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"J..."

"My name's Javon."

"Look up."

He did. Two police aircars were approaching. "Oh, shit."

"This way!" Kei led him toward a nearby crag, allowing her top to fall from her wrists. Shaking his head, Javon picked up the conspicuous garment and ran after her.



Soon they were well-ensconced in a crevice, invisible from the air, and she was all over him, tearing at his clothes.

Unfortunately, she was a screamer, even during foreplay, and the little idiot had chosen a hiding place that echoed superbly. The cops came upon them while he was still rounding third base, saw Kei's naked body adorned in stolen emeralds, and had them both hauled away to juvenile detention, where his parents would no doubt come to claim him and make him their prize commodity again. As he sat in his cell the next day, he resolved that if he ever saw that little redheaded bit.c.h again, he would snap her neck for real.

But then she broke out somehow-and came to break him out too. This time, surprisingly, she managed to be successfully stealthy and got them to the s.p.a.ceport without a hitch. He began to suspect that she'd allowed herself to get caught-and dragged him along with her-just for the challenge of breaking them both out again. Or could it be that she'd regretted getting him in trouble through her own wanton ways? Nahhh.

Either way, before Javon knew it, they were together in a private cabin on a ship bound for Mars. "Too bad you didn't get to keep your emeralds, though," Javon told her as they made out and pulled off each other's clothes.

Kei stopped for a moment and laughed. "What?" he asked.

"Javon..." She kissed him, then met his eyes squarely with her own huge, gleaming green pair. "My name is Emerald."

He studied her. "You sure you want to go with that? Not too smart after what we got busted for. And who'd buy a dumb name like that anyway?"

She shoved him away. "No, you idiot! My real name! Goddess, I try to confide in you ... Get away from me!"

He winced. At this rate he'd never get to punk her. But to his surprise, that wasn't the primary thing on his mind. He realized what she'd just offered him and hated himself for spoiling it.

He also realized, though, that she wasn't leaving the room. She wanted to stay, wanted to let him in. He just had to play it carefully, since this volatile little fireball could go off at any moment.

Is it worth the trouble? he asked himself. Then he looked at her and saw for the first time how lost and lonely she looked. Yes, he answered. Yes, she is.

Emerald Blair (the name "Shannon" was detritus long ago discarded) often wondered why she continued to travel with Javon Moremba. Sure, he was a fellow mod, strong enough to handle her, able to understand the things she'd been through. And he was s.e.xy and exciting, and at nearly eighteen he had two years on her in experience. And she had to admit that his judgment often kept her from getting into worse trouble than she did, although she made sure to balance things by keeping him in worse trouble than he wanted. Finding Mars tame and boring, she'd persuaded Javon to accompany her south of the ecliptic to some of the rough, seedy habs in the Eunomia-family stroids, about a third of an orbit behind Eunomia itself. They were mostly cheap prefabs, easily replicated and easily abandoned, mainly support stations for prospectors and other itinerants who had little investment in their long-term viability. As such, they were more lawless than most small habs, with plenty of opportunities for ambitious young thieves and vandals to find trouble or make it. Especially since Pallas had recently reached one of the points where its highly inclined orbit passed through the Belt proper, so most of the Troubleshooters were too busy fending off pirate raids on that side of the system to pay much attention to petty crime in the Eunomians. Pallas's extreme isolation and mineral wealth attracted the worst of the worst, a hotbed of tyrants, warlords, and cutthroats. Emry had often fantasized about going there and living out a short but exciting life as a pirate queen. But since Javon had come into her life, she'd found such a future less appealing somehow.

But having Javon around still made her edgy sometimes. The last thing she wanted was to feel like she needed him. She'd once thought she could trust a man to take care of her, and he'd betrayed her. He'd let her mother die right in front of him. He'd forced her to live in Greenwood where people hated her and Mom, even though he knew how happy she was every time they left. He'd let her be born a mod, made her inherit this freakish strength rather than having it engineered out of her. No way would she ever let another man get close enough to ruin her life like that.

So although she kept Javon around once they reached the Eunomians, she made a point of sleeping with as many other guys as could take her. Just to make sure he didn't get the wrong idea-and because she enjoyed the variety. But few of them could really measure up to Javon, either in technique or in other ways. Guys tough enough to take her often weren't all that interesting to talk to, or all that kind. Some who won access to her bed got kicked out posthaste when they treated her too roughly. She never proved unable to outfight a guy when she really had to.

Javon resented her pointed promiscuity at first, and retaliated with some s.c.r.e.w.i.n.g around of his own, which was fine with her. She had no trouble luring him back when she was ready. And soon they settled into a comfortable routine, hanging together and sleeping together without actually being together. But it was a tenuous balance, and sometimes she had to smack him down, physically or emotionally, when he tried to get too close.

It helped when they met Ruki shimoda in the back alleys of San Berardo, a small, disreputable habitat around Interamnia. Emry had grown tired of the backwater Eunomia-family habs and wanted to go someplace busier yet even farther from the beaten path. Interamnia's seventeen-degree orbital tilt meant it took extra thrust and time to reach, but it was a large, carbon-rich stroid that straddled the Central and Outer Belts. It was a sort of Pallas Lite, drawing those who sought profit in ways incompatible with public scrutiny.

Thus it was that San Berardo's crime boss-turned-dictator refused to let FEEL-licensed pleasure houses operate there, since open competition with the higher-quality s.e.x specialists trained and protected by the Federation of Erotic Entertainers and Labor would quickly drive his non-guild shops out of business and keep him from exploiting his s.e.x workers as he saw fit. And thus it was that the fourteen-year-old Ruki had been abducted and gene-raped by an expatriate Neogaian doctor, modded against her will with foxlike features, golden-brown fur, and a tail, and forced to serve in one of the "specialty" brothels that San Berardo had become infamous for. They'd also given her vulpine senses and agility, and whether because of her mods or simply for survival, Ruki had developed an animal cunning as well. Those traits had enabled her to escape the brothel after three years of enslavement, several earlier attempts, and several increasingly severe punishments. Emry and Javon came across her, still attired in a leather bikini and dog collar, as she fought against the three men sent to bring her back. Impressed by the foxlike girl's skills and wanting in on the action-and all right, maybe to make it a fairer fight-Emry had thrown herself into the fray, with Javon reluctantly following. Together they'd made short work of the assailants, though Javon had to restrain Ruki from slashing their throats open. One of the men was bleeding badly, and despite herself, Emry felt obliged to hit the emergency b.u.t.ton on his selfone and wait to hear the sirens approaching before she ran to catch up with the others.

After making a daring escape from San Berardo with their new friend, Emry and Javon mutually decided that enlarging their little clique would make it easier for them to keep a comfortable detachment, so they invited Ruki to travel with them. She was suspicious of Javon at first, having known few men who hadn't used or hurt her. But Javon had a way about him, and Emry assured the vixen that he was okay. Ruki was still more comfortable around Emry, though, and the two girls soon became friends-and occasional bedmates once Ruki proved she was tough enough to handle Emry's strength, the first woman ever to do so.

As they made their way through the Outers, they began actively seeking other mod runaways to recruit into their group. The more of them there were, the harder it would be for anyone to hurt them or use them again. Of course, a gang of superpowered criminals needed supervillain nicknames. Ruki became Hikkaku, meaning "Slash." Javon teasingly saddled Emry with the nickname Banshee-"my little Irish screamer"-so in return, and with gleeful double entendre, she dubbed him Thrust. The gang itself was named the Freakshow.

As supervillain gangs went, the Freakshow was underachieving. Rather than trying to conquer humanity, destroy the universe, or find a champion of justice whose life they could fixate on ruining with overly byzantine schemes, they were content to devote their efforts to having fun, taking what they wanted from others, smashing and vandalizing things for the h.e.l.l of it, and being general nuisances to civil society. Most of all, they took care of each other and protected each other from harm. They made a few enemies, infringed on other gangs' turf, and got into their share of fights, but usually by accident or in self-defense. For supervillains, even for gang members, they weren't particularly violent. Ruki and some of the others were willing to kill and had come close more than once, but Javon, Emry, and the rest were a mollifying influence on them-or a restraining one, by force if necessary. Emry welcomed any chance to work off her rage, but not at the cost of a life. She wouldn't become one of those people, the kind who'd taken her mother from her.

Sometimes the Freakshow even helped people outside its circle. They watched out for the people they liked, for fellow mods and others who were mistreated or ostracized by society. At the Hygiean habitat Wellspring, on learning that children were being used as guinea pigs in the Wellspringers' experiments to enhance the mind, they trashed the lab facility and liberated the subjects, recruiting a few into the gang. They cracked the computer net of the Fourth Reich Neo-n.a.z.i habitat, wiped their database, and replaced it all with endlessly looping video files of The Great Dictator, Casablanca, and The Producers.

Most of all, though, they looked out for each other. They kept each other safe when no one else would. To Emry, that was what the Freakshow was all about.

April 2101

Niihama habitat

In orbit of Eunomia

"We need the doctor! Now!"

The patients in Doc Kamiyama's run-down waiting room gasped and backed away as Banshee, Om, and Crack barged in, their faces and Freakshow colors spattered in blood. The doc's antiquated receptionist gynoid moved to block the inner door. "I'm sorry, the doctor is seeing a patient at the moment. If you'll please-"

"He'll be a patient if you don't get him now!" Emry snarled.

The gynoid's hand folded away to reveal a nasty-looking gun barrel in her arm. "Please do not disturb the other patients."

Emry knew a subsapient cyber when she heard one. She figured this one had to be really lacking in awareness if it thought one gun could intimidate her after what she'd just been through. She was on the verge of charging the receptionist when Thrust and Hack finally arrived, carrying the mangled forms of Hikkaku and Overload in their arms. The receptionist's gaze shifted, and she promptly said, "Dr. Kamiyama, Dr. shib.u.mi, report immediately. Medical emergency." Her faux Asian eyes met Javon's. "Please escort the patients to the emergency room. First door on your right."

They hurried back and Emry started to follow. The receptionist blocked her. "Please remain-ukkk!" Emry was through the doors before the gynoid crashed against the waiting-room chairs.

"What happened?" Doc Kamiyama may not have been the most reputable healer around, may not have even had a license anymore after that drug scandal, but he was still all business the moment he saw the severe injuries Ruki and Daniel had sustained.

"Tong Robo happened," Emry told him. "Attacked us."

His eyes widened. "Uhh, did, did they attack you or did you-"

She slammed him into the wall. "You really want to make that your problem right now? Fix them! They're dying!"

"All right! All right." He hurried over to where they lay on the tables. "But I need you all to wait outside."

"No way-"

"Stay out of our way if you don't want them to stay dead!" Whatever fear he'd shown of her was totally gone now. Stay dead? Emry didn't question him again.

The wait was interminable. Everyone else had run off; the Freakshow had the waiting room to themselves. The zine readers weren't even online-that would've made it easier for the law to track Doc's clientele-and their onboard articles were all months out of date. Hack and Crack-Shengli and Peter Wen, who'd purchased black-market bionic mods to give themselves an edge on the streets that their slight, weak natural build couldn't provide-entertained themselves by using their built-in cracking gear to make the receptionist strip and perform for them in various humiliating ways. Meanwhile, Om stared into the office computer's interface port, linking to it wirelessly through her optic nerves, and did her communing thing. She was the lucky one; Padhma would experience no sense of time for as long as she was in that state. Her parents, crackpots in search of unity between human and cyber, had rewired Padhma Rao's parietal lobe so it would shut down while her brain was fed raw computer data. This turned off her sense of herself as a being distinct from the universe, like what happened during religious ecstasy. The idea was to let her mind perceive the data as part of itself and turn her into an intuitive data-miner, divining unprecedented new insights into cybersystems. The Freakshow had taken her on in the hope that her ability could help them get around security systems and find new opportunities for profit and mischief. Sometimes Om did seem to turn out uncanny insights, but usually her results were Delphically arcane, untestable, or just plain wrong, so it could've been dumb luck. And her mods had a side effect of sending her into fits of transcendental ecstasy upon exposure to various RF or magnetic fields. Overall, they were more a handicap than a boon, to herself and to the gang. But the Freakshow took care of its own.

Or do we? Emry asked herself as images of Overload's crushed and b.l.o.o.d.y body burned in her mind. Daniel Weiss wasn't too different from Padhma. He was one of the guinea pigs they'd liberated from Wellspring, engineered in the womb as part of a failed experiment in sensory amplification. His hyperacute senses made him a great lookout and an uncanny lockpick, but left him prey to the condition he'd chosen as his nickname. Loud noises, fast movement, crowds, spicy food, the mere smell of alcohol, it could all overwhelm him. Touch was almost unbearable to him. Any disruption in a pattern, a speck of dirt, a slightly mistuned speaker, drove him crazy and he had to fix it or get away at all costs. Usually he relied on an inhibitor the Wellspringers had put in his brain to compensate for their mistake, but it left him detached and slightly numb. He enjoyed being able to turn it off, until something overwhelmed him and it had to go back on. Emry felt uncomfortable around him, afraid her raucous style would alarm or hurt him, but he liked having her near. He'd told her that the purity of her face was a comfort to him, at least when she was calm and relaxed. So his presence had encouraged her to strive for greater calm, with help from Om's meditation exercises. Still, she found it a relief when she could be away from him and cut loose like her normal self-particularly since Daniel's impediments made him unviable as a s.e.x partner and she was uncomfortable relating to males in any other way. Now, though, she found herself realizing how much she'd miss Daniel's gentle appreciation, his ability to see gentleness in her, somewhere, somehow. He has to live. He doesn't deserve this.

Why had they risked coming to Tong Robo's turf? Those guys were hard-core; they made self-mutilation a requirement for joining, replacing whole limbs and organs with blatantly mechanical parts like something from an old sci-fantasy. They made themselves living a.r.s.enals, and not just for show. Emry had wanted nothing to do with them. But they'd wanted to meet Hack and Crack, compare mods and tech specs, and the brothers had figured they could get some good upgrades from the deal. If the Tong demanded something in exchange, Emry figured she and the girls could pay with s.e.x; and if things got hairy, the brothers could always crack the Robos' systems or flash-blind them so the rest could incapacitate them and get away. She'd been confident they could handle any trouble.

She'd been wrong. Tong Robo's invitation had been an ambush. They hadn't wanted to meet the Freakshow; they'd wanted to kill the competition and preserve their own rep among the mod gangs. Such was the price of success. The Freaks had been outnumbered, outgunned, and totally flat-footed. Emry hadn't seen it coming, and Ruki had been half blown up before she could react, with Daniel falling not long after. They'd barely managed to get away and reach here. For all Emry knew, Ruki and Daniel hadn't gotten away at all. And it was all her fault.

Emry was distracted from her funk when Padhma made a faint gasping sound-the kind she made when she'd intuited something she thought was important and wanted to be shaken out of communion. Emry obliged and Padhma told her what she'd sensed. Under the older girl's guidance, Emry had the brothers hack past Doc's security to confirm Om's insight. What she saw made her want to tear this building down, but she couldn't so long as Ruki and Daniel needed it, and its occupants, intact.

Finally Doc Kamiyama came out. Emry was on him in a heartbeat. "Well?"

He sighed. "We've stabilized them both, but they're on full life support. I can put them back together, but it'll take extensive organ and limb replacements, especially for the girl."

"Will you be able to make them look the same?" Javon asked. "And ... feel the same?" Emry glared at him. She doubted his concern for Ruki's outward aesthetics was for her benefit.

"If that's what they want, but it'll cost more. The parts alone will cost plenty." The tenets of the post-scarcity economy didn't apply as much to the underground of society.

Emry got in the doctor's face. "As much as the parts you installed in Tong Robo? The parts that did this to my friends in the first place?!"

Kamiyama fidgeted. "Look, I just do what they pay me to do. What happens after they leave here, that's not my problem."

"You vack-sucking, hull-punking..."

Javon pulled her back. "Easy, Banshee. We still need him."

She let out a strangled shriek. "Okay! You want to get paid, how about this: you save them and we won't break all your fingers and burn this rathole to the ground!"

"That doesn't get me the goods I need to trade for parts," he said calmly. He had to be used to dealing with violent, threatening types, given that he'd worked for Tong Robo.

Emry snarled. "Okay! Okay, we'll get you the money. We'll steal whatever it takes. To fix them-and me."

Everyone stared at her. "You?" Kamiyama looked her over with a leer. "Aside from a few abrasions and contusions, I don't see a thing wrong with you."

She shoved him into the wall again. "Call it repayment, Doc. Way I see it, you owe us for helping our friends get hurt. So you're gonna help me make sure it doesn't happen again. You can replace limbs and organs-can you do more delicate work? Reinforce what I've got, make me stronger, tougher?"

He thought about it. "Sure. I can do endoscopic work, remote microsurgery, nanoinfusions. Add bracing to the bones, inject nanotube muscle fibers ... if you like, I can put standard upgrades in your eyes and ears, or even souped-up versions if the cost is right. And there won't be more than minimal scarring." He looked down. "I even do breast reductions, if those give you any trouble. Smaller b.r.e.a.s.t.s are often more sensitive, you know...."

Emry gave him one last shove and stepped away. "Shut up! Just get to work on our friends. We'll make sure you get your payment. But until you fix them and me, we're your exclusive clients, got it? This clinic is Freakshow turf now."

Kamiyama's eyes widened. "If Tong Robo finds out, they'll kill me!"

Javon stepped forward. "Are our friends stable enough to be moved? Could you do your work somewhere else, off Niihama?"

The doc sighed. "Sure, why not? Beats dying. And I'm sick of this dump anyway. Look, I'll go get started on what your friends need." He backed away hurriedly.

Javon turned to Emry. "You sure about this, Banshee? Getting upgrades from this old junkie? You're already rageous strong, you really need more?"

"Can you ask that after what happened today?! I couldn't protect Ruki and Daniel!"

"Neither could we! You think I'm not as torn up as you are? But there was nothing more we could've done."

"How do we know that? If I had better eyes or ears, I could've sensed them coming. If I could run faster I could've gotten to them in time. If I were-"

"Hey, hey." Javon took her in his arms. "Emry, it wasn't your fault. It was just one of those things."

"No," she said. "There has to be more. There has to be a way to keep this from happening again. If there's anything I can do to keep my family safe, I have to. Anything."

Javon gazed into her eyes, stroked her cheek. "Family?"

She looked away. "You know what I mean. The gang. It's all I've got. All I've ever had. Or ever will have." She rested her cheek on his chest, still avoiding his eyes. "I have to protect that. I have to be the toughest mod there is, so n.o.body ever dares to hurt us again."

7.

She Never Metahuman She Didn't Like September 2107

Vanguard habitat

Vanguard was currently clear across the Belt from Ceres, six AUs away, so Emry took the Sundiver route. After a sunward push from the Ceres drive beam, Zephyr let Sol's gravity accelerate him over the next few days, then sc.r.a.ped by inside Mercury's...o...b..t, radiators extended to full, and used just enough plasma drive to compensate for the gravity that now tried to slow him. He flipped over and decelerated hard on the penultimate leg, slowing him enough for a regional Bolasat to divert him toward their destination.

Vanguard orbited in the outermost Kirkwood gap, off the beaten track even by Outers standards. It was easy to see, though, since at three-point-seven AUs it needed a large solar mirror to focus sufficient sunlight. That bright, solitary beacon had attracted curiosity from afar for decades. The original Vanguard had been a small Bernal sphere, but on relocating they'd constructed a second, larger sphere, counterrotating on the same axis. Telescopic scans suggested that Vanguard's population had grown to nearly fifteen thousand, substantial for a habitat that had had little immigration for three decades. They must have been breeding like crazy over the past generation or so-but with what goal?

Despite its age and isolation, Vanguard's docking and reception facilities were state-of-the-art. Emry and several other delegates were met by a pair of young Vanguardians, both quite fit and pleasant-looking, their faces reflecting complex mixtures of ethnic types, their wardrobe designed to show off their superb physiques. Emry took full advantage of that in the dark-haired man's case until he introduced himself as Babur Kincaid. "Ms. Blair ... Emerald? This is a privilege. I've always wanted to meet you." He studied her. "I can see the resemblance."

"I take after my mother," she replied coolly.

"Oh, but still, there's some of mine in you too."

"You're ... Rachel Kincaid-Shannon is your mother?"

He nodded. "Which makes me your half uncle, I'm afraid."

"So I guess it's not a coincidence that you're here." She reminded herself not to be hostile. Her assignment dictated that she act interested in her Vanguardian family ties. She gave Babur a tentative smile.

"Well, there are plenty of us around. Mom's still churning us out even today. You've got quite a few uncles, aunts, and cousins living here. Probably hundreds."





CHAPTER DISCUSSION