Border Crosser

Eris is an interstellar spy on a mission of vengeance. Her enemy’s power is terrifying, but she’ll never stop. She knows that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for brilliant, daring, and chaotically kinky heroines to do nothing.

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Eris is a charismatic spy with a violent borderline personality and emotional amnesia—she doesn’t remember her loyalties. This allows her to pass from world to world without mental scanners detecting her long-term intentions, making her a “border crosser.”

The Asylum cabal has artificially amplified Eris’s condition so that she’ll cause interstellar chaos for the limited time she survives. When Eris discovers the Asylum’s manipulation of her, she sets out to find its hidden leaders and destroy them.

From decadent old Earth to the frontier estates of Mars, Eris hunts her first quarry, the Asylum’s architect of genocides. But when her chase leads her out to the stars, she discovers still deadlier dangers from humanity’s past and her own. As she fights these galaxy-spanning nightmares, Eris must also struggle to recover her own mind.

As Eris would say, “The only thing necessary for interstellar evil to triumph is for brilliant and sexy killer me ever to stop, darling.”

Now I am not early in the twenty-first century.
Now I am not early.
Now I am not.
Now I am.

Now is Monday morning, ship time, so I am against the Empire. I like the sound of that: little glam-bitch me against the big, evil, and deathly dull Empire of the New Systems. The citizens of the New Systems don’t call themselves an Empire, but I do, so fuck ‘em. Which I have—one of them at least. The Imperial Consul dozes next to me in my cabin, his sweat still drying from his well-and-thorough fucking, scratch marks and bruises still fresh and angry on his overly muscled back.

The Consul’s name is famous, but I just call him “Consul,” or “you.” My aversion to names is a minor footnote in my official diagnosis, but it’s a fixed star in my synapses, so it matters. Neuro-linguistic assholes are always trying to put their words into my brain, and names are where it starts. If they’re violating the Psych Laws, it’s not so blatantly that I can rely on others to kill them.

I also loathe my own name—fair is fair—so for the story I’ve been telling the Consul, I call myself a Countess. I’ve always believed that I really am a Countess; marvelous how dreams come true.

More to the point, a Countess is the starring character in the adventure the easily profiled Consul wants to have. It starts with a sad, sad tale of my debts and human trafficking, and why would anyone tell such a story if it weren’t true? But then the big brave Consul gets to rescue the poor aristocrat from slavery, and the grateful aristocrat fucks him, and everyone is happy for as long as they can stand it. It’s the story he’s been waiting for his whole life.

If someone more intelligent on this ship is checking the available noosphere, they’re finding all sorts of supporting background for my fairytale Countess. The data sometimes shows up immediately after I’ve told a story—one of my employers’ many tricks on my behalf. I’d love to know how they do it.

But my thoughts veer away from that question, as they are wont to do, because this is my favorite moment, when my lover is a static piece in the larger artwork of my luxury cabin. I’ve had the rooms decorated for the voyage; my own creations hang next to those of the modern masters, their proper place. I created my art under another identity, as my work doesn’t quite fit with my Countess persona. I work in human and alien body fluids for my pigments; my paintings are anatomy lessons gone wrong.

My palette runs with hungry excess to the red and black, and the mauled portions of my lover’s green-hued skin blend well with my art. The Consul’s uniform lies empty like a gold-braided trophy just beyond the reach of my stretching, low-grav-long legs.

A visual masterpiece, but too quiet. What to do, what to do? The alternatives come into focus. I can fuck him again, continuing to screw out info in pillow talk (and other less gentle talk and acts). I can kill him. So many ways, so little time. I can suborn him to another’s service. Who for again? Ah yes, the League. The League is the biggest power in the trafficking of humans and other sentients. No doubt about it, it’s Monday and I’m allied with the Para-Humanoid League.

(A) Fuck. (B) Kill. (C) Recruit. Or (D) All of the above—I’ve done it before. He may deserve it.

What to do? I light a cigarette. It’s an expensive habit; new lungs aren’t cheap. But neither are all the other body parts that I’ve worn through. Business expenses. I am ever ambivalent about the raw meat of my body. If my employers desire my expertise, they have to pay for the joyous collateral damage to my flesh. Yay!

What to do!? I don’t want to decide. I don’t have to decide. No one can make me decide. I will see what happens when he wakes up. I will wake him up now.

✽✽✽

I awake the Consul with a kiss. He returns it, sloppy wet, like some enormous dog. “You will come home with me, Countess.” His questions sound like orders.

“You have conquered me.” I hold him tightly, trembling like desire and fear. The Imperials love melodrama.

“After this voyage, you will come home with me?” he repeats, his imperative now more a question, now more a doubt.

“I can’t.” I turn my face away as if to hide a strong emotion. “I’ve told you. The League. My person is forfeit. I must give myself to them before the voyage ends.”

“Those inhuman bastards! I’ll pay your bond.”

I make my eyes water, my voice quaver. “One billion unicred.” Absurd amount. I’m worth it, but if he has any spine he will question it.

He doesn’t question. “We can leave before the conference, in my shuttle.”

“But the conference, the League. What will happen?”

He holds a salty finger to my lips. “I don’t care. Love is more important.”

“Yes, it is.” What a wonderful man he is. Just his neoclassical title makes me swoon, and his representing all those long enormous ships from the most militant part of the human diaspora—well, what woman wouldn’t surrender to that? A shame it won’t last. They always have to go in the end.

“We’ll leave on Saturday,” he says. “We’ll meet at my quarters.”

“I’m afraid.”

The Consul touches my face, wiping a tear aside. “I’ll save you. On Saturday, we’ll be free.”

✽✽✽

Once upon a time, there was a stupid little girl named Robynne Owen. Robynne preferred living alone in a shithole apartment on Earth and flitting about the planet rather than studying Classics at her offworld all-twat college. She certainly couldn’t return to her manipulative Martian parents. Some doctor of theirs had tagged Robynne with an official diagnosis: borderline personality disorder (post-World War III definition) with severe emotional amnesia component and very strong anti-social tendencies. This meant she could change her mind about people quickly and violently, and then change her mind again.

Robynne knew this was true, but she resented the imposition of someone else’s definitions on her psyche. It was the least of her parents’ sins, so she kicked the dust of the family estate off her boots forever. Grandma had set up a nice trust fund, and though the family lawyers tried to keep as much of it from Robynne as they could, thousands of credits still leaked out.

Robynne sometimes missed her Nanny though. Nanny had never lied like Robynne’s parents, and she had somehow made the oldest bits of old Earth’s history come alive in the cold isolation of the Owens’ Martian compound.

Robynne did fine amidst the fascist klepto-oligarchies and neo-fund theocracies that still throve on humanity’s homeworld. Living and traveling alone meant that she was a center of gravity for all kinds of people and things to spin around and fall into. She had her own stage for an always changing, always appreciative audience that hungered for color in the ambient beige oppression.

Being alone, Robynne could be a virgin for her body fluid art. (An artist needed a room of her own, even if it was a shithole.) Alone, Robynne could fuck her way through all the genders, human and alien, new ones discovered every day.  The only universal was that she preferred them young, at the very threshold of adulthood, before skin, scales, and shells thickened and made them less vulnerable, before regen treatments made them fake. She often fell in love and hate. Others often fell in love and hate with her, but that wasn’t her problem. It was all their own fault.

Alone, Robynne could sample every drug. She had a thing for the new opioids in particular.

Robynne’s thing for the opioids got a little out of hand. When they found her, she couldn’t tell them whether she had deliberately or accidentally OD’d. Or maybe that charming boy had tried to kill her. What did it matter anyway?

✽✽✽

On Saturday, freedom with the Consul sounds shitty, so I go to the SS Olympus’ ship party. Both outside and in, the Olympus is a rococo mess of nonfunctional detail: birdlike wings and fishlike fins, eyes painted on the prow, and inside a ballroom with the aesthetics of long-gone Versailles. This excess is possible because so little of its structure has anything to do with how we move through space, and the Olympus neither wants to fight nor to look like it could.

I love parties, except when they bore me, which is often. I always love to dress for parties, because I’m good at it. My credo: a secret agent should always dress as colorfully outrageous as possible and accentuate her controversial features. I have many controversial features to choose from; I am as meta-aware of my body as I am of my psyche. I am low-gravity tall, with simply endless legs with which I affect a fragile (yet still sensual) quasi-lameness in high grav, as if I were always in heels that were too high. My breasts are ample in absolute terms, but my tall frame allows me to control their emphasis. My fingers are long like extended claws.

But my most controversial feature is my face. Despite whatever array of piercings I sport, it remains the face of a precocious, prurient child, the kind of face that makes the most innocent of lollipops look naughty. All the genders with a taste for human females find me repellent and irresistible at the same time. I am the bad thing that they aren’t supposed to have.

Other than some casual self-cutting, I never vary my physical form—major body alteration is a sport for others. I never vary my gray eyes. I vary hair, long and red tonight. I vary dress and identity. Clothes make the woman.

I sweep into the gloriously retro-aristo ballroom, its lavender walls a wonderful contrast against my shimmering sunset dress. A pert little crewgirl (what’s she doing later?) announces me as the Countess from the blah blah system beyond the spiral arm. Exactly where beyond doesn’t matter in my Countess legend so long as it’s too far away to be relevant to this provincial audience. The Countess story pleases all; only an aristocrat can screw and be screwed with impunity.

Feeling aristocratic, I decide to screw a Para-Humanoid Leaguer. The Leaguers trade everywhere, and their preference for deep space over planetary surfaces has allowed their bodies some interesting alterations from Terran norm. I don’t know yet tonight whether I am for or against the League, and I don’t care how I felt before. I only care that that the League is a major power. I’ve told the Imperial Consul that the League covets me, and it isn’t nice to lie. Perhaps he’ll think I’m trying to pay my debt.

A League representative will be more difficult to ensnare than the Consul was. That dull fuck was mine with a sad story, some dirty words, and a smile. Despite my title of Countess, if I try such a direct approach with a Leaguer, he’ll assume I’m the ship’s whore, and a quick and simple money transaction doesn’t suit my purposes. Still, I’ll need a trader’s mindset. The merchant-dominated Leaguers have a mania for possessing things others desire. I have to show a Leaguer that everyone desires me.

I begin my campaign. I accept a dance with the ship’s Captain, a lovely woman who has let her hair go gray to appear more distinguished. I dance with only technical proficiency; too much strength and ease in my low-grav legs would seem threatening. I make my partners feel graceful, so all desire a turn.

“My sweet Captain, can’t you do something about this music?”

“Don’t you find it pretty?” she asks.

“Yes, but pretty is boring. Why not music compiled from the notes in the dying screams of a thousand species—something you can really move to?”

The Captain’s laugh is belly deep. The Countess is already notoriously outré.

“Is it true, Captain, that you are barred from intimacy with your passengers?”

“I think you know, Countess.”

“Oh damn. How tedious for both of us.” I bend and kiss the Captain full on her tight-lipped mouth. A jealous, disapproving murmur simmers in the crowd.

The Captain’s blush is not very distinguished. “Of course, once the voyage is over, it’s a different matter,” she whispers.

“Of course. But now our dance is done.” And I bow and go on to select my next partner.

From the Leaguer delegation comes snatches of trade talk and only glances in my direction. I can read the tiniest cues of word or expression, but these damned hucksters instinctively avoid flashing their interest in anything and thus driving up the cost. Such discretion means covering much of their beautiful translucent skin, lest the visible beat of their pulses betrays their desires.

I choose one of the Consul’s aides in the Imperial delegation, who snaps to attention when I approach and falls into the dance with nearly a marching cadence. Young and tender, strong and stupid, like the Empire. His hair has the blond curls of an Alexander with chlorophyll-infused skin. His poorly repressed desire will help with the Leaguers, and I can poke at the Consul through him.

“Your ram ships remind me of triremes. Do you know about triremes?”

“No, Madame.” Oh great, he’s another dull one. “I believe the Consul was expecting you at his cabin this afternoon.”

“How is the Consul’s back? I’m afraid I left it messy.”

“I’ve never seen his back, Madame.”

“Really? I thought the Consul would enjoy showing his back to a boy like you. He must be embarrassed.”

“He likes boys?”

“No, dear, he likes you.”

The Imperial sense of honor is only exceeded by the numerous Imperial phobias. I feel the innocent boy gulp, and his pale green cheeks darken with red shame. Charming. Perhaps him and the crewgirl—later.

“Of course, you’d have to pilot that ship,” I add. “I begged him to show some fight, but he didn’t leave a mark on me.”

Before the last note of the song, the aide furtively bows and exits. If he doesn’t hold his tongue, all will be well.

A Leaguer’s eyes swing toward me, then away, perhaps considering an approach. I turn away from his furtive gaze of acquisition and select a dancing master to help me put on a show.

I let go of any restraint; we propel athletically across the floor. A marvelous slashing pain shoots up my straining legs as I dance. Red shoes syndrome takes me whoosh, whoosh, whooshing. Faces, alien and human, blur together, all looking at me. Wanting to be me or fuck me—never a clear distinction.

But Consul Dull Fuck has arrived—did he see me with his aide?—and he trails me across the ballroom floor. Not the attention I want. “Where were you?” he hisses. “You said you loved me. You said you’d leave with me.”

“Useless,” I hiss back, enjoying the word’s ambiguity. I’m insulting him, but perhaps he’ll think I’m bemoaning the futility of escape. The enemy annoys me by always trying to induce some petty form of dissonance (usually guilt). I say lots of things. My words only have meaning in terms of my assignment. Tonight I don’t care about the Empire. I need to talk to someone else to keep the Consul out of my face and get a Leaguer’s attention.

I bow toward the dancing master and leave the floor. A cluster of squid-like Floaters hovers nearby. More uselessness: they have no interest in ancient literature, modern art, or my other soirée gambits that mysteriously elicit the political views of others. And a Leaguer will place no value on Floater sexual tastes. For fucking, Floaters’ tentacles have enormous potential, but hanging by suspension boots while waiting to become a tedious alien’s sandwich/sex sacrifice is not how I hope to end this voyage.

Will the Floaters abide by one of their conflicting treaties and enter a regional war? Unknown.

But beyond the Floaters stands a smirking problem. I knew the Hegemony would send an ambassador, but I didn’t expect it to be this person. He’s remained out of my sight until now, as if waiting for the most precarious moment. I met him on a previous mission under some other aristo ID. My report on him then: “He is a hawk-nosed, squat little man from a high-gravity world, ugly and stale-minded, without poetry in his soul—not usual for a frequent spacefarer. He enjoys addressing his lady the Hegemon without ceremony or flattery, which leads to disputes with less direct courtiers. His form is dull, his thought sharp, and neither ever varies. Despite his efforts to hide it, he shows evidence of childhood trauma. Perhaps in response, he decided his loyalties as a young man and will not change them come hell or psychosis.”

I’ve known him well. And I knew his wife well. He may hate me because of his spouse’s death and his own bullshit. He’ll see through my minor changes. Better that he try to kill me than question my identity and spoil everything.

I relax and defy augury. The straightest path to disaster is the most fun. He might actually help by causing a scene. Leaguers covet the paleo-Terran apotheosis culture and tastes of the Hegemony, but can never master the casual disregard of wealth and price that comes naturally to the Hegemonians. The Consul’s rage means little to the League, but if the Hegemonian Ambassador freaks out over me, that’ll mean I’m worth attention.

Before I can approach the Ambassador, he’s striding toward me, and I allow it. Oh, but he dresses so atrociously plain. His suit’s color is a static black, the fabric shows signs of manual labor. He halts, face tilted up toward me, and he’s already talking. “My lady—Countess, is it?—you’re particularly stunning this evening.” He never stops smirking; even I can’t tell whether he’s sincere.

“It reassures me that you look the same as always, Ambassador. What the hell are you wearing? Are you being paid enough?”

He doesn’t miss a beat. “I see the Consul is hot on the chase. Should I be jealous?”

“You can be whatever suits you. But it might suit us both to find another place to drink.” He’s not causing a scene yet, so best to leave our tête-à-tête to the Leaguers’ imagination.

We leave the Consul as he attempts not to smoke with rage in public. We walk arm in arm into a private viewing parlor, which shows the stars as they would have appeared if the ship were in real space instead of FTL. Delightful artifice. Yes, a Leaguer will definitely assume that the Ambassador is seeking a liaison with me. And perhaps he is

As the liaison could be murderous, I press my right hand into a fist for three seconds, signaling a subtle shift to the molecular structure along the edge of my nails that will make them sharper than diamond. A double click of my teeth commences a similar dental shift. I admit that my teeth and claws are as much affectation as weaponry, but I’ve no blade on hand.

I’m ready for combat, but the Ambassador doesn’t strike. Instead, with his usual lack of delicacy, he breaks the silence. “My lady, do you know what you are?”

“A rhetorical question, Your Excellency? Am I to be called fascinating, impossible, a goddess, a Messalina? You’re on a well-worn path, but that doesn’t mean I’ll let you walk there.”

The Ambassador shakes his head. “I apologize. Some of you have a meta-awareness of your condition. I thought you might be one of them.”

The enemy, the enemy, the fucking enemy. Of course I have meta-awareness—I’m all meta all the time. “My only condition is that I cannot stand the importunities of small, peevish, presumptive former bedmates.”

“Again I apologize. I have learned much since your visit to the Hegemony, much that I would share. But it was wrong of me to offer now.”

The Ambassador never loses his smile, but I smell something dirty from him, something that stinks like purity and past failure, and there’s something in his eyes, and if it’s pity, I will kill him.

But we are rudely interrupted by the lightest of sounds: the footfall of a League representative. No door in most commercial ships can keep a Leaguer out. To say he’s both rich and politically important is particularly redundant within the League. He has opened his coat; negotiations are over. His ever-young skin is so fine and translucent that, in this perfect light, I can see the outlines of his organs and ribs. His hair is like tinted glass. So cold. To touch him will be like etching crystal.

“Lady, you must dance with me.” And he takes my hand and leads me back out and onto the floor.

Oh my, yes, I am allied with the League.

✽✽✽

Once upon another time, when stupid Robynne recovered from her OD, the doctors told her that she was pregnant. She told them to get it out of her alive and give it to someone else, please. So they did.

Those who paid her doctors were not her family. She saw her parents only once more. They came all the way from Mars to the hospital just to sign some legal papers. They were happy to be rid of her, especially her mother—the whore. She missed her daddy, though.

They gave her a lot of psychological tests. She was pretty sure she fooled them. They gave her some drugs, which didn’t seem to do anything good or bad. Then they offered her a job.

✽✽✽

After the party, Boy Toy the Leaguer leads me back by the arm to his cabin. Before anything else, he brings out a border scanner—the luxury model, of course, a rectangular diamond with faceted corners and platinum trim. The hand-shaped depression is a functional illusion; the device doesn’t require contact, but works best within arm’s length.

“Interesting sex toy,” I quip. “Planning to visit some new world?”

“Please. Our Insurers insist.”

“Already answered everything before boarding.” Most everyone undergoes a psych scan before boarding a vessel and on arrival at a planet or major station. But I allow the repetition. This machine has never stopped me crossing a border, and no one ever wins an argument with the League’s Insurers.

Most of the time, I’m a Schrödinger’s cat of uncertain intention, though unlike that probabilistic feline I stay uncertain when someone is peeking at my thoughts.

Instead of the usual list of questions, Boy Toy has one. Well, actually two. “Do you intend any harm towards me or the League?” I answer “no.” And the scan confirms I’m not lying. Yet.

We have sex, and I mentally note all the wonderful details for my report. Sex doesn’t tire Boy Toy—I don’t think Leaguers sleep much—but it does seem to loosen him up, so we sit on the bed in full lotus postures (Leaguers are very flexible) and talk.

I haven’t done my homework for this mission because I enjoy spontaneity (though I hate surprises). So I have some sincere questions. It helps that I’m acting a little dim. Everyone enjoys feeling superior, but Boy Toy wouldn’t talk to someone who’s a complete fool. A little dim is the sweet spot.

“Why are you bothering with peace talks?” I ask. “Everyone knows you could beat the Imperials.”

“Real war is bad for business.”

“That’s not what I’ve heard.”

This triggers his full professorial mode. “True, the preparation for wars is great business, and other people’s wars create plenty of opportunities in some of our core areas.” Those areas are weapons and trafficking in sentients, but I’m not judgy. “But a war with the Imperials is projected to be, at best, a net loss for both sides. The optimum for interstellar trade is peace. Wars kill customers. Sometimes, they kill whole worlds.”

His heartrate spikes on the last bit.

“Whole worlds?” I laugh a little, incredulous. “Since when in the past couple of centuries is anyone killing planets?”

“More recently and more often than you know. But we know who’s responsible, and we’ve taken measures.”

I’m intrigued. I’ve certainly caused some damage during my career, but killing off an entire world or an entire people sounds literally divine, and so like my favorite music. Yet something bothers me about the aesthetics, and the competition. “Who’s responsible?” I ask.

“That’s an agenda item for our talks with the Imperials,” he says.

And not for me. I pout to hide my rage. He unfolds out of the lotus posture and pulls me toward him. Oh good, some rage sex is just what I need.

✽✽✽

Later, Sunday evening, I have time to relax and report. With a quill pen, I write on an image of parchment generated by my compad, a stolen family heirloom that I wear on the back of my left hand. All that my employers ask is that I send timely, clear, and accurate reports. My employers always give positive feedback on my compositions, and let me do whatever else I want wherever they send me. My employers are not League, Empire, or Hegemony. Once, when I began my work, I asked who they were. They said, “We are the ones who pay the bills.”

I write about the party. “Darlings, I looked fabulous. The Consul was my dog. The Ambassador applied for the position of friend and loyal satyr, but no nymph for him. And the Leaguer, the Leaguer, the Leaguer. Yum. I could see the fluid build up inside him, the muscles straining and relaxing to hold back, even the final explosion before it happened. His blood was a rosé, his come a dessert liqueur.”

It makes me wet just thinking about it. I don’t need to touch myself for the rest; I get myself fully off just with a finely tuned set of squeezes. I climax over and over again, screaming invective against myself and Mommy and Daddy and all others.

✽✽✽

Tuesday afternoon, and I am finally getting up. The Empire is OK today. But the Hegemony has to go. The League can go fuck itself, because I’m not interested. As if considering a purchase, Boy Toy looked at my art collection, particularly at my own paintings, and asked how much they cost. “Everything,” I said, and he didn’t understand. Thank all gods he didn’t know I’m the artist.

It’s just as well I’m against the League. My family’s motto is “no compromise with enslavers,” and that’s the one thing my heinous ancestors had right. It’s not a moral question; slaves are boring, and the League’s trafficking in sentients makes interesting toys into boring ones.

The shipcom has been trying to get my attention for who knows how long. Something about a disturbance outside my cabin.

I open my door, still in my negligée. Half the ship seems to have crowded into the corridor to watch the drama, and I’m late to the show. The Imperial Consul is shouting at the bare-chested Leaguer and waving a pistol in the air. Boy Toy the Leaguer stands still, trying to look impassive, but all can see the outline of his heart beating faster behind his rib cage.

“I won’t let her fall into your hands, you inhuman bastard,” bellows the Consul. “I’m taking her off this ship.”

Everyone is always talking about me, but this time it’s not satisfying.

“You’ll take her no place, Imperialist,” hisses Boy Toy. “She’s under League jurisdiction. Do you understand what that means?”

Oh, this is really too, too much to bear. “Stop trying to be my fucking parents!”

Stunned silence. OK. Perhaps I sound just the tiniest bit nuts.

The Consul glares at me and Boy Toy. “This isn’t over. Not by a long shot.”

I touch his cheek. “Don’t be huffy, sweetums, it brings out your manly clichés.”

He marches off. Probably going to leave the ship. I give a little wave. “Ta-ta, dear. I hope you’ve enjoyed your stay. Come back when you can. Give your Emperor a kiss for me.” Oh, that last is excessive, and I feel the ground drop out from below me with the need for this man to still covet me, whatever I feel about him. With once last play of the fairytale fishing line, I shout, “You’ll always be my prince.”

He turns, and I give him big eyes and pass a kiss on my fingers toward him, as if this has all been a noble act to spare him from my downfall. He gives the barest of nods, and resumes his march. He’d better come back, or this isn’t going to be a fun voyage at all.

The crowd is beginning to fade away. Good. But one person isn’t moving. I confront the Leaguer.

“Time to go home, and take your boy suit with you.”

“I don’t understand you.”

“Try thinking of it as evolution, not a sell-off.”

Quicker than thought, his hands grasp my wrists, tightly restraining them as he did when we fucked. “Not this time, Border Crosser. You and I are going to spend the rest of your life together.”

Border Crosser. Though I’m unsure of their meaning, the words fit me like a slipper with razor blades. This is getting interesting.

Oh drat. That pedantic Ambassador is here, too. “My lady, do you require any assistance?”

Before I can answer, Boy Toy bolts, again with that enhanced speed that makes him a blur. How interesting—something about the Hegemony makes him skittish.

“Damn your interfering stale soul,” I growl. But my words only brighten his face.

“The stalemate between League and New Systems has kept the regional peace for a hundred years. The conference we’re rushing towards is all that stands between them and total war. Doesn’t that concern you?”

“No.”

“Direct. That’s good. How about the term Border Crosser? Does that concern you?”

I hesitate, then speak in a child’s voice. “Yes.”

The Ambassador nods. “Good. You’ve started another countdown. I have to tell you what I know, now. Come with me.”

Oh my, the Ambassador is taking me back to his cabin. He was never so forward when I first met him. In the Hegemony, I forced every physical and emotional issue on him, until his laughter and tears made him seem insane next to the subdued, ever-smiling Hegemonians. But the Ambassador was married then.

More than two years ago, my employers sent me too many light years out to the Ambassador’s home, the capital world of the Hegemony, on the very edge of the human diaspora. With my usual delightful excess, I observed everything as my employers had asked. I saw immaculate cities where each building perfectly aligned with all others to produce a monotony of order in all directions. I met their beautiful Hegemon, and her people who shimmered in raiment of cool light like tedious angels.

The Hegemony actively supported the partnering of its citizens according to their natures in all the various combinations and poly arrangements. Stable partnerships tend to support the psych stability of those in them. That made my work harder. Approaching anybody meant becoming close to at least two people.

I became close to the Ambassador and his spouse, the government Minister. “Minister of what?” I asked. “Minister of Future Needs,” she said. I thought What the fuck did that mean? while I made a weak joke about deferring desire.

My little play was simple, time honored in literature and vid. A young seemingly naïve woman with a troubled past inserts herself into an older couple’s relationship. Compared to the Ambassador, the Minister was the one with power, competence, and mental resilience, and she obsessively took herself apart for me anyway, like a self-cracking egg. Because I was finally what she wanted and who better deserved me? In the end she came at me with kitchen knives, and after I left she killed herself, reportedly blowing herself up while trying to take her husband with her.

The Ambassador was also my close focus in this scenario, and I’m super bummed that, after my attentions and his wife’s actions, he’s still a seemingly functional personality. He fucking shouldn’t be. And it’s worse than that. My employers expressed no dissatisfaction with my reports, and afterwards gave me further missions. But I have other, personal standards of success. My Hegemony reports were dull because even within that one dyad of Ambassador and Minister, nothing I did shook loose the information I wanted. The love and hate I inflicted on the Ambassador and the Minister made no further ripples in that tidy little world. I sank like a stone, leaving no trace of ecstatic bliss or deep wounds in the wider population, nor even wiping the smiles from their calm benignant faces. No, I didn’t find good intel.

The Hegemony couldn’t prosecute me for my anything I did—it was the Minister’s own fault, and besides, my manipulations were subtle and her weaknesses deep. But the Ambassador must know it was all me.

He must also know what else I’m capable of, but he dares to be alone with me. His face doesn’t betray whether he wants to fuck or kill me. I don’t know which I’d prefer he try.

His cabin is his Hegemony home in microcosm: a monochromatic Zen hanging scroll, a paper screen of flying cranes against a golden sky. He hunts vainly for peace in the images of antebella East Asia, but I would only diminish myself questioning his taste. “Excellent reproductions,” I acknowledge.

“They’re originals,” he says. I see no cue of deceit.

“How did they survive the Wars?”

“Later,” he says. “Some wine?”

“I prefer champagne.”

He pours the wine anyway, and I take it, attracted by its deep red color. “You’ve changed,” he says.

“I’m whom I choose to be.” Then, because like the scorpion, it’s my nature, I sting him. “How’s single life treating you?”

With the slow deliberateness of restrained rage, the Ambassador puts down his wine. “We don’t have time for this.” His eyes lock into mine, and his complete attention draws me in. “Imagine a tribal past in which absolute loyalty to those close to you was a must, but absolute flexibility might also be necessary if those close to you were killed by others. An ability, genetic in origin but environmentally cultivated, to split the universe into good and evil, yet to change which half was which at any time. Strong emotions, but no fixed emotional memory.”

“Emotional memory?” I know what he means, but I want more words about me.

“Humans remember facts, that’s important. But most humans also remember roughly how they felt about those facts, both years and mere moments ago. Part of being flexible is not remembering how one felt before.”

He is wonderful when he talks about me. I recognize myself as my employers have described me, but they never suggested reasons. The fucking shrinks only spoke of me as disease: borderline personality disorder with severe emotional amnesia component.

The Ambassador has given a reason for me that I already knew, but it means more coming from someone else. “An adaptation,” I murmur.

“An extreme version of such a person makes for an excellent secret agent,” he says.

“Because they are good at getting information?”

“No,” says the Ambassador. “You know the reason.”

“I’m not an agent.”

“They aren’t going to save you this time!” He is shouting in my face, which is nice, but what he says irritates me.

They? Severe paranoia is treatable under the Psych Laws, you know.”

He takes a deep breath, then a deeper one. “I’m going to tell your story. When I get something wrong, feel free to assassinate me.”

“Oh, this should be fun.”

“By age twenty, you had left your family and school, to strike out or be struck down, on your own resources,” he says.

“You never found a love or friendship that lasted two weeks.”

“Because I left you?”

But he doesn’t take the bait. “Before they found you,” he says, “your worst violence was against yourself.”

That may be wrong. On Mars, there was the puppy. With all the drugs, I can’t remember everything I did on Earth. I take another sip of wine. “I didn’t feel a thing.”

“One time you seriously messed up,” he says. “And you ended up in the hospital, or a mental health monitoring station.”

“You never go to the doctor? It was nothing.”

“In the hospital, they took you,” he says.

“You’re getting colder.” With my eyes fixed on him, I search in my peripheral vision for anything that could become a weapon. Is that a real katana in the alcove? At worst, I have my nails and teeth. Letting him live before was a failure, one that I can, and should, remedy—if he asks about my employers.

“They put you through a battery of psychological tests,” he says.

“I’m good at tests.”

“You didn’t fool them,” he says. “The tests, along with all the drugs they gave you, were part of a deep conditioning program. Among other things, they amplified your natural characteristics.”

He seems to think this should bother me, but I enjoy being amplified. What annoys me is that he knows these impossible details. “Your Excellency, who the fuck are you?”

“Now,” he says, “you work for them.”

“Aren’t you going to ask who they are?” Please, please ask so I can kill you.

“No,” he says.

“Why not?”

He says, “Because you don’t know.”

“Oh.” He is right. Now I am for this man. He knows my story; he knows my limits. For some fucked-up reason, he seems to care. But I’ll test that. “Do you expect a confession?”

The Ambassador shakes his head. “Forget that. Here is the important thing. The League has detected agents like you before. Border Crossers. I have pictures. They did not end well.”

With no visible pad, he calls up images. They lack artistry, but the bodies tell a clear story. Bruises speak of thorough beatings, followed by progressive, neatly cauterized amputations, followed by inquisitor boredom and sudden execution. Primitive, indicating no use of scanners or drugs. They were like me.

I knew a girl on Zanj… but I won’t think of her now.

“Why are they doing this?” I ask, hoping for some point of leverage I can use to save myself. I haven’t done anything yet to the League; perhaps a deal is still possible.

“They think that Border Crossers have been interfering with their business opportunities.”

I remember my bedroom talk with Boy Toy. “Via genocide? That’s not my line.” My killings are much more personal, and personally deserved.

“I can’t discuss that. You’re at risk, and so is any intel that I give you.”

Speaking of killing. I swing toward hate again. Is this his revenge against me, indirect, so he can deny it even to himself? “Did you blow my cover?”

“No.” I can tell he’s not lying; it’s a skill that goes nicely with my own story telling. He explains, “They may have heard from their Insurers regarding you. They’ve been pattern matching, perhaps with help.”

“Whose help?” I need to know whom I get to kill.

But he shakes his head and says, “Doesn’t matter. You are one of the last of your kind. I do not think your employers expected, or desired, that you would survive this long.”

A flash of the nightmare, a death not of my choosing. Leaguers are emotionally different. But what could I have done? It’s my nature to go too far.

“Thank you.” I touch his arm. “I have missed you. Do you want me to stay with you now?”

But the Ambassador leads me to his door. “Warning you is as much as I can do. And much more than I’m permitted. You still have time. Save yourself.”

And then the door closes, and I’m alone in the corridor. This won’t do. I ring him on his door com. “What about your fucking wife?”

“Still dead,” he says. “Good-bye.”

Still dead? What a bullshit thing to say.

✽✽✽

I don’t have much time. I have too much time. The Ambassador has the mistaken impression that my personal survival means everything to me. Also, I have trust issues with someone who should want me dead. The Ambassador really loved his steel bitch wife the Minister, and she destroyed herself in my wake. The mission continues; I’m not going anywhere.

I try to write a last report, but questions block my way. Why did the Hegemony resist my charms? No other world was ever so cold to me. Why does their Ambassador play at helping me? Of the millions of Hegemonians, I led only him and his departed Minister into love, hate, and hurt. And if he is right, why have my employers abandoned me?

My employers. For the first time I can remember, two other questions follow, one beginning “Who…?” and the other being something about what they want. But even these vague queries give me a headache, and the thought of dying displaces other mysteries.

The Ambassador said pattern matching. So, my espionage work matches up with extinction events? Others (I in particular) should have matched that pattern in the news, though I seldom look back. But then, what is my pattern? If I failed with the Hegemony, what did success look like, somewhere else and years later? I’ve surprised myself—I have no idea.

I call up the news of worlds where I’ve been. All seems normal from the time of my visits onward. I know this much is bullshit—nothing was normal during my visits. Then, on some of the worlds and after a span of months or years, disaster strikes, abruptly and without much prelude in the news. Lots of people die. The disasters also seem normal: natural calamities, plagues, a few long-simmering conflicts. In the news, only the downward spiral of the civil war on Zanj follows directly after my work there. Seems thin for a pattern, unless, as with my missions, something is being hidden, and the League knows more than the vid feeds.

Back to more important thoughts of Leaguers coming to kill me. But the threat of death, like becoming old, boring, or alone, is not something that I can think about for long. A serious threat requires a serious distraction. I stop my report and turn to Art.

I’ll create one of my tableaux, a revenge ritual against those I cannot strike and now will never reach. I will have to use existing characters from my current mission: the crewgirl and the Imperial aide. No time for seduction and emotional captivity. I offer ridiculous sums to get their full consent to any act short of murder. Not that murder would matter, as legal retribution would probably come too late for me. I will play fair. I will do nothing unto them that will not be done unto me.

I reconfigure my room as the top of a sunny hillock. A distant flute trills like birdsong. I instruct my models carefully in their new characters. “You are young shepherds, brother and sister, twins, thirteen years old. You are innocents in the wilderness, discovering love for the first time.”

I watch them with each other, beautiful and tender, like a classical idyll. It cannot last, it must not last. The room darkens. When they are at full stride, I come at them with a switch, frustrating their rutting, hitting them in the most tender places I can reach. “Dirty filthy whores!” I am their mother, and I have found them at their new play in the fields. They know what to do next. “No, mummy. You’re the whore.”

And then they are upon me, incarnating my revenge upon myself. They take my switch, and slash at me with it, beating me down, violating me in every conventional way they can think of. I come angrily, furious that they can force my pleasure so trivially. I egg them on to truly hurt me, humiliate me. Atonal music and psychotropic light sequences encourage their brutalities. They spend themselves physically upon me, losing themselves and their characters. Then they become quiet, again conscious of their own mercenary shame.

I go after them again. I remind myself not to kill them—they are not plausible targets, my real targets aren’t here. My frustration is exquisite. Senses exhausted, I and they are beyond conventional pleasures now. I make them do things to each other. Impossible things that they can never even speak of to apologize for, absolutely no absolution. “Please,” says the boy, “mother, stop.” But I do not stop.

“Clean up your mess!” In vials, on swabs, with kerchiefs, they collect for me what I need from each of them. I have collected more subtly from all the others, under my nails, on my clothes, inside my cunt.

When finally they are exhausted beyond stims and switch, I call for someone to remove my toys. And then I begin to paint. I use all of the bodily fluids and tissue samples I have gathered on the ship. I mutate the tissues so they will grow to monstrous tumors, sculpted to my design. Chaotic in form, my art hangs by a representational fingernail, for those with the sense to see, feel, taste, smell. Everyone is there: the girl and the aide and the Consul and the Leaguer and the Ambassador and everywhere me, me, me. One last scream against them all. In this, I will survive. If only they could hear me on Mars.

I sleep. I dream. In dreams I can’t remember whom I’m for or against anymore. It doesn’t matter. I’m against the Empire, against the League, against myself, against everyone always.

While I dream, they come for me. No cabin door can stop a Leaguer. I asked the Captain for extra security, but what is a commercial ship captain against the League?

I wake up long enough to be slapped. “Border Crosser,” the Leaguer hisses. “I will smear your flawed brain in front of your mediocre eyes, then sign my name to your corpse.”

Damn, that sounds like something I might say. Kudos.

And then I’m out again.

✽✽✽

There was once a little girl named robynne who loved her mommy and daddy and they loved their little girl and the world was a beautiful place and then it was like a switch being thrown and the world is a monster and mommy and daddy are monsters and I am a monster but it’s better to be with monsters than to be alone

✽✽✽

Oh oh. What a way to begin the day. Someone is torturing me again. Actually, torture is too artistic a term for this first stage. Boy Toy of the League is just beating the piss out of me. I’m definitely against the League today, Wednesday or not.

The cabin appears to be set up for this sport. Little rainbows play off the prismed surfaces of Leaguer-skin-toned devices, while other instruments of flesh-rending metal seem suspended in light. I should’ve known that these creeps would bring their own works wherever they went; some of their trafficking is for torture and snuff porn. Not for the first time, I wonder if I’m being filmed. That would make it all OK, if I were the director; I know so many people who’d enjoy this work. But I’m not in control.

The air already smells of a range of human effluvia (mine) plus some of their delicate sweat. So far, I have a few broken bones and a few patches of flayed skin. Some deeper cuts—is that my ulna showing? No amputations yet, so we haven’t gone to stage two. No truth drugs, which confirms that he knows not to bother with those. They’ve left my compad unmolested on my left hand. Strange, because my reports are encrypted there.

“What is your name?” A blow follows; I hear it before I feel it. “Who do you work for?” Wham, pain. “Blah blah blah.” Smack smack, hurt hurt.

Scream. Spit blood. Scream. I cry and shriek because it seems like the thing to do. I don’t know what answers he wants anyway. I could be a cold quiet bitch about it, but only Mother ever fully appreciated that persona. It helps that I have sincere motivation. (Please!) This is nothing like my last tableau. Again, as interesting as this pain is, I do not control it, and that is truly excruciating. (God please!) Sometimes a guy will actually stop when I cry and shriek. (Ohgodohgodplease!)

I wish he would stop now.

Amputation time. He grips one of the lovely long fingers of my left hand with tongs that will cut and rip. The tongs’ primitive dark metal stands out against his skin. “Who do you work for?” I shake my head. He rips off a finger. A finger’s worth of blood shoots out. A tendon dangles. My body convulses. Funny how the inner animal reacts not only to the pain, but to the loss of the finger, even though all flesh is replaceable. Maybe not so funny—my dissociation is failing me. Time to go to my own stage two and completely check out. Not real, not real, go to sleep little girl.

But they must have given me something to keep me conscious and unpleasantly present. He cauterizes the wound. Keeping me alive, too, for now. He goes on to the next finger. “Who do you work for?”

If only I could show him what I can do with a blade. Not going to happen. Torture is a time game, but what am I waiting for? No one is coming. The hook I set in the Consul has failed, the Ambassador is done with me. Even through my fog of dissociation, this is… difficult. Everyone breaks eventually, why not break now?

It’s not the question about my employers that holds me back. It’s that through the animal pain, I’m so fucking angry, and if this is my last experience, it’s all going to be about me. For as long as I can stand it.

In five eternities, he finishes with the left hand. He looks to my right hand (my right hand!) and then says, “No, something else first.”

An assistant brings forward one of my paintings. An original. Shit, I’ve shown my softness, and Boy Toy understood better than I thought about my art, or his Insurers put together the pattern of Countess and artist. He points at the painting. “What is your birth name?”

Unlike my stupid hands, my art isn’t replaceable. I don’t hesitate. “I was Robynne Owen.” Stupid. It won’t work.

“Good. Of the Mars Owens. We knew that, of course. Now, who do you work for?”

Who am I for today? Not the League. “The Empire… the New Systems.”

Another smack of hurt. “We don’t care about who you’d fuck today, Border Crosser. Who pays you all that money? Who tells you where to go?”

“I don’t know.” He aims the gun again. “They were on Earth, at the City hospital.”

“When was that?”

They want me to talk? Fine. I won’t remain silent like the wimp from Galilee. I’ll condemn myself as the only worthy judge. I’ll tell all, though my mouth will strain to form the words. Still playing the time game, even if all I play for is the privilege of drawing another ragged breath.

I speak in the rushed, reedy whisper of my Catholic ancestors in the confessional. As with automatic writing, I’m surprised by my own atonal words. I tell him about all about the Robynne of ten Earth years ago and her family. I stop my bio-glossolalia in mid-stream, jolted to attention as the Leaguer pulls the trigger and vaporizes the corner of the picture’s frame. “Focus, please. We know about your parents. More about your employers.”

Focus hurt, but I find the words he wants. “They told me the job’s pay. I said, ‘Fuck the trust fund. When do I start?’ I had some jobs before. I managed to avoid doing much work and to sabotage the businesses for kicks.” I’m remembering more as I go along, like mist lifting on an undiscovered landscape. “They knew about those other jobs. This job would be different. They explained I would enjoy my work—I was a natural at it. I didn’t like the sound of that. I said ‘A natural what? Art whore? My various diagnoses are just political. I’m who I choose to be.’”

I shudder, chilled by recollection and loss of blood. “They laughed. Yes, they agreed, I am who I choose to be. More than anyone else, I am.”

The Leaguer seems calm, almost gentle, the good inquisitor. “What was your mission?”

“I left Earth. That was good. They placed me on certain worlds and in certain situations that required close observation. I used any means necessary to obtain detailed intelligence on these situations. I had complete discretion in forming alliances to obtain information. I reported to them what I found.”

I breathe in unsteady steps, savoring the air despite everything. He asks, “Where did you go?”

“Many worlds.” My past assignments are a blur, mixed with my tableaus in life and on canvas.

“Specifics, my dear,” he says. “Names.”

I give him all the names I can remember, mixing them with bloody spittle. I went where I was told, but once there I did what I wanted. “I was on Ganga, before the fall. I painted there with the pigments of liquefied corpses. I contributed several gallons to the paint supply—”

Boy Toy interrupts. “And all these worlds—you conspired to destroy them.”

“I didn’t destroy any worlds or peoples.” But I’d like to destroy yours. “It was someone else. I just wrote reports.”

He seems uninterested in my denial. “Were you ever assigned to Earth?”

I consider lying; he may not like my answer. “No.” He nods; he already suspected the truth. I have never liked Earth. On Earth, they remember Robynne and will not let me be the new shining being I’ve created.

“Your assignment after Ganga?” he asks, a touch of impatience in his voice, like a horse close to the stable.

“Zanj, the many worlds in one.” The urban world of Zanj is still polycultural—harder to get bored. A wonderful girl, dark-eyed and painfully thin, lived with me there. Sometimes I cross paths with others I suspect of working on the same side, but with this girl, I knew it. But one day the girl was gone. That was OK, because I’d begun to feel happy, which is a very empty feeling. I would’ve had to move soon anyway.

Only now I know where the girl went. “You killed her.”

“Who? Another Border Crosser? We killed many of you on Zanj. You must have been busy there.”

I throw the remainder of my body against my restraints. “Death, death, death!”

A bolt of a translucent fist flashes into my solar plexus. Boy Toy smiles. “I think we’ve bargained enough.” He re-aims his pistol at my painting. “The names of your employers. Now.”

I asked them in the hospital, who are you? “They said, ‘We’re the ones who pay the bills.’ That’s all. I don’t know anything else, please.”

“Not good enough,” he says.

I nod to the compad still adhering to my maimed left hand. My last secret. “I’ll give you my reports.”

The Leaguer laughs, high and mech-like, his ribs hardly moving. “No one gives a fuck about your inane reports, Border Crosser.”

He vaporizes the painting. I scream, and all of me screams with me.

My mind squeezes down on a thought hard as diamond. If I somehow survive, I will never again be ignorant of my bill-paying employers’ identity.

The Leaguer goes through painting after painting, burning, crushing, destroying. I will his death at him, promise everything, threaten vainly, and he doesn’t stop. I ask him to fuck me now, and he hesitates, but not for long. Finally, Boy Toy reaches the last painting. My most recent work. The tumors are starting to show. He will ask once more, and then kill it.

I’m really going to die.

Then, weakly, tunelessly, someone starts singing. Absurdly, to my final shame, it’s me:

Mystical rose, star of all seas,

Gateway to heavens, princess of peace!

Great, let’s add one more type of crazy to my final diagnosis.

Boy Toy shakes his head in disgust, but he only has time to say “The names of—” when the room rocks. Another explosion blows a hole in the wall and sends small pieces of metal slicing into my left leg and arm. Ouch. Hmm, beam explosions follow me around space like groupies. Whoever it is, this probably means an interstellar war. Hee hee. Cough blood. Hee.

Boy Toy sends the other Leaguers through the hole to the hallway. I hear the Consul shout something about blood and vengeance. Oh my sweet, tasty fish, hooked by this damsel in distress. There’s another explosion, then no shouts, only groans.

Escape is more dangerous for Boy Toy than staying put, so he retrieves the painting to finish it off. I should’ve known the idiot Consul wouldn’t make it in time. I have one last weapon against Boy Toy. With my mother’s sneer in my voice, I say, “I’ve won.”

This stops the vengeful Leaguer for a mere moment. In that moment, it’s not the Consul who comes to the rescue. Instead, the Hegemony Ambassador strides in with an e-pistol. Ha, got you too, little man! In one graceful motion, he shoots Boy Toy with his right hand and bows towards my tortured self with a sweep of the left. Boy Toy shatters into shards of semitransparent flesh. The Ambassador grabs my painting just before it touches the floor.

OK, so you do have fucking poetry in your soul.

“My lady, I believe it’s time for ‘exeunt omnes.’”

He is so ugly he’s beautiful. “I think I’ll just pass out instead.”

✽✽✽

I awake in another ship’s sickbay, Robynne again for now. Through the glorious painkillers (more, more, more), I can feel that I am nothing but wounds, wonderful wounds. Damn, I’m hard to kill. I enjoy the feeling of dying too much to die.

No time to dawdle—the regen treatments are underway. I command (ever so politely, I am a lady) the comp next to my bed to take a full set of photos, head to toe to destroyed left hand, and also 3-D scans of the deep wounds and tissue damage. My next artwork will be a masterpiece of personal visceral trauma.

The Ambassador hasn’t waited for my return to consciousness. He’s left me with my last painting, only slightly scuffed. He’s also left me a rose and his card. The Ambassador’s name is Henri. A nice, warm, safe name.

Henri knew not to stay. He understands. The thought thrills and appalls me. I don’t know why he helped me instead of killing me, and I don’t really care.

Henri has added to my painting. It’s an outrageous presumption. It works. In blood (his? mine?), he has drawn the outline of an apple and inscribed in it “KALLISTEI”—“to the fairest” in ancient Greek, which I naturally know. I don’t think Henri is saying that I should be the apple’s recipient—that would not be like him. If not the recipient, perhaps I am the giver. That giver has a name that is also the giver’s job.

Eris. Discord. At long last, my true name. Eris.

Meaningless chatter about the incipient League-Empire War fills my compad feeds. They call off the conference, they mass their armadas. Apparently the Floating World and the Hegemony are going to ignore their treaty obligations and sit this one out—for now. Oh well, can’t have everything.

No other messages, visitors, reports, art. The occasional rounds by the largely neo-fundamentalist staff. Silence makes me think of the past, but the past is too complex and not worth thinking about. I am a creature of the ever-bleeding now. My shouts don’t increase my painkiller allowance, but at least they make it seem like I have company.

Finally, a message comes through. My employers. Thank you for your excellent reports on the four regional players. We would like you to return to Earth. The internal political situation has grown interesting and requires your unique observation skills. TWPTB. Those Who Pay the Bills.

Right. My thoughts have a stark clarity even through the opioids. Cinderella is more at home plotting against her stepsisters than enchanted at the ball. I can handle a few new facts. Neither the Leaguers nor my employers nor anybody else gives a fuck about my reports with their trivial information wheedled out of government officials. My employers use me for the chaos and war that flow in my wake. It’s something I’ve often suspected but never thought through, because that would mean having to decide.

By doing what comes naturally, I’m doing what they desire. Who the fuck are they? What the fuck do they really want?

So there’s my choice. The urge to random perversity is nearly overwhelming—to tell my employers to suck themselves dry while I walk away into the galaxy, a free agent. But I’ve been there before. I wasn’t truly free before they found me. Then, I played a bit part on a small stage before an unappreciative audience. Now, they have placed me on a galactic stage, my own writer, director, and choreographer, to act as I will, to create living if ephemeral art. They trust me to be myself for the limited time that I can manage to survive.

Silly them.

All I know about them is what I told Boy Toy the Leaguer. Their handprints are all over my life, but the one place I’ve seen them was on Earth. They must be something old, like that world. Some of them must still be there, playing invisibly with their klepto-oligarch and theocrat toys.

The coming war with the Empire may serve as my loving retaliation against the League for my kind, for the girl on Zanj, and for me, but it is not a complete consummation. The Leaguers didn’t act alone, and they don’t account for all the Border Crossers. Henri said someone was helping them, and I recognize the style of manipulation. Trailing me and my kind, another player has been killing on planetary scale. I must save some love and revenge for this killer who drew attention to us, this player who may also work for my employers. I must get closer to this person.

My best way to find this killer and my employers is continue to do the work of Those Who Pay the Bills, and to see what hell follows with me. Their assignment may double as a death sentence, but I’m more Bathsheba than Uriah, and this should be fun.

So it’s settled. I don’t like to backtrack, but my time on Earth was long ago, too long to remember how it felt. I’ve grown up. I know what I am. I enjoy my work, and I’m damned good at it.

And if I get the chance, I’m going to find my employers and their genocidal stooge and fuck and kill and kill and fuck each one of them. Because I can. I can always change my mind.

Now, who on Earth would be against me?

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.