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"I know. I haven't told you the full assignment." He led her off the bridge, a guiding hand against her back. "No doubt you've heard that the Vanguard is arranging a second conference to pursue their so-called alliance of mod nations." He frowned. "They even have the gall to hold it on Neogaia. Like they're rubbing our faces in it."

"Yes, sir."

"But a lot of people seem to be falling for their line that it's meant to show how Neogaia has reformed, how it's ready to be part of the Solar community." He scoffed, and she gave a high-pitched, adorable little scoff of agreement. "Eliot Thorne and his daughter are master propagandists. If we want to keep this from getting out of hand, we have to neutralize them."

Kari's eyes widened. "Neu-neutralize? Sir? You don't ... of course you don't...."

Tai laughed and patted her shoulder. "Of course not." Another assassination at this point would look too suspicious, and with the cult of personality Thorne had built around himself, would only create a martyr. "What we need to do is discredit Thorne. We need to reveal to the other delegates that Thorne's true goal is to rule over them, to exploit them for his own ends."



"We have proof of that?" Kari asked, surprised.

"Not as such. But we both know it's true, don't we?" She nodded, still seeming uncertain. "It's no different from what we did with Hoenecker. We don't need to convict him in a court of law, just destroy his credibility."

She relaxed at that. "Of course, sir. What matters is taking away his power to do harm."

"Yes. Good girl. However," he went on, "even without him, the other mod nations might seek to build on his work, to form alliances of their own. Imagine if, say, Neogaia and Mars Martialis began working together."

"That would be bad."

"It certainly would. So in addition to discrediting Thorne, you and your team would have the responsibility to stir things up between the other delegates."

He spoke with her about the specifics as they strolled deeper into the woods-ordering her to make sure her memory buffer was off, due to the sensitive nature of this discussion. She would need a small infiltration team, specialists in undercover and intelligence work, but with combat skills just in case. He brainstormed with her about the forms their sabotage could take: planting spy cameras of Martian provenance in other delegates' ships, slipping nonlethal doses of Neogaian poisons into the Wellspringers' meals, that sort of thing. She offered few suggestions of her own, but he was satisfied with her obedience.

And her enthusiasm for one task in particular. "And while we're doing all this ... we get Emry too, right?" she asked.

"Best to wait until it's all in place, but yes. Emerald Blair is an accessory to murder and a fugitive from justice, and apprehending her is a very high priority of this organization. That's why I insist you have combat specialists with you on the mission. You'll need help in taking her down."

"Ohh, no." Kari shook her head. "With all due respect, sir ... that bit.c.h is mine."

Tai kept his smile to himself. Under the circumstances, he could forgive her defiance.

December 2107

Neogaia habitat

Sun-Earth L3 point

Emry didn't like being this close to the Sun. It gave her freckles.

That was the least of her discomfort about attending a conference on Neogaia. But she had striven to overcome her revulsion. Eliot was convinced that the new regime could be worked with-that although they still retained their ideological goal of returning to Earth and transforming it into a natural paradise, they had renounced terrorism as a means of achieving it. And if Eliot said it was so, she believed it. Still, there were some difficult memories to overcome.

Zephyr hadn't been much help either. He'd refused to let go of his suspicions about the Thornes. He'd even made insinuations about Psyche being the last person to see Sensei alive. Emry had exploded at that, saying some hurtful things about cold machine logic. She'd tried to apologize later, but he had refused to apologize for "reminding you of your job," and matters remained unsettled between them. Zephyr had still come along to Neogaia, insisting that he'd stay close if she needed him. But Emry herself had traveled with Eliot in his official diplomatic ship. After all, it was a long journey, and she couldn't stand to be apart from him for a single night. Zephyr had instead carried a couple of the Vanguardian delegates, including Rachel, now halfway through her pregnancy but as active as ever.

Zephyr had also been disturbed that Emry had chosen to travel without her Green Blaze outfit. But it didn't seem consistent with her purpose at this conference. Eliot said she had a vital role to play, testifying about the plans of UNECS and the co-opted TSC. As much as she hated the thought, with Sensei dead, the Troubleshooters were probably a lost cause, and it was best to cast off their trappings if she wanted to make a convincing argument against them. Besides, Eliot had added, something less flamboyant would be more appropriate for a diplomatic affair. He'd had his best tailor custom-make some formal and business wear in a Vanguardian style, making her a better match with the Thornes. She wasn't overly fond of it at first, but she liked the way she looked alongside Eliot.

The Vanguard delegation included a number of their leading citizens, statespersons such as Soaring Hawk Darrow and Thuy Dinh and scientists such as Krishna Ramchandra and Rachel. They rendezvoused with Psyche at Neogaia; the Vanguard's top diplomat had been racing around half the Belt for the past two and a half weeks, making last-minute pleas to recruit as many delegates as possible. This time, invitations had been extended to "mainstream" as well as "mod" nations, and Eliot's hope was that the conference would end with the formal declaration of a Strider alliance, a unified force strong enough to give Earth pause-and, of course, to bring peace and stability to the Belt. Psyche had taken the Vanguard's fastest ship and managed to squeeze in stops at Vesta and both the major Outers hubs, Europa and Hygiea. She'd managed to w.a.n.gle a number of commitments before having to rocket inward to Neogaia. There would even be a delegation from Ceres, though Psyche had not had time to travel there herself. A delegation from Ferdinandea, a minor Cerean hab independent of the Sheaf, had accepted Thorne's initial invitation without needing further persuasion. Emry hoped that an ally from Ceres might set a precedent; maybe Demetria would come around as well, and perhaps even the Sheaf could be pressured into dropping its opposition.

Neogaia itself consisted of two adjacent toruses, less than a kilometer in radius but fairly thick in cross section, with the usual free-fall industrial section at the hub and a sun mirror floating nearby. Aside from a few other support structures, it was oddly alone in its Lissajous...o...b..t around the "Counter-Earth" L3 point-sharing Earth's...o...b..t but directly opposing it, blocked from its line of sight to keep the yearning for it strong (and to hide from routine observation by UNECS telescopes). The Neogaians had never bothered to capture a stroid as a materials source, instead relying on the smattering of meteoroids that clustered around the Lagrange point or on mining expeditions to those Near-Earth stroids that UNECS hadn't already captured or claimed. The symbolism was clear: the Neogaians saw this as only a temporary home.

Despite that, they had put a great deal of work into the habitat itself. The docking area at the hub was typical enough, but once Hanuman Kwan met Emry, the Thornes, and their accompanying delegates and began leading them down to the habitat rings, it became clear that Neogaia was a very unusual place. For one thing, the normal elevators were missing. "We believe in doing things the natural way as much as possible," the monkeylike Neogaian explained. Apparently that included dressing up the walls of the radial shafts to look like cliff faces and climb them on faux vines that stretched hundreds of meters to the ground below. Which wasn't that unreasonable, given that the faster they descended, the more the Cori force angled their weight vectors to antispinward and made the slope feel shallower. And it was only in the last hundred meters or so that the gravity became substantial. Still, some of the older delegates needed assistance.

The bottom of the shaft was styled like a largish cavern, and Kwan led them out onto a terraformed hillside looking down into a lush valley. The gravity at ground level was a full gee. The torus's large cross section allowed for more level ground and more aerial clearance for trees and birds. The lateral walls were disguised as hillsides, and the circumferential curvature of the landscape was obscured by mountains on this end, dense forest on the other. The roof overhead, rather than being the standard skylight arch, looked like some kind of fiber-optic array that could shunt the sunlight from outside to any set of pixels on its inner surface, creating an illusion of a vivid blue Terrestrial sky and a sun just cresting the hills. As Kwan led the tour group through the valley, Emry's eyes were drawn to their oddly elongated shadows, and she realized they were very gradually shortening as the "sun" crept higher up the (literal) arch of the (virtual) sky. Weird.

But this was only the beginning. "We have striven," the elderly simian continued, "to re-create as much of Mother Earth's extraordinary diversity of climates as possible. Everything from steppes to savannah, rain forest to desert, tropics to tundra. All perfectly balanced and in ecological harmony with one another." Their surroundings bore out his words as Kwan escorted them from one climate zone to another, each one isolated from the others by artificial barriers, with the circulation of air, heat, and moisture through the habitat carefully modified to provide each sector with just the right conditions. There were even two arctic sectors on opposite ends, and Emry realized they corresponded to the extra heat radiators she'd noticed sticking out from the sides of the torus. Emry was impressed despite herself. She'd always thought of the Neogaians as a small bunch of crazy thugs, but this was the most remarkable, delicate feat of biosphere engineering she'd ever seen.

"And you can rest assured," Kwan went on, "that the richness and diversity of these ecosystems are more than matched by that of the Neogaian people. Every environment you see has people living in it, thriving in it, perfectly adapted to its special conditions." Indeed, every region they passed through was populated by suitably specialized therianthropes, generally going without clothing, selfones, or other technology (although Kwan and the others partic.i.p.ating in the conference wore at least some clothing as a courtesy to their guests). Small, simian brachiators and deerlike foragers populated the forests alongside the normal wildlife. The grasslands bore herds of sheep, bison, and the like, but they were herded by men and women with canine muzzles and furry coats. Emry saw an eland taken down by a pride of leonine Neogaians who tore at its raw flesh with their teeth. Mercifully, she saw no humans modded to fill the eland's particular niche in that ecosystem. That, she thought, would really be pushing the antelope.

Even the rivers and lakes contained streamlined people swimming with uncanny ease, occasionally breaking the surface to take a breath and waving web-fingered hands at the delegates. The one environment that remained unpopulated by therianthropes was the air. "We're still working on producing a human form capable of flight in normal gravity," Kwan explained. "It's difficult to do the research in these conditions, with the actual s.p.a.ce available for flight being so limited. But once we are ultimately welcomed back to Mother Earth, I'm confident we will perfect true human flight." Emry glared at him, wondering how many live test subjects they would sacrifice in pursuit of this bizarre ambition.

Don't expect change overnight, she reminded herself. Once we have the alliance, we can work to bring them back into the mainstream.

As the tour went on, Emry noticed Psyche working the delegates, buddying up to them and allaying their concerns. Yes, she assured them, the Neogaians had more conventional facilities underground, and the delegates would have actual beds to sleep in-unless they wanted to try camping out under the illusion of an empty, starlit sky soaring overhead. The thought did not sit well with the inherent claustrophilia of the average Strider, Emry included, but Psyche somehow managed to make it sound enticing. She was certainly laying on her usual charm offensive, focusing mostly on those delegates she hadn't already won over at the previous conference or during the recruitment drive for this one. Eliot himself did the same, though in a more understated way. For a man of his size and intensity, coming on too strong could be intimidating. The other Vanguardians did their part too, but Eliot and Psyche could have easily done it all by themselves.

By the end of the reception and dinner that evening, the Thornes had managed to produce an extraordinary degree of consensus from the delegates-meaning that they wouldn't have to spend the first week hashing out the seating arrangements and procedures, and n.o.body had stormed out in protest. That made for a smooth beginning to the next morning's assembly. The event was held in a "natural" amphitheater, with its stone walls conveniently shaped to amplify sounds-somewhat belying the Neogaians' insistence that they wished to shape themselves to nature rather than the reverse. But Emry had decided to take such things as mere eccentricities rather than grounds for contempt. The old regime is gone, she reminded herself. Eliot helped see to that. Even without her transceiver implant active, she could almost hear Zephyr's voice in her mind, dryly pointing out that revolutionary regimes were typically no better than the ones they kicked out. But she owed it to the Thornes to give this alliance a fair chance. And regimes aside, there's no reason to be prejudiced against the Neogaians as people. Sure, their beliefs are a little wacky, but most of them probably mean well, right?

Her open mind was sorely tested when she saw Hanuman Kwan come into the arena with a thong-clad, otherwise naked woman on each arm. The one on his right was Selkie, the curvaceous and bubbly seal-woman from the first conference. But the one on his left ...

Was Bast.

Emry stormed over to the threesome, and the she-cat promptly snarled and splayed her claws. Kwan held her back as Emry cried, "What the vack is she doing here, Kwan? I thought you told me her bunch had been kicked out."

"Indeed they were, my dear, and Bast here was instrumental in that defeat." He reached up and skritched the panther-woman under her chin to calm her. "A cat's primary loyalty is to her own comfort. Bast has no deeper ideology than that. She sniffed out the way the wind was blowing and switched to the winning side."

"You think that's reassuring? She's one of the ones responsible for killing my mentor!"

"My dear Emerald, I have already extended you Neogaia's deepest regrets for that tragedy," Kwan said in dulcet tones, though Bast simply looked bored. "Let me remind you that she was simply following the orders of more dedicated fanatics. And that she herself was incapacitated at the time of the disaster-thanks, so she tells me, to your own actions. If anything, you spared her the burden of being a conscious party to such regrettable events. Isn't that right, my sweet?" he asked, stroking the silky black fur of Bast's shoulder.

"Whatever," Bast said, following it up with a prodigious yawn. "Where's the food?" She moved off without another glance at Emry-although the tip of her tail twitched fiercely as she moved past. Emry resisted the urge to give it a good yank.

"Oh, you know cats," Kwan said, laughing it off. "Always having to save face. Believe me, underneath, she regrets the acts she committed under the old regime. And she doesn't hold a grudge. I do hope the same is true of you." He began stroking Emry's shoulder much as he had Bast's. "After all, she's not the only one who's been manipulated into doing unfortunate things by an unscrupulous superior." He leaned closer to speak more softly. "I believe you'll see a case in point if you subtly direct your attention thirty degrees eastward, at the top of the rock face."

Emry blinked in surprise, but didn't betray it beyond that. She casually looked around the amphitheater, casting a split-second glance in the specified direction. Noticing Kwan gazing down her blouse, she pretended to be annoyed with him and walked away, enabling her to get a glance from another angle. While Kwan followed and continued to flirt, she called up the images on her retinal HUD, ran an image analysis, and noticed a subtle distortion in a bulge in the rock face. Once she knew what she was looking for, she was able to spot the telltales; the bulge was actually a person-sized metamaterial cloak, virtually invisible and morphed to blend in with the contours of the rock. Hijab? No doubt there were others with comparable camouflage tech, but few could remain as still and soundless. And the figure's size was right. Besides, who else would it be? Of course Tai would want to spy on this conference, maybe sabotage it. But is Maryam a dupe or a willing conspirator? She didn't know the woman well enough to judge.

"How did you know?" she whispered to Kwan.

"A little bird told me."

Fine, be that way. "Have you told anyone else?"

"I only just noticed it myself."

"Well ... don't." This was her responsibility. She'd have to find Maryam and whoever else was with her-they'd probably snuck in with the Ferdinandea delegation, come to think of it-and stop them from disrupting the conference. Hopefully she could reason with them, convince them- Not likely. What reason do they have to trust me? Most likely, they'd try to arrest her and do whatever they planned to do anyway.

So it'll be a fight, then. Well ... I'm ready.

Emry lost Hijab's trail before long, but it was easy enough to surmise where the Troubleshooters would be hiding; after all, she'd been trained by the same people they had. Before long, she tracked them down to the free-fall industrial sector in Neogaia's hub, between its two counterrotating wheels. She considered calling in Vanguardian backup, but decided against it. She had to at least try to reason with them first. Maybe her chances of being heard would be better with Psyche at her side, but both Thornes were busy with the negotiations. So that left her on her own. For now. 'Be ready to call in backup just in case, okay?' she sent to Zephyr.

'If it comes to that. But Emry, these are our friends.'

'If that's so, then I won't need the backup, will I?'

The T-shooters were holed up in a large warehouse bay adjacent to the s.p.a.cedock, its volume crisscrossed by a lattice of cables to which crates and bins of various sizes were clipped to keep them from drifting. Emry made her way gingerly through the three-dimensional grid, trying not to set off vibrations in the taut cables as she snuck around the containers, edging closer to her erstwhile colleagues. Soon, she grew close enough to hear their voices. "Why are we still waiting here?" That was Paladin, a no-nonsense Troubleshooter who made no secret of his ambition to run the Corps one day. Figures Auster would be Tai's golden boy.

"We don't want to rush in without getting the lay of the land first." Oh, Goddess. That was Kari! Not her! Ohh, she has to be a dupe!

"Hijab didn't have to come all the way back here to report."

"I didn't want to risk breaking radio silence."

Emry didn't have to see Auster to know he was shaking his head in disapproval. "This is an inefficient strategy. I still don't see why Tai put you in charge instead of me."

Kari's voice was subdued. "I guess he thought I had something to prove."

"I don't get it. What?"

He wants her to prove her loyalty by arresting her best friend, Emry realized. Well, I might as well make it easy for her.

"Kenny, what you don't get would take weeks just to list," she called, pulling herself out from behind the last crate. Four Troubleshooters turned their heads in surprise. In addition to Kari, Hijab, and Paladin, Vijay Pandalai was there too. Aside from Maryam, who wore her black cloaking garment with the face mask folded back over her hair, they were all in plain clothes.

Paladin drew his sidearm. "Emerald Blair, you are under arrest! Drop your weapons immediately!"

"Cool your jets, Pal! A, I'm unarmed, and B, I'm here to talk."

Arjun had his weapon out now too. "A Troubleshooter's never unarmed, even when she isn't carrying a weapon. We all know that, Blaze. You want to talk, you'll do it in restraints."

"Any other circumstances, Veej, I'd be game for a little bondage with you. But you know that requires trust, and right now I don't have much to spare."

"And how can we trust you?" Kari cried, smoothly drawing and opening her tessen, the high-tech j.a.panese war fans that were her preferred weapons. "After what you've done? After you abandoned us?"

"It's not like that!" She reached a pleading hand forward.

It was a mistake; Paladin took it as an aggressive move and fired. Her enhanced reflexes made her dodge the shockdart before she was consciously aware of it, but her mind quickly caught up. She pushed off the crate and fled into the maze, flipping backward to look behind her. She caught a glimpse through the crates of Kari intercepting Auster, blocking his path with a spread fan. "Let's not be ras.h.!.+ We split up. You and Arjun go that way, circle around." Emry could imagine the glare on Auster's square-jawed face, but Kari was already leading Maryam down the path Emry had taken. And Maryam was becoming harder to see as she resealed her suit and activated its camouflage.

Emry tried to keep tabs on Hijab, but she had to watch where she was going in the maze of crates and containers, and she soon lost track of the veiled one. Kari remained close on her tail, knowing her moves too well. She used her flexible tessen as airfoils, letting her swim and curve through the air more deftly than Emry, who had to pull herself along by the cables. It was like being chased by a fan dancer. "Kari, will you stop and listen to me?" she called.

"Listen to this!" A graceful flick of the wrist folded one of the tessen shut and thrust its tip toward Emry. A shock laser discharge barely missed her, forcing her to grab a mooring cable and dodge right.

Wait a minute, she thought as she followed this new path. From the way Arjun and Paladin went ... shouldn't she be herding me to the left? Still, she followed an evasive path away from the two men, on the assumption that Kari had simply missed the shot.

But Kari doesn't miss shots!

Suddenly a dainty but solid body collided with her and drove her into an open cargo container. Hitting the boxes inside knocked some of the wind out of Emry, and Kari pushing off her to reverse direction finished the job. Emry braced herself against the wall of boxes, catching her breath for Kari's next strike.

But Kari wasn't striking. She was loosely closing the door of the container and holding a finger to her lips, the tessen folded and held nonthreateningly against her forearms. "It's all right. We can talk here," she said in a serene, detached voice. The battle peace was upon her.

And confusion was upon Emry. "What, now you want to talk?"

"It wasn't safe before. We had to make it look convincing for Paladin. His loyalties are unclear."

Emry studied her friend, but the heiwa rendered her inscrutable. "And where are your loyalties?"

"With the truth. And I would like to hear it from you, for I am not hearing it from Mr. Tai."

The tension drained from Emry's body. "Oh, I am so glad to hear you say that."

Kari smiled ... and a moment later the smile became much wider and more intense as the heiwa subsided. "Ohh, Emry!" Kari pushed off the doors and into Emry's arms, hugging her with all her might. "You don't think I'd ever hurt you, would you, sweetie?"

"No, it's not that, it's just ... oh, Kari, it's just been such a mess ... you really didn't believe the things Tai said?"

Kari lowered her eyes in shame. "I believed most of it. The things he offered ... ending the chaos, bringing order ... the arguments he made for escalating our tactics ... it was all so persuasive. I had my doubts, but I wanted to believe in him. I was willing to do anything that could bring down ... the mobs. You know."

"I get it."

She clasped Emry's hands. "But when he accused you of arranging an assassination ... he went too far. I'd never believe that of you. I knew he was lying, and I wanted to know why. Besides ... he started to get a bit creepy. Like he got off on having power over me." She shuddered a bit and said in a small voice, "He fondled my hair."

"Ohh, Kari." Emry squeezed her hands supportively. "I understand, honey, but that could be dangerous! You become a liability to him, he finds a way to get rid of you."

"I noticed. So I took it slow, talked to some of the others. A lot of us have doubts about the new policies. And I wasn't the only one who didn't believe him about you."

"Vijay? Marut?"

Kari nodded. "Never doubted you for a second."

"Nor did I." Emry's eyes widened as Hijab's black-shrouded form faded into view. She hadn't even noticed the door opening for the older woman to slip through.

Emry's eyes darted back and forth between Maryam and Kari. "You two are together in this?"

Maryam nodded, pulling up her mask to let Emry see her dark eyes. "Tenshi recruited me. She believed-rightly-that she could rely on my discretion. And that she'd need me if she wanted to gain incriminating evidence on Tai. It didn't take much convincing. I've had my eye on him all along. You know I don't trust easily."

"But ... you trusted me?"

"Of course. You've earned it."





CHAPTER DISCUSSION