the animal-mod brothel, believing herself free and safe after the Freaks had raided the brothel and liberated its captives, had been raped and tortured to death by Les Hommes Pures, a militant gang of genetic Luddites who hated all mods. The Freakshow had been quick to retaliate, and the Zompers (as everyone else called them) had endured hours of torture at Hikkaku's claws. Ruki had wanted to kill them, and Emry had been sorely tempted to let her. But Javon had argued that it would be better to leave them alive but damaged enough that they'd need artificial parts to survive. As an itinerant gang, they wouldn't have stem-cell cultures on file at any local hospital, so bioprinted grafts wouldn't be an option, at least in the short term. The Freaks had agreed that it would be a far more creative revenge.

But Emry was still furious knowing that innocent mods remained unsafe. The Zompers had allies who might seek revenge on the Freakshow or their friends. So Emry concluded that the Freaks would have to strike them first.

That was why they were here tonight, in the cavernous maintenance subcomplex beneath the seediest section of Bhaskara, a once-booming habitat straddling the Inner and Central Belts, which had gone into decline as Ceres and Vesta had out-boomed it, their growing civilizations and economies drawing the population away. Here was where the Red Knights had their base. The Knights were a purist group who used armored symbots to counter the advantages of the mods they expected to clash with in the war they believed inevitable.

But their armor was also their weakness. Hack and Crack had determined that the suits used a crude biometric protocol they could easily fool, giving the Freaks a couple of ready-made Trojan Horses (of the hardware kind, not software) for their attack-assuming Thrust and Banshee could overpower a couple of the Knights' sentries without letting them raise an alarm.

Emry just hoped Javon's heart was in it. He hadn't been comfortable with this attack. "It seems like borrowing trouble," he'd told her. "They haven't killed any mods."

"Yet," Emry had countered. "And we're gonna send 'em the message that they better not start."

Padhma and Daniel hadn't seemed happy about it either, but they were pretty flaky most of the time and it was hard to tell what they really felt. They were both doing their part, though, as always. Overload was up in the catwalks, his inhibitor disengaged so he could perceive everything with that uncanny clarity that made him so invaluable as a lookout. Om was his backup, there to help him switch the implant back on if it became necessary and to soothe his fear of heights. The subcomplex was less than three stories high, but that was enough to set Daniel off. (Doc Kamiyama had been able to rebuild Daniel's body, but was nowhere near skilled enough to do anything about his brain.) Hack was with Emry and Crack with Javon, the techs backing up the muscle, while Hikkaku and the rest hid behind a massive filtration unit, poised to strike when the moment came. All the Freaks were in their places, ready to go into action like a well-oiled machine.





CHAPTER DISCUSSION