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

"The record shows Eliot Thorne to be a man who doesn't take well to being disagreed with. When faced with those holding dissenting opinions, he either persuades them to change their minds ... or he dissociates from them altogether and creates people who will be more sympathetic. What happens, Emry, when you and he aren't pursuing the same goals?"

"What happens when I kick this door open? Huh? Will it hurt? Tell me that."

Without another word, Zephyr allowed the lock to open for her. But Emry paused halfway through the door. "I'm sorry, pal. I shouldn't have said that."

"I'm unharmed."

"But you're wrong about him. He can admit his mistakes. He's learned a lot from the ones he made on Earth. And he trusts me. He thinks I have a real role to play in the future he's building. I know he'd listen to me.

"He's a strong-willed man, sure, and an ambitious one. But he's a good man. Do you really think I could love him otherwise?"

Zephyr didn't reply for a moment. "Even good men bear close watching when they have great power."

Emry sighed. He just wasn't letting this go! "And he knows that, d.a.m.n it! That's the whole point of going after-" She broke off. "Just let me out."

"I'm sorry I upset you."

"Yeah, me too. Right now I gotta go."

The outer doors opened onto the access tunnel. Emry shot through them without another word. He'll see, she thought. Soon we'll have Sensei on our side and this whole thing will be straightened out, just like Eliot planned. Villareal's silence on this affair remained odd, but Emry was confident it would change soon. If anyone can get through to him, Psyche can.

Private shuttle HV763M

Keeping station near Phobos

Yukio Villareal pulled Psyche's nude body against his and clutched her tightly. Her hair flowed forward in the microgravity, writhing around their torsos like a living thing, its spun-gold strands stroking and tickling his skin. He'd never felt hair so soft, so silky. It was one of the many things he loved about Psyche.

The thought came with a twinge of guilt that Yukio tried to shake off. There was no reason for it, he told himself. His wife accepted that he was simply one of those men for whom monogamy was not an option, and that the very things that drew her to him would inevitably draw others. He'd never made a secret of that with any woman, although his first wife had not proved as able to live with it as she'd imagined. But Helena had always tolerated it, even indulged in a few dalliances herself. She believed, as he did, that the only real infidelity was deception.

And that was the problem. Yukio had always striven to be scrupulously honest about his affairs. As an active Troubleshooter, he had never risked compromising his judgment by sleeping with a woman he was charged with protecting-not until afterwards, anyway. As an administrator, he had never slept with a Troubleshooter, trainee or Corps employee (which took some willpower when their ranks included the likes of Lydia Muchangi or Emerald Blair). And he had never, ever kept an affair secret from his wife. Until this one.

As always, he reminded himself that there were very good reasons for it. Psyche had insisted, months ago when their affair had begun, that no one could know. Her father was overprotective, and despite his long isolation from Strider society, had an extensive intelligence network keeping him informed. Indeed, it was a covert fact-finding mission that had brought Psyche to Demetria to begin with. Eliot Thorne was slow to trust, and if he ever discovered that his own daughter had fallen in love with an older man who just happened to be the founder of the Troubleshooter Corps and one of the subjects of her investigations, his fury would jeopardize any hope of rapprochement between Vanguard and the Corps. So it was imperative, Psyche had stressed with tears in those quicksilver eyes, that no one-absolutely no one-could ever know of their love affair. That was why Yukio had needed to lie to his wife and fabricate a business trip to Phobos when Psyche had summoned him for a rendezvous there. Yukio hated keeping a secret from Helena, but Psyche was absolutely convinced it was necessary. And he trusted Psyche. He respected her judgment. He would rather die than see her unhappy.

That was the other reason for his guilt. Through all his past affairs, one thing had remained constant: though every one of his partners had his affection and respect, Helena remained his soul mate, the love of his life. He still loved her just as much ... but he was beginning to realize he loved Psyche more. He'd known of her engineered allure, her pheromones, but he was too old and experienced to feel it so deeply based on that alone. This was the real thing, deep and complex and overpowering. Even after two months apart, Psyche had filled his thoughts, commanded his dreams. She'd monopolized his fantasies, even when he was making love to his wife.

But how can I break it off? he asked himself as Psyche's long brown legs wrapped around his hips and pulled him into her. The dear girl loved him desperately, enough to risk everything for him, and he simply couldn't dishonor that. It would be ungrateful, selfish, unfair.

Rationalizations aside, he simply loved her, loved this, too much. He'd never known such ecstasy, such contentment and warmth. Her passion was transcendent-not to mention her skill. With Psyche, there was no need for handholds, restraints, or bouncing off the walls (although she definitely enjoyed restraints). Her technique was so perfect, her reflexes so precise, that she could keep the two of them suspended in midair for hours, needing at most the tiniest tap of a finger or toe against a wall to cancel their drift toward it. It took care and attention on both their parts to achieve it, but that care attuned them deeply to their own and each other's bodies, and the required communication brought them closer, made their lovemaking as much a meeting of minds as of flesh. Every move one of them made had to be done in full awareness of its effect upon the other, of how their fates were inextricably intertwined. Few experiences brought such intimacy. As they floated in s.p.a.ce, touching only each other, they formed an isolated system, a two-body problem of erotic physics. When he closed his eyes, Psyche defined his universe.

All too soon the s.e.x was over, but the lovers clung to each other and tumbled lazily together in the center of the chamber. Soon, though, he heard her sniffling. He pulled back to meet her glistening eyes. "What's wrong, my love?"

"Ohh, Yukio. I can't stand that all we can have are these brief encounters. I'll have to leave soon-Daddy is expecting me. And I have no idea when I'll be able to see you again."

The realization that they might be parted indefinitely hit him hard. "There must be a way, love. Defy your father, come clean with him. Let's be together openly."

"You know I can't, my darling. There's too much at stake."

"We can change that. Let me come to Vanguard, endorse your alliance, denounce Tai openly."

"No! Darling, we've talked about this before. It's just too dangerous for you. Tai needs your aegis to give him legitimacy. If he knew you'd turned on him ... ohh, I don't want to think about it!"

He grimaced. "We have to, cara. In a way, it's because of us he's gotten this far at all. Because I was a romantic fool who wanted to spend more time with my wife and my mistress and trusted Tai to take care of my Troubleshooters for me. And now, staying silent is making it worse. It seems as though I'm endorsing the things he's doing."

"But it's safer for you."

He chuckled, stroking her head. "I can take care of myself, dear mariposa. Especially if I have the Vanguard at my side."

She averted her gaze. "Father would never accept you. We ... if you were there, we couldn't be together at all, and I couldn't stand being so close and not..." She broke off. "There's no way I could hide my feelings from him. It would ruin everything."

"But if we explained how much we love each other-"

"He's a cynical man, Yukio. To see his only daughter with a celebrated rake like you ... he'd be convinced you'd taken advantage of me, and nothing you said could change that."

He could hardly bear to press on, but there was no choice. "He's also a pragmatic man, dearest. He might not like me much, but he'd cooperate with me if it served his interests."

"But he'd never let us-"

"I know." The words were glass tearing from his throat. "But for the sake of others, we have no choice. We can't place our selfish wants above the good of Solsys. The problems of two people don't amount to a hill of beans...." He couldn't muster the will to finish the allusion. "Psyche, it has to be done. I can't stay silent any longer. About any of it."

She took his head in her hands and studied him for a long moment, her eyes boring deep into his. "Your mind really is made up," she said at length. Regret showed in her eyes, but it was more subdued, even detached, than he would have expected. The brave girl was managing it far better than he was, that was for sure. "I'm sorry, Yukio. It really was great fun while it lasted."

He frowned. "What are you saying?"

Still clutching his head, she gave him one more long, deep kiss that belied the lack of passion in her words. "I'm saying that you've been a very entertaining plaything, but you've outlived your usefulness." She pushed him away, hard. She caught herself smoothly on a handhold, but in his shock he did nothing to arrest his impact with the bulkhead. It was far less jarring than her words, her actions.

"No. No, Psyche, you said you loved me!"

"You? Don't be ridiculous, old man!" She laughed, though it sounded a bit forced. He hoped it was forced. But how could she say such things to him if she truly felt as he'd believed? "And put some clothes on, you skinny old dog." She tossed his clothes at him and began donning her own.

He began dressing automatically, barely even noticing, as he tried to process what was happening here. "How can you say this? Psyche, the things I've done for you! Quit my job, betrayed my wife."

Her laughter intensified, her wide, toothy grin becoming feral. "Ohh, yes, how priceless! I had you eating out of my hand."

"That's all this was to you? A game?"

She drifted over, patted him on the head, and helped him finish dressing. "Of course! You don't seriously think a young, gorgeous creature like me would fall for a withered old has-been like you, do you? You with your preening arrogance, thinking you're God's gift to women. Women only f.u.c.k you because they're drawn to power. But you gave up that power, Archie-boy," she went on, tweaking his chin with her finger. "So you lost your s.e.x appeal. And while you were at it, by the way, you sold out your precious Troubleshooters and let them become Tai's puppets. So you've got nothing left. Oh, except a happy, trusting marriage-oh, wait, you vacked that too, didn't you?" She giggled with s.a.d.i.s.tic glee.

Tears burned Yukio's eyes, clinging in the microgravity, and he shook his head to clear them away. Dizziness overtook him, but it was not from the free fall. It was his world that was falling, collapsing around him as he floated in place. How could he have been so stupid? Psyche was right-he was a worthless old idiot who'd ruined everything for himself, for the Corps, for the Belt, all because he couldn't control his hormones. And he'd done it all for nothing, for a lie. "How could I have let this happen?"

"I think we've established that, sweetie. The real question is..." She paused, cleared her throat. Her hand faltered in its idle stroking of his hair. Then she went on, her voice harder than before. "The question is, how can you live with yourself now?"

He couldn't find an answer to her question. He had failed everyone. He had ruined everything. It would be better for everyone if he just stepped into the airlock and ...

No! Something inside him rebelled. This doesn't make sense. Psyche's words, her actions, they didn't add up. And something was wrong with him too. This wasn't like him! He was Shashu, he was Sensei! He never backed down from a challenge, never stood by when someone needed help. He had failed before, screwed up before, but he had carried on and done whatever it took to make amends.

And he had battled depression before. When his brother had died in the war, when the Belt Alliance had fragmented afterward, when his first wife had left him. The doctors had diagnosed his tendency toward clinical depression, had given him the medicines and the insights he needed to conquer it. And even before then, even in his darkest moments, he had never contemplated suicide for more than the most fleeting of instants. It just wasn't in him to give up.

"Something ... you're doing something to me," he realized. "Making me ... feel this way. Psychoactive..." Pheromones were one thing, but she'd done more, drugged him somehow. He had to fight it! He pushed her away. They flew apart to opposite bulkheads, and he caught himself. "Get out. Get away!"

Instead, she kicked back over toward him. Setting chivalry aside, he tried striking at her with the full force of his bionic limbs, knowing this was a fight for his life. But his control over those limbs was sluggish; whatever she'd done had weakened him, and she parried his blow effortlessly despite lacking the leverage he had. She forced his arms down to his sides, wrapping her legs around him to pin them there with her powerful thighs. Again her hands encased his head, despite his efforts to wrench free of them. b.u.t.terfly wings fluttered against his temples. "I'm sorry I said those mean things, Yukio," she said. "I wanted there to be no doubt it was suicide. But maybe it's better this way. At least you won't suffer as much."

Again her lips met his, her tongue forcing its way between them. He tried to keep his mouth closed, but even now his body responded reflexively to her seduction. Her saliva mixed with his, and in moments he felt his consciousness fading.

The sound of alarms from the c.o.c.kpit briefly halted his decline into oblivion. Psyche had done something to set them off ... now he distantly registered that she was in a s.p.a.ce suit, heading for the airlock. Was she abandoning ship? Would she be able to get back to Phobos safely? The last thing he ever felt was the hope that she could. Because despite everything, he still loved her more than life itself.


Whose Side Are You On?

Vanguard It took a long time for Emry to stop crying after she heard the news. How could this have happened? Despite the threat to the TSC and the charges against her, she'd been happier than she'd ever been, confident that Eliot and Psyche would soon win Sensei's support and that together they would expose this whole mess. She'd known that things were going to be all right. This just wasn't supposed to happen!

When Psyche returned a week later and told her version firsthand, Emry cried just as hard as before. "It doesn't make any sense," she said at length, rising from the couch where she had been coc.o.o.ned between the Thornes' comforting embraces. "There's no way he'd aim himself at Phobos on plasma drive! He'd never endanger so many lives!"

"He would have had no chance to do so," Eliot told her, subdued. "The Phobian defenses are very reliable."

"They're saying he wanted them to blow him out of the sky," Psyche said with difficulty. "That it was a suicide run."

"No!" Emry cried. "Sensei wouldn't kill himself! He was-" She choked on her words, had to start again more quietly. "He was too generous. As long as there was anyone who needed his help, he'd never stop fighting."

Psyche rose and clasped her shoulders. "I agree. When I met with him, he was fine emotionally. Well, not fine-he was angry about what's happened to the Corps. Once I finally managed to speak to him, give him the pieces he was missing ... it was the last straw. He told me he was ready to denounce Tai openly, to fight to take back his post." Her expression grew bitter, angry. "Someone must've gotten on board, knocked him out, set the course ... probably s.p.a.cewalked back to Phobos. But there's no way to tell ... they made sure all the evidence was destroyed." She winced. "I feel so stupid. It can't have been more than a few hours after we met. If I'd stayed with him longer, maybe..."

"No!" Emry hugged her. "It's not your fault, honey. You couldn't stay too long and risk being found out. You did what Eliot told you to, and you did it very well. What happened next ... that was someone else's fault."

"Tai?" Eliot asked from the couch. "Do you really believe he'd have Villareal murdered?"

"He got a teenage boy tortured and a college girl killed. You really need to ask?"

"But an act like this is far more rash." Eliot frowned. "He would have to be very confident. Or very near a critical stage in his plans."

Psyche spoke up. "Yukio ... he told me he'd found hints that Tai was mobilizing for something big. Nothing he could be definite about, but..." She cleared her throat. "I'm sorry. This is ... hard for me. I only met him the one time ... but he was such an impressive man, so kind...." She blushed. "So charming and handsome. I would've loved to have more time to get to know him."

"I bet he would have too," Emry said with a sad smile. "And I know just what you mean."

"I still feel I let him down somehow."

"Well, you didn't. And you won't." Emry clenched Psyche's hands. "We'll carry on his work together. We'll find out what he was digging for, and bring down that b.a.s.t.a.r.d Tai once and for all. And you'll be a big part of that, I know it." She kissed her beloved friend on the cheek. "Because I know you'll never let me down."

The Band

In orbit of Ceres

Greg Tai took a moment to study Koyama Hikari as she walked alongside him through the vast open s.p.a.ces of the Band. She had been suitably impressed; there was nothing quite like this vista anywhere beyond Earth. This was only one small segment of what would someday be a single closed loop over three hundred kilometers in circumference and twenty wide, one of two adjacent rings counterrotating to allow the vast structure to precess as Ceres...o...b..ted the Sun. Though this segment alone had been assembled from individual cylindrical units, each the size of a large O'Neill cylinder, they had now been joined into a great slab with a single flat ground surface stretching across them at the middle, twenty kilometers wide by thirty long. It was in the process of being turned into a forest, but the trees were still young and spa.r.s.e and one could see the landscape stretching off into the distance. Few Striders ever beheld anything so flat and open. To Tai, it was like a piece of home. But then he could look up through the vast skylights above and see his other home, the Sheaf, and beyond it the other Band segment that counterbalanced this one. The Sheaf was a vibrant place to live, a lively warren of interconnected cylinders and spheres, and it was easy enough to move among them if you didn't mind the free-fall trips through the scaffold network or the bottlenecks at the axes. But Tai looked forward to the day when he could live and work here in the Band, which truly captured the best of planet and habitat living alike. In time, he hoped, the TSC's headquarters would be relocated here, once it was no longer necessary to maintain the pretense of their independence. For now, though, he had brought Hikari here for a private conversation, off the record and remote from human or electronic ears.

Tai realized she was still calmly waiting for him to speak. He allowed the moment to drag out, observing her reactions, but although she fidgeted a bit, the young Troubleshooter kept her peace. He liked that about her. Most of the Troubleshooters were a brash and uncouth lot, always champing at the bit for excitement and action. It was a symptom of the problems facing the Belt. Outside of the Sheaf, an eclectic collection of individual habitat-states that had learned to live together as a pluralistic whole, the Striders' regional or national loyalties were so strong and divisive that the only ones free of such allegiances, able to be truly nonpartisan, were the misfits, rebels, and outcasts. True, Kari was herself a rebel from her family and its criminal organization, but she was a refreshing exception to the pattern, restrained, humble, and obedient despite the deadly power lurking within her. Tai wished more Striders were like her.

Kari was beginning to squirm under his scrutiny, her pretty eyes darting away. "I apologize, Hikari," Tai finally said. "I was just ... contemplating how much I appreciate you as a member of my team."

She blushed adorably. "Thank you, sir." That was another thing he liked about her-she'd called him "sir" from the beginning, never needing to be prompted or reminded to show him the respect he was entitled to.

Not that his Earth-Cerean background made him better than any other Strider, of course. They were simply a product of their history. They didn't have the Sheavers' experience in balancing pluralism with unity, or the Terrans' experience in overcoming their divisions to master a common threat. Indeed, much of Earth's current peace and enlightenment resulted from the exile of militant transhumanists and other uncooperative extremists to the Belt, which had exacerbated the Striders' existing tensions. That was why Tai had immigrated out here and made himself one of them: because Terrans bore their share of responsibility for the Belt's woes and owed it to the Striders to help them heal, to share with them the compassionate discipline that had saved Earth. The Cerean States had found the solution that the rest of the Belt needed; at the risk of overextending the grain metaphor, they could be the seed from which Beltwide peace could spring. He was here for the benefit of all Striders, to help spread that seed.

But it was satisfying when one of them had the decency to show some appreciation for that. He'd worked hard to get away from the poverty and chaos of his Terran childhood, to gain skills worthy of the respect his elder sisters had never shown him, and it was a sacrifice to leave his home, family, and position in the Sheaf to fight the good fight. Was it wrong, then, to take pleasure in a little compensatory ego-stroking?

"This has been a hard time for the Troubleshooters," he told Kari, bringing her to a stop at the crest of a footbridge over a babbling brook. "A time of transition, of reinvention. We've lost some people along the way ... people who didn't understand what we're trying to do. Who either weren't willing to take it far enough, like Tor, or who took it too far, like Cowboy."

"Or like Emry," Kari said in a small voice.

"But you understand what I'm trying to do, Hikari. You understand how important it is to be proactive. To nip sources of trouble in the bud-judiciously, surgically-before they grow out of hand. You understand, perhaps better than anyone, that the subtlest exertion of force can do the greatest good, if applied in the right way at the right moment."

"Yes, sir. I believe I do."

"And you know what's at stake." He moved behind her and put his hands on her dainty shoulders. "You know better than most what we have to fight. You've seen the face of it firsthand. The gangs, the terrorists, the fanatics-you've felt the damage they can do to innocent souls."

She gazed up at him, and he could see that his appeal was working. He could see the anger smoldering inside that little-girl face. "Yes, sir. h.e.l.l, yes."

He glared at her. "Sorry," she said, looking away. But he forgave her. The sweet child hadn't entirely recovered yet from Emerald Blair's unruly influence.

Ahh, Emerald. Now there was an operative he regretted losing. She'd been as wild and uncouth as any Strider he'd ever met, but she'd shown promise. Given time, he could've instilled her with proper discipline and respect, or at least enjoyed the challenge of trying. But he'd badly miscalculated with her, failed to predict how her chaotic mind would function. He'd been so sure her bitterness toward the Vanguard, the Neogaians, and the rest would make her a potent tool for controlling them. But Thorne had had better counterintelligence than he'd antic.i.p.ated, and Blair had been too easily swayed by a childish, impractical idealism. Does she really think I wanted to see anyone tortured or killed? That I wouldn't have spared those lives if there were a better way to achieve the greater good? There's no true kindness in sparing one life if you know it will bring suffering or death to hundreds more.

But Emerald Blair had never truly lived in the real world. An improbably idyllic childhood, a playacting version of a criminal life with little real harm done, an assortment of odd jobs, and then a stint as the TSC s.e.x symbol in residence ... she'd had it easy, always getting to indulge her fantasies and illusions. She'd never had to fight for reward and acceptance, never understood the hard work, sacrifice, and discipline it took to make any real difference in the world.

But Tai would change that. Once Blair had become a Vanguardian tool to interfere with his efforts, it had been necessary to sacrifice her ... because few Striders would understand any better than she had, at least not until they'd come to trust the Cereans more. She hadn't yet borne the full brunt of that sacrifice, but he would make sure that she did. Greg Tai was not a man who allowed matters to remain out of his control for long. As a Terran born, he understood that one could not afford to lose control of one's environment.

And Hikari, he felt sure, was the key to making it right. So disciplined, so obedient, she had waited meekly while his mind had wandered, not objecting to the hand that remained on her shoulder-or the other which he realized had been absently stroking her silky hair. Mind your control, he thought ruefully, folding his hands behind him but making no outward acknowledgment of his lapse. "I'm glad you understand what we're fighting for, Hikari. Because I have a mission for you that I fear you might find difficult." He came around to face her. "I need you to arrest Emerald Blair." Her eyes widened; her delicate lips parted in surprise. "Can you do that for me? Would there be a ... personal problem?"

After a moment, her gaze hardened. "No, sir. Emry..." She shook her head. "I thought I knew her better than anyone. I never imagined ... sir, she's a traitor. She let the Corps down. She let us all down. And when I see her again I'm going to punch her right in her lying mouth! Sir," she finished, daintily clearing her throat. "But ... how do I get to her? The Vanguard is protecting her, and-"