Gina trod lightly on her way back to her body. The closer she got, the stronger was the throbbing sense of wrongness, like a wound that had stopped bleeding but was no less raw than before. Emily Vaughan wanted to run away and never come back, but Gina Hart gritted her teeth and continued onwards with iron discipline. She searched for the bit of Gabriel now squatting in a hollowed-out part of her soul. It was still there, but busy, its attention focused elsewhere. She stifled her fear and anger and other feelings, willed herself to be quiet, and slipped past without him noticing.
     She allowed herself a tight smile as she landed behind her own eyes and took control.
     Gina blinked against the daylight. Her eyes had been closed too long. Everything hurt, but she was used to that by now, and pushed herself up onto her elbows. Her throat was dry as old bones. She found a half-empty bottle of mineral water lying by her hand and lifted it to her lips, drinking greedily. Her arm wouldn’t stop shaking, spilling water all down her front, but none of that mattered right now. It tasted better than anything she could imagine.
     There were blankets around her. Somebody had assembled a makeshift cot on the floor of the van, swept up all the debris, and taped transparent sheets of plastic over the holes where the windows had been. More discarded water bottles lay heaped in one corner.
     She caught the sound of someone snoring nearby. Laboriously she climbed to her knees, forced to think about every individual movement, while her head spun with dizziness. Nothing worked the way it was supposed to. It was like her body knew something wasn’t right and needed the missing piece back in order to function.
     Finally she made her way in between the van’s front seats. There was a huge body stretched out across them, sleeping under a large blue anorak. It muttered something she didn’t understand, but she didn’t need to. She tumbled forwards on top of the man and held him as tightly as she could, despite his protests.
     “Oh Mahmoud, you idiot,” she said, tears in her eyes and joy in her heart, “bless you and your stubborn head.”
     He swallowed and awkwardly hugged her back. “I’m sorry, I was supposed to be there when you woke up. Couldn’t stay awake anymore.”
     “Don’t be daft. I’m the one who should be sorry,” she insisted. “I abandoned you, but you came back to save me anyway.”
     “Don’t tell me you thought I’d just stand by and let you put yourself in harm’s way, Gina,” he murmured with a glint in his eye.
     “I’d hoped you’d be more sensible,” Gina sighed. Mixed emotions churned in her belly. “Thank you, Mahmoud, but you should’ve stayed at home. I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to you. That’s why I left.”
     He smiled sadly. “And what would you have done? There is no way you can get yourself out of Odessa without being seen. You need help, Gina, and I’m here for you.”
     “There’s no arguing with you, is there? Where did you leave Maryam and the others?”
     “At sea, safe. I made them cast off before I left.”
     Mahmoud held up a finger and dug out whatever he’d been using for a pillow. It turned out to be the big leather jacket, all scratched across the back but still serviceable. He gave it back to her, and she held it tight. She thought she’d lost it crawling under that fence.
     A sudden image jolted Gina’s memory. “Wait, there was someone else with you.”
     “I think you know h–” He halted in mid-sentence as the van’s back door opened.
     Somebody climbed in, only to quietly slip the door closed behind them. The figure took in the scene at a glance, then came forward and finally turned into the light.
     Gina hissed through her teeth. The face of Darius the telepath was there, smiling back at her, pupils wide as old dollar coins from his speed rush. The very sight of him made Gina want to gouge his eyes out.
     “Good morning,” he said simply. “Glad you’re awake. I was worried.”
     “You . . .” Gina shook her head, throwing off the shock, and snarled, “How are you here?”
     “I offered to help find you. Been tracking you since you left the club, but I couldn’t do that and hide from my ex-employers. Not without help. It was a marriage of convenience.” His grin widened. “You weren’t exactly a challenge to find after that. Half the ‘paths in Odessa have been picking up your escapades. Just now I could feel you coming awake. You’re like a big fucking beacon to anyone with a third eye.”
     Gina said tensely, “Mahmoud, tell me he’s lying.”
     “Oh, no lie, babe,” laughed Darius. “Without me your big friend would have had no chance. We can talk about my reward over drinks, hey?”
     She didn’t even think about what she did next, just reacted to the anger boiling over behind her eyes. Gabriel had already hurt her worse than she could’ve believed, treated her like a prize or property, and this time she simply snapped.
     She reached out. Without the slightest effort she grabbed hold of Darius’s mind and channelled all her pain and emptiness into him. Everything she’d had and lost, each year of her suicidal spin to the bottom of society’s heap, unfiltered, bored straight into his nervous system.
     He jerked like a string puppet. Choking noises emerged from his throat but he couldn’t scream. His eyes stared at her, wide and full of pure terror. She kept it up even as his agony echoed back into her, even as the burned city flickered before her eyes. It only fed her rage. Knowing what he was, what he’d done, there was nobody else in the world she hated more than this man.
     “Let’s get some things straight before you start getting any wrong ideas, babe,” she said in a voice like liquid nitrogen, climbing between the chairs to stand over him. “I put up with you at that disgusting little club because I needed your help. That’s over now. Right this minute you mean about as much to me as a brown stain in the gutter, you slave-trading fuck, so don’t you ever talk to me like that again! Understand?!”
     Suddenly the world jerked, the van’s gearbox grinding as it lurched backwards. Gina tumbled over the top of the passenger chair and landed in it, her concentration broken, and she heard Darius gasping for breath in the back while Mahmoud picked her up and set her down again the right way up as if she weighed nothing at all.
     He said, “He’s right, Gina. When you ran away, he came to me and offered to help for nothing. I couldn’t have done it alone. I would’ve lost you.”
     She shook her head to clear it, still fuzzy and numb with shock, then spat, “That doesn’t mean we owe him anything!”
     The force of Mahmoud’s frown made her feel six years old again, unworthy and ashamed. “Yes, it does,” he said reproachfully. “We owe him more than this.”
     Darius was struggling to sit up when Gina deigned to look at him again. His body trembled and twitched and his mind shrank back from her like a wounded animal, but he had enough self-control to choke out, “I can help you, you dumb bitch! I’ve been trying to tell you that ever since I realised how strong you are. Just fucking listen for once.”
     With Mahmoud’s stare still on her, she felt her cheeks redden as she looked down. At length she ground out, “Okay. I’m listening.”
     “To put it as simply as possible, I know somebody you need to meet,” Darius began with the van engine quietly humming around them. His calm had returned, but he still looked at Gina with a mix of fear, worship and loathing. “He’s called Jupiter. I hung out with some experienced ‘paths when I first started out, and they used to talk about him sometimes, always in whispers. The oldest living third eye in the world. Maybe the only one left from the first wave who created the business.”
     Fixing him with a look, she motioned for him to go on, unable to deny her grudging curiosity. He nodded.
     “He’s been taking Spice ever since it hit the market, at least eight years straight, and still functioning. Now he owns this weird little care home on the outskirts of the City exclusively for users who’ve gone funny in the head. I never went there but heard a lot about it. He’s giving people all sorts of weird treatments, even managed to bring one or two of them back from the brink.”
     “Are you sure it’s not just a story your friends made up?” asked Gina.
     “Positive,” Darius insisted. “I saw him once. He’s the real deal.”
     “Then how come I’ve never heard of him before?”
     Darius shrugged. “He stays under the radar. Doesn’t like uninvited guests, turns away most people who come knocking, and if any pill-popping crazies make trouble looking for some kind of miracle cure, he’s got ways of making ’em go away.”
     That was fair enough, Gina had to admit. No shortage of telepaths around with their minds slipping away, desperately searching for relief. As much as she hated the idea of going along with Darius, she didn’t know what else to do. She needed to get her head sorted out. One way or another.
     “So this is a long-distance trip,” observed Mahmoud. His eyes didn’t leave the road. “The City is at least five days away, even if we drive in shifts.”
     Stretching in her chair, Gina adjusted the uncomfortable seatbelt and asked, “Is that a problem?”
     “No, but we’ll need to stop for supplies, and there is the Federation border to consider.”
     A hand appeared from the back holding out a stack of ancient Federation banknotes. “Got you covered,” said Darius.
     Gina took the bundle from him and started to count, eyes wide with wonder. She hadn’t seen these since she was a teenager. The paper was yellow with age, almost crumbling to dust. Faded ink still clung to each note, just about legible after a lot of use and abuse, but that didn’t matter. As long as you could still make out the numbers it was legal tender.
     No Federation cash had been printed in nearly thirteen years, and the government had always discouraged people from using it. Electronic transfers were easier and the Feds didn’t like you making untraceable transactions. In their eyes electronic money was the only proper kind, which meant most people wouldn’t even take cash nowadays. With a few obvious exceptions.
     “There’s nearly twelve million dollars here,” said Gina, a little bit shocked. “Where the fuck did you get this?”
     He shrugged. “Tips, mainly. Most of the club’s customers come from the Federation, big surprise, and they all pay cash.”
     “It may get us across the border,” Mahmoud said pensively. “Unless we happen to run into an honest Fed.”
     Darius barked out a long belly laugh as he made himself comfortable, and he shot Gina a knowing glance, as if he could see right through her. She shuddered.
     “There’s no such thing, big man,” the telepath declared. “No such thing at all.”


     It was a long and careful drive out of Odessa, a van with all its windows patched up trying to look inconspicuous. Gina had to hide in the back in case some automated camera flashed a picture through the windscreen and recognised her face.
     Boredom made her drowsy. She never even felt the dreamworld creeping up on her, spreading slowly to envelop the part of her mind that was still hers. She only realised it when Gabriel’s arms snaked around her waist from behind, holding her firmly in place. The touch glowed on her skin, made her feel whole again. As much as she wanted to get angry, it was hard to do even with such a cruel and obvious manipulation staring her in the face.
     “You’ve been up to some interesting things, Gina,” he murmured. “Very interesting indeed.”
     “You’ve been watching, have you?” she asked cynically. Without thinking she put her hands on top of his and leaned back. The next moment their lips were touching.
     “I know where you’re going now,” whispered Gabriel. “I could be there, waiting for you.”
     Gina smiled. “Will you be?”
     “Show up and find out.”
     There was a long pause. Then she said, “I’m ready to talk more. Tell me about Colonel Obrin.”
     Slowly, gently, the floor disappeared out from under Gina’s feet. She was left floating in the air, bathed in golden light, protected by Gabriel’s arms. She couldn’t have felt more secure, or less free.
     Gabriel began, “I don’t know that much about him. Only . . . First of all, I have to ask, what do you know about Hephaestus?”
     “Only that I can’t pronounce it,” she snorted.
     “It’s Greek. Hephaestus is the crippled god of blacksmiths and craftsmen. Also associated with fire and volcanoes. According to most myths he’s married to Aphrodite, goddess of love, lust and beauty, but she cheats on him with Ares the god of war. Fascinating, isn’t it?” He grinned. “The nanobot project’s pretty interesting, too. I’ve spent a long time researching it and I still have more questions than answers. I know what it is, but I don’t know what it was used for, or why.”
     Gina nodded. “I first heard about it from Colonel Obrin. He really wanted to get his hands on some live Hephaestus bots.”
     “Oh, I bet he would!” laughed Gabriel. “He was involved in that project from day one, more than twenty years ago. Then the Federation coup came along. God only knows what he’d do with more of those things. Fortunately they don’t exist anymore, they all died in the fallout, along with the knowledge of how to make them. I’m the only person in the world with the skill and resources to recreate them, and I have no intention of doing that.”
     “Is that why you went into Radiation Alley? To find out more about them?”
     “Sort-of. It’s a long story.”
     “Come on, I want to know! All this time you’ve been leading up to something, Gabriel, and I can’t seem to figure it out. Don’t even pretend it’s all about me. I just stumbled into the middle of what was already going on. That horrible city I saw in your head is part of it too, isn’t it?”
     “I don’t think you’d understand,” Gabriel sighed.
     “Try me.”
     A sad smile curled his lips. “You’re asking questions I’ve been trying to answer my whole life, Gina. The only man in this world who can fill in the missing pieces is someone whom you’ve just told me is already dead.”
     Something in the way he said it, in the angle of his emotions, she picked up a tiny note of discord. “You don’t think he is,” she stated flatly, and watched him smile as he acknowledged it.
     “Keith Obrin is possibly the craftiest man on this Earth, not counting myself. He’s managed to elude me for years thanks to his little resistance movement. I’d be very surprised for him to go quietly into the night.”
     Gina stared into his eyes for a long time, reading the mocking humour and the arrogance, the joy and the love. She whispered, “Make me understand.”
     He breathed deeply and took her hand as he dove back into his memories, deeper and darker, and took Gina with him.
     The world was made up only of flashes and impressions. Nothing made sense, the world had gone mad, and the only thing Gina remembered clearly was running like a hunted animal. In flashes she panted like a dog, out of breath but too afraid to stop. Then she woke up.
     She sat up in a pile of old blankets. There were more blankets strewn all around her, mounds of rough cloth with grubby faces poking out of them. There were people huddling under the covers. A few of them had burns, terrible burns, with streaks of dried blood and pus crusting from underneath crude attempts to bandage them. A musty, rotting smell hung around the place, and although Gina couldn’t read, she knew the meaning of the big black symbol pasted over the room’s only door. Danger. But was it danger to the people here or the people outside?
     An animal might have rushed into the corner after waking up in a room full of strangers, but Gina got to her knees and absorbed her surroundings in more detail. It was so quiet. For a moment she thought she could hear a siren, faint and far off, but it went away before she could be sure she hadn’t imagined it. Then the room was silent again. Gina couldn’t make out a whisper.
     It occurred to her that people should make noise, but no one moved. No one breathed. She took a closer look at someone, a small girl wrapped up in the arms of what looked like her father. Raw purple marks and bruises covered their skin, and little bits of blood crusted at the corners of their mouths and nostrils. Gina nudged the girl, but it was like moving a sack of grain. The small body rolled limply onto the ground.
     Tears stung her eyes as the cold truth began to dawn on her, but she blinked them away until she was left only with the hollow feeling at her core. Her first act in this world was to reunite the girl and her father in their final embrace.
     They’d placed Gina with the dead and dying, but she was alive. She suddenly felt a desperate need to get out of this room and ran to the door, for the first time becoming aware of her nakedness, and of the male body she inhabited. Not that it mattered. She shoved the door with all her strength and fell through, hitting the floor on the other side.
     There was a scream, and some commotion. Then somebody hissed for quiet and helped Gina back up, wrapping her in a thick blanket.
     It was a woman, her middle-aged face a network of worry lines, bright green eyes full of sadness and quiet strength. She soothed Gina while two scowling men went over her with handheld devices, growing agitated by the results. She didn’t understand what they were saying but she could read the language of their minds, piecing together sentences from fragments of thoughts and feelings.
     “This can’t be right,” muttered one man. “The counter says he’s not radioactive at all.”
     “Eli, if he’s not a danger then leave him alone,” said the woman firmly.
     “He wouldn’t have been put in a locker if he wasn’t! He should be glowing in the fucking dark!”
     “Then somebody made a mistake. Put the machine down and look for yourself, there’s nothing wrong with him. Now go get him some food and water. We’re not savages yet.”
     Gina looked around and saw a room full of troubled faces, sitting at tables and on the floor, huddled together for warmth. The living, she thought, wrapped in the same blankets. Their skin bore the same scars.
     One big door was recessed in the wall, but it had been shut and made air-tight by virtue of shoving towels and rags into all the gaps. The windows were sealed with duct tape. Little drifts of dust gathered on the doorstep and the windowsills despite everything, only to be cleared off by constant patrols with an old vacuum cleaner.
     Outside the windows was a pale red sky without sun or clouds. Choked with fallout dust. The silhouette of a helicopter went through it, then faded as quickly as it had appeared.
     She searched the minds around her for the words she needed, then croaked, “Where . . . am . . . I?”
     “You’re in Austin, dear. What’s left of it.” The woman smiled. “This is an emergency fallout shelter, you’ll be safe here. There’s lots of people working to clean the air outside and make it liveable again, or to evacuate us if they can’t. Do you know where you came from?”
     Gina tried to think back, but her memories before waking up in the room of the dead were chaotic, disjointed fragments of colour and sound. It hurt even to hold them in her mind’s eye, like gripping a chunk of broken glass to see through. An edge of panic crept in her heart as she realised she knew nothing. She was blank, frightened and alone.
     Again she struggled, “I . . . can’t . . . remember.”
     “Don’t you worry about that then. You can stay here as long as you need to, or want to. Come on, let’s see if we’ve got any clothes that’ll fit you, shall we?”
     The memory lost focus, faded to a pastel-coloured blur. There were flashes, a montage of simple memories, one after the other.
     She learned how to speak and read, taking the knowledge from the minds around her without a second thought.
     She interviewed the rescue team who had found her in the rubble of Austin, half-dead and wrapped in a sheet of sailing canvas, and chucked her in with those beyond hope of saving.
     She traced the sail back to an old boat sitting abandoned in some flooded Louisiana suburb.
     She followed her clues to the abandoned hospital in Alabama, three states away, and found the folder belonging to John Doe.
     Then the trail dried up. Her air and water began to run out. She was forced to go home and think again, with her mysterious medical record in hand.
     A moment of calm whiteness allowed Gina to catch her breath, before it flowed seamlessly into somewhere new.


     Someone dangled halfway up the skyscraper in front of Gina. The man was suspended in a little basket, dressed in a spacesuit and busily directing his painting robot across the building. The plastic and metal octopus slowly dragged its spray gun tentacles across the abandoned tower, covering every inch of surface in radiation-resistant mirror paint. Each stroke hid another window or sealed another balcony behind a sheet of plastic and lead.
     Things were different now. Austin was different, no longer a ghost town where people hid from the very air outside their doors. The whole city crawled with activity as it was refurbished and redesigned into a new shape. The freshly-inaugurated Federal government had put the Army to work clearing the fallout dust out of the atmosphere, and although nobody would be trying to breathe it for the next fifty years, it would eventually return to normal. The hole in the ozone layer over Texas would one day close up or move on.
     Slowly her eyes returned to the mechanically clean diner, to the bar and the white wall behind it. A few weeks ago that wall had faced out towards New Orleans behind a big bay window. Shadows stood burned onto it, of people sitting at tables, eating, drinking, laughing. It struck Gina as a bit ghoulish, but the diner was nevertheless packed with people. They called it ‘apocalypse chic’. Treated it like some kind of art.
     “Good morning, sir,” said a voice from behind her. It belonged to a small Indian man in cheap suit trousers and a button-up shirt, with horn-rimmed glasses on his nose. He looked like a librarian without a library. Gina stood up to shake hands. The man gripped firmly as he went on, “Mr. Lowell, yes? I have your results for you.”
     He took a small PDA out of his pocket and handed it to Gina. Then he added, “Best not to be seen together for too long. The machine’s included in your contract, which is now complete. You know our number if you require any further services.”
     Then, with a nod of his head, he was gone. Gina hadn’t moved. She stared at the little PDA in her hand, scrolling page after page of blood test details. She didn’t understand much of the medical jargon but she could certainly read the red marks next to them, flashing the word ‘abnormal’. Without even thinking she rubbed her elbow where the needle had gone in. After barely an hour the puncture mark and even the bruise were gone, invisible. Her skin was as perfect and unbroken as ever.
     Suddenly the PDA stopped to display an image that filled its whole screen. It was a close-up of a nanobot, seen through an electron microscope. It looked for all the world like a little plastic flea. She felt like it ought to mean something to her; the test data announced there were millions of the things in her blood, living and dying and working away.
     It meant nothing. She hadn’t even known they were there.
     After a moment’s thought she took out her phone and found a contact number for the recently rebuilt Austin Library. A bored receptionist picked up and fired off her mechanical greeting.
     “I’d like to talk to someone about reserving one of your VR booths,” Gina said. “I need it loaded with every volume you have on nanorobotics, and any others you can get in for a reasonable price. I have money.”
     “Let me transfer you to Mr. Parkinson,” sighed the receptionist, and put the line on hold.
     She took a long pull at her glass of water. She wanted to know everything there was to know about nanorobots in three weeks or less. Then maybe she could begin to make sense of things, figure out what it was that was living inside her. At least she’d have somewhere to start.
     She only hoped the answers were getting closer . . .
     Time froze as Gabriel reappeared in front of her, a lopsided smile on his face. The scenery behind him blurred into the background. It was no longer relevant.
     He said, “So what’s it like being me?”
     “Screwed up,” she answered moodily.
     “How do you think I felt?”
     “I . . . I have a hard time believing any of this.”
     “I don’t blame you. We both know I could’ve fabricated any part of it. You don’t think that, though. You just don’t want to see it because it makes you feel pity, sympathy, and all that bullshit.” He chuckled. “It’s okay. That’s not what I want from you, Gina.”
     It was the worst thing he could’ve said. She crossed her arms lightly and cocked her head at him. “And what is it you want from me, Gabriel? What else is there left to have?” She continued right over him when he started to speak, “You did this so I can’t even get away from you inside my own fucking skull. You’re holding part of me hostage so I’ll have no choice but to come back to you. You treat me like a piece of lost property that needs to be retrieved, just like my father does.” Tears blurred her eyes, but she never looked away, just let them roll silently down her cheeks. Her jaw was clenched in helpless anger. “In short, Gabriel, you’re a total bastard, and I can’t even find it in myself to hate you for it. Even after everything you’ve done to me. How fucking pathetic is that?”
     Now there was pity and sympathy in his eyes, but it only made Gina sick with disgust. He said, “Gina, I’m–“
     “Sorry?” she finished for him. “Yeah, I’ll bet.”
     She walked away without another word, out of her own mind and into somebody else’s, to find relief from her emotions just for a little while.

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