By Tom Doyle
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
Introduction: I wrote this during the fourth week of the Clarion Workshop. That's around the time when the writers usually begin to crack under the pressure. My response to the strain was this digitus impudicus of a story. It's another of my attempts to find future employment for the mentally ill (a clue to part of the illness is in the title). Because of her condition, our heroine may have a very different job than she thinks. Her work is going to include more than the recommended human allowance of sex and violence, so I'll understand if you don't want to cross this border with me. But if you do, you may discover why this story won the Strange Horizons readers poll for its year.
There's a tendency to romanticize certain forms of mental illness in literature and movies. Maybe I've done that a bit here and elsewhere, but I think I can cheer on these fractured personalities without pretending that I'd like to be one.
Now, it was Monday morning, ship time, so she was against the Empire. She liked the sound of that: little glam-bitch her against the big, evil, and deathly dull Empire of the New Systems. The New Systems didn't call themselves an Empire, but everyone else did, so fuck 'em. Which she had--one of them at least. The Imperial Consul dozed next to her in her cabin, his sweat still drying from his well-and-thorough fucking, scratch marks and bruises still fresh and angry on his overly muscled back.
This was her favorite moment, when her lover was a static piece in the larger artwork of her cabin. The room was custom decorated for the voyage; her own creations hung next to those of the modern masters, their proper place. Her palette ran with hungry excess to the red and black, blending with her lover's mauled skin.
A visual masterpiece, but too quiet. What to do, what to do? The alternatives came into focus--she could fuck him again, continuing to screw out info in pillow talk (and other less gentle talk and acts). She could kill him. So many ways, so little time. She could try to recruit him. Who for again? Ah yes, the League. No doubt about it, it was Monday and she was allied with the Pan-Humanoid League.
Or she could pick (D): all of the above. She had done it before. He might deserve it.
What to do? She lit a cigarette. It was an expensive habit; new lungs weren't cheap. But neither were all the other body parts that she wore through. Business expenses. She was ever ambivalent about the raw meat of her body. If her employers wanted her expertise, they had to pay for the joyous collateral damage to her flesh. Yay!
What to do!? She didn't want to decide. She didn't have to decide. No one could make her decide. She would see what happened when he woke up. She would wake him up now.
Then, her name used to be Robynne Owen. Robynne had preferred living alone in a shit-hole apartment on Earth to studying Classics at her offworld all-twat college. She certainly couldn't return to her manipulative Martian parents. Grandma had left a nice trust fund, and though they tried to keep as much of it from her as they could, thousands of credits still leaked out.
Living alone meant that all kinds of people and things came and went, and she alone was constant but she was never really alone. She had her own stage for an always changing, always appreciative audience.
Living alone, Robynne could be a virgin for her art. She worked in human and alien body fluids for her pigments; her paintings were anatomy lessons gone wrong.
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, before hair, scales, and shells matured and made them less vulnerable. 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 opiates in particular.
Robynne's thing for the opiates 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, she went to the SS Olympus's ship party. She loved parties, except when they bored her, which was often. She always loved to dress for parties, because she was good at it.
She believed that a secret agent should always dress as colorfully outrageous as possible and accentuate her controversial features. She had many controversial features to choose from. She was low-gravity tall, with endless legs, which gave her walk a fragile (yet still sensual) quasi-lameness in high grav, as if she were always in heels that were too high. Her breasts were ample in absolute terms, but her tall frame allowed her to control their emphasis. Her fingers were long like extended claws.
But her most controversial feature was her face. Despite whatever array of piercings she sported, it remained the face of a precocious, prurient child, the kind of face that made the most innocent of lollipops look naughty. All the genders with a taste for human females found her repellent and irresistible at the same time. She was the bad thing that they weren't supposed to have.
Other than some casual self-cutting, she never varied her physical form--that was a sport for others. She only varied dress and identity. Clothes make the woman.
She swept into the gloriously retro-aristo ballroom. A pert little crewgirl (what was she doing later?) announced her as some Countess from beyond the spiral arm. Exactly where beyond didn't matter so long as it was too far away to be relevant to these provincials. She had always believed that she really was a Countess; marvelous how dreams came true. Only an aristocrat could screw and be screwed with impunity.
Tonight, the Countess had decided to screw a Pan-Humanoid Leaguer. She didn't know yet today whether she was for or against the League; she only knew that that they were a major power. A League representative would be more difficult to lure to her cabin than the Imperial Consul had been. That dull fuck was hers with a dirty story and a smile. If she tried such a direct approach with a Leaguer, he would assume she was the ship's whore, and a quick and simple money transaction did not suit her purposes for this liaison. Still, she would need a trader's mindset. The merchant-dominated Leaguers had a mania for having things others wanted. She had to show a Leaguer that everyone wanted her.
She began her campaign by accepting a dance with the ship's Captain, a lovely woman who had let her hair go grey to appear more distinguished. The Countess danced with only technical proficiency; her low-grav legs would never propel her with ease across the floor. But she made her partners feel graceful, so all desired a turn.
"My sweet Captain, can't you do something about this music?"
"Don't you find it pretty?"
"Yes, but pretty is boring. Why not music from the dying screams of a thousand species--something you can really dance to?"
The Captain laughed heartily--the Countess was already notoriously outre on the ship.
"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." She bent and kissed the Captain full on her tight-lipped mouth. A jealous, disapproving murmur simmered in the crowd.
The Captain's blush was not very distinguished. "Of course, once the voyage is over, it's a different matter," she whispered.
"Of course. But now our dance is done." And the Countess bowed and went on to select her next partner.
The Leaguer delegation discussed trade and only glanced in her direction. Impossible to tell if there was any interest yet. Damned hucksters instinctively avoided flashing their interest in anything--it drove up the cost, monetary or otherwise.
She chose a member of the Imperial delegation, not the Consul. Young and tender, strong and stupid, like the Empire. Also attentive and unquestioning.
"Your ram ships remind me of triremes. Do you know about triremes?"
"No, Madame." Another dull one.
"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 was only exceeded by the numerous Imperial phobias. She could feel the innocent boy gulp. Charming. Perhaps him and the crewgirl. Later.
"Of course, you'd have to pilot that ship. I begged him to show some fight, but he didn't leave a mark on me."
Before the last note of the dance, the boy had furtively bowed and made his exit. If he didn't hold his tongue, all would be well.
A Leaguer seemed to consider approaching her. She ignored him and selected a dancing master to help her put on a show.
A marvelous slashing pain shot up her strained legs as she danced. Red shoes syndrome. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. Faces, alien and human, blurring together, all looking at her. Wanting to be her or fuck her--never a clear distinction.
But Consul Dull Fuck must have spotted her earlier with the other Imperial--he was trailing her across the dance floor. Not the attention she wanted. "You said you loved me," he hissed at her. "You said you'd leave with me." It annoyed her how the enemy was always trying to induce some petty form of dissonance (usually guilt). She said lots of things. Her words only had meaning in terms of her assignment. And today, Saturday, she didn't care about the Empire. She needed to talk to someone else to keep the Consul out of her face and get a Leaguer's attention.
She bowed towards the dancing master and left the floor. A cluster of squid-like Floaters hovered nearby. Useless to her. They had no interest in ancient literature, modern art, or her other soiree gambits that mysteriously elicited the political views of others. And a Leaguer would place no value on Floater sexual tastes. She was convinced that, for fucking, Floaters' tentacles had enormous potential, but hanging by suspension boots while waiting to become a tedious alien's sandwich/sex sacrifice was not how she wanted to end this voyage.
But how did the Floaters feel about the local humanoids? Would they abide by one of their conflicting treaties and enter a regional war? She was just going to have to mark that one "unknown" and move on.
Beyond the Floaters stood the smirking Hegemony Ambassador. On a previous mission, she had reported: "He is a squat little man from a high-gravity world, ugly and old, without poetry in his soul--not usual for a frequent spacefarer. He enjoys addressing his lord the Hegemon without ceremony or flattery, which leads to disputes, but no one faults his directness. His form is dull, his thought sharp, and neither ever varies. He decided his loyalties as a young man and will not change them come hell or psychosis."
He would have to do. Leaguers coveted the older world culture and tastes of the Hegemony, but could never master the casual disregard of wealth and price that came naturally to the Hegemonians. She allowed the Ambassador to approach her. Oh, but he dressed so atrociously plain.
"My lady, you're particularly stunning this evening." He never stopped smirking; it was impossible to tell whether he was sincere.
"It reassures me that you look the same as always, Ambassador. What the hell are you wearing? Are you being paid enough?"
He didn'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."
They left the Consul as he attempted not to smoke with rage in public. They walked arm in arm into a private viewing parlor, which showed the stars as they would have appeared if the ship were in real space. Delightful artifice. A Leaguer would assume that the Ambassador was seeking a liaison with her. And perhaps he was.
With his usual lack of delicacy, the Ambassador broke 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 shook 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. "My only condition is that I cannot stand the importunities of the small and peevish."
"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 lost his smile, though there was something in his eyes, and if it was pity, she would kill him. But they were rudely interrupted by the lightest of sounds.
It was the footfall of a League representative. No door in most commercial ships could keep a Leaguer out. To say he was both rich and politically important was particularly redundant within the League. His ever-young skin was so fine and translucent that you could see the outlines of his organs and ribs in the proper light. His hair was like tinted glass. So cold. To touch him would be like etching crystal.
"Lady, you must dance with me." And he took her hand and led her back out and onto the floor.
Oh my, yes, she was allied with the League.
When Robynne had recovered from her OD, the doctors had told her that she was pregnant. She had 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.
Sunday evening was time to relax. She wrote her report of the party with a quill pen on an electronic pad. She believed the most important part of her job was sending timely, clear, and accurate reports. She might be negligent of most duties, but not this one. No matter what she wrote, she always had positive feedback on her reports.
"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 rose, his come a dessert liqueur."
It made her wet just thinking about it. She didn't need to touch herself for the rest, she got herself fully off just with a finely tuned set of squeezes. She climaxed over and over again, screaming invective against herself and mommy and daddy and all others.
They had told Robynne the job's pay. Fuck the trust fund. "When do I start?" She had had some jobs before. She usually managed both to avoid doing much work and to sabotage the business for kicks.
They knew about those other jobs. They explained that this job would be different--she would enjoy her work. She was a natural at it.
"A natural what? Art whore?"
They explained that she had a type of personality, genetic in origin but environmentally cultivated, well-suited to secret agent work.
She didn't like the sound of that. "My various diagnoses were just political. I'm who I choose to be."
They laughed. Yes, they agreed, you are. More than anyone else, you are.
They explained her job. She would have to leave Earth. That was good. They would place her in certain situations that required close observation. She would use any means necessary to obtain detailed intelligence on these situations. She would have complete discretion in forming alliances to obtain information. She would report to them what she found.
"And who are you?"
We're the ones who pay the bills, they said.
Tuesday afternoon, ship time, and she was finally getting up.
The Empire was OK today. But the Hegemony had to go. The League could go fuck itself, because she wasn't interested. The Leaguer had looked at her art, and asked how much would it cost. "Everything," she had said, and he had not understood.
Her com line had been trying to get her attention for who knows how long. Something about a disturbance outside her cabin.
She opened her door, still in her negligee. Half the ship was watching the drama, and she was late to the show. The Imperial Consul was shouting at the Leaguer and waving a pistol in the air. The Leaguer stood still, trying to look impassive, but everyone could see the outline of his heart beating faster behind his rib cage.
"I won't let her fall into your hands, you inhuman bastard. I'm taking her off this ship." Everyone was always talking about her, but this time it was not satisfying.
"You'll take her no place, Imperialist. She's under League protection. Do you understand what that means?"
Oh, this was really too much to bear.
"Stop trying to be my fucking parents!"
Stunned silence. OK. Perhaps she sounded just the tiniest bit nuts.
The Consul glared at her and the Leaguer. "This isn't over. Not by a long shot."
She touched his cheek. "Don't be huffy, sweetums, it brings out your manly cliches."
He marched off. Probably going to leave the ship. She gave a little wave. "Ta-ta, dear. We hope you've enjoyed your stay. Say hello to the Emperor for me." Oh, that last was excessive.
He'd better come back, or this wasn't going to be a fun voyage at all.
The crowd was beginning to fade away. Good. But one person wasn't moving. She confronted the Leaguer.
"Time to go home, and take your boy suit with you."
"I don't understand."
"Try thinking of it as evolution, not a sell-off."
Quicker than thought, his hands grasped her wrists, tightly restraining them as he had when they had fucked. "Not this time, border crosser. You and I are going to spend much much more time together."
Border crosser. Though she was unsure of their meaning, the words fit her like a slipper with razor blades. This was getting interesting.
Oh drat. That pedantic Ambassador was here, too.
"My lady, do you require any assistance?"
Before she could answer, the Leaguer had bolted, again with that enhanced speed that made him a blur.
"Damn your interfering grey soul," she growled. But her words only brightened his face.
"The stalemate between League and Empire has kept the regional peace for a hundred years. Doesn't that concern you?"
"Direct. That's good. How about the term 'border crosser'? Does that concern you?"
She hesitated, then spoke in a child's voice. "Yes."
The Ambassador nodded. "Good." His eyes locked into hers. "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 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?" She knew what he meant, but she wanted more words about her.
"Humans remember facts, that's important. But most humans also remember roughly how they felt about those facts, both then and moments ago. Part of being flexible is not remembering how one felt before."
He was wonderful when he talked about her. She recognized herself as the shrinks had described her, but they had never suggested reason, just disease. "An adaptation," she murmured.
"An extreme version of such a person makes for an excellent secret agent."
"Because they are good at getting information?"
The Ambassador shook his head. "Forget that. Here is the important thing. The League has detected some of these agents before. Border crossers. They have not ended well. I do not think your employers expected, or desired, that you would survive this long."
A flash of the nightmare, a death not of her choosing. Leaguers were emotionally different. But what could she have done? It was her nature to go too far.
"Thank you." She touched his arm. "I have missed you. Do you want to stay with me now?"
But the Ambassador just walked away.
Robynne had never liked her name. Traveling under a different identity for each region suited her. She did not keep a low profile; she was loudly secretive. She talked about herself a great deal--she couldn't help that--but what she said was as contradictory as before. Her sexual style (wild and liberating, painful and ecstatic) made her at home on some worlds, a novelty on others.
Her past assignments were a blur, mixed with her tableaus in life and on canvas. She remembered the art she'd painted with pigments of liquefied corpses on Ganga. She had contributed several gallons to the paint supply.
She remembered the thoroughly urban, cosmopolitan world of Zanj. It was still polycultural--like many worlds in one. Harder to get bored. Sometimes she crossed paths with others she suspected of working on the same side, but there was no way to be sure. A wonderful girl had lived with her there, dark skinned and painfully thin, but one day she was gone. That was OK, because she had begun to feel happy, which was a very empty feeling. She would have had to move soon anyway.
The past was always too complex and not worth thinking about. She was a creature of the ever-bleeding now. She went where she was told, but once there she did what she wanted. Anywhere but Earth. She had never liked Earth. On Earth they remembered Robynne, and would not let her be this new shining being she had created.
She did not have much time. She had too much time. The threat of death, like becoming old, boring, or alone, was not something that she could think about for long. A serious threat required a serious distraction. She stopped her reports and turned to Art. Another tableau. She would have to use existing characters from her work--the crewgirl and the Imperial boy. No time for seduction and emotional captivity. She offered ridiculous sums to get their full consent to any act short of murder. Not that murder would matter--legal retribution would probably come too late for her.
She reconfigured her room as the top of a sunny hillock. A distant flute trilled like birdsong. She instructed her 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."
She had watched them with each other, beautiful and tender, like a classical poem. It couldn't last, it mustn't last. The room darkened. When they were at full stride, she came at them with a switch, frustrating their rutting, hitting them in the most tender places she could reach. "Dirty filthy whores!" She was their mother, and she had found them at their new play in the fields. They knew what to do next. "No, mummy. You're the whore."
And then they were upon her. They took her switch, and slashed at her with it. Beating her down. Violating her in every conventional way they could think of. She came angrily, furious that they could force her pleasure so trivially. She egged them on to truly hurt her, humiliate her. Atonal music and psychotropic light sequences encouraged their brutalities. They spent themselves physically upon her, losing themselves and their characters. Then they became quiet, again conscious of their own mercenary shame.
She went after them again. She reminded herself not to kill them--they were not plausible targets. The frustration was exquisite. Senses exhausted, she and they were beyond conventional pleasures now. She made them do things to each other. Impossible things that they could never even speak of to apologize for, absolutely no absolution. They collected for her what she needed from each of them, as she had collected from all the others.
When finally they were exhausted beyond stims and switch, she called for someone to remove her toys. And then she began to paint. She used all of the bodily fluids and tissue samples she had gathered on the ship. She mutated the tissues so they would grow to monstrous tumors, sculpted to her design. Chaotic in form, her art hung by a representational fingernail, for those with the sense to see, feel, taste, smell. Everyone was there. The girl and the boy and the Consul and the Leaguer and the Ambassador and everywhere her, her, her. One last scream against them all. In this, by this, she would survive. If only they could hear her on Earth.
She slept. She dreamed. In dreams she couldn't remember whom she was for or against anymore. It didn't matter. She was against the Empire, against the League, against herself, against everyone always.
They came for her while she dreamed--no cabin door could stop a Leaguer. She had asked the Captain for extra security, but what was a commercial ship captain against the League?
She woke up long enough to be slapped.
"Border crosser," the Leaguer hissed. "I will smear your flawed brain in front of your mediocre eyes, then sign my name to your corpse."
Damn, that sounded like something she might say. Kudos.
And then she was 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 was a monster and mommy and daddy were monsters and she was a monster but it was better to be with monsters than to be alone.
Oh oh. What a way to begin the day. Someone was torturing her again. Actually, torture was too artistic a term for this. For the moment, he was just beating the piss out of her. Boy Toy of the League. She was definitely against the League today, Wednesday or not.
The cabin appeared to be set up for just this sport. She should have known that these creeps would bring their own works wherever they went. The air already smelled of a range of human effluvia (hers) plus some of their delicate sweat.
So far a few broken bones and a few patches of flayed skin. Some deeper cuts--was that her ulna showing? No amputations yet. No truth drugs--he seemed to know not to bother with those.
"What is your name?" Smack. "Who do you work for?" Wham. "Blah blah blah." Smack smack.
Scream. Spit blood. Scream. She was crying and shrieking because it seemed like the thing to do. She didn't know half the answers anyway. She could have been a cold quiet bitch about it, but only mommy had ever fully appreciated that persona. It helped that she had sincere motivation. (Please!) This was nothing like her last tableau. As interesting as this pain was, it was not under her control, and that was truly excruciating. (God please!) Sometimes a guy would actually stop when she cried and shrieked. (Ohgodohgodplease!)
She wished he would stop now.
Amputation time. He started on the lovely long fingers of her left hand. He held custom designed gripping and ripping tongs for fingers, dark metal against his translucent skin. "Who do you work for?" She shook her head. He ripped off a finger. A finger's worth of blood shot out. A tendon dangled. Her body convulsed. Not real, not real, go to sleep little girl. But they must have given her something to keep her conscious. He cauterized the wound. Keeping her alive, too, for now. He went on to the next finger. "Who do you work for?"
Her mind squeezed down on a thought hard as diamond. If she somehow survived, she would never be ignorant of her bill-paying employers' identity again.
In five eternities he finished with the left hand. He looked to her right hand (her right hand!) and then said, "No, something else first."
An assistant brought forward one of her paintings. An original. Shit, she had shown her softness. The Leaguer pointed at the painting. "What is your name?"
She didn't hesitate. "I was Robynne Owen." Stupid. It wouldn't work.
"Good. We knew that, of course. Now, who do you work for?"
"I don't know." He aimed the gun again. "They were on Earth, at the hospital, I don't know anything else, please."
"Not good enough."
"I'll give you my reports."
The Leaguer laughed, but his ribs hardly moved. "No one gives a fuck about your inane reports, border crosser."
He vaporized the painting. She screamed, and all of her screamed with her.
He went through painting after painting, burning, crushing, destroying. She willed death at him, promised him everything, threatened vainly, and he didn't stop. She asked him to fuck her now, and he hesitated, but not for long. Finally, he reached the last painting. Her most recent work. The tumors were starting to show. He would kill it.
She was really going to die.
But he only had time to say "Who do you work--" when the room rocked. Another explosion blew a hole in the wall and sent small pieces of metal slicing into her left leg and arm. Ouch. Hmm. Particle beam explosions seemed to follow her around space like groupies. Whoever it was, this probably meant an interstellar war. Hee hee. Cough blood. Hee.
Boy Toy sent the other Leaguers through the hole to the hallway. She heard Consul Dull Fuck cum Stalker shout something about blood and vengeance. There was another explosion, then no shouts, only groans.
Escape was more dangerous than staying put, so Boy Toy retrieved the painting to finish it off. She had one last weapon against him. "I've won," she said.
This stopped the angry and confused Leaguer for just a moment. In that moment, the Ambassador strode in with a pistol. In one graceful motion, he shot the Leaguer with his right hand and bowed towards her tortured self with a sweep of the left. The Leaguer shattered into dust. The Ambassador grabbed the painting just before it touched the ground.
OK, so he did have fucking poetry in his soul. Good thing she still had her right fingers--she could write about this in her next report.
"My lady, I believe it's time for 'exeunt omnes.'"
He was so ugly he was beautiful. "I think I'll just pass out instead."
She awoke in another ship's sick bay, Robynne again for now. Through the glorious painkillers (more, more, more) she could feel that she was nothing but wounds, wonderful wounds. Damn, she was hard to kill. She enjoyed the feeling of dying too much to die.
No time to dawdle--the regen treatments were already underway. She commanded (ever so politely, she was a lady) the comp next to her 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. Her next artwork would be a masterpiece of personal visceral trauma.
The Ambassador had not waited for her return to consciousness. He had left her with her last painting, only slightly scuffed. He had also left her a rose and his card. His name was Henri. A nice, warm, safe name.
Henri knew not to stay, she thought. He understands. The thought thrilled and appalled her.
Henri had added to her painting. It was outrageous presumption. It worked. In blood (his? hers?), he had drawn the outline of an apple, and inscribed in it "to the fairest" in ancient Greek, which she naturally knew. She did not think Henri was saying that she should be the apple's recipient--that would not be like him. If not the recipient, perhaps the giver. That giver had a name which was also the giver's job.
Eris. Discord. At long last, a true name.
No other messages for her. Meaningless chatter about the incipient League-Empire War filled her com line. Apparently the Floating World and the Hegemony were going to ignore their treaty obligations and sit this one out. Oh well, can't have everything.
No other messages, visitors, reports, art. Shouting did not increase her painkiller allowance, but at least it made it seem like she had company.
Finally, a message came through--her employers. They thanked her for her excellent reports on the four regional players. She would be returning to Earth soon--they needed her peculiar observation skills there. The internal political situation had grown interesting.
Right. Her thoughts had a stark clarity even through the opiates. Cinderella was more at home plotting against her stepsisters than enchanted at the ball. She could handle a few new facts. Neither the Leaguers nor her employers nor anybody else gave a fuck about her reports with their trivial information wheedled out of government officials. It was simpler than that. Her employers were happy about the chaos and war that flowed in her wake, and they wanted her to incite more of the same. It was something she had often suspected but never thought through, because that would mean having to decide.
By doing what came naturally to her, she was doing exactly what they wanted. Who the fuck were they?
So there it was. Her choice. The urge to random perversity was nearly overwhelming--to tell her employers to suck themselves dry and walk away into the galaxy, a totally free agent. But she knew better, she had been there. She had been no more free before they had found her. Then, she had played a bit part on a small stage before an unappreciative audience. Now, they had placed her on a galactic stage, her own writer, director, and choreographer, to act as she would, to create living if ephemeral art. They trusted her to be herself for the limited time that she could manage to survive.
All she knew about them was what she had told the Leaguer. The one place she had seen them was on Earth. They must be something old, like that world. Some of them must still be there.
So it was settled. She usually did not like to backtrack in life, but she felt ready now for Earth. Earth was a long time ago, too long ago to remember how it felt. She had grown up. She knew what she was. She had a job she enjoyed, and she was damned good at it.
And if she got the chance, she was going to find her employers, her real employers, and fuck and kill and kill and fuck each one of them. Because she could. She could always change her mind.
Now, who on Earth would be against her?