Gina was an early bird. She was class. She got out of bed well before the competition, rested and ready, and she always showered before going out to work no matter how many hundreds of dollars it took to satisfy the Clean-O-Mat across the road. The rented coffins at Easy Hotel didn’t come with showers, but Gina didn’t mind. The Clean-O-Mat was cheaper.
The synthleather purse under her arm contained all her essentials. Lip gloss, make-up, stockings. Next to the make-up case was her trusty old anti-creep device, the Mk5 military taser, bought years ago at an army surplus auction. She never regretted the purchase. It had saved her life more than once out on the Street.
She always wore a cheap business suit to work, a form-fitting little number with a skirt so short it could only be studied under a microscope. It made her look like a slutty news anchor. The customers always liked that, the perfect mix of good girl and bad girl.
The only thing to break Gina’s illusion of respectability were her leather combat boots. People of her occupation couldn’t afford fancy shoes, at least not ones that fit. She’d seen other girls walking the Street in hooker heels and pink rubber skirts, Frankenstein’s monsters of plastic surgery, like drowned corpses under the neon light. But not Gina.
No, Gina was all natural, all class. She smiled a lot, a pretty smile with nice teeth. The customers liked that too. And they liked boots better than heels. They added a little spice to her image, caught the eye of more potential customers. Men, of course. It was the look that drew them and Gina looked the best. Women were a little different, passed her by as often as not, depending on what did it for them. They could always find men in the same line of work as Gina, or girls who affected a more innocent image as their ‘hook’, some even pretending to be first-timers — but Gina was more respectable than that. Than any of them.
She shook out her long red hair and lit up a cigarette, the only person on the Street before sundown. She could sense the double bottom of her purse, the hard nubs of her pills underneath. The dealers called it ‘Mind Rocket’, a ride that took your consciousness to new heights. The whitecoats, the hats and the suits all called it ‘Spice’, some kind of obscure science-fiction reference, Gina had been told. The users just called it ‘third eye’. It made you see in ways people weren’t meant to see. And out here, it made you enough money to get by one more day.
More people started showing up as the sun disappeared behind a steel horizon, mountains of glass and metal, rectangular giants competing for height. They stood at attention in endless rank and file down the road. No light showed through their dark-tinted windows, just many-coloured reflections as the sunlight was replaced by the colourful glow of neon. The signs and logos rose high above the surface, a random number of letters smudged, damaged or flickering.
Gina picked a spot under a street light, the best place to strut your stuff, the safest place. The monsters stayed out of the light. The killings and muggings all happened in the shadows, where the respectable customers never ventured. The competitors who envied her spot knew Gina, knew the taser in her purse, knew to stay the fuck out of her way. And they knew about her contract with the Yakuza, who charged you protection money and would actually deliver if anyone roughed you up. Her spot was her spot.
She kicked at the discarded fast-food wrappers and cigarette butts. Eventually a clearing formed around her, a small island of light on the stained paving stones. She got a lot of envy for muscling into this spot, but she knew how to handle that. She smiled at a handful of late arrivals edging around her spot, lanky people who lived in the shadows of the Street, shifty and smelly and nervous as a banker in the back part of town. Those types usually snorted or shot up their recreational substance of choice the second they arrived. They still got hired, though, by the kind of people who didn’t want respectability. Big-shot drug dealers. Russian mafia. The fuckin’ Yakuza. Guys who wanted silence, guys who wanted the long-gone no-hopers that wouldn’t even consider approaching the law.
They called it the Street of Eyes. Wherever you went, someone was always looking, checking you out. You couldn’t scratch your ass without a half-dozen people taking note. You couldn’t even think about doing it. You just had to clear your head and wait for a customer to single you out.
The first customers to arrive were always the shady ones who passed her by without a word, headed for the back alleys where the darker deals were made. Soon the others followed, people in suits who looked at Gina with a critical eye. She leaned against the street light and arched her back to give them a little incentive. Gina was a kind of saleswoman, after all, and she knew how to make a nice display.
“You free?” asked a voice from behind her, and she turned around lazily to give the speaker full advantage of her curvy side-on perspective.
“If you got the cash, baby, I can do anything you want.”
She turned to look at him, her eyes searching for the suit . . . and stopped. Not a suit. The guy wore faded jeans, a yellow-blue bomber jacket and a matching baseball cap, and he kept both hands firmly in his pockets. That set off Gina’s creep detector something fierce. She hated the weird ones, you could never predict what kind of shit they’d do. Her hand went to her purse, to the Mk5 — but stopped halfway there. She really needed the cash. No sense scaring him off just yet.
The guy smiled at her intense scrutiny. He was looking straight into her eyes, rather than staring mesmerised at her breasts, and that was unusual. If only she could open her third eye now to see through this guy’s game. If only. It cost too much to keep it going all the time, ’cause the pills didn’t last forever and she needed them to make any money. Worse, eating Spice in front of a potential customer was a sure way to drive him off. It showed you didn’t trust him. The Yakuza and Organizatsiya front-men took that very personally, and Gina did not need a bunch of mobsters after her. Her contract wouldn’t mean a damn thing if she offended someone big.
“Honeybabe, I could keep you busy all night long,” the guy said. He knew the Street lingo. Translated into English, he’d just made her a formal offer for an entire night of work, as formal as it got on the Street. Something not to be ignored.
“All night long, huh? You got the pockets for it?”
“Not my pockets, babe. I got a sugar daddy who’s run ’em deep, deep. You look like a gal who knows what daddy wants. ‘Cause daddy wants your eyes.”
Gina’s eyes narrowed as her interest piqued. ‘Sugar daddy’ meant the guy worked for some kind of big corp, an agent, a recruiter. They always paid well.
She stepped closer until her lips were almost touching his ear. “I’ll do anything daddy likes, if daddy’s big enough.”
“He’s got five hundred big ones waitin’ for ya, sugar,” he replied, holding up a credit slip. Its tiny LEDs glowed in the shape of the number 500,000. A spinning hologram at the top right of the card caught Gina’s attention, the AmeriBank mark of authenticity. “Fifty up front. You want in?”
Fuck it. For a week’s worth of cash up front, she’d risk any number of serial killers.
“You got me, baby,” she whispered in her sultriest voice. “You got me all night long.”
The Street buzzed around them like a pack of hungry vultures. In less than an hour it had filled up to the level of a Japanese subway, islands of people packed shoulder to shoulder with tight paths in between. The business of the Street slowly got into full swing. Drug dealers, greasy food stands, rip-off merchants of every make and model.
Gina and her buyer strolled arm in arm past an old gypsy woman selling beads for six times their worth, his yellow nylon jacket rubbing against Gina’s sleeve. Her eyes searched and found the dull understanding and resentment in the faces of those who took notice of her. She kept one hand in her purse at all times, ready for anything, and she flashed the warning hand signal to anyone who got too close. She had a buyer. The ones who didn’t had better not get any ideas.
They took a roundabout course to the nearest exit whilst pretending to make empty conversation, never too bold or hasty, never attracting attention. Gina had to admit the man was good. He handled the Street like a natural, like he’d been born to it. The two of them followed the natural ebb and flow of the crowd, made a show of looking at stands here and there while they let themselves drift closer and closer to an outbound intersection. Then, smoothly, without disturbing the flow, they poured into a side street and blinked off the radar.
It was like stepping into another world. The noise and the neon faded behind them, replaced by flickering street lights and the faceless office fronts of Downtown. Gina looked back once. She always did, and she shivered at the sight. A mass of faces with no names, fishing a poison river.
Her hand tightened on the soft polymer grip of the Mk5. This is it, she thought, her heart beating faster with anticipation and a touch of fear. Make your move, mister. Are you an axe murderer or aren’t you?
He smiled the same unworried smile and let go of her arm. “Got some wheels parked around the corner if you don’t feel like walkin’.”
“Mommy always told me not to get into cars with strange men,” she whispered in her teasing way. “Guess I don’t listen very well.”
Gina’s heavy boots thumped against the paving stones as they walked. The alley was abandoned. No one came to the Street from this side, there was nothing here but an old road straight into the heart of the corporate slums. Certainly nothing for Street people except maybe burglary. Corp recruiters certainly knew better than to enter the Street from this direction. It’d be known all over in a matter of seconds, and they would be known, an immediate target for Street people with backers — be it corps or gangs — to make their pitch.
That was how most things worked in the City. Covering pretty much the whole of mainland China, it was a mess of towns, villages and cities grown together without any sort of plan or guiding directive. It contained buildings of every imaginable kind within its many districts — tumbledown slums of wood and bricks in one district, blocks of skyscrapers and modern construction in another. Buddhist temples next to shopping streets next to endless apartment blocks.
It had started out as a big construction program to accommodate the massive population boom in the 2030s after the repeal of China’s anti-birth laws. However, the construction never stopped, and soon the expanding towns and urbanised districts grew together into a contiguous region of city all over the country. The City.
Gina thought about stuff like that sometimes, how her world had come to be, how history had shaped things from little seeds into big changes. It intrigued her. Only sometimes, though. Doing it too often was just depressing.
The buyer kept pace beside her, sunk his hands into his pockets and said, “Don’t worry, babe. It’s just a job, nothin’ to it.”
She nodded as if she understood. “You got a name, mystery man, or should I just call you ‘Bomber’?”
“Bomber?” he asked, momentarily puzzled. “Oh, the jacket, right. I like that. Sure, call me Bomber.”
Crap, Gina thought and kicked herself on the inside. “Okay. So where are we going, Bomber?”
“The car.” He chuckled at his own joke. “Naw, you’ll see. You don’t have any plans for tomorrow, right?”
“Would that be a problem?”
“Job might run a little late, is all. Not my place to brief you.” Turning around the corner, he produced a small remote control and aimed it ahead of him. Two sets of headlights blinked on, one on top of the other, and the engine started itself with a V8 roar. Sleek black lines gleamed against the night. A tiny Lamborghini logo glowed in neon on the hood. Gina could only smile — he had to be the real thing to drive a beast like this.
He opened the door for her and, just as she got in, he asked, “Hey, if we’re givin’ each other pet names, what should I call you?”
“How about ‘Beauty’?” she said.
“Perfect.” A big grin spread across his face. “Beauty and the Bomber.”
She wrinkled her forehead at him. “What?”
“Nothing. Never mind. Strap in.”
When she made no move towards her seatbelt, he climbed into the driver’s seat, slammed his door, and put his foot down.
Bomber opened the car door for her, and she stepped out half-blinded by brightness. The street around them glittered with electric light, almost too much for her eyes to bear, white titanium and glass next to antiqued steel and fake plasterwork, every inch of it clean and shiny and glamorous. Hotel lobbies made of marble and mirrors; squares of too-neat grass and too-perfect trees; club entrances blasting mad flashing colours into the street; clear glass facades showing huge, colourfully-lit fountains all spewing in harmony. It was like an old vid, some sappy flick about romantic entanglements, where the two leads always ended up together on top of a fat pile of cash.
The only thing Gina cared about was the fat pile of cash. Bomber was just another middleman and this, she reminded herself, was not a vid. The glitter was hollow, the smiles feigned. She’d seen the dark underbelly of the rich sections before, little shiny islands in the black soup of the City. They played host to just as many back alleys and shady deals as the Street itself. The only difference was the number of suits.
“Welcome to the Hilton, babe,” he said, the first words they’d exchanged since they got into the car. The thunder of the V8 had overpowered any attempt at speech. For that reason the Lamborghini came with wireless radio headsets, but Gina had left hers in its cradle. Talking couldn’t have been further from her mind. Every time she went out on a job, the queasy sense of danger hovered in the pit of her stomach. If she wasn’t careful, if she let her attention slip just for a moment . . . anything could happen.
“It’s nice,” she said as they strolled into the lobby, trying to sound unimpressed by the lavish appointments. Bomber sniffed but made no comment. The stuff in the Hilton’s lounge didn’t need a dissertation, it spoke for itself. Lush carpets, nice plants filled with surveillance bugs, hand-crafted wooden tables and seats. Very expensive. However, they paled before the main attraction.
Colours sparkled off the massive disco ball suspended from the ceiling at the centre of the hall. Now there was a forgotten relic, Gina thought. Many upscale hotels did things like that now, buying cheap century-old crap and mounting it as display pieces. This one had a plaque and everything, proclaiming the ball to be of some vague historical significance. Gina shrugged at it as they moved forward.
The massed crowd accepted them like drops flowing into a multicoloured ocean. Gaijin of every nationality mixed freely throughout the crowd, quietly resented by everyone else based on their colour and country of origin. The Chinese and Koreans held down opposite sides of the room with a buffer of no man’s land in between, pretending not to loathe each other. Clumps of too-clean Japanese sararimen nursed their non-alcoholic drinks at the bar, roughing it down on the mainland, holographic Zaibatsu logos tattooed on the backs of their necks.
Gina listened to the hum of the maglev elevator and let her eyes absorb everything on the way up. After a while in the business, you learned to read hotels like books. The Hilton tried to put its clientele more at ease by being unobtrusive in everything, particularly in watching that clientele. The appointments were lavish but understated, careful not to draw attention to themselves — soft red carpet, real potted plants at every corner, the maglev elevator with its mirror walls. Gina couldn’t see the bugs but caught the subtle implication that they were there, hidden just out of sight.
A glimpse of silvery film on the mirror in front of her seemed to bear out her suspicion. Millions of nanocams spread out over a huge area, their tiny eyes — all but blind individually — combining to form a perfect picture. And up in the ceiling, little pits in the imitation wood panels where audio bugs might be hiding.
There would certainly be more cleverly-hidden systems watching the elevator, though, and Gina didn’t want to be too obvious about looking for them. The real stuff would be invisible anyway. Generally, anything you could find with mere human senses would be there only as a friendly reminder from the management. She could mention she needed a drink and there’d be a room service cart waiting at her chosen floor.
A soft-spoken voice announced their arrival at floor twelve, first in Mandarin, then English, Conglom, Spanish and Japanese. Mostly gibberish. Gina was China-born, but grew up with nothing but English at home and a smattering of random bits and pieces at school. She had no talent for languages, the only ones she really understood were English and Conglom. Learning Conglom had been mandatory once. Back in her day it was the officially-endorsed alternative to English as a common language for most of the Eastern world, so it became a continent-spanning monster with millions of speakers all the way from Europe’s Recommunist states to Australia in the south.
Most of the time the two big languages were enough to get by. Gina’s lack of education created problems sometimes, but not enough to compel her to start studying again.
The elevator doors whirred open, and Gina swallowed a gasp.
The walls of the 12th floor were covered top to bottom in intricate water paints, so beautiful they took her breath away. It seemed like every corner had a new scene to offer. Flowers in full bloom, puffy white clouds against blue ocean skies, tropical beaches at sunset, coral reefs full of life. Gina wandered through it dazzled by the liveliness of it all.
“Nice place, huh?” Bomber said, then shrugged. “Beats the hell out of my flat in Shanghai.”
“You actually have a room here?” she asked.
“We do tonight.”
His key card clicked into the slot, the door popped open, and Bomber motioned for her to go inside. Gina’s hand once again slipped into her purse, to the Mk5, her unfailing insurance policy. She summoned up her courage and went inside.
The room carried a distinct art style, all sharp angles and primary colours. The walls were no more than coloured cubes on a white gridwork. The retro furniture looked designed for robots, not people — Gina certainly didn’t want to try sitting on any of it. A huge glass coffee table dominated the centre of the room, with gleaming plastic stools arranged around it like big square mushrooms.
A woman rose from her seat at the table. She was dressed in a smooth grey business suit with trousers instead of a skirt, her feet clad in black Italian leather instead of heels. Tall, dark, skin like desert sand and posture straight as an arrow. Although she didn’t fill a suit as well as Gina, there was no mistaking her shape.
The woman took one long look at Gina, then said, “This is the best you could do?”
“No less,” Bomber replied. He didn’t seem at all put off by the reaction. “You’re lookin’ at the primest rib in the Street right here, make no mistake.”
No, there was no mistaking who wore the penis in this operation, Gina decided — but Bomber obviously believed in his decision.
“She got a name?” the woman asked, still looking at Gina.
“Beauty,” Bomber answered for her.
The woman’s eyes flicked to him for a moment, staring disapproval. Then she circled around the coffee table and stopped in front of Gina, so close that Gina could smell her breath, as clean and perfect as the rest of her. “A real name.”
“Gina,” she confessed reluctantly, “just Gina.” This was one of the weirdest situations of her entire life. She felt like a little girl caught in front of her schoolteacher, compelled to answer the woman’s questions. And ‘Gina’ was pretty much her name now, even to herself.
“Did you bring any Spice, Gina?”
“A little, ma’am, but I didn’t take any . . .”
The woman paused, nodded her head. Gentle fingers cupped Gina’s chin, turning her head left and right. Finally, she said, “How long have you been in the business, Gina?”
“About three years, ma’am.”
“Then I have to agree, you do look good. I’ve seen people lose it after their first dose.” She clacked her tongue. “Are you out there every night?”
“No, ma’am, only when I need the money.” Then, somewhere inside her, a spark of courage flared up. “Why are you asking me all this? I don’t know anything, I’m just here for a job. He promised me a thousand K.”
“Five hundred,” he corrected her, smiling. “Don’t wanna price yourself out of the market, darlin’.”
She put on a haughty air and sniffed, “I can leave if you don’t want me.”
The woman, too, started to smile. “No, I don’t think that’ll be necessary. You’re everything we need. Good-looking, experienced, and tough. Good find, Simon.”
“I do what I do,” said Bomber.
“So this is about a job?” Gina snapped in frustration.
The woman gave an affirmative hum, still studying every feature of Gina’s body. “We need your eyes, girl, and we’re willing to pay.”
The clock crept closer and closer to showtime as Gina smoothed her borrowed suit, a size too small in every place that counted. She’d worn a miniskirt so long that the lower, classic style felt unnatural and constricting like a thick layer of clingfilm wrapped around her thighs. The jacket was so tight she could hardly breathe. Still, appraising her reflection in a mirrored window, the ensemble looked a little bit more dignified than anything she’d put on in the past decade.
Well, everything except the combat boots, for which they hadn’t been able to find an alternative. None of the woman’s shoes fit Gina and they hadn’t had time to go shopping. Just as well. Gina never did develop an appreciation for heels.
“The mark’s name is Lowell,” the woman’s voice echoed from memory — her name never quite seemed to stick in Gina’s mind no matter how many times she heard it. “First name unknown, alias ‘Gabriel’. Over the past two months, we’ve spent about three billion dollars gathering intel about Lowell and what he does. What we’ve learned in that time fills about one page of print, if you leave the bottom half blank.” She waggled her eyebrows for emphasis, reminding Gina just how deep she was in it. “That’s why we decided to recruit someone of your . . . talents.”
Whatever, she thought at the time. The buyers could be as condescending as they liked as long as they coughed up the dollar. With a fifty-K credit chip in her hand, Gina could sit through any kind of lecture. It was a lot of incentive money. Enough to make the night worthwhile on its own, so Gina approached the rest of the job with a blasé attitude. The Street was full of this sort of thing; she couldn’t count the number of business deals she’d been paid to ‘observe’. ‘Facilitate’. They used such lovely words for it.
“He’s big in nanotech,” the woman continued. “Ties to a lot of corporate R&D institutions, but no one knows exactly how or what. He divvies up most of his time between his activities in the City and an unknown location somewhere in Geneva. The underground says, if you want anything nano-related, you talk to Gabriel.” She sighed. “Now you know as much as we do. This is far from an ideal situation. We want to know this man inside and out, by whatever means necessary. Do you understand?”
Gina nodded. Then she said, “Who exactly do you work for?”
The woman smiled and continued her briefing.
Why did I take this job again? she asked herself. The money, sure, but that couldn’t be all of it. Business wasn’t slow by any means, the buyers loved Gina, she could’ve attracted any number of other jobs. But she went with this one. The one where the weirdness of the people involved, the tone of the briefing, and her gut instinct all warned her away. A vague scent of danger clung to the whole proceedings.
Strange to think. For some reason she couldn’t quite understand or didn’t want to admit to herself, she wanted all of that.
They left the Hilton somewhere around ten o’clock, stepped into the artificial brightness of the City. Bomber had disappeared shortly after delivering Gina to the hotel and hadn’t come back. Neither had the Lamborghini. The woman simply expressed her need for a car on their way down to the lobby and found a taxi waiting for them by the time they reached the kerb.
Afloat in an ocean of memory, she swam back to the present to notice her body entering the nightclub, arm in arm with the woman. She needed the physical support with her third eye open. Waves of thought and emotion rushed into her, a million hot needles pricking her skin, her every nerve tingling with sensation. She could feel bodies grinding together on the dance floor, the mad flicker of colour from high-powered strobes and disco lights, the pounding throb of the music heard through a hundred ears at once.
It was a maze of flesh and steel, pitch dark except for the strobes and flickering spotlights. Rows of half-naked women danced in cages suspended from the ceiling, dressed in all varieties of fetish gear from nurse uniforms to dog collars. A series of little tables lurked at the back of the room where men of taste liked to meet, in full view of the cage dancers while shielded from most of the noise. The woman nudged Gina towards that direction, where a group of men sat waiting at a table.
She recognised him straight away, piecing together features from the grainy photo in his file. Black-and-white laminate resolved into flesh and blood before her eyes. The high forehead, the strong cheeks flowing into an elegant, almost delicate jawline. Hair like polished copper gleamed under the soft light, and she caught a glimpse of eyes the colour of wildfire.
Hard bronze faces looked up to study the new arrivals, their eyes lingering on Gina’s body. They always lingered. Six pairs of them stared openly as she sat down, but she felt his eyes most of all. Smiling eyes, looking straight through her.
The music seemed even louder back here, its hypnotic rhythm coursing through the room like a massive heartbeat. The pumping life of the crowd. She was glad for the bench as she found a seat, legs trembling, barely able to support her own weight. The woman sat down across from her, setting a leather briefcase on the table.
She glanced at Gina with a simple message in her eyes. This is it. Don’t fuck up.
“Gabriel,” she greeted him, her voice pleasant and inviting.
“Jezebel,” he replied. “Who’s your friend?”
“An advisor,” she replied, glancing at Gina. “I trust her implicitly.”
He inclined his head in acceptance and reached out to Gina. She hesitated before taking his hand. When she did, he immediately pulled her arm in close to kiss the back of her wrist. His lips felt strange, soft but dry against her skin. Still holding her hand he asked, “Does she have a name?”
“Beauty,” said Gina. She somehow managed to keep the stammer out of her voice. The surreal pulse of the club made her head swim, kept her confused and disoriented. It was so hard to concentrate . . .
“Glad to meet you, Beauty.” He smiled his charming smile, then flicked a pair of logo-printed Camels out of a hidden pocket in the cuff of his jacket. She begged off when he offered one, lying that she didn’t smoke. Unperturbed, he vanished the cigarette back to whence it came and lit the remaining one for himself.
After a long drag, he exhaled and finally turned back to the woman. “All right. Let’s talk. What do you need with me?”
“I want something,” she answered.
“Don’t we all?”
“I’ve been told you can get it for me. If I was misinformed, I’m sure I can find someone who can.”
He laughed softly. “She plays it hard, this one. Okay. Tell me what you need, and I’ll tell you what it’ll take.”
The woman smiled and launched into a very technical monologue of which Gina could follow five, maybe six words. She didn’t care. She was waiting for a sign from the woman, the tug of an earlobe, letting her know it was time. She half-dreaded it. But, she reminded herself, this was what she did, and she was good at it. A sense of power burned in her bloodstream.
“And that’s what we need,” the woman murmured at the end of her speech. “What’s your offer?” She pulled on her earlobe almost as punctuation. Gina caught it, let out a deep breath and forced herself to concentrate. Slowly, by an effort of will, she submerged herself into the semi-trance of her third eye, cutting through each layer of interference like stepping through a spider web.
Things snapped into focus, sharp and clear as crystal. She could feel the individual members of the crowd, single them out and see them for what they were. She touched the drug-absent thoughts of the cage dancers, gyrating mindlessly to the beat. She sensed greed and suspicion mixing in the minds of the Japanese suits around her, yet she knew that none of them were truly important. Expendable Zaibatsu middle-managers and mob frontmen. None of them made any decisions. They were there just to observe, watching ‘Gabriel’ in action.
She reached out to touch him.
Cheap horror stories had kept Gina company since she was a little girl. She’d imagined all those feelings a thousand times. Heart-stopping fear, the breath squeezed from your throat, skin crawling like a hundred spiders writhing across your body. But she never experienced it until now.
The third eye trance could do some real fucked-up things to you if you did something stupid, like reaching out to someone on LSD or other psycho drugs. Gina had made that mistake once, by accident, when she was just learning the trade. She still saw pieces of it in her nightmares.
It tasted like that when she entered Gabriel’s mind, like breaking into someone else’s fever dream, shapes and shadows beyond her understanding. Chaos. Landscapes that changed completely from one moment to the next, a twisted mockery of cities, half-melted skyscrapers sagging forward like old steel skeletons, their windows all blown out, sharp glass shards replacing the grass beside scorched puddles of asphalt. Black hills framed the horizon, where the sky wept acid and the trees begged to die.
Then she realised it was the same city, seen from a hundred different angles, where ash statues of people flaked away in the wind, arms thrown up to shield themselves with eternal futility, lifelike faces carved in horror. Children crumbled to dust in their mothers’ arms. The wind itself was no wind, only their screams howling through the streets.
She fought to regain her balance in the emotional whirlwind. Real tears streamed down her cheeks, and real hands tried to hide them, brush them away before they were seen.
Suddenly, the city scattered like bits of torn paper. White silence filled her mind, a blank state of being where nothing could exist, not even vacuum. There was only Gina, observing it without being part of it as she strained to grasp the situation with which she was confronted.
Then a quiet voice in her head said, “You shouldn’t do that.” And simultaneously through her eyes — her real eyes — she could see him sit there smiling at her from across the table. Smiling. As if he knew.
Gina started, her trance ripped away by a shock of cold terror, but her limbs wouldn’t respond. When she tried to swim back to her own body, it only seemed to drift further away from her. The city closed in around her, exploding over and over and over again, and she felt her skin blister and burn with the agony that filled the dead statues. She wanted to cry out, but she had no mouth.
She bit down hard, and the sudden taste of blood filled her mouth, real pain linking her back to her own body. She welcomed it. It was a sharp, wonderful ache, and she clung to it as if it were a lifesaver. Inch by terrible inch, the waking nightmare receded, and Gina hung on against it until she saw only the inside of her eyelids. The sounds were harder to shake — crackle of blackening skin, eyes hissing as they melted and streamed down her cheeks.
When she was inside herself again, more than a little shaken, her terrified strength and determination fled her body. Her head drooped, heavy as lead, sapped by the effort of survival. She licked her lips with a tongue like sandpaper and lifted her wine to her mouth, gulping it down with no regard for taste.
“What’s the matter?” the woman asked, interrupting her monologue at Gabriel. “You don’t look so good.”
“I don’t–” Gina began. Suddenly, her stomach heaved, the emotions of her experience flooding into her all at once. She put a hand over her mouth and fled the table. Her unsteady feet took her into the back of the club, desperately in search of a bathroom.
She ran into the ladies’ room and dove for the nearest place to be sick into, somewhere between the chipped blue porcelain and the old mirrors made opaque by years of smudged graffiti. The City had few health regulations, and it showed. She doubled over the dirty sink as another wave of nausea hit her, ejecting her Hilton dinner into the rusty drain. Her head was pounding. After-images of the wasteland flashed on her closed eyelids, silhouettes on a red sky, as if the whole world were on fire. Gina wanted to scream at them to stop.
Struggling fingers turned on the tap, which spewed out a stream of brown water to wash things down. Too distressed to focus and control it, she endured the chaos of her third eye lashing out at random, like a dog straining at its leash. The drugs still buzzed wild through her system. She felt a young couple hiding in one of the stalls, riding against each other very, very quietly to avoid attracting attention. Their sex-charged emotions hit Gina like a sledgehammer, triggered a blast of arousal hormones straight into her bloodstream, which only served to upset her more.
She was still in a haze when she stumbled out of the bathroom. Wild and half-panicked. What was she going to do? The mere thought of going back to the table frightened her. She never wanted to see those things again. And Gabriel, he’d felt her. He knew she was trying to read him. That frightened her most of all.
“Can help, miss?” someone asked from behind her. She jumped and turned to face the unexpected voice. Before she even knew what was happening, a muscular hand clamped over her mouth and she was dragged out of the club through the back door without so much as a by-your-leave.
Cold steel prickled against her throat. A knife. Hot breath in her ear, a whisper, thick Russian accent, “Don’t move. You come with me.”
A body muscling her forward, thoughts that stank of lust struggling with some sick sense of duty, trying to decide whether to ‘just follow orders’ or maybe spend a little time with her in the back seat before turning her over. The thug was twice her size. Even confused and disoriented, she knew she didn’t stand a chance. She wriggled, but not so much as to arouse suspicion, while he wrestled her towards an old car made up of squares and rectangles, its make long-forgotten and lost to history. Sadistic pleasure echoed from his mind to hers.
He reached past her to open the door — and crumpled like a wet rag when Gina pulled the trigger on her Mk5.
“Fuck you too,” she spat. She felt dirty from head to toe. Breathing hard with fresh adrenaline, still gripping the Mk5 tightly, warm plastic humming in her hand as it recharged.
“Gina!” someone hissed, again surprising her, and she whirled around to zap him, but a hand caught her arm before she could take aim. “Girl, wake up, it’s me!”
She recognised the voice. “Bomber . . .?”
“Yeah,” he said. He didn’t look anything like Bomber without the yellow-blue jacket and cap. Instead he wore a pair of jeans and a black blazer that bulged unnaturally at his left armpit. Gina instantly knew it to be a shoulder holster. “Listen, we gotta get out of here. We got made. When Gabriel finds out you took out the guy he sent to grab you, there’s gonna be serious heat coming our way. Come on, get in the car.”
She reached for the door, obeyed without even thinking about it. Then she stopped to think about what she was doing. “You’re gonna steal his wheels?” she asked incredulously.
“Yep,” he said, pulling a bunch of keys out of the Russian’s pocket. The heap of flesh and bone still twitched every few seconds, eyes still open and moving although he was out cold.
“What about that woman? Is she still inside?”
“Jez’ll have to look out for herself. I don’t get paid enough to die.”
“God,” she whispered, her knees weak with panic and confusion. The sight of more Russians running out of the club spurred her into action; she let out a high-pitched squeal and dove inside. “What the hell is going on?!”
“Don’t know,” he said, leaping into the driver’s seat. The rear window shattered into a million pieces as a burst of bullets came tumbling through. Bomber glanced into the driver’s rear mirror and said, “Seatbelts.”
Gina was appalled at how he could think about seatbelts at a time like this. She soon learned that Bomber drove every car like it were a Lamborghini.