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"You must've known about Psyche. You helped make her what she is. You had to know how she can control people. Have you been in on this from the beginning? Have you been lying to me, manipulating me along with the rest of them?"

Rachel crossed her arms. "Emerald, you need to calm down and start making sense."

"Making sense? My Goddess, you can talk to me about making sense? It doesn't make sense to me at all that you could be a part of, of mind control and mass murder. But I can't see how you couldn't be. You had to know about Psyche's powers. You had to be a part of making her into a weapon!" She whirled on Thorne, sensing his attempt to ease closer. "And you stay back! You don't want to punk with me right now!"

"Emry," Rachel said. "Yes, I know all of Psyche's enhancements. They're tools for helping her gain empathy and insight into others, build bridges of understanding. Of course I'm aware of how they could be corrupted into weapons. But Eliot wouldn't let that happen, and neither would I."

"Just like he wouldn't 'let' the Neogaians attack Chakra City and murder my mentor?"



Rachel gasped. "Who would tell you such a thing? Eliot, talk to the girl, explain it to her!"

Thorne crossed his arms. "I don't think you're in the mood for explanations right now, are you, Emerald?"

"There's that keen insight into human nature. Go on, impress me more."

"I suppose Psyche was facing resistance from you and pushed too far to keep you under control-enough to do something your defenses could detect. It's a chronic weakness of hers, I fear. She's too accustomed to getting what she wants, and sometimes forgets the value of patience."

"Is that why she killed Sensei Villareal?" Emry asked, making Rachel gasp again. "Out of 'impatience'?"

"If you know about her abilities, I assume you know about mine as well. So I won't try to cajole or comfort you. I'll simply explain that neutralizing Villareal was necessary. The threat of Ceres united with the Troubleshooters is needed to motivate the rest of the Belt to come together."

"You liar. Sensei's endors.e.m.e.nt would've helped the alliance, not hurt it. You just didn't want the Troubleshooters in the alliance because people would've turned to them for protection instead of you."

"And what good would that have done them? The Troubleshooters are a handful of costumed vigilantes, more about making the public feel safe than making a real difference. They're no more than the Vanguardians were four decades ago. Look how easily they were co-opted by the Cereans."

"Were they really? Or did you send Psyche to seduce Gregor Tai and pillow-talk him into taking over the Corps?"

Thorne smirked. "I hardly needed to. Earth and the Sheaf were already primed to react the right way. So proud and secure in their unified, benevolent social order. So convinced they have the answers the Striders sorely need. All it took was a trigger, and they reacted exactly as our models predicted."

"My God." Rachel was staring at Thorne now. "You're not saying it's true, Eliot? About Chakra City?"

"Something had to be done," Thorne insisted to both women. "You know it as well as I, Rachel. If we can engineer a better humanity on an individual scale, we should be able to do it on a societal scale as well. And we have a responsibility to do so. We left the Belt alone before when we could have helped, and look at the chaos that's resulted! They need to be guided in a better, healthier direction, and we've waited long enough to begin. We're ready now. With Psyche a successful adult, with her eldest siblings nearing maturity. There had to be a trigger to set the process in motion."

"You hypocrite!" Emry cried. "How can you talk about making things better when you're willing to kill people to do it?"

"How many more people will die in the long run if we don't start making a difference now? The sacrifices are regrettable, yes. And I'm sorry that two people you cared for so much had to be among them. But it's a step along the way to a better system. Once we establish the alliance, once we're directing systemwide policy through Psyche's influence and that of her siblings and heirs, there will be no need for such violence!"

"Directing policy-you mean mind control!"

"I mean nothing so melodramatic. All politics is about attempting to persuade people to see one's point of view. But conventional means of persuasion rarely work in the face of human stubbornness or greed, and war, corruption, and cruelty are the result. I discovered that the hard way during the cislunar conflicts. So ever since, I've dedicated myself to finding more effective forms of persuasion. Imagine being truly able to convince everyone to work together toward a common good."

"And what about their free will?"

"All freedom is relative, Emerald. Even the most democratic society imposes legal and social constraints on its members-and when those constraints are too weak or ineffective, chaos results. All we have done is to create a means whereby people's behavior can be governed through an understanding of their own wants and needs, through persuading them to share a common goal for their own reasons.

"Do you really want to keep fighting for the rest of your life, Emerald? Beating people up, throwing them into prison cells, and pretending that makes a difference? I'm offering you something so much greater. I'm offering a role in bringing peace and unity to the human race for all time to come, evolving the entire species into a fitter, more viable whole."

He took a step toward her, reaching out. "I can see how driven you are to find peace, Emerald. That's part of why I chose you to be at my side. I want to give you that chance. Join with me, and together we can create an enduring legacy of peace. Sons and daughters who can change worlds through gentle persuasion and make war and crime a thing of the past. Isn't that a future any Troubleshooter would willingly give his life to help create?"

Emry stared at him. She had no words. But her hand spoke for her. It aimed her gun directly at Thorne's crotch and pressed the trigger.

He was already in motion, and the bullet only grazed his hip. An instant later, his left hand clamped her wrist and forced her to drop the weapon. His right hand chopped at her neck and she lifted her arm to block it, but the blow still felled her. She kicked at his knee, but he knew her moves too well; he was already moving, so the blow only half-connected, dropping him into a crouch but not debilitating him. He grabbed her calf and she tried to yank it away. He added his force to her motion, driving her own knee into her face and nearly dislocating her femur in the process. Thorne was no longer pulling his punches.

Her free foot kicked him in the stomach, knocking the wind from him, but his greater inertia kept him upright. She wrenched her other leg free and rolled away. His hand caught the collar of her lab coat and held it tightly; to get away, she had to unfasten it and wriggle out, leaving herself only in panties once again. She gaped at Thorne as she scrambled away. Had it been an accident, or something more? How far would he go to dominate her?

Determined not to find out, she scrambled to her feet, but it was a struggle. Thorne had bruised her right wrist and left ankle clear to the bone, and the wrist had sustained a hairline fracture, its nanofiber bracing holding it together. Before she was fully upright, Thorne was tackling her, favoring his left leg but barely slowed. All the superstrength in the worlds couldn't let her hold her ground when struck by twice her own mass. He slammed her into the cold observation wall, almost crushing her rib cage. A second later, a fist-shaped stroid had an impact event with her gut, expelling what little air remained in her lungs. But she'd already launched her knee at his crotch, and though she barely registered the impact, she felt his weight fall away. She slumped to her hands and knees, gasping for oxygen. Her repair systems struggled to regulate the pain and feed her epinephrine.

When she looked up again, Thorne, though staggering a bit, was already recovering. Emry gaped, contemplating how much s.e.xual sensitivity he would've had to sacrifice to minimize that particular vulnerability, and almost felt sorry for him. Kwan had not been lying about this either.

Regardless, she had to act before he struck again. But he still loomed over her and was already reaching down. She lunged for his legs, but he grabbed her torso, flipped her upside-down, and pile-drove her toward the ground. She barely managed to tuck her head and take it on her shoulders. But then he forced her down across his leg, his knee taking her in the small of the back. It felt like she would break in half. Then his fist took her across the jaw, dazing her. He let her slide down his leg, then straddled her, a hand around her throat. "You will submit, Emerald! Or you will not live!"

Then his grip loosened as a bullet hit him in the shoulder. A voice rang out: "Leave my granddaughter alone!"

Choking for breath, Emry tilted her head back to see a pair of overlapping, blurry Grandmas Rachel standing upside-down, gradually coalescing into a single, furious armed figure. "I mean it, Eliot! Step away from her now!"

In another moment, his weight was gone from her and she began to feebly pull herself away. "Rachel, put that down," Thorne said coolly.

"Don't tell me what to do, you b.a.s.t.a.r.d! Ohh, I'm so sorry, Emry," Rachel said, shaking her head but not letting her gaze leave Thorne as she strode between the combatants. Careful to keep the gun on Thorne, she slipped off her own lab coat and dropped it over Emry, who pulled it on as quickly as she could, never more grateful to cover her body. "I was a fool. I never for a moment thought Eliot was capable of ... this!"

Thorne seemed subdued, but unreadable. "I will not attempt to defend what happened in the heat of the moment. I regret having to use force on Emerald in any way. But she cannot be allowed to resist or interfere with my plans, no matter what it takes to stop her."

Rachel stared in horror, but it soon gave way to disgust. "I thought the rest of us had talked you out of it, Eliot. I thought you finally understood."

"Hawk, Thuy, and Krishna all stand with me. They still understand that Sol System needs order. It needs a real authority."

"Yes, it does, but a representative one! Everyone having a voice, not one group trying to control it all! My God, Eliot, that's the whole thing we're fighting to keep the Sheaf from doing! How could you think it would work any better with you doing it?"

"Because we are better qualified! And because everyone will have a voice. No one will feel deprived of representation. We will simply make sure they use their voices in the proper harmony, toward meaningful change and progress."

"Ohh, Eliot." Emry recognized the tone. It was that same sad, disappointed tone in her father's voice when she'd misbehaved or fallen short of his expectations. Only it was far more profound. "You really don't get it, do you? I thought you'd learned your lesson after the first time you tried this. I thought the rest of us had brought you into line, convinced you to see reason. But it was all an act, wasn't it? You haven't changed one bit. It's still all about control with you. Your overweening ego demanding that everything has to be done your way."

"It isn't about me, Rachel! It's about you, about Psyche. It's about Liam and Liesl and everyone else we've lost to the chaos."

"No, Eliot. I know you too well. It's about you. You always talk about Liam and the others as though their deaths were a personal affront. A symbol of your failure to control every situation. You always insist that if you just had more power, more influence, you could control everything and keep everyone safe and well." Emry stared up at Rachel, struck by the familiarity of those words.

"But that's a lie, Eliot. It was your drive to control things that sent Liam and the rest down there in the first place. Your desire for a controlled, isolated world that brought us out here to the Belt, and estranged me from my own son. And now look at what you're doing! Backing terrorists. Using your own daughter as an assassin. Attacking, practically raping my own flesh and blood!

"This is what power gets you, Eliot! Try to hold on too tight and you just end up breaking things, or seeing them slip out of your clutches. If what you really cared about was peace and safety, you'd see that. But those things are just excuses for indulging your own pride."

"Do you think Liam gave his life merely for my pride? Would you trivialize his-"

"Don't, Eliot!" The gun was merely an afterthought now. Her eyes held him at bay. "Liam was my husband. You do not get to use him against me. Or against my granddaughter."

Rachel reached down to help Emry to her feet. In doing so, she looked away from Thorne, and Emry's eyes shot to him, concerned that he would seize the opportunity. But he simply stood there, his eyes unreadable. Was he actually considering Rachel's words, or just unwilling to attack her and endanger the genetic legacy in her womb? If nothing else, she'd given Emry a lot to think about.

Just then, Emry noted movement in the water outside. She turned to see a Neogaian swimmer at the observation wall, watching them. But no ... it wasn't just any swimmer. It was Selkie, Hanuman Kwan's playmate. And she wasn't just watching.

She was attaching a device to the glass. And pushing a b.u.t.ton to activate it.

And swimming away from it very, very fast.

Emry made her legs work, pulling Rachel toward the exit. Suddenly Thorne was there, taking Rachel's other arm and propelling her faster. He hit the door control, and it seemed to take forever to slide open. As soon as it was wide enough, the two of them together shoved Rachel sideways through the opening ...

Just as the bomb went off.

19.

Everybody Out of the Gene Pool!

When Psyche was notified of the explosion, Hanuman and Bast had to physically restrain the anguished young beauty from rushing to the blast site herself. Well, Bast did most of the actual restraining, but Hanuman never passed up an excuse to lay his hands on Psyche's incredible body.

Of course, he made sure that all he showed outwardly was concern and anger. She knew quite well that his simian anatomy rendered her usual people-reading skills less than effective with him, but he'd worked hard to cultivate her trust for just this moment. "Please, Psyche, there's nothing you can do now!" he told her, making his voice soothing but urgent.

Psyche whirled on him, her eyes flashing. "How do you know they're dead? Can you be sure?"

If only I could be, he thought, keeping it from showing. Rotten luck that Selkie had been spotted; he'd hoped the little contretemps he'd engineered between Emerald and Eliot would keep them distracted. Fortunately the bomb had detonated before either of them had gotten out, and the door had automatically resealed itself the moment the observation wall was breached. Eliot and the Busty Blaze had been hit by the force and debris of the blast and then by kilotonnes of lake water; the odds of their survival were agreeably slim. But Psyche's question was a valid one: he had to be absolutely certain. Selkie had reported by radio from the lake's surface moments ago, but he'd promptly ordered her back down. "My dear, Selkie and our best swimmers are searching the lake as we speak. If either of them survived-by some miracle-they'll find them." And undo the miracle. "But I must be honest with you, Psyche ... the chances are very poor. Rachel was barely out the door when the bomb blew, and she was badly off. We're rushing her to hospital to ensure her baby's safety." In fact, according to those on the scene, she was conscious-all the more reason to make sure Psyche didn't get a chance to talk with her. Lucky she was pregnant; her concern for her baby's health was the only thing that could have persuaded that stubborn woman to leave the search for her granddaughter.

"If there's any chance at all, I have to be there. He's my father!"

"And as your father, he would want you to be safe. He may not be the only target, Psyche." Hanuman moved closer. "Let me suggest a better way. Come with Bast and me to the security center in the hub. We can monitor the whole search from there. You'll know the moment they find the ... the fate of your father. And you'll be safe there, in case the Troubleshooters have targeted you as well."

Psyche was shaking her head-but at least she wasn't rushing off. "How could this have happened? Emerald would never have been party to an assassination, no matter the provocation. And she was too good to let it backfire on her!"

"It had to be the Troubleshooters," he told her, taking care to drop his usual affectations and sound as sincere as he could. Even with his advantages, this would be a delicate sell. Particularly since he'd improvised the whole thing. He'd been monitoring the Troubleshooters since they'd arrived, of course; they were alert to most monitoring devices, but the Personal Digital Avian he'd purchased from the Moreau Foundation had proved an ideal spy, blending in with the other birds, undetectable as a cyber due to its DNA-based AI. His plan had been to await the Troubleshooters' sabotage and piggyback Eliot's assassination onto it, so that the TSC and Ceres-and by implication their Terran backers-would take the blame. He'd tried to sic Emerald on the Troubleshooters in hopes of provoking a conflict between them and the Vanguardian forces, providing a more plausible context for such a violent turn of events. Emerald's rapprochement with them and her discovery of Psyche's abilities had thrown off his plans-but had provided an excellent backup plan at the same time. "They must have planted a bomb on her," he went on.

Psyche's eyes widened in disbelief. "She was nearly naked!" But it looked more like bewilderment than suspicion. So far, so good.

"Perhaps they fed her a pill of some sort, or ... switched her selfone." Best if it didn't sound too prepared. "I don't know. There are so many ways to deliver a bomb these days. But it's the only possibility, isn't it? Who else here would want to kill Eliot Thorne?"

Psyche gasped, tears pouring from those gleaming eyes, and Hanuman moved in to give her a nice, long, comforting hug. But she pushed him away. "They wouldn't show their hand so openly. It would turn everyone against them."

"That's why they used Emerald, don't you see? They've already painted her as an assassin! She was the perfect dupe! They fooled her into thinking they were on her side, then waited until she went to Eliot, and..." He broke off, making it seem he was too distraught to go on. "Oh, that poor, lovely girl." What a waste of two good D-cups.

Psyche glared at him, grabbed his shoulders, and slammed them into the wall. Oh, this is getting fun! "What about my father?! Eliot Thorne, the greatest man in the worlds, is..." She was unable to finish the thought. She seethed, the rage building within her. It was the most passionate, most genuine and unrehea.r.s.ed emotion he'd ever seen in the girl's flawless face. She'd never looked more beautiful.

But then she whirled to the delegates who'd come with her, eager as always to see to her needs. "Find them," she ordered through clenched teeth. "Find the Troubleshooters. Tear this place apart if you have to. And tear them apart when you find them! No-no, save them for me."

She stormed off, her p.a.w.ns following, and Hanuman scampered to keep up, Bast coming along behind. "My dear Psyche, what do you plan to do?"

"You don't want to know, Hanuman. I don't quite know myself yet. I've never had the chance to discover just how much prolonged anguish I can inflict on a human mind." A sob tore out of her. "My father ... he always urged restraint ... patience ... told me not to indulge myself too far." Her hands convulsed into claws, tendons strained in her supple neck, and she erupted. With a roar, she grabbed one of the shorter delegates by the lapels and pulled him up clear off his feet. "And where did that get us?!" she screamed. Slamming him into the wall, she tore at his face with her long, sharpened nails, kicked him savagely in the shins, kneed him in the groin. Deep under her spell, he just stood there and took it, sobbing in her broadcast grief as well as his own pain. The other delegates fidgeted but did nothing to intervene, their faces showing profound sympathy and forgiveness. Hanuman stayed well back. He'd gotten a booster injection of countermeasures to her psychoactive agents this morning, but he wasn't about to take any chances.

Her fury expended for now, Psyche fell on top of the hapless little man's shuddering body and heaved deep breaths. Her eyes flashed at the other delegates. "What are you standing there for? Find the Troubleshooters!" They hurried to comply. But Psyche did not go with them.

After a moment, she looked at Kwan and said, "You're right, Hanuman. I ... we can direct the search better from the hub. I need to ... stay focused." She took his hand and let him help her up to a crouch, not sparing another glance at the delegate. "Thank you, Hanuman. You've always been so good to me. I'm sorry I yelled, Hannie. Daddy would've been so disappointed in me."

"No," he insisted, putting his arms around her. "He would have understood. He knew how much you loved him. And he loved you just as much."

She accepted his embrace for a moment, but then moved clear and rose to her full, impressive height. "But he would want me to be strong for him. I'm the leader of the Vanguard now. It's up to me to ensure his legacy."

"Yes. Yes, that's the spirit!" Taking her warm, supple hand, he led her toward the nearest radial shaft, with Bast going ahead, ostensibly to guard against Troubleshooter assassins (while actually to keep Psyche in line in case she got suspicious). "With your powers, and with the brilliance and vision you inherited from Eliot, there's nothing you can't do. And I'll be right there with you, helping you unite humanity once and for all."

"Not all of it," Psyche answered. "Not the Sheaf. Not Earth. And not the Troubleshooters. They killed the greatest leader history has ever known. And I will make them pay."

Ohh, how perfect! He had her right where he wanted her. Eliot's dream of systemwide unity had been grandiose but misguided. Humanity belonged in the bosom of Mother Earth, becoming part of Her once again, not trapping the spark of life inside a million tin cans in s.p.a.ce. Earth had to be reclaimed-Her industrial masters overthrown, their bloated numbers culled to a sustainable minimum, their cities torn down to pave the way for the return of Her true acolytes, the Neogaians. With Hanuman Kwan ruling over them from his palace, of course. True, a palace filled with the collected riches of the Earth and a well-stocked harem/menagerie wasn't exactly the sort of thing that generally came about through natural processes. But that was a minor detail.

And with Psyche working for Neogaia-and sharing her secrets so Neogaia could create more like her, missionaries whose sermons could win over the most resistant unbelievers-the goal of reclaiming Mother Earth would finally be in their grasp.

Of course, Psyche would eventually learn that Hanuman's goals were not her own, and then he would have to have her killed. But by then, hopefully, the initial war against UNECS (who would be dragged into the war that would soon be launched against their Sheaver allies) would be won and Neogaia would have a small army of super-missionaries growing toward adulthood.

But who knew? Maybe over time, he could win her over to the Neogaian point of view. She was such a daddy's girl. Smart of Eliot, to keep her psychologically dependent on him as a means of regulating her extraordinary power. Perhaps Hanuman could take over as her surrogate father figure-not too literally, of course, since that would preclude the frequent and ambitious s.e.x he intended to have with her. But maybe, if he played his hand right, he could convince her of the joys of living as nature intended.

Hanuman smiled, watching Psyche's perfect ass undulate before him, and contemplated how much more perfect she would be with a nice, long tail. Or maybe he would give her b.u.t.terfly wings for real. Or why not both...?

Emry struggled toward the surface, but the dead weight she was dragging held her down. The cold water both stung and soothed where her bare skin was burned. Blood clouded the water, and Emry just hoped there were no Neogaian shark-people in this lake. Or just plain sharks.

It could have been worse. The charge had been calibrated to deliver all its force into shattering the observation wall and letting the inrush of high-pressure water and shards of wall material do the rest, so as to protect Selkie and the other lake denizens from the lethal hydraulic shock of a larger blast. But while the door may have trapped Emerald and Thorne inside, enough of a gap remained at the moment of detonation to ameliorate the overpressure shock as the lake burst in and compressed the air ahead of it. Nonetheless, the combined impact of the overpressure, the water itself, and the wall shrapnel would have been instantly lethal to any baseline human and most mods.

But Emry had been spared the worst of it. Once she'd come to her senses, she'd realized something had shielded her.

Eliot Thorne's body.

Which had floated limp in the water, blood billowing from his lacerated back. The pale infrared ghost of his heart still beat, but weakly.

Emry owed Eliot Thorne her life. By chance? Or ...

She'd had no time to contemplate it; even her oxygen-rich blood had its limits, and her inbuilt emergency reserve was all but depleted after that last fight. Scanning the room, she'd spotted a knocked-over cabinet with some gill rebreathers spilling out. She'd grabbed one for herself, sucked in the oxygen it extracted from the water. Then, sighing heavily into the mask, she'd grabbed a second one, strapped it over Thorne's face, and dragged him toward the jagged hole in the wall.

It was no easy task getting him to the surface. All that muscle and dense Vanguardian bone meant he wasn't very buoyant. For that matter, she wasn't much more buoyant herself, thanks to her bionics and reinforcements. To minimize drag, she'd had no choice but to shed the lab coat and leave herself all but naked to the cold water, without the inbuilt defenses that Selkie and the others had. It was slow going. She was still weak and the rebreather wasn't calibrated for her oxygen-hungry metabolism. She kept herself motivated by imagining the nice, cathartic trial she was going to take Thorne in for. assuming somebody could figure out who had the authority to try him.

Suddenly a hand came from behind her and ripped the rebreather from her face. Emry shot an elbow back, grazing a well-padded body. She spun to see Selkie flinging her mask aside, then darting away as Emry swiped at her with her free arm. Emry tucked that arm under Thorne's again and tried to increase her upward pace. But Selkie swam down from above and pushed down on Emry's shoulders. Emry again freed one hand to swing at her, but Selkie somersaulted and took her in the face with a flippered foot.

Emry lost her grip on Thorne and had to head after him as he slowly sank. She pulled his mask free, holding her hand over his nose and mouth to keep him from inhaling water, and took a deep drag from it before strapping it back around him. Then she resumed her grip and started upward again, knowing Selkie would be there but having no choice.

As she closed on the seal-woman, Emry kicked at her, but Selkie dodged easily. This was her element, and Emry was too hurt, too weak. Again those hands pushed down on her. Strong, flippered legs churned water, fighting her upward progress, reversing it. Emry's lungs were crying for air. She felt her consciousness starting to fade.

But suddenly there was something else in the water, a silver dervish striking at Selkie again and again, driving her away. The figure descended toward Emry, took her in its arms, began to lift her skyward. An angel. Tenshi.

"Kari!" Emry gasped once she'd breached the surface and sucked in the sweet air. Coughing, she gestured toward sh.o.r.e with her head. Kari, clad only in her silver light-armor bodysuit, joined her in pulling Thorne to dry land, and then Arjun was there, wading in and helping them both to the sh.o.r.eline, where Kari's scarlet jacket lay crumpled on the sand.

"Oyamah!" Kari gasped when she saw the state of Thorne's back. Thorne was starting to cough up water on his own, confirming he didn't need respiratory assistance, so Arjun whipped a medical gel pack from his armor and sprayed it over Thorne's back.





CHAPTER DISCUSSION