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If only Emry's fingers would stop twitching. And if only her left retinal implant would stop flashing those phosphene artifacts over her vision. Maybe once they were done with the Red Knights, they could use their armor to stage some big heist so she could afford better mods. Emry liked the irony of that.

But there was no more time for stargazing. Her target sentry was coming into view, fully concealed by a red-plated symbot exoskeleton and black carbon-fiber bodysuit. The forearms bulged with built-in weaponry. The sentry's build and body language seemed male to Emry, and Hack's tap into the suit's comm system soon confirmed it as the sentry reported an all clear to his base. Now Emry just had to hope he was hetero.

Emry double-checked her hooker disguise and the straight-haired blond wig she had on over her own French-braided tresses (which she'd finally allowed to grow out under coaxing from Javon), then staggered out in front of the sentry, pretending to be stoned. She allowed her fingers to twitch for now, to aid the illusion. She caught his attention right away.

"Hey! What are you doing here?"

"Oh, hi!" She giggled. "Ooh, hey, Iron Man! Wanna party?" She leaned forward, cleavage set on kill.



He seemed tempted for a moment, but hesitated. "Sorry," he finally said. "I don't party with half-mech freaks!" Striding forward with suit-enhanced speed, he struck her across the face before she could react.

d.a.m.n, she thought. Shoulda known they'd have sensors in those things to tell "pure" people from mods. But she just lay there and took it as he kicked at her again, not wishing to tip him off. Luckily she was st.u.r.dier than he realized.

It still hurt, though, so she was glad when the suit finally convulsed and froze. The beating had distracted the sentry long enough for Hack to pierce his encryption and take over the armor. Emry took great pleasure in sh.e.l.ling the guy like a lobster and repaying him with interest for the beating.

Hack had come out of hiding by now, and he watched appreciatively as Emry stripped to her panties and began to don the armor. It was designed for someone taller, but the carbon-mesh layer was somewhat adjustable. Still, it hung a bit loosely on her once it was sealed up.

But before she could get a feel for the symbot, shouts started coming over its comm system as well as her own earplug comm. "Banshee, Hack, help!" Peter called, while the Knights reported a sentry under attack. "We got the guard, but the peeghole got a zaogao warning off first!"

"Calm down, we're on it!" Emry called back, belatedly hoping she wasn't sending over the Knights' channel as well. "Overload, status?"

"Red suits, pouring out," Daniel said in his staccato way. "Out of the side corridor. Their base door. Hemorrhage, like blood, but it clangs and clacks and stomps, echoing...." She heard Padhma speaking softly to him, trying to calm him.

Like blood ... Emry hoped the sight didn't trigger another of Daniel's Niihama flashbacks. They needed their lookout now. "Ovey, focus on Thrust and Crack," she told him in her most soothing voice. "Tell me which way to go." The suit's HUD was already directing her, and she was following its lead, but Daniel needed the focus. She ran awkwardly, struggling to adjust her rhythms as the suit augmented her strength and speed.

"Spinward forty-two meters, left fifteen. On the right track already. Your suit's too big." He giggled. "Baggy saggy Banshee." As always, his eye for detail when his inhibitor was off astonished her, though in this case it embarrassed her as well. Still, she was willing to take a little ribbing if it helped him avoid a panic attack.

"Aiya," Shengli cursed. "Why are they all armored?"

"I don't know! Maybe they were doing drills. Who cares? Focus on hacking 'em, dong me?" she asked, falling into his Chinglish slang to get his attention.

"I dong. No guanshee."

Daniel laughed a bit hysterically. "No guanshee, Banshee! Fanshy that."

"Keep it calm, Ovey. Brace for a fight." Over the comm, Om began murmuring a calming mantra to Daniel, and he repeated it under his breath.

Soon she saw one red suit battling several others; apparently Javon had managed to take the suit from his sentry after all. She marked that one as friendly on her corneal HUD, though the ID lock flickered a bit and the interference worsened the phosphene static in her left eye.

The good news was, there weren't as many Knights as Daniel had implied, only ten or twelve. His fear had overwhelmed his precision; it was the only thing that could. Still, she and Thrust were heavily outnumbered. Several of the Knights spotted her and headed her way. Emry raised her arms, hoping the interface for the vambrace guns was as intuitive as it seemed. She figured the Knights' armor would keep them from getting killed-though it was no more than a passing concern. These hose-clogs deserved whatever might happen to them.

Sure enough, the bullets slowed them down and caused some damage, but not enough to keep them from retaliating in kind. She felt the kicks through the suit, but nothing penetrated-yet. Emry broke into a run, her own augmented strength combining with the suit's to let her close in fast enough to take them by surprise. That advantage continued as she went at them hand-to-hand, punching and kicking, tearing at armor plates and helmets. She glimpsed Thrust doing much the same, though he relied more on speed than strength, sprinting toward their home base to draw several of them away from Emry. Hack and Crack were nearby with their gear, scanning for a window, with Hikkaku and her girlfriends standing guard over them. Emry tossed a couple of incapacitated Knights their way, so the brothers could attack their suits while the girls dealt with the scum inside.

"More coming!" Daniel cried. "Same wound, same door. Reinforcers. Enforcers. More force. More guns."

"Thrusty?"

"See 'em. Aah! Taking some big hits here. Could use some help!"

Emry stopped playing around with her opponents, smashed them aside, and ran to her lover's aid. Soon the new Knights came into view. They had heavier, more elaborate armor, one more ornate than the rest. The big dog, she thought. That one was firing small rockets at Javon, who was managing to dodge them, but just barely. Emry opened fire as she ran, getting his attention.

An amplified voice came from the leader's suit. "Impure scum! You're the ones took out the Zompers, ain't you? Big mistake!" He pointed an arm at her, fired a rocket. She dodged, but the blast was close enough to knock her down, and she felt the heat through the armor. Her ass was going to be red tonight.

"Perverts of nature!" the big boss cried, not even smart enough to get his slurs right. "The Knights will do God's holy work and purge you of the world!"

"Other way around," Daniel muttered.

But Emry was way past caring about grammar. Mod-hating vackers like this had made life miserable for her and her friends for too long. They were all the same-the Red Knights, the Zompers, Om's parents, those smug Greenwooder b.a.s.t.a.r.ds who'd treated her and her mom like dirt. They needed to be taught a lesson. This piece of shit was going down.

The armor she wore had four small missiles of its own, two in each vambrace. She'd been keeping them on reserve, but now was the time to unleash every one of them. Arming the missiles, she raised her arms, pointing them right at the big boss, and fired.

And her arm twitched.

Two of the missiles struck the leader, the explosions knocking him over. But the other two went astray, striking a support pillar near where it met the ceiling. The blast blew a large chunk out of the pillar, and cracked through it the rest of the way. The ceiling above it, already eroded by leaking water, crumbled and sagged.

A loud groaning resonated through the subcomplex. The fighters paused, looking toward the damaged ceiling section. Water was spraying out of it, the pressure worsening the damage.

A few seconds later, that whole section of the ceiling began to cave in.

The Knights ran, dragging their injured leader with them. Over the comm, Daniel was screaming in terror, and so was Padhma. But Emry was paralyzed, unable to divert her eyes from the collapse. She realized that there was more than debris and water falling from above. There was furniture. There were swaths of carpet, fragments of video walls.

There were people.

"Lao-tian, bu," Peter cried. "There musta been an apartment building up there...."

"Emry?" Javon was there, shaking her shoulder through the suit. But she was too busy staring at the bodies.

Bodies?

She started running toward the rubble.

"Emry! No, we want to go the other way!" Javon called. She barely heard it.

The bodies-no, the people were moving. Thank the Goddess. Or, no, wait, someone was crying, pleading ...

"Oh no."

A boy who couldn't have been more than eight was shaking a woman, calling "Mommy?" She moved only under that impetus. Her lower torso was buried under a large slab of debris. Blood poured from under it.

"Oh, Goddess!" Emry ran to her. The boy gaped in fear, tried to shelter his mother. "No, I-" Emry ripped off the helmet. "I'm here to help."

The words rang hollow in her ears. So she turned her attention to the slab, heaving it off the woman's body. Pulling off the gauntlets, tossing them as far away as she could, she knelt by the woman, felt for her pulse.

Her pulse? Come on, there had to be a pulse....

There was no pulse. She was ...

No! She can't be! She won't be! Emry moved her off the rubble, laid her flat, began doing CPR. Push hard, push fast. Keep the circulation going. Don't worry about cracking a rib, hard to do this right without it, just don't crush her rib cage! Don't let her die!

She gradually became aware that Javon was calling her, that Ruki and some of the others were gathered near her. "Banshee, come on, we gotta launch! Cops are coming!"

"No! We gotta help her!"

Ruki pulled her away from the woman. "We gotta help ourselves!"

Emry shoved her aside and knelt by the woman again, resuming CPR. "We don't hurt innocents! We're not like that!"

"It was an accident!" Javon said. "Look, they'll be here soon, they'll get her help! You wanna get caught? You want us to get caught?"

"Go if you want. I'm staying."

"They'll arrest you," Ruki hissed. "Make you talk. Make you ID us!"

"I won't do that. I don't hurt my friends. I don't hurt innocents."

"You already killed her! Can't you see that? She's dead!" She tried wrenching Emry away again.

"NO!!!!" Emry shrieked at the top of her lungs, pulling herself free. Her vision blurred with tears. But she kept on pushing. As long as the blood kept flowing through the woman's brain, she could be saved-if help came before the residual oxygen in it ran out.

Ruki knelt opposite Emry, but didn't interfere further. "There's no innocents, Emry, just survivors and vics. And the Freaks survive by sticking together!" She looked up, her ears perking up at the approaching sirens and footfalls. "Either you come with us now, or you aren't one of us anymore!"

"This isn't us! We aren't like them!"

Ruki snarled. "Ohh, vack you, then! Traitor!" She bounded away, her thick, golden fox tail swishing behind her. "Come on, Freaks! Let's get the O's and go!"

From the corner of her eye, Emry saw Javon hesitate as the others retreated with Ruki. She met his gaze, wordlessly pleading with him to stay, to help her make sure this didn't happen. But as his eyes took in the rubble, the wounded, the mother Emry was fighting to keep alive, she saw only fear in them. Finally, with one last look of apology, Javon took off after the other Freaks at top speed.

She was alone.

"Will she live?"

The paramedics had the woman fully encased in a life-support sac, its chestplate unit keeping her heart stimulated, its mask pushing air in and out of her lungs. The Bhaskaran police had allowed Emry to stay while the medics worked on her, seeing as how she'd offered no resistance to having her arms cuffed behind her.

A grizzled paramedic looked up at Emry's question. "It was touch-and-go, but her EEG looks good. She'll need a lot of new parts, but she should be up and about again in a few months."

Emry fell to her knees, sobbing with relief. The police detective, a stocky, middle-aged blond woman named Barbour, put a hand on her shoulder. "Was she someone you knew?" Emry shook her head mutely. "Well, I gotta say, it was a b.l.o.o.d.y decent thing you did, staying to save her. Brave too. T'other Knights all ran, not to mention that gang they say attacked 'em." She shook her head. "Reckless b.u.g.g.e.rs. I tell yer ... I don't much truck with you Knights' ideas about mods, but if I ever get my hands on the gang that did this...."

"I'm not a Knight," Emry said.

Barbour looked over her armor. "Coulda fooled me."

"It was ... supposed to fool them. I'm..." She choked on her words, but it had to be said. "I'm the one that attacked them."

"You-you're one of the mods?" Barbour crouched down to meet her eyes. "Kid, what I just said about you bein' brave, you just square that. It takes real guts to stand up to scum like that. D'you think..." She went on carefully. "If you really want to do the right thing, dearie, a good way would be to tell us who they are. Who it was led the raid. Who fired the-"

"Don't you get it?!" Emry yelled. "Whose c.o.c.k did you have to suck to get that badge, you vackhead? I did it! It was me! All of it was me! It wasn't their fault, I led them into it! I shot those missiles! It was me!" She was screaming in Barbour's face now. "So you do your leakin' job, you stupid bit.c.h! You arrest me, and throw me in jail, and throw the Goddess-d.a.m.n key into the vack!"

Things didn't turn out quite that way. Bhaskara may have been run-down and beseiged by crime, but its people clung proudly to their founding legal principles, including very firm rules about the prosecution of minors-and at seventeen years and ten months, Emry still just qualified by their definitions. Though some in the prosecutors' office wanted to try her as an adult, there was no legal recourse to do so. Emry was tried as a juvenile, her name and face kept out of the public record. Her court-appointed defender pointed out that Emry's mods made her more than capable of escaping if she wished, and argued eloquently that her guilty plea and willing cooperation, as well as her tireless efforts to preserve the life of Elizabeth Anwar, the woman whose son she'd nearly orphaned, demonstrated that she already clearly understood the wrongness of her actions and deserved the chance for rehabilitation and reform. Emry wished they'd stuck her with a less persuasive defender. Her sentence was ridiculously light: a few months in juvie with counseling, plus community service, helping to rebuild the apartment building and substructure she'd damaged. Naturally, her bionics were deactivated or inhibited, and in some cases removed outright, with her full consent. The doctors told her she was lucky; some of her cruder black-market mods would have caused irreversible neurological damage if left in much longer. "Lucky" didn't strike her as a relevant word, though.

The verdict also required her to confront her victims, and she faced them readily, prepared for whatever condemnation the Anwars and their neighbors might inflict. But frustratingly, Elizabeth Anwar saw her only as a troubled, lost child who'd made a terrible mistake that she'd instantly regretted, and who had very bravely fought to make amends for it. Her son and neighbors respected the dignified, fiftyish woman's judgment, and accepted Emry's apologies as readily as Anwar did. Her apologies were heartfelt, but their ready forgiveness scalded her. Why wouldn't anyone hate her, scream at her, beat her up? Why did they leave her to do it all herself?

The one respect in which she failed to cooperate with the authorities was her absolute refusal to give them any information about the rest of the Freakshow. She insisted that any punishment for their actions should fall solely on her own head. "You'd still protect them," the prosecutor asked, "after they abandoned you?"

"You don't get it," she told him. I abandoned them.

During her term of service, she monitored the news with mixed feelings. The lack of any mention of the Freakshow was comforting-it meant they were still out there, laying low, staying alive. But she missed them terribly. They were the second family she'd lost. She went through many sleepless nights, kept awake by the aching void next to her in bed. Javon ... For all their insistence that it had only been casual, all their self-conscious hammock-hopping, they had always been there for each other when it had really counted. Being without him-knowing she'd left him-hurt more than she could've ever imagined ... or at least admitted before.

Come on, she told herself in the light of day, dismissing those maudlin thoughts as an artifact of sleep deprivation. He was just a warm body. He was one of the gang, like all the others.

And who needs them, anyway? she was soon trying to persuade herself. They wouldn't stick by me when I needed them. So forget them. I got by on my own before them, I can do it again. Vack, I made them! They'll be lost without me. I'll just get by on my own. I'll just ...

But for the life of her, she couldn't figure out what came next.

March twentieth came, and Emry was prepared for it to pass unremarked, a day like any other. It was foolish to cling to the Earthly year anyway, a needless atavism. But she came back from her shift at the construction site to be told that someone was waiting for her in the juvie home's visiting lounge. She followed the guard in hesitantly, not knowing what to feel.

With some relief, she realized she didn't know the woman who stood to greet her, a slim, elegant woman with light brown skin and a red bindi mark on her forehead. After a moment, though, Emry felt there was something familiar about her.

"Emerald, h.e.l.lo," the woman said in a gently lilting contralto. "My name is Bimala Sarkar. I, ah, suppose I should wish you a happy birthday." She extended her hand, which Emry took hesitantly. The guard hovered nearby, though by now he knew Emry was no threat.

"Please, sit down." Sarkar matched her action to her words, and Emry slowly followed suit.

She frowned. "I know we've met before. I've seen you somewhere."

Sarkar nodded. "You're very observant. You've seen me in several places over the past few years, in a variety of disguises."

Emry tensed. Could this be someone from a rival gang, an assassin who'd tracked her down? But why would an assassin approach her like this, in a place full of guards? "Lady, you better tell me what the flare you're talking about right now." But even as she said it, she began to remember where she'd seen those eyes, heard that voice. A shop clerk here, a liner passenger there. People who had always been unfailingly polite, even kind in her brief encounters with them-with her.

"It's all right, Emerald," Sarkar said. "I'm a private investigator. I'm working for your father."

Emry glared at her, shot to her feet. "No such person," she said, turning to leave.

Sarkar caught her shoulder, turning her back around. "Very well, then. I'm working for Richard Shannon. He hired me several years ago."

"You're not taking me back!" At her raised voice, the guard took a step forward. Emry strove for calm, with limited success.

"No, I'm not," the older woman said. "Richard ... came to accept that you wouldn't willingly stay at home, so he stopped trying to force you back. He knew you could take care of yourself. But he still wanted to make sure you stayed safe. So he sent me to, to watch over you."

"h.e.l.l of a job you've done!" It was half a laugh, half a sob.

"Well, you haven't always been easy to find. And ... Richard didn't want to interfere in your life. When he learned the path you'd taken ... the damage you did ... it grieved him, but he felt it wasn't his place to intercede. Felt anything he said or did would just make you angrier."

"So it finally got through his skull after all."





CHAPTER DISCUSSION