"Great!" she forced herself to say. "I can't wait to meet more of 'em."
"I'll see what I can arrange," Babur said amiably. "Now shall we get on with the tour?"
She nodded, and he went on his way. 'I think it'll be more convincing if you don't grind your teeth so much,' Zephyr suggested.
'I think I can get away with acting nervous about this. And you'll just make me more nervous with your backseat directing! Keep it to the urgent stuff!' Their subvocal exchanges were quantum-encrypted and unbreakable, but they could still be detected, and too much private radio traffic might seem suspicious.
The group descended from the microgee docking level in a cylindrical tram that took them down the curve of the large sphere, pivoting sideways in response to Cori force so its passengers could remain upright within it while perceiving the landscape as tilting to the left. That was normal to Emry, but the landscape was unusual for a Bernal sphere, terraced into more distinct gravity levels than most. Its equatorial gravity was a full 1.25 gees, unlike most habitats, which topped out at point-nine or less due to the health and cosmetic advantages of moderately low gravity and the desire to minimize rotation sickness. It looked to Emry as though the most densely populated rings were in the point-nine to one gee range, with a wilderness area in the equatorial ring. Most habitats put their faux mountains toward their poles or end caps, but here there were sheer crags thrusting from the equator. Apparently the Vanguardians enjoyed a challenge.
And it showed. Emry had never seen a healthier, more attractive and diverse group of people, even in TSC headquarters. There were few groundcars or slidewalks in evidence; most people were walking or cycling, if not playing or exercising in the extensive parkland around the central district. And they clearly enjoyed showing off their fitness. Bare chests were common among both s.e.xes, and a number of parkgoers were nude. What clothing there was tended to be formfitting, cut in creatively skimpy ways, or both. I always figured my lack of modesty came from Mom's influence, Emry thought, even as she unzipped her uniform top the rest of the way. Not only was it nice and warm here, but she figured she should look like she was making herself at home.
The main city district was full of buildings as gorgeous as their occupants, evoking the forward-thrusting power of Art Deco and the introspective naturalism of Neo-Organicism at the same time. Through their windows, Emry saw labs, classrooms, and studios filled with energetic people engaged in lively discussion and activity. Yet it all seemed very disciplined. This was a well-maintained, orderly environment; she saw no litter, graffiti, or decay, though admittedly this was a carefully controlled tour.
Emry was surprised that the center of power was in the new sphere instead of the original, and she said as much to Babur. "The old sphere's our industrial district now," he said. "It was cramped, basic, not a great place to live."
"Yeah, but it's where you began."
Her half uncle smiled. "We're far more interested in where we're going."
Soon they reached the government complex, before which was a row of larger-than-life bronze statues, heroically nude in the Grecian tradition, representing the champions of the first generation of Vanguardians, those who'd fought for justice on Earth a generation ago: Zhao Liwei, Liesl Warner, Krishna Ramchandra, Soaring Hawk Darrow, Lydie Clement, Michael Jerusalmi, Thuy Dinh ... and of course Liam Shannon, her famously martyred grandfather. In the center, towering above them even though he stood on the same level, was Eliot Thorne. Emry smiled as she studied the detail and accuracy with which the sculptor had limned his powerful physique, though the statue barely did justice to his commanding African features. She flushed at the realization that she would probably meet the man himself. Despite her discomfort at being here, she felt a remembered thrill of childhood hero-worship toward Eliot Thorne, and some more adult responses as well.
Kincaid pointed out that many of these statues' subjects now served as leading members of Vanguard's legislature, judiciary, and scientific and artistic communities. "Along with many you don't see," he added. "Those whose contributions were less public but equally vital to making us who and what we are. Such as my own birth mother, Rachel Kincaid-Shannon, who is perhaps Vanguard's top geneticist-aside from Eliot Thorne himself, of course."
Emry looked up at that. 'I know Thorne's a fighter and a leader. But a top scientist too?' she asked Zephyr. 'Isn't that laying it on a bit thick?'
'He has hundreds of papers and monographs on file in the local research archive. I'll need a few hours to evolve sufficient expertise in their fields, but superficially they appear sound, self-consistent, and original, and their prose style matches Eliot Thorne's earlier published writings and speeches, correcting for age and isolation. Historical records do show that he was actively involved in Vanguard's scientific work. He's even listed as a contributing author on the paper describing his first postnatal mods.'
Emry whistled softly. Eliot Thorne had not only been one of the first children born with mods to enhance survival in s.p.a.ce, but had been one of the first volunteers when the Vanguardians had begun experimenting with more advanced mods, offering himself as a test subject as soon as he'd come of age. Strong, robust, and intelligent to begin with, he'd argued successfully that he was one of the best test subjects they were likely to find, and one of the best potential breeders for a future transhuman species. When the global turmoil had peaked in his early thirties, he had helped convince the project leaders to send their augmented children and volunteers out to fight the chaos. But Emry hadn't known he'd actually partic.i.p.ated in the science. Could he have worked on my dad's genes? she wondered, not sharing the thought with Zephyr. Could I owe my existence to this man?
The delegates at the reception that night were the largest collection of mods that Emry had ever seen in one place. Emry chose to station herself by the buffet table, assuming everyone would come by there sooner or later-but mainly because Vanguardian cuisine was extraordinary. Clearly they didn't limit their gengineering to people. Most of the spread was vegetarian by s.p.a.cer tradition, but there was an assortment of bioprinted or vat-grown meats as well. Emry only sampled those out of curiosity, but they were surprisingly good.
As it happened, most of the delegates, particularly the males, made a point of seeking her out. She figured it was due about equally to her Troubleshooter status and her dress. She'd chosen one appropriate for the Green Blaze: a close-fitting, high-slit gown with wide, low decolletage, its fabric animated with gently flowing "plasma clouds" of varying shades of green and degrees of translucency. Underneath, she wore only an emerald-encrusted g-clip (the Vanguardians might not mind the occasional glimpse of bush, but other delegates might), which matched her gold-and-emerald necklace and the dress selfone she wore as an ear clip. A pair of scintillating green open-toed shoes, low-heeled for freedom of movement, completed the ensemble. Her hairstyle was simple and loose, though it had taken some time to make her unruly hair look more or less like she hadn't just been in a fight, a windstorm, or both.
Staying polite through all the introductions and questions was a challenge. There were people in this room she'd feel more comfortable arresting than mingling with. A few of the "transhumanist nations" represented here were just ordinary states that embraced modifications beyond the ubiquitous adaptations to s.p.a.ce, longevity treatments, and the like. States like Niihama, where bionics and neural interfaces were trendy, or Vestalia, where bright, primary skin colors and cosmetic add-ons like tails and extra b.r.e.a.s.t.s were all the rage among the celebrity elite. But most were Outer-Belt fringe states whose core philosophies revolved around remaking humanity in ways that mainstream society might not approve of. Wellspring was just one example, and Emry couldn't ditch its emissary soon enough. Unfortunately, the woman was a typical Wellspringer, her hormones regulated to preclude "unbalanced emotional extremes," and thus remained placidly oblivious to Emry's discomfort and immune to her attempts to subtly irritate the woman into leaving.
The man who finally rescued her wasn't much of an improvement. Jorge Santiago's people were researching human immortality, and he seemed content to lecture her about it for eternity. Or at least until she took him to bed; he seemed to think that the promise of eternal life made a great pickup line. As he went on about the impracticality of copying the brain into a computer, what with the near-insurmountable challenge of monitoring the chemical activity of billions of neurons in a squishy, moving mass, she began to wonder if she should find some closet to take him to just to shut him up. "And even if it were feasible to make an exact copy of the mind, it would still be just a copy. Your own awareness would still reside in your brain, and once you died, that would be that for you, regardless of whether you have a cyber that thinks it's you living on forever.
"So what's required is continuity. The transition from organic to cybernetic brain must take place seamlessly, so that the consciousness remains uninterrupted." He went on to explain about the nanofibers he had growing in his own brain, running parallel with his neural pathways so as to replace them in the neural network upon cell death, and thus gradually transforming the network from a cellular substrate to a synthetic one that would embody the same continuous consciousness. True, the nanofibers were as yet only able to track larger-scale patterns of brain activity, and test animals subjected to the full procedure still demonstrated a consistent and disappointing tendency to drop dead. But Santiago expressed confidence that the bugs would be worked out in his lifetime, and that his occasional neurological tics and memory problems would be tackled "quite soon, Amethyst."
A rude noise came from behind Emerald. "Pfft. Immortality-it's a fool's pursuit." She turned and found herself facing what seemed to be a large, white-furred monkey. "Only nature is immortal," the monkey said in an urbane, polished tenor. "And individual death is what sustains its cycles, feeds the birth of new life. Try to place your will above Nature's, and Nature will inevitably find a way to render you extinct."
The philosophy would have pegged him as Neogaian even if it hadn't been obvious from his appearance. The diminutive, middle-aged man had been modded with simian features, including a prehensile tail that was picking up a mango from the buffet table. Behind him stood a scantily clad woman with brown, seal-like skin, elongated and webbed digits, no outer ears, and a tight layer of fur covering her head. Her full figure suggested a layer of insulating blubber, but she was very attractively contoured. Her b.r.e.a.s.t.s were compact and firm, presumably to reduce drag, but that was compensated for by an enlarged rib cage (for greater lung capacity, Emry realized, remembering Javon).
The simian man reached out a hand to Emry. "Hanuman Kwan, Ms. Blair, at your service." Emry offered a hand, which he kissed with his slightly protruding muzzle. "And my zaftig companion here is Selkie. As you can no doubt tell, we represent the Union of Neogaia. And I am glad for the opportunity to personally offer my most abject apologies for the assault which certain ... misguided fellow nationals of mine recently inflicted upon the Earth, and for the tragic cost to yourself and your corps. Let me assure you, the regime responsible for that atrocity has been cast down entirely from power, and all its members subjected to the fullest punishment of the law. Well, those who allowed themselves to be taken alive," he added mournfully.
Emry glanced over at Santiago, but he seemed engrossed by his reflection in the punch bowl. "I see. And does this new regime of yours intend to give up fetal experimentation on germ-line mods?"
Hanuman gave a dainty chuckle. "Ahh, the staunch Troubleshooter, standing up for traditional ethics. My dear, you must consider the ramifications of where we are! Out on the frontier, a realm freed from the conventions of law and tradition. Out here, everything is fair game. Everything is tried."
"Even it it means hurting people. Enslaving minds. Endangering children."
"Hmm, yes, it is true that when old ethical limits are abandoned, some will do harm. But nonetheless, old ethics must be challenged. There was a time when ethics would have forbidden any genetic or bionic enhancement of humans, or even the most basic research into the field. How many lives would have been lost if those ethics had not been cast aside? How many children would have died of genetic diseases? How many elderly who thrive today would have long since wasted away in agony? How many people in need would have gone unsaved because their rescuers lacked the enhancements needed to reach them in time? Sometimes it is an ethical obligation to push beyond old ethics, even at the risk of allowing harm to be done."
"So basically you're saying you do still use babies as guinea pigs."
"Oh, come now, we're both too intelligent for propaganda, my dear. The reality is that prenatal engineering is no longer as reckless as the naysayers would claim. True, there have been some infamous failures among groups like the Wellspring. Indeed, I think you were acquainted with such an individual once, if that dreadful movie about you is to be believed." She winced. "But they failed only because they lacked the more advanced techniques the Vanguard has to offer. If this new alliance comes to fruition, it will make those techniques more widely available and allow safer gengineering systemwide."
Emry remembered she was supposed to be receptive to all this, and tried to look impressed. She glanced over at Hanuman's companion, Selkie, but the young woman seemed to have nothing to contribute beyond draping herself around Hanuman's shoulders and occasionally giggling at his pithy remarks. 'A regular seal of approval,' Emry subvocalized. Still, she could identify. At least Selkie was able to be more honest about her job.
'I suppose that makes him a pinnipedophile,' Zephyr replied. Emry suppressed a grimace. 'Still, he makes a valid point. My study of Vanguardian research suggests that prenatal engineering has been made far safer here, with all prototype mods being modeled across entire simulated lifetimes in all possible conditions, and initially tested on consenting adults whenever possible. It would be beneficial to raise others to these standards.'
Hanuman was continuing. "You may be interested to know, by the way, that we had Vanguardian assistance in our recent revolution. I came here personally to plead with President Thorne and was able to persuade him to bring the Vanguardians out of retirement, if you will, as a force for positive change."
Emry was guardedly intrigued, but hesitant to trust any Neogaian, particularly one who had named himself after a trickster God. According to her briefing files, "Hanuman" had formerly been Jahnu Kwan, an eccentric Australian billionaire of Indonesian descent. He had helped found the Neogaian movement upon relocating to orbit, partly out of an interest in genetic enhancement to compensate for his physical slightness, but largely out of anger at the damage that the human-induced rise in global sea levels had done to his ancestral homeland. So his claim to have been uninvolved in the former regime was not one she was ready to take at face value. "I see. So this whole new Vanguardian openness was your idea?" she asked, not entirely masking her skepticism.
"Oh, hardly. I was simply fortunate enough to come to President Thorne at a time when he was on the cusp of making the decision for himself. If anything, my dear Green Blaze, I suspect your own heroic example provided far more inspiration." He stared at her admiringly. Well, at part of her. The diminutive, stooped Neogaian's eye level was more or less Emry's nipple level, and he was taking full advantage of the fact. Emry didn't object, since anything that distracted him could be useful in probing his true agenda. Just so long as his own probing remained verbal only-a message he got loud and clear when he tried snaking his tail up her dress and got it stomped on for his trouble.
However, Hanuman maintained his debonair slickness as they continued to discuss the ethics of the research being done by the represented parties-such as the efforts of the Moreau Foundation to grow DNA-based AIs inside the skulls of cloned animal bodies. The flamboyantly plumed parrot that perched on the Moreau delegate's shoulder was a prototype, introducing itself as a Personal Digital Avian. "Now, many of my fellow Neogaians are outraged at the Moreau Foundation's work. They despise the idea of AIs that can exist in the wild as animals; they see it as one more imposition of humanity upon holy nature, another violation that must be cleansed if the Earth is ever to be restored to purity. But my party sees it differently. Humans are not about to give up all our technological advantages, our cyber assistants, our luxuries and amenities. I accept that, even if many of my more, er, impassioned comrades do not. But if we can remake those technologies into a form that can coexist with nature, that can live the life of a parrot, say, or a horse or a dog, then technology itself becomes a part of nature, and we can reconcile ourselves with nature in a way that requires no violent revolution or rejection of modern benefits."
"That's very interesting," Emry said, silently adding, if it's true. If Neogaia was truly being run by a moderate faction now, that was something to be encouraged. "But weren't you the one saying that individual death is what keeps nature going?"
"Ultimately, yes, and we are wise if we accept that. But that doesn't mean we can't get the most out of our lives while we have them. I firmly believe there's always a middle ground. A place where people can come together and reconcile their differences. Don't you?" he asked, taking her hand in his and giving her a look suggesting that the place where he hoped to come together with her was back in his guest quarters.
She settled on a neutral reply. "Well, I guess that's what we're all here to figure out. Though I'm still unclear on just what this whole alliance thing is about. Is it just to share notes on our mods, or is there a bigger point?"
But Hanuman was looking beyond her and grinning widely. "Ahh, here comes the lady who can answer all your questions. Psyche has arrived."
Emry turned to the far entrance-and realized that everyone else was doing the same. There had been no fanfare, no formal announcement ... yet when Emry caught sight of the woman who had just come through the door, it became evident that she needed none. Emry had some firsthand experience with stopping traffic, but this woman could stop a colony ship. She was impressively tall, willowy yet voluptuous. Her legs stretched clear out of the ecliptic plane. Her warm mahogany skin made a striking contrast with the spun-gold hair that fell straight down her back, its ends just brushing the upper curve of her tight, heart-shaped b.u.t.tocks. Her face had a classically perfect bone structure, with high, rounded cheekbones and brow. Her features embodied the best of every ethnic type: sleek, winglike epicanthic eyes with silver irises, low, rakish eyebrows that spoke of mischief, a wide, dainty snub of a nose, and an enormous full-lipped smile that radiated sunlike warmth. The backs of her hands bore b.u.t.terfly tattoos whose ink iridesced like the wings of the genuine article.
Her outfit enhanced her stunning looks, mainly by staying out of their way. A deep-blue leotard covered half of her diagonally, baring her left leg and b.u.t.tock and her right arm and torso. Crossing over it was a flowing half-dress of diaphanous silvery material, covering most of the parts the leotard didn't but only marginally concealing them. In the low decolletage that was jointly created, a gold b.u.t.terfly amulet dangled between her firm b.r.e.a.s.t.s. Double-helix bands adorned her bared forearm and lower leg.
Psyche. Eliot Thorne's daughter. That explained a lot. Like her father in historical videos, she was statuesque, confident, commanding the room with her mere presence. Yet she did it in a wholly different way, radiating friendly warmth rather than cool, forbidding authority. She greeted everyone she passed with enthusiasm and joy, taking their heads in her hands and kissing both cheeks as though she meant it. Then she chatted with them for a few moments, eyes wide and fixed raptly upon them as though each one was the most important person in the world to her, before moving on and repeating the procedure on the next.
"Enthralling, isn't she?" Emry pulled her eyes away to look at Hanuman Kwan. "Ahh, yes, I see you're not immune to her charms either," the monkey-man said with a leer. "God, I love those b.r.e.a.s.t.s. Like clenched fists! And those proud, high nipples, they just snag you under the chin and pull you along after them. And she knows it, yes-she's not afraid to use it."
Emry could see what he meant. Psyche was playing the room like an expert seductress, her every word and gesture perfectly calculated. She'd even mastered a skill Emry hadn't: being blatantly alluring to men without alienating women. Her warm, accessible manner defused her intimidating beauty. Emry reflected that could help with both s.e.xes; some men were frightened off by a woman that gorgeous. But Psyche was coming on just strong enough for each person, tailoring her approach to fit.
It wasn't what she'd expected from a woman who'd been touted as the pinnacle of mental enhancement. No cold, calculating intellect looking down from on high, but a warm, appealing, and frankly physical presence, defying all the stereotypes. But maybe that in itself was the result of careful calculation.
Finally Psyche's sparkling eyes fell on Emry, and she beamed with a joy that certainly looked sincere. "The Green Blaze!" she sighed in a warm, musical alto. "Emerald, h.e.l.lo! Hi!" She clasped Emry's hands and her shoulders shook girlishly. "It is so wonderful to meet you! You're like-oh, no, you are family! Welcome home!" Seemingly unable to restrain herself any longer, she hugged Emry and kissed her on both cheeks. Her skin was warm and amazingly soft. Her hair smelled like pumpkin pie and new-mown grass.
Sensing Emry's tension, she pulled back, though one hand stayed on Emry's arm. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to get carried away. I know I can't expect you to embrace us wholeheartedly right away, after the falling out we had with your dad. But I'm really glad you're here, Emerald. It gives us a chance to start over."
"Well, that's what I'm hoping for," Emry said. "And it's really weird, meeting so many relatives I never knew about. Don't tell me, you're like, my aunt or something?"
Psyche laughed. "No. Well, maybe a little. Lydie Clement was my birth mother, but I've got a lot of genes from Thuy Dinh, some from Krishna Ramchandra, a whole mix. There might be a bit of Liam or Rachel in there somewhere. But not enough for us to be cousins or anything, I'm afraid." She shrugged, sending a comely shimmer through the hair that fell alluringly over the right side of her face. "Our relationships are ... more complicated than traditional ones. There's some talk about abandoning last names altogether, and many of us already choose them for reasons other than parentage."
"But Eliot Thorne is your father?"
"Ohh, yes. I've been so lucky. I couldn't have had a better father, teacher, role model, friend...."
Psyche took no offense. "Of course. He literally made me what I am, in every way."
"Well, my compliments to the artist." She shrugged. "I guess I got lucky. I got my looks the old-fashioned way, from my mom."
"Yes, I've seen some footage of her shows! Lyra was an extraordinary beauty. I can really see her in you," Psyche said, a hand cradling Emry's cheek.
"You've seen her shows?" Emry was genuinely impressed. "Not many people remember her work."
"Well, it was a bit esoteric. And controversial in some circles. But I found it very inspiring. And very s.e.xy," she added, grinning. "I'd love to talk about it later on, if you'd like."
"Sure," Emry said, realizing she meant it. "I'd love that."
"Great! I promise I'll get back to you later on, and we'll talk some more, okay?" She hugged Emry once more and stroked her hair as she pulled away. "It is so wonderful to meet you." She moved on, her hand lingering in Emry's before she broke free and turned her attentions to Kwan. "Hanuman, you old lech! How are you?"
"Basking in your resplendence, my dear. May I say your b.r.e.a.s.t.s look magnificent today?"
"Why, yes, you may!"
Though Psyche had created a first impression that was unexpectedly sensual, her conversation with the delegates quickly confirmed that her mental gifts were as spectacular as her physical ones. As some of the more skeptical delegates challenged her as to the value of a mod alliance or the trustworthiness of the Vanguard, she responded with cogent, compelling arguments expertly tailored to their priorities and agendas. "We all know the current situation is untenable," she said to the group around her, which Emry had joined after refilling her buffet plate. "The Belt is too chaotic. Too many people suffer, too many are deprived of rights and protections, and it drives them to violence. And our ability to defend against such violence is too tenuous, too uncoordinated. Of course the Troubleshooters are out there putting their lives on the line every day," she added, moving to Emry's side and clasping her shoulder, "and it's thanks to their amazing courage and resourcefulness that things aren't even worse than they are. But even the Troubleshooters can only do so much. Imagine how much more we can all do, working together."
Some were disinclined to see things the same way. "Violence is the natural state of things," asserted Marcus Rossi, the delegate from Mars Martialis, a militant Martian sect that pursued so-called "warrior virtues." The Martian outback, like the Outers, had its fair share of insular fringe communities. "It makes us strong and worthy. Those who need protection from it don't deserve to live anyway."
Psyche smiled. "Does the reason matter, Marcus? So long as you have something to fight for?"
"The fight is what we fight for!" Rossi tossed his plate to the floor in disgust. "This is pathetic. I came to Vanguard because I wished to see what kind of warriors you'd become after a generation. Instead we get a mewling stick of a s.l.u.t who talks of peace. Next you'll probably propose we dilute our gene pool by breeding with norms." He looked her up and down. "From the looks of you, you'd breed with anybody." Psyche chuckled, her grin widening. "There. You won't even defend yourself when you're insulted. Get out of my way, I'm leaving." He lifted an arm to smack her aside. Psyche's grin grew even more mischievous.
Two seconds later, Rossi was flat on his back by Emry's feet. A few seconds after that, he was up and charging Psyche with fury in his eyes. Emry prepared to intercept him, but Psyche gave a tiny shake of her head, her grin unbroken. The Vanguardian used her endless legs to good effect, handily sidestepping his charge and whirling around to knock him forward with a spin-kick, giggling as she did so. He recovered and came at her again, drawing the ceremonial blade he'd refused to part with. But she kicked it out of his hand before he got anywhere near her-deliberately sending it toward Emry, who caught it before it could hurt anyone else. Continuing the same move, Psyche balletically sidestepped his charge and flung him to the floor. A second later, she was atop him, pinning him, her silky hair cascading around them. And she laughed. "That was fun, wasn't it?"
A moment later, Rossi laughed too, a bit grudgingly. "Perhaps I underestimated you. Very well, I'll stay. I don't like what I've heard ... but you, at least, are worth staying for."
"Thank you, Marcus." After another moment, she got off of Rossi, to his visible disappointment, and helped him to his feet. "Sorry for the disruption, folks, I-oh!" As her hair fell away, it became evident that her wispy outer garment had slipped off her shoulder, baring her right breast. "Sorry," she said with amused embarrassment, reseating the garment-though Emry was certain that her show of modesty was purely for her audience's benefit, and equally certain that nothing about this woman was ever accidental.
When the Wellspring representative expressed distaste at the physicality and belligerence of the incident, implying that she would not wish her people diminished by association with such immature nations, Psyche effortlessly switched gears from the physical to the mental, engaging her in a lively dialogue about the balance of mind and body and the spiritual component of the martial arts, quoting everything from neurological studies to philosophers Emry had never heard of. It was hard to read the Wellspringer's subdued responses, but she seemed impressed by Psyche's insight.
It was like that all evening. Psyche's ability to read the delegates and tailor her persuasion was uncanny, practically psychic. Was this what true superintelligence was? Not just intellect, but increased empathy as well? What if a truly enhanced humanity were smart enough, perceptive enough, to understand one another this keenly and resolve their differences this deftly, this peacefully? What if Tai had been wrong about this whole affair? Psyche had given Emerald a great deal to think about.
And she did the same for the other delegates. She didn't quite persuade everyone to sign up for the alliance right there, but at least she convinced them that this conference could be fruitful. A few remained stubborn, though. Rossi persisted in his bluster, asserting that the only valid road to union was conquest and that his people would be the ultimate conquerors. Paul Chandler of Zarathustra, meanwhile, insisted that few of the groups here were worthy of standing alongside his people. The Zarathustrans sought to follow in Vanguard's footsteps and engineer an improved humanity, but aspired to realize Nietzsche's philosophy of the ubermensch and considered themselves "beyond good and evil"-an attitude that had put them at odds with the Troubleshooters more than once. Chandler was open to a Zarathustra/Vanguard alliance, but had no wish to "dilute the bloodline" by uniting with inferiors. Rossi almost attacked him, outraged at being called inferior, but Psyche deterred him, this time without force. Then she led Chandler and Rossi aside to an isolated corner of the hall, making her apologies to the group and leaving Hanuman Kwan to keep them entertained. The two men remained in deep, private conversation with Psyche for over an hour, and whenever Emry caught a glimpse of them, the lissome Vanguardian was getting quite cozy with the men, nestled against one or the other of them, whispering in their ears, stroking their cheeks. From the looks of things, Emry expected them to head off for a threesome at any moment, but finally they broke up and returned to the group, and the three left separately when the reception ended.
At the conference the next day, it soon became clear that both Rossi and Chandler were more receptive to reason than before, more inclined to support Psyche's motions and accept her proposed compromises. Whatever she'd said the night before must have really gotten through to them.
'How do you suppose she does it?' she asked Zephyr covertly during a break. 'Somehow I doubt it was just her words that convinced those men. Her s.e.x appeal's as carefully designed as her brain.'
'The telemetry from your nasal filters does show evidence of oxytocin when Psyche is close,' he replied. 'That's to be expected in anyone engineered to be personally appealing.' For a century, ever since the hormone's role in promoting trust, arousal, and social bonding had been discovered, oxytocin had been a favorite of con artists and seducers.
'So it's all a chemical trick.'
'Not really. Oxytocin's power for manipulation is often overstated. For one thing, it only works at close range. For another, it only amplifies preexisting affinities or social responses. It would only promote trust or fondness in those already inclined to feel such things toward her.'
'Again, that's pretty much a given. Pheromones are a basic factor in how humans react to each other on an unconscious or emotional level. If she's designed to be alluring, that would have to include chemical allure. Her long hair could be a delivery system for pheromones. They're produced in the apocrine glands and secreted onto the hairs to expose them to the air. Note also that her underarms, where the apocrine glands are densest, are unshaven.' Emry had noticed this, although Psyche's underarm hairs were wispy and barely visible, their golden hue blending in with her bronze skin.
'Still,' Zephyr added, 'the same range limitation applies. Except in microgravity, scent molecules have a limited ability to travel through the air.'
'But she's always so close to people, right up against them.'
'Good point. Kissing them on the cheeks would expose them to the apocrine glands in her own face. And her wardrobe exposes a fair percentage of the ones on her chest.' Emry grinned at that. Psyche had dressed more professionally today, in a blue-and-black pantsuit and jacket, but it displayed an unusual amount of cleavage for the occasion. Not that anyone seemed to object or to take her less seriously as a result.
Psyche apologized for her father's continued absence, saying that affairs of state kept him occupied. But no one minded much, and Emry could see the wisdom of putting the talks in the hands of this enchanting woman rather than her more controversial, forbidding father. Psyche proved just as impressive during the formal session as at the reception, managing the talks with effortless skill and insight and showing a keen understanding of Solsys politics (according to Zephyr's analysis and the other delegates' response; aside from getting regular briefings on potential trouble spots, Emry didn't follow politics much).
Emry herself had little to contribute to the conference. The principle seemed appealing-greater unity bringing greater stability-but she still didn't trust many of the parties involved. Yet she wasn't in a position to say so. Thus, she mostly remained quiet and observed.
After the session, though, Psyche approached her in the hallway outside. "You've been awfully quiet, Emerald. That doesn't seem like you. I guess all this must be pretty boring for you, huh?"
"No, it's all very interesting ... well, at least it seems pretty important."
"But too sedentary for someone like you, isn't it? Sorry I couldn't arrange another fight."
Emry smirked. "Ohh, I figure you could've if you'd wanted to."
Psyche returned the smirk but otherwise didn't rise to the challenge. "Why don't you let me take you out for a night on the town? Show you some of the local nightlife, make up for that stuffy old conference?"
"Well, okay. But I'll only go so far on a first date. I'm not that kind of girl, you know."
That brought Psyche up short. After a moment she laughed, seeming a bit abashed. "Don't worry, Emerald. I admit, my appeals to Rossi and Chandler last night weren't completely on an intellectual level. With some ... more recalcitrant types, a little extra incentive can be helpful. But I don't want to play those games with one of our own." She touched Emry's arm. "You're not just another delegate. You're a Vanguardian."
That was just the kind of approach she was supposed to be encouraging. And even if Emry didn't entirely trust Psyche, the Vanguardian was an appealing woman whose manner put her at ease. "Okay, then," she said.
"Great!" Psyche hugged her. "I know this fantastic little bistro spinward of here ... and then you have got to let me take you clothes shopping...."
Psyche and Eros Demetria Kari had spent a lot of time in the shower since leaving New Macedon. She kept telling herself she had no reason to feel unclean. Michael Hoenecker had been a corrupt politician, a puppet of the Yohannes syndicate, even if there had been no way to prove it. It was an ongoing struggle to fight mob domination of smaller habitats like New Macedon and its Eunomian neighbors. Small habs demanded order, true, but that strict rule lent itself to corruption, letting the mobs win many allies in high places, while other officials were afraid to fight them for fear of violent retaliation that could endanger the habitats. And the occasional judicious homicide could be rationalized as an effective form of population control. If Hoenecker had been elected, the Yohannes mob could have entrenched itself at Eunomia and all the progress New Macedon had made in the two decades since Sensei had brought down the Krasny syndicate would have been undone.
A man like that deserved to have his life ruined. It shouldn't have mattered that he didn't really have a predatory fondness for underage boys. He would've probably given leave and comfort to people who did comparably bad things.