All sorts of thoughts were leaking out of Gina’s head as she walked across rubble, ash and molten tarmac. Visions of Rat and Bomber swam in and out of focus, interspersed with other significant memories.
     Her father featured prominently. She saw Onounu, and Alfie, and even Mahmoud. Still she kept coming back to the image of Gabriel’s eyes glowing in the dark of a City nightclub. The psychedelic flashing of the disco lights reflected in them while they stared and studied her, as though this man could tell everything about her without ever opening his mouth. She reached out to touch him, but found only chaos inside his mind, chaos that rolled over her like a tidal wave.
     Beside her, Jupiter stumbled, holding his head, but he quickly recovered and shook it off. He gave Gina a little grimace that was probably meant to be a smile. The landscape affected him more than he let on but, tough old bird that he was, he took it in his stride.
     “How are you holding up?” he asked her.
     “Could be better,” she said without thinking twice, then raised her hand to her mouth in surprise. That had sounded a little too much like Bomber. She added hastily, “Sorry, I don’t really feel myself. How about you?”
     “I’m impressed,” he breathed, “that you walked around with this for as long as you have. Without cracking, that is. I think you’ve been given an amazing gift.” He took another look around and chewed the inside of his cheek thoughtfully. His tone of voice was conversational, almost absent-minded, when he continued. “That man you keep thinking of, he’s tied in to this somehow, isn’t he?”
     She hesitated, but it was futile. She couldn’t have told a convincing lie if she’d wanted to. “Yes. You could say that.”
     He said quietly, “I don’t give a damn who he is and what he means to you, Gina. I’m not exactly a doctor, but you can count on my confidentiality.”
     Broken tarmac crunched under Gina’s boots as she looked at him, her blue eyes foggy from the pain pounding distantly behind her eyes. “Thanks,” was all she could bring herself to say.
     Jupiter waited for her to continue, but she walked on in silence, trying to figure this place out. Even now it was messing with her mind. The bowed, sagging buildings gave a constant impression of movement, like those old schoolbook brain-teasers with the patterns of differently-coloured squares that always made Gina sick. Light came into the city from somewhere, but it was dim and diffuse, lacking any visible source. Still it cast huge long shadows across the ground, and whenever Gina walked under one the temperature seemed to plummet beyond freezing.
     “You’re shivering,” Jupiter pointed out. He shrugged out of his jacket and draped it over her shoulders.
     She instinctively reached up to the collar, drawing it tight around her. Her teeth chattered as she said, “I’m not actually cold. This place is just . . .” Words failed her, and she hunched down. “It’s starting to hit me that I still don’t know anything about this place. Not for sure. Where is it? What’s it called? Why was it destroyed? Is it real or just some fucked-up twisted imagination?”
     Jupiter caught her shoulders in his hands and gently pulled her to a stop. “So look around, Gina. Pay close attention. What can you learn from the things you see around you?”
     Taking his advice, Gina looked around. They were near one of the ash people that stood in the road, its head and arms thrown back in a scream of perpetual agony. The pungent smell of charred meat surrounded it. Black flakes peeled off in the toxic breeze, slowly carried away to only God knew where.
     She walked around the statue, taking it in. She could almost feel the thoughts and emotions of the person in its last moments. A flash of light so bright it brought only darkness, blind eyes staring down endlessly as the flesh was cooked alive in nuclear fire.
     Hands reached out gingerly. At the lightest touch, the statue fell apart into a pile of burnt matter. There was nothing holding it up, nothing to be done for any of them.
     Moisture began to build behind her eyes, and she fought bitterly to blink it all away. It was stupid to waste tears on someone she would never know.
     She hissed, “Lots of people have apocalyptic dreams, right?”
     Jupiter touched her arm gently, though he struggled to keep the lid on his own emotions. “Artifacts are built on direct psychological trauma. The trouble is, Spice lowers your natural defences against this sort of thing, forcing you to feel that trauma as if it was your own. That’s why they call it ‘post-empathic stress disorder’.”
     “A friend of mine told me about them once,” she said, shutting her eyes against the dull throb of grief that accompanied thoughts of Onounu. She’d thought she was coming to accept it, but this place brought back all the negative emotions amplified ten times over. “She used to say artifacts are the darkest places in our hearts. That we can usually deal with our own demons, but while we’re reading a mark, we’re vulnerable to their nightmares.”
     “Poetic, but accurate. ‘And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.'”
     “What?”
     “Nietzsche. Beyond Good and Evil.” He smiled and shrugged. “I like to read.”
     She dismissed that pointless exchange from her mind and forced a deep breath, thinking about what Jupiter had told her. Pay close attention. She took another look at the statues down the street and realised she’d seen something like them before, in news items and school videos about the East Coast nuke event. They all used a particular artist’s representation of people caught in the thermal pulse of the bombs, their flesh stripped off their bones, leaving only blackened skeletons in the street — until, half a second later, the shockwave scattered them into particles.
     “It’s gotta be a nuke,” she said softly. “These people had no warning. They died in the street.”
     Something still nagged at her, though . . . The statues here were full human bodies, but from what she’d been taught, that could never occur in reality, not for longer than a heartbeat. Which meant the city was either fantasy or a memory that had been distorted in ways she didn’t understand.
     She stopped a moment to sniff the air. Something else was hidden underneath the tang of carbon and death, something faint and salty attenuating the graveyard wind. She followed her nose to the corner of the block, where the ground dipped down to a vast flowing plain of blood. Memories stirred up from the harbour in Odessa, and the little blue beach house where her friends lived and died. It was seawater.
     Like on the East Coast, maybe. Gina bit her lip and thought. Gabriel must’ve survived the bombs. He survived, and maybe this is the place . . .
     Jupiter squeezed her shoulder. “That’s a start.”
     “A start to what?” she asked, a little bit sharply. Baseless optimism got on her nerves. Everything got on her nerves her right now. “What the hell do you do to fix something like this?”
     “The only way I’ve found to deal with an artifact is to come to terms with it. Understand it, accept it for what it is. Let it become part of you, and as part of you, harmless.”
     “Does this look harmless to you?” she spat and waved at the devastation around her, a rush of anger burning through her veins. “Look at it! Do you honestly think I’m going to be able to live the rest of my life with that stuck in my brain?!”
     “I don’t think you have much of a choice,” Jupiter pointed out in a suddenly businesslike tone. “It’s that or let it drive you insane.”
     Gina shook her head violently. “No. I want it out, Jupiter. By force if necessary. I was never meant to carry this weight around.”
     He stepped in front of her, blocking out her view of the city for a moment. “Do you know how to do that?”
     “I’m the second most powerful fucking telepath in the world,” she replied, turning her back on him. “I’ll find a way.” With one furious clap of her hands she dismissed the whole city back into the fog.
     There was no protest. Nobody with a good look at her expression would have argued the point.

***

     Darius kept following her around. He was waiting for her outside the pod room when she came out, and stayed on her heels all the way back to her room. He didn’t fucking move, either. She kept checking the peephole for hours and he was always there.
     Despite her general frustration, she felt indebted enough to to him that she couldn’t bring herself to scream at him until he went away. Instead she snuck out the window, clambered down to the gardens, and doubled back into the main room. She wanted to relax away from her little crop of stalkers, and fortunately the tea house still served tea.
     Soon she had a cup of translucent green water on the table, steaming fragrantly into her face. She knelt on velvet cushions and stared at the paper-thin display on the wall. It was flashing sports results into the room, but it didn’t seem to be drawing a crowd. The seats were all but deserted.
     She needed some time to clear her head, really. It took a while to factor in the changes to her plans. She was liking Jupiter’s methods less and less. Their working relationship seemed to be gradually circling the drain anyway. He didn’t appreciate her attitude, and she didn’t like being held out on. Something definitely didn’t add up there.
     “It doesn’t work, you know,” Darius said behind her. “I’m a telepath too.”
     “Can you tell what I’m thinking right now?” she shot back nastily.
     “Don’t be so rude. I want to help you.”
     He circled round the table, sank onto his backside opposite Gina, and folded his legs into the lotus position. Gina’s eyes found the ever-smiling mouth and the faint mocking gleam in his eyes.
     “You’re not doing too good so far.”
     He made an amused noise and grinned, resting his elbows on the table. “Any suggestions to improve my performance, then?”
     This time, she opted not to rise to the bait. She just changed the subject. “Do you trust Jupiter?” she asked, without bothering to look at him.
     “About as far as I could throw him.”
     Glancing at him to read his face, she added, “Know any good wetware shops around here?”

     He went still, caught by surprise. “I . . . could find one. What do you need surgery for?”
     “An idea I had.” She suddenly smiled at him. Her plan was beginning to take shape. “You’ll see.”
     “That’s not exactly filling me with confidence,” he said. “What are you planning to do?”
     “Renegotiating my contract,” she shot back, rubbing her faded surgical scar. The sweet pull of the Network was now fully clamped down under her iron control. The ache in her soul, the part from where Gabriel sat and watched her, now helped to keep her head clear.
     Nobody was paying attention when the two of them slipped out into the night a second time. The little black car had returned itself to Jupiter’s driveway, just in time to make itself useful. She went for it. And, despite his odious presence, she let Darius ride with her. She had a plan for him.
     They got out in front of a row of shops half-hidden under a thick concrete awning, ablaze with various signs and logos. Garish bright light flashed across Gina’s face from every direction, turning her pink and green in the reflection of the dark-tinted windows. There was noise, too, thick bass-heavy music vibrating up through the pavement under their feet. Darius convinced the cab driver to wait outside for them, mesmerising him with a small bundle of cash.
     “Japanese bunch?” Gina ascertained, both from the cherry-blossom painting in the window and the Yakuza turf marks on the walls.
     “The best,” said Darius. “Gina, you’re seriously starting to worry me . . .”
     Smiling faintly, she spun into his reach, draped her arms over his shoulders and tickled the back of his neck with her fingertips. She purred there, her voice like dripping honey, and she let her mind fill him with a warm glow. “Don’t you trust me, Darius?” she teased as he froze in place. “I promise it won’t hurt. Much.”
     Darius swallowed and nodded. He followed her into the shop without hesitation, knowing he would do just about anything for Gina Hart. It never even occurred to him to resist.

***

     Numbness radiated from the back of her neck. The anaesthetic still coursed sluggishly through her bloodstream, but — bit by bit — it began to wear off. She managed to raise herself to a sitting position on the operating table, fighting the temptation to touch her scar. It itched. She bit her lip and imagined raking her nails all over it, and that just made it worse. Her head felt indescribably lighter without the Network implant inside.
     The soft light brightened a little as the robotic surgeon extended one of its arms down from the ceiling. It scanned her thoroughly with sweeps of x-rays and invisible laser light. Finally it withdrew, satisfied. A holographic man-shape flickered to life in front of her and straightened its white doctor’s coat.
     “Your surgery seems to have been a success. Your implant has been safely removed and reinstalled in your companion’s skull. You are now free to leave,” it said in accentless Conglom. Then it seemed to switch voices, acquiring a slight Japanese lilt. “If you experience any excessive discomfort or worsening of your condition, please contact us immediately. Do not seek assistance from Federal emergency services. Do not allow yourself to be transported to hospital. We will respond to your call with due haste and expertise. Please state your agreement to these terms and conditions.”
     “Yeah, whatever,” she croaked. The robot arm placed a cup down for her and squirted some fresh water into it. She drank it greedily, and held it out again for more.
     “Your companion should be regaining muscle control any moment now. Please explain to him our terms and conditions as I have explained them to you. You may exit the surgery at any time by following the hallway outside this room and using the last door on your right. If you exceed your allotted time in our facilities, your account may be charged an additional fee. Thank you, and goodbye.”
     Groaning, Darius shifted his weight on the table across from Gina’s. His first movement was to get his arm around to the back of his neck. The smart-bandage felt his probing fingers and discouraged them with a tiny electrical shock. It got an unmanly yelp out of Darius, which amused Gina to no end.
     “You’re not supposed to touch it right after the op,” she admonished him.
     “Like I give a fuck!” He wobbled off the table and sucked his fingertips. “Ow. That hurt.”
     She shook her head slowly. “Quit moaning and put your clothes back on. I’m not bringing you out to Jupiter in a hospital gown.”
     He looked at her for a moment, still dazed, then started to search for his clothes. He was halfway to putting his trousers on when it hit him. “Bringing me to Jupiter? I’m a bargaining chip?”
     “I can’t exactly go up there holding the implant in my hand,” she said. “I have to know what he’s been hiding from me, and he’s less likely to try force if it involves having to cut it out of your brainstem.”
     “And you don’t think this is going just a little bit far?” he shot back.
     “Not particularly. I thought you two already fell out of love, anyway.”
     “Have you even tried asking him?”
     “Since when does asking ever do me any good? In fact, when was the last time you saw anyone listen to what I had to say?” She snorted bitterly. “I gotta make myself heard somehow.”
     He stared at her for a moment, speechless, but then found a lazy, horrible grin somewhere inside himself. “Does that mean you trust me more than Jupiter?”
     The question was like a bucket of ice water dumped down her back. The thought of confiding in him made her want to retch, and any kind of warmth fled her voice when she spoke. “Get your stuff,” she said. “We’re going.”
     For a second Darius looked like he was about to argue, but he backed down with an amused shrug of his shoulders. “Who needs trust, anyway? You and your friends have got more than enough dirt on me to put me into a Federal dungeon for the rest of my life! My cooperation is guaranteed!”
     He got dressed, pocketed his things, and finally goose-stepped before her with his hand raised in mock salute. “As ordered, Ma’am. Anything else I can do for you, you just let me know. I live to serve.”
     Gina sneered at his theatrics and silently made for the door. If there was a twinge of guilt in her heart, she refused to show any sign of it.

***

     The little black car pulled up outside the tea house with a soft squeak and a crunch of gravel. Again, Gina could feel the faint buzz of active minds all around her, tending the gardens and maintaining the machinery. Coming off the Street, with its mental violence still fresh in her memory, the overwhelming sense of order here set Gina’s teeth on edge. It was like an ant colony.
     She sat back a moment and sighed. You’ve been quiet, she thought at Gabriel, trying vainly not to feel the aching void in her mind.
     I’m sorry, he whispered faintly, I didn’t think you wanted me around anymore.
     I . . . She bit her lip, not wanting to show the sudden hot flush of frustration and horniness at her core. With every passing day she seemed less in control of her violent moods. Just don’t overstay your welcome, that’s all.
     He chuckled, and suddenly it was as if he were right in front of her, pressing his mouth against hers, hot and sweet. She returned his kiss almost desperately, losing interest in words. Any moment that drove out the pain for a while was something to be treasured.
     Slowly, the maddening ache seeped back into her, and moisture welled up in the corners of her eyes. Breaking away from him, she steadied her head in her hands. Gabriel, I can’t keep this up for long . . .
     It’s okay. I’ve got some things I need to take care of, anyway. He hesitated a moment. Will you come see me tonight? Please?
     In your dreams, she said, working up a smile, and he groaned at her. Sorry.
     Hang in there, Gina, he echoed, his voice rapidly fading away. Don’t do anything silly . . .
     The link crumbled like sand running through her fingers. Gina wrapped her arms about herself, cold and alone, trying to make the vulnerable feelings go away. Not for the first time, she wondered where Bomber was and whether he’d forgive her if she saw him again. She didn’t have the faintest idea what she’d say to him. What was there to say? How did she really feel about him?
     Climbing out of the car brought her back to the here and now. She fell in step beside Darius and tried to concentrate on the meeting ahead of her. She pushed through the bead curtain into the empty tea hall, and found a place on the cushions across from where Jupiter sat like a gargoyle carved out of solid granite. Mai-Lin perched next to him, mute and unhappy.
     Jupiter almost creaked when he moved, placing his hands together on the table in front of him. “I don’t get you, Gina,” he said. “I thought we had an understanding.”
     “We did, Jupiter,” she replied with a forced smile, “until you shoved that implant into my head without asking me. You took advantage, and now you’re not even giving me the full picture. I don’t like being held out on.” She sighed and softened her tone a little. “I know the lead turned out to be a dead end, but if I’m gonna go back into the Network . . . I need to know I can trust you.”
     “The Network wasn’t meant for,” he jerked his chin at Darius, “people like him. I had intended keep it hidden. Now you’ve taken my implant hostage and blown any sense of secrecy out of the water.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “It doesn’t imply a significant amount of trust on your part.”
     Darius shifted, grumbling, but Gina quieted him down with an upraised hand. She said, “We’ll give it back, but in return I want you to come clean with me. Now.”
     His face seemed to go more grey than it already was, and he shook his head. “I haven’t hidden anything from you that you’d want to know.”
     “What is it? Are you working with my father, or Gabriel? Just fucking tell me.”
     Silence stretched out between them. At length Jupiter rested his hands on his knees, straightened his spine, and looked her square in the eye. She realised he was concentrating on her telepathically. She reached out and opened her mind to receive his message.
     Look inside you, he thought. He dropped his gaze, and for a moment Gina saw her own belly through his eyes. The infinitesimal glow of a human mind was beginning to manifest there, the first stirrings of a new life. It couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old.
     Her breath caught in her throat. A surge of panic swept across her like a bucket of ice water. She thought back almost desperately, trying to figure out how, where, who–
     The airship. Gabriel.
     Oh, God.
     She pushed herself back from the table, staggering to her feet in a nauseous daze, and rushed out the door. Nobody followed her.
     Shivering, Gina kept walking in the crisp morning air. She couldn’t think of anything else to do. Artificial grass rustled pleasantly under her feet, and the slow spiralling paths gave her something to focus on. She sighed. The walk didn’t clear her head as much as she hoped, but it did save her from having to face some horribly awkward conversations.
     The paths led her to a large pond behind the tea house. She stopped there, finding a stone bench on which to park herself, and sat down with her hands between her thighs, wringing them furiously.
     “Well, shit,” she said. It struck her that she didn’t have a fucking clue what to do now. She wasn’t ready to have a kid, not here, not yet.
     Time slipped away by the pond’s edge, minute after miserable minute, trying to decide which was the lesser of two evils. It tore her apart inside. But, just as she thought she was all alone in the world, a large rock-like shape on the shore unfolded itself and approached Gina’s bench. Mahmoud sat down stiffly next to her, without making eye contact.
     Gina broke the silence first. “I thought you’d gone home.”
     “Almost. I got as far as the motorway before I turned around and came back.”
     “I . . .” She swallowed. “It’s good to see you again.”
     “Likewise,” he said, and they broke for another awkward pause. Suddenly they both began to talk in a rush. “Gina, I know I’m not your father–“
     “I’m so sorry about–“
     Mahmoud won the clash, hurrying out, “You are not a replacement for Safiya, I never wanted that. I only wish to help. Maryam and I have come to care about you a great deal.”
     Fresh tears stung Gina’s eyes, but she angrily blinked them away. “I’m sorry, I just don’t want to see you get hurt, I couldn’t bear it.”
     “You are a proud woman. It can be difficult to admit when you can’t do everything alone.” He squeezed her shoulder in one shovel-like hand and added, “Sometimes you have to let other people help you.”
     “I told you . . . Nothing good ever happens to the people I care about.”
     He heaved a massive shrug. “Like it or not, you are family, and I’m here for you.”
     She couldn’t argue anymore. She just let him hold her, and quietly hated life for being so damn complicated.

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