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He was silent for a moment. "I can model no credible scenario in which you would."

"So?"

He took her point. "And neither would I. Though I admit there have been moments lately when I would have been tempted."

She grinned. "Only lately?"

"Don't make me recite a list."



Emry laughed, but the pegasus still looked stern. "This isn't funny to me, Emry. I joined because Sensei promised me freedom."

"It's not about you, honey. It's just the ship."

"Still, how would you feel if something took away all control of your own body and left you helpless to resist?"

Emry fell silent. She remembered Ruki and Daniel. She remembered Elise. She remembered what Thorne had almost done to her in the aquatic lab ... and what Psyche had done to her mind. "I understand," she told her friend.

"I appreciate it," Zephyr said after a moment.

"Hey, wait a minute," Emry went on, starting to smile. "I thought you were the one who didn't care about being installed in a ship. I thought physical reality was too abstract and detached for you."

"Yes, but as long as I'm in control of this vessel..."

"Bullshit! Honey, you called it your own body. Admit it-you think of yourself as a ship now."

"I do not," Zephyr insisted. After a moment, he added: "I think of myself as your ship."

"Ohh, Zephy! Gimme a soligram so I can hug you!"

As the soligram formed, Zephyr clarified, "Not in the possessive sense, you understand. 'Your' as in 'your partner' or 'your friend' or-"

"Oh, shut up and gimme some sugar."

Kari and the others proposed finding a safe place for Emry to hole up until they found definitive evidence against Tai. But Emry had other ideas. "I'm going to turn myself in," she told them. "Let the Cerean courts try me publicly, and trust that the whole system isn't corrupt. If Tai wants to make a case against me, we can make one against him, and expose him for the fraud he is."

"If we're lucky," Kari countered as the five of them sat together at the dining table on the residential deck. "He's pretty good at falsifying evidence."

"That's right," Ken said. "I ... helped him do some of that myself. In other cases," he added as the others stared at him. "Nothing deadly or anything."

"And I wouldn't put it past him to arrange an 'accident' to silence you, Emry," Vijay said.

"Okay, so it's a risk. So what? They don't call us Safetyshooters. In the past twenty-four hours, I've been ... tried to be killed by-well, you know what I mean!-by two Thornes, a small zoo, a mob of diplomats, and a whole vacking warehouse! h.e.l.l, I'm just getting warmed up! Tai wants to come after me? Just let the punker try it! I'll kick his ass right back to Earth!"

The other Troubleshooters roared in support. "Yeah!"

"We're with you!" Vijay said.

"We'll take him down together!" Kari said.

"Whatever it takes," Maryam affirmed, "the Troubleshooters will bring him down."

"d.a.m.n straight!" Ken added. Emry was moved and comforted to know she would not be alone in the difficult struggle ahead.

The next morning, Zephyr awoke them with the news that Gregor Tai had been indicted and placed under arrest on multiple charges of conspiracy, information fraud, blackmail, torture, and assassination. Their response was a collective "Whaaaaat?"

"Apparently," Zephyr explained, "the evidence was gathered due to the diligence and attentive eye of a TSC employee who, with assistance from Lodestar, Tor, Peregrine, and a dozen other Troubleshooters, has devoted the past month to assembling a data trail conclusively linking Tai to the assassination attempt on Malik Yohannes, the torture of Joseph Mkunu, the viral infection of the Cerullian mainframe, and numerous other instances of crime and fraud. Said employee, one Mrs. Salome Knox, declined to comment on the case."

Emry gasped. "Sally?!"

But Vijay was laughing hysterically. "Of course!" he managed to get out after a while. "Who else? Nothing gets by our girl Sally!"

"Don't I know it," Emry said.

"We all take her so much for granted," Maryam observed. "Even though we couldn't get a thing done without her. I suppose Tai did too. It would lend her a certain ... invisibility."

Ken scoffed. "What she has is an endlessly judgmental nature. She's never approved of anything anyone has done in the history of Solsys. No wonder she brought him down."

Kari just sat there staring. After a while, very softly, she asked: "'Salome'?"

Demetria; the Sheaf.

On the trip back, Emry spent her nights with Vijay, welcoming the distraction from her memories of Thorne. But they turned out to be more relaxed encounters than were usual for her, and she was content to spend most of the time just snuggling with him. She cried on his shoulder a few times, and actually acceded when he asked if she wanted to talk about it. It was relaxed, friendly, nothing profound, but that was what she needed.

Instead of the arrest she'd expected, Emry returned to a hero's welcome from the TSC. She begged it off, insisting that Sally Knox and the Troubleshooters who'd helped her were the real heroes of the hour. But Sally had gone on vacation, finding the press attention and adulation as tiresome a distraction from her work as the Troubleshooters' antics. And the TSC staffers, along with the media, had had four days to cheer Lodestar and the others; now they were eager to cheer Emry and Kari's team for their accomplishments at Neogaia. Emry did her best to bear it graciously, but still didn't feel she deserved it.

But it wasn't all praise and interview requests. The Sheaf's government had been quick to denounce Tai and his coalition and was now investigating them aggressively, determined to prove to the rest of the Belt that they had been duped along with everyone else. Their deniability was effectively plausible; none of Sally's evidence implicated any CS official or body in Tai's crimes. Emry wasn't entirely convinced, but at least their embarrassment and fear of retaliation would make them act as though it were true, and that was good enough for now. Emry, Kari, and the others spent long hours in the small, classical Bernal sphere that served as the Sheaf's capital, giving their depositions to the Cerean prosecutors and adding the last few nails in Tai's coffin. The process was difficult for Emry, since most of her evidence had come through Psyche, a source who was no longer available and whose integrity was questionable. Although Emry knew her interviewer was simply playing devil's advocate, she had a few heated exchanges with the Sheaver woman. She bore it by reminding herself that it would help convict Tai.

But that wasn't enough. She needed to confront him face-to-face. The prosecutors advised against it-a star witness confronting the defendant before the trial-but she promised to behave herself and do nothing that could be perceived as coercive. Still, when they brought her into the interview room where he waited, it took all her willpower not to break that handsome square jaw of his.

Seeing her, he straightened up, sucked in his gut, and preened a bit. Her face twisted in disgust. "Don't even try it, Tai. There's nothing you can do that would make you attractive to me. Not after what you did."

He faced her calmly. "I'm sorry you feel that way."

"You don't have a clue how I feel. You took the finest, purest thing in my life-a symbol of hope for millions of people across Solsys-and you stained it. Maybe forever. It'll never feel the same."

"So I forced you to admit that you don't live in a comic book. That the world is about shades of gray and tough compromises. That the good of the many often requires sacrifices for the few. Someday you'll realize I did you a favor."

"Like the way the Sheaf has sacrificed you? Suddenly everyone who was praising you to high heaven a month ago isn't returning your calls anymore."

Tai winced at that, but then said, "If I have to be sacrificed for the greater good, I accept the need for that."

"Oh? Is that why you're talking plea-bargain already?"

"I'm still hoping there's a way I can contribute to Strider civilization. Do something more constructive than languishing in a cell."

"You mean a way you can still maneuver us into doing what you want." She shook her head, remembering how he'd loomed over her, touched her shoulder, made innuendos about her wardrobe and s.e.xuality, insisted she call him "sir." A couple more meetings and he would've been stroking her hair too, or some other part of her. And at the time, she would have gladly let him. She suppressed a shudder. "d.a.m.n. Why is it so hard to keep power out of the hands of control freaks?"

"Power entails control. People get the jobs they're temperamentally suited for."

"But leadership requires trust. Trust in the people you lead." She shook her head. "You both came so close. You and Thorne. You knew your talk of partnership and unity would get people working together, and it did. So why couldn't you just trust it to keep working that way? If you'd both really meant it, we'd all be better off right now."

"Because the words aren't enough. The simple ideas that win people's allegiance are never enough to get the job done. Especially not out here. You're all so obsessed with your individual wants-you aren't willing to put aside your own needs for the greater good. But that's the only way it can work. Sacrificing the rights, the safety, even the lives of the few is often the only way to protect the many. Especially when the few are so powerful."

"Jeanette LaSalle."

Tai frowned. "Who? Oh, yes. The bystander from the Gagaringrad operation."

"That's all she was to you, isn't it? A bystander. A statistic. Well, I met her parents yesterday. Miriam LaSalle and Jacob Saperstein. They came all the way from Mars to testify against you. And they talked to me about Jeanette."

"And now you're going to tell me about her to try to make me feel guilty."

"Feel whatever you want-just know who it was you had killed. She was born premature and her bones were weak because of the gravity. Even today, with all our hormone and gene therapies, a few cases like that still crop up. They said Jeanette would never be very strong. But her parents never told her that, never made her believe there were limits to what she could do, who she could be. They encouraged her to be active, athletic, to run and jump and play. And she did, Tai. She could run like a gazelle. When she was ten, she won a trophy for the two hundred meter dash. It was the proudest day of her parents' life-until the day she was accepted into college."

"And paid her way as a stripper who ended up performing for mob bosses."

"Yeah, and she was good at it too. She was a terrific athlete, loved to compete in gymnastics, track and field, you name it. Her favorite sport was golf ... which was the one sport she sucked at. She loved music, though she couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. And she loved to dance, no matter the reason. Whenever she made new friends, she'd ask them to dance with her, and it was a different dance every time.

"She was a deeply spiritual person who took great joy and comfort in her beliefs. But she was always fair; she never condemned others for believing different things-or for the company they kept," she added pointedly. "h.e.l.l, she loved to explore other points of view, and got into all sorts of religious debates-but friendly ones, about sharing ideas and learning, not attacking or judging. She loved to learn, didn't much care about what. Somebody once told her that you learn something new every day, and she took it as a challenge.

"I also met her brother, Solomon. He's eleven years old. And he worshipped his sister. They were the best of friends, they shared everything. She taught him how to play golf, and he's just as bad as she was, and loves it just as much. At least he can sing. But he'll never learn another dance from his sister."

"You think I don't regret the death of an innocent?" Tai snapped. "You have no idea of the things I lived through growing up, the friends I lost. But if bearing the hurt of a few losses can prevent the loss of millions more, then it must be done no matter the pain."

Emry stared at him for a time. "You and Thorne. He thought he'd finally found the way to engineer humanity into something greater. You thought that mods didn't matter and we were still the same as we'd always been. But ultimately you were both just out for your own power."

"I'm nothing like that monster."

"No," she granted. "He's better at it than you could ever be. You think you were so much in control ... but you did exactly what he predicted every step of the way, and that's what he was counting on. You played right into his hands, proved him right about the Sheaf being the common enemy we had to unite against. And you couldn't even see you were playing into his hands, because you couldn't admit for a second that you might be wrong.

"At least Thorne was willing to admit that, at the end. I wonder if you ever will."

He shook his handsome head. "You're so blind. You think this is all about individual people and their egos. If it isn't a comic-book game to you, it's a soap opera.

"Don't you get it yet? We Sheavers had to do what we did, because if we hadn't ... Earth would have. They would have come out here in force to protect themselves. And you know what that would have led to. I did it all to protect the Striders. To keep my people free."

Emry scoffed. "What the vack difference does it make if you just do Earth's job for them? That's not called protecting your people. That's called betraying them."

"Maybe in your simple world. You're just too self-absorbed to see the big picture. The Green Blaze," he said with a sneer. "You're a fire, all right-the kind that can too easily burn out of control and devour everything around it. I should've known you'd be a rogue element. I never should've believed I could rely on you. You're a symbol of everything that makes the Striders so volatile, so wild."

Emry stared at him for a moment ... and smiled. "A symbol of the Striders, huh?" She sauntered over to the door, then turned to face him one last time. "No wonder the Troubleshooters fought so hard to defend me."

Demetria.

Back at the TSC, every trace of Gregor Tai had been expunged from Sensei's old office. Its new occupant, Lydia Muchangi, had returned some of Villareal's gear and souvenirs to their traditional places, including his Shashu armor. She'd brought nothing of her own, insisting it was merely an interim appointment. But the Troubleshooters Emry had spoken to felt, and Emry agreed, that Lodestar was a good choice. She was the smartest one of them all, one of the best of the Troubleshooters' old guard. Many had considered her Sensei's heir apparent-although no one had contemplated the possibility of it happening so soon.

After Emry and Kari's team had been given a chance to recuperate, Muchangi assembled them and the other available Troubleshooters for a talk. She didn't try for the studied amiability of Tai's buffet roundtables, but just sat them all down on bleachers in the gym and perched her lanky frame on a stool before them, turning her elegantly contoured, hairless head to take them in one by one. "The time ahead will be tough," she told them without preamble. "Our credibility, our reputation for impartiality, has suffered a hit. The arrests and resignations should help. But the stain is on the whole Corps, and it will take time-yes, Tenshi?"

Kari had raised her hand like a schoolgirl, and now lowered it. "I'd be willing to resign if it would help. I did agree to do certain things for Tai."

Muchangi smiled. "Only so that you could investigate him and help the Corps."

"But before that ... I was so willing to go along with him. If he hadn't accused Emry, I might've..."

"No one can hold you accountable for hypotheticals, Kari. You deserve commendation, not resignation. In fact, I'll accept no more resignations," she told the whole group. "Even from those of you whom Tai persuaded to partic.i.p.ate in various minor illicit activities. If we're to redeem the Corps, we need to give its members the chance to redeem themselves." Paladin looked relieved.

"Besides," Muchangi went on, "let's face it-Tai wasn't wrong about everything. The new methods and resources he brought to the Corps did improve our effectiveness and allowed us to save many lives that otherwise would have been lost. Some of those resources are no longer available with the loss of his coalition's support ... and certainly many of his tactics required too great a compromise of civil rights. But where feasible, and after careful deliberation, we're going to keep what we can of Tai's reforms ... with new checks and balances put in place to minimize the chance of corruption.

"Still ... times are likely to be turbulent for a while. So we need as many Troubleshooters as we can hold on to if we're to make a difference." She tilted her smooth head in Emry's direction. "Blaze? You seem unsure."

"It's just ... I have to wonder how much of a difference we can really make," Emry said. "I mean, it was Sally who brought down Tai. And if anyone's going to make peace in the Belt, it'll be the diplomats and politicians, the people who make treaties. Not a bunch of superpowered crimefighters. Thorne was right about that, at least. All we can do is treat the symptoms."

"It seems to me, Emerald, that you made a very big difference. You exposed a massive Vanguardian conspiracy, helped stymie a Neogaian power play, and single-handedly averted a war between those two powers."

Emry fidgeted. "I guess you could see it that way ... but it wasn't because of being ... it was more luck than anything. And ... knowing the right people. It's not the sort of thing that happens every day."

Muchangi pursed her lips. "No, it isn't." She rose from the stool, paced around it for a bit, then leaned forward with her hands on it. "But you know what is going on every day? People are getting murdered. They're getting raped. They're getting beaten. Their ships are getting crippled by metes, threatened by flares, attacked by pirates. Gangs are fighting for turf, governments are clashing for power, and innocent people are getting caught in the middle.

"Now, maybe the Troubleshooters can't do anything about the governments, or wipe out the gangs, or solve the underlying social problems that create crime and injustice and abuse. Hopefully someone can, but we can't. But you know something, my friends? We can't stop the Sun from flaring, or metes from having kinetic energy. But we can go out there and try to help the people who get hurt by those things.

"Maybe it's not up to us to save the worlds ... but those people out there are the ones who live in the worlds. Tackling the big-picture problems means nothing if we lose sight of the individual."

The Troubleshooters took in her words in silence. Emry met her eyes in gratitude, and Lodestar smiled in return. Then she pulled her lanky body to its full height, put her hands on her hips, and barked, "So what the h.e.l.l are you all sitting around here for? You're Troubleshooters! So get out there and get yourselves into trouble!"

5237 km out from Ceres.

Emry coasted through s.p.a.ce toward the smugglers' ship, her suit in camouflage black once again. Like them, she took advantage of the darkness of Ceres's umbra. To her left, Ceres was a big dark ellipse blotting out the Sun, Mercury, and Mars, dotted with its own human-made constellations and ringed by a scintillating halo of multicolored lights that seemed to grow bigger and brighter every day. She knew that Vesta was behind that ring of light somewhere, just beyond Mars, too dim to make out. Ahead of her, Venus, Earth, and Jupiter stood out against the background stars, as did the faint glints of artificial light around Europa and Hygiea. A lot of people to protect, she thought. A lot of work ahead. But she took a moment to appreciate how beautiful it was.

It would be a few minutes yet before intercept. Luckily, she had Zephyr's voice to keep her company; the smugglers' comm gear probably wasn't good enough to pick their encrypted tight-beamed transmissions out from the general radio chatter that pervaded Ceres s.p.a.ce even this far out. "I think Lodestar will be a good leader," Zephyr said, his avatar projected onto her suit's HUD.

"Yep. We're in good hands."

"If anything, her code name fits her new role better than her old one. Were I so inclined, I might consider that a good omen."

"If you say so." Emry gave out a contented sigh. "I'm just happy to be back in the fold. I'm a Troubleshooter again!"

"You never stopped being one, as far as I'm concerned." The silver pegasus c.o.c.ked its head at her. "What I'm curious about is whether you still consider yourself a Vanguardian as well."

"Yes," she said without having to think about it. "Whatever Thorne and Psyche did ... those are still my people. My family. They're a link to my father, and that's something I don't want to deny anymore."

"I suppose the news of Thorne's resignation carries some weight for you, then."

"It's a good start. We'll have to see what happens next."

Now she was close enough, the smugglers' ship occulting the stars in front of her. Drawing her grappling gun, she made sure of her target lock, corrected for relative motion, and fired. In another moment, she was s.p.a.ce-skiing behind the smugglers' ship, reeling herself in on the grappler's fullerene cable. "Still," she went on a bit breathlessly once the acceleration eased, "I don't think I'll want to go back there for a while yet. The memories are too fresh."

"I understand. Just as well our work will keep us busy."





CHAPTER DISCUSSION