“Gina?” came a voice from very far away. Hands shook her by the shoulders, and she blinked out of the vision, out of Rat’s head. She was back in the City, her eyes rolling through the corners of the grungy pub where she’d stopped for a drink. They all used it sometimes; it was the only half-decent bar in the neighbourhood.
     “You okay? You looked kinda lost,” said Hawthorn, offering her a half-full cup from the table. Cold, stale sake. She drank it anyway and coughed a small thank-you at him. He patted her back and sat down on the other end of the booth.
     She’d been having these flashes for a while now, bits of other people’s lives playing out in front of her, hauntingly accurate yet fuzzy like dreams once she became herself again. First Rat, then Bomber. It no longer surprised her that she could do shit like this. All part of her ever-growing suite of amazing psychic powers.
     “How long have I been here?” she asked thickly. The smell of old smoke and sour alcohol pricked her nostrils. An ancient energy-saving lamp threw cold, bluish light on her surroundings. Concrete panelled in fake wood.
     “Beats me, I just got in a minute ago.” A tired-looking waitress dropped a tall glass of beer in front of Hawthorn, and he took a pull. “Have you seen Jacob around anywhere?”
     “No,” she said. Not since he walked out, hours ago, with a head full of painful new memories. By the time she thought to run after him, he was already gone.
     It was probably for the best. Bomber didn’t share pain, he wasn’t the type. He’d look for someplace to be alone while he sorted his head out, free of distractions and away from all the confusing input. He just needed some time.
     Hawthorn grunted. “Figures. I wanted to talk to him, but it can wait. How did your headshrinking session go?”
     “Too early to tell, really.” She found a wry smile from somewhere.
     The waitress dropped by again to deposit a fresh bowl of deep-fried seaweed sticks. Hawthorn tucked in straight away, and Gina ordered a fresh cup of sake while she had the chance. It arrived within moments. The bar was nearly empty, and Gina was one of the only customers still sober enough to order more alcohol.
     She’d probably have to stop drinking soon. One of her old medical implants filtered the blood flow to her reproductive system, to keep anything nasty out, but it could only handle so much. The thought was depressingly, frustratingly real. As much as she wanted to forget her pregnancy, the world conspired to keep reminding her. Like whenever she picked up a glass of anything stronger than water.
     “We’re doing well. I wanted to catch Jake with this, but I might as well tell you while you’re here,” Hawthorn said. “I got us a lead. Some of my people have been tracking down Gabriel’s airship since we lost sight of it. Turns out a docking registry was filed yesterday in one of the Hacker Nations, not far from here. You ever been to Laputa?”
     She sputtered into her sake cup. Wiping her chin with her sleeve, she said thickly, “Laputa? I–” She swallowed. “No. Not in person.”
     “Neither have I. Interesting place, I hear. Interesting opportunity. Tough nut to crack, but you know what Jacob’ll say when he hears about this.”
     “He’ll rush out there to storm the thing, and we’ll have to follow him.”
     He gave her a smile that was less forced than usual. “Listen, Gina . . . I know we haven’t exactly known each other a long time, but I’d like us to be friendly. Jacob has a lot of faith in you. He’s not always the best judge of character, but I figure he’s right on this one. You’re tougher than you look.”
     Amused, Gina chuckled, “I don’t look tough?”
     “You look like a Cosmos cover model, and they’ve been computer-generated perfect for the last fifty years.”
     “Don’t forget I can read your mind, too.”
     “I haven’t forgotten. If you’re looking for dirty fantasies, I’m sorry, you’re not my type.” An awkward grin came over him, and Gina reached out to pat his hand. She already knew there wasn’t a woman in the world who was Hawthorn’s type. “Look, I’m sure you can tell I rehearsed this little speech in front of a mirror, but also that I mean it. We didn’t meet under the best of circumstances. Hell, we’ve all been under a lot of stress lately, but I think you’re a good influence on Jacob.”
     Gina grinned back and took her hand away, slowly. “Major . . . Hawk,” she corrected herself, and stretched out a long pause, looking him dead in the eye. Then her voice sharpened to a knife edge. “Do you know you’ve mentioned Jacob six times since you sat down?”
     The air between them cooled instantly. Hawthorn’s face froze into an expression of tightly-restrained rage, and he pushed his chair back as he stood up. Trembling hands reached for his jacket and slung it over his shoulder.
     “I’ll see you at the house,” he spat on his way out the door.
     Gina raised her cup to his retreating back, laughing softly to herself, and tipped the last few drops of sake down her throat.

***

     Some people just rubbed her the wrong way, Gina thought, swaying drunkenly across deserted City streets. Some people were trouble, or going to be trouble sooner or later. Like Darius. Darius who died trying to help her, and she’d never know or understand why. Even a telepath couldn’t figure people out sometimes.
     Maybe that was the problem. The problem with Hawthorn. She couldn’t quite figure out his angle, his motivation, why he was here helping them. Too many emotions whirling around in his skull. Some of them conflicting, some of them just strange.
     Gina stumbled down one kerb and up another, catching herself on a signpost. Between the blocks of squat, rectangular buildings blotting out much of the sky, the horizon was lightening to faint purples and pinks. It made a weird counterpoint to the harsh white glare of the streetlights. She’d been out longer than she thought. But then, this was the first time . . . First time in a long while that she felt safe enough to get drunk.
     For once no one was chasing her, no one with a gun waiting around the corner. Even if there were, she wasn’t sure she could find it in herself to be afraid. She had so much power now. It was getting hard to keep her thoughts to herself. Right now she could feel the minds of a thousand other people around her, like ants crawling behind her eyeballs, their lives flashing into her whenever she lost focus for a second.
     Break, dinnertime, cold rice and chicken skin. Break, climbing on top of a hooker in a back-room brothel. Break, a crying boy with red belt marks down his back. Break, stalking a lone woman through the streets, getting ready to strike . . .
     Suddenly there was a group of men blocking the way ahead of her, and more behind, seven or eight of them in total. Copper-coloured faces decorated with scars and threatening smiles. They were all Chinese, no doubt from some kind of gang, but Gina didn’t recognise their colours. They weren’t from this part of the City or any other district she knew.
     She expected to feel fear, but when she looked into her heart she still didn’t find any. These clowns had no idea what they were messing with. She was Gina Hart, and there was nothing she couldn’t do.
     “We want Simon Caine,” said the man in front. He was dressed in a dark canvas jacket and a red headband. “You tell us where he is.” He flicked out a butterfly knife and started to clean his fingernails with the point. For a move he learned from some cheesy holovid, it actually looked quite threatening.
     “Um,” said Gina, willing herself to stop swaying. “No, I don’t think so.”
     “And that is the wrong answer,” he replied. He took a few steps closer, knife held out in front, grinning at Gina.
     She reached out with her mind and took control.
     Even drunk it was child’s play to worm inside his mind, to grab the brainstem and tickle its nerves into action. The gangster froze. His feet were rooted to the ground. Cold sweat broke out along his forehead as his fingers squeezed the knife hilt, and it turned in towards his throat until the blade was close enough to nick his five o’clock shadow.
     “I think you boys just made a huge fucking mistake,” Gina said sweetly. “Didn’t you?”
     They clustered together holding guns of all shapes and sizes. The biggest of them shouldered forward and thrust his oversized pistol towards Gina in trembling hands, roaring, “What did you do to him?!”
     “I suggest you put the artillery away before the lady tears you all to pieces,” came a voice from the corner. Everyone whirled around to look.
     Bomber stood haloed in the light of a blue neon sign, his hands in his pockets and his broad shoulders relaxed. “You got somethin’ you want to say to me, here I am.”
     “I have something to say to you.”
     Another man stepped out of the crowd. He had a long black moustache down to his chest, a big pink scar along one side of his face, and two mismatched eyes — one milky-white and blind, the other black as coal under the cold streetlight. Gina felt the slow stirring of a memory, a face that had changed since she’d last seen it but familiar all the same. “I know you,” she said, surprised. “The guard. The guard from the Emperor’s bunker.”
     “That was a long time ago. And you,” he rounded on Bomber, moustache whirling, “promised me the man who attacked us at the old compound. You promised me blood.”
     “I told you I’d call when the time was right.”
     “Blood doesn’t like to be kept waiting, Simon, and I have no intention of sitting on my thumbs until you get your shit together. There’s a debt to be paid.”
     “It ain’t Simon. Not anymore. Call me Bomber.”
     The man ambled forward, hands in his pocket, and came toe-to-toe with Bomber. Gina flogged her fuzzy brain to recall his name. Stoney, Bomber had called him a long time ago. Behind him, the knife slipped from the younger man’s throat and clattered down on the pavement. Gina’s attention had wandered away and her telepathic control of him faded away.
     “I really don’t care what you call yourself,” Stoney said calmly. True to his nickname, he had no expression at all, face blank as a slab of rock. “You don’t want to make an enemy of me, Simon. I know where you’re going, where you’ve been, where you sleep. It wasn’t easy to track you down, but here we are. Think about your vulnerabilities and remember our agreement.”
     Bomber clapped a hand on the man’s shoulder and gave him a frosty smile. “I tell you what, Stoney . . . Lose the road crew. You can come back with us and I’ll fill you in on the nature of the problem. That, or I can kill you and your bunch of goons in the space of about three seconds. Those are your options.”
     They stared at each other for a long time, potentially the two stiffest human beings on the planet, like carved stone images caught in some eternal battle of wills. Bomber seemed to thrive on these high-intensity show-downs. Gina figured it gave him some weird sense of moral superiority over the simple criminals he hung out with, as though he occupied higher ground. Of course she’d never suggest that Bomber had a bit of a stick up his arse. Not to his face.
     It was Stoney who broke the stalemate. He took a step back and waved at his escort to disappear. To men who were already on the edge of terror, it came as a welcome release. The guy with the knife simply bolted. Gina treasured a triumphant smile as she watched him run as fast as he could, panting and drenched in sweat. The others quickly scattered into the streets and left Bomber and Gina alone with their new friend.
     Stoney said, with a hint of bleak amusement, “I have a feeling this is a mistake, but you made me curious about who could give big bad Simon Caine so much difficulty. Who could defy the man who killed the Emperor, hmm?”
     “If I want someone dead, Stoney, there’s exactly nothing on this Earth that can stop me. Now shut up and listen.”
     Bomber slipped an arm under Gina’s shoulder to help support her, and together they walked back to the safehouse while Bomber calmly and rationally explained the situation, as much as that was possible when talking about super-powered telepaths and men who couldn’t be killed.

***

     Gina didn’t think she’d ever heard Bomber talk so much at one stretch. She was almost sober by the time he finished, nibbling away at some dry rice cakes and wishing there was more to drink.
     She looked blearily from face to face. Bomber was his usual intense self. Stoney looked thoughtful and stroked his moustache. Even Hawthorn was there, glaring at her from the corner. She returned his attention with a wide smile which never touched her eyes.
     “Interesting,” said Stoney, once he’d absorbed the whole story. “Until I saw the girl in action, I’d have called you all insane. Now I’m not so sure.”
     “You know I’m not the exaggeratin’ type,” Bomber replied.
     “Yes. Always straight to the point, unless it suits you to be otherwise.”
     At that moment Hawthorn came forward, clenched fists trembling, and he said, “If I can ask a question . . . What the Hell is this guy doing here, Jacob?! This is supposed to be a secure perimeter!”
     Bomber gave him a look of complete indifference. “Settle down, Hawk. We’re gettin’ to that.”
     “No, you listen to me! I’m sick and tired of getting sidelined. I’m the one putting my people into harm’s way, people who work on my orders, not yours. Without me this whole operation is dead in the water, so you damn well better start paying me some respect!”
     Through her telepathic senses, Gina could feel the confrontation shaping up in front of her, the impulse to establish male dominance. Then, suddenly, a different feeling twisted in her belly. Something weird and unfamiliar. As Bomber leaned back against the table, buying a moment to think, she knew he wasn’t going to rise to the bait this time. She sensed what would happen before he knew it himself.
     “Stoney’s here because he’s got connections. Connections that can open a lot of doors for us,” Bomber said. “You want respect, Hawk, that’s fine. But you’re gonna have to trust me. We’re still in this together.”
     The fighting mood bled out of the room, but Hawthorn’s anger remained, bubbling away under the silent surface. He said nothing while the conversation ground on around him.
     Stoney fished a cigarette out of a thin silver case in his pocket. The simple act of placing it between his lips caused the end to ignite, spewing blue smoke. He said, “You need me.”
     “With Jock gone and the Emperor dead, that leaves you as one of my only remaining underworld contacts in the City,” Bomber replied. “You can get things done in half the time it would take us. Arranging transport. Helping us stay off the radar. Gaining access to that airship.”
     “Mm.” He took a long drag off his cigarette. “I can get us into Laputa, but you must have seen the news. The place is in chaos. Shootings, bombings, all very unpleasant. Possibly dangerous. Certainly expensive.”
     Gina interjected, only slurring a little, “So it’s ‘us’ now, huh?”
     “My help comes with strings attached,” he rasped. “I have a vested interest in this operation.” His thumb stroked the scar tissue running up his cheek.
     The hidden meaning was plain to read from the swirling flow of his thoughts. Gina added, “You mean you can petition the Triad lord for a new eye if you get your honourable vengeance.”
     Stoney stared blankly at her. Then he barked out one syllable of laughter and said, “I guess you really are a telepath. Alright, how many bodies are we bringing along?”
     “A small team,” Bomber replied smoothly. “You, Gina, Major Hawthorn and myself. If we need a tech specialist we can hire one locally.”
     “It’ll take time to arrange, and I have responsibilities. Matters that need attending. At least a day.”
     Bomber looked a question at Hawthorn, who nodded reluctantly. “We can be ready by then.”
     “Then we’re done here.” Stubbing out his cigarette, Stoney stood up and picked up his jacket. “I’ll be in touch.”
     After Stoney said his farewells, Major Hawthorn disappeared and Bomber turned his attention to Gina. He wrapped her arm around his shoulders and half-walked, half-carried her upstairs. In this state her mind was almost easier to control than her body. He helped her into bed and draped the sheets over her, clothes and all.
     “Get some rest,” he told her. “You and my brain have another date in the morning.”
     “Oh. That’s nice,” she murmured, and then sleep took her.

***

     A telepath with a hangover was by far the most miserable creature in the animal kingdom. Gina tossed and turned in bed, pillow wrapped around her head, groaning weakly at people not to think so loud. She couldn’t muster the will or concentration to block out the world. It all kept coming in, the innermost secrets of everyone around her, in a big confused lump. She could barely pick her own thoughts out of the gloopy mess inside her head.
     “Are you awake?” asked a voice from beside her. She started, causing a stab of nauseating pain to lance down her brainstem. She blinked puffy eyes against the light until they focussed on Bomber. He sat on the bed beside her, staring at her with all his considerable attention.
     This was an unacceptable state of affairs. No matter how hard she glared at him, though, he wouldn’t seem to go away.
     Kneading her forehead with the tips of her fingers, she croaked, “How long have you been sitting there?”
     “About an hour. I didn’t wanna wake you.”
     “An hour?” she repeated, her voice still flat and dull. “That’s . . . That’s kind-of creepy, Bomber. Don’t you have anything to do?”
     He shrugged. “You may not have noticed, but you’re the only girl with psychic superpowers in this joint, which kind-of puts you in high demand. How soon can we get started?”
     “Christ, at least let me wake up.” Yawning, she pushed his shoulder to tell him to get out. It was barely a nudge; the state she was in, she struggled to summon the strength to lift her own limbs. All the muscles in her body throbbed with aching stiffness. “Just wait in the other room until I’m done, okay? Do something spiritual. Meditate. Make me some coffee.”
     He squeezed her hand and left, as requested. Gina meanwhile collected herself enough to get up and stumble into the shower cabin. It didn’t do much for her head, but the jets of hot, soapy water woke her up a bit as they stripped the sweat and dust from her skin. This model cabin sported a little alcove full of shampoo-applying head massagers, but she wasn’t really in the mood. A voice command turned the water off and the hot air blowers on. Seconds later she was dry and slightly more ready to face the day.
     Does he ever sleep? she wondered as she pulled on a long t-shirt, and went out to look for Bomber.
     The therapy room was already set up when she came in. A steaming cup of coffee waited for her on the window ledge. The curtains were drawn, all the candles lit, and a stick of incense burned in the corner — as far away from Bomber’s spot as possible while still being in the same room. Bomber himself sat cross-legged on a cushion looking up at her. All his thoughts vanished, except those about the blister of Spice clutched in his hand.
     Gina stopped and said, “Wow. You prepared it all?” She glanced around to make sure she wasn’t still asleep and dreaming. He’d done it to help her feel more comfortable. “I didn’t think you’d be so eager.”
     “I’ve gotta know the rest of it. If we failed to stop the Feds, I need to know why. I need to remember.” He gestured her to the cushion in front of him, and she knelt down.
     “Alright,” she said softly. A big gulp of coffee helped to bring her own thoughts in order. “Clear your head, and we’ll give it another try.”
     Together, they submerged themselves in Bomber’s memory, and Gina began to sift more information from the disorganised clusters at the edges of the block until an interesting thread pulled them in . . .

***

     As the copter slowed down, he put his rifle to his shoulder and took up a position at the door. They cautiously hovered into the rubble-strewn wasteland on the outskirts of Lagos. Huts and houses lay in ruins all around them, blown to pieces or tumbled down through neglect. Grass and weeds turned the cracked, pitted asphalt practically green. Cars stood abandoned, rusting in the middle of the road. Bent, furtive people darted from shadow to shadow, never daring to look up at the train. The local fighters left aircraft alone for the most part, but Jacob ordered their altitude kept low anyway. The last thing they needed right now was to run into some warlord’s private SAM battery.
     “Nice place,” remarked one private, scanning the buildings through her sniper scope. “Wonder what the beachfront property’s like. I might move.”
     “Civil war’ll do that,” said Corporal Sweeney laconically.
     Tense minutes ticked away as they crept into the city proper. The streets were piled with debris from bombed-out buildings, except for shallow trenches for moving around in. Huge barricades blocked every intersection against vehicles. Even the massive pylons of the maglev track showed chips where bullets, shrapnel and any number of other things had nicked the dense concrete.
     “Stay on your toes,” Jacob reminded everyone. “The maglev station may be garrisoned. If anyone is plannin’ an ambush, expect it the second we hit dirt. Disembark and secure a corridor to the platform double-time. Remember, we’re only here to catch the train, but if you see anybody point a weapon at us, you drop ’em.”
     He selected three privates to take point as they descended into the station car park.
     The pilot shouted a countdown over the intercom, the time until they reached their drop height. At zero, the door slammed to the side with hydraulic force. Air rushed into the chamber and whipped at anything that wasn’t tied down, but Jacob didn’t even have to squint inside his helmet. The armour was sealed against the outside world. It had sensory simulators built in which mimicked the air moving over his skin, to make him aware of its speed and direction, but weak, muted, artificial.
     “Move!” roared Sweeney. The team jumped the remaining six metres to the ground. They landed, rolled, and came up with their rifles already scanning for targets.
     They didn’t find anything to shoot at. The point men moved ahead while Jacob and the others swept infrared sights across the gutted buildings. In case anyone was trying to be clever. The helicopter chuffed quietly back into the sky. The pilot would circle the area, standing by if they needed him.
     Sweeney spoke up again. “Sarge, I’m getting confirmed heat traces in these buildings. Could be residual, or animal, or humans in therm-block gear.”
     “Locals,” Jacob replied. “Probably been eyeballin’ us since we appeared in their sky. They may not want a shootout with armoured troops. Keep your guard up, but do not fire unless fired upon.”
     Suddenly the leader of the point team whispered over the radio. “Sir, we have contact. Looks like we’re expected.”
     Throwing a few hand signals to his men, Jacob ordered a rapid advance through the ruined arch between the station exterior and the train platforms. They climbed across the rubble in twos while keeping a constant watch on the thermal traces. If Jacob gave the order, those traces would disappear instantly. Their high-tech rifle rounds would punch through this old concrete without even slowing down.
     They entered the wide open space of the platform hall. The remains of a broken, bullet-pocked roof still hung bitterly on, perching precariously on rusted mounts. Huge, convex sheets of cracked plexiglass dangled almost to the floor. Dust covered every surface, but an even thicker layer clung to the maglev dock, where an array of giant electromagnets waited to brake or accelerate another train carriage along the rails.
     Only one man stood on the maglev platform. He wore a patchwork uniform coloured green and blue, with a black cap only slightly darker than his skin, and carried a short bullpup rifle pointed at the floor. He made sure to display the weapon in plain sight so everyone could see how advanced it was, a shiny new piece fresh off the assembly line. It was a statement. Don’t underestimate us.
     “Who commands you?” the man shouted to the shimmering, camouflaged ghosts in front of him.
     Jacob came forward, though he kept his camo cranked up to maximum. “I’m in charge here. What exactly do you command?”
     “This station, for my Lord Hawasweka. Fifty men with armour-piercing weapons. No one uses this train without his approval.”
     “Buddy,” said Jacob, smiling, “I frankly do not care who you are or who you kowtow to, and I ain’t got time to negotiate, so let me skip the formalities.” He glanced over to the pair of maglev carriages, waiting under a makeshift canopy of armoured plating. “This is the fastest land route to Kagaso refinery. You’re gonna let us take that maglev, and tell no one we were here, and nobody has to die. Catch my drift?”
     The man stood silent and without fear, secure in the strength of his position. “Go now, while you have the chance,” he scoffed.
     Jacob swore under his breath. Nobody ever wanted to do things the easy way. He switched his camouflage off, which turned his suit military green from head to toe, sergeant’s stripes and a SOCOM badge blazing on his shoulders in black and gold. He tapped them with two fingers. “You know what this means? I’ll translate. It means I got full local authority and a whole airfield of strategic bombers at my beck and call. The reality is, even if you and yours could slow us down, I have an airstrike up my sleeve that will level this whole fuckin’ block. Sure, we might lose the train, but it’s no use to me anyway with you in front of it makin’ my life difficult.”
     “You . . .” The guard hesitated. “You are bluffing.”
     “Corporal,” Jacob bellowed, “get support on the horn. Tell them to initiate Charlie Foxtrot. Bunker charges, full spread.”
     “Yes, Sir!” Sweeney responded all too eagerly. Reaching up to the side of her helmet, she started fiddling with the radio controls as if preparing to make a call.
     That finally did the trick. The man’s expression was sickly pale as he gestured for everyone to put their weapons down. “For God’s sake, I have a wife and children! Take the damn train if it means so much to you!”
     “That’s great,” murmured Jacob. “That’s really great. And I just know you’re gonna get along fine with the two guys I’m leavin’ behind to guard this end of the line. They’ll make sure nobody cuts power to the tracks or anything stupid like that. Don’t worry, they’re real fun.”
     The man’s sinking expression was the best entertainment Jacob had had all week. He grabbed him firmly by the shoulder while the two rear-guard troopers rushed to secure the control room.
     A tremendous bass hum buzzed through the platform as the generators for the magnetic track spun up, and in minutes Jacob’s squad was aboard, accelerating toward the refinery at six hundred miles an hour.

***

     The refinery complex grew on the horizon while the afternoon faded into evening. Four huge, funnel-shaped cooling towers squatted above the jungle like man-made mushrooms. Beside them was the whole process of human industry; pipes, chimneys, factories, warehouses. It all looked remarkably peaceful. He would never have guessed that, underneath this complex, there was a stockpile of fissile material big enough to turn a land mass the size of Scandinavia to radioactive glass.
     The maglev sped on with nary a bump or a jar. Lacking an on-board engine or any moving parts, the train produced no sound except the eerie whisper of air passing over the roof. No tilts, no shakes, no ups or downs, just a smooth slide to their destination. It was so quiet, the squad instinctively kept their voices down, as if chattering at normal volume would somehow break the spell.
     Jacob remembered riding on an old diesel train once, when he was a boy. It thumped and juddered down the iron rails, banking hard to keep its weight on top of the rusty track. You couldn’t open the windows, but he’d found an air intake and stood under it so that his hair whipped back in the cold stream and the smell of exhaust and engine oil washed over him. Holding on tight to the handrails, he could pretend he was riding on the back of some giant monster, hurtling wrathfully towards an unsuspecting town.
     This time there was none of that. To his mind it lacked something; an appropriate sense of drama to the situation. There ought to be a backing track of Wagnerian opera, at least.
     Their destination came into sight down a long vegetation-free corridor. A small United Nations flag fluttered above the refinery station. Once, plant workers would’ve been queueing up for their daily commute to and from Lagos, but those days were long gone. Most of the remaining staff now lived close by under the protection of UN peacekeepers, and the station was deserted.
     Jacob told Corporal Fahlan to radio ahead and announce them. They were expected, but they might as well be polite.
     Sweeney’s voice crackled into his helmet through the command channel. She muttered, “Twenty blue helmets and us against God-knows-what. I still wish we had more intel, Sarge.”
     “This is what we trained for, Corp,” he said gently. “Losing ain’t an option, not when there’s weapons-grade nuke fuel at stake. We follow our orders and we make our stand.”
     “Yes, Sarge. Sorry, Sarge.”
     The train moaned softly as it reached the edge of Kagaso. Magnetic brakes decelerated them hard, and Jacob hung on to a handrail until his organs came to rest again. The hydraulic doors pushed open onto the concrete plain of an industrial site, a clean and clinical island in the middle of the Nigerian jungle.
     A bored-looking corporate hazard officer ignored them as they disembarked. He perched lazily in a booth guarding the refinery entrance, next to a row of full-body scanners and decontamination showers. None of them looked used in recent months.
     Lieutenant Cornell, the commander of the UN peacekeeper garrison, waited on the other side of the fence. Jacob saluted and turned his helmet transparent so they could talk face-to-face. The Lieutenant greeted him with a nod and an outstretched hand.
     “Cornell, Australian Defence Force,” he said, “and you must be Sergeant Dusther. Welcome to the arse end of nowhere. I’m surprised you got through, local warlords usually hoard these trains like gold dust.”
     “I can be very persuasive when I need to. Sir, were you briefed about the situation?”
     “Only the basics. I was told to expect you, that you’d take on a consultancy role, and that I should take your tactical advice very seriously.” He flashed a rueful smile. “Which is another way of saying I’ll wear the stripes while you call the shots. Something ugly must be coming our way.”
     Jacob bobbed a curt nod. “Intel could be wrong, Sir, but . . . We should be so lucky.”
     “The only operative question in my mind is exactly how FUBAR our situation really is.” Motioning for Jacob to join him, Cornell started off towards the central reactor building. “We can start by showing you around, let you eyeball the site and our assets. I have orders to cooperate and comply with any reasonable requests. Frankly, though, we’re just a token force. I do my best, but twenty guys can’t police three hundred corporate workers and managers. If they want to smuggle material out of here, they can, and we might never even know it’s gone.”
     “I don’t think the guys we’re expecting are interested in a small-scale smugglin’ operation. In the short term, have you got billets for us?”
     “My sergeant will be here in two minutes to sort you out some space. Water’s not a problem, we got a Volkov filter that’ll purify pretty much anything. Food . . . Well, there’s emergency rations and not much else.”
     “That’s fine, Sir. We don’t plan on stayin’ long.”
     “Right.” Cornell stared off toward the treeline and frowned. “I’d say it’s a pleasure, Sergeant, but something tells me I’m going to wish I’d never met you.”
     “I just shovel what the brass squeezes out, Sir,” Jacob replied, put at ease by the Lieutenant’s easy manner and sharp perspective. He doffed his helmet to taste the air before entering the big concrete cube. It was hot, muggy and smelled of stagnant water — more than a little bit like home.
     He let out his breath and added, “Let’s go win this thing.”

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