“I do not think you know what you ask,” said Mahmoud, frowning. His eyebrows were like black caterpillars in the dim light of the galley. “Things are not the same here as in your Federation. Odessa may be a big city, but the entertainment taxes keep such things in the houses of rich men and foreigners, so that we of the working class are not distracted from honest labour by your decadent Western ways.” He couldn’t quite keep the sarcasm out of his voice, but he was serious. The ship’s timbers creaked gently as if to agree with him. “Poor men do not use virtual reality equipment.”
     Gina listened calmly, then shook her head. “There’s got to be some way of getting access. You have people who use VR for their jobs, right?”
     “Rich men and foreigners,” Mahmoud repeated. “The mere act of seeking access to a VR terminal could be enough to arouse suspicion from all kinds of directions. Whoever is after you could track you down with ease.”
     She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it suddenly with a click of teeth. Instead she hissed, “I never said there was anyone after me.”
     “Then you should make it less obvious,” he replied, staring deep into her eyes. “Be wise, my girl. I knew it when I first dredged you up, when you were muttering in your sleep from fever. Even so, I would have figured it out by now. For a Federation woman you are a remarkably poor liar.”
     “And you’re too damned clever to be a fisherman!” she snapped back at him. She was so angry, furious, about how wrong everything had gone. She wouldn’t even be here if they’d listened to her, instead of smack in the fucking third world with no way out. She could’ve worked something out and been with someone who cared about her.
     Gina hadn’t meant for the conversation to turn this way, but now all her frustrations had found a target. She continued, “Why did you rescue me, huh? Why did you bring me here? Why are you so bloody kind for no reason?! I can’t tell if you’re really real or if this is all some giant mind-fuck!” She pounded a fist against the bulkhead, suppressing the urge to slap Mahmoud around the head, but her anger faded instantly as the strength went out of her. Her knees buckled. She sagged back against the wall while Mahmoud rushed forward to catch her.
     “Easy,” he said, steadying her back to her feet. “You forget your own body.”
     “I don’t care. I’m through following everyone around, letting people decide my life for me.” She looked up at Mahmoud with steel-blue eyes, fighting loose of his grip, and brought her legs back under control. “Either you help me get into VR or I’ll do it by myself.”
     Mahmoud broke eye contact, scowling as if in pain. “You don’t know what you ask.” She opened her mouth to speak again, but he cut her off. “You don’t. You’ll find out why. But if this is truly what you want,” he sighed, “I’ll do what I can.”
     “Thank you,” Gina said sincerely. Now the main emotion burning in her chest was guilt. Mahmoud was right, she didn’t know what she was asking for, but it was something she had to do.
     She reached out to touch his arm, half in comfort, half apology, but he avoided her hands. His face had turned hard and deeply-lined, almost the opposite of his usual relaxation. “It will take a day or two to arrange. The timescale is not up for negotiation.”
     Gina didn’t know what to say. Lamely, the only thing that came to her mind was, “I’ll link up with my Chinese bank account, I can pay you back.”
     The old smile returned to his lips as suddenly as it had gone, as if she’d said something terribly funny. “I never assumed you wouldn’t,” he said.
     She gave a wry chuckle, then stepped closer and threw her arms around Mahmoud’s neck. “I’m Gina,” she whispered into his shoulder. “Pleased to meet you.”
     “Mahmoud Kerensky,” he replied and awkwardly returned the hug. “The pleasure is mine. Now, please let go before my wife sees and guts me like a fish.”
     Snorting a laugh, Gina did as he asked. “Really, thank you. I wish . . . I wish I could pay you back properly, for everything. You don’t know how important this is.”
     “Do not worry. Just lie down, rest, you’re still in no shape to go running around everywhere on your own.”
     “I’m tired of resting,” she countered. “I want to do something. Anything before I go stir-crazy.”
     After a moment’s thought, Mahmoud asked, “Have you ever been fishing?”
     She shook her head, and started to get worried as she caught the massive grin spreading across his face.

***

     Mahmoud had taken the boat out to sea and hung some lines over the side, baited to attract butterfish, which he claimed was the only fish you could still catch in the Black Sea nowadays. During the quiet moments he spouted lots of sailor’s talk at Gina, barked orders at the skeleton crew who’d joined the pleasure cruise, or conversed quietly with his wife in a queer mixture of Arabic, old Russian, English and Conglom. Gina couldn’t decipher a word of it. Not that she’d ever stoop to eavesdropping, oh no. She just liked to know what people were saying.
     The boat pitched and yawed across the choppy waters, cutting into the cool autumn wind. The afternoon sun’s orange and gold bled through the clouds, the air tasted salty and fresh, and everything smelled like history. Like things that had stayed the same for hundreds of years. Gina breathed deep as sea spray lashed at her face, and a smile curled her lips. For a second she couldn’t think of any reason to ever leave this boat or these people, though she barely knew them.
     An alarm started to beep on one of the rods, and a crewman rushed over to reel it in. Gina stood to one side and watched. It was very exciting, seeing someone struggle with an old-fashioned fishing line, dragging his quarry closer and closer to the surface. She clapped her hands when the fat fish lifted free of the water, but put some distance between her and the catch as the triumphant fisherman hauled it aboard. He was just bringing it over the railing when the hook lost hold, and the fish flopped onto the deck at her feet as several kilos of teeth and muscle, flapping like mad. She gave a girlish shriek and jumped backwards into a bulkhead. Those who saw her barked with laughter, and she grinned sheepishly while the fish was picked up and tossed into a bucket. Her cheeks blushed bright red.
     “I’ve never seen a live fish before,” she said in her own defence.
     “Then it’s good you are here,” chuckled Mahmoud, appearing from the control room doorway. “The day is full of opportunities.”
     He took one of the rods and thrust it at Gina, then showed her how to use it. She didn’t take to it straight away, but she grasped the general idea after a few casts. It was only a little longer before her first bite.
     She jerked the rod the way Mahmoud had taught her, then started reeling in the line. Slowly but surely she pulled her catch to the surface. Out of the waves rose a small transparent jellyfish, hanging limply off Gina’s hook. The crew offered condolences while Mahmoud stepped in, ripped the jelly off the hook and threw it back into the water without a care.
     He said, “Rats of the sea. It’s what we catch most of. Just give it another try.” He took the rod and cast the line for her.
     “Thanks,” she said, but as she took the rod back, the whole world began to spin around her. It was like a whirlwind swept her up. She vaguely felt herself hit the deck, but it didn’t make a big impression.
     She tumbled through white nothingness, buffeted about by contrary winds that howled all around her. She tried to plug her ears but found she had no hands, no arms, no body, nothing to stop the wailing wind. Even her sickening nausea refused to go away. She kept wanting to throw up but didn’t have the muscles to do it.
     Lost in the chaos, Gina’s mind flailed desperately for something to hang on to. There was something solid not so far away; she could feel it through appendages that didn’t exist, and she lunged for it with the enthusiasm of a drowning man to a lifesaver. She fell back into the world — but it wasn’t the world she’d left.
     Satin bedsheets rubbing against her, smell of sweat and skin. She exploded into orgasm, digging her nails into her lover’s back, then relaxed as he rolled away panting heavily. She glanced to her side and, with a distant sense of horror, took in Jock’s gaunt, bespectacled face. In the real world she hadn’t seen him in weeks, never really liked him in the first place, but now she gazed adoringly at features as familiar as if they’d been together for years.
     “Does this ever feel weird and wrong to you?” she asked him with the voice of a teenage girl. Rat’s voice, Gina realised somewhere in the background. She was inside the girl’s head, experiencing everything through Rat’s senses and perceptions. She caught a reflection of herself in the massive TV screen above the bed, a thin olive-coloured body, and marvelled at the strange little twists and turns of life.
     Jock snorted derision and said, “What? Like, do I ever have second thoughts about ploughing a girl ten years younger than me, whom until recently I’d always thought was a boy?” He turned his head to smirk at her. “Yeah, all the fuckin’ time.”
     “You’re a bastard,” she laughed, smacking his chest with the heel of her hand. “So when’s my next lesson? I know your rig by now, I wanna learn the advanced stuff. You promised you’d make me a cowboy, remember?” He opened his mouth to speak, but she wagged her finger at him. “And no cowgirl puns.”
     “Hey, what am I, a CommSci teacher? I’ve shown you everything you need to know. The rest is just technique.”
     She rolled over until half her body was draped over him, rubbing her bare thigh against him. “Don’t bullshit me, Jock. You’re number twelve on the rankings out of how many thousands? I want to know what you know, do what you do.”
     “You just want to use it to find them,” he countered accusingly. His expression turned sour. “I know you were friendly with Gina, but I keep telling you you need to let them go. We’re home free, no more dogs on our trail, nobody knows we were even involved with them. Just take what you’ve got and run with it.”
     Anger welled up inside her like a stream of molten lava, boiling out into her bloodstream. She raised herself up onto her elbows to look down at him and snapped, “She saved my life, Jock! Twice!”
     “She was the thing that got you into danger in the first place! My space, my rig, my job, all bombed to slag, remember that? I fucking well do.”
     She stared at him with her brow locked into a withering scowl, momentarily lost for words. Finally she spat, “Everything ain’t always about you, boy,” and started pulling her clothes back on. He called her back, mumbling feeble and insincere apologies, but she ignored him. Just crossed the empty floor to the black mass of the VR rig ensconced in the corner, strapped in.
     Jock appeared at her shoulder a few minutes later, stripped of his usual arrogance and bluster. He gently lifted the VR crown off her head and held her by the shoulders. When he spoke he was hesitant, his voice almost kind.
     “We’ve been looking for weeks,” he whispered. “Not a peep out of either of them. Not even traces. When anyone’s ghosting for as long as that, there’s only one explanation, and I know you don’t want to accept it, but it’s the truth.”
     There was a long silence. At length, Rat let out a dry sob. “She was in my head once. Gina, I mean. When we were in Hong Kong, in the Fed building, I was halfway up this really high ladder and I got so frightened I couldn’t move. She came back for me. Crawled into my head and made me let go, practically carried me up the rest of the way. I thought she was a freak, nobody’s supposed to do that. It’s not supposed to happen. But I’d be dead now if she hadn’t.”
     “Look, it’s–“
     “What if she needs our help?” she said fiercely, fat tears inching down her cheeks. “What if she’s still alive out there somewhere and we missed it? I should’ve gone with her!”
     Jock hushed her and buried her face in his shoulder. He awkwardly held her shuddering body while she sobbed her heart out. “It’s not your fault, babe. There’s nothing you could’ve done.”
     The tears gradually stopped flowing. The last thing she said, hanging limp in the VR straps, was, “She’s really gone . . .” She didn’t look up again until Jock placed the VR crown back on her head, then grabbed a second crown for himself.
     “C’mon,” he teased, forcing a lighter tone with limited success, and jumped them into the colourful chaos of the GlobeNet VR network. “I’ll show you a few tricks. Get your mind off it for a while.”
     His outline became faint, and Gina started awake.

***

     It was like coming out of a bad dream. Gina’s stomach churned and her skin was slick with sweat. An unfamiliar feeling hung in her belly like a stone, something hard and cold and empty, as if she’d left something behind on the way back to her own body.
     “You were talking in your sleep,” said Maryam, sitting on an old wooden chair beside Gina’s hammock. It took Gina a few seconds to translate the thickly-accented English into words she could understand. Maryam’s face worked as if she wasn’t sure how to go on, then finally settled into a strange expression halfway between mothering and frightened. “You’re not quite normal, are you?”
     “I’m fine,” Gina rasped, her throat dry and painful. The woman held a cup to Gina’s cracked lips, and she drank deeply.
     Maryam shook her head. “I know ‘fine’, hen, and you’re not it. My dear husband might think you’re just weak from the fever, but he’s daft. I’m not so easy to fool.”
     She crossed her arms and looked at Gina, daring her to lie again, though unsure whether or not she wanted to hear the answer. When Gina didn’t reply, Maryam sighed, “Is it some kind of sickness? Drugs? We can try to get hold of things if you need them . . .”
     “It’s not drugs,” Gina said, although that wasn’t entirely true. Her body was starting to feel the long absence of Spice, a strange itch at the back of her skull that she couldn’t quite scratch. The drug wasn’t physically addictive, but the psychological effects were . . . unpredictable, especially after a few weeks without any.
     “Look,” she continued, “I really appreciate you guys helping me and everything, but I can take care of myself. I am alright, I am normal.”
     Pull the other one, echoed a voice in her head, painful and distorted as if pumped through a microphone on too high a gain. She gritted her teeth, thinking that something was wrong with her hearing, but when she opened her eyes again she realised that Maryam hadn’t spoken.
     The older woman smiled and patted Gina’s hand. “Just . . . trust me. Anything you say won’t leave the room. Nobody here but us girls, see?” She raised her arms to indicate the empty room around them. “You’re carrying so much on your shoulders, you can’t keep it all bottled up inside or it’ll eat you in the end.”
     Gina snorted in resignation. “What is it with you two?” she asked. “You keep trying to get me to talk, are you Fed informers or what?”
     Maryam gave a wry laugh. “Would it help if we were?”
     Rubbing her eyes to buy time, Gina tried to think of something to say that wouldn’t sound lame or stupid. It seemed like she’d run out of everything but the truth. “I . . . I really don’t want to involve you, Maryam. The last time I dragged friends into this mess, they ended up dead. Two women who were like sisters to me. I’ve watched a trail of bodies behind me getting longer and longer, and I would happily go down a hole and hide for the rest of my life if I thought it would do any good. Do you understand?”
     “I think it’s you who doesn’t understand, hen,” said Maryam. “I know what it’s like. I remember when the Federation took over in England, I saw a lot of things I’d like to forget. Friends. Family.” She paused. Then, “I worked and I paid to get smuggled out of Hull on some old freighter, packed into a leaky cargo hold with a thousand other people. No food, no water except what we carried with us. About half were dead or dying by the time we got to Odessa. There were people dying of cholera in the western world. The survivors had to work day and night throwing the bodies overboard, just pick them clean of their things and toss them into the sea like rubbish.”
     The soft-spoken words made Gina’s skin crawl with horror. She whispered feebly, “Maryam, I–“
     “Doesn’t matter,” Maryam went on with firm conviction. “Long time ago, over and done with. But Moud and me, we know what the world’s like at its best and at its worst. And it’s fair obvious you need help.”
     For a long time Gina couldn’t speak. The words refused to come, or made no sense to her own ears, too confused and conflicted with warring emotions. Finally, in halting sentences, she started to tell her story. And for the very first time she left nothing out.

***

     “So you slept with him,” Maryam murmured, trying to wrap her head around that part of the tale. Gina sat with her hands buried in her flame-red hair, feeling the untidy length of it touching her shoulders. It had grown halfway back since her haircut in Hong Kong and badly needed a brush.
     “Yes,” she groaned, “with Gabriel.”
     Maryam smiled indulgently. “Just one of those things?”
     “Yeah. You could say that. I don’t know what I was thinking. There’s just something about him, you know?”
     “Do you love him?”
     “No! Well, maybe, I mean . . . It’s complicated.” Gina sighed. “He’s crazy. I like him, I really like him, but right now there’s no chance.”
     “But you’ve also got this other boy you like, who’s just as bad in his own way.” Maryam tapped her chin and gave a sigh of feigned sympathy. “What’s a girl to do?”
     Blushing, Gina fixed Maryam with a hard look. “I think maybe that’s enough about my sex life.”
     The older woman’s eyes twinkled. “I’m sorry. It’s just nice to have another girl around to talk to.”
     Gina couldn’t help but smile. She looked down at her bare legs, dangling over the side of the hammock, and ran her fingers along the smooth skin. She’d had them treated years ago; no hair would grow there now. “It’s not important who I end up with. I have to stop things before they get any worse. Maybe I can talk Gabriel around, calm Bomber a little, and resolve the whole mess without anyone else getting killed. I don’t know how, but I’ve got to try.”
     “All anyone can ever do, dear,” said Maryam, “is try to do the right thing.” She glanced up at the old clock dangling from a nail in the wall. “I should go, dear, I’m running late.”
     Smiling, Gina nodded and leaned in to embrace her. “Thanks. All your help, it’s . . .” She lowered her eyes, a little bit ashamed. “Seems like I’m always thanking you two, and I don’t even understand why you keep doing all this for me.”
     “Because it’s the right thing to do,” Maryam answered. “And I think you remind him of Safi.” The name seemed to quiet her, and she stood up to leave a little bit too quickly. Gina caught her arm just before she reached the door.
     “Who’s Safi?” Gina asked flatly.
     “Our daughter,” Maryam said with a sad smile, and disappeared down the hallway.

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