Going back toward Earth is like seeing an old lover. “What the fuck was I thinking?” mixes with “let’s do it again!” in uneasy combination. And then doing it again, thinking, “what the fuck am I doing?” And then doing it again.

On the journey back to Sol, I leave this no-name ship’s sickbay and hole up in a luxury cabin so that I don’t start an approach-avoidance dance with anyone on board. This isolation would be hard to endure, but I have my art to work on. As a bonus, my employers send me their usual treat—intimate details, this time on two dozen Terran politicos, most acting as the mouthpieces for the old klepto-oligarchies. Earth still has intraplanetary politics, because Earth is the insane parent to us all.

My employers are ever helpful at finding suitable escorts for me. I will have to find my employers later to thank them or destroy them.

I study each politico’s face, gently stroking the images with a fingernail’s edge. They’re so racially distinct it’s grotesque. While variations on brown pervade the diaspora, these politicos have extremes of skin tone would make them color fetishists anywhere but on atavistically unmixed Earth.

I’m still too far away to feel very much for or against. But who do I want to get closer to? Not that Eurasian with the dead eyes like he crawled out from the ruins of old Moscow, nor the shrewd looking European politico, whose hard, judgmental mouth reminds me of my mother’s. Something about the South American’s curly hair says she won’t be powerful for much longer. The East Asian stares out at me like a fossil, his mind old and boring before its first century. I’d have to clone myself a hundred million times before he felt the strength of my regard.

After glancing at a few more small, dull politicos, I’ve narrowed my mystery date down to a nationalist South Asian or a conspiracist South African when my pad links to some relevant cultural news from an Earth feed, and the leader of North America pops up on my screen. He’s another variation on the theocratic Crassus that the North Americans usually vomit forth into the multumvirate. Despite his ill-gotten wealth, he has a bad regen hair job to look more common, and his round face is as orange as my homeworld. He speaks as if reading from a script with words that he doesn’t understand, spouting the neo-fundamentalist line he doesn’t believe: “The so-called art that fuses biosynthetics and cybernetics, if not illegal, is certainly immoral. The people are sick of this trash. As parents, we must protect our children from this filth.” He mentions several artists, but none of them are me. Oh dear, that gets my attention.

The North American Leader is also one of my employers’ targets, and this news may be a lure from my employers, but I hardly care. He’s a mishmash of mature looks, regens, and mental decay of an already dull mind, but his smirking, smug self-regard offers a space in his life for me to fill. With him, I’d be at the center of the casual corruption that has swept the old world, with most of the other chief executives tied in.

Hmm, still doesn’t beat those juicy southerners, but where could I meet this somewhat attractive Leader, if I so choose? He’ll be traveling to the Middle East in a few weeks, then he’ll go offworld to…

Mars.

Something cold like an old ballistic weapon clicks inside me. Yes, I’d like to meet this very charismatic Leader, for whither he goes, I will stalk.

A difficult man to meet, and how to meet him so quickly? I replay the feed. “As parents, we must protect our children from this filth.” Children. This regional Leader has twin college-age daughters. They’re rumored to have been a deliberate clone job instead of natural twins, so they’re a chip off the old narcissist. They like to mix with the famous—entertainers and artists. Not coincidentally, their father has a taste for celebrities without the power to resist.

Come a little closer, you.

How do I get near him, and how do I hunt my employers at the same time?

I decide who I’ll be. My identity will once again correspond to the signature on my paintings—I’m an offworld Celebrity Artist, falling Earthward for the first time. This should give me sufficient notoriety even in the rarefied circles of the North American Leader’s Twins. True, some on Earth might remember me as Robynne Owen, but those are the shithole apartment people that I want to remind. As for official discovery, my employers can hack almost any data anywhere. Troubling—it will be damned hard to get off their grid.

I set down my pomegranate mimosa and examine again my left hand. Besides the fading lines between old and new flesh, my wounds and amputations are healed—a shame, but my holos have come out marvelously. From them, I’ve composed a series for an exclusive floating gallery. The empath cybernetics I’m using for this series will allow patrons to vicariously experience the pleasurable pain of my colorful torments without sharing my risk of a messy death. As with the psychotropic light shows I use in my tableaux, these empath devices fall into a liminal area under the Psych Laws, and their dubious legality keeps up the price of my work.

I call my new series Starting a War. Later, I’ll touch the paintings myself, to remember that I felt something once.

I send a message to a PR flack on Earth to make advance arrangements for showings. Do I need to create more pieces? This question tickles something in my brain. I don’t like being tickled. Telling all the things I’ve done and the places I’ve been to Boy Toy makes me long for a series that’s not just about a few of my wounds, or just part of me, but all of me. And also about them—my employers. Something to expose them, or bait them, or just a screaming “fuck you” before they kill me.

I’ll think about it later, because we’ve arrived in Terra’s orbit. First things first. Before I can have fun downside, I’ll do my little trick of emotional uncertainty with the harmful intentions scanner, and I’ll cross the border.

✽✽✽

When I first came to Earth, it didn’t have a real border. The Law of Return covered all of humanity’s children, and Martians were waved through. Here at ground zero of the Psych Wars was the one border without an intention scan.

Now, things have changed. The Motherworld doesn’t think so much of her kids, and some of them want to fuck with her.

Earth Border Station Customs is packed with refugees who anticipated the League-Empire war, a B-vid tableau of human dirt. I’m not much for pity (that cousin of guilt) at the best of times, but I’m already starting to mirror the worldview of the North American leader, the narcissistic man of my dreams—it’s part of what I do when I’m preparing my story. Seems like the tedious poor will always be with me—can’t they be with someone else? From their looks, they traveled in their baggage. One man actually has wrinkles and gray hair, signs that he is long past 190 and his last legal regen. He shouldn’t have bothered running.

Earth is getting sick of this refuse. The whole point of the great expansion was to keep Earth uncrowded like it was after the Psych Wars. These refugees bring their wars back with them.

While standing in line, while the feeling is still fresh, while I’m still strong against my employers, I write a report to myself, jotting with my fingernail on my compad the names and places that I need to pursue while I get closer to the Leader.

“Seek my employers in the City; that was where we met, face-to-face. Go to old shithole apartment. Find the nasty tasty Charming Boy who had put me in the City hospital where my employers recruited me. Speak with the Charming Boy about my overdose (NB: fuck? kill? both?). Enter the hospital; hack their records.”

The line hasn’t moved much. I look up at the brutal honesty of the broad corneal-domed orbiting platform, which sacrifices functional floor room for a panoramic view of the stars that the refugees have fled. Designed to awe the newcomer, the Station proclaims the ineradicable fascist impulse of the old Motherworld.

The fascist star show reminds me of Henri. Perhaps I failed in the Hegemony because the Hegemon knew my employers and knew how to fight them. “The enemy of my enemy is a better enemy.” I find little news from the Hegemony. For the truth about that realm, I could call on Henri. But no, not yet, not until I can be secret, and safe, and hateful, and needful. And even then, I doubt he’ll tell more than I will already know.

And what do I already know? I have a few facts about my employers: that they sometimes want chaos, that they or others sometimes keep that chaos a secret, and that mass death beyond the level of my chaos sometimes follows my work for them.

That’s not much, so where else could I find information? I could follow the money, but they’d feel my movement along their quantum web of credits. Others of my kind were on Zanj; the Leaguer said so, and I was near-happy with the painfully thin girl. I survived Olympus; others may have escaped Zanj. Maybe I will have to find them; maybe I will have to see the Hegemony and Zanj (and the girl) for myself. For now, Earth is my assignment, so any odyssey will have to wait.

But I won’t wait any longer on this station. I ignore the protests of the proles as I cut ahead in line. If they knew what I’d done to start the war, they would kill me. I pass through Customs without any interesting provocations, and the border scan shows no evil intent—I just want to get closer to someone.

I join the recent arrivals in the Border Station elevator, which crawls down red carbon vines toward Earth’s equator. In the elevator’s club room, I sip from another pomegranate mimosa; this is my underworld journey, and Earth’s sea cannot refuse my river. A different elevator, black with no windows, ascends towards the heavens. I nearly giggle. The freight in that box must be corpses, on their way to New Jerusalem on Mars for holy burial and biomass processing. As a child, I ate the fruits grown from such flesh.

Mars lies in the pre-Earth direction of my life, a closer world than Ganga or Zanj. My employers’ manipulations may reach back farther into my past than the City. What pushed me from Mars to Earth and into their hands? My all-twat college now smells suspicious. And before that? Mommy and Daddy stand at the gate of the estate, stern Martian gothic. If I follow the Leader there, can I avoid seeing them? When can I kill them?

As the patchwork Earth rushes toward me in greeting, I make my list of important places: the City, Mars, Zanj, the Hegemony. Just writing them hurts like glass in my stomach. I feel like my own Cassandra, each place a prophecy of doom that I want to fulfill, but the hurt of them will make it all too easy to forget my desire. Perhaps I can hold the basic intent of going to these places, whatever my other feelings of the moment. But as to what I’ll do when I get there, I have no faith.

For now, best to focus on where I am. For the future, drugs may help me fixate my emotions on my vengeance. The hospital where my employers found me is a multivalent nexus—it will have some barely legal psychopharms. The sooner I get to the City and start my assignment, the sooner I can get sick.

✽✽✽

I love-hate places too. Even when I go on the party circuit to get close to the Twins, I’ll have to be based somewhere. The most perverse place I can go is my old apartment.

The best thing about my work is the travel. No groundling methods for me. For most, teleporting requires a week’s salary, So, deliberately unconscious of the debit to my employers who never complain of my expenses, I step onto a disc at the elevator’s equatorial hub and port into the City. I enjoy the instant of portal decomposition as a death of my choosing; recomp is another unwished-for birth. It’s a strictly around-the-gravity-well, high power, high comp-resource thing, which with the necessary bandwidths means no interstellar quickies—and that’s good, as Henri remains a problem.

I step off the City’s disc into the rain that always falls here because the City is too cheap to pay for a nice day, so it gets its neighbors’ bad weather too. The City uses the rain to grow dark biosynthetic structures that radiate sloshy hungry life even when they are dead-set and dried. The whole thing smells like a mildly polluted forest. Among rainforest towers that renew themselves over alloy skeletons, I find my former apartment building. It rises two hundred stories above, but I take the elevator below, down to the shithole basement apartment of my mundane days.

My compad tells me someone else has since rented it from my parents, but fuck ‘em. I break in. The codes are only one permutation removed from mine. Whoever they are, they are lazy, lazy.

It’s no longer the shithole I remember, though it isn’t a luxury space liner cabin or a mansion guest bed either. The tenant is still using part of the space as an art studio. The art is crap—strangely compelling—but crap. Some of my early work remains etched into walls behind the stranger’s paintings. Do they know what I drew with?

The stranger’s media mixes retro and tech, but lacks my bio and empath components. The paintings hold static scenes of boring lives, mothers and their children, women bathing. No portraits of the artist, so far as I can tell.

So where’s the artist? The apartment seems too tidy for recent use, but the addition of mech housekeeping could explain that.

Armed with my compad, I seduce the apartment comp. “Come hither, you.” The comp has a living neural net in its core processor; Earth will never again trust a purely mechanical intelligence for anything important, even though the worst attributes of the Beast were borrowed from humanity. I say, “Love me,” and the comp’s wetware tells me everything.

The tenant has been gone for months—at least long enough to allow the bioplastic walls to permanently “die” into their current shape, splashed with fading colors like pressed flowers. The programmed routines indicate that she (the stranger’s gender is all too conventionally displayed) isn’t due back for months more. Maybe the tenant is where I’m going: the portal party circuit. She could live on the circuit, teleporting from city to mountain to sea, for as long as money and body held out. Or maybe the stranger travels on a slower journey; from her paintings, she tolerates tedium well.

I get that I’m seeing her as an alternate version of me, through a glass darkly. But that meta-awareness certainly doesn’t make me like her any better. Meta-awareness seldom changes me, it just makes my conversations more interesting.

I unsettle in. I may have to make some alterations. Even with the unidentified stranger’s ghost haunting the place, it’s too lonely.

So I start hunting the Twins on the hyper-set party circuit. Constant porting is an absurd luxury, the only kind worth having, so it’s what privileged kids of a klepto-oligarch do. Their father’s public position and neo-fund pretensions might be a problem for this lifestyle, but the feeds all agree that the Twins are still keeping company with the pretty young things that they call friends.

I dress for fun in smart biowear that’ll alter from casual diaphanous for clubbing to full-body protection for extreme environments, then find a handful of the similarly attired hyper-set at one of the exclusive clubs just a few paces off the City’s main disc, everyone there ready to port, prêt-à-porter. “Let’s jump!” they say. And the party leaps into low orbit and on to some antique space station refitted as a microgravity pleasure palace, wearing direct oxygen infusers on our skin and popping muscle relaxants so we can pretend that we’re alien things that don’t need to breathe while we dance.

“Let’s jump!” And the party dives to the bottom of the sea and into an open-water club designed like some silent film fantasy of Neptunian delights. I don’t like all the floating in this abyss or at the prior apex—I prefer more resistance and friction. I pop pills for the pressure changes; I pop a steady diet of stims. Here, all art is performance art, sleep is for idiots, and stims are necessities. This self-selected clique fits me like hand in warm cunt.

They port and port and I forget what city I’m in as we step across New York Rio London Nairobi New Moscow Mumbai. Among the hyper-set, language is a comp-mediated mish-mash, sexual partners switch according to four-dimensional fractal dance patterns. Macrocosm reflects microcosm—this exterior is like my interior, made glorious flesh.

Everywhere we go, I see the tells of other atypical minds—neo-auts, OCDers, mildly psychotics, bipolars in manic phase, the usual assortment of those whose personality integrity is particularly protected by the Psych Laws. In their normal lives, they’re doing their many jobs in our post-Singularity-crash world: comp program controllers, artists, security supervisors, scientists, or whatever the hell they feel like. And on the port-set circuit they’re just partying like everyone else. So they wouldn’t even be worth my extremely limited over-stimmed attention, except I’m wondering if any of them work for my employers. After all, someone who uses borderlines may have uses for other atypicals.

Or maybe that’s just stim paranoia talking.

Thursday, and I am against the Leader’s Twins. I underestimated the extent to which his children would have to party below radar. Oh, they’ve left plenty of traces in this crowd’s unconscious mirroring of them—people wearing their styles, talking their talk. But the Twins are clearly no longer for public consumption in their own hemisphere. I want to hurt myself for being stupid, but then I’m smart again. One city caters particularly to the anonymous female débauchée, a city where hiding can still be the virtue that leads to vice.

I step on a disc in daytime North America, and I’m in nighttime Tehran. Giant cedar-skinned minarets loom above the city like interstellar cruisers sucked down the gravity well. Over the minarets, Mars glares red and green at me, a reminder that my parents still live. I’ll be there soon enough.

In this city, I don’t expect the Twins to be at the clubs nearest the disc. I bribe and threaten and promise sexual access through Tehran’s more covert club scene. After some venues that only pretend to be exclusive, I enter a retro-repressive seraglio bar, packed with veiled dancing and veiled threats. Shimmers of turquoise, bright green, and royal purple shelter the elite from the common view, but their veils are transparent to those with the right eyes and codes. Ever the hacker at the cookie jar, I can see through most of them via my pad, but I pretend to see only by invitation. I see honest sweat. The temperature’s a notch above comfortable—some discomforts aid libido.

In a VIP room, I finally find the Twins, hiding like the others behind smart fabrics. But I don’t have to hack in; they open their veils to my view.

“Who are you?” one of them asks. They’re not coy about their interest in this tall woman with the face of a fallen cherub. They’re wonderfully shallow creatures, so I’ll be the same.

“Who are you?” I ask.

The Twins beckon, and their entourage lets me through. I sit between them on lush, form-embracing pillows. They are non-identical by nature or artifice. The brunette, behind her blue veil, whispers, “I’m good.” The blonde, behind her pink veil, growls, “I’m bad.” I smile. “I’m for the fairest.”

It is great to be back at work.