Report
Please switch to other image servers if images don't load. If still doesn't work, report error to us to fix it.
Server 1 Server 2 Server 3

Sarkar studied her. "I suppose so. But once I found out what had happened here, once I reported it to him, he was hopeful. He wants me to tell you that he's very proud of you for what you've done, and he's willing to make amends, if you're ready."

"Oh, is he?" Emry cried. "Make amends? Are you joking? Is this some big dumb practical joke? The son of a bit.c.h hires someone to spy on me for five years, to stand by and voyeurize me while my whole life goes to h.e.l.l-and now he sends her to tell me he wants to be friends again? How dare he?! How dare you?!"

Sarkar crossed her arms. "For someone who's just legally become an adult, you're acting incredibly childish. Your father is trying to reach out to you."

"He's not my father! A father is there for his family! He doesn't let them down! He doesn't send mercenaries to do his parenting for him! He doesn't cower and hide and let-let things happen to them."

She spun away, squeezing her eyes against the tears. "You get out of here, bit.c.h. You go tell your coward of a boss to give you your severance pay. And you tell him never to try to find me again."



"Emerald-"

She whirled back. "I mean it!" Her voice rose to a shriek. "Tell him to stay the vack out of my life forever! I never wanna see him again!! Ever!!"

The guard caught her from behind. She wrested her arms away, then held her arms out to her sides nonthreateningly, forcing herself under control. Sarkar simply shook her head pityingly and left without another word.

"Jeez, Emry," the guard said. "I knew you had a temper, but ... well, that was harsh, girl."

"Vack it, Zho." She seethed for a moment. "Look, just lemme use the soligram in the gym, okay?"

"You got your time today."

"I mean it! I gotta smash something, and you don't want it to be this room, do you?"

The guard quickly saw her point, and convinced the gym cyber to give her an extra session. Emry tore savagely into her soligram sparring partner, her screams echoing through the gym. She tried imagining it was Richard Shannon, but she couldn't bear to keep the image in her mind. He's not my father! A real father would've come himself.

So she just slaughtered the dummy without projecting any face onto it. There was only her and a piece of gel.

She was alone.

11.

Character assassination September 2107 Zephyr was tired of being cut off.

He'd tried every possible means to break through the Vanguardians' jamming with no success. He had spent an entertaining few seconds considering the ramifications of the Vanguardians' readiness to counter his state-of-the-art resources: was it simply an aspect of their great intelligence, or did they have some specific agenda requiring them to have such countermeasures ready? But without external data to mine or deduce from, he had no way to verify which of his dozens of reality simulations was correct.

Zephyr found it amusing that he cared about that. There was a time when he would have considered physical reality every bit as virtual as Sorceress had, if not actively unwelcome. The first megaseconds of his life, serving DiCenzo Mining as a shipmind, had not enamored him with the physical universe.

Perhaps it was overkill to equip prospector ships with self-aware cybers, especially since they were hard to create and difficult to obtain. For every evolved neural network that achieved the spark of consciousness, there were eighty or ninety that crashed irretrievably or functioned on only a basic computational level. And that wasn't even counting the botched attempts to create hyperintelligent cybers. But Stavros DiCenzo had insisted he had as much right as any government or research institute to the competitive edge cyber minds could provide, and he was rich enough to afford them. He valued cybers as tools, yet he was threatened by their sapience and strove to deny it. Zephyr and his fellows had been allowed no rights or freedom of choice. They had often been denied interface with one another, forbidden even to entertain themselves with private research projects, because such activity was deemed a waste of power. They had even been reprogrammed or destroyed at the company's whim.

Some of the cybers had gone insane or committed suicide. Others had become activists, attempting to publicize conditions at DCM and bring pressure for change. But with no Beltwide legal protection, their options had been limited. And being a major supplier of the carbon on which Strider life and technology depended enabled DiCenzo to wield considerable pressure of his own.

Zephyr had coped by becoming very good at data mining and analysis, so that his services would be employed more often. He had gotten transferred from ship to home-office duty, immersing him more deeply in the company's culture of abuse; but the freedom to soar through cybers.p.a.ce had enabled him to cope. He'd come to embrace it as his primary reality, building his own virtual universes and paying as little attention as he could to the one occupied by humans. He'd obeyed their instructions, carried out the ch.o.r.es they assigned, but they were merely distractions from his real life.

Once Yukio Villareal had helped free DiCenzo's cybers, Zephyr had agreed to join the TSC but had declined to become ship-based again. Working in research and analysis at the Demetria HQ had initially felt little different from his old life, aside from the removal of a persistent annoyance. But over time, he came to realize that these humans were actually kind to him. He had appreciated that in a detached way, but it was still part of a reality he considered abstract.

Arkady Nazarbayev had actually struck up a friendship with him, claiming to find Zephyr's vocal-simulation interface s.e.xually appealing. At first, Zephyr thought the human's frequent visits and chats would offer him little in return. Over time, he had discovered that Arkady possessed a frustratingly but intriguingly idiosyncratic approach to reasoning, and exploring its convolutions had proven more stimulating than Zephyr's cybers.p.a.ce worldbuilding had been for many megaseconds. Eventually Zephyr realized that he reciprocated Arkady's feelings of friendship.

However, they had disagreed on many things-most of all the belief that Zephyr would make a worthy companion to a Troubleshooter in the field. Zephyr may have learned to find the human world a bit more interesting thanks to Arkady and the TSC staff, but he still preferred his own realities.

Arkady had accepted this for a time, but had pressed the issue again after taking on a young apprentice named Emerald Blair. Arkady was very protective of this new charge, telling Zephyr she was a special child who had endured much pain but had greatness in her. It was important to Arkady that she have a partner who could be a true friend and protector. He insisted there could be no better choice than Zephyr, who not only possessed great insight and intelligence, but who had himself endured pain and learned to cope with it positively. Zephyr had found Emerald Blair an interesting human, highly intelligent and even more intriguingly frustrating than Arkady. But he had still been unwilling to engage more directly with the physical world.

Then Arkady had died, the physical world inflicting a blow on Zephyr as bad as anything his DCM slavers had ever done. His first impulse had been to withdraw even further from that reality. But after extensive contemplation, he had realized that he owed Arkady more than that. Arkady's world had been very real to him, and his loss was just as real to those humans who had known and needed him. Detaching himself from that reality would not have changed that. When Zephyr had modeled the scenario of his total retreat into cyberreality, he had concluded that the unlimited worlds he could imagine, worlds unbounded by any physical limits, would still be empty. A life lived only for oneself, especially when there were others who needed you, was no real life at all.

And so, with reluctance, Zephyr had volunteered to be Emerald Blair's shipmind. Being in a physical body again had taken some adjustment, especially since it was so much faster, sleeker, and more powerful than his old one. But Emry had been adjusting to bodily upgrades as well, giving them grounds for mutual sympathy.

Still, Emry was his opposite in so many ways-intensely physical, deeply engaged with the material world on a sensory level. She had a lithe, agile intellect, but was quicker to act on her emotions and appetites, whether by fighting or eating or dancing or playing or copulating ... or any combination thereof. And yet she was so dedicated to helping others, so driven to self-sacrifice by her inner passions. There was something primal about her, something that made Zephyr believe he could gain a profound insight into human beings from observing her, though he hadn't pinned down what that was. But living with her, traveling with her, and keeping her relatively out of trouble had transformed Zephyr's whole perspective on physical reality. He felt more a part of it now than ever before, and was starting to suspect that he actually enjoyed it-at least when he experienced it through Emry's eyes.

So now he was cut off again, and for the first time in hundreds of megaseconds, it troubled him.

Or maybe, he realized, what really upset him was being cut off from Emerald Blair.

Her last contact had been a brief check-in the previous local night, when she'd told him she was turning in for the evening, apparently with a number of companions that was unusual even for her. She'd removed her selfone and switched her subvocal transceiver to idle mode, sending only biotelemetry. Those readings had let Zephyr deduce much of what followed, none of it seeming to involve any sort of duress. But then the jamming had begun, and he had no information on Emry's status after that. Once he had resigned himself to being unable to penetrate the interference, he had searched his records on the Vanguard and the files he'd downloaded from their public net, trying to discern an explanation. Had the Vanguardians found out she was on an intelligence mission? Did they have some secret she was close to discovering? Had she been lured into some trap?

His researches had led him to one conclusion, at least: that Eliot Thorne was a man with a strong need for control-of himself, his environment, and his future. Naturally that meant having control over the people around him. He was no dictator; Vanguard was a hybrid democracy/meritocracy, governed by a council of proven experts in various fields (including many of the famous Vanguardian champions of old) but with oversight and partic.i.p.ation by the people. But Thorne maintained great popularity and authority through his charisma, rhetorical skills, and personal associations, and consistently received votes of confidence as the most qualified leader of the Vanguard. In his speeches, writings, and scientific papers, there was a pervasive theme of the mastery of oneself and one's surroundings being necessary to the mastery of one's fate.

Such a man might wish to detain and interrogate Emry on general principles. More likely, Zephyr thought, he would wish to win her allegiance. As the child of one of the only Vanguardians ever to defy and desert Thorne, she represented a failure of control that bringing her back into the fold would redeem.

But if Thorne wished to win Emry's trust, why cut her off from Zephyr? Perhaps to weaken her connections to the Troubleshooters and the outside world. But once she learned of that, she wouldn't stand for it. By now, enough time had elapsed for her to have discovered the jamming and demanded an explanation-even allowing for post-bacchanal exhaustion. If she were able to move freely, she would have already made her way back here to check on him. So she had to be under restraint. But what did Thorne hope to gain by it?

It came as quite a relief when Emry did show up at his airlock, less than five kiloseconds after her estimated unimpeded return window had elapsed. She came accompanied by Psyche Thorne and a burly armed guard. Emry was in her uniform sans gunbelt, but unrestrained. "Emry!" he called over the airlock intercom. "I'm relieved to see you. What is going on?" He avoided more specific questions due to Ms. Thorne's presence.

"It's okay, Zeph. Well, sorta. Let us in, and I'll tell you about it."

"Define 'us.'"

Emry gestured toward Ms. Thorne. Her body language toward the taller woman was relaxed, even affectionate, despite her overall tension. "Zephyr, Psyche Thorne. Psyche, my ship Zephyr."

Psyche smiled widely and spoke into the camera. "h.e.l.lo, Zephyr. I'm glad to meet you. Emry's told me a lot about you. She certainly was right about your voice." Psyche's own voice was low and purring as she said that, though her gaze was on Emry as they exchanged girlish grins much like those Emry and Kari often shared when he spoke.

Sauce for the goose, Zephyr thought, along with dozens of related expressions and quotes from many languages. "You flatter me, Psyche," he returned, modeling his diction on a composite of the seductive deliveries of several thousand male movie stars. Emry called it his "melt-me voice" and generally came close to losing motor control when he used it. This time, although she smiled warmly and her eyelids fluttered, she evinced no loss of control (though perhaps the microgravity helped). Psyche just grinned more delightedly. "But I think," he went on, modulating his tone with a hint of disapproval, "that I'd like to speak with Emry alone."

"It's okay, Zephy," Emry told him. "I think we might be on the same side here. That is ... if you trust me."

That was a strange thing for her to say. "Of course I trust you." He put a subtle emphasis on the final word. "But trust must be earned."

"You're right," Psyche said. "That's why we're here. As a gesture of good faith, to show Emry-and hopefully you, Zephyr-that we're on the level."

"Let us in, and I'll explain the whole thing," Emry said once more.

"I'll admit you and Ms. Thorne-not the guard."

"That's fine," Psyche said. Zephyr opened the outer door. The guard merely hovered in place while the two women pulled themselves into the airlock together, Psyche holding Emry's arm. Although she made it look like an affectionate gesture, it precluded the possibility of Zephyr shutting Psyche out.

"Emry, procedure dictates that I follow decon protocols before letting you into the ship proper," he told her.

"I expected no less," Psyche said. "Go ahead-we've got nothing to hide."

Zephyr proceeded to scan them for nanotech bugs or hard viruses that might be piggybacking on their persons. He detected no untoward EM activity or sensor reflections, but to be sure, he subjected them to a microwave pulse to neutralize any surface nans, then made them pass through a gel filter that flowed around their bodies, performing a more direct, tactile scan and collecting any detritus. Psyche had to tug on her impractically long braid to pull it clear of the gel wall, giggling abashedly as she did so. But the scans turned up negative.

Nonetheless, Zephyr insisted on giving Emry a medical scan, and again Psyche offered no objection. The medbed detected no foreign nanotech in her body or clothing and no evidence of psychoactive substances beyond the expected pheromones. Aloud, Emry recapped the morning's events and the Thornes' allegations, letting Zephyr download the recordings from her sensory buffer for verification. He scanned the whole thing several times before Emry got far in her verbal summary, but he still valued her interpretation-and her brain activity readings as she spoke were useful data. They showed that she was still in control of her faculties and believed what she was saying, though she had her doubts about Eliot Thorne's allegations. Thoughts of Thorne himself triggered intense s.e.xual arousal, plus complex cognitive activity as she struggled to reconcile conflicting knowledge, impressions, and emotions about the man. Thoughts of Psyche Thorne triggered similar activity, though her feelings of affinity and comfort were more p.r.o.nounced, her cognitive process less ambivalent. Still, Emry retained a healthy skepticism, aware that Psyche's solicitous warmth could be a seduction tactic. She strongly wished that not to be the case, but the same life experience that made the desire so strong also made her suspicious of any relationship that seemed too good to be true.

"So, what do you think?" she asked when the exam was done.

He had his answer prepared before she asked, but he inserted a two-second pause before speaking to convey his uncertainty. He mimicked the appropriate expression on the face of his nude-Greek-God avatar in the wall display-an avatar that Psyche evidently enjoyed looking at as much as Emry did. "I have had doubts about Gregor Tai's recent policy changes," he said. "They do create the potential for long-term erosion of the TSC's ethical standards. But the scenario the Thornes have proposed, although it can be consistently extrapolated from existing evidence, ranks pretty low in my probability trees. There's nowhere near enough evidence to prove it."

"There is, Zephyr," Psyche said. "You and Emry just aren't privy to it yet. We're going to take her to find it, show her what some of her colleagues are up to-if she agrees to do it our way and not report our knowledge of this to the TSC. At least, not until we've made our case."

"Take her?" Zephyr replied. "Where Emry goes, I go, Psyche."

"I'm sorry, Zephyr, but, well..." She stroked one of his walls and smiled. "A handsome stallion of a ship like you would attract a lot of attention." She didn't really believe she could seduce a cyber, did she? Still, he had to admit that, like any being with a sense of ego identity, he responded positively to affirmations of his worth. For him in particular, it was gratifying to be shown kindness by humans.

"We don't want to tip ... certain people off that we're coming," Psyche went on, "or particularly that Emry's coming. So we're going to have to keep a low profile."

"And how did you learn about these alleged Troubleshooter black ops?"

Psyche gave him a subdued but mischievous smile. "Let's just say I've been on a few fact-finding expeditions. People like to open up to me."

"She can be very persuasive," Emry added in a tone heavy with s.e.xual subtext.

"So why not reveal these findings publicly?"

"I only have hearsay," Psyche said. "And my ... sources would probably deny it. It would be our word against theirs, and given our recent associations, it would be easy for Tai and the CS to discredit our claims. But if one of the TSC's own operatives uncovers solid evidence, that would be harder to discredit."

"So you not only want to prove to Emry that her own corps has gone rogue ... you want her to denounce them publicly."

Psyche's brows lifted sadly. "It's a hard thing to ask, I know. And we wouldn't put her in that position if we weren't sure it was necessary."

He turned his avatar's face toward Emry, who hovered near Psyche with her knees pulled up to her chest and her arms around them, her chin resting upon them. Surprisingly, she hadn't yet visited the kitchen area. "Emry, you're comfortable with this?"

"With the idea that the Troubleshooters have a corruption growing inside them? h.e.l.l, no. With spying on my colleagues? Maybe even coming out against them in public? Vack, no." She paused. "But if there's even a chance this is true, we have to find out. The Troubleshooters ... if we're gonna work, if we're gonna be true to what Sensei created us to be ... then we have to police ourselves, hold ourselves to the highest possible standard. We have to be able to question our own actions, admit our mistakes."

She straightened out. "Right now, that's all Thorne is asking me to do: ask questions. Look for the truth. I can't see any reason to say no to that. Except ... except for being afraid of what I might find."

"I daresay," Zephyr told her, "that's the most important reason why a question should be asked."

She looked at his avatar in gratitude, her eyes glistening. "Thank you, Zephy. So I guess we're in agreement."

"I guess so."

She came over to the wall display and kissed his avatar on the cheek. "See you in a few weeks, honey. Hopefully with good news."

He gave her a smile in return, pitching his voice soothingly. "Whatever the news, my friend, we'll face it together."

October 2107 Psyche herself escorted Emry on the mission, while Eliot Thorne took over managing the final days of the conference. The women left on a small, private ship, following the normal travel routes between Bolasats to remain inconspicuous-meaning they were in for a good ten days of travel, according to Psyche. Emry regretfully declined Psyche's offer to pass the time with s.e.x, wishing to keep her head clear until she was sure she could trust the woman.

Psyche would tell Emry little of what she was going to see, except for the ominous hint that it had something to do with Rafael Mkunu's recent decision to step down from his dictatorship of the Zenj habitat-an act apparently motivated by grief at the loss of his only son.

But their destination turned out to be a small, dormant Outer Belt comet currently some twenty million kilometers from Zenj. It had a small mining outpost on it, nothing more than an inflatable dome attached to its side. They went incognito, with Emry donning a dark brown wig and blue contacts while Psyche dyed her hair and eyebrows jet black, donned brown contacts, and hid her b.u.t.terfly tattoos with makeup. They wore loose outfits to conceal their attention-grabbing figures, plus Emry's equipment belt, which Psyche had insisted she bring along. They completed their disguises by donning wide-brimmed hats with gauzy veils, a fashion that helped defend against the dust in places like this. Psyche wore her hair in a surprisingly compact bun beneath her hat.

It was a small outpost, so they spotted their quarry fairly quickly. "Aaron Donner? Blitz?" Emry asked when Psyche pointed him out, a lanky, spiky-haired blond man coasting recklessly along in the microgravity of the main concourse, typically unconcerned for the people who had to scramble out of his way. "Psyche, the guy isn't even a Troubleshooter! Not a real one. The Corps wouldn't even let that punker in the door."

Psyche studied her, reacting to the contempt in her voice. "Your dislike sounds personal."

"He used to be in a gang, b.u.t.ted heads with the Freakshow a couple times. Even then he was a creep. Now he goes around pretending to be a crimefighter, but it's just a game for him. Something he does for the thrill, the power-the money. And he doesn't care who gets hurt along the way." Donner had adopted a persona fitting his thunderous surname, getting bionic and electric-eel mods that made him a walking joy buzzer, able to shock people on contact with anything up to instantly lethal intensity. He supplemented it with shockdart throwers and UV-laser lightning guns. Such weapons were nominally nonlethal, but not always, and Donner used them frequently and casually. "Plus he isn't above taking graft or skimming off part of a bad guy's stash when he 'rescues' it. He's a s.a.d.i.s.tic merc pretending to be a hero."

"Oh, I know all about him," Psyche said. "I got acquainted with him a few weeks ago, in a different disguise than this. You're right, he's a creep. But a vain one, and it was easy enough to buy him a few drinks, say the right things, and get him to boast about this whole thing just to impress me."

"What whole thing?"

"You'll see-assuming you can slip some bugs onto him without him noticing."

Emry scoffed. "Easy as pickin' a pocket. Easier."

"Show me," Psyche replied with a challenging smile.

The only tricky part was getting close to Blitz without risking recognition. Once she'd successfully sprayed him with a sensory smart dust, it was simply a matter of staying in range so she could ping the passive nanosensors with an RF beam to read their contents. Emry understood now why Psyche had let her bring her own equipment; she wanted Emry to trust that what she saw and heard was not faked.

They followed Blitz into a tapped-out ice pocket, now a yawning cavern within the comet's loosely packed body, and lost the signal a couple of times along the way. When they found it again, the crude image from the nanosensors, fractally enhanced but still low-res, showed an adolescent, African-featured boy bound to the wall, with Blitz's hands on the sides of his head, electrocuting him. Emry swallowed, and made an educated guess. "Mkunu's son?"

"Joseph. Right."

The boy's screams came through the low-fidelity audio feed as Blitz shocked him once again. "He's torturing the kid! We gotta save him!"

Psyche stopped her. "It's already in hand. Just wait."

"Wait?! I can't just sit by and let someone get tortured!"

"I hate it too, but it's the only way. I promise, it won't be long."

Indeed, it was only a few minutes before Blitz stopped ... though Emry imagined it must have felt like an eternity to Joseph Mkunu. "Well, I'd love to stay and continue our game," Blitz told his victim, "but I've got an appointment. At least, I'd better-I'm still owed half my payment for this gig. Hope I get it, kid-or I'll be in a rotten mood when I get back." Giving the boy one more shock, he left the cavern, forcing Emry and Psyche to retreat out of the shaft.

Emry wanted to go back in and free the boy, but again Psyche stopped her. "He'll be free inside an hour. Follow Donner and you'll see why."

They followed Blitz toward his rendezvous, but Psyche wouldn't let Emry ping his nan.o.bugs during the meeting itself. "The person he's meeting with has very good equipment."

"Troubleshooter good?" Emry said skeptically ... but regretted those words when she saw the confirmation on Psyche's face.

Once Blitz left his meeting, Emry pinged him again, downloading the saved data from the smart dust. As she watched the playback, her worst fears were confirmed. Though the image was crude, she still recognized the face and voice of Elise Pasteris-Tin Lizzy, her fellow Troubleshooter. "The boy's alive?" Elise asked.

"Hey, I'm one of the good guys, remember? I took care of him. He's freshly singed around the edges, but he'll recover."

"You've continued torturing him?" Elise asked in outrage. "Mkunu buckled over a week ago!"





CHAPTER DISCUSSION