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"You son of a bit.c.h," Emry said very quietly.

"As it happens, it was our investigation of Emerald Blair that led us to Elise Pasteris's involvement in the Mkunu abduction. Blair and an unidentified female accomplice were spotted near the location where Mkunu was held captive. Whether Blair was working with Pasteris and Donner remains unknown. But we found evidence that Donner may have been tagged with smart-dust recording devices. It's possible that Blair intended to link Pasteris's crime to the conspiracy in which she hoped to implicate myself and the current Corps administration."

The b.a.s.t.a.r.d had her at every turn. He'd managed to preempt her, to discredit every piece of evidence she had. If they fall for it, she reminded herself.

Indeed, when the floor was opened to reporters, they jumped on the gaps in his story. "What's your proof that the confrontation seen there was staged? Do you have evidence of Green Blaze's implication beyond Cowboy's word?"

"Our case is still incomplete, but our investigation into Emerald Blair's recent activities supports his story. Blair recently persuaded me to allow her to attend a conference being held by the Vanguard nation. As many of you know, Blair's father was Vanguardian; it seems she wished to renew her family ties." He went on to list the "suspect" states partic.i.p.ating in the conference, playing up the injustices and terrorist acts they'd committed. "Considering the parties involved, I deemed it wise to be concerned. So I agreed to Blair's request, thinking I could rely on her to uncover the truth about the conference. However, she has failed to report in, and as you have seen, is clearly not where she is supposed to be."



"So you think she might be working with the Vanguard, Neogaians, and others in some sort of larger scheme? To do what?"

"It's too early to speculate."

"But do you think they might be trying to undermine the Troubleshooters, weaken one of the Belt's main lines of defense?"

Tai begged off the question, and Emry had to wonder if that reporter, who worked for a Sheaf news network, had been a plant. It was hard to tell; reporters were always hoping for the most dramatic or shocking interpretation of events.

Another reporter, this one Demetrian, asked the next question. "As you pointed out," he asked, "all the implicated Troubleshooters were handpicked by Yukio Villareal himself. Given the Sensei's long-standing reputation for integrity, how do you explain this kind of corruption growing in his organization?"

"Yee, I couldn't have put it any better-Sensei Villareal has earned every bit of that reputation. His integrity is unimpeachable. But Yukio is also known for his intense personal loyalty and his unwavering belief in personal redemption. He's given many chances to people with checkered pasts. Elise Pasteris and Sanjay Bhattacharyya were both among the most violent of Troubleshooters before he brought them into the Corps, and sometimes since. And Emerald Blair's criminal past is well-known-and her record shows that she didn't fall into it as reluctantly as the recent biographical movie suggested."

Emry buried her face in her hands. Being accused of treason and murder was bad enough-but did he have to remind people of that vacking movie?

"Perhaps Yukio was simply ... too decent for his own good," Tai went on. "Too ready to see the good in all these people, to believe they could change their ways completely."

"So once a crook, always a crook? Is that what you're saying?"

"No, Yee. Just that we're all products of our pasts, and sometimes their burdens are too heavy to shake. Forgiveness is a n.o.ble ideal, to be sure, but it needs to be tempered with vigilance. Because those who forget the past ... well, you know the rest."

The file ended. "Ohh, he's slick," Psyche said with a mix of anger and appreciation. Then she took Emry in her arms. "Oh, sweetie, I'm so sorry. If we hadn't gotten you into this, we wouldn't have forced him to do this to you."

"I don't blame you," Emry said. "I'm grateful to you for getting me away from his influence in time. And at least ... oh, Goddess ... we forced him to sacrifice two of his pieces. Maybe that'll weaken him."

"Do you still want to contact Villareal?" Psyche asked after a moment. "Do you think he might still believe you?"

"I'd like to think so. But Tai covered that too. Anything Sensei might say now would just be his naive 'personal loyalty' talking." She took a deep breath, let it out forcefully. "We need more, Psyche. We need a way to prove Tai's behind it, to disprove his lies."

"We'll work on it," Psyche said, stroking her hair. "My father and I are as determined to defeat Tai as you are."

"Thank you."

Psyche took her by the shoulders and met her eyes. "Maybe you're not a Troubleshooter anymore-not officially-but as far as we're concerned, you've always been a Vanguardian. And we take care of our own."

Psyche kissed her, and Emry returned it readily, craving the comfort. As she pulled at Psyche's clothing, Emry tried the thought on for size. Emerald Blair ... Vanguardian.

It felt surprisingly right.

It didn't take long for Sensei Villareal to issue his own statement in response to the allegations, and Emry and Psyche watched it from their ship in between lovemaking sessions. He stressed that the charges against the implicated Troubleshooters were still unproven, calling attention to the gaps in Tai's case against Emry herself. Emry was grateful for his defense, though she knew it wouldn't be enough; in her experience, the masses tended to choose between conflicting arguments on the basis of which one they heard first.

Villareal concluded by urging Emry to turn herself in, promising to ensure that she received a fair trial. "Sorry, Sensei," she whispered. "That's not an option."

As soon as the ship was back within a couple of light-seconds of Vanguard, Emry contacted Zephyr. "Has the TSC tried to contact you?"

"They have. They instructed me to return to HQ, preferably with you in my brig. I've declined to respond to such a crass suggestion."

Emry sighed. "Zephy ... technically I'm not a Troubleshooter anymore. You don't ... have to stay with me."

On the ship's comm screen, his avatar gave her a wry look. "Emry. The only reason I became a ship again was to look after you."

"And I'm really grateful for it, buddy. But ... your life is yours. I'm sure Arkady would understand if you wanted to-"

"Emry, it's not about Arkady. It hasn't been for a long time. We're partners. Green Blaze and her trusty steed Zephyr." On-screen, his winged-God avatar morphed into a winged horse.

Emry laughed. But then she grew thoughtful. She tugged her Green Blaze tunic from her bag and looked at it. "Am I still Green Blaze?" she wondered. "Should I still wear this?"

"You're still a Troubleshooter, no matter what Tai says. And it's your design, your choice of code name. It stands for what you believe in."

She smirked. "You're pretty smart for a horse."

'Besides,' he sent her silently, 'though an alliance with the Vanguard seems beneficial at this point, I don't think you should start wearing their colors, so to speak. They may have proven their claims about Tai's motives, but I still have questions about their own.'

'You have a point,' Emry responded. 'They haven't steered me wrong yet, aside from that little tiff with Thorne. And I really need someone on my side right now-aside from you, that is. But I guess I need to keep my eyes open, kick the fan ducts before I buy.' She sighed. 'I don't want to get burned again.'

Eliot Thorne met them at the docking complex, and Psyche launched herself into his arms. Meanwhile, Emry drifted over to Zephyr's bay to check in on him and tidy up a bit. But she watched the Thornes' reunion while they remained in sight. There was an easy warmth between them of a sort that Emry remembered feeling once upon a time, in another life.

Thorne met her when she emerged from Zephyr. His manner was welcoming, but more reserved and formal than he'd been with his daughter. "Welcome back, Emerald. I'm gratified that you've chosen to stay with us."

"For now," she added. "Until I get this mess sorted out."

"Of course." He escorted Emry and Psyche into the tramcar, which set out on its journey down from the hub. The passengers' weight crept upward as they conversed. "The resources of the Vanguard are at your disposal toward that end," Thorne went on. "As I said before, defeating the Cerean agenda is in all of our best interests."

Emry shook her head a bit. "Look ... I'm too tired to think about that. All this big-picture politics stuff-I just want my job back. I want my corps back."

"I understand." He looked her up and down, taking in the Green Blaze livery she wore once more. "It's more than just a job to you, isn't it? It's a home."

She stared at him. "That's right. It's where I belong. Or it was."

His massive hand clasped her shoulder with a surprisingly gentle touch. "I want to help you make it that again. But ... I hope you will also come to feel that there is more than one place where you can belong."

Thorne's kindness-and his physical proximity-made her smile, and she felt her face flush. She pulled away, a bit reluctantly. "That ... that'd be nice," she said truthfully. "But I need to get to know you better. And I still have my doubts about some of your allies."

"Which is just the kind of vigilant attitude we need to guide them onto a better track. Were the first Troubleshooters so different? Many of them were selfish, irresponsible, mercenary, violent. But Yukio Villareal created a system that tamed their power, curbing their excesses and nurturing the best within them. We seek to follow his example on a larger scale. And I can think of no one better to aid us in that goal," he said, clasping her hands, "than one who is both Troubleshooter and Vanguardian. Your partnership would be invaluable to our goal of creating, not merely better humans, but a better humanity."

Emry flushed and took a moment to find her voice. "I, um, I'm honored. Right now, I ... well, right now the most important thing is saving the Troubleshooters."

"Of course. That remains a crucial step toward our larger goals."

"But ... whether I go back to them afterwards ... well, even though I probably will, I could still ... we could be allies, and..."

"I would welcome that."

She cleared her throat, freeing her hands from his. "I guess, for now, I'm on your team."

"Great!" Psyche flung her arms around Emry from behind.

But there was a slightly ominous smile on Thorne's face. "Don't be so hasty, Psyche. If Emerald wants to play on the Vanguard 'team,' she has to show us what she's capable of. A test of your abilities, my dear. Call it a gauntlet of sorts, a ... friendly competition."

Emry grinned. "I'm game. After being cooped up in a little ship for most of the past month, I'm eager to stretch my legs."

"This will be rather more strenuous than your typical workout, I assure you, Emerald."

"You've never been to one of my workouts."

"I'm about to be," Thorne said. "I intend to conduct this assessment personally. Do you think you're up to taking me on?"

Her eyes widened. True, the man was half a century her senior, but to a Vanguardian that meant little. Plus he was fully twice her mass and considerably more muscular kilo-for-kilo. When they'd tussled before, he'd tossed her around like a rag doll.

So Emry responded the only way she could: with a big, enthusiastic grin. "Bring it on, Thorney. I've been dying for a rematch."

Before the test could begin, Thorne insisted on a physical exam to record Emry's baseline data for evaluation purposes. Emry was hesitant to consent to this, since many of her mods were classified TSC technology. But she was growing to believe she could trust the Vanguardians-certainly more than she trusted the TSC right now.

Thorne took her to the institution that apparently doubled as the Vanguard's central hospital and its genetic research institute-a necessary combination, since many Vanguardians were conceived here as well as born here. "So you didn't get Psyche's mom pregnant the old-fashioned way?" Emry asked.

He smirked. "I generally save that for recreation. For our most special children, we don't rely on trial and error. But the woman you're about to meet is, in some ways, as much Psyche's mother as Lydie Clement," Thorne said. "She and I were the lead designers on Psyche's genome."

Emry was starting to realize who would be conducting her examination. But just then, Thorne led them through a door into a research lab. Inside, a full-figured woman with short silver-red hair stood with her back to them, wearing old-fashioned interface rings on her fingers and using them to rearrange cryptic patterns and notations on the display wall beyond her. Emry figured they must be genetic data of some sort, but there were none of the double-helix images she would've expected to see. She supposed that was a conceit of fiction; real geneticists wouldn't need to look at pictures of DNA any more than composers needed to look at pictures of musical instruments.

"May we come in?" Thorne asked.

The woman sighed. "Eliot, if you want me to get this resequencing done on time, then you shouldn't keep interrupting me."

"I apologize. But I have someone with me that you need to meet."

The woman sighed, gestured the interface into standby mode, and turned, revealing herself to be about four months pregnant. (Or maybe three months, Emry corrected, remembering her own accelerated gestation.) She had a pleasantly chubby face, relatively unlined, but currently frowning with impatience. "All right, if you-" She broke off as her eyes fell on Emry. "Good Lord. Is that..."

Thorne nodded. "Rachel Kincaid-Shannon, allow me to introduce Emerald Blair."

"Oh, Emerald!" Emry's grandmother broke into a huge grin and spread her arms. Before Emry knew what hit her, she was engulfed in an enormous bear hug. "Ohh, I'm sorry, forgive an old grouch, it's so wonderful to finally meet you!"

Emry tentatively returned the hug, which showed no signs of ending anytime soon. It was at once warming and awkward. Her feelings about Grandma Rachel were ambivalent. She knew her father's decision to leave Vanguard had led to an estrangement with his mother. He had been reluctant to talk about it, but it had never been his way to lie to his daughter. So he had eventually told her how he felt that Rachel had sided with Thorne over him, had been more committed to her genetic research than to her own firstborn son. But Emry hardly considered herself entitled to pass judgment in this case.

"Um ... hi," she finally managed. "It's, uh ... well, this is really..."

Rachel finally let her up for air. "I know, it's a lot to take in. What's it been, twenty-six years, and we've never even met until now?"

"Twenty-two," she replied quietly.

"Oh, of course, it's not like you were born the minute Richard left! Some geneticist, not remembering that!" Rachel chuckled. "Ohh, let me look at you! My God, I've seen pictures, but you are so beautiful! Ohh, honey, you couldn't be more gorgeous if I'd designed you myself!"

Emry fidgeted. "I, uhh, take after my mother."

"Oh, of course you do. Don't get me wrong ... there's no beauty like natural beauty. The most we can do is help it express itself more fully." She looked Emry over more critically. "Well, there's some of your father in you. Aspects of the jawline, the forehead ... the mesomorphic build, of course, God, you must be strong! And you have my coloring, I daresay. Well, what used to be my coloring."

"And a couple other things," Emry said, indicating her chest. "I always wondered where I got these babies from. Not that I'm complaining," she finished with a smirk.

Rachel laughed. "Well, you're very welcome! And you've got my hips, too ... plus you're so strong, it should make childbearing easier." Emry stared. "Oh, when you're ready, of course. I'm just so excited at the prospect of adding your genes back into the mix."

"That remains to be seen," Thorne said before Emry could figure out a response. "Before a partnership can commence, Emerald needs to be tested. I need a full physical and genetic workup to evaluate the results."

"Oh. One of your little competitions, right." She shook her head at Emry, mouthing, Men. Being pretty competitive herself, Emry just shrugged. "Well, don't worry, dear-you'll give him a run for his money, I can tell just by looking at you. After all, you're a Shannon.

"Well, don't just stand there," Rachel said. "Strip to your skivvies and get on the table. I'd love to spend all day catching up, honey, but I really am in the middle of something urgent right now, and you know how it is when your muse is all fired up and shouting in your ear. So I'd like to get this done quickly, if you don't mind."

Emry obligingly began to remove her boots, giving Thorne a small smile as she did so. But Rachel glared at him. "And are you just going to stand there?"

"I'll assist in the exam," he replied as though it were a given.

"You'll do nothing of the kind, young man. My granddaughter is entitled to some privacy."

"She clearly doesn't mind," he said, gesturing at Emry, who was now pulling her top open. "And I need to know the results in any case."

"And you'll get them. Later. But Emerald and I have girl stuff to discuss and I want her to feel completely at ease-and under no pressure to show off," she added pointedly. "It's the only way I'll get reliable results, and you know it. So go on. Shoo!"

She physically hustled the much larger man to the doorway, and surprisingly, he went without resistance. But as he left, Emry heard him mutter, "The woman is a force of nature." Emry was beginning to agree.

13.

Bed of Thornes "Oh, vack," Emry gasped as the sheer rock face loomed before her. Bad enough that Thorne had made her race him halfway around Vanguard's equatorial forest to get to this point, six kilometers at roughly half again the gravity she was used to. Bad enough he'd made her do it spinward, so that the faster she ran, the heavier she'd get. But mountain-climbing was not a skill she'd needed much in life.

Still, they'd trained her for it at the Corps, along with every other contingency they could think of. Lucky I'm a recent graduate, she thought as the climb grew increasingly steep. For once her spinward course was working in her favor; the ground's rotational velocity decreased with its distance from the axis, so as she climbed, she felt a small decelerating vector pushing against her, angling her weight vector slightly so that the climb effectively became a bit less steep. The faster she ran uphill, the less uphill it seemed to get.

But before long she was climbing a sheer vertical slope, unable to move fast enough to gain any significant benefit. The gravity was a bit more reasonable at this height, but not enough to make a difference. She'd stopped trying to keep track of Thorne, instead staying focused on the b.u.mps and crevices before her, her world reduced to a few square meters of simulated stone. Do real mountains on Earth get this steep? she wondered. She'd seen such cliffs in movies, but had trouble believing the images were real.

Her arms were burning by the time she drew near the small plateau at the top of the cliff. As she reached the rim, cursing Eliot Thorne under her breath, she saw the man himself looming above her, blocking her. "Oh, come on!" she cried.

"This is your challenge, Emerald. Deal with it."





CHAPTER DISCUSSION