The three of them stood in the shadow of Bomber’s helicopter, staring up at the massive grey airship through the fog. Red and blue landing lights blinked slowly on and off along its sides. Gina followed the black dot of her father’s dropship as it made its final approach. A large panel swung out from the side of the skybase, marked with the Federation black sunburst, offering a helipad on which to land. The copter set down without drama, and the skybase soon moved on into the night.
     “Will he try again?” asked Mahmoud, deep lines carved in his face. His worry echoed into Gina, and got an uneasy shiver out of her.
     “I think he got the message.” She sighed. “At least for a while.”
     Bomber scratched his unshaven chin and said, “That man doesn’t strike me as the kind who ever gives up.”
     “Please, Bomber, let’s not. I don’t want to think about it anymore.”
     She dug her fingernails into her palms to try and counteract her growing headache. The artifact was nibbling at the edges of her mind again, and she couldn’t stop it anymore. Awful images flashed onto her closed eyelids. When she opened her eyes again, she watched her own fingers disintegrate in a wash of nuclear fire, so real that she could feel the heat tingling under her skin. The paralysing fear in her heart was no fantasy at all.
     It wasn’t until Bomber’s hand landed on her shoulder that she finally snapped out of it, and she responded by gripping his arm tight. Gina Hart didn’t like to show weakness, but Bomber made her feel like it was okay.
     “Listen, I can probably carry three if you don’t mind sharin’ the back seat,” said Bomber, “but the big guy might be better off catching a ride with my wingman. That way you don’t have to squeeze.”
     Mahmoud shook his head. “Thank you, Mr. Bomber, but that won’t be necessary. I’ve . . . I’ve decided to stay behind. I am going to help these people reorganise and rebuild their home.”
     Gina could barely believe her ears. She rounded on him and grabbed the front of his shirt, her heart twisting inside her. She husked, “You said you’d be there for me. That I’m family.”
     “You are, and I will be,” he said gently, taking her hands. “Sometimes decisions must be made from the head and not the heart. I want to go with you, Gina, but I have had to ask myself one important question. What good would I do? What good have I done?” He gestured behind him to the field in the distance. Pieces of the Fed stealth ship still burned there, left and forgotten. “Someone nearly kidnapped you and I was powerless to stop them. Here, to this showdown with your father, I contributed nothing. You are facing extraordinary dangers, Gina, but I am just an ordinary man. I catch algae for a living. You have your friends and your powers to protect you. I would only slow you down.”
     “That’s not true . . .”
     “Don’t be ridiculous. You know it is.” He sighed and leaned down, sweeping his massive arms around her, tears sparkling in his eyes. “You will be alright. If you need me, you know exactly where I am.”
     Gina crushed him to her. Part of her wanted to beg and bargain and scream until he gave in. She wanted to, but it wouldn’t be fair.
     “Thank you,” she whispered, “for everything.”
     “No, thank you for breathing some life back into this old Cossack. You would make any decent father proud.” He tousled her hair, and his eyes gleamed. There was something heavy and hollow in his voice when he summoned the courage to speak again. “My . . . My daughter drowned, six years ago. We got caught in a bad storm and she fell overboard. By the time we managed to fish her out, she was already in deep hypothermia, and we couldn’t do a thing to save her. She had just turned twenty. She was always so full of life, and I had to watch her slip away from me.”
     She stared up at him, shocked speechless, her mouth working uselessly to find some way to express her feelings. Mahmoud shook his head and wiped his face on his sleeve. He said, “I am ready to share this with you, Gina Hart. I’ve learned that there is nothing to be gained from hiding the past. We leave too much unsaid already.”
     They finally let go of each other, and with a final smile, Mahmoud turned away from her. He went back to the tea house to round up stragglers. His booming voice and captain’s presence immediately established him as the man in charge. People began to follow his instructions and never even thought to question them.
     Gina tore her eyes away and looked for Bomber. He’d made himself scarce, busying himself in the helicopter to give them some privacy. She found him muttering quietly into his radio. He didn’t even notice her climb up, so she deposited herself into the rear seat and decided to listen in. Eavesdropping was one of Gina’s guilty pleasures.

     “What do you mean you’ve ‘lost contact’?” Bomber said slowly, trying not to lose his temper. “Have you tried switchin’ frequencies?”
     Another voice buzzed from his headset. “I’m not stupid, Jake! Maybe it’s the comms system on this rustbucket, but I’m not getting anything from Base except static. You try it.”
     “Problem?” asked Gina. She leaned in to rest her elbows on the seat in front of her.
     “Just a hiccup, that’s all.” His lightning-fast fingers played on the touchscreen in front of him, then started on the mechanical knobs and switches next to it. Nothing seemed to work. Finally he grabbed the big radio tuning knob and started to turn it manually, left hand on his earpiece. “Base, this is Bomber. Respond. Base, respond!”
     “This is Base,” the radio hissed and crackled. Despite the distortion, the voice was unmistakably Colonel Obrin, but his speech had the regular cadence of a pre-recorded message. “. . . Hawk, turn back. We . . . attack. I say again . . . under attack. Gabriel’s cutting our comms, we need help. We need . . .”
     The transmission cut off. Bomber sat staring at the radio controls, wide-eyed and paralysed with horror. The hand on the radio tuner moved on its own, finding the secret frequency Toledo had installed for him, and Bomber stared at it for a moment before clearing his bone-dry throat.
     “Toledo, if you can hear this, answer me right away. I need a confirmation. Anything. Just let me know you’re listening.”
     Radio static echoed into the silence. Toledo didn’t respond.
     “Shit,” he said. “Shit.”
     After a moment, Gina placed a hand on his shoulder, and she squeezed gently. “We’d better get over there.”
     Bomber nodded vaguely and took the controls in his numb fingers. The copter took off without fanfare, rotors hissing into the predawn gloom.

***

     The fires were visible from miles away.
     Bomber led the way, his advanced systems scanning for threats both in the air and on the ground. The less stealthy Kamov hung back and covered the rear in case of an ambush. Neither of them could see much through the smoke and heat, but the tell-tale outline of human bodies were obvious on Bomber’s infrared view. He silently copied it across to Hawthorn.
     Flames roared out of every corner of the big hangar. Most of the support buildings had been flattened by heavy fire, the fuel storage replaced by a grid of blackened craters. Only the traffic control tower still stood, but it was black and silent except for the calm spinning of its radar dish. No lights on inside. No sign of survivors.
     Both helicopters swung in to land. It was a bad tactical move, but Bomber intended to land, and he knew he couldn’t stop Hawthorn if he wanted to. A clear patch of the airfield offered enough space to set down, and Bomber was out of the cockpit before his wheels touched tarmac. He jumped down, laser in hand, and scanned the burning ruins of the airbase. Part of the hangar’s roof collapsed, and a tower of fire poured through the gap. It reached higher than any normal fire could, and the intense heat it blasted across the tarmac aroused Bomber’s suspicions. The colour was ever so slightly wrong to his enhanced eyesight. Too blue. The whole airfield had been firebombed before Gabriel went in.
     “He knew,” Hawthorn spat. He stood up in his seat and threw his flight helmet into the back of the Kamov. “The bastard knew exactly when we were vulnerable!”
     Bomber knelt by the side of an Army technician, unblemished, most likely killed by the shockwave. None of the bodies showed bullet wounds or any other sign of weapon damage.
     Hawthorn continued, “It doesn’t make any sense, though. Why go after the base? There wasn’t anything of value here, nothing worth taking or destroying. Our birds were already armed and fuelled-up. As far as anybody knew, we were on our way straight to him.”
     “Maybe he was counting on that,” said Bomber. “On us not bein’ here.”
     He jogged the distance to the traffic control tower, across piles of rubble and trails of burning fuel. The door hung off its hinges. The lights inside had blown, dropping the place into pitch darkness, so he tagged his eyes to low-light conditions and leaped up the steps.
     He took them two or three at a time, searching for targets, while Gina and Hawthorn tried to keep pace behind him. He scanned each floor before going up to the next one, but they were all devoid of life. Dead bodies sprawled across floors, desks, and machinery. Every cabinet or container had been ransacked.
     Bomber was about to move out again when Gina caught his arm. Her soft voice whispered, “Bomber, let’s just go. This place is dead. I don’t want to find out what’s been left behind.”
     His eyes swivelled to hers for a moment. He considered her words, but it wasn’t in him to turn back. Not even when he should. He shook off her hand and carried on to the top of the stairs.
     The control room had been wrecked. Chairs, counters and machinery gathered in heaps of rubble. Bullet holes riddled the concrete walls around the room. Despite the traces of violence, however, he couldn’t see any sign of blood or gore. Nobody was injured in this engagement.
     Finally his eye fell on the one remaining chair in the room, snug up against the one remaining counter, with an excellent view through the window. A man’s feet rested up on the counter top in amongst the shattered glass fragments of an old computer screen. The chair creaked as its occupant absently rocked back and forward.
     “Colonel?” he called into the gloom. “Colonel Obrin?”
     “Almost right,” said Gabriel. He kicked the edge of the counter to spin his chair around. He lounged in the nest of vat-grown leather like a patient cat, aloof and practically purring out of sheer satisfaction. At the back of the group, Gina gasped when she recognised him and froze solid. All her strength and confidence seemed to drain away at the sight of him.
     Despite the hate churning in his gut, Bomber stopped just short of pulling the trigger. There was a strange lack of threat in Gabriel’s body language as if his arrival on the scene was largely irrelevant. He lowered the muzzle a fraction and glowered down the laser’s black metal spine.
     “Why?” he demanded.
     Chuckling, Gabriel steepled his fingers under his chin. “Don’t strain your brain too much, chameleon. I’m just here to give you a message. I think it’s time you got a little slice of the truth.”
     “I could shoot you right now.”
     Gabriel rose slowly and shook out his long-limbed body as if he’d been sitting there a while. “Let’s be brutally honest here,” he continued. “I’ve taken every precaution that no, you could not do any such thing. Not that it would matter even if you could. Go ahead, try to pull the trigger if you don’t believe me.” He undid the top two buttons of his black silk shirt and folded it back to expose the skin over his heart. “Come on, right here. Let’s get the drama out of the way.”
     The familiar impulse to pull the trigger travelled up through the nerves in Bomber’s arm, and the muscles began to respond — only to find his hands too hard to lift. It was as if the air had suddenly become heavy, impossible to push through. Even with his finger on the trigger and his nerves screaming to move, he couldn’t get the joints to bend.
     “What– What have you done?” he forced through gritted teeth, still fighting against his own body. “Hawk, I can’t fire . . .”
     “I can.”
     Hawthorn elbowed Gina out of the way, slipped his pistol from its holster, and launched two bullets through Gabriel’s chest.
     The body slumped backwards across the counter. Hawthorn stepped forward to confirm the kill, keeping his gun trained, but Bomber still couldn’t bring himself to add his own shots.
     “That’s for Stundog,” he said hatefully, hawking a gob of spit onto Gabriel’s pale, waxy face. “For Banjo, and Kirby, and me.”
     Then a hand closed around the barrel of his gun, tearing it out of his grip. Gabriel got his feet back under him and drove his shoulder into Hawthorn’s ribs, followed by a vicious elbow to the chin. Hawthorn went sprawling. He landed on his back dazed and senseless, spitting blood.
     “You military types never fucking listen, do you?” Gabriel rasped in between heavy breaths. He clutched the wound in his chest, but to Bomber’s astonishment, he could tell it had already stopped bleeding. “You least of all, Simon, or Bomber, or whatever the hell you’re calling yourself nowadays. You know that little niggle you get whenever you think about the way you escaped from my airship? That’s because it never actually happened. I fabricated those memories to hide a few changes I was making. Right now, you couldn’t hurt me any more than pigs could fly.”
     Bomber managed to shake his head, red-faced and trembling in helpless fury. “That’s a lie,” he said. “You would’ve just killed me.”
     “That was the original plan. However, when that memory block in your head blew up, I held you together because Gina wanted you alive, and it’s not a one-way street. I got a lot of your past blown into my head.” He smiled nastily and pushed himself back upright, now strong enough to stand without leaning on the counter. “It took me a while to absorb everything. At first I thought you were just another jarhead psycho, a dangerous liability. When I realised you knew Keith Obrin, though . . . That changed everything. It made me realise what a fucking Godsend you were.”
     Sick realisation bubbled in the pit of Bomber’s stomach. “You used me to get to him.”
     “Correct!” Gabriel giggled. “I knew Obrin wouldn’t be able to resist the chance to put our chameleon to use. You were the perfect sleeper agent. I just gave you a few nudges in the right direction and watched you go.”
     “You’ve been following us all along?” asked Hawthorn, wiping the blood from his chin. He glanced ashen-faced back and forth between Bomber and Gabriel.
     “Of course. Obrin’s a slippery son of a bitch, and I needed the advantage,” Gabriel explained. “Every time I figure out where he’s set up his latest stronghold, he’s prepared an escape route, some way to fade at a moment’s notice. Three times I’ve tried to grab him and he’s slipped through the cracks. Last time, I only managed to catch you two.” He gestured at Bomber and Gina. “What I needed was a pair of eyes on the ground, a way to figure out his plans before he was ready.”
     “And now you’ve won,” Bomber rasped. “Just fuckin’ kill me. I’m sick of listenin’ to your voice.”
     Smiling, Gabriel limped across the room to stand face to face with him. “Don’t get me wrong, chameleon. I’m grateful. Enough to let you keep breathing, on one condition.”
     Bomber raised an eyebrow out of mild surprise. “Which is?”
     “I don’t want to see you again. Ever.” He paused to let his words sink in. “Understand that Keith Obrin is in my care, where he can’t do any more harm. Don’t bother coming after him. He’s gonna give up what he knows one way or another, and while I’m sure you could eventually find him and break him out, you’re better off alone. Believe me, you don’t owe that man anything.”
     “And what if I don’t agree to those terms?”
     “Do you even need to ask?”
     Only two bright scabs remained on Gabriel’s chest when he took his hand away. He took the time to button his shirt back up, traced the bullet holes with his fingers, and patted Bomber on the cheek as he whispered, “You think you know what you’re messing with. You don’t have a fucking clue.”
     Nobody tried to stop him on his way out the door. He paused at the top of the stairs, and his eyes found the back of Gina’s head, hugging herself tightly. He seemed on the brink of saying something when the sight of Bomber next to her put him off. “Keep in touch,” were his lost words before he descended the winding steps.
     He left nothing in his wake.

***

     None of them could bear to look at the others, least of all Gina. She kept her head down on the way back outside, where Hawthorn peeled off to check on his craft. She didn’t know what else to do but follow Bomber’s silent, menacing silhouette back to the helicopter. Gabriel was nowhere to be found.
     She had to tell him. She didn’t want to, but he deserved to know.
     “Bomber–” she began, but he cut her off almost immediately.
     “He played us. All this time we’ve been doin’ exactly what he wanted, dancing to his fuckin’ tune.”
     His hand went to his head as if to steady himself, but shrugged her off when she tried to help him. He pulled himself up the ladder with jerky, barely-restrained motions. Gina could sense the pain throbbing in his head, but also something larger behind it. The press of two years of memories busting through his mental walls one by one.
     “What will you do?” she asked softly, landing in the back seat, and watched Bomber fiddle with the various switches around the cockpit.
     “I don’t like bein’ played, Gina,” he said, grimacing. “I’m gonna make him regret this. I know what I’m up against now. I’ve figured it out.”
     “But it’s over! You’re free to live your life again!”
     Suddenly he spun his chair in a half-circle, rounding on her in the relative privacy of the cockpit. There were a lot of conflicting emotions in his heart and she wasn’t sure which would come out first. He said, slowly and carefully, “It’s a cheap, easy way out. Not a life. I’d rather go down fighting.”
     “No, Bomber, listen,” she pleaded on the edge of desperation, while he dropped his gaze to brood at her knees. “Even if you could beat Gabriel, what good would it do? It’s too late. Obrin’s gone and there’s nothing we can do about it. You have to know when to give up.”
     Bomber’s expression didn’t change. However, no matter how blank his face might be, Gina could see into his heart, to the loves and fears he kept so close. She realised he couldn’t turn back now. It would make him somebody else, somebody not Bomber. Bomber would see this through to the end at any cost. And he would win.
     “I understand Gabriel’s connection with Hephaestus now,” he said, tapping a finger against his breastbone to illustrate. “The bots are inside him. They’re what keeps him comin’ when any other body would just drop. If Hephaestus lives up to the hype, that’s gotta make him the next best thing to immortal. We just need a change of strategy.”
     She sighed. “It should be another reason for you not to go.”
     Shaking his head, he reached out to lift her face up by her chin. He added rustily, “It’s him or me, Gina. You gotta choose your side. Now.”
     No thought or determination was involved when her body answered the question. It didn’t consult her conscious mind at all. She crossed the distance between them in an instant, finding the strong lips between patches of unshaven growth, and the next moment she found herself straddling him in the pilot’s chair. At first he tried to say something, but the press of her mouth against him kept him quiet.
     When his top came off under her trembling fingers, disappearing into a growing pile of clothes on the floor, Gina Hart knew exactly what the next few minutes of her life were going to be like.

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