True, it had been nearly three years since she'd stopped changing the name on her forged IDs every few months, since she'd stopped being Kei or Jean or Barbara or Mary Jane or Kim or whoever and become Emerald Blair again full-time. But a name was not an identity, and she had spent most of those three years trying to figure out just who or what Emerald Blair was going to be. While still in rehab, she'd begun taking online classes again, catching up on her formal education. But with no career goals in mind, her approach had been dilettantish. Figuring she'd be more stimulated by direct experience, Emry had wandered Solsys and soaked in the rich diversity of cultures and beliefs, all the wild social experiments and evolutions that crop up on any frontier, in search of one that felt like home to her. Well, not all of them. She'd avoided Wellspring and Neogaia, already knowing all she felt she needed to know about them. She'd stayed away from habs where certain people might try to kill her if they recognized her. And she'd made no attempt to visit Vanguard or Earth proper, let alone go back to Greenwood; any place where there were Shannons was a place she had no wish to be.
Along the way, she'd dabbled in various religions, visiting their houses of worship, opening herself to their teachings, hoping to find the peace and enlightenment that her mother had found in her Dianic beliefs. But all of it rang false to her. There was certainly beauty and imagination in it, but she sensed nothing beneath the symbols and myths, no truth tying them together-nothing but a self-deluding desire to believe the universe gave a leak about its occupants. Lyra Blair's Goddess hadn't protected her, hadn't spared her daughter from misery and loss, any more than her husband had. If there was one thing Emry had learned, it was that people had to rely on themselves.
So Emry had turned away from higher callings and tried to find a career that satisfied her. During her travels, she'd made a living at various jobs, from laborer to stripper to pilot to model to bouncer, but nothing that seemed like a life's calling. She'd dabbled in acting, but couldn't lose herself in a part; she'd tried sports, but wasn't much for following rules. She'd gone so far as to enroll in the FEEL academy on Vestalia, but had soon found that s.e.x as a profession required a selflessness she couldn't muster, a commitment to placing the clients' desires above her own. Like so many things in life, it was less fun as a job than as a hobby.
Back in August, wondering if science was her thing, she'd signed on as a pilot and general assistant for the Trident expedition: a two-month survey of Neptune's moons, plus a month's travel either way with the crew in hibernation. She'd hoped some distance and quiet time would help her figure things out. True, there was some publicity involved in such a trip, but they were routine enough by now that she wouldn't draw too much attention.
But she'd found the survey rather tedious, relieved only by her dalliances with various researchers. Unfortunately, in the close quarters of the expedition, her bunk-hopping had created some tensions. She'd caused a couple of fights and started a few more. It had been a relief for everyone when the time to go back into hibernation had come. Now Emry hoped the debriefing would go quickly so she could finally end her association with the project.
But she had no idea where she'd go next.
Dr. Railey had been watching her, she realized. Once Railey saw she had Emry's attention, she came forward, oddly hesitant. "Emerald ... you, uh, have a visitor. She's been waiting, and ... well, normally I wouldn't, but this is rather urgent. Are you up to seeing her?"
Uh-oh. Had someone filed a complaint about her behavior on the expedition? Was this the mission director come to chew her out? Or had Dr. Bonham's wife somehow found out about the free-fall bondage lessons she'd given him? Either way, might as well get it over with. "Sure, Mon. Bring her on in."
It never occurred to her that it would be Bimala Sarkar. She rarely gave any thought to the private investigator's visit to her in rehab nearly three years ago, and until now the woman had obliged her demand to stay out of her life. But Emry recognized her instantly, and tensed as she approached. "What the h.e.l.l are you doing here?"
The elegant Indian woman remained silent until she stood by Emry's bed. "Emerald," she said in a quiet, controlled voice. "Your father-"
"Don't call him that!"
Sarkar's dark eyes hardened, and her voice with them. "Richard Shannon is dead."
It took some time for the words to sink in. "He's-what?" Her sense of disorientation was returning. Was this still a hibernation dream?
"Richard Shannon. Your father. He died, Emerald. Eighteen days ago. He was fighting a fire. He went into the burning building, searching for people trapped inside. He found them, got them out. But he was slow coming behind them, and the ceiling collapsed...." Her voice faltered. She took a deep breath. "He died as he lived, Emerald. Helping people."
Emry hardly heard it. She was ... she ... she didn't know what she was....
She threw up the apple juice all over her bedsheets. Dr. Railey came rushing over to check on her. Emry was too dazed to understand what she said.
She couldn't understand any of it, really. She couldn't understand how he-how her father could be dead. She couldn't understand where all this grief was coming from. All this loss, when he'd been lost to her for seven years. All this love.
"Did he ... did he say ... anything...."
"About you?" Sarkar asked, her voice cold. "No, no famous last words. It was too quick. But there's a message for you in his will. And he left you his home, all the things in it ... if you want them. He didn't expect you would, but he wanted you to have them anyway."
"Oh, Goddess." The sobs came now, erupting from deep inside. The room spun around her. Distantly, she felt Monica's hand on her shoulder.
Once the sobs ran dry, leaving a torn, burning throat behind them, Sarkar asked the doctor to leave her alone with Emry. "So I guess he was your father after all," the tall woman said once Railey had gone. "I thought you hated him, Emerald."
"I never ... wanted him dead."
"Well, you got it anyway."
Emry stared at her. "What are you saying?"
"You never knew Richard Shannon, Emerald. Never knew what he became after you left him. He was such a sensitive soul. Losing your mother was devastating enough. But for his only daughter, the other love of his life, to turn on him, abandon him ... That destroyed him. He was never the same after that.
"Yes, they gave him medicines for his depression, and that helped him function. He was able to go on with his life. But there was never any joy in it again."
She smiled wistfully. "He kept on doing good for other people. Nothing could change that about him. But it became something he did to distract himself from his own loneliness. From the empty rooms in the empty house he went home to. From not knowing where his little girl was or whether she was safe-and from knowing all too well that she despised him, blamed him for Lyra's death.
"You don't know what it was like for me, having to report to him when I was tracking you. How he longed to hear any sc.r.a.p of news about you, but how much it hurt him when he did. I-I tried to quit sometimes. It wasn't good to be so personally attached to one of my clients. But I couldn't help it."
Emry studied her. "You ... were attached?"
"I loved him. I did all I could to console him, bring him joy. But he couldn't let go ... not so long as you were still out there, alive but lost to him. We had some good times together, but a part of him was always elsewhere. I could never reach it."
Sarkar's brow furrowed, wrinkling her bindi. "Then came the news that you'd joined this expedition. He was so proud of you-and then he heard them describe you as an orphan. You told them you had no parents. You denied he even existed!
"It got bad after that. He was inconsolable. He just ... went through the motions of life. Of his work. He got careless. I don't ... I don't think his own safety mattered much to him anymore."
Emry's dizziness was returning. "Goddess ... what are you saying?"
Sarkar straightened, looming over her. "Exactly what you think. That I blame you. If you hadn't been such a self-absorbed little brat-if you'd given the tiniest consideration to his pain instead of wallowing in your own-if you'd only talked to your own father even once-he wouldn't have died in agony. Or at least the last seven years of his life wouldn't have been so miserable.
"Either way, Emerald Blair ... you destroyed your father's life."
January 2106 Emry waited several minutes after the crate stopped bouncing around before she took a chance on cracking it open. The smart-matter foam that concealed her chemical and heat signatures and gave false readings to terahertz and x-ray scans also impeded her own ability to pick up sounds from outside, so she waited until the storeroom was (hopefully) empty again before she risked cracking the seal. As she lay waiting, keeping her respiration slow to conserve her limited air supply, she hoped no one in the facility had an immediate, urgent need for replacement bioprinter cartridges.
When she figured enough time had passed, she cracked open the lid and slowly stuck out the hand in which she grasped the highly illegal scene-painter grenade she'd paid a fair percentage of her inheritance to obtain. Pressing the trigger with her thumb, she lofted it into the air, yanking her hand back in and letting the lid fall shut just before she heard a m.u.f.fled pop and splat from outside. She waited a few more seconds for the thin film now plastered over every surface in the grenade's line of sight-hopefully including any image receptors-to flow together and harden and for its nanoparticles to "lock in" the light currently passing through them. From now until the film decayed in an hour, each nanoparticle would continue shining that same wavelength and intensity of light toward the surface it adhered to, so that any camera would continue to see the same image it saw now, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Emry was thus able to climb out of the crate without being spotted.
Still, depending on how good the motion sensors were in here, the painter grenade might have set them off already. It was possible the security personnel would chalk it up to a false alarm when they saw nothing on the monitors, but Emry doubted they would be that careless. After all, this organization was even better at making enemies than the Freakshow had been. So she'd have to move quickly before someone came to investigate.
Again, she quailed at the thought of what she was trying to do. How could she ever get away with this, when so many assassins and terrorists before her had failed? She reminded herself that, at this point, she had nothing left to lose.
The storeroom door was locked from the outside-oh, they were being very careful-but the lock itself was only moderately challenging for Emry, and only because of the time limit. It opened itself to her within twenty seconds, and she gingerly cracked the door open. She tossed out her second painter grenade, waited a few seconds after the pop-splat, and darted out the door and down the hall, scooping up the remains of the grenade core as she'd done with the first. A handy ladies' room presented itself, and she ducked inside just before a pair of armed guards rounded the corner, heading for the storeroom. With luck, it would take them several minutes to detect the nanoparticle films.
Either way, the security guards ironically helped her, for as they went past, she slid her badge through the crack of the bathroom door. After a few moments, it vibrated briefly against her fingers, and she pulled it back to confirm that it had indeed imaged and copied the guards' badge design, with her own face and a fake name in the relevant spots. A second vibration told her that it had successfully copied their RFID codes. She should now have access to anywhere in the complex.
She paused to check herself in the mirror and make herself look neater than someone who'd just smuggled herself in a crate, combing her unruly hair and tying it back into a frumpy, non-attention-grabbing bun. Her tinted interface visor and loose jacket helped make her further nondescript. Nodding in approval, she headed for the door ... and then hurried back to use the facilities. She'd been in that crate a long time.
This was the lowest level of the complex, and her target was higher. She could override the lock on the elevator doors, but didn't want to risk drawing attention or being cornered by going up in the elevator itself. And she wanted to avoid being spotted on a stairwell camera. So once she forced the elevator doors open, pleased to see that the car was way at the top, she stepped back, got a running start and jumped up as hard as she could. She kicked off the back wall and over to the spinward side, which she ran up as fast as she could to maximize Cori traction.
Suddenly the elevator car lurched into downward motion, startling Emry. She slipped, twisted, and caught herself on the lip of the door frame of her target floor. Desperately, she pulled herself up and wedged her fingers into the crack, hoping this door wouldn't have an alarm. The car was looming closer and looking heavier by the second. She finally managed to wrench the doors open and pull herself through ... only to see, as she darted her gaze back, that the car had come to a stop one floor above. Whew. And so my life of crime continues.
Emry clambered to her feet, retrieved her dislodged visor from the floor, and made her way to the library. One quick hack of the appointment schedule later, she headed to the office where her target awaited. She eased into the outer office, trying to look inconspicuous. It looked vacant, so she sidled her way over toward the inner door, bracing herself.
"Can I help you?"
Emry jumped. The stern, clipped, British-accented voice came from someone she hadn't seen, a tiny, short-limbed woman with curly blond hair. "I said, can I help you?" the woman repeated with even more impatience than last time.
"I'm here to see the big guy." She angled her badge to show the woman her fake name. "I have an appointment."
"No, you don't."
Emry blinked. "Aren't you gonna check the schedule?"
The woman tapped her head. "Already did."
"Oh, you have a buffer?"
The woman looked offended by the suggestion. "No."
"Then you must've overlooked it. Check again."
"I don't have to. I made the schedule."
Oh, vack. "Look, it's really important. I have to see him, just for a minute." She tried an ingratiating smile. "I'm sure he wouldn't mind?"
The blond woman crossed her stout arms. "I would."
"And who the h.e.l.l are you that I should care?"
Now she just looked amused. "Obviously you are not what you pretend to be."
This was ridiculous. All she'd gone through to get to this point, and now she was being stymied by a woman she could jump over in full gravity? Who did this bit.c.h think she was, anyway? Looming over her, Emry whipped off her visor and gave her best Banshee snarl. "What I am is the woman who's gonna make you a whole lot shorter if you don't get the h.e.l.l out of my way!"
"Oh, we like to shout, do we? Makes us feel all mighty, eh? Do get over yourself, Miss Blair, and have a seat like a good little girl."
All the steam went out of Emry, and she could only gape in shock. "How did..." She looked down at the name tag to make sure she hadn't made a horrible mistake programming it. No, it still said LANA GORDON. "How did you..."
"I know everything," the woman said, sounding singularly bored by the fact. "Do have a seat. Some of us have work to do."
Just then, the inner door opened. "That's all right, Sally. I'm ready to talk with the young lady now."
The blonde-Sally-threw a glance skyward, as though she found Sensei Villareal rather silly for indulging in such games. "Fine. Lets me get back to filing."
"Then all is right with the worlds," Sensei said with that familiar charm, which left no impression whatsoever on Sally's hide. The silver-haired man chuckled and turned back to Emry. "Welcome to the TSC, young lady," he said. "Don't feel bad. Even the toughest of us has trouble handling Sally Knox. You've actually made a very good showing of yourself, coming this far. But perhaps you'd like to tell me," he went on more sternly, "just what it is you are doing here?"
Emry took a deep breath, breaking free of her paralyzing awe, and said what she'd come here to say. "I'm here to sign up. I want to be a Troubleshooter."
Villareal laughed. "You have an unorthodox way of going about it. You could have saved yourself a lot of trouble by applying through the usual routes."
"And would you have even given me a second glance? I..." She lowered her eyes. "I knew that if you checked ... you'd find out I have a criminal record. I wanted to prove that could be an asset to you."
"And get my attention in the process." He shook his head. "I'm sorry, but that's not enough to qualify you as a Troubleshooter."
Anger made her bolder. "I got your attention, didn't I? You're talking to me. And I managed to get all the way here, into one of the most secure places in Solsys, by myself."
"Only because we let you."
Once more, she was thrown off. "You ... wha?"
"We detected you down in the storeroom. You would've been arrested before you got into the elevator shaft ... if someone hadn't vouched for you." At her puzzled look, he led her into his office, where a stocky, balding man with a chubby, lived-in face rose to greet her. "Emerald Blair, meet Arkady Nazarbayev. Whom you've actually met before."
"h.e.l.lo, little one," Nazarbayev said. "Do you remember me? No, I doubt it ... I was dressed rather differently when last we met."
But Emry recognized his name. "I remember. But ... I'm surprised you remember me."
"That day on Greenwood? I will never forget it. I still regret that I could not do more that day ... could not stop them sooner. I-"
She cut him off, fidgeting. "Yeah, okay. Not your fault. Don't worry about it."
"Still," Villareal said, "Arkady feels he owes you something, so he persuaded me to hold off and see what you were up to. Though I thought I'd throw a couple of obstacles in your path along the way. Sorry about the elevator car; you were in no real danger. Meanwhile I had Sally call up your records, while Arkady filled me in on your checkered past."
Emry stared at Nazarbayev, who shrugged. "I ... stayed in touch with your father. He wanted me to keep an eye out for you. But with my duties, I could rarely spare the time. He found other means, but I stayed in the loop as much as I could." He lowered his head. "He was a fine man, your father. He would be proud to see you as a Troubleshooter."
"Now, let's not get ahead of ourselves, old bear," said Villareal. "I haven't given my blessing yet. To be sure, you're a strong, intelligent, resourceful young woman, Emerald. And I've always wanted to have a Vanguardian in the Corps."
"I'm not a Vanguardian!"
He raised a frosty brow, and she subsided. "But it takes more than that to make a Troubleshooter. It takes integrity, commitment, compassion, and regard for others. It takes total dedication, the willingness to see it through no matter the hardships. You have yet to convince me you have those qualities." He stepped closer, placed his hands on her shoulders, and looked her deep in the eyes. "So tell me, Emerald Blair: why do you want to be a Troubleshooter?"
So she told him. It poured out of her, truths she had never bared to another soul. She told him everything: how her mother had died, how she'd blamed her father, her years as a Freak, her attempts to make amends, the devastating news from Bimala. She told him how, after the funeral, she had gone back to her old home, finding her room restored to the way it had been before she'd trashed it the last time. All her old comic books were there, printed out in hard copy to be lovingly handled and read over and over. "I looked at those comics, and I realized they were trying to tell me something." She knew she might be sabotaging herself if she gave the impression she only saw Troubleshooting as a comic-book fantasy. But she drove on regardless, unable to tell anything but the truth.
"Power," she said. "Mom and Dad always tried to teach me about the responsibility that came with my power. Always taught me to use my power to help, never to hurt. I thought Daddy had betrayed that lesson when he didn't save Mommy. But ... I was the one who betrayed it. I didn't realize ... he needed me, as much as I needed him. I was all he had left. That ... that gave me power over him. Over his whole life from that moment on."
She drew a shuddering breath. "I could've saved him. We could've saved each other. But I used my power ... to hurt him. I abused it. Because I only thought about me. I forgot what he taught me. What Mommy taught me. The more power you have, the more you have to put others first. Every time I forgot that ... someone got hurt. And now ... now..." She couldn't finish the thought. Arkady put an arm around her shoulders.
She looked up at him for the first time. "You were there too, in those comics. And you," she said to Sensei. "And the others. Real heroes, putting your lives on the line for others, using your powers to help and never to harm.
"I know it sounds corny, but ... that's when it fell into place. That was why nothing I tried to do fulfilled me. Because I'd been too focused on my own needs, my own wants, and that wasn't enough. When we were all together ... when we were happy ... it was because we lived for each other. Gave to each other.
"If ... if I'd given comfort to Daddy ... instead of thinking of myself ... it could've healed us both."
She paused. "I guess I'd like to think I always knew that, on some level. Even as a Freak, I was always taking in strays, rescuing fellow mods, avenging their suffering. It was when I helped people that I felt the best.
"So I know that's what I have to do now," she went on. "I have to make a difference. I have to carry on Daddy's work. Not the way he did ... I've been a fighter too long. But ... he always approved of the Troubleshooters. And I guess ... I owe you a lot," she said to Arkady.
She turned back to Sensei. "I know how I must look. I'm a juvenile delinquent with a sob story and comic-book daydreams. But I'm not asking for an easy break. I need to earn this, as much for me as for you. I just know ... I have to be a Troubleshooter."
Her words ran out, and no one else spoke for some time. Emry stayed frozen, afraid to let herself react.
Finally, Sensei's mouth quirked into a smile. "You know something, Emerald? I stole a few cars in my youth as well. I generally returned them intact by morning, of course, albeit with an occasional pair of panties left over in the backseat." With a wink, he went to his desk and activated the intercom. "Sally, would you prepare the enrollment forms, please? The Corps is taking on a new recruit."
"Hmp," Sally replied. "I give her a week."
A Many-splendored Thing November 2107 Grandma Rachel had begun crying before Emry finished her narrative. "I guess you hate me now," Emry said when she was done.