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Where was Mommy?

Why wasn't Daddy looking for Mommy? How could he just kneel there, bawling like a little baby over this ... that ... mound of ... that thing....

Why wasn't he stopping the bad guys? Why didn't he stop them from breaking things, and ... and that....

Something knocked her forward, a sound she almost heard over the rushing in her head, and she fell and rolled and that wasn't in front of her anymore and there was a metal monster pointing something at her, yelling something ... and Daddy just bawled ... and Emry closed her eyes....

And then she woke up and strong arms picked her up-Daddy? But no, they were hard and cold and they whirred. She looked and it was the Troubleshooter. His helmet was retracting, folding back behind like origami, and there was a kind face behind it, craggy with a bushy moustache. "You're safe now, little one," he said. "Uncle Arkady has caught the bad guys. It will be all right now." He looked past her, to something behind her, and grew sad. "No ... not quite all right. I'm so sorry."



Emry tried to stop herself from turning, but couldn't. There was Daddy, rocking back and forth without a sound. And there was that....

Mr. Arkady took a tentative step toward him. "Sir ... I'm sorry for your loss, but you need to come away with me. The building may not be stable. And your daughter needs you now."

Daddy looked up at that. At first he didn't seem to know where he was, like he was sleepwalking. But then his eyes focused on her. He was like a statue for a moment, and then he shook himself and stood up. "Ohh, Emerald ... my jewel ... it's just us now ... I'll take care of you now...."

But as he talked, something welled up in Emry, something terrible that burned her inside and tore out of her as the loudest scream she'd ever heard. "NOOOO!!!!!!!!" It went on for ages, and seemed to echo through the whole sphere like thunder.

He reached for her, but she punched at him, struggling in the Troubleshooter's arms. "You didn't save her!!! Why didn't you save her? You were supposed to protect her! You let her die! It's your fault! I hate you!! I hate you!!!!"

The look in his eyes was like the one he'd had before-a look of terrible loss. But she didn't care. He'd betrayed her. He'd failed her when it counted the most. She'd never hear her mother sing again, and it was his fault, and she knew she would hate him for the rest of her life.

4.

Trouble Shared.

July 2107.

Pellucidar habitat.

In orbit of Vesta.

Emerald Blair took great satisfaction in punching herself in the face.

Not that it was actually her face, or even a reasonable facsimile. Rather, it was the face of the overearnest, underweight Vestalian starlet who'd played her in that unauthorized vidnet biopic last month, the one they'd rushed into production to capitalize on the Chakra City incident. They could've gone virtual, but apparently figured the starlet's fame would be at least as big a draw as Emry's own, since they couldn't legally use her likeness anyway.

Of course, that hadn't stopped Pellucidar's control cyber from morphing the starlet's likeness onto an android's soligram skin and sending it to attack Emry. But Sorceress didn't seem to have much use for human laws right now, including the ones about not killing people, or rather using her animatronic puppets to kill them. You'd think a cyber programmed with every work of fiction ever made would know how cliched that is, Emry thought.

The shamdroid's head snapped back far enough from the punch to warrant an obituary had it been the actual starlet. Emry's fantasy to that effect was marred by the fact that the soligram layer had been smashed in, leaving a fist-sized hole in the middle of its face. But the smart-matter gel re-formed into the starlet's celebrated features-h.e.l.l, I'm prettier than that-and the neck quickly returned to normal. "You can't keep the Banshee down!" it cried. These androids were built to withstand a lot of punishment from the patrons, and Sorceress was no longer bothering to make them play dead.

It helped, though, that the cyber had picked such an ill-conceived opponent to stop her from reaching Pellucidar's brain center. Sorceress seemed to think this was all a game, and apparently had decided it would be entertaining to pit Emry against an alternate version of herself. The starlet bot was dressed as the mod-gang member she'd been at seventeen, or some costume designer's exaggerated notion thereof. She acted tough, but was too slight of build to pose much of a challenge, durability aside. Which was proving a disappointment to the gathering spectators.

d.a.m.n it, I don't have time for this! Emry thought as Banshee charged again. Don't these vackheads know they're in danger? It wouldn't have surprised her from Earthers; they spent most of their lives immersed in their online world, interacting with virtual playmates, even conducting business transactions through gaming analogies. But Striders, ironically, tended to lead more grounded lives; spread out over cubic light-minutes, they didn't have the option of real-time onlining, except on the local scale. And even there, they preferred to live in reality as a matter of cultural preference.

Yet Vestans tended to be eccentric. Vesta was in the "desert," the ice-poor Inner Belt, its habitats only able to survive on imported water and carbon; but Vesta's giant size and planetlike, differentiated geology gave it a mineral wealth unequaled in the Belt. So its civilization was heavy with entrepreneurs and elites, those who could not only afford to make the desert bloom but could do so in style. Here was the home, not only of the Striders' cybernetic and metallurgical industries, but their jewelry industry, their entertainment industry, their gambling industry, their erotic industry. Here were the wealthy elites accustomed to having their way, and here were the prosperous Terran emigres who sought the kind of luxuries they knew from home. Thus, Vesta was not as centralized as Ceres despite being nearly as populous. Instead of one united cluster and various outliers, Vesta was circled by multiple large, independent habitat-states and their various tributaries-the latter of which included Pellucidar, a theme-park habitat built by a Vestalia-based entertainment conglomerate but jointly managed by several Vestan states. It was an Earth-style immersive cyberfantasy with a Strider twist, relying as much on soligrams and bots as virtual projections. But there were still those who let themselves get too caught up in the illusions.

Emry threw Banshee over her shoulder, but the simulant rolled smoothly to its feet, wearing that patented Pout of Fury that made up half the starlet's repertoire of expressions. "You dragged me down into this life!" she intoned, lunging at Emry with a flurry of inhumanly fast blows, keeping her busy dodging and blocking. "You made me a criminal! But no more, Javon! I'm free of you now! And I swear to the Goddess, I will devote the rest of my life to making amends for what you made me do, by fighting scum like you wherever-"

"Oh, shut up." With a thought, Emry set her laser pistol to shock mode, then drew it and discharged it into Banshee's scrawny torso, holding it there long enough to make sure the android's circuitry was thoroughly fried. She'd been reluctant to waste the power on this petty obstacle, but d.a.m.n, did it feel good. "You don't know a vackin' thing about it."

Some in the audience cheered, while others groaned, wishing for a longer catfight. A moment later, though, they started screaming as electric discharges began raining down from the sky. Emry shoved them all under the nearby trees, resisting an insane urge to tell the Cheshire Cat in the branches to run for safety. Then she reviewed her visual logs, enhancing her peripheral glimpse of the attackers' forms against the patchwork landscape of the Bernal sphere's far side. d.a.m.n, the Zelkoids are back! "Hey, Zephyr, any luck? I could use some backup here, you know!"

"I'm not exactly lounging on the veranda myself," came a wry, mellow baritone over her selfone. "I'm hacking my best, but Sorceress is a grand-master player."

"Zephy, baby, this isn't a game!"

"In fact, Emry, that's exactly what it is. To her, anyway. She hasn't tried to harm me, just impede me."

A lightning-gun blast set fire to the tree sheltering Emry, forcing her to break cover and run across the clearing. "Why can't she extend the same courtesy to the rest of us?"

Zephyr switched to her transceiver implant so she could hear him over the blasts. 'I'm growing convinced that she doesn't see the distinction,' he said, his words transmitted directly to her brain's auditory center.

"Great, so she's schizophrenic!"

'I wouldn't say that. She's completely in touch with her own reality. It's just yours that gives her trouble.'

"Come again?" She tucked, rolled, and fired skyward.

'From a cyber's perspective, physical reality can be somewhat ... virtual. Especially for a cyber like Sorceress, who has no physical body. Your reality is so limiting, after all. You can't re-create it on a whim, there are so many physical laws to follow ... and it all happens so slowly. No offense, but your reality can get rather dull.'

"I wis.h.!.+" Emry shot back. But she supposed Zephyr knew whereof he spoke. Until recently, he hadn't had a physical body either, serving as one of the top data-miners at TSC headquarters. Arkady had liked him and had often tried to talk him into becoming a Troubleshooter's steed, ideally Emry's once her apprenticeship ended, but he'd shown no interest in fieldwork. Perhaps Zephyr's words now offered some insight into why. But after Arkady's death, Zephyr had changed his mind, agreeing to honor his friend's wishes after all. Emry hadn't been sure she wanted a reluctant shipmind, but so far Zephyr had been nothing but reliable and dedicated, and charming company to boot.

'And Sorceress was created to oversee a place whose residents can manipulate their physical reality at will,' Zephyr went on as Emry made an end run around the Zelkoid ground forces. 'Since her whole interaction with humans revolves around fantasy-'

"She doesn't understand the difference between fantasy and reality. I get it. Now how the flare do we fix it?" She spotted the Zelkoid command saucer and began firing at it, knowing that destroying it would send the cyclopean green monsters back to their home dimension-or whatever the closest approximation would be in this setting. Who says Annie Minute wasn't educational? The beam fizzled out, so she ejected the power pack and plugged in another from her belt. The gun was growing hot in her hand. "I'm almost to the brain center, Zeph. I don't want to have to hurt her, but if you can't lock her into autistic mode-" A basso roar hit the air. "Aww, vack, I think the dragon's coming back!"

"Don't worry, Emry, you're not the target," he said aloud over her selfone. "I asked Sorceress to find out how the Zelkoids would fare against it."

"You mean-you got through to her?"

"We've been having quite a lively debate for the past few seconds. It took some doing, but I think I've persuaded her to accept my basic premise that reality and fantasy are two different things. Personally, I suspect she's just humoring me. I think she likes me."

Emry laughed, even as the dragon began tearing through the Zelkoid lines and sending them scattering. "You little Lothario! See, I told you that voice of yours could melt any gal in her boots."

"Anyway, I've convinced her to take some time off to explore the philosophical ramifications of the idea. The simulations should be shutting down even now."

"Yep," Emry confirmed as the dragon, Zelkoids, and other manifestations began slumping to the ground and reverting to raw soligram form. "They're melting, they're mell-tinnggg!"

"What a world."

"And what a sidekick! What a team, huh?"

"Who are you calling a sidekick? I did all the work. You were just the damsel in distress." His voice grew more serious. "And you know you could've avoided a lot of it if you'd stayed more detached about your virtual opponents."

"Yeah, yeah, I know. It's just, Banshee clicked my b.u.t.tons, you know?"

"And this is an excuse how?"

Emry winced. Sometimes Zephyr reminded her so much of Arkady. That brought her both pain and comfort. "You're right, I-what the h.e.l.l are you looking at?"

Some of the spectators had drawn near, gawking at her. A gangly teen dressed rather unconvincingly as Sam Murai, Private Eye, with a trench coat and fedora over a t-shirt patterned like medieval j.a.panese armor, tilted his head and spoke. "So-you're the real one?"

"The one and only!"

"Hmp." He stared some more. "You were cuter in the movie."

Emry slowly, carefully holstered her sidearm.

Pellucidar's various managing partners soon moved in to "secure" the theme park and began bickering over whether Sorceress should be reprogrammed or destroyed altogether-and over which Vestan state had the right to make that determination. Emry wasn't exactly a fan of the cyber-she had killed six people, after all-but the thought of anyone being put to death because they had no legal rights outraged her, and she made that known to the Vestans. The one thing they could agree on, however, was that they didn't let outsiders dictate their policies.

The matter was rendered moot when orders came in to report to the TSC's local branch headquarters as soon as possible. Emry didn't see the need; this Gregor Tai fellow from Ceres had been meeting with small groups of Troubleshooters as their availability allowed, and Emry had picked up the gist of it from them, how his Earth-backed consortium had offered to provide the Corps with new backing and resources. Sure, she couldn't blame Earth for wanting to pay more attention to events out here after Chakra City, and it was easier to be sympathetic to them now. But Emry hated abandoning Sorceress to her fate.

"You did the best you could, Emry," Zephyr told her as he kneaded her sore muscles that night, the thrust of his engines as he moved into a polar orbit holding her against the massage pad without the need for straps or handholds. "I think you made her case to the press very well. And nationalist egos aside, a Troubleshooter's endors.e.m.e.nt carries a lot of weight."

His words brought her some comfort, as did the touch of his soligram avatar. She'd chosen it to look like a marble statue of a nude, clean-shaven Greek God with graceful white wings, not unlike the Zephyrus of myth, but its hands felt like warm flesh-and secreted their own lubrication. "If anybody listens. All the attention right now's on that Tai guy."

"People pay attention to you."

"Sure, 'cause I'm the s.e.xpot with the cinematic past. I'm someone they gawk at, not someone they listen to. That won't help Sorceress."

The avatar smiled. It wasn't just a simulation; cyber emotions may have been less intense than the human kind, without hormones to fire them to passion, but a sapient mind, guided by choice and experience rather than rigid programming, needed motivations to impel action and shape behavior. She knew by now that Zephyr's kindness was real. Sometimes she was sorely tempted to take his avatar to bed, but without a skeleton like Sorceress's toys, it could never hold up to her affections. Plus she didn't think it would be fair to Zephyr to try to relate to him as a human instead of as himself. "You're also the one who saved Earth from a bioterror attack and the patrons of Pellucidar from a very cliched demise," he said. "I'd call that a respectable beginning."

"Maybe. Feels more like too little, too late to me. Too many people I couldn't save."

"I don't think the public sees it that way."

"Well, I try not to worry about what the public thinks."

"Ha. You love the camera."

"And it's mutual, babycakes."

"Maybe that's the problem right there," he said, a hint of that lecturing tone coming back into his voice. She got tired of his lectures, but forgave him because his voice was just so d.a.m.n s.e.xy. "Your conscious vanity. Despite your commitment to staying more focused in crises, you still play up your s.e.x appeal otherwise. If you want to be taken seriously-"

"No. I've heard that a million times, and it's still bullshit. n.o.body should have to hide what they are to be accepted. I'm proud of what I got-all of it, inside and out-and if people can't respect the whole package, I'm not the one who should have to adjust." Mom taught me that.

"Fair enough. It seems like a harder way of going about it, though."

Her eyes roved over his avatar's nude form. "Anything worthwhile is hard, baby."

Russell City habitat.

In orbit of Vesta.

Though the Troubleshooter Corps had headquarters at Ceres and Vesta for the sake of efficiency and access to resources, it had established them in small habitats known for their political independence. Demetria was an old, diminutive Bernal sphere established to support the scientific study of Ceres, its tight polar orbit precluding it from joining into the Sheaf. Russell City's neutrality was a function of its popularity as a tourist attraction; its forced orbit over Vesta's south pole, held in place against the protoplanet's irregular gravity field by giant solar sails, afforded a spectacular view of Rheasilvia Basin, the immense crater that had flattened out the southern side of the spheroidal body, and its central peak Rheasilvia Mons, the tallest mountain ever climbed by humans.

The docking bay held more TSC ships than Emry had seen in one place since Arkady's funeral. "Does he really have to see so many of us at once?" she asked once she'd disembarked. "Somewhere there's a crime happening, you know."

"Give him a chance," said Sally Knox as she led Emry to the meeting room. Despite being only a meter twenty, Sally kept up a pace that Emry had trouble matching. The cherub-faced, middle-aged blonde had been a mainstay of the TSC's clerical/support staff from the beginning and showed no sign of slowing down. Emry had never quite figured out what her official job was, since she did so many different tasks skillfully, efficiently, and, when needed, ruthlessly. Sensei had nicknamed her the Troubleshooters' troubleshooter. It was oddly unsurprising to find her here instead of back at Demetria; some Troubleshooters suspected that there was more than one of her. "Mr. Tai thought it was important to share his ideas with you all in person. He didn't want to do it more times than necessary. You're one of the last stragglers," she scolded.

"Well, I've been busy."

"Oh, yes, suffering in a luxury resort. We all bleed for you." Emry was about to protest that she hadn't had much fun there, but she knew it would have no effect. Sally was perenially unmoved by tales of Troubleshooter adventure, triumph, or angst. It all seemed to bore her, as though her life of paperwork and organizing and programming and maintenance were infinitely more significant than anything that went on in the field. Somehow Emry found that comforting.

And if Sally had such a high opinion of this Gregor Tai-by her standards, her words constituted a ringing endors.e.m.e.nt-then Emry figured it would be worth hearing what he had to say.

The meeting room was already occupied by most of the T-shooters whose ships Emry had seen in the bay. They exchanged greetings with her, the friendlier ones generally coming from other recent graduates; many of the veterans were more aloof. Unfortunately, Kari wasn't among those present. Most of the 'Shooters were in civilian garb, though few dressed quite as informally as Emry herself. She wore a hip-hugger miniskirt that was barely more than a wide belt, plus a cutoff Pellucidar t-shirt displaying animated scenes of the habitat's more adult-oriented attractions. After Sally's words, she wondered if her choice of wardrobe had been a bit too deliberately irreverent. But this was how she'd chosen to present herself to Tai and that was that. Whether he could take her seriously was not the issue, as far as Emry was concerned.

The room was set up with a buffet table and a couple of dozen seats arranged in the round. Emry found herself being waved over to the table by the Dharma b.u.ms-the nickname with which Vijay and Marut Pandalai, officially code-named Arjun and Bhima, had been saddled under protest. She greeted the wiry Vijay and his massive younger brother with quick kisses on the lips. "Hey, b.u.ms."

"Hey, b.o.o.bs," Vijay countered. "Nice top."

"Thanks. I'm commemorating a recent victory," she replied as she reached for a plate. "Ooh, is that Maryam's homemade hummus?"

"We heard," Marut said. "Insane amus.e.m.e.nt-park cyber plus evil twin, all in one mission."

Vijay put an arm around her. "For her encore, she'll stop her long-lost sister from changing history with the help of ancient astronauts."

"Wait a minute, which one will the ancient astronauts be helping?"

"Vack it, you guys!" Emry cried. "Am I ever gonna live this down? Ooh, grapes!"

"Not if we can help it."

"Oh, go vack yourselves out the nearest lock. See if I ever take you b.u.ms to bed again."

The brothers exchanged a look. "Sounds like a challenge," Marut said.

By now there was a full room, and finally Lydia Muchangi entered. A lissome Martian with regal African features and a shaved head, she was one of the original, pre-Corps Troubleshooters, code-named Lodestar for her legendary ability to find anyone or anything. These days she applied her superhuman intellect more toward administration and education, and was currently in charge of the Russell City HQ. She was accompanied by a tall, Terran-built man who made Emry perk up with interest. He was a square-jawed Asian type, maybe mid-forties and quite fit, with piercing eyes and a sensuous mouth. This might not suck after all, Emry thought.

"Thank you all for coming," Lodestar began. "I know you're all eager to get back into action, and I promise you won't be kept long. But Sensei and I believe that what our guest, Mr. Gregor Tai of the Cerean States, has to offer us will be helpful to our efforts in the field and deserves a hearing. Mr. Tai?"





CHAPTER DISCUSSION