'Emry, be careful. She can inflame your rage, compromise your judgment.' But by the time Zephyr said this, Psyche had already ducked and spun to take Emry's legs out from under her with a sweep of her own. But Emry had seen it coming and leapt into a pounce, and Psyche barely rolled clear in time. It's all about the legs with her, Emry realized.
Indeed, one of those legs came down on the small of her back, knocking her onto her belly. A moment later, Psyche was straddling her from behind, legs wrapped around her midriff and squeezing hard. A rope of shimmering, coppery-gold hair looped around Emry's neck and Psyche began to pull it tight. "I didn't want to have to do this, Emry! But I will kill you. You deserve it! You could've had everything at Daddy's side! But instead you betray him! Just like you betrayed your own father!"
Emry only faltered for a second. For once, Psyche had misread her. Yes, she had let her father down. But that was the past, and she could forgive herself now. Rachel had forgiven her ... and she knew Mom and Dad would have forgiven her too. Because that was the kind of love they'd shared. The kind that healed.
Emry shot her head back into Psyche's face, drove her elbows into the nerve clusters under her arms. Psyche fell back, dazed, the rope of hair falling free from Emry's neck. Emry spun to face her, seeing blood dripping from her adorable snub of a nose. "Don't flatter yourself, Daddy's girl. You even fight s.e.xy-the legs, the braid-it's fetish stuff. Not the real deal. Everything about you is just for show."
Psyche smiled, licking her lips to taste the blood. "No. It's for getting what I want. And there's more than one way to do that."
She ran. Emry followed. Soon, they emerged into the amphitheater, where dozens of delegates milled, discussing the issues of the day. "Help!" Psyche cried. "It's Emerald. Emerald Blair. She's betrayed us all, she's a spy for Ceres, she's trying to kill me!" Her voice was perfectly pitched to convey terror and helplessness. Tears glistened in her eyes, and her expression was so poignant it made even Emry mad at herself for hurting her. "Please, she's coming for me, stop her! Stop her any way you can!"
Most of the male delegates, and many female ones, surged forward to protect Psyche. She clung to them, one by one, no doubt spewing psychoactives all over them. "No, it's not what you think!" Emry called. But some of them were already charging-Marcus Rossi of Mars Martialis, Paul Chandler of Zarathustra, the half-bionic If.u.kube Kenji of Niihama. People who could do her serious damage if she let them-people she didn't dare hurt because they were innocent dupes. People who looked like they wanted to rip her apart with their bare hands for daring to lay a finger on their sweet, beloved Psyche.
So Emry ran. And a mob of delegates ran after her, screaming for her blood.
Beyond the stone amphitheater was a dense deciduous forest, and Psyche knew that Emry would quickly outdistance her pursuers within it. The delegates were not the best backup physically, with a few exceptions among the mods. But they were at hand, Emry wouldn't hurt them, and, most important, they would all do anything for Psyche. Well, maybe not anything, but with the right handling, she could certainly guide them in the right direction. It warmed Psyche's heart to see how many of the delegates leapt instantly to her defense, and how easy it was to persuade the rest to join in the pursuit of Emry-even some whom she hadn't yet managed to program for obedience, who were just buying her story and choosing to help her of their own free will. It was a thrill to exercise her powers on such a scale, to get a real test of the delegates' devotion to her. This was what her father had made her for. This was his will made manifest. And nothing brought Psyche such joy and fulfillment as being the instrument of Eliot Thorne's will.
Still, the last thing she wanted to do right now was call up Daddy and ask for help. He was busy with important conference matters, comparing notes with geneticists from various delegations, exploring ways to combine their efforts and techniques toward the betterment of all humankind. As always, he was planning for the future, his great mind and will questing outward, ten steps ahead of everyone else. She couldn't interrupt that with a mundane setback like this.
Besides, she was embarrassed. She should never have let this happen. She had underestimated Emry's loyalty to the Troubleshooters. No, don't be so hard on yourself. You couldn't have known the Troubleshooters would develop their own suspicions of Tai. She'd done all she could to assess their personalities, model their probable reactions, and orchestrate matters to deepen the wedge between them and Emry. But try as she might, she could only gain so much insight into the minds of people she hadn't gotten up close and personal with.
So she'd been forced to improvise again, as she had with Villareal. She hated it when she had to improvise. It was such a waste when people refused to go along with the plan and had to die. Especially a fabulous lover like Villareal or a friend like Emry. d.a.m.n that cyber. She didn't know specifically what Zephyr had said, but she could read Emry's reactions in her face, her hormones, the blood flow in her brain. If not for him, I could've won her over. Or at least knocked her out and taken her captive, so that she could've worked on changing her mind at leisure.
And maybe that could still happen if they caught her, though it would take some substantial neurological reconditioning. She wouldn't be the same free-spirited, funny, aggravating, and endearing woman after that. Maybe it would be kinder just to kill her now and remember her as she was. After all, she had an excellent simulation of Emry's psyche in her memory buffer, accumulated over many weeks of scanning and thus exceptionally detailed, so she could call it up for a chat at any time and wouldn't have to lose her friend forever.
Either way, Psyche was determined to get the situation in hand before she bothered Daddy. He had faith in her to handle things like this, and she wasn't going to let him down. She'd kill anyone, even her best friend, before letting her father down.
Not that Daddy wouldn't forgive her, of course. Daddy always forgave her. He was so generous and good to her. Most everyone was, of course, but that was Daddy's gift to her as well.
And now Psyche was able to make good use of that gift. Once she'd gotten the first group motivated to get out there and hunt Emry down, she quickly rounded up others, including that charming old lech Hanuman and his lady bodyguards (or body-somethings), to join in the search. Naturally, they were all oh so eager to come to her aid, to show no mercy to anyone who would dare to hurt her.
Unfortunately, her ability to keep up the persona of a victim was complicated by the fact that the delegates needed her help. Not many of them had the skills or enhanced senses to help in tracking, aside from Bast and a few others. So Psyche had to join in the search, crouching close to the ground and tracking Emry by her enticing, raw scent. It wasn't easy; Emry's trail soon vanished from the ground, and Bast had to follow it up into the trees. The she-cat lost the trail before long, but Psyche called up Emry's personality model, simulated her behavior under pursuit, and chose a likely direction. Before long, she'd picked up that exciting bouquet again and led the search party in pursuit.
But as Bast and the others raced ahead, their path paralleling a wide stream, Psyche slowed down, absorbing a new datum from the personality model. When the panthress sighted a flash of burgundy in the undergrowth and pounced on it, Psyche had a pretty good idea of what she'd find. Indeed, shortly the disappointed Bast rose, the shreds of Emry's blouse, pants, and boots clutched in her claws and teeth.
Psyche chuckled. Ohh, I could've guessed that even without the model.
Power Games Emry ran through the forest on bare feet, water streaming from her hair. She'd figured that if Psyche could sense her hormones, she could track by scent, so she'd stripped to her panties and immersed herself in the stream. This was only a stopgap at best; movie myths to the contrary, scent molecules were highly hydrophilic and remained detectable in water for some time. A thorough bath and change (or abandonment) of clothes could confuse a scent tracker for a time, but it would just be a matter of searching until the trail was found again-and her near-nudity would probably make her easier to track. But with Psyche giving off psychoactive drugs from her sweat glands while she'd been pawing Emry all over, a stripdown and quick bath had seemed like a good idea. I'd rather go naked than wear her.
In fact, she reflected, she probably should have shed her panties as well. In the wilds of Neogaia, complete nudity would help her blend in visually if not by scent. In the past, she wouldn't have hesitated. Since p.u.b.erty, Emry had never met anyone strong enough to overpower her s.e.xually (until Eliot Thorne), and so had never learned to feel vulnerable in the nude. But after what Psyche had done to her, she felt exposed in a way she'd never known. Her panties didn't do much to counter that feeling, but they were the only thing Psyche hadn't gotten her scent on. They were better than nothing.
'Still, there has to be more to it than pheromones and drugs,' she subvocalized as she ran-trying to stride on exposed roots and stones as much as possible to minimize her trail. 'She knew what I was thinking, more than any heightened social processing skills could explain. She was practically reading my mind. That's impossible, isn't it?'
'Essentially,' Zephyr replied. 'Specific concepts and memories are uniquely encoded in each brain. The code can only be deciphered after extensive analysis of the active neural network, and only in broad, imprecise terms. Recall the trouble your friend Mr. Santiago was having with transferring his brain to a computer substrate. A more general reading of cognitive focus, sensory input, and emotional response is possible, but only with a scanning mechanism surrounding the brain and stationary relative to it.'
'Right.' In her Banshee days, Emry had occasionally benefitted from the fact that brain scans couldn't be used to extract secrets or proof of guilt without a subject's willing cooperation. 'So how could she have done it?' She remembered. 'Those d.a.m.n b.u.t.terflies. She always had her hands on my head. Could there have been sensors in them?'
'Maybe. But that wouldn't be enough. They'd have to interface with some existing, more encompassing array. One that had remained in place long enough to gather the baseline data it needed to correct for changing, imperfect scanning conditions.'
'Some kind of smart dust or nanogrid? You would've picked that up after that first night.' Whatever Psyche had done, she could clearly do it without s.e.xual intimacy, unless she had a lot more stamina and free time than Emry gave her credit for. It could've begun when she'd first held Emry's head in her hands and kissed her cheeks. But how much further could she have taken it once she'd pleasured Emry into unconsciousness? Maybe she'd gotten Emry to talk about her mission from Tai-that was how she and Eliot had known. But Eliot had made the accusation and Psyche had feigned surprise to misdirect Emry, and she, already compromised and suggestible, had fallen for it. But that didn't explain how a nanosensor array could have gone undetected.
'I've been analyzing the telemetry from before,' Zephyr said. 'In the past, her manipulations were too subtle for me to read any signs of psychoactives or tech activity. But this time I read faint electrical potentials around your cranium. The model that best fits the readings is an array of nanosensors located in or near your hair follicles.'
'Okay, but how could you have missed those in the medscan?'
'I have a theory.' Zephyr paused. 'You're not going to like it.'
"Just tell me, okay?" she hissed.
'The Demodex brevis mite is a benign parasite, a few tenths of a millimeter in size, that infests the hair follicles of nearly ninety-eight percent of all humans. If Psyche's hair mites contain nanosensors, and she infested your scalp with them-'
"Ohh, ick! You mean she gave me cooties?!" She almost forgot to keep her voice low.
'That term originally referred to lice, which are parasitic insects. Demodex mites are arachnids, usually harmless, which is why the medscan didn't flag them.'
Emry suppressed a shudder. 'Okay. So she's got me and the delegates cootified ... the bugs form a sensor grid, and her hands read them. Something with the eyes too, I bet ... the way she holds your gaze.'
'Once her other manipulations render the brain susceptible to hypnosis, some EM pattern from her eyes may be the trigger. The optic nerves are direct conduits to the brain.'
'So two parts, detection and control. She can model people's minds, analyze their thought patterns, use that feedback to tailor her attacks more precisely. So it's almost like she's reading your mind.'
'Yes,' Zephyr said. 'Her salivary and apocrine glands must be chemical synthesis factories, generating agents tailored to each subject's brain chemistry. Remarkable.'
'And scary. The control she could have over people. Over governments. Zeph, she almost had me. I loved her. I would've done anything for her.... '
'It's all right, Emry.'
'And Eliot ... ' She fought the tears that threatened to pour forth. She couldn't afford that now. She continued to subvocalize, afraid that if she spoke her thoughts aloud, it would break down the last of her control. 'I can't believe he'd be a part of all this. How do we know she doesn't have him under her thumb along with everyone else?'
Zephyr's voice was gentle. 'Emry ... while the presumption of innocence is a fundamental principle of ethics, you should consider your motives for it in this case. You've already seen what can happen when your judgment is clouded by love.'
"It's not the same!" she said aloud. Too loud. She sighed, gathering herself. 'I'm sorry, pal. I know you're just looking out for me. I should've listened to you before.'
'Your judgment was compromised at the time. But you came through when it counted.'
"Thanks to you. And thanks to Kari and the rest." Kari! "Can you contact them? I'm gonna need their help."
'Do we want to risk alerting Paladin? Although Tai was right about the Vanguard being a threat, his methods for dealing with them would still do more harm than good.'
'Okay, so can you contact Kari or the others without alerting him?'
'I don't share quantum encryption with them.'
'Can you laser-comm their ships, get to them the long way round?' Emry asked.
'If I knew where their ships were. And if they were taking my calls anymore.'
'Then I'll just have to try to get to them myself.'
Just then, a furry figure dropped from an overhead branch, startling several birds into flight. Hanuman Kwan came to his feet before her. He leered openly at her wet, nearly nude body, but his gun didn't waver from its aim between her eyes. "Well, h.e.l.lo," he said. Emry looked around for other pursuers, but Hanuman said, "Don't worry-we're alone."
Emry tried to dodge around and get to the gun, but it moved swiftly to bear. He was quicker than she would have thought. "Ah, ah, ah, now do be a good girl and don't move." He tilted his head. "Well, if you wanted to jiggle up and down a bit, I wouldn't mind at all."
She burned with humiliation, angry at herself for letting his pathetic lechery affect her. She crossed her arms over her b.r.e.a.s.t.s, trying to make it look stern rather than defensive. "Hanuman, listen to me," Emry said. "You can't trust Psyche. She's controlling you and the other delegates, with drugs, hypnosis-it's built into her. She and Eliot Thorne, they don't want a partnership, they want to rule you."
"Well. How kind of you to bring this to my attention, dear lady, but I assure you there's no need for you to worry on my account. You can't trick an old trickster."
He gave a simian chuckle. "Why, of course, my dear! I knew all about the Thornes' manipulative powers before I went into partnership with them. Why do you think I found them such useful allies?"
It took a moment for his choice of words to sink in. "The ... the Thornes' powers? Both of them?"
His eyes widened in mock surprise. "You mean you didn't know? Psyche's abilities are hereditary-though greatly enhanced, of course. Eliot isn't the precision instrument his daughter is, and he doesn't have her sensors and feedback mechanisms ... but, well, you didn't really think that legendary personal magnetism of his was the luck of the genetic draw, did you? Not when he's enhanced every other advantage he has?"
Emry's stomach twisted. "You mean ... when I..." She stopped herself.
"Ohh, when you fell in love with him?" Kwan finished for her, looking sympathetic. "Oh, you poor girl. Yes, I'm afraid he was simply using you. It was important to him to win you over as a symbol. A defector from the Troubleshooters who would speak out against their corruption, giving the charge a legitimacy it couldn't otherwise have."
"No, it ... that can't be all it was to him. He wouldn't have needed to ... I would've done that without being made to..."
"I'm so sorry to be the one to break it to you, my dear. I really hadn't realized just how badly you'd fallen for it." He gave a melodramatic sigh. "What you need to understand about Eliot Thorne is that the very things that make him strongest are in some ways his greatest weaknesses. His tough skin, his resistance to injury and pain, it somewhat dulls his capacity for pleasure. The enhanced hormonal stability that keeps him psychologically balanced tends to diminish his passions. He doesn't feel things all that strongly, I fear." Kwan shook his head, tsk-tsking.
Emry didn't want to believe it. "How ... how can you know that?"
"Oh, Eliot and I go back quite a way. I did some of my graduate study on Vanguard back in the fifties. Yes, he was something of a prototype, so there were some unfortunate side effects. There's something very profound there, I've always thought-that taking away the man's weaknesses left him somehow diminished, cheated out of the pleasures of life. Almost poetic, don't you agree?"
Emry was shaking her head now. "No. No, Eliot can be very passionate. I know."
"Oh, he's learned to play the game very well. He's had to, you see. Feeling as cold and empty as he does leaves the man with a strong need to compensate. He craves stimulation, excitement. And like most people who fail to find fulfillment in love, family, or career, he seeks it through power. The game of conquest, control, domination of others. Be it political, s.e.xual, emotional ... it's what he craves. Masterminding his moves, maneuvering his p.a.w.ns. Winning them over to his will and convincing them it was their own idea."
'Emry, why is he being so garrulous about this?'
But Emry had her own question. "If you knew all this, why are you working with him?"
"My dear, most relationships are about using and being used. The key is to make sure it goes both ways. I help Eliot play the game of quietly conquering the Solar System, and in exchange, I get a power base that improves Neogaia's chances of taking back Mother Earth one day."
"And what kind of ... help are you talking about?"
Kwan grinned. "Why, you don't think Eliot Thorne would leave anything to chance, do you? Just waited around for someone to happen to launch a terrorist attack on Earth, goading them to persuade their close Cerean allies to crack down on the rest of the Belt and provide a common enemy he could unite us against?"
His words. .hit her like-like the sky falling in on her. She was on him in an instant, pinning him against a tree bole by his scrawny neck, the gun knocked aside without a thought. "You?! You ... planned the Chakra City attack?"
Kwan feigned modesty as best he could under the circumstances. "I merely ... provided the means," he choked out. "I can't take credit ... for Eliot's genius."
Her fingers yearned to close around his neck, and only her love for her mother and father, for Sensei, and for Arkady kept her from betraying their faith in her by killing. Besides, her rage was coalescing on another target now.
Slamming a fist into Kwan's gut, leaving him in a half-conscious heap on the forest floor, she scooped up his fallen gun and ran, no longer caring if anyone spotted her. She knew Eliot Thorne's itinerary for today. She knew where he would be.
'Emry, watch yourself,' Zephyr warned. 'Why would Kwan tell you all that like some cartoon villain giving exposition?'
'Because he's a smug b.a.s.t.a.r.d who wanted to watch me squirm.'
'Perhaps. But why hold you at gunpoint, when relying on bodyguards such as Bast would be more in character? Why point you at Thorne and provide you with a weapon?'
'I don't know. But he was telling the truth, Zephyr. Eliot Thorne leaves nothing to chance. Nothing.'
'Granted. But you could be walking into a trap.'
Emry merely quickened her pace. "I'd like to see anyone try and stop me right now."
Selkie broke cover as soon as that horrid Blair woman was out of sight, racing to her dear mentor's side. "Ohh, Hanuman, are you all right?" She helped him up into a sitting position against a tree trunk, checking him for injury.
"Yes." He coughed. "Yes, I'll be fine. I'll-stop fawning over me, you pathetic t.w.a.t!"
Selkie backed away and lowered her head. "Yes, sir. I'm sorry, sir. Would you like to punish me now?"
He gave a pained chuckle. His approval at her obedience comforted her. He'd always been there for her, telling her what to think and not to think, giving her purpose, training her for love and war, ever since she'd been a little girl. "No, no, that can wait until tonight." She flushed with antic.i.p.ation, but grew concerned as he began coughing rather nastily again. She kept her distance, though, for fear of angering him again. He noticed her worry and stroked her short-furred scalp. "Don't worry, I'll be fine." He coughed again. "She ... packs a wallop ... but for all her bluster, she doesn't have that killer instinct." He pulled Selkie closer. "Which is where you come in, my dear."
Thorne was down in the underground labs in the lake sector of Neogaia. An armed, nearly-naked woman storming her way into the place naturally attracted a certain amount of attention. But once they saw the look on her face, most of the personnel knew better than to get in her way, and the few who tried soon regretted it. She took a lab coat from one of them, not wanting to be exposed to Thorne right now. She'd prefer her light armor, but this would have to do.
She found him in an observation room, its wide, transparent wall looking out into the depths of the lake beyond, where a variety of Neogaians swam. Grandma Rachel and a gaggle of scientists were there as well. "Get out," Emry barked at them, her weapon pointed at Thorne to make clear that he wasn't included. The Vanguardian leader met her gaze calmly.
Most of the scientists didn't need to be told twice, hurrying from the room. But Rachel stayed, coming closer to her granddaughter. Emry spoke coldly. "Get out, Rachel. You've got a baby to protect."
"Emry, what's going on? What happened?"
Emry glared at her. "Did you know? Just tell me that, Grandma. Did you know what this ... this conference is really all about?"
"What do you mean?"