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"Thank you, Lydia," Tai said in a rich tenor. "I'm quite pleased to meet you all. My name is Greg Tai, and as you've heard by now, I represent a consortium of state and private interests within the Cerean States, with ties to similar groups on Earth. I'm not a member of either government, though they've both endorsed our efforts. I understand how important the neutrality of the Troubleshooter Corps is to your work, and I want to assure you I have no desire to undermine that."

Before going into his spiel, Tai made his way around the line, greeting each of the Troubleshooters in turn. When he got to Emry he smiled, seeming totally unfazed by her wardrobe or by the carrot sticks stuffed in her mouth. "Emerald Blair, of course." He shook her hand firmly, clasping it in both of his. "I wanted to thank you particularly for your role in thwarting the Neogaian attack. I grew up on Earth, and I still have family there."

She fidgeted. "Well ... my mentor deserved the real credit," she said through the carrots.

"Certainly, that was a great loss. I've been to see his family already. My group is already working to set up an educational foundation in his name. Part of our efforts to build closer ties between UNECS and the Belt."

She swallowed. "Well! I, I appreciate that."



"And I saw your press conference after the Pellucidar affair. I thought you'd like to know I've contacted some of Ceres's top cyber-rights attorneys about Sorceress's case."

"Oh! Wow. That's great!"

"It's the least we could do to thank you, Emerald."

"Emry."

He smiled. "Emry. Thank you."

Once he'd moved down the line a bit, Vijay whispered in her ear. "Ooh, wow, call me Emry! Somebody's in love." She shoved a pita wedge in his mouth to shut him up.

When Tai completed his circuit, he looked around in puzzlement. "Isn't there still one person I haven't met? Hijab? Does anyone know where she is?" Emry joined in the general chuckling. "Am I missing some joke?"

"You are missing something, at least," came a warm, quiet alto voice from directly behind him. Tai whirled, startled, and the T-shooters laughed as Hijab finally deigned to show herself, disengaging the camouflage function of her garb. When she stood still against the wall, her metamaterial suit blending with her surroundings and damping her sounds and scent, Maryam Khalid was virtually undetectable to anyone who did not know where to look. Now, though, she became visible as a statuesque woman in an all-concealing black bodysuit, formfitting for mobility but bearing an ankle-length cloak to obscure her body's contours as Muslim propriety, and the needs of invisibility, demanded. Even her face was completely covered at the moment, presenting only a featureless black visage to the Sheaver.

Tai recovered quickly. "Hijab. h.e.l.lo. I was hoping to meet you in civilian form, as it were."

"Perhaps in time, Mr. Tai," she whispered, the cowl m.u.f.fling her voice and subtly altering its timbre. "Trust must be earned." Maryam was one of the few Troubleshooters to use a secret identity. Originally an Olbersstadt detective, she had run afoul of the Yohannes syndicate and seen her husband and several innocent bystanders murdered in retaliation. To protect her children while continuing the fight, she had taken a cue from Muslim women of the past who had used the veil for espionage and covert resistance, but had added a high-tech Vestan twist. She had helped the Troubleshooters cripple the mobs' operations at Vesta and soon been persuaded to join the Corps. But her identity was a secret she shared only with established T-shooters, since she was still high on the mobs' hit lists. Until Emry's apprenticeship had ended, she'd thought Maryam had been a minor Vestan official who occasionally consulted with the TSC. Out of uniform, she wore much more liberal hijab, in the form of colorful long-sleeved dresses and designer headscarves.

"Very true," Tai said after a moment. "I'm sure you have excellent reasons for your secrecy. But I intend to do my best to earn your trust. All of your trust."

As Tai began his presentation, most of the 'Shooters took seats, some turning them around to straddle them, some just putting a leg up and resting a cheek on the chair back. Emry refilled her plate and then straddled a chair between the Dharma b.u.ms. A few others remained standing, letting their wariness of the Sheaver be known.

"I know what a lot of you must be thinking, since it's a concern your colleagues before you have expressed. Should the Corps be getting in bed with the CS, sharing resources directly-let alone establishing closer ties with Earth? My answer is that what we're offering is merely an expansion on the kind of endors.e.m.e.nt and cooperation that the TSC already gets from Ceres and other Belt governments and NGOs. It's our hope that Vestan, Eunomian, and Outer states will eventually join in as well.

"Why now? Because Chakra City has changed things. Since the war ended, UNECS has been content to focus inward and leave us to our own devices. The Neogaian attack proved that they can no longer do that-the Striders' problems are their problems too."

"And a lot of their problems become ours," shot back Marut, who had no love for Earth, "when they deport lunatics like the Neogaians out here in the first place."

"That's true. The bottom line is, we can't go on pretending our fates aren't intertwined. Earth has taken a renewed interest in keeping the peace in the Belt. But n.o.body wants a repeat of the circumstances that led to the war, with Earth wielding direct power over Strider affairs. That's why we Cereans feel we can offer a solution. We have strong ties to both communities-the oldest Strider nation, yet with a large population of Terran emigres, myself included. That means Earth can trust us to handle the matter internally-and hopefully it means that our fellow Striders can trust that we're acting in their best interests, not just Earth's.

"And that's where the Troubleshooter Corps is key. Your members come from all over the Belt, even Mars, and so you're respected and trusted Beltwide. Who better to spearhead the effort to work together for our common security?"

"Most of us are also mods," Vijay pointed out. "Or cybers. By Earth law, we shouldn't exist. Yet you say you represent the interest of Earth?"

Tai gave a conciliatory nod. "It's true that Earth still takes a conservative view of human enhancement. Or rather, they've enhanced themselves more on a collective level, through the global information network and the resources and expertise it allows any individual to access. Striders have taken a more individualized approach, enhancing individual humans rather than humanity as a whole, developing individual artificial sentiences rather than relying on a global network-which, granted, you can't do anyway with the time lags involved out here. There are those on Earth, and admittedly in the Cerean States, who see that as a potential threat due to the power it can give to unethical individuals. I think events like Chakra City demonstrate that those concerns are valid.

"But my consortium believes-I believe-that the transhuman age is here, and we need to adapt to that reality. It hasn't brought the Rapture or the Apocalypse, hasn't made us Gods or monsters, and it's not going to. We're still what we were, just with more power, for better or worse. So instead of planning for some kind of imaginary existential clash between old humanity and transhumanity, we need to keep sight of the more fundamental distinctions between right and wrong, order and chaos. Those of us who stand for order would be fools not to ally with transhumans who share our goals. The Troubleshooters are exactly that-a superhuman force for peace and order, superheroes in the truest sense."

"We know why us," said Tor Thorssen, a gene-modded man-mountain who'd been a pro wrestler before joining the Corps. Most T-shooters didn't use their code names in everyday life, but only Tor's mother called him Ranulf. "But why you?"

"Because the Cerean States is the only Belt nation with the resources and infrastructure necessary to build up the TSC into the potent, systemwide peacekeeping organization it needs to become."

"So, what, we get a passel o' new Sheaver Troubleshooters?" That was Cowboy Bhattacharyya, one of those who stood (or in his case, swaggered) to express their suspicion.

"Naturally the Corps will need to bring in new recruits, but as always, they will be drawn from throughout the system. And they'll still have to pass your training, and Ceres won't interfere with your procedures or standards.

"But there's more we can offer. The consortium can exert political influence on your behalf, work with you to coordinate systemwide peacekeeping efforts. We can bring in Cerean and Terran expertise to improve your technology and your techniques."

"Ain't nothin' wrong with our techniques," Cowboy shot back in that inane Bollywood-Western accent of his.

"But couldn't you do better? Certainly you do the best you can in response to the crises that arise out here. But that's just it-you respond. You wait for something to go wrong and try to minimize the damage.

"But with the destructive power that's now available to even a small fringe group or gang, the magnitude of that damage is just too great. If you wait until an attack comes, then you're already too late. Too many people will be lost before you get the chance to save them. And too many innocents will be endangered in the crossfire between you and the bad guys." Emry stopped eating and began listening much more intently.

"So what are you proposing?" Vijay challenged. "Can you offer us psychics?" A few people laughed. Emry wasn't one of them.

"We don't need them. These days, earthquakes, hurricanes, solar flares can be predicted so preventative measures can be taken. We can monitor buildings, s.p.a.cecraft, or habitats, antic.i.p.ate when they're about to fail, and calculate what it takes to preserve them. All it takes is enough data and a good computer model.

"Now, the social sciences may not be as precise as the physical, but it's still possible to extrapolate trends, antic.i.p.ate patterns, see trouble building before it breaks. This is part of what keeps Earth, and increasingly the Sheaf, united and peaceful. We're all interconnected, linked into one vast conversation whose trends can be documented, sensed, and analyzed. To put it simply, we listen to each other, so we can know when people are discontented or frustrated, understand the root causes, and deduce the most effective resolution. I know, I know," he said in response to the grumbling that ensued. "I'm not here to lecture you on the benefits of an interconnected existence. I know how much you cherish your independence out here.

"But it's that same independence, taken to an extreme, that makes it easier for things to go wrong. For mobsters, fanatics, and rogue states to operate unimpeded, for people to suffer without anyone coming to their rescue.

"I think there's a way to have the best of both worlds. Being independent doesn't have to mean being isolated or out of touch with your surroundings. If astrobiologists can monitor life in other star systems, how hard can it be for the Troubleshooters to gather the information you need to see trouble coming before it happens?"

"So you propose to enhance our intelligence-gathering capabilities," Lydia said.

"For a start. Also, the consortium would assist you in using advanced pattern recognition, data mining, and evolutionary models to dig up warning signs, so we can head off trouble before it happens."

"Head off how?" Emry asked. "We can't exactly, say, invade Neogaia before they strike again. There's only seventy-three of us."

"Force is a last resort," Tai said. "That's something I know Sensei Villareal has taught you all." Bhattacharyya scoffed. "But that means there must be other options available before force becomes necessary. All too often, you have to use force because it's too late for alternatives. But if we can antic.i.p.ate problem areas, home in on the political or economic or social factors driving people toward conflict, then that allows us to try other tactics before it's too late. Ceres, with cooperation from other Belt powers, of course, can bring diplomacy to bear on dangerous fringe habitats, exert humanitarian and educational efforts to treat the causes of their aggression, and bring them into the fold."

"What, an' put us out of a job?" Cowboy drawled. Emry glared in his direction. In her view, his tendency to take the second half of "Troubleshooter" too literally made him unworthy of the name. But part of why Sensei had founded the TSC was to bring rogue vigilantes like him into check, encouraging them to follow the rules and tone down their methods. Which sounded very much like what Tai was proposing on a systemwide scale.

"I don't see that happening for a long time. The Troubleshooters are the linchpins of the whole project. You're not only fighters, you're trained negotiators, relief workers-not to mention having the skills and insight necessary to gather and process the information we'd need. And certainly your cyber partners can play a key role there as well. Being experts in everything, being able to mine and analyze vast amounts of data creatively when no global network is available to give advice, is the whole reason they exist. And the TSC represents one of the largest concentrations of cyber minds in Solsys-probably the largest one whose members are treated as free and equal beings and truly encouraged to live up to their full potential."

'I may blush,' Zephyr said in Emry's head.

"All of you-Troubleshooters and cybers-are a resource capable of even greater potential than you've achieved so far. I'm just here to help you achieve it. To help you save more lives, prevent more tragedies by acting sooner and more effectively.

"And ... that's my spiel. I'll be happy to answer any questions now."

Emry listened absently to the questions and answers, but mostly she was mulling over what she'd already heard. The details didn't concern her as much as the big picture. Stopping tragedies before they happen. Saving lives before they're lost.

Vijay caught her introspection and stroked her chin, gently turning her face toward him. 'Looks like he got to you,' he sent subvocally.

'I'm up for anything that saves more lives.'

'Well, sure. But all this diplomacy and humanitarianism-not a lot of action. You want to put yourself out of a job?'

Her answer came promptly. 'Gladly-if it meant fewer kids had to lose their mothers.'

'Don't give me platitudes, Blaze. You live for action.'

She glared at him. If Vijay thought it was just a platitude, then he didn't know her as well as he thought.

'Do you really think this new approach will be a good idea?' This time it was Zephyr.

'Why wouldn't it be? It sure sounds good to me.'

'Emotionally, yes. What about intellectually?'

'I leave that to you, partner. If you have questions, you can ask him.'

'Nothing definite yet. I need more information. I'm just suggesting that a change of this magnitude needs to be considered carefully.'

'Maybe,' Emry returned. 'But Tai's right-as it is, we're fighting a losing battle.'

5.

Looking for Trouble.

September 2107.

Jupiter Trojan asteroids, L5 group.

Emry's prodigious yawn echoed inside her helmet, unremarked by the rest of the universe. She was going crazy cooped up in her s.p.a.ce suit for all these hours with nothing to do but drift. She was forced to wonder if maybe Vijay had been right six weeks back about her tolerance for the quiet life.

True, there were four other Troubleshooters out here with her, tethered together in a quincunx formation, and she could talk to them through the tethers if she wanted. Unfortunately, their stealth approach precluded any nonessential power use. She could barely even see the others except as dark areas occulting the stars, since their suits were in full stealth mode, lights off, all surfaces tuned to wide-spectrum black, helmet visors polarized to block heat radiation. Kilometers-long superconducting nanofilaments trailed behind them to dissipate their body heat as diffusely as possible. Still, she was getting hot and sweaty in this thing. She'd slowed her metabolism as much as she could during the long approach-another effective damper on conversation-but now the target was in sight and they had to warm up their muscles for the fight that was coming.

And it would be a doozy. This was the largest TSC team op Emry had ever been on, not counting training exercises: five 'Shooters, nearly all chosen for their combat skills. Kari was here, as was Cowboy, unfortunately. Along with Emry, they provided finesse, firepower, and raw strength. Then there was Elise "Tin Lizzy" Pasteris, her slender Martian frame encased in a sleek battle symbot a generation beyond Arkady's old jalopy, and Juan "Jackknife" Lopez, who had done the key intelligence work leading up to this raid. Since their target was a small, milligee stroid only a few kilometers across, Jackknife had opted to go with a multidirectional thruster unit rather than any of his interchangeable pairs of specialized prosthetic legs.

Juan could've easily enough had new legs grown after his childhood accident, but had decided that being stuck with a single, limited pair of natural legs was too great a handicap. His subsequent replacement of his arms with prosthetics had been voluntary. With that kind of history, Juan had been a natural recruitment target for the Michani, and at Greg Tai's urging, he'd begun responding to their advances, pretending to have been convinced at last that the Singularity was truly nigh (this time for sure!), that mechanical life was destined to rise to Godhood and cleanse the universe of putrid flesh. Never mind that n.o.body had ever been able to create a consciousness, AI or human, that substantially exceeded the intellect of the greatest human geniuses. You could make a cyber that thought faster than Einstein and had access to a greater range of knowledge, but try to make its mind more complex and you soon passed a point of diminishing returns, the same as if you tried to pile too much muscle or too many extra limbs on a human body and ended up with a form too cumbersome to function. Attempts to create metasapience had resulted only in madness or total cognitive collapse. Emry had experienced the results firsthand on one of her first field missions as Arkady's apprentice, the Iwakura incident. She still had nightmares about it.

But the Michani didn't care about the facts. They worshipped such a mad superbrain as their God, obeying its ravings as Delphic p.r.o.nouncements. They were so blindly certain of their beliefs that they didn't question Jackknife's swift conversion. It had enabled him to get close enough to crack the cult's files and discover their master plan to accelerate Armageddon. Quite a payoff for a policy that had only been in effect for a few weeks.

But then, it wasn't the first. A number of extremist groups had launched copycat attacks in the months since Chakra City-some targeting Earth, others Mars, others their neighbors in the Belt. Many had been ill-conceived, abortive, or easily foiled. But others had been disturbingly feasible, the Michani's scheme among them. The Corps's new policy of trying to head off crises before they broke had been instituted not a moment too soon.

Emry wished Jackknife could've uncovered this scheme a week or two earlier, though. As the target stroid drew closer, Emry peered at it in infrared. It was chilly out here in the Trojans, far from Sol, but the stroid's surface swarmed with hundreds of heat signatures. A few were Michani cultists. The rest-the bigger ones-were pure robots, all identical, all heavily armed and armored. And they were making more of themselves. They were auxons, designed to replicate themselves from available materials, oh, and kill all humans while they were at it. The process had only been set in motion a week ago, and already there were hundreds of them. A couple more weeks and there could be millions.

Diplomacy was useless; the Michani were fanatics. Luckily, they were also idiots, believing that they could hide their operation simply by being far away from civilization. There were no horizons in s.p.a.ce and plenty of good telescopes, so once Jackknife had found what to look for, the stroid base had been easy to locate. Taking it out was not so easy, however. A large strike force or a missile would set off their defense systems or give them time to escape; even one surviving auxon would be too many. And at least some Michani had to be taken alive for interrogation to ensure the rest could be tracked down, and auxon remains would have to be recovered and studied to develop countermeasures. (Even if every copy of the plans could be tracked down and wiped, it wouldn't be that hard for any roboticist to design an equivalent. The fact that these psychotic losers had pulled it off was proof of that. Greg Tai had been right-these were scary times.) So a surgical strike was the best option. Plan A had been to send in a squad of combat drones under Jackknife's supervision. Tai's consortium had donated a large contingent of the drones to the TSC, giving it the means to contend with large-scale combat situations just like this. But Juan had pointed out that the drones' software protocols were fairly standardized and that Michani crackers had subverted similar models in the past.

So that left old-school combat, with live humans putting themselves in harm's way and hoping their plan was good enough to keep them living. The five of them had been dropped off by a Cerean vessel passing by on an innocuous-looking course (not easy to find out here, with so few inhabited bodies to head for), accelerated by a spinning tether onto a rendezvous trajectory, and then left to drift for eighteen hours as their course converged with the stroid. Of course, the strike team couldn't hide in open s.p.a.ce any better than the Michani could; even with all their attempts at cooling and camouflage, their bodies still radiated at 310K and that energy had to go somewhere. The most they could hope for was to make their heat signature small and dim enough to be hard to spot against the thermal clutter of the Belt and Inner System behind them. Five bits of self-aware jetsam were all that stood in the way of a systemwide invasion, and their success depended on their ability to hide in plain sight.

So far, they hadn't been attacked; perhaps the Michani's blind faith in their predestined triumph kept them from watching the skies too closely. But the team still had to make the landing in one piece-well, one piece each. The stroid was approaching awfully fast, a s.p.a.ceborne mountain bearing down on them. They'd only been able to match velocities so much, without being free to use thrusters on approach. And they had to get as close as possible before decelerating, to preserve the element of surprise and to maximize the efficacy of their opening salvo. Emry felt the tug on her tether that signaled her to ramp up her suit generator to full power and jettison her cooling filament. Moments later, she and three others fed their power into Tin Lizzy's symbot at the center of their formation. The symbot sucked in all it could and then unleashed it toward the stroid as a massive microwave pulse.

Emry bit her lip and hoped the plan would work. The completed auxons were EMP-hardened, but Juan's intelligence suggested that incomplete ones, or ones that had their innards exposed in the process of expelling duplicate parts, would be vulnerable to the pulse. The hope was that with no attack antic.i.p.ated, and with the Michani eager to replicate the things as fast as possible, most of the complete ones would be in mid-replication and sufficiently opened up to be vulnerable. And it was a statistical cinch that roughly half the auxons on that stroid would be works in progress.

Sure enough, she could see many of the auxons convulsing and shutting down. But there was no time to estimate the exact number of kills. "Reel out!" Lizzy called, even as she disengaged from the tethers and fired her thrusters to decelerate for impact. At the same moment she cut loose on the stroid with a railgun, as much for a bit of extra decel as to kill auxons (and hopefully not Michani, Emry thought-though Elise herself was closer to Cowboy's school of thought when it came to the morality of lethal force). Meanwhile, the rest of the Troubleshooters thrust backward and radially outward, the tethers reeling out between them. Emry strove for calm as the carbonaceous mountain hurtled closer, trusting that she could reel out far enough not to slam into it headlong.

Indeed, she and the others cleared the stroid by a comfortable margin, but the X of tethers holding them together struck it at high velocity, slicing through a couple of dozen more auxons and digging deep into the regolith. The impact shock was enough to knock a number of auxons off the surface, leaving them flailing in mid-vacuum (or middust cloud as much of the regolith went with them, hopefully obscuring their sensors). Emry flew past the stroid and felt a centripetal yank as her tether began to wrap around it. She spiraled in toward the surface, the cable still reeling out, and she aimed for a shallow impact to minimize the force of it.

But suddenly she felt the tether go slack. Either it had broken or an auxon had cut it. Instantly she hit the disengage and thrust sideways so the tether would miss her rather than slicing her suit open. But her HUD pointed out what she'd intuited anyway: that her trajectory hadn't curved enough to make stroidfall. She was headed past it, out into s.p.a.ce, at high speed. And she had no more tether to fire at it.

Then she spotted thruster emissions-a fellow 'Shooter, swinging around from the other side! She thrust toward them, aiming her commlaser. "Catch me! I'm loose!" The other 'Shooter changed vectors toward her, but she could tell it would be too little, too late. She would pass too far beneath the other. Her only chance was to catch their tether-but how could she spot anything so slender in this vast, dark expanse? She made her best guess where it would be and swept her commlaser over the area on wide-beam visible, hoping to spot some wispy strand of reflected light. But nanotubes absorbed light too d.a.m.n well.

Then something kicked her in the ass.

Actually it was a series of impacts in quick succession. The suit's armor absorbed most of the force, but it still hurt, and it knocked her into a backspin around her center of mass. She instantly adjusted her thrust vectors to keep pushing her stroidward, even as she realized that the shot had come from the figure she'd called to for help. Was it really a Michani? Just as she flipped over to face the figure, it fired a second volley of shots that took her right in her breastplate. Then a third volley hit the ribbed armor over her midriff, knocking the wind out of her and, she realized, pushing her farther toward the stroid. Only one person she knew had the marksmanship and the attitude to save her life in such a crass and bellicose fashion. "Cowboy!" she snarled. He must be hitting her with high-impact kinetic slugs from his railgun.

But before she could get anything else out, she slammed tail-first into the regolith. Fortunately it was a loose agglomeration of dust and debris; she made a big splash and ended up mostly buried, her momentum quite effectively canceled. Coughing and shrieking, she struggled to dig herself out.

"Y'all okay, darlin'?" came that infuriating fake drawl.

"Better'n you'll be when I get my vackin' hands on you, you son of a bit.c.h!"

Through the dust, she saw Bhattacharyya come down a few hundred meters away, landing almost gently. He'd managed to shed a lot of his momentum by shooting her. "Easy there, Greenie. I reckon you're owing me now. Y'all can thank me proper after the mission."

In your dreams, she thought. Shooting me in the ass is the closest you're getting to my pants. "How about I just don't rip your b.a.l.l.s off for calling me 'Greenie'?"

"How 'bout y'all look behind ya?"

Aww, h.e.l.l. She used her thrusters to spin around. Two auxons were heading right for her-ugly things, blocky and modular, made out of a few recurring component types that were small enough to be built inside their core sections and pieced together. They had flat backs, the platforms on which their offspring were assembled until ready to be unleashed. The closer one had nothing on its back, but the latter had a duplicate half-assembled atop it. The duplicate was inert, but the parent unit must not have had its innards exposed when the microwave pulse hit.

Emry glanced over the heavy armor and razor-sharp claws of the car-sized auxons and decided this was not a hand-to-hand situation. With a sigh, she hefted the high-power firearm she'd been assigned for this mission and began firing, thrusting forward to cancel the recoil. Goddess, I hate these things. But her aim was true and the explosive bullets smashed through the auxons' armor quite effectively. She made sure to focus her aim on the core sections to cripple their self-replication ability.

After that it was just point and shoot for a while. Emry didn't have the more complicated job on this mission; that fell to Juan and Kari, whose task was to capture the Michani and access their control network to shut down the auxons. Emry and the rest were just muscle. But the auxons kept things interesting by firing back. Their armaments were clever and nasty, firing nanotube-based projectiles which could be readily resupplied by their internal weavers. Their main guns shot out madly whirling nan.o.bolas, which could slice through nearly anything. The torso armor protected her vital organs, but it was open-sided for freedom of movement; her flanks and limbs were covered only by the light-armor tightsuit that hugged her skin. It had no air to lose except in the helmet, but too many cuts could loosen the mechanical compression that kept her body pressurized. Emry had a close call with a razor grenade: a sphere of electrically charged nanotubes, its mutual repulsion against itself forcing it to expand outward, building enormous tension until it snapped at predesigned weak spots, causing hundreds of taut monofilament strands to fly outward at deadly speed. She had to duck and cover to protect her visor from the nanotube shrapnel, but sustained deep cuts across her left arm and hip, some of them slicing clear through the tightsuit to the flesh beneath. Her repair systems acted efficiently to minimize blood loss, so she allowed herself to hope that no stray nanotubes had been left in her body to poison her cybernetic or biological systems.

One auxon came in close and grabbed her leg with its pincers-luckily around the armored boot instead of higher up, or she might've lost half a leg. Twisting sideways and back, she thrust out her fingers, sent a command to the glove to stiffen, and rammed it into the joint between two of the pincer arm's modules. Her hand knifed through and she tore at whatever she could find until the pincer fell limp. Other deadly grippers flailed toward her, but she twisted away, repeated the stabbing maneuver with one of the seams on the underside, fired several explosive rounds into the gap, and pushed free as the auxon suffered terminal heartburn.

As the battle went on, Emry realized the auxons were dying rather easily. Their nanotube-based weapons may have been easy to replenish, but were also their Achilles heel; damaging their innards caused stray nanotubes to get into their electronics and short them out. Emry was beginning to understand why such weapons weren't used more often. Again, she thanked the Goddess for shortchanging the Michani in the brain department. Just imagine if someone really competent had tried this.

At last she made it to the other side of the stroid, where the Michani's main staging area had been. "Had been" was the right tense, since the tether impact had torn into it badly, as Tin Lizzy's weapons had no doubt done a few seconds later. Fragments of auxons drifted all over. Emry looked around through the half-settled dust to see Lizzy and Cowboy finishing off a few remaining auxons, but there didn't seem to be any left for her to play with. And it looked like Kari and Juan had the Michani well in hand. There were four of them-gaunt, shiny-carapaced bipeds without pressure suits, originally human but having replaced as much of their bodies as possible with robotic parts in pursuit of "technotheosis," the transcending of the flesh to achieve the divinity of AI. The idea fell flat considering that they couldn't replace their very human brains, but they tended to gloss over that, giving an indication of just how poorly those brains were working. And their shiny new bodies, as tricked-up as they were, hadn't helped them much against the cream of the Troubleshooter Corps. They were all bound, a few with missing limbs or torso damage, but all alive and reparable. Juan had one of his hands sticking into the back of a Michani's head, morphed into an interface jack. The other hand was in tool mode, manipulating the innards of some kind of mainframe. Jackknife was the only person Emry knew who wore a short-sleeved s.p.a.ce suit. "Looks like I missed the good part," Emry broadcast. "You get the shutdown codes?"

"They didn't have one," Kari replied. "Jackknife's DLing their data, but we're having to finish them off the old-fashioned way."

"Seems like they were counting on divine providence," Juan told her, his tone mocking. "This is their destined triumph, after all, so of course their holy host wouldn't turn on them."





CHAPTER DISCUSSION