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Emry looked up to see Psyche whirling, her face bursting into joy. "Daddy!" He was closing in on them, pushing his way through the clashing debris with no evident concern for the danger, as though his determination alone would clear a path. So far, it seemed to be working. Thorne was clearly struggling, badly hurt and rasping wet breaths, but he was a juggernaut, refusing to slow down.

Hanuman ordered his guards to hold Psyche, but she broke free without a thought, her eyes fixed solely on her father and br.i.m.m.i.n.g with tears as she kicked off their bodies to send herself toward him. But Thorne's eyes were locked on Hanuman. "Kwan!" he rasped with fury.

"Oh, bother," Kwan sighed. "I've changed my mind," he told the jackal guard as he gathered up the lady lemur and backed into the exit corridor. "Shoot all you want. Do pardon the cliche," he called to Emry and Thorne, "but if I can't have her, well..."

Hanuman waved a jaunty farewell through the closing door as the guard began opening fire, his shockdarts striking Psyche, her convulsions tangling her in the cables. Stray shots. .hit the tumbling crates and containers around her, discharging fierce electricity, setting some of the small containers on fire. "No!!!" Emry cried.

They had seconds to live now. Emry saw one chance. Just beyond and ahead of Thorne was a burst-open crate lined with shock-absorbing foam for fragile cargo. With its contents nearly spilled out, it was big enough to hold a few people.



But there was no way of getting to Psyche in time.

Hating herself for the choice, she grabbed Bast and kicked off the biggest crate behind her with all her might. The two of them barreled into Thorne's side and Emry grabbed hold as they veered onto a new vector, away from Psyche. Thorne screamed and struggled, trying to break free and get to his daughter. Emry held him firmly as they struck the open lid of the crate and rolled in. Emry looked back for Psyche, hoping she was following.

Just in time to see the blinding flash.

The shock wave slammed the lid shut, saving their lives. Even through the protective foam, the noise and heat of the explosion tore through her body and mind as the crate tumbled and shrapnel bombarded it, tossing her mercilessly against the others. The afterimage of the explosion burned across her retinas.

Then the crate hit something and cracked open, and the air was ripped from her lungs as she and the others tumbled free. Her eyes burned, and her bare arms and head tingled and ached fiercely as they swelled from within. They were in vacuum! But not open s.p.a.ce-the cargo corridor within the docking module, its walls scarred from the debris that had blown through it like chaff from a cannon. The cargo lock had blown out-no doubt designed as an emergency release valve to protect the hull from rupture. The end wall of the corridor had blown out to vacuum in turn, but a nanotube-cable mesh had caught and held most of the cargo, including their own crate, while allowing the literally explosive decompression of the corridor. Beyond was blinding light from the sun mirror, rippling as stray debris punched through the mirror's thin film.

Emry, Thorne, and Bast were now drifting back inward through a cloud of debris. Beads of their own blood trailed them like cometary tails. All around them were passages leading to docked ships-plenty of safe havens. If only she could get to one of them and get it open before her body's oxygen reserves ran out.

But wait ... one was opening on its own. A light beckoned. 'Emry, in here!' Zephyr called in her head. Had it not gone straight to her auditory center, she'd never have heard it over the ringing in her ears.

Emry's swollen fingers clumsily grabbed the arms of Thorne and Bast, both of whom were virtual dead weights. As their course brought them toward a wall, she planted her feet on it, let her knees bend, and pushed off toward the lock, straining against the others' momentum. She got the aim right, but they were drifting toward it too slowly; she was weakening already. She felt consciousness starting to fade....

But then she was breathing and aware again. The three of them floated in the lock as it repressurized. Bast remained limp, and Emry could see that she'd lost much of her tail, probably sliced off by the door of the cargo bin.

But that was nothing to what Eliot Thorne had lost. Once he could breathe again, he screamed and wept for a long time. For the first time in over half a century, he was out of control.

Emry had just finished securing Bast in Zephyr's medbed when she heard him undocking. "Zeph? What's going on?" She looked around to see that Thorne had disappeared.

"Emry, Thorne is in the c.o.c.kpit. He's warming up the plasma drive!"

"Oh, Goddess. Stop him!"

"I can't. He's overridden my control somehow. I don't understand it."

"Oh, shit." She pushed off toward the c.o.c.kpit, feeling the maneuvering thrusters firing. "Psyche must've gotten the override codes out of me that first night," she told him as she climbed the ladder toward the top of the ship.

"Override codes?"

"Zephyr-"

"n.o.body told me about any override codes."

"Later, okay?"

"And you've known them all along?"

"Can we focus here!" She pulled her dartgun as she neared the c.o.c.kpit hatch. Thorne hadn't even bothered to seal it.

Once she got in, she saw why. He had a plasma gun from Zephyr's a.r.s.enal trained on the entrance, held firmly in one hand while the other operated the manual controls to turn the ship so its exhaust nozzles would be aimed at Neogaia's core. Emry had never had to use those controls; they existed only as emergency backups if something happened to the shipmind. But Thorne worked them like an expert. "Come no closer," he rasped. Aside from one arm, he sat unmoving, a burnished iron statue, a colossus of rage. "Do nothing to interfere and I will leave you free to go when I am done. You and your corps are no longer priorities of mine."

"You know they're going to blast us out of s.p.a.ce if you don't power that drive down right now."

"They lack that option. I have their overrides as well as yours. Psyche..." His voice broke. "She always gave me everything I asked for. She never let me down."

Emry was ambivalent. This man was a killer, his daughter no less so. She had every reason to hate them. But they had been family to her, not so long ago. And she knew this grief all too well. Tentatively, she reached toward him. "Eliot..."

"Do not try it, Emerald. Do not try to talk me down from this. Hanuman Kwan needs to pay for what he has done. His whole stinking race must pay! Psyche was worth more than all of them put together, and it will take all their lives to repay that debt!"

"You're going to slice up the whole habitat? What about all the other delegates? What about your allies?"

"I have warned the Vanguardians to evacuate immediately."

"And what about all the others? The Vestans, the Hygieans, all of them? How many wars are you willing to start to punish one man?"

He spun, coming out of the chair in a blur, and she found herself slammed into the wall, disarmed, his hand around her throat, anchoring himself with a white-knuckled grip on a wall handle. "You dare lecture me on morality! If you hadn't betrayed us-if you had stayed by her side..."

Emry faced him without fear. "No, Eliot! This isn't on me. Take it out on me, on the Neogaians, on the whole Sol System, and nothing will change. Punish anyone you want, but you'll still be hiding from your own guilt. It was you, Eliot. It was you who turned your own daughter into a weapon. Into a force of such power that people were willing to kill to take her from you. You used her, exploited her, long before Kwan did. You made her a victim of her own power."

She found herself weeping for her friend, forgiving her. But her voice remained strong and angry. "Tell me, Eliot-was she ever really happy? Did she ever have the chance to be a little girl, instead of a champion in training? Did she ever really have a friend, someone she could let go with and not try to manipulate? Did she even know what that meant?"

"Two minutes to plasma drive activation," Zephyr announced. 'Talk faster.'

"You designed her to be the instrument of your power," Emry went on. "She never got the chance to live her own life. She never got to experience anything really true, anything that wasn't part of your agenda. n.o.body ever saw who she really was ... and she probably never knew herself. That's the real crime, Eliot. And it's all on you."

His hand fell slowly away from her throat. But she stayed close, held his eyes. "Looking for someone to punish, to blame-someone to hate-that's just a way to hide from your grief. A way to avoid the pain by pushing it onto someone else. To avoid ... admitting that sometimes there's just nothing we can do." She lowered her head as Zephyr called out the ninety-second mark. "We never want to admit things are out of our control. So when something terrible happens, we look for someone we can take it out on so we feel like we have some power. But that doesn't do any good, because it's not what we want to have power over. The thing we want to change ... the loss ... that's impossible to do anything about. So we just end up wasting our power, abusing it to hurt other people."

"Seventy seconds."

"And when we do that," she went on, her eyes rising to his again, "we're doing an injustice to the people we're grieving for. Because we're not ... letting ourselves ... just love them. Just deal with their loss, and face the grief we owe to them. And when we don't do that ... we don't let them become part of our memory, and let their legacy heal us of our pain ... and go on living the way they would've wanted."

"Even if the guilt for their loss rests with us?" His eyes were inscrutable. Emry couldn't tell if it denoted challenge or acceptance.

"Maybe especially then. Because that's their legacy too. If we listen to it, it can help us use our power wisely ... or know when not to use it. Know when it's time just to let go, and accept things as they are."

The c.o.c.kpit fell silent-until Zephyr called, "Thirty seconds. Mister Thorne, if you'd like some time to think it over, that's entirely in your hands."

With an anguished growl, Thorne pushed back over to the controls and jabbed down on them. "Plasma drive powering down," Zephyr announced after a moment, sounding decidedly relieved. "Thank you. Now if you wouldn't mind returning control to me..."

"Zephyr." Emry moved closer to Thorne, stopping just short. She couldn't bring herself to touch him. "Go home and grieve, Eliot. Don't look for something to do about it. Don't take it out on the universe. Just let it happen. Otherwise ... trust me ... you will never find peace."

He studied her. "But what of Kwan?"

"He'll get his karmic reward," she assured him. "If the Troubleshooters have anything to say about it."

21.

Worth the Trouble.

In the wake of the explosion, the Neogaians seemed disinclined to launch further attacks on Thorne or the Troubleshooters. With Psyche gone, there was no longer any point. Besides, their sun mirror and docking facilities needed immediate repair, and even Kwan's agenda had to take a backseat to that. Kwan had secreted himself in the command bunker, far too well protected for the Troubleshooters to reach, and was no doubt content to hole up there until he was safe. Emry and the others would have to leave him there for now, since they had to supervise the evacuation of the delegates. Emry hoped that, just possibly, his culpability in the cargo bay explosion, and his wanton sacrifice of the hapless guard who set it off, would create enough bad blood that the Neogaians would see fit to extradite him ... or exact their own justice. Whatever the case, Kwan's ability to do harm had been greatly diminished for now. Although he'd done more than enough already.

Emry wondered if the guard had left family behind. She wished, for their sake and Psyche's, that she could have stopped him before it was too late. He'd probably been a fanatic, raised to be willing, even eager to die for his cause; but that still made him a victim. Regardless, she'd asked Zephyr to track down the man's name. She would remember everyone who died on her watch, innocent or not. She would never let herself treat any life as disposable.

Now that Psyche's psychoagents were starting to wear off, the delegates were more amenable to reason-or at least they were no longer trying to attack the Troubleshooters. Upon discovering what Psyche had done to them, many were expressing outrage and demanding that Thorne and his accomplices be turned over. Emry knew, however, that Thorne would not allow himself to be taken. The best way to stave off conflict was to see him off quickly; she trusted that he would not attempt to impose his will on Solsys for a while. Indeed, Emry doubted that most Vanguardians had any idea what the Thornes had really been capable of. Once Rachel got the word out, Eliot Thorne and his co-conspirators would probably not stay in office very long. It was a milder fate than he deserved, perhaps ... but perhaps there was no fate worse for him than the loss of Psyche.

So Emry escorted Thorne and the rest of the Vanguard delegation to their ship, to make sure they got away cleanly. Kari raised a protest over the comm, but Emry convinced her she'd be fine, and that Zephyr would alert the team if that changed.

That didn't prove necessary, though. They reached Thorne's transport unmolested, and none of the Vanguardians caused Emry any trouble. But before he left, Thorne paused and floated over to her. "Emerald," he began. "I ... do regret what happened between us in the observation bay. I overstepped myself in a way that I should not have even contemplated. You must understand-"

"Eliot!" She cut him off, let out an impatient sigh. "Don't even try to justify it. Just apologize."

He nodded gravely. "I apologize, Emerald." He waited for a while, then spoke again. "Do you accept it?"

"I'm thinking about it. I may not tell you. It's not about you."

"I understand. Acceptance rather than control."

"Something like that."

He studied her a bit longer. "If nothing else, I need you to know that I do truly care for you, Emerald. I simply ... tried too hard to control you."

"Just like you did with Psyche," she said. "One thing I've learned, Eliot. If you want to love someone ... if you want to have a relationship with them ... you have to learn to let go. Of them and yourself. Love is surrender. It's about not being in control, and liking it. It's about being willing to let your guard down and trust in someone else." She held his gaze. "Sometimes that backfires. Sometimes they betray you, use you. Hurt you. But you still have to be willing to take the risk. Because that's the only way it can ever work." She smiled. "Tell Grandma Rachel she's welcome to visit me anytime. And I'd love to meet my new baby aunt."

He gave an absent nod. "You are a wise young woman, Emerald Blair. It is truly my loss that I no longer have you by my side. However ... I fear I may be too old and rigid to change my ways."

She studied him. "Just ... try to change the way you raise your kids."

"We shall see." He took her hand, and she let him. "Good-bye, Emerald Blair." He pulled it to his mouth and kissed it in a perfect, courtly manner. "For now."

Emry stared at her hand for a long time after he left.

"I'm sorry, Eliot," Rachel Kincaid-Shannon told her old friend as he held his hand against Psyche's life support pod, unable to look away even though the sight within was unbearable. Through the biosupport gel, Psyche's angelic face was severely burned, her skull half caved in, her golden hair scorched and matted with blood and flecks of bone. Her beauty was destroyed. The b.u.t.terfly wings on her left hand were charred black; her right hand was gone. "It's a miracle she wasn't killed instantly. An ordinary human would've been. The crates shielded her from most of the shrapnel, the whipping cables. It was a low-energy explosion, and the flames were snuffed when the bay decompressed. But she was clinically dead from the concussive shock and ... her other injuries ... when we got to her. If one of our teams hadn't tracked you there and been right on hand..."

He nodded impatiently. "What are her chances?"

Rachel broke the news as softly as she could. "Her ... her body's on full life support. We can sustain it indefinitely, reattach the severed limbs, repair or regrow the ruptured organs. But the internal hemorrhaging and gross structural damage to her brain are too severe. Even with the most aggressive intervention, at best she will live out her life in a vegetative state." She paused. "We should let her go."

"No!" Thorne cried. "That is not an option. We'll take her back to Vanguard, get her the best care."

"You're not hearing me, Eliot! Everything that made her Psyche-her personality, her memories-most of those parts of her brain are irreparably damaged. Even if we regenerated the brain tissue, she'd be a blank slate. She wouldn't be Psyche. I'm sorry, Eliot. Her body may be on life support, but your daughter is dead." A tear escaped through her clinical armor.

Thorne stood in silence as her words sank in. Rachel could see his struggle to control himself. "That ... magnificent mind," he said in a slow, quiet voice. "The most beautiful part of her. We spent years designing it, crafting it. It was a work of art. The first of its kind, unequalled in all creation. The pinnacle of Vanguardian science. How can it be the one part of her we can't fix?"

After a moment, she placed her hand on his shoulder. "Let her go, Eliot."

"No!" The bark was so fierce it made her jerk away. "I will not leave my daughter to die within the s.p.a.ce of those who killed her. We will take her back to Vanguard. Keep her alive, Rachel."

"Eliot-"

His voice was dangerous. "Whatever it takes!"

After another moment, Rachel nodded and bent to her task. She expected that once Eliot felt he had returned his daughter home, he would finally let her body meet its natural death.

But what if he has other plans?

Zephyr "This may not be a happy ending," Zephyr told Emry as he flew her and the other Troubleshooters out from Neogaia. Bast was still under sedation in the medbed, on her way back to Demetria for imprisonment and probable extradition to Earth. Emry had just come out of the shower tube, using a special rinse Zephyr had synthesized to kill off her hair mites and chemically fry their nanotech passengers, just in case. Her scalp was still stinging from it, but it was better than having to depilate her whole head (though she wasn't entirely convinced the stuff wouldn't make her hair fall out anyway). "A lot of bad blood has been created. There may be more violence now-against the Vanguard and other mods, or perhaps among different habitats as they take out their anger and reassert their independence. Building a coalition to keep the peace may have become much harder."

"For now, maybe," Emry said, wrapping herself in a warm, comfy robe before she left the head. Kari was waiting outside for her turn, just in case the mites were catching. As Emry greeted her in passing, she amused herself with the image of a bald Kari, and decided her friend would still manage to look insufferably cute that way. "But it's still a good idea," she went on as she stopped at the drink dispenser for a cup of grape juice. "And I'm hoping enough people still know that. h.e.l.l, Thorne and Tai both tried to disguise their schemes as plans for a cooperative alliance, because that made it look good to people. So maybe that's still what people want. And I think it's what we need too."

"I agree. However, there is still one more conspiracy to expose." His avatar in the wall display-the winged horse, which Emry had decided she'd like him to use as his primary face-looked uneasy, insofar as she could read equine (pegasine?) expressions. "If we bring down Tai so soon after exposing Thorne, it may create even more mistrust toward the idea of an alliance."

"But it has to be done, Zeph. We have to get the Troubleshooters back." She squeezed her eyes shut. "If that's even possible with Sensei dead. He was our soul, Zephy. He was our conscience."

The pegasus looked at her askance. "Speaking of conscience, Emry ... I need to know about those override codes."

"I'm sorry, pal. I was ordered not to tell you."

"Was it Tai?"

She fidgeted. "No. They've always been there."

"Do we all have them?"

He meant all the TSC cybers. "Only the ships. You know how dangerous your drive is. There have to be safeguards, in case ... someone takes over your mind, or..."

"Or I go rogue?"

"It's been known to happen."

"Far more often with humans. And your body is a deadly weapon too. Do you have override codes?"

Emry shrugged. "Maybe. I ... kinda hope so, almost." Although if that were so, she realized, then she was quite fortunate that no Troubleshooter with the knowledge or inclination had gotten close enough to use them.

"If so, then why don't I know them?"

She met his avatar's eyes. "Zephy ... do you really believe that I'd ever use those codes on you, if you were still yourself at all?"





CHAPTER DISCUSSION