"Watch it," Emry rasped. "He's ... he's not an innocent." She didn't trust herself to go into it now.
"He's not going anywhere," Vijay said. "He's barely conscious."
"You don't look much better," Kari said, beginning to tend to Emry's wounds.
Emry glared at her. "And you ... what are you doing here? You need to be ... safe. To testify against Tai."
"I can take care of myself," Kari insisted. "Better than you can, it looks like."
"Yeah, well..." She laughed, gave Kari a quick hug. "Thanks. How'd you know?"
"Zephyr told us."
Kari grinned. "He sent his soligram." Emry's eyes widened at the thought of a naked, winged marble statue soaring through the docks, but Kari shook her head. "He made it look like a dockworker."
"So what happened down there?" Kari asked.
"Hanuman Kwan," Emry said. "Sicced me on Thorne ... had his pet seal try to blow us both up. Probably wanted to make it look like I'd killed him, or you had."
"But why? What would he get out of that?"
Emry had been thinking about that, and only one answer had presented itself. "Psyche. She worships her father. If she thought he'd been killed ... thought Ceres and Earth were behind it ... with all the people she can control..."
Emry brushed it off. "We have to find Kwan. He's probably with Psyche."
A hushed voice spoke over Kari's selfone. "Tenshi, this is Hijab. I've been listening. I've already spotted Kwan and Ms. Thorne. They're heading for the hub, accompanied by Bast. The Neogaians have secure facilities there that would be difficult to breach."
"You have to keep them from getting there!" Emry cried. "Kwan was behind Chakra City ... along with Thorne. It was all Thorne's idea. And Psyche ... she killed Sensei." Kari and Vijay stared.
"Then she will not escape me," Maryam said. "This I vow."
"For her sake," Emry said, rising to her feet, "hope you get to her before I do."
She began to storm off, but Kari stopped her. "Umm, Emry ... aren't you a bit, umm, naked?"
"You think I care about that right now?"
"Well ... you could use some protection," Kari said. "And some warmth, Ms. I Just Nearly Drowned. Besides..." She made her way over to her fallen jacket and lifted it to reveal a bundle underneath. "Zephyr sent this along ... he thought you might want it."
Emry laughed with delight. It was a Green Blaze uniform. "Thank you, Zephyr," she said as she began to put it on. "It's been too long since I wore green."
'It's your best color.'
"Trouble coming," Vijay announced as Kari slipped her own jacket back on. "I think."
Emry spun to take in the small mob heading their way. "They're delegates!" Kari said.
"Under Psyche's spell," Emry said.
"Okay, you need to explain that."
"Just call it mind control. Sort of. Point is, they're dupes. Hold them off, but try not to hurt them, okay?" she said as she finished pulling on her boots.
"Got it. You get going. We'll guard your back."
Emry smiled, squeezed Kari's shoulder. "I know you will. Good luck."
Tentatively, Emry set off into a trot. Being in uniform again felt good, and not just symbolically; the light armor gave her muscles (and bust) dynamic support, improved her circulation, boosted her strength. Soon she was able to increase her pace. Checking the utility belt, she found that Zephyr had packed a couple of energy bars for her. She devoured them both as she ran, leaving the wrappers as litter on Neogaia's pristine soil and feeling perversely good about it.
Soon she came to the cave leading to the nearest radial shaft, seized a climbing vine, and began to ascend the spinward wall. She pulled herself up faster and faster, feeling her weight vector angle farther with the speed, and soon she was literally running up the side of the shaft. Her weight decreased with each passing second until she was able to take long bounds up the faux cliff face, and eventually she switched to pulling herself up the vine hand over hand as the wall sped past, only occasionally needing to kick off of it to maintain her distance.
And then she was in the transfer drum between the rotating wheel and the free-fall core of the habitat. Six shaft termini ringed its circumference, while on its flat faces, rotating slowly from her perspective, were multiple corridor entrances. Hijab's tracking signal on her retinal HUD highlighted one corridor, and Emry grabbed its edge, taking a second for her perceptual frame to shift-now the side walls were standing still and the shaft adits rotating. Now entirely in free fall, Emry pulled herself along the corridor by its handholds, picking up speed. She took a moment to whip a hairband from her belt-Zephyr thought of everything-and tie her hair back into a bushy ponytail.
Soon a voice called out to her. "Blaze!" The wall seemed to distort, a subtle bulge in it unwrapping to reveal Maryam's black-clad form inside her cloak. "I think Bast caught my scent, but I managed to elude her. They've taken a shortcut through the warehouse sector, though. They went in moments ago. But Arjun and Tenshi have just called for backup."
"Then go. I can handle this."
"Are you sure?"
"I've taken Bast before," she said, neglecting to mention that she hadn't been this badly hurt at the time. "Besides, once Psyche finds out her dad's alive and Kwan tricked her, Bast'll have to protect him from her."
Maryam sighed. "Very well. I vowed she would not escape-I trust you not to make me a liar. Allah be with you, Emerald."
"I hope so. I need Allah help I can get." Maryam glared. "Sorry," Emry said, clasping her hand and smiling. "Thanks."
So, while thousands of arrows fell all around him and Uttara, Arjuna shot one arrow up into the sky and called down the weapon of sleep.
Or so Buck's translation of the Mahabharata would have it. Despite taking his code name from that greatest of all epics, Vijay Pandalai had never found the time to read the original. Maybe that made him a dilettante, but he'd been rather busy, first getting modded to pursue an athletic career, then deciding (admittedly after his mods failed to compensate for a merely mediocre talent for sports) that his powers gave him a higher calling as a Troubleshooter. Not to mention taking care of his kid brother, who followed him in everything but needed Vijay's guidance to keep his impulses in check.
Anyway, right now he wished he had his namesake's weapon of sleep, or a good old phaser on stun. It wasn't that easy to take down an entire crowd of angry, determined people without endangering their life and limbs. Stun weapons were not infallibly nonlethal, and if Arjun upped his shock laser charge enough to take out the stronger mods, it could endanger the frailer delegates. He and Tenshi had been willing to retreat to keep from harming the mob, but they couldn't leave Thorne unsecured if what Emry said was true, and carrying him would slow them too much. So they were relying mainly on crowd-control ordnance-tanglewebs, buckyball lubricant sprays, sonics, and plasma guns in flashbang mode. Kari made use of her tessen where she could, using the st.u.r.dy folding fans as shields to deflect rocks and fists or as clubs wielded judiciously against the tougher delegates' weak points. She set their surfaces to flash bright, disorienting patterns as she spun and danced with them, confusing and nauseating her attackers. The mob had thinned as a result, but the stronger and more determined mods were still coming, and more Neogaians were showing up to reinforce them, surrounding the Troubleshooters.
Before long, it came down to hand-to-hand. At first, Vijay wished he could have his burly brother at his side, but after mere moments watching Kari in the grip of her "battle peace," he changed his mind. The dainty girl was a dervish, moving faster than even his enhanced vision could easily follow, meeting every blow with perfect precision, just enough to incapacitate her foes-though he realized for the first time just how lethal that instinctive power and precision could be, and just how strong her spirit had to be to restrain the killer within. She was scarily beautiful to watch, and Vijay decided he'd have to invite her to his next strip poker night. His distraction almost cost him dearly when the cyborg Niihaman delegate attempted to cave his skull in. He dodged just in time, and the blow merely rattled the side of his helmet.
Now they were down to the few strongest foes, but they were backed up against the sh.o.r.eline and aquatic therians were beginning to rise from the lake. Just then, though, a barrage of shock laser strikes flashed through the air from behind the mob. They fell, convulsing into full-body cramps, and Kari and Vijay hastened to restrain them with their last few tanglewebs. The swimmers retreated back into the lake, and Vijay rose to meet the red-and-black-armored figure who had fired the shots. Paladin had used more force than Vijay would have preferred, but since these were the strongest foes, he supposed it was excusable. And he hadn't expected Auster to show at all. "What are you doing here?" he asked.
Auster retracted the visor of his helmet, his square-jawed face glaring out at Vijay. "You're welcome," he said. "I overheard your comm chatter. I came to back you up."
"Why didn't you go back up Blaze? She's the one up there alone. Or do you still think she's the bad guy?"
"If she's turned on Thorne, I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. But it sounded like she had things in hand. And if what Green Blaze said is true, you have a very valuable prisoner to secure. I figured you needed more assistance."
"You mean that if we were going to bring in Thorne, you wanted to grab your share of the glory."
"Think what you like, Arjun. What matters is-" Auster broke off, looked around. "Where is Thorne?"
Vijay whirled, scanning the beach. The only sign of Thorne, aside from his blood staining the sand, was the trail of footprints leading away ... overlapping Emry's.
Blood Ties Bast hated free fall. Flying was for birds, and birds were food.
In gravity, her sense of balance and position was flawless, of course. But it was hard to get a sense of position when there was no up or down. True, like all Neogaian warriors, she'd had free-fall combat training, and naturally she was superb at it and looked great doing it. But it was something she had to think about. She was happier relying on instinct.
Here in the warehouse, at least there was this nice gridwork of cables to orient herself by (though if Hanuman made even one crack about a "cat's cradle," she was out of here). Long, stringy things were always good, though they were better when they wriggled around. (Like the long braid the scrawny blonde was wearing. Bast had to struggle to resist s.n.a.t.c.hing at it.) But she didn't like having to negotiate a path between all these big, massive crates and containers just hovering in midair. She knew they couldn't fall, that as long as they stayed clipped to the cables and the cables stayed taut and their thruster pods didn't fire, they would stay right where they were. But her instincts kept telling her they were going to fall on her. And if her instincts said something, then the universe shouldn't do things differently.
For a moment back there, she'd almost had a chance to work off her anxiety when she'd caught the faint sound of someone pursuing them, someone whose presence was masked. The chase had been entertaining for a while, but hadn't paid off, and then Hanuman had made them come this way through all the crates. Bast was more eager than ever to kill something, and she wasn't getting her wish. That shouldn't happen either.
So she hissed with delight when she caught another scent, one she knew well. The redhead! The one with the thick, yummy blood, who'd rudely refused to let Bast rip her throat out back at Chakra City. Hanuman had told her the redhead was dead-but now Bast had another chance to feast on her after all!
Hanuman and the scrawny blonde turned back at the sound of her hiss. "More pursuers?" Hanuman asked.
Beyond him, Bast saw, the reinforcements he'd called were arriving-Sifaka from his personal bodyguard staff and some dock security guy she didn't know, a jackal or dingo or some other d.a.m.n dog. If she told Hanuman who it was, he might send them with her, and Bast wanted the redhead all to herself. "You go on," she told them. "I'll check it out."
Hanuman nodded and pulled the blonde farther along toward the guards. Bast caught herself on a cable, stopping her forward motion, and turned to consider the arena. If I have to think ... I might as well think.
But her instincts still told her the place should be falling down on her. Wait! Her eyes widened. Maybe her instincts were steering her the right way after all.
Clutching the cable with hands and feet, she slinked to the end of it and began unhooking it from the wall. Stringy things were always better when they wriggled around.
Once more, Emry soared through the maze of crates and cables, closing in on Kwan and Psyche. She was close enough to track their scent now; Emry might not be as good at that as a Neogaian, but scents stayed airborne longer in free fall, and she knew Psyche's fragrance intimately (a thought that made her shudder now). Besides, Kwan and Bast both left a spa.r.s.e trail of fur to follow.
There-she caught a glimpse of Kwan and Psyche between two cargo bins, a few dozen meters ahead. She thought of calling out to Psyche, telling her Thorne still lived, but decided to wait until she got closer. Kwan was willing to murder his most powerful ally to control Psyche's power. If he lost her willing cooperation, there was no telling what he might do. Best if Emry either incapacitated Kwan or separated the two of them before she revealed herself to Psyche-and kicked her perfectly pert ass all the way back to, well, to whatever court might have jurisdiction for trial alongside her father.
But Emry realized the maze was changing shape. Cables were floating loose, cargo bins drifting. She grabbed a still-taut cable and pulled herself to a halt, looking around. The containers were moving slowly, but some were very massive, and it wouldn't do to get caught between two of them.
Just then, the cable she held sprang loose, and Emry had to lunge for the next one and pull herself out of the way as it whipped past, discharging its tension. It struck the shin of her boot, sending a loud crack echoing through the bay and causing her pain even through the light armor. It was the same leg Thorne had bruised in the fight.
What's going on? she wondered, and pulled herself along to find a better vantage point on that cable's former terminus. Before she got far, a series of dull clangs and thuds began, and a medium-sized crate before her got struck by something behind it and came toward her at more than a drifting pace. Emry pushed off the crate beside her and dodged it.
Beyond it, the orderly lattice of the warehouse was falling into slow, stately chaos. A number of large crates and bins were in motion now, bouncing off each other and adjacent cables and starting a chain reaction of spreading disarray. Emry saw part of the cause: a forklift robot was attached to a particularly large cargo bin, firing at full, continuous thrust, knocking aside the free-floating crates and loose cables in its path. As Emry watched, it collided slowly with a still-taut cable and stretched it tauter, continuing to thrust. Uh-oh. Emry reversed course and tried to get as far as she could before that cable snapped.
She found her path blocked by a flying cat. Bast slammed into her, yowling with feral glee. Her greater momentum knocked Emry back toward the strained cable. She clenched Emry's torso, biting at her neck and slashing at her thighs and abdomen with her hind claws, keeping Emry's limbs too busy to snag a passing cable. Emry's armor protected her from the claws, but as they neared the straining cable, Bast pushed off with a fierce kick to Emry's gut, reacquainting her with the damage Thorne's brutal punch had inflicted there. Emry's back slammed into the edge of a crate, flipping her head and shoulders back against its side, and she saw another crate drifting toward her, sandwiching her upper body. She pulled free moments before they crunched together.
Just then the cable snapped. Emry kicked off from the crate as a jagged cable end whipped through the air and gouged a deep furrow in its side. The forklift and its large bin shot forward, slamming crates aside. The next cable it hit got caught between it and another crate's edge, snapping within seconds. The whole lattice was falling apart as crates slammed into each other, breaking them free of their moorings. Some smashed open, sending hundreds of smaller boxes and containers bouncing around the bay. And Emry was caught in the middle of it.
Psyche grabbed a cable and pulled herself around to investigate the clanging, crashing noises resounding through the bay. "What's going on back there?"
"It must be the Troubleshooters," Hanuman told her. "We must hurry! We can still circle back to the bunker, but it's a roundabout path."
Psyche resisted. She thought she smelled Emry. It was probably just the residual scent on Hanuman from when he'd hit on Emry this morning, but it seemed faintly stronger. You're imagining it, she thought, afraid to let herself hope. But if there was any chance.... "Bast could need help," she said, starting to go back.
Hanuman nodded to the jackal guard, who caught her arm and refused to let go. "You're too valuable to risk, my dear," Kwan said. "Eliot would have wanted me to get you to safety."
Her heart clenched in her chest, and she knew Hanuman was right. She had to do what Daddy wanted. She shook off her foolish hopes and let the others lead her away.
Emry did her best to calculate the angles, estimating the safest path through the whirling debris, and made her way as best she could. She knocked aside the spilled cargo as she went, but made the mistake of punching through a loose bag of fertilizer, which ruptured and sprayed its contents into her face, stinging her eyes and making her choke. Blinded, she got hit by a couple more bags, but retained enough momentum to drift clear of the expanding cloud.
As she blinked to clear her eyes, she realized she could smell more than just the fertilizer. Sawdust, grain ... the air was filling with particulates. She'd grown up on a rural habitat, so she knew a thing or two about silo explosions. The collisions were generating static discharges in the dry warehouse air, and if the dust built to sufficient concentration, along with the fertilizer and the other flammables that were likely stored here ...
Emry caught another faint glimpse of Psyche past the swirling debris. She and Kwan were nearly to the exit. Good, she thought. Now I just have to get there too.
But just then, more cables snapped. Maybe the big crate had angled sideways and hit them. All she knew was that one cable whipped around her uninjured ankle and yanked her back deeper into the bay, slamming the back of her head into one crate and jabbing her in the hip with the corner of another.
Once the cable's tension was expended, Emry untangled herself and tried to redirect her momentum back toward the exit. But Bast was not finished with her. The she-cat was leaping from crate to cable, closing on Emry, forcing her to veer off toward the spreading wave of collisions and snaking cables. Emry shot between two massive bins that were closing on each other at a stately pace. But when she emerged from between them, Bast came around the side and pounced on her. Emry flipped around and caught her wrists, holding her claws at bay and squeezing hard. Bast's jaws went for her throat again, and she blocked them by crossing her (and Bast's) arms before her. "We have to get out of here!" she cried. Bast snarled back, and Emry kicked in her Banshee voice to scream over it. "The dust-it's explosive!"
Bast didn't listen, but she caught someone else's attention. Psyche whirled, grabbing the edge of the hatch to halt herself. "Emry!" she cried in shock. Beside her, Kwan looked equally shocked and dismayed. "Where's my father?!" Psyche shrieked.
"He's alive, Psyche!" she cried. She got her legs up and kicked Bast away-which unfortunately sent Emry back toward those two large bins. "Listen, we've got to-"
"Don't listen to her!" Kwan cried. "If she survived, she must have known about the bomb! She killed him!"
"No, Psyche!" Emry called. "Kwan planted the bomb. He's using you! He wants to-"
Bast drowned her out with a yowl as she kicked off another bin and back toward Emry, claws splayed and eyes gleaming with bloodlust. Emry pushed off to duck between the Symplegadean bins, but pulled herself short, for they were now only a third of a meter apart. She dodged right, but it was a dead end, another large bin in the way, and Bast was too close, grinning at her miscalculation. All Emry could do was brace herself against the bin for Bast's impact. The she-cat hit hard, pinning her to the side, and Bast dug her claws into its polymer sh.e.l.l as her jaws went for Emry's throat once again. Emry got her left arm under Bast's chin, but she was weakened and Bast was determined. Those fangs snapped closer, closer....
And then Emry's right hand snaked around, grabbed Bast's tail, and yanked it sideways between the two large bins just before they collided.
Bast's shriek almost deafened Emry, and made the cat lover in her feel guilty. It still echoed through the warehouse as Emry broke free and gave Bast one good sock to the jaw to put her down for the count. Kwan's guards drew their guns and opened fire as Emry kicked off toward him. She caught herself on a cable, ducked behind a crate. "Stop shooting, you idiots!" Hanuman cried before she could. He clearly understood the risk as well. In this enclosed s.p.a.ce, the overpressure of an explosion would kill them all even if the shrapnel and heat didn't. And it would probably blow open the hull like a balloon.
"You're lying," Psyche said to Emry, though she sounded confused. "Hanuman wouldn't do that to me. You must have ... Hanuman, let me take her! I can pull it from her!"
"No, she's too dangerous! We have to get to the bunker now! Trust me, Psyche!"
"I..." Psyche floundered. She should be able to tell, Emry thought. Perhaps she couldn't read Kwan's simian microexpressions, but she should have questioned his changing story, should have known to be wary of his plans for her. But that's just it, isn't it? Psyche's so used to being the puppet master ... she can't recognize when she's the one being played.
"Psyche!" The call came from elsewhere in the cargo bay ... and it changed the whole situation. For it was in the unmistakable voice of Eliot Thorne.