A strange calm settled over Gina as she stared out the window with two of her eyes closed. She sensed the Street in a way that wasn’t exactly visual. The writhing, pulsing mass of thoughts and emotions — dotted with sharp spikes of telepathic activity — seemed to fill the world in front of her, like a living wall of humanity’s innermost secrets. It didn’t quite stick to the normal three dimensions, either. It flowed in and out of directions that Gina strained to comprehend.
     The car pulled up in an alley and put itself into park. Gina could see the lights of the Street only a few steps away, and she swallowed, the immensity of that congregation weighing down on her, twisting her thoughts into unpleasant new shapes. Where the Network had been beautiful and harmonious in its controlled environment, the Street was a kind of collective unconscious, wild and dark, a breeding ground for humanity’s ugliest impulses.
     She stepped out onto the pavement and basked in it.
     Sound of people wheeling and dealing in their thousands. Sky blotted out by opaqued-glass towers and holographic constructs. Multicoloured neon glow from a thousand different signs and logos, bright enough to drive back any hint of a shadow. Even the tarmac under her feet felt familiar. It was like slipping back into the same warm bath where you’d slit your wrists for the first time.
     Nothing could be more right than to give herself up to the crowd, pressed against by a million bodies in some eternal hedonistic dance. She moved through it all in a trance, graceful as a fish in water, slipping unctuously into gaps where she saw them and creating new ones where she needed just by thinking of an open path.
     She crossed over the bodies of beggars and junkies, some breathing, some not. One young boy went through the pockets of a wide-eyed pixie dust addict too far gone to ever wake up again. On the kerb, barely yards away, sat a row of old telepaths with begging bowls in hand. Their bloodshot, burnt-out eyes followed Gina everywhere she went, and one of them let out a toothless groan. Somehow they could always recognise their own.
     How she wanted to become part of it again! To fade away into the many where no one could find her, and no one would bother to look. Alone, anonymous, and neither of those things at the same time.
     The taste of blood brought her back to her senses. Without even realising it, her teeth had cut hard into her tongue. Her head cleared a little from the poisonous lure of the Street, and when she looked up she found what she hadn’t even realised she was searching for; a hole-in-the-wall shop so tiny it didn’t even have neon above the door, but one that everybody on the Street could find in their sleep. It was Wu’s. Gina’s very own dealer.
     When in doubt, go with the devils you know, she recited mentally before going in.
     Wu’s consisted of an awning and a wall-to-wall concrete counter finished with bulletproof glass. Behind the counter stood an old Chinese woman, smiling benevolently like a doting grandmother, flanked by two large men armed with shotguns and bad haircuts. The words ‘NO MONEY, NO DRUGS’ were written in luminescent paint on the floor.
     “Oh, it’s you,” Wu crabbed, squinting suspiciously at Gina, her voice thick with Street slang. “Not seen that pretty dumb face in weeks. What been keeping you?”
     “Unexpected windfall,” Gina shot back with a smirk. “Cut the shit, you greedy old bitch. I need some eyes. What you got?”
     “Got eyes, but not for you. Out your price range.”
     Producing a small credit slip from her pocket, LEDs blinking the number 50,000 across the tiny display, Gina slapped her money on the counter. The holographic AmeriBank logo cast its tiny grey glow across the battered plywood. “You got no brain about how deep my pockets go, Wu. I wanna buy fuckin’ bulk, you get me?”
     When Wu made no move to pick up the credit, Gina snorted contemptuously and leaned in a little closer. She murmured in her honeyed contralto, “You selling it, means you getting supply from someone. Maybe I go straight to your boss, eh? He gonna be one happy pusher to see my dollar.”
     Wu’s eyes widened a fraction. Beady, suspicious eyes stared at Gina, and a claw-like hand snatched up the slip with rattlesnake speed. “Fifty, two tabs. Take it or leave it.”
     Got you, you little bitch, Gina said in the privacy of her own mind. She had her foot in the door. A second credit slip found its way from her pocket to between her fingers, and nasty satisfaction glowed in her chest when Wu took notice of the figure. 500,000 ought to be enough to whet their appetite without getting herself murdered in a back alley.
     The slip flew back into her pocket, replaced by a coy smile on her lips. “One strip ain’t enough to wipe my ass with. You know damn well there’s a shortage, and I want to stock up, two hundred strips for starters. Cash no issue.”
     “Nobody got two hundred strips on the Street,” Wu spat, but there were dollar signs ticking up behind her eyes. “Where a waster like you get that kind of dollar? You working for the Feds?”
     Gina laughed at the absurd question. “Feds don’t give a fuck about the Street, not that it’s any of your fucking business. You find someone to sell me what I want or I take your cut somewhere else, dong-ma?”
     Frustrated, Wu tapped her long yellowed fingernails on the counter top. Her eyes darted away from Gina and back again. Then she hawked a gob of phlegm onto the counter, sniffing haughtily.
     “You come in the back,” she said, and disappeared into the wall behind her. The hologram barely flickered.
     Both of Wu’s guards stood aside to let Gina clamber over the counter. She stuck her head through the wall, finding only pitch blackness on the other side, and groped her way forward when Wu called to hurry up. There was a ladder in the midst of a field of packing crates, filled with a variety of drugs only a very dedicated junkie would recognise. She stumbled up the rungs as best she could in the dark.
     For a moment she thought she caught the fleeting impression of a familiar mind somewhere behind her, but then it was gone. She shook it off and made her way to the top of the ladder, where a single bare light-bulb revealed a goon with rubber gloves, ready to frisk her for weapons. Reluctantly she allowed herself to be searched. She could sense his lust as he let his hands linger around her backside and on her tits, but there was nothing she could do about it.
     Finally the crawlspace led into some more civilised real estate, a corporate planning room of some kind, hidden deep in the bowels of the office blocks that flanked the Street. An expensive suit sat at the table across from her, his hands splayed out flat on the big plastic table. His hair was tightly slicked back, and a faint tightness in his face spoke of a few extra years he’d spent a lot of time and money trying to hide. Wu was already gone, headed back to her little shop.
     “Good evening,” he said in a smooth, refined voice. “I understand you’re looking to do some business on a large scale.”
     Gina smiled and leaned over the table slightly, resting her weight on her palms, which also had the effect of pushing her ample cleavage out in front to draw his attention. “That’s right, if you’re in a position to . . . help me out.”
     The code phrase activated a tiny transmitter hidden under her tongue. It pushed an almost imperceptible signal through the ether to the receiver back at the tea house. Before she could get an answer, the implant at the base of her skull flared to life and logged her in. The Network exploded across her mind like a shot of heroin, and she shivered, smiling.
     “Let’s talk,” she said dreamily.

***

     There was a hired telepath in the corner, a young Japanese girl in a slinky dress, pretty with just a hint of hopelessness. She could have been a mirror image of Gina about ten years ago. Runaway, said the frightened eyes, and junkie was obvious from the slump of her shoulders and the hollow, almost emaciated ribcage. There was a lot more than Spice fuzzing up that haunted little mind; she stared off into the middle distance without any sign that she knew what was going on in the outside world.
     She noticed, though, when Gina activated her implant. It was the telepathic equivalent of a bomb going off in the room. She stiffened visibly, bit her bottom lip so hard it went white, but said nothing. She was too frightened to open her mouth.
     Standing there, the Network glowing at the back of her head and her own power bubbling within her, Gina could only delight in it. Every thought from the room, from the building, outlined itself in her mind in exquisite detail and clarity, and they were hers to mould and change as she saw fit. Anything seemed possible. She felt like a goddess.
     The girl made a strangled noise from her corner. She hastily glanced around for an exit in the vain hope that she could slip away before anything happened.
     “Two hundred strips is a lot of stuff,” the suit said, steepling his fingers under his chin. There was an air of casual command to him . “You know Spice doesn’t grow on trees, miss . . .” He trailed off to let her fill in her name.
     “Beauty,” Gina murmured. “And that’s exactly why I want to buy it from you, mister . . .”
     He shrugged, counting up figures and playing a long slideshow of faces through his mind. He seemed to be making a shortlist of suppliers. She could almost feel the information sliding back through her implant. “Call me Michael. What you ask isn’t impossible, miss Beauty, but you’re talking about quantities that are difficult to produce, possess and transport. The market being what it is, that could incur significant expenses. Many manufacturers are pulling out of Spice altogether.”
     She altered her tone to cool, dismissive. “The market? Street worth is orders of magnitude what it used to be. You’re haggling before you’ve set a price, Michael.”
     There was a long pause. Michael leaned back in his chair, kicked his feet up and studied her intensely. A smile grew on his face when she returned his calculating stare with one of her own. “Very good, I think we can respect each other. However, my suppliers no longer stock such large quantities. It might take several weeks to assemble the full amount.”
     She nodded calmly, then said, “Unacceptable. My backers don’t have that kind of time.”
     “Your backers don’t have any other option,” Michael pointed out. “My competition in trading this commodity has been . . . significantly reduced by market forces.”
     Gina pretended to mull it over. She switched her weight to her other foot to make her tight clothing creak. She finally said, “One condition.”
     “Name it.”
     “I want to see your source. My backers won’t go for any deal unless I can satisfy them that you’re adequately set up to handle this volume.”
     “That,” said Michael, a greedy gleam in his eye, “can be arranged. In exchange for a small advance fee, of course.”
     A credit slip slapped onto the table in front of Michael. In the dimly-lit space, the number 500,000 blinked faintly onto the ceiling. Gina’s elegant fingers turned it towards him and pushed it closer until his reaching hand touched hers.
     “I trust that’ll cover your expenses,” she murmured in a sultry tone, adding a smile and a wiggle of her chest for effect. “And Michael . . . If there’s anything else you need, you just let me know.”
     It didn’t take a telepath to know she had him.

***

     It was a short walk across the Street to Michael’s car, enough to take Gina past all the places she used to know. The little noodle stall where she bought most of her food. The pitch-black alley that, if you followed it far enough, would take you back to Easy Hotel. Even her old spot under the street light . . . It had been taken over by a girl in a short skirt, younger but not as pretty, and the deep bags under her eyes showed the strain of a life on Spice. A rangy, jumpy-looking guy hovered around her, sweat pouring off his forehead, his hand locked in a death grip around the gun in his pocket. Her pimp, in all probability, wired to the gills on pixie dust.
     She couldn’t quite decide how she felt about it. There was a definite tug on her heart, but whether it was homesickness or Stockholm syndrome was anybody’s guess.
     Michael guided her down a side street, and she caught sight of a sleek black-and-chrome blob of aerodynamic plastic sitting next to the kerb. The old-style petrol engine purred to life when it sensed his approaching biosignals. A fingerprint lock protected the doors, and the heavy bolts thudded open at a press of his thumb. He smiled and climbed into the back, motioning for Gina to join him. Two of his bodyguards took up the front seats.
     Memory foam and vat-grown leather moulded to the contours of her body. With a low, understated rumble, the car pulled away into the tight corners and narrows of the city centre, leaving the Street of Eyes as a fading neon glow in the rear window.
     “I’ve set up a meeting with my main supplier,” said Michael. “The only remaining bulk dealer I know. He can magic up as many as a hundred strips on short notice.”
     “Sounds promising.”
     “I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
     The journey was pleasant enough, rumbling softly through the City streets. Michael offered her a glass of cheap champagne to pass the time. She stared into his mind a moment and, finding no intent to drug or poison her, she took the glass and sipped it. It helped her relax a little. Keeping all her violent emotions pushed down in favour of this act had taken its toll. She felt exhausted. Still, she’d have to keep up appearances a little longer.
     Finally the car pulled up outside a set of blank warehouses at the eastern edge of Sichuan district. Michael took her hand and helped her out of the car, his elegant manner just a touch too mechanical, probably learned from a VR module. He rapped his knuckles on a thick metal shutter, and a moment later it raised to let them in.
     Gina looked around, taken aback. The warehouse was empty. Nothing met her eye but blank space.
     “Is this her?” asked the man with the shutter controls in hand. He regarded her from under heavy eyelids, skinny but poised, his features betraying him as some mix of Chinese and Caucasian. His mind was sharp and ordered like a soldier, or a Fed.
     Gina took a step back and glowered at Michael. “If this is some kind of trick–“
     “Alejandro,” Michael said in Conglom, “hit the generators.”
     An earth-shattering hum plummeted through the frequencies of sound, a descending pitch that shook Gina to her bowels. The world shimmered from floor to ceiling. Shelves flickered into view, beakers and jars of a million different compounds arranged around a dormant chem lab. Its computers were black and silent. A large black box sat next to the counter, veined through with clear plastic tubes, but disconnected from all the feeding hoses that lay scattered around it. The only thing moving was the shutter control box, dangling on its wire.
     Slick smile plastered across his face, Michael made a sweeping gesture to welcome her inside. By some unspoken agreement they all gravitated to the the counters, getting away from the vulnerable open space by the shutter. “This is our number one site for product with nanoscale components. Alejandro is the man in charge.” He stepped forward and shook the man’s hand. “We have a big order for you, and we need an ETA on the full quantity.”
     Alejandro made an effort to look vaguely interested. “What and how much?”
     “Spice. Two hundred strips, maybe more, as soon as you can make them.”
     “Never,” Alejandro replied instantly. “I’m out of the third eye business, man. Too chancy for me.”
     Michael recoiled as if he’d just bitten into a lemon. He blurted, “Beg pardon?”
     “‘Zactly what I said. The Spice trade nowadays is a good way for a guy to shorten his lifespan. I ain’t doing it.”
     “What the fuck are you talking about?”
     Alejandro shrugged, having lost all interest in the conversation. “In case you hadn’t noticed, there are people who fabricate Spice, and there are people who are alive. Everybody who touches that fucking stuff seems to wind up dead. I’m nearly out of source parts anyway.”
     Both Gina and Michael said the same thing at the same time. “Source parts?”
     “Yeah, you can’t make Spice without the nanos, and you gotta buy nanos from the source. They’re way advanced, nobody I know got that kind of tech. My box just organises the dosage.” He shrugged again. “I might’ve been able to help you, but my parts guy was found face-down in the Yangtse river three weeks ago. Not that I would’ve bought from him again. Could be how they track you.”
     A touch to the man’s mind told Gina that he was telling the truth. She cursed inwardly, and let her disappointment show. “How much have you got stored?”
     “Some. Sixty, maybe seventy strips. But,” he pointed out with bland relentlessness, “I ain’t in the third eye business no more.”
     Gina didn’t know what to do. Improvising, she turned to Michael and said, “Seventy strips would be better than nothing. Is there anything you can do?”
     He shook his head. “Seems this has been a big waste of my time. Get the hell out of my sight now, and we’ll forget this ever happened, huh?”
     “Look, I need–” Gina began, starting to get very angry, but Michael cut her off.
     “Kim, Durz, please escort the lady out. Do whatever the hell you want with her, just get rid.”
     In a split second the grinning, black-suited bodyguards had her by the arms. She struggled, and the lock soon got painful. The intention to take her out back and rape her couldn’t have been clearer in their minds, and Gina’s blood began to boil at the touch of those contemptuous hands, the casual imaginings of her on her knees, the way that self-important little fucker Michael had dismissed her. Her mind prepared to lash out with a raw desire to hurt.
     Suddenly something slammed into the shutter doors, rattling them like thunder. Michael craned his head at the commotion. A shouting voice was followed by another slam, then silence. Michael’s bodyguards let go of Gina and rushed to the door, taking up positions on either side with guns in hand.
     “What’s going on?” he demanded. “Who’s out there?”
     Gina recognised an opportunity. She grabbed Michael by his tie and yanked him forward onto her rising knee. It hit with a satisfying crack. Michael dropped bleeding to the floor in front of her, and she pinned him down with a boot on his chest. The force of her mind helped to keep him there. “I want somebody else who can take me to this ‘source’. Name and address.”
     “You can’t make me–“
     “I can make you do anything I want,” she said. “I suggest you talk before I lose patience and rip the answers out of your head.”
     She gave him a big smile as he stared up at her. Slowly, horribly, he was beginning to understand. His fear tasted sweet; she savoured it like an avenging angel, each drop of blood from his broken nose a tiny victory.
     “I don’t know anybody else!” he moaned and tried to wipe the red from his lips. “Please, Alejandro was my only supplier!”
     Glancing up, she noticed the little man was gone, and swore under her breath. The two bodyguards had disappeared out a side door. More noises came in from outside, and she jerked when she heard gunshots.
     Michael was trying to crawl out from under her. He scrabbled uselessly against the floor, staring up wide-eyed, trembling in sheer terror while her mind coiled around his like a length of barbed wire. Maybe she couldn’t get the information she wanted out of him, but at least she could settle the score.
     He cried out as she began to squeeze. Ghostlike pain lanced up and down his nervous system, torturing every part of his body at once.
     “People like you are starting to get on my nerves, you know,” she mused. “People who keep thinking they can do what they want with me, and I don’t get a vote. I’m getting really fucking sick of that. Let’s make a start by educating you.”
     Stretching his mind out like a rubber band, she waited for him to scream.
     Then the side door exploded inward. One of Michael’s henchmen stumbled backwards and landed flat on his back, unconscious, and someone else staggered through the unhinged door. Gina almost couldn’t feel the mind there, slick with telepathy avoidance exercises, but she recognised the sharp, abrasive taste. She turned away from her prisoner in unhappy surprise.
     “Darius, what the fuck are you doing here?” she demanded. Behind her, Michael collected enough of his senses to wriggle free and bolt.
     Darius entered gingerly, moving with a limp, several fresh rips in his shirt. His pupils were the size of marbles and blood trickled freely from his split, red-stained lips. He smiled at her.
     “Just saving your ass again,” he coughed. “Come on, the way out’s clear.”
     His presence alone was enough to make her want to rip his heart out, but that comment was the last straw. Pure, towering rage surged in her chest. She came forward through a red haze and slapped him hard across the cheek. In his state, it was more than enough to knock him to the ground.
     “I don’t need your fucking help!” she hissed furiously. “I had everything under control here before you showed up!”
     He looked up at her with a mocking sneer. She lunged at him again, but this time he grabbed her hands and held her at arm’s length. “A simple thank-you would’ve sufficed,” he laughed raspily.
     She bared her teeth and spat on him. The gob of saliva landed on his cheek, but it only made him grin wider. Reaching out with her mind, she tried to crush him telepathically, but she was too angry to concentrate. She couldn’t keep hold of him.
     “You’ve gotten pretty savage, haven’t you?” he taunted, sitting up. “I didn’t think you had it in you the first time we met. You broke down crying when you killed somebody in self-defence, and now look at you. I think I like you better this way.”
     The words were like knives of ice driven one by one into Gina’s chest. Eyes wide, her breaths short and ragged, wanting nothing more than to bash Darius’s head in, she stopped. She found herself face to face with all the things she’d been trying to rationalise or explain away. The wounded, burning need to inflict pain on others. To render her own suffering onto the outside world. Tears bubbling up from deep inside, she sagged against his shoulder, trying and failing to stop the sobs that rocked through her.
     “Damn you,” she whispered, but he only held her.

***

     “You shouldn’t have gotten involved, Darius,” she quavered as the two of them slumped against the wall of a dark City alley. It was dark and unpleasant, but private. An unidentifiable puddle of something decorated the pavement a little way from where Gina sat, and her eyes followed a trail of drippings to a pale body in the gutter.
     That was the last straw. She bent over and retched, everything in her stomach coming up at once. Acid bile burned her throat and her mouth. She held herself up on shaking arms as she spat out the last remnants, then dry-heaved a few times before her body finally calmed down.
     She bit her lip and focussed her hazy eyes on Darius again, struggling to control the emotions boiling in the pit of her stomach. “I’m dangerous. I would’ve killed you if I could, understand? If you want to live through this, you should get as far away from me as fucking possible.”
     “I assure you it wasn’t my idea.” He shrugged his shoulders, picking an old-fashioned cigarette from his pocket. He offered her one, and she took it while he patted himself down in search of a lighter.
     “I got nowhere else to go,” he continued. “Nothing to go back to. I just know you’re important, though I couldn’t tell you how or why.” Abandoning his fruitless patdown, he moved on to search of every pocket on his body. That came up dry too. He stared down at the alley pavement in front of him, mouthing a simple, “Shit.”
     Gina grimaced and took the unlit cigarette from her lips. “I’m not some goddamned damsel in distress,” she said. “I don’t need saving.”
     “Good, ’cause this was your last freebie. Any more ass-saving will be done at market rates.”
     Darius pulled himself to his feet and staggered towards the mouth of the alley to check on the street. The City noise was the same as ever. Michael seemed to have cut his losses.
     He said, “Coast’s clear, I think.”
     With a deep breath, Gina made up her mind. She climbed back to her feet and shouldered past him, striding off into the distance. He had to run to keep up.
     There was a taxi rank outside the local rail station. Gina picked a battered old banger with a human at the wheel — they asked fewer questions — and hopped into it, telling the driver to go anywhere away from here. Darius just managed to dive inside before the doors locked.
     The drive back to Jupiter’s didn’t last long, with Darius feeding occasional course corrections to the morose driver. Gina lost her sense of direction inside of five minutes; she got turned around at some point with the City’s towers crowded close together here, turning every street into a dark alley despite the ageing holographics and flickering neon signs that hovered over every door. No matter what the shops promised, though, they all oozed disreputability in some form or another. Gina tried to clutch her purse by instinct before remembering she’d lost it.
     Nobody tried to stop her as she barged through the main room. She knew exactly where to find Jupiter, and she started tearing her clothes off before she even reached the door to the pod room. There was an open one waiting for her.
     “That could’ve gone better,” Jupiter said when she materialised in front of him. “It could’ve gone worse, but I wish you hadn’t gotten carried away.”
     “I got as far as I could.”
     “It would’ve been handy to know the name of Alejandro’s source.”
     Through gritted teeth she said, “Jupiter, do you know what’s gonna happen if you continue to stress me?”
     Pausing, Jupiter inclined his head respectfully. “Point. We did get the warehouse. I sent some people there to strip it as we speak.”
     “Good,” hissed Gina. “Now honour your end of the bargain.”
     Towers of molten steel swam out of the fog like grave markers, nothing more than sagging skeletons of office buildings and other reinforced structures. A few chunks of crater-pocked concrete still clung on here and there, like shreds of meat hanging from overcooked bones. Any glass had long ago shattered and melted away.
     Gina stood in a park, surrounded by the charred husks of dead trees in various stages of falling down. Most were already flat on the ground. Their roots had been torn out of the earth in ragged clumps of wood and soil. They were already dead, but somehow it looked as if their suffering continued even now, smoke rising from the boughs where acid raindrops touched down.
     The last few wisps of fog pulled away to reveal a cloudy red sky pouring its blood on the earth below. A flash of far-off lightning outlined the fat crimson rain as it fell. The wind picked up, moaning softly through the streets. Then the most horrible thing of them all, the ash people, came into view with a sound like rustling paper. Some stood frozen like statues, bits flaking off them in the wind. Others slowly collapsed or toppled over, only to disintegrate into heaps of black ash where they hit the ground.
     Up close, she realised that it wasn’t New Orleans. Not the place she’d seen. That city had been dead in a solid sort of way, lying in state as a result of fallout conditions. This place on the other hand seemed to be in a permanent state of decay, swaying and undulating in the breeze. It was a shadow rather than a corpse, still animated by some unholy energy.
     The next thing she noticed was the hot, throbbing pain that bored into her skull like an electric drill. A ragged scream tore from her throat, and she fought to keep her balance, to stop the artifact from overwhelming her. She wasn’t sure if she could do it. Fear tingled at the back of her brain. Her knees buckled with the effort of holding on, but she willed herself back upright and faced the wasteland head-on.
     Jupiter rushed to her side with a face like he’d just bitten into a lemon. “Take it easy,” the old man said, channelling his strength and support into her. “Don’t try to run before you can walk.”
     Gina’s adrenaline rush quickly ebbed away under Jupiter’s soothing influence, and the calming effect of the Network in general. For the first time she stood in the middle of the burnt city without panic hammering in her heart. Before long, to Gina’s surprise, even the headache began to fade.
     “Thanks,” she told him.
     “Don’t mention it.” He squinted at the city outside the dome. His eyes grew wider as he absorbed the full horror of the scene. He only felt an echo of what Gina had been experiencing, but he had to steady himself on a tree stump, swaying and light-headed. “Damn . . . No wonder this got stuck in your mind. Where on Earth did you pick it up?”
     She bit her tongue before she could talk about it. After some consideration she decided, “You don’t want to know.”
     “Alright, if you say it’s none of my business, it’s none of my business. Just remember that I’m supposed to be your therapist. It might help to talk about it.”
     “Ask me again later. Right now I just want to do this.”
     Gina Hart gritted her teeth, stepped out of the park and headed into the city proper, determined to meet her nightmare head-on.

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