A scream, echoing far off. Simon looked up. Gina looked up. Four eyes saw and failed to comprehend.
     Gina shook her head violently and buried it in her arms, tried to banish the spectres of other places out of her mind. She was in her own head again, really, and she shouldn’t be seeing out of anyone else’s eyes in the first place. Anyone else at all.
     She was still breathing hard by the time the visions had gone. Her heart thumped in her throat. She sat curled up as tight as she could, trying to make the panic go away. It wasn’t the trip that scared her. Being in other people’s heads was starting to become a common feature in her life. It wasn’t the fact that she’d actually been Bomber doing these things, thousands of miles away, or the fact that she could remember every sight, every sound, every thought.
     It was because, for a few terrifying moments when she’d opened her eyes, she couldn’t remember who she was.
     It’s getting worse again, she thought, cold to her core. The artifact in the back of her brain, the little piece of insanity picked up from her traumatic out-of-head experience with Gabriel, hadn’t weakened at all. It was just affecting her in a different way. Pretty soon I’ll be going completely mental. Christ.
     When she uncurled to get out of bed, she almost jumped to find Mahmoud standing in the doorway. He looked at her with eyes half-hidden under his thick black eyebrows, his expression like a statue, unreadable. He waved at the stack of clothes in the corner.
     He said, “I’ve spoken to someone. I think we have your VR access, but we need to go now.” With that he turned away and stepped out again to give her some measure of privacy.
     Gina shuffled hastily across the floor, trying to force speed into her weak and unfamiliar muscles. She pulled on a frayed pair of jeans with jerky motions, men’s trousers that were too tight around the backside, but the only thing she had time to get into. She followed it with a black t-shirt and an ancient leather jacket, brown polished to white around the elbows, covered with old Recommunist emblems; hammers and sickles, red and yellow stars and crescents, pickaxes and eaves of grain, slogans in Russian and Ukrainian. The name ‘Omar’ was written in the neck with a black marker.
     At last, she stumbled into a pair of faded trainers and ran out the door.
     “Hey, what’s the rush?” she asked when she caught up with Mahmoud.
     “The less time we spend in this company, the better our chances of getting out of it unnoticed. Not the sort with whom you would want to associate yourself.”
     His voice was flat and urgent. Gina decided to take him at his word, following silently as they hopped onto the jetty and made their way to the tram station at the bottom of the Potemkin Stairs. Mahmoud said nothing to her while they rode up, past old brick houses and gnarled trees, afternoon colours muted by the thick cover of clouds.
     They changed trams at the top, and Gina soon noticed a change in the city’s mood. These had to be the backstreets. Paint peeling, cracked plaster and timber rotted through, shattered windows leaning precariously out of their frames. Abandoned buildings in the middle of a busy neighbourhood. Everywhere, men going around with their eyes down and their hoods up.
     They probably think this place is pretty hard and grim, Gina chuckled to herself. They ought to try living on the Street of Eyes for a few years.
     She automatically reached for the Mk5 in her purse before she realised it wasn’t there anymore. Suppressing a slight pang of regret, she made a mental note to get a new one. God knew she could do with the firepower given her new and amazing lifestyle.
     Mahmoud helped her down at a small station deep inside the bad part of town. Some kind of shopping street, most of the signs malfunctioning, smashed or missing. A short walk around the corner brought them to a small set of steps down, to a heavy wooden door with a high-tech security scanner down the side.
     “This is where you must go on alone,” he said in a dull voice. “I could only afford one ticket. Go on in, I’ll wait here for you.”
     She was about to argue and demand explanations, but his frown convinced her to let it go. She nodded, thanked him with a kiss on the cheek, and marched down the steps. Mahmoud stood waiting for her to be admitted.
     “Let’s get on with it then,” she said and put herself in full view of the scanner. A laser sprang to life and probed her from head to toe. After a few seconds the door unbolted with a clang, and she pushed inside.
     Her eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness. She stood in the middle of a small, tidy lobby which gave no sign as to the nature of the establishment. It was empty except for a few potted plants and a registration desk off to one side. The elegantly sculpted clerk behind it, a miracle of modern plastic surgery, stared at Gina and slapped a ticket down on the counter without a word. As soon as she picked it up, her face appeared on the front beside a timer display. The red LEDs indicated four hours, and started counting down the seconds while Gina watched.
     “You’d better get moving,” said the clerk. “Go inside and grab a table. Relax. Your guide will join you presently to take you up to the private section.”
     She wanted to argue, to point out she didn’t have time to wait around, but she remembered Mahmoud’s words. She was a long way from the City. Out here, she had to play by their rules.
     She pushed through a set of big double doors into the establishment proper, and found herself in a playground of flashing neon. Multicoloured light from every direction filled the massive cylindrical hall, and a tall spiral staircase led up to two separate mezzanine levels above.
     On the ground floor people were dancing, a mass of bodies moving awkwardly to a rapid monotone beat. Old men in suits danced with young women who wore barely anything at all. Probably paid escorts, either brought in by their customers or provided by the club. Everyone on that dance floor was either rich or selling something.
     Gina’s senses picked the place apart one detail at a time. She knew clubs almost as well as she knew streets, and this one could have been any large nightclub in the world, if it hadn’t been for the egg-shaped plastic chambers jutting out of the walls at regular intervals. They made it all click together and revealed the underlying purpose of the place. A VR fantasy shop, selling people their own dreams and imaginations. Or, more pessimistically, renting them back at a premium. The egg-shaped VR booths were capable of catering to every possible human desire, every piece of storybook magic and every sick, sordid fetish imaginable.
     The City had thousands of fantasy shops, but the difference between those downmarket rat-holes and the club here was like night and day. In the City they catered to everyone who wanted to escape their lives for a little while, but always under the strict articles of Federal law. Here . . . Anything was possible.
     Sitting down, she was immediately delivered an ice tea without asking, at the cost of a ten-minute hit to her card timer. She shook her head and drank it. Then, out the corner of her eye, she caught sight of a man approaching her table.
     “Settling in already, I see,” he began, appearing out of the coloured lights and shadows, and she stood to shake his hand. Then, as their fingers touched and they looked into each other’s faces for the first time, they both froze like statues.
     “You!” she hissed, looking into the eyes of the telepath from Hangzhou airport, one of the thugs who’d nearly kidnapped Rat. “You slave-mongering bastard–” she started, but he cut her off without hesitation, put one hand over her mouth and grabbed her arm with the other. He jerked her along through a side door and into a tiled corridor between the bar and the toilets, ignoring the kicks to his shins with iron determination. She struggled as hard as she could but his strong wiry arms overpowered her and pinned her against the wall.
     “Shut the fuck up if you want to keep breathing,” he said in a low monotone. His warm breath touched her face, smelling of mint and cloves. “You don’t know the people I work for, so let me explain very clearly, you do not want them to hear about you being the crazy bitch who cost them a real sweet customer back in the City. They run places like this from here to Hong Kong. They catch you, you’re dead.”
     Gina looked at him, baffled. “You’re helping me?”
     “Yeah, call me Mother fucking Theresa.” He glanced around to make sure they were alone, then moved in closer and dropped his voice to a whisper. “Cards on the table. I’m not gonna rat you out, I owe you that much for getting me out of a shitty assignment. I don’t like doing abductions. But you also cost me half that pay cheque, so don’t expect any more favours, got it?”
     She nodded dumbly. There was a strange intensity in his eyes when she met them. His pupils were dilated, the corners of his eyelids twitched in response to some input Gina couldn’t see. Her eyes narrowed and she said, “Are you on Spice or speed?”
     “Little bit of both. It’s my job, ain’t it?”
     Suddenly his expression changed into a big smile and he put an arm around her shoulders, leading her back into the main room, talking exaggeratedly at her about nothing. They were like salmon swimming upstream of a river of bodies. Gina followed him up the spiral staircase all the way to the top.
     He leaned in and whispered to her, “I’m not supposed to bring you up here until I’m convinced you’re on the level. Don’t fuck up. And here’s your booth!” He made an ostentatious gesture at the VR pod, open and waiting. “We don’t normally allow GlobeNet access, our systems restrict users to the house network, but we’ve set it up just for you as you requested.”
     “Good,” improvised Gina. “I’m very impressed.”
     He laughed heartily. “Oh, don’t say that until you see the inside. Please, take a seat!” He helped her into the booth and punched in a passcode to release the VR crown from its locked cradle. The crown was bigger and heavier than any Gina had worn, more of a mask, with integrated goggles and electrodes touching every part of her head. She could sense its untapped power even just fastening the straps.
     The telepath was all smiles, still fawning over her. “Now, if you’ll just wait right there, I’ll go plug myself in and we can begin.”
     “Plug yourself in?” she blurted in alarm.
     “Of course,” he said, “nothing but the best service for you.” With that he shut the canopy on the egg, and the real world disappeared.

***

     Colours flashed in front of her eyes, the crown testing her visual response against her brain waves. They disappeared soon after, replaced with absolute greyness. She looked but found no hands, no feet, not even a face. She was a pair of eyes staring from nothing into nothing.
     Then she was moving, as if zooming in on a distant scene, and she came to an abrupt sickening stop in one of the alleys off Main Street. Just like her first time here, the entrance was a stupid little gazebo with a park around it, leading onto Main Street on one side and extending out into infinity on the other. She didn’t recognise the skyline from her last trip. The fantastic architecture nearby was geared more towards private owners, with dragons circling a mountain aerie, a pyramid with a great eye at the top, and a Greek-styled marble statue hundreds of metres high. Various spaceships of incredible design hovered in the sky, extending symbolic entrance tubes or teleporter beams down to the surface.
     “We’re not monitored here,” said a voice by her ear. She turned around to see an impossibly broad action figure of a man standing there, shoulders twice as wide as his waist, wearing camouflage trousers and a green tank top with an ammo belt. He was one of several identical clones in the entrance area, so Gina deduced it to be a default avatar, automatically chosen for him by the system.
     When she looked down at her own outfit, all she could see was black leather, skin-tight and shiny. Fingerless gloves creaked when she clenched her hands. Weird, she thought, but it’ll do.
     The telepath was still staring at her, waiting for her to adjust. He said, “I’m sure you have questions before we go in.”
     “Yeah, I got a question,” she replied. “What’s your name?”
     He snorted. “What’s in a name? It doesn’t matter anymore, not these days. But if you insist, you can call me Darius.”
     “Right.” She looked hard into his eyes, annoyed at his chummy tone of voice. “So what’s the deal here, Darius? Just a good old blue-collar workaday job? Got tired of the slave trade, or did it just not pay enough?”
     “Fuck you,” he said without much venom. “I told you, I don’t like doing those jobs, but they make me. Pray to fucking God you never see all the shit I’ve seen. I just have to take what I’m given. At least while I’m working this place,” he threw up his arms to encompass the space around them, “the shit happens in VR, not to anyone real.”
     “Is that how you rationalise it? I was there, remember? It does happen to real people, thanks to the scum you work for.”
     “We don’t create the demand, we just cater to it,” he replied stubbornly. “Look, I didn’t come here to argue morality with you. I don’t have the patience, and you don’t have the time. There’s three hours and forty-five minutes left on your card. I suggest you start using them.”
     “Fine,” she hissed, then stomped down the garden path onto Main Street.
     When she joined the endless crowd of figures on the street, she found a relatively noise-free spot and barked for a guide. An automated genie appeared in front of her in a puff of smoke, asking how he might serve her.
     She remembered talking on the phone, so long ago, and what Rat had said to her: “If you manage to get into VR, go up to the nearest street guide and tell it what you said to the Emperor in Hangzhou. Then we’ll be able to find you.
     “Dawn over Chang Jiang,” she told the guide in Mandarin, and Main Street stopped in mid-step. It was as if the whole world had frozen in time for one fragile moment. Then the street tore away from her with a huge ripping sound. She didn’t know how she was moving, but a nauseating sense of distance overcame her.
     She arrived unceremoniously in a blank white room with four walls, the most basic space possible in VR. Nobody else was there except Darius’s stupid avatar, riding on the same connection. He wore an expression of complete bewilderment.
     “This ain’t authorised,” he moaned. Then he turned on Gina. “What the hell? You were only supposed to go out for some stupid joyride! They’ll fucking kill me!”
     “What a loss.” She balled her hand into a fist and banged on the wall. “Jock! Rat! Are you guys here?”
     Behind her, Darius’s arms jerked spastically as he tried to move in ways that his basic avatar couldn’t illustrate properly. He was tearing at his head, emitting a growing whine of frustration. “I can’t jack out! Why can’t I jack out?!”
     A sudden flash of light obscured half the room behind its brilliance. A new avatar came almost reluctantly out of the white, a Korean teenager in a stereotypical hacker get-up — expensive trainers, trousers with too many pockets, a small mobile VR rig woven into a sleeveless vest, plugged into a tight leather cap stuffed with hidden electrodes. The androgynous avatar stopped dead when the visitors came into view. Eyebrows frowned over a pair of thick goggles, and it said, “Gina?”
     Warm tears rolled down Gina’s face. The voice was Rat’s, and it was the sweetest thing she’d ever heard. She rushed forward and hugged the girl underneath the avatar. None of it was real, every touch just a computer-generated phantom in her nervous system, but she could feel the body in her arms and treasured the sensation as it hugged her back.
     “I can’t stay long,” she said softly. “Haven’t got much time, and I might be in big trouble when I unplug.”
     “I gave up on you,” Rat whispered in a small voice.
     “It’s okay. Listen, where’s Jock?”
     “He’s been at some stupid meeting all day, I can’t reach him. I’ve tried.”
     “Shit. Okay, give me a phone number, anything that’ll let me contact you again without having to go through VR.” When Rat didn’t respond, Gina grabbed her by the shoulders and shouted, “Now, girl!”
     Rat nodded dumbly. She seemed halfway into shock, but she moved, producing a small slip of plastic out of thin air. When Gina focused her eyes on it, a series of stroboscopic flashes assaulted her retinas, burning a long phone number into her memory. Rat’s voice sounded a little more normal when she said, “Call that as soon as you can. I’ll be waiting with whatever help I can get.”
     Suddenly Darius stormed in between them and shouted, “What are you doing? I demand to know what’s going on here!” Then he did a double take as he absorbed Rat’s face for the first time. “I know you.”
     Quick as a rattlesnake, Rat turned and kicked him in the chest. Sparks flew where her foot connected. He went flying backwards, hitting the wall with a grunt of real pain; Rat had remotely turned up the gain on his sensory gear. Gina didn’t understand how that worked, she just knew, absorbed the thought straight from Rat’s mind.
     “What is this thing doing here?” asked Rat, with a sudden surge of anger and hate so fierce that Gina flinched. The girl kept Darius pinned halfway up the wall while he wailed as if he’d been impaled on a spike.
     Gina shook herself, tried to take control of the situation again. She could feel panic creeping up the telepath’s spine. One unauthorised change to his software indicated the possibility of much more unpleasant things, and torture was well inside the realm of possibility.
     “Rat, I need him alive, okay?”
     The dark little smile on Rat’s face made Gina’s skin crawl. With a single thought, the walls of the box fell away with unimaginable speed, replaced by an infinite sky stretching out in every direction. Gina’s brain ached from looking into the perfect blue, because no matter how far away you looked it never dimmed or whitened. It wasn’t an atmosphere. It was a blue version of interstellar space.
     Then the ground disappeared. Gina felt a moment of sudden, sickening weightlessness — and then found herself floating in perfect safety next to Rat. A mouthful of bile lurched up her throat, and she grimaced as she swallowed it down again. She’d caught sight of the ground far, far below, and suddenly understood anyone who had ever been afraid of heights.
     Finally the invisible shackles holding Darius dissolved. He floated for a moment, suspended in mid-air, and then plunged downwards with a fading scream. Rat laughed, grabbed Gina’s hand and put them into a controlled descent eye to eye with the telepath.
     “Is that not just the scariest thing you ever saw?” Rat asked him cheerfully.
     “Cheap theatrics don’t fool me,” he spat back, but then cried out as a sudden too-realistic gust of wind tumbled him head over feet. Simulated air whooshed past him as he fell, tugging at his avatar’s clothes and hair.
     Rat scoffed, “I don’t need to fool you, man. Your heart‘s gonna know when you hit the ground. It’s gonna know that it’s about to smash into pulp against a couple billion tons of planet. Imagine all that fear blowing straight through your optic nerve into your brain, triggering dose after dose of adrenaline until that little muscle in your chest just. Stops. Beating.”
     “You wouldn’t dare!”
     Grabbing his hair, she pulled him to within an inch of her blazing blue eyes. “Say that again while you’re looking me in the eye, guy.”
     He swallowed. “Oh, fuck . . .”
     “I’ve already traced where you are, what you’re calling from, every bit of detail about your little club. I already know all the names and addresses of the people you work for. I don’t think they’d be very happy to hear some of the stories I could tell ’em. Hey, they might even kill you!” She giggled with black amusement. “I guess for you it’s a lose-lose situation. You might say that I own you.”
     “I don’t–” he began, but Rat cut him off.
     “I own you,” she boomed in a voice like thunder, amplified beyond anything human. “Say it!
     “Y-You own me,” he stammered, speaking more out of reflex than any conscious choice.
     “You’re gonna do what we tell you, or in a few seconds you’ll be a red stain down on those rocks! Say it!
     His teeth chattered as he screamed, “Jesus, yes, I’ll do it! Okay?! I’ll do whatever!”
     Rat snapped her fingers and the fall stopped. The rush of air disappeared, the white box popped back out of nowhere to enfold them all, and Darius slumped to the floor soft as a feather. He glanced around with wild wide eyes, pale as death and drenched with cold sweat. Rat meanwhile put a serious hand on Gina’s shoulder.
     “He’s all yours, girl,” she whispered. “Now get out of that dodgy place you’re in and hole up somewhere safe. Then you can think about how to fill me in on everything that’s happened.”
     “I’ll try,” said Gina. She wanted so badly to talk to Rat, to tell her every gory detail of the past few weeks, but they didn’t have time.
     She closed her eyes and lifted off her VR crown. The blank interior of the VR pod was always a crushing disappointment after the wild spectacles of the ‘Net, too much like having to wake up after a wonderful dream. She pushed open her canopy and stepped out into a semicircle of scowling men who wore poorly-concealed guns under their clothes.
     Gina identified them in a single glance as thugs, nothing but muscle. At the front, however, was a man in a pinstripe suit and a bowler hat who stared at Gina in the same way that a human being might regard a fly.
     This is new, she said to herself. But nothing Gina Hart can’t handle, right? Right.
     The suited man opened his mouth to speak, but Gina headed him off with a broad smile and adopted a pose that made the very best of her outfit. Most of the attention shifted from her tight jeans to her breasts where she allowed the jacket to fall open ever so slightly. “Gentlemen,” she said in a voice as sweet as honey, “what can I do for you?”

***

     The suited man looked her up and down, appraising her with cold intelligence. His gaze lingered in all the right places to put him a little off his guard. Gina had spent years using her looks as a weapon and she knew how to play these people like a fiddle.
     “Get him out of there,” the suited man told one of his flunkies as he jerked his head at Darius’s VR pod. He spoke with a generic American accent devoid of regional connotations, an obvious second language. “As for you,” he turned back to Gina, “I would like a word. In private.”
     She nodded and was escorted through a pass-coded door into the back of the club, into a dark little office containing only a set of chairs. The man sat facing the door and gestured for Gina to join him. No one spoke, as if he was waiting for Gina to start volunteering information. She sat calmly in the middle of the room and smiled.
     Eventually the suited man shrugged and hung his bowler on the back of the chair. His face was a deep bronze, with strong eyebrows and massive bone structure visible through his skin. He looked like he wouldn’t have been out of place riding with Genghis Khan.
     “I want to make very clear,” the man said, “that your business is important to us. However, we expect our customers to obey certain rules and live up to certain standards while using our premises and our equipment. We allowed you an open line under the proviso that you wouldn’t attempt anything illegal or take any action that would bring undue attention upon this establishment, its owners or its patrons.”
     “I wasn’t aware I was doing anything illegal,” she said, which was mostly true, apart from using a hacked Main Street guide to run unauthorised programming.
     The man nodded and produced a sheet of digital paper, filled with scrolling figures and blinking lights on a stylised world map. “You established a connection with an offshore gateway in Laputa,” he tapped his fingernail on a small island halfway between China and Japan, “with a constantly high volume of data pouring across the line. Encrypted. Why?”
     “A secure conversation with my employer,” she lied with a smile. He furrowed his eyebrows but offered no rebuke.
     “Do you mind if I ask the nature of this conversation?”
     “I can’t disclose anything confidential. You of all people must understand that.”
     “I do,” he replied, and now he was smiling as well, but there was nothing warm or friendly in his eyes. “Let’s get to the point then. You explain to me why, ten minutes after you plug in, something comes tearing down Main Street and forces its way into our system, goes through our security like it isn’t there, and sniffs out your exact brain wave patterns out of a hundred other users. There is only one thing in the world that can do that, miss, and that’s an AI.” He leaned back in his chair while Gina’s blood froze in her veins. “Explain it well enough and I might consider handing you over to the Feds alive.”
     When Gina remained silent, white with horror, the man added, “There are guards outside this room, and everywhere through the building. Don’t even think of running.”
     “I . . .” Gina swallowed the hard lump in her throat and tried to regain her mental balance. Fuck, she said on the inside, cursing herself for getting caught off guard. Should’ve seen it coming.
     Without even realising it, she had focused on the suited man so intently that she could sense his thoughts, distant and distorted but getting clearer every second. He was quietly furious about the trouble and the damage to the club’s computers but at the same time excited at the prospect of capturing a fugitive worth a fat reward. Another, lower part of him wondered what she would look like with her kit off. That was good. The more he thought about money and sex, the less he could think about violence and suspicion.
     She could still turn the situation to her advantage. It was just a matter of how.
     She found her voice again and said coolly, “Have you ever heard of Gabriel Lowell?”
     The mere mention of the name made him jerk upright. He was about to press her for more when the lights blew.
     Every lamp in the room blasted apart in a cascade of hot sparks. Gina cried out and threw up her arms, heat scalding her exposed skin, and she ducked down behind her chair. Screams of surprise and panic echoed outside the office. Moments later they were joined by hurried footsteps thumping off in both directions.
     “What’s happening?” barked the suited man, disoriented in the sudden pitch-blackness. Gina couldn’t see a hand in front of her face but to her surprise she could tell exactly where he was. The minds and thoughts around her were so clear. She couldn’t help reaching out to touch them, and bit her tongue against the scream of mental feedback as she hit Darius. He was trying to read her at the same time. For a moment they could see inside each other, and she caught a glimpse from his eyes into red emergency lighting. There was a big circuit breaker switch in his hand.
     You’re not on Spice, he thought in shock. What the hell are you?
     “I’m out of here,” she replied out loud. Her business here was done, and Gabriel might already be on his way to Odessa to find her. That, or she was getting as paranoid as Bomber.
     It didn’t really matter. She wasn’t ready to face anyone again, not yet.
     Anger flared from the other side of the room as the suited man pushed himself to his feet. Sharp click of a pistol hammer being cocked.
     “Don’t you move,” he growled, throwing a chair out of his way. “Whoever you are, you’re worth money to somebody. You’re not going anywhere.”
     She felt his finger tighten on the trigger as if it were her own, and in that cold plastic moment she knew he wasn’t going to stop. Terror shot through her, paralysed her limbs and rooted her to the spot. Death was only half a heartbeat away.
     Then the animal panic took over, replacing thought with instinct, cutting through her fear with blind action. Gina didn’t even know what she was doing when she put her mind against the pistol barrel and pushed.
     Muzzle flash lit up the bullet as it drilled into the suited man’s knee. Blood erupted from the wound where the steel penetrator went in, tearing flesh and cracking bone. The leg suddenly lost the ability to support his weight, and he slumped to the floor, the gun flying from his slack fingers. Meanwhile Gina found the door and wrenched it open. Dim emergency light from the hall spilled into the office, just enough to see by, and she ran down the narrow corridor as fast as her legs would carry her.
     She saw no one as she emerged back onto the top level of the club. The emergency lighting kept everything one step short of total darkness, but washed out all the blues and purples of the patterned walls and elegant tables. Now it was just a vague monochrome maze full of obstacles at shin level.
     Once she found the mezzanine railing she followed it hand over hand towards the big spiral staircase. A frightened mass of people was milling around down below, and Gina hurried to join them. There was no one in the world better at hiding in a crowd.
     Nobody noticed her limping down the stairs, just another confused customer to join the throng. From there she just let herself drift towards the doors. For a moment it almost seemed too easy.
     Then she came within sight of the exit and her face fell. The club had been locked down with big slabs of corrugated steel. Someone was having an angry conversation in Russian on the intercom, but Gina couldn’t understand a word of it.
     It was clear she couldn’t afford to waste time here, not with the suited man and his gangsters after her. She had to act now. Breathing deep, she tried to remember how she’d felt before; how she pushed the suited man’s gun away in the office, how she made Rat let go of the ladder in the Fed building, one finger at a time. At the same time she searched for the man behind the intercom grille. It was easy to pick out his presence by comparing the sound of his voice to the sound of his thoughts, and she reached for him without hesitation.
     The touch was like lightning. Suddenly she knew where he was, how secure he felt ensconced in his little cubicle by the lobby, what his hands were doing at the controls of the security console. It felt like a current ripping through her, abrasive and painful, but everything was so clear . . .
     She pushed just then, and the man’s hand slammed down unexpectedly on the big red emergency button. The alarms started to howl and the automated doors ground opened to give customers a clear path to the exit. Club security had tried to set up a checkpoint by the door to let the people out one by one, but the stampede went right over it. People flooded through the corridors towards daylight and ran out into the streets, chattering with elation.
     Gina drifted with them, then found Mahmoud on a tram towards the docks and jumped on. She’d done everything she came to do and now she was home free, safe and one step closer to getting out of Odessa.
     It was all she could do not to giggle with relief the whole way back to the waterfront.

***

     “That did not go as I had planned it,” Mahmoud said dryly as they climbed off the busy tram. His expression belied his casual tone, fixed into a frown, and he wrung his hands while he walked. “You are alright?”
     “I’m fine, Mahmoud. Thanks.” Gina smiled and took his arm, walking back along the pier in the shadow of the great concrete and steel warehouses, under cranes and other vast machinery rusting in the wet air. She had been here enough times that they were beginning to look familiar, almost like home. A strange sense of rightness bubbled in her heart, something buoyant unlike anything she’d ever felt before. Everything was starting to come together.
     Mahmoud rumbled, “I take it something went wrong.”
     “Something always does, but I got what I came for. I have help now. I can pay you back for everything you’ve done.”
     He stopped suddenly and placed a hand on her shoulder. His piercing brown eyes looked into hers for a long time. She felt naked in front of that stare, but nevertheless she drew herself up and met him with as much dignity as she could manage.
     “What price did you pay?” he asked quietly.
     “I . . . don’t know what you mean,” she lied with the best of intentions. She didn’t want to worry him. Gabriel, Bomber, telepathy and all that shit, he didn’t need to carry any more of her troubles on his shoulders.
     Mahmoud nodded and resumed walking. He wasn’t fooled for a moment, and Gina knew it. She silently thanked him for backing off. If he’d asked, she would’ve told him everything.
     In the distance the Son of the Wind came into view from behind the larger boats, and Gina bit her lip. The sense of rightness turned around and became an ache, knowing she’d have to leave this place behind. She forced a smile on the outside while her heart broke.
     She told him, “I’ll have to go into hiding for a while. Those people from the club might try to come after me. I should probably get out of Odessa, and I’m going to try. It’ll be okay, my friends will help.”
     There was a second of silence before Mahmoud responded. “You realise I have a boat.”
     Gina snorted with laughter, “I wish it were that simple, Mahmoud. Even if we left now, it would be obvious we cast off after the trouble in that club. They’d come to search you.”
     “Then don’t go,” Mahmoud suggested with utter pragmatism. “We can hide you. No one knows where in Odessa you are, and . . . I would like it if you stayed.” He shrugged awkwardly. “I’ve grown fond of you, as has Maryam. There’s so much here you still haven’t seen.”
     There was no time for her to answer. Skirts heaving, Maryam came running down the gangplank, and swept them both into a bear hug. Then she marched them both inside, towards a big plate of sandwiches and cans of unbranded cola. Gina’s stomach jumped at the sight of food, empty but for an iced tea, and she dug in.
     She also gave no sign that she’d felt Maryam’s hand slipping into her pocket, depositing a small foil packet of familiar-shaped pills. In case you need them, the woman said mentally, and Gina understood. Don’t tell Mahmoud.
     A pang of bittersweet happiness throbbed in Gina’s breast as Maryam guided her husband out on deck, to give her some privacy. It couldn’t last, she couldn’t stay here, but these people made her want to. Tears stung the corners of her eyes. She wiped them away with a sleeve of her jacket, then slipped out of the heavy leather and went back to her room.
     She stripped down to bare skin, showered in the shared booth across the hallway, then crawled into her hammock and passed out from exhaustion.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *