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"And if I'd stopped then, it would've given away the game if the kid told anyone. I had to play it out. Like I said, he'll be fine."

Emry couldn't clearly see Elise's face, but she could imagine its expression. "Physically, maybe. n.o.body's ever 'fine' after something like this."

"Tell that to Mkunu's victims." But Donner's tone was cavalier. He was more concerned with getting paid.

Elise handed Donner a pouch that he opened and peered into. "The best Vestan jade," she assured him. Donner seemed to accept her assessment and gave Elise the boy's location. To her credit, Tin Lizzy sped off as soon as she had the information.

"Tonight the news will be filled with the story of how the heroic Troubleshooters found Joseph Mkunu alive after all," Psyche said, "abducted by enemies who tortured him for information."



"But really," Emry answered quietly, "Blitz took him, tortured him, to blackmail Mkunu into stepping down. Into allowing the elections-which the reformist party would probably win."

"A party that's backed by Ceres," Psyche affirmed. "They kept him a while longer so the connection wouldn't be obvious. Now, as per the terms of Joseph's release, Mkunu will express his profound gratitude toward the TSC and endorse its proposal to monitor the elections on Zenj."

"And with his endors.e.m.e.nt, the faction that's still loyal to him won't be able to keep painting the Troubleshooters as opposition puppets. Won't block them or fight them when they come in."

"So the TSC and Ceres get their way without violence-except for one fifteen-year-old boy being tortured for three weeks. And since Blitz is a mercenary, disapproved of by the Troubleshooters, the Corps has plausible deniability even if Joseph can identify him."

As they monitored from their ship the following day, en route to its next destination, Rafael Mkunu came before the cameras and acted out the precise scenario Psyche had described. But Emry still resisted Psyche's allegations. "It could just be Lizzy and Blitz working together," she insisted. But even as she said it, it rang hollow. Elise may have been aggressive in her approach to Troubleshooting, but given her history, she wasn't the type to concoct a plan involving the torture of a teenaged boy.

"I'm afraid you'll soon see it's bigger than that," Psyche said.

Emry sensed her agitation. "You think we might not get there in time for-whatever?"

"The time and date of the event are set. But we're going to be cutting it pretty close if we want to stop it. Orbital mechanics says we'll reach Gagaringrad with hours to spare, but if there are delays in the s.p.a.ceport or after..."

"This 'event' ... what are we talking about? If it's so important we stop it, then I need to be prepared."

Psyche sighed. "You won't like it."

"I don't like a lot of things lately!"

"It's ... an assassination."

Emry stared. "You put an assassination off till second?!"

"It was the only way to work out the timing, to show you how far this reaches."

But the implication had sunk in now. "No. Wait. You're not saying this is something the T-shooters are preventing, are you?"

"No."

"No. No, Psyche. The TSC would never do that!"

After a moment, Psyche said, "The Gagaringrad mafia and the Yohannes family have negotiated a truce. Yes?" Emry nodded. Since the TSC had driven the Yohannes mob from Vesta, it had been trying to move in on Eunomia, clashing with the G-grad mob for control. "I'm sure you've been briefed. Their plans are ambitious. Drugs, gunrunning, backing military coups with their mod enforcers ... a partnership between them would be a serious threat to Belt security, and to Ceres's Eunomian interests."

Emry saw where she was going. "You're talking about sabotaging the truce. Staging a hit on one side, blaming the other."

"Right. Malik Yohannes is coming to Gagaringrad for a celebration of the alliance, a show of friendship. If he's assassinated there-"

"His mob will blame the G-grad mob. Instant gang war." Emry shook her head. "No. No way would the T-shooters do that! We don't have the right! And too many innocents would be killed in the crossfire."

"Emry ... if I'm right, it means someone's going to be murdered, and no doubt a lot more people right after that. You'd want to stop that if there were any chance at all that it was true, wouldn't you?"

Emry let out a heavy breath. "Yeah, I would."

Still, the rest of their trip was very quiet.

Gagaringrad habitat

In orbit of Eunomia

In Greek mythology, Eunomia was the personification of law and order. Few asteroids were so inaptly named. Eunomia was a massive, boxy stroid with an irregularly textured surface, the core remnant of a differentiated body that had lost a third or more of its mass in a vast collision, creating the Eunomia family of stroids. This wreck of a planetoid was almost as rich in minerals and gems as Vesta, making it a burgeoning industrial and financial center, but its...o...b..tal inclination isolated it somewhat from the mainstream of Belt civilization, while aligning it somewhat with Interamnia, whose criminal elements were drawn to its wealth; hence the abundance of mob activity on its habs.

Emry and Psyche kept their altered hair and eye color when they reached Gagaringrad, though without the veils, and had little trouble infiltrating the mob gathering as part of the entertainment-meaning dancers, mercifully, since the s.e.x workers had to go through more stringent security checks. But at their first opportunity, they slipped away and began searching for the sniper. Emry had a strong suspicion who that might be, but she still resisted accepting that another Troubleshooter would be involved in something like this.

The party was in the penthouse courtyard of Radovan Lenski, leader of the Gagaringrad mafia. The neighboring rooftops had been secured by Lenski's people, and the penthouse's highly lethal defense systems were covering the airs.p.a.ce. Infrared and optical motion detectors covered the penthouse in all directions. But Emry's gaze went to the single nearby building with mirrored glass windows. Glass was opaque to infrared. The building was heavily guarded to compensate, but Emry could think of at least three ways of sneaking into it. If there were an assassin-one with TSC training-that was where he'd be.

Luckily, that building was antispinward, so she could surreptitiously spray a mist of nanosensors in the air and let the Cori winds waft it over onto the tower's mirrored glass. The sensors were thinly enough spread that it was hard to get clear readings, but soon she detected movement on the top floor. From what little she could see and hear, it seemed the sniper was still setting up. They had time, but not much.

She called Psyche over and filled her in. "We should warn them, get them inside."

"Not us," Psyche said. "Even the suspicion that Lenski planned the hit would be enough to spark a mob war. I'll tip off one of Lenski's people, have them warn Yohannes and the rest. You go after the sniper." She looked over the edge at the street twenty stories below. "I just hope these buildings have fast elevators."

"No time for that." Gauging the distance, she jogged back to the penthouse wall and lowered herself into a runner's crouch, drawing her concealed sidearm.

Psyche gaped. "You're gonna jump? Emry, are you crazy?"

She smirked. "What, you think a sane person would do this for a living?"

As she spoke, she charged her legs' muscle nanofibers to maximum so they would contract with the greatest possible force. She'd be sore afterward, but it gave her an extra burst of speed as she launched herself off the roof, Old Man Coriolis giving her a little extra push. Still, she was arcing downward and would hit a few stories below the sniper.

She fired ahead to weaken the windowpane she was about to collide with. Luckily, the window wasn't diamond-coated, since (as she'd hoped) the builders would have seen little need for special shielding at this height. Unluckily, the fragments were still sharp when she smashed through. Emry had her light armor on under her civilian clothes, but only thin fabric covered her arms, so they sustained some cuts as she shielded her head with them. Tumbling onto the glass-strewn floor didn't help either, though at least it was carpeted.

Emry regained her feet and ran for the stairs, yanking glass shards from her arms. Once at the top floor, she raced to intercept the sniper-but just before she reached the door, she heard the curt whine of a Gauss rifle firing. She was too late! Had Psyche warned the guests in time?

She kicked down the door and ran for the sniper. Through the window (still intact save for the hole the sniper had made for the gun barrel), she glimpsed Yohannes being hurried inside along with the other guests. But a long-haired, slender blond woman lay slumped against a wall that was liberally spattered with blood and other things that belonged inside her head. She feared the worst until she remembered that Psyche was currently black-haired.

The sniper spun to intercept her, but she slammed him against the wall, away from his rifle. Once she saw his face, she was at once horrified and unsurprised. "Blaze!" Cowboy Bhattacharyya snarled. "What'n h.e.l.l're you doin' here?" It was him, all right. n.o.body else could fake that bizarre curry-Western accent of his, or would want to.

"Trying to stop a murder!" she snarled in his face.

He shoved her away. "Why, you self-righteous little ... This here's a mission. This here's justice!"

"Tell that to the innocent woman you just killed!"

"I woulda got the right one if'n whoever you're workin' with hadn't spooked 'em at the last second!" Emry's eyes widened, but she was only thrown for an instant. She refused to accept the blame for this. He would've murdered someone either way. "'Sides," Bhattacharyya went on, "hangin' out with folk like that, she prob'ly wouldn't'a lived long anyhow."

"How can you be so cold about it?!"

"It's called professionalism, sweetie. Y'all should be tryin' it. And what'n h.e.l.l're you doin' here anyways? No way Tai woulda clued the likes o' you into this."

Now Emry was thrown. In his sheer carelessness, vackheadedly blurting out the source of his top-secret orders, Cowboy had confirmed everything the Thornes had told her. And it brought her world crashing down around her. "No. No, this isn't us! Troubleshooters don't do this kind of thing!"

Cowboy smirked. "We do now, little filly. An' about time we started. Sensei's kid-glove morals kept us from makin' a real difference."

"A difference? How many innocent people would've died in the crossfire if you'd started that war?"

"Less'n the bunch of 'em woulda kilt workin' together, sooner or later. I bet I'm sleepin' sounder 'n you tonight."

"Ohh, you'll be out like a light any second now."

But then she heard the elevator coming. Cowboy didn't have her hearing, but his sense-enhancing headset did, and he smiled at the sound. "Less'n you want us both to be gettin' a lead shower," he drawled, "you'll follow me out."

He ran for the door. Reluctantly, she holstered her sidearm and headed after him, barely ducking around the corner at the end of the hallway before the mob enforcers caught sight of her. Cowboy ducked into a back staircase and she followed him down. "Lovin' the hair, by the way," he called back to her. "Sleeves are a mess, though."

"Don't you care at all that you just killed an innocent woman?"

"That's my business, girl. And I don't hafta get preached to by some stuck-up piece o' teenage eye candy!"

She didn't respond to his dismissal-just proved the value of her youth by overtaking him and reaching the bottom fresher and less winded than he was. But she stayed with him as they ran from the building, determined to see him brought to justice.

Soon they reached an access hatch into the undercity, propped open as his planned getaway route. "C'mon, filly. You an' me need to be havin' a talk with Mr. Tai."

"Oh, I'll talk to him, all right. After I put you under arrest."

Cowboy scoffed. "Even if you could, little girl, what then? Turn me over to the G-grad lawmen? You know Lenski owns 'em-I'd be Boot Hill bound by sunup."

"Rrraaahhh! Will you drop the stupid act and speak English for once! This is serious!"

"That's right, kid," he went on in the same drawl. "Too serious for a piece o' fluff like you to be figgerin' out. Now, come on!" Suddenly he had a gun on her. Bluster aside, his boasts about his quick draw were not exaggerated.

She stood her ground. "You'll have to use it."

"Think I won't?"

"You tell me." It was Psyche's voice. She stood at the end of the alley behind Cowboy, aiming a stungun of her own at him. She must have tracked Emry's selfone signal. Cowboy didn't have to turn; his suit gave him telemetry on her position. Emry grew tense; Psyche didn't know what he was capable of. If he decided to shoot her ...

But he lowered his gun and stepped into the hatch. "I'm goin' back to HQ now like a good soldier. You wanna call me out, Blaze, you know where to find me." He smirked. "If'n you ever figger out what side you're on."

He opened the hatch, and Emry saw no alternative but to let him disappear into it. Psyche jogged over to her, and Emry broke down in tears and fell into her arms. "Oh, Goddess ... what do I do now?"

12.

Crossover Emry's indecision didn't last long. "We need to take this to Sensei," she told Psyche once they were back in their ship and her cuts had been tended to. "He'll know what to do." To be sure, the recordings from the nan.o.bugs and Emry's data buffer were solid evidence, but still not absolute proof of the larger conspiracy. She'd need Sensei's help to dig deeper.

Psyche shook her head. "We should go back to Vanguard. Tai is sure to ramp up his efforts now; we need to prepare to counter that."

"No! This is a Troubleshooter problem. We need to fix it ourselves."

Those silver eyes, more vivid than ever in contrast to Psyche's still-black hair, showed her understanding. Still, she insisted, "It's not safe, Emry. Tai's people know you're onto them. We've seen they're capable of murder ... and they must know you'd think of going to Villareal. You could be putting him in danger."

That brought Emry up short. "Then we'll just have to find some other way of reaching him," she decided after a moment. "Psyche, I know you mean well, but Vanguardians fighting Troubleshooters isn't the answer. Sensei's still respected. They can't block him without showing their hand. He can clean the Corps up, get it back on track without violence."

"All right," Psyche agreed. "But he'll still need allies. We'll go back to Vanguard and see about bringing him there. He'll be safer with us."

Emry considered it. "Okay. Sounds good." After all, the Vanguard had been Sensei's forerunners in a sense. This could be one h.e.l.l of a team-up, and hopefully could lead to a lasting partnership. She wondered how Sensei and Eliot Thorne would get along.

A few days later, Gregor Tai held a press conference, which Emry and Psyche watched on the ship's display wall. Flanked by Lodestar, Paladin, and some of the new TSC administrators whom Emry barely knew, Tai announced what he claimed to be the results of "an extensive internal-affairs audit" he had ordered as a means of ensuring the high moral standards his "esteemed predecessor Yukio Villareal" had set for the Corps. Emry recalled some routine questions being asked of all the T-shooters after Tai's appointment, but it hadn't been much different from the usual performance reviews. Tai reported that most of the Troubleshooters had passed with flying colors. But then he grew somber, even apologetic, and spoke of three shocking, saddening exceptions.

An image came up on the screen behind him, and Emry gasped in recognition. "This is Elise Pasteris, code-named Tin Lizzy. As you recall, less than two weeks ago, Pasteris was credited with the rescue of Joseph Mkunu, the fifteen-year-old son of the retired Zenjian president-although she allowed his abductor to escape and was vague on how she had located the boy. It now appears she was working in collusion with this man, Aaron Donner, to stage the kidnapping and rescue." Donner's image appeared next to Elise's as a surprised murmur ran through the crowd. "Donner calls himself a Troubleshooter, but he is a rogue vigilante, unsanctioned by the TSC.

"Now, we're still not entirely sure of Ms. Pasteris's motives. I'm sure this puts a lot of you in mind of sensationalist fiction and tabloid rumors about Troubleshooters staging heroics to bask in the resultant glory. I wouldn't want to presume that about Elise Pasteris; that's for the psychologists and prosecutors to determine. As of today, Pasteris has been stripped of her Troubleshooter status and placed into custody.

"As has this man: Sanjay Bhattacharyya, code-named Cowboy." Cowboy's smug, irritating face was now on the screen, under that ludicrous hat he insisted on being photographed in. "I want it known that, to his credit, Mister Bhattacharyya turned himself in voluntarily and confessed to his involvement in the recent attempt on the life of organized crime boss Malik Yohannes-an attempt which led to the death of an innocent bystander, a nineteen-year-old college student named Jeanette LaSalle. Bhattacharyya has confessed to being the shooter, but has turned over evidence supporting his claim that the hit was masterminded by a fellow Troubleshooter-Emerald Blair, code-named the Green Blaze."

Emry gasped as her own face looked back at her from the screen. She felt Psyche's hand clasp hers as Tai went on. "Now, I was truly shocked at this news, as were all my colleagues who know Emerald Blair personally. They all insist that she is a deeply caring person who would never be capable of murder. However, none of us can deny that she is also known for her temper-and for an extensive criminal record in her adolescent years. Of course she never took a life during that time. And under normal circumstances I'd have no doubt of her commitment to that." He gave a heavy sigh. "But according to our investigations at the time, the Yohannes syndicate was responsible for providing the armaments that caused the death of Emerald Blair's mother, performance artist Lyra Blair, in a gang conflict nine years ago."

Psyche paused the playback as the audience reacted. "Emry, is that true?"

It was a moment before she could speak. "I don't know. I ... never really looked into it. The guy who ... actually shot her ... he was killed in the crossfire a moment later. Arkady caught the rest, and they all got convicted. I never wanted to make any more of it than that. It hurt too much."

"You never wanted to find someone to punish for it? To avenge yourself on?"

"Of course I wanted to." A tear came to her eye. "But my mom raised me better than that." She cleared her throat. "I guess I didn't always remember later on ... I took revenge on people who hurt me or the Freaks ... but even then I would've never betrayed Mom's memory by making her an excuse for hurting someone. And I really just wanted to forget the whole thing."

She resumed the playback. On-screen, Tai gestured the audience to silence and went on. "Now, perhaps this could be understood, even excused in some way. The desire for retribution is only human, and to be frank, few would consider the death of Malik Yohannes to be a great loss to Solsys. But it is Emerald Blair's other actions in this matter that ... that strain my comprehension, quite frankly.

"Mister Bhattacharyya has provided us with the following recording taken from his own data-buffer implant. I warn you, it contains some graphic images at the beginning." Tai proceeded to play the very confrontation Emry and Cowboy had had just after the shooting, except from Cowboy's point of view. It cut out after they fled for the stairs. "According to Bhattacharyya," Tai said when it was done, "Blair convinced him to stage this confrontation with the intention that she would take her own buffer file public, painting herself as the hero. They had to improvise their dialogue somewhat, considering that he shot the wrong person, but they managed to cover for this. As you heard, Bhattacharyya's dialogue included a, um, rather contrived line implicating myself in the assassination plot-as though any trained assassin would be so foolish as to blurt out his employer's name so casually." Emry imagined she caught an annoyed microexpression when he said that, but it was hard to be sure at this resolution. "Apparently Blair wished to sully the new administration, perhaps in order to persuade Yukio Villareal to come out of retirement. In the meantime, her own rather ... melodramatic moralizing in this scene, as well as the flamboyant stunt she performed to enter the building, would reinforce her public image.

"The plan was for Bhattacharyya to flee to Pallas, thereby escaping the consequences of Blair's public accusations. However, his guilt at killing the wrong target compelled him to turn himself in and make a full confession."





CHAPTER DISCUSSION