What little Gina had in the way of belongings fit into a single rucksack, slung over one shoulder while she waited for the dinghy to hit the beach. Its little engine buzzed like an angry wasp. A sea bird rasped out a few calls in the distance, then gave up on everything like the rest of the local wildlife.
     Dirty white sand, the same colour as the leaden sky, sucked at her shoes like mud, and the muggy autumn breeze whipped her hair into a ginger storm. Bomber stood beside her, his arm tight around her shoulders. He wrinkled his nose at the salty-sour, polluted smell that lingered in his nostrils.
     He shouted over the moaning wind, “What do you think? A moonlit night, a few pina coladas, it could be romantic!”
     Gina snorted. There was a number of reasons why City planners hadn’t made any effort to reclaim this bit of beachfront, and it didn’t take a telepath to figure out what they were. The dinghy rolled precariously on the waves, always in danger of being dashed against sharp rocks and sandbars. Decomposing jellyfish and other shapeless corpses floated among thick beds of poisonous red algae, sitting on top of the water like an oily film.
     “Yeah,” she said. “Romantic.”
     She took another look around the flat, lifeless beach. Nobody. No boats, no houses, not even homeless. Probably why Stoney chose this place for the pickup. She watched him for a minute from the corner of her eye, but nothing changed. He kept his attention on the dinghy in expressionless silence, moustache heavy and dripping with sea spray. His blind eye twitched whenever it caught a drop of stinging salt water.
     Another gust of wind ruffled her, much stronger than before, and she had to hang on to her jacket. She tucked the flapping ends of it into her belt and adjusted her curve-hugging jeans. Even in this weather it felt so good to wear something feminine that actually fit. She’d gone almost a month running around in nothing but men’s clothes, and if she indulged herself a little now the pressure was off, what was the harm?
     Annoyingly, she’d had to get everything a size larger than usual to fit around her belly. Either she was gaining weight or the fun and frolics of pregnancy had already started.
     The boat driver lifted the outboard engine moments before it hit beach. Then he and his assistant were out in the surf, turning the boat around to put back to sea. There was no ceremony, no invitation.
     Hawthorn went first. He stepped into the open-topped plastic wedge that was their ride, stuffed his duffle bag in a waterproof compartment and strapped himself in. Soon all four of them were seated and ready.
     “I hope we’re not going all the way to Laputa in this thing,” Gina said. The rocks looked a lot bigger and sharper when they were right in front of her.
     “Not quite,” grunted Stoney. “There’s a nice private yacht waiting offshore. We won’t be on the passenger manifest, but I’ve convinced the dockmaster in Laputa to let us in. Under the radar, so to speak.”
     The two sailors jumped back in the boat, propelling her through the surf at a rapid pace. They wanted to get out of here more than anyone else. The engine sputtered back to life, and soon they were forging a path between the rocks and algae, out to the open water.
     The crashing waves reminded Gina of the time she spent bobbing around on a half-sunken lifeboat in the icy Atlantic, waiting for a rescue she wasn’t sure would come. At least it was warmer here. Closing her eyes, she instead imagined herself in a rickety blue house on a beach somewhere east of Hong Kong, with the best friends a girl could have.
     Onounu, she whispered to herself, warm tears running together with cold seawater, unnoticed. You taught me so much, and I haven’t forgotten.
     She spent a long time lost in those memories. The world passed in front of her unfocussed eyes while she hugged herself and allowed a little bit of that locked-down grief to come through. At one point she become aware of the boatmen attaching chains to the ends of the dinghy. A winch groaned overhead, lifting the little boat out of the water, onto the rubber deck of a shiny white yacht. She was the last person to climb aboard, and she clutched a railing until her gasps and shivers subsided.
     Bomber offered a steadying hand but she shook him off and made her own way belowdecks. Their host had set up a table with hot coffee and sandwiches in the galley. She barely looked at it. She didn’t think she could keep anything down. Instead she slipped off towards the staterooms, looking for someplace to be alone.
     She could feel her mood swinging ponderously around from grief to numbness to black wrath. A tidal wave of the worst human emotions crashed down on her in awful slow-motion, closing in over her head, and it made her all too aware of her capabilities. What she might do to someone on an instinct reaction, before thought and reason ever entered the picture. If her mind lashed out without restraint, somebody could die.
     She found a bench tucked away against the side of the hull and curled up on it, folding in on herself in body and mind. Nobody around to accidentally lash out at. She thought about Gabriel for a second, and she could still feel the link with him faintly in her mind, somewhere between all the scars and self-pity. She kept that gate firmly locked and barred. She and Gabriel both guarded themselves from each other, and kept their secrets close.
     But after everything he’d done to her, after all the shit he put her through, her aching heart still carried a torch. That probably made her more angry than all the rest of it. Things would be so much easier if she could just hate Gabriel and never look back.
     She didn’t know if she could keep being Bomber’s woman, in that weird American-dream fantasy he cherished. She could take a wild guess at what her life with him would be like once this was over. A loyal wife and mother waiting for hubby to come home after a hard day’s bloodshed.
     Funny. They’d put so much effort into trying to make her understand them, to show their softer sides, and she still found them terrifying, each in their own way. Apparently she was a sucker for dangerous men. Still a sucker, either way.
     She spent a long time on that bench, hugging her knees to her chest, seething at herself and everyone around her. Seething more than anything at that unwanted life growing in her belly, and the would-be father. She still hadn’t told him. She kept convincing herself there’d be a better time, as if she’d somehow become less confused in the future. Or maybe she was saving it as ammunition. Something to help her get back at him.
     It would be only fair, said a voice in the darkness. Gabriel could use a little pain of his own. For such a smart guy, he didn’t know a lot about people. Maybe he’d finally start to understand her a little bit.
     It would be only fair, she kept thinking, while time slipped away from her.

***

     She was herself and not-herself. She walked down a long dark path, a cold lump of fear in her thundering heart, though she couldn’t say why. She kept glancing left and right off the path, and everywhere she looked she saw eyes staring back at her. They were every shape and size, every colour she could imagine. A thousand blank gazes all directed at her.
     “Why are you doing this?” she asked, without stopping. “Why are you all looking at me?”
     “We’re lost,” they replied. “We can’t see.”
     She blinked, and suddenly light hit her closed eyelids. The bench kept bouncing against her cheek. Her senses slowly came back to her, and she pried her eyes open. Faint white and yellow seeped in through the rain-spattered porthole above her. Raising her eyes above the rim, she caught her first glimpse of Laputa’s towering starscrapers and arcologies, glowing in the pre-dawn gloom. She couldn’t tell where the ocean ended and the buildings began. Concrete, steel and mirrored glass from the sea to the sky.
     The sight held her spellbound for a long time. She sat and watched the boat cut through waves and weather, slipping into the great man-made bay of Laputa Harbour. The on-board computer piloted through an intricate, calculated dance with a dozen other small boats, and emerged on the other side with a clear shot at the local marina.
     Not everything about Laputa pleased Gina’s sense of aesthetics. There was a weird quality to it, too regular, too soulless, as if the whole city had been designed and built by a computer. It would never be Hong Kong — that forest of interconnected blocks, buildings of all different shapes and sizes woven together into almost-organic neon chaos. It would never be Shanghai — rows upon rows of crumbling concrete bricks populated by squatters and every other kind of dirt-poor bastard in the City, trying to make a living by any means necessary.
     It would never be the Street.
     Then she looked a little higher, at the airship docks dotted around the city, and thought about Rat. The visions weren’t always clear about locations and timeframes, but Rat was definitely somewhere in Laputa. Should she look for her? What would she even say? How did one broach the subject of telepathically looking over somebody’s shoulder in every aspect of their life, for months, without them knowing it? Or the knowledge of a deliberate, knowing betrayal for the sake of a teenage girl’s selfish ambitions?
     She turned away from the porthole, a bitter taste in her mouth, and froze in unwelcome surprise when she found Bomber in her face. He sat motionless on the floor next to her bench. His eyes were half-closed, aimed at the opposite wall with a real thousand-yard stare. She gingerly waved a hand in front of his face. Even then it took a few seconds for him to notice her.
     “Were you asleep?” she asked.
     “No.” He cleared his throat, rough from lack of use. “Just . . . thinkin’.”
     She uncurled her body one limb at a time, stretched her legs out in the too-narrow space by bracing her feet halfway up the wall. Everything ached. No surprise, really. The last time she’d had a good morning was in Odessa, before her half-successful attempt to run away from Gabriel.
     The wound inside her mind was like learning to live with a lost arm. It stopped bleeding eventually, but the arm wasn’t going to just grow back. It kept hurting even when there was nothing in that empty space still capable of feeling.
     She laced her fingers together behind her head and looked sideways at Bomber. “You know I don’t need a guard dog.”
     “I’ll keep that in mind,” he said blankly.
     “Can you do me a favour and be overbearing somewhere else?”
     “I don’t think–“
     “That wasn’t a suggestion,” she snapped, with her voice and her mind. The words caught in his throat. His eyes went wide as his body began to move, climbing to his feet like a puppet dancing on a set of strings.
     He stood there for a second, looking at her in pure disbelief, hurt, betrayal. Emotions which, to Gina, meant nothing at all. She met his gaze and sighed, “Look, I just need some space right now, okay? I’m not feeling real well.”
     “I know, Gina.”
     “You . . . What?”
     “I know, Gina,” he said flatly. “It’s kinda hard to miss. You’re, what, six or seven weeks along? Your body’s puttin’ out so many chemical cues right now I could track you from across a City district.”
     All the blood drained from her face. Cold fingers coiled around her heart. She hugged her shoulders tight and, reeling from his words, she whispered, “Bomber, I . . . I don’t . . .”
     He shook his head. “Save it. We’re docking in twenty minutes. You kept quiet about it this long, I’m sure it can wait another day. Or a week. Or until whenever you were gonna fill me in. Take all the space and time you need.”
     There was nothing she could say. No explanation or excuse would be good enough. This wasn’t how she wanted him to find out, It was the worst way things could have gone, and she cursed herself for underestimating him, the Goddamn cyborg. She’d just been so afraid of what might happen, like the little nightmare taking place right now.
     “Bomber, please . . .”
     “I’ll be on deck,” he said without looking back.

***

     The only thing Gina could see when she appeared on the rain-soaked deck was the harbour terminal, wrapped around the bay in a huge crescent shape, so vast it blocked out the rest of the city. Immense warehouses stretched out from the base of it. Conveyor belts sprouted from them like twisted arms, going up, funnelling goods directly into downtown Laputa without the need for more transport.
     It looked so weird to a City girl. She had to remind herself that there was no such thing as a railroad here, and no use for cars. Laputa covered the entire island. It imported pretty much everything, and the column of container ships in the commercial dock never stopped loading or unloading.
     A man with a clipboard came down the marina jetty to greet them, and Stoney gave him a friendly handshake. They warbled a few words at each other in Mandarin and waved everyone else off the boat. Gina followed after Hawthorn, who offered his arm like a gentleman to help her disembark. Bomber was already at the front of the group to communicate, manage things and be involved.
     “Are you okay?” the Major asked, walking her down the fake-wood jetty. “I haven’t seen you since we boarded.”
     “I’m fine.”
     He gave her a wry smile. “I may not be a telepath, Miss Hart, but I’m also not a complete fuckwit. Are things not going good with you and Jacob?” When she didn’t respond right away, he nodded awkwardly and coughed into his fist. “I know it’s not my place to ask–“
     “I’m pregnant,” she said, blunt as a big stick. “Sorry, being polite is a little more than I can handle right now.”
     That gave him pause. He almost stopped walking before his brain kicked in and took back control of his legs. “I . . . Wow. I don’t know what to say, Gina.”
     “Anything but ‘congratulations.'”
     “No. It just . . . Well, it explains a few things,” he said. He took her hand for a moment and squeezed it. “I know I’m probably the last person you wanna talk to right now, but my door’s always open. Might help to get things off your chest. I won’t breathe a word to Jacob or anyone else, Scout’s honour.”
     She looked into his stark, expressive blue eyes, and she almost smiled. Sometimes you found class in the most unexpected places. “I–I’ll keep it in mind,” she murmured. “Thank you.”
     The man with the clipboard led them past the marina’s pleasant little boathouses and club buildings, into a tiny alley between two sections of the terminal. Two security doors and a maintenance elevator later, he bade them goodbye again, shooing everyone towards a brightly-lit monorail station. No checks, no customs, just another handshake and a credit chip. Stoney almost smiled.
     “Welcome to Laputa,” he said. “Human nature is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?”
     “Fantastic,” growled Bomber.
     Gina couldn’t help but stare. Even at this altitude Laputa’s buildings still managed to impress, little monorail cars tracing around the tracks high above, separated from the elements only by a layer of crystal-clear, unbreakable glass.
     An empty car arrived for them, and they rode it to the large station set halfway up Orleans Tower. A Mandarin Hotel logo shone with reflected sunlight on the floor above them. That cheered Gina up to no end, but it was quickly overshadowed by the disturbance at the outer wall, where a small but noisy crowd pressed themselves against the glass to try and get a look of what was happening below. One of the arcologies looked like a real mess. The billowing clouds of dark-grey smoke couldn’t quite hide the damage, a twisted black scar down the south side of the building, and a big pile of rubble on the ground below. A couple of spider-shaped construction robots were raising emergency scaffolds to keep the rest of the building from shearing.
     “Looks like the party’s already started,” Bomber said.
     Stoney squinted, his blind eye twitching. “Interesting. My info didn’t indicate things had gotten quite so bad yet.”
     “Looks like we can’t afford to waste time.” Turning away from the spectacle, Bomber seemed to drag everybody else with him by momentum alone. “First thing is recon. We need to scope out the airship right away. Finding out where it’s been is our first step to tracking down the Colonel.”
     “Don’t be too hasty, Simon. From what you told me, showing your face around that ship is a perfect way to ruin everything. I have a contact coming this afternoon, delivering some useful bits and pieces. A couple of next-gen holomasks ought to help.”
     They went up an escalator directly to the red-and-gold sumptuousness of the hotel lobby. It was similar to the one Gina had stayed at in Hong Kong, a cavernous and tastefully-lit space dominated by a semi-circular counter manned round the clock. Not an automatic check-in machine in sight. Even so, all Stoney had to do was lay a credit chip on the counter. Everything was arranged in moments.
     Grudgingly, Bomber nodded. “Alright. Alright, Stoney, we’ll do it your way.”
     “Excellent. When the package is here, I will find you,” Stoney said. “What you do until then is up to you.”
     Hawthorn said, “I’ll check with my people, see how things are going in the City. See you later.” He followed Stoney to the elevators. In moments they were gone, leaving Bomber and Gina alone in the lobby.
     She looked down and scratched the back of her head. “Well, this is awkward.”
     “It’s fine,” he said. With fewer minds so close around her, she began to sense the dull headache pounding inside his skull, beyond even his ability to suppress pain.
     “You know, Jock might still be around. Maybe we could get in touch,” she said, trying to lighten the mood.
     “If he’s here then he ought to hope I don’t find him. I’m tired of gettin’ snubbed on the phone by that self-important prick. Next time I see his face, I’ll cut his balls off.” His lips drew back, teeth bared in an angry grimace. “Let’s find the room and get back to headshrinking. I need to know more.”
     He went, and she felt compelled to follow by a mixture of guilt and weird responsibility hovering in the pit of her stomach. She wanted to talk but didn’t know what to say, and Bomber . . . Well, he was being Bomber, and that was all she could expect in or outside their room.

***

     Old memories, dusty and forgotten, flitted by faster than Gina could read them. Bomber’s concentration never wavered for a second as he passed them. There was only one thing he wanted to think about, to the exclusion and repression of everything else, but sometimes it just wasn’t up to him. Not to his conscious mind.
     The swimmy mess left by the concussion at Kagaso Refinery was hard to get a hold of, and she kept sliding off into other memories, past and future. Most were shreds, little moments preserved from Jacob Dusther’s life. His first day in the VR simulators as Sergeant. A long talk with Colonel Obrin laden with hints about a possible promotion. A prank pulled by one of the techs, replacing all the enemies in their sim session with aliens from some old sci-fi flick. Most of the squad was brutally massacred before they knew anything was wrong. They took revenge later by spicing the tech’s meals with pepper spray.
     Bomber kept trying to pull things back towards the refinery, the battle, but he didn’t really know what he was doing and only made it more difficult to focus. “Slow down,” she told him. “You’re not helping. Take it easy and follow my lead.”
     Grudgingly, he settled down, and she began to pick up the threads . . .
     
     “Time to vacate the vehicle, Sir,” said the pinch-faced specialist, almost as short standing up as he did sitting behind the wheel of the bus. He treated Jacob with the exact amount of respect his rank demanded, but he didn’t seem to enjoy the job of dealing with reluctant officers who didn’t leave his vehicle in a prompt and timely manner. Even now Jacob was staring up at the sky full of helicopters in a strange daze. He knew he wanted to be up there, but for a second he couldn’t quite figure out why.
     Then he floated back to reality, and gave the specialist as much attention as he could manage. “Okay,” he said, and marshalled his body to move. Steps down to the tarmac, solid groundunder his feet. The specialist followed at his shoulder. After a few seconds of staring thoughtlessly at the sprawling airbase, he opened his mouth again. “Any idea where I’m supposed to go?”
     The specialist looked at a point six inches above Jacob’s head, expression rigid as a rock. “Your orders said to report straight to the CO’s office, Sir. Seems like a good place to start.”
     Jacob looked dumbly at the wad of folded paper sticking out of his breast pocket. His orders. “Right. I’ll do that.”
     He strode off toward the central courtyard. The base was big enough that he could spend a long time wandering before he stopped being lost. Still, heading for the middle was a safe bet. Either he’d find his target or get better directions off somebody.
     The next thing he knew he was several storeys up in the squadron HQ building, entering a large but spartan office, saluting a colonel he’d never met before. Jacob did his best to assess the man while he had the chance. A bit stocky for a flier, even a retired one. The deep frown lines in his forehead and the grey at his temples looked a little out of place, as if the Colonel had aged a great deal in a very short time. Amazing moustache, though.
     “Good to meet you, Lieutenant,” he said. “I’m Colonel Keith Obrin. Don’t worry, you won’t see too much of me. I’m here on a temporary basis, filling in for the late Colonel Carter. God rest his soul. They’ll replace me in five, six months. Until then, though, my door’s always open. Any questions you have, anything on your mind, let me know and I’ll do my best to help.”
     “Thank you, Sir,” Jacob replied. “I only got out of officer training a week ago and sometimes I feel like it’s already slippin’ away.”
     “I wouldn’t worry too much, Lieutenant. Doing well in an academy simulator is one thing, but what we’re attempting here is very different, and I know you’ll be able to hack it. You aced every aptitude test we’ve got, you’re a natural born flier. That’s why the tests exist. Sometimes they turn up skills and talents you never knew you had.” Obrin smiled. “I’ve got a meeting in fifteen minutes, so head on down to the sim centre and introduce yourself. Your security biometrics are already in the system. The instructor will take care of everything else.”

     
     Time suddenly hurled forward. A deep association, a link in Bomber’s active memory, drew them headlong into another event at another place, faster than Gina could intervene.
     
     Ten or twelve whiskeys burned in Jacob’s stomach. He looked out over an opulent room full of people he neither knew nor cared for, willing himself not to scratch at the uncomfortable dress uniform. The senator slipped smoothly through the crowd, meeting and greeting, making all the right noises to all the right people. The buffet was excellent, but no amount of free food could make up for having to rub shoulders with politicians for four hours.
     He was seriously contemplating eating his own gun as an escape when one of the senior uniforms in the room drifted next to him. Jacob was just sober enough to brace to a semblance of attention. In that moment he recognised the face behind the stark blue and white of Marine Corps dress.
     “Colonel Obrin,” he said, saluting automatically.
     “There’s a face I wasn’t expecting to see!” Obrin laughed. “Jacob . . . Jacob Dusther. How’re you doing, son?” He sucked the rim of an empty highball glass. His face was red and flushed, the top button of his jacket undone. “Sorry, I’ve had a few too many.”
     Jacob tried to think of something to say and struggled out, “I’m okay, Sir. You, ah, you don’t look so good.”
     “I’m fine, it don’t matter. None of it matters.” He smiled as if at some private joke. “You know, it’s really good to see you. Are you still flying?”
     “Yes, Sir. Wing Captain now, second in command of the squadron.”
     “Good. It’s a good life being a soldier. Simple. You only have to worry about three things.” He took another sip of air and prodded a finger into Jacob’s chest. “Three things. Yourself, the ground, and the enemy. Take my advice, son, keep it simple. You’ll be better off. Rank, politics, it’s all a horrible trap.”
     “I think you’re drunk, Sir,” Jacob pointed out. Then he had a flash of brilliant inspiration. “Maybe I should take you home.”
     “That’s the best thing I’ve heard all night,” the Colonel enthused. Then, suddenly, all the life drained out of him. His voice dropped to a whisper. “Do you ever feel like,” he paused thoughtfully, “like you’ve made a mistake so big it could change the world?”
     Jacob couldn’t respond to that. After a moment, Obrin went on, “It’s all gone wrong, Jacob. All that effort wasted. Christ, I never wanted it to turn out like this.”
     “Come on, Sir,” said Jacob, putting an arm around the Colonel’s shoulder. “Let’s get you home.”
     They left the dinner talking about the old days. Trivial things, nothing Jacob could remember. A taxi ferried him to the airbase, and took the passed-out shape of Colonel Obrin to wherever he was going. Jacob never thought much about it afterwards, least of all a few words half-heard through the warm haze of alcohol . . .

     
     “Almost there,” Gina said, trying to keep him calm. “Concentrate.”
     They were so close she could taste it. A few more memories, just a few more, and they’d know. It would all start to make sense.

***

     Confusion. His thoughts trickled through his head like molasses. He almost forgot what he was doing, but when he looked down at the steps leading into the dark, at the grenade launcher in his hand, he remembered. He staggered forward, staying balanced by dragging his good shoulder along the wall.
     There was gunfire echoing from below, in the antechamber of the vault. Muzzle flashes. Bursts of light and noise. Somebody was alive down there. He chambered a grenade and took aim at the bottom of the stairs.
     “Fire in the hole,” he said on the open channel, holding down the trigger.
     A full magazine of bullet-shaped lumps ripped from his launcher. They bounced around like pebbles rattling in a tin can, from wall to wall and everywhere in between. A second later they exploded into a cloud of hot, razor-sharp metal, tearing chunks out of the concrete until the air was white with dust. Steel reinforcements were laid bare at the bottom of a few ragged pits.
     Jacob sagged to his knees at the bottom of the steps. The launcher slipped from his fingers, and his eyes crossed. Then somebody grabbed him and pulled him further into the room, bullets spanging loudly off his armour.
     He noticed the big vault door passing him by. Then another human shape moving, pushing the door shut. The metallic thud of locking rods rammed into place. Finally Jacob and his rescuer crumpled against the wall, gasping for breath. His head lolled sideways and his eyes tried to focus, only half-seeing Fahlan as the Corporal clutched at his shoulder.
     “Sarge?” Fahlan whispered, his voice drained of colour and emotion. Deeply shaken. “We thought you were dead, Sarge . . “
     Jacob didn’t respond. Barely realised anyone had spoken. A little light flashed up as the Corporal accessed Jacob’s medical readouts. Then he hit some kind of manual override on the suit, and a warm cocktail of chemicals hit Jacob’s bloodstream. They began to drag him back to his senses.
     The first words out of his mouth were, “Corporal. SitRep.”
     “We’re not gonna hold out. You bought us some time, but these guys are hard as coffin nails. If we don’t get reinforcements they’ll come in here and mop us up one way or another. There’s something else, though.” He swallowed hard. “They’re taking the bodies. A few of them jumped out of cover to grab Benny and Craze, carried them up the stairs and out. Don’t know where. Craze was still alive when his telemetry stopped.”
     Jacob grunted, “The . . . The blue helmets?”
     “Dead. Every last one. I saw ’em throw the LT to the ground and put half a mag through his chest.”
     “Jesus.”
     “I know, Sarge, I know. I’ve been trying to reach Command, and fuck radio silence, but they’re jamming us. Sweeney’s working on a solution.”
     Pushing to his feet, Jacob stood up and took a good look around the vault. It was little more than an armoured warehouse full of high-tech metal casks. Various shades of grey on the walls and the secure containers, dotted with warning stickers. A big orange cabinet in the corner contained a couple of rad suits for emergencies. The only other colour was the intense, ominous yellow-black of radiation hazard symbols.
     Next he went to check on Sweeney.
     She was on her knees in a corner, using her servo-assisted fingers and the bent barrel of a rifle to chip away at the wall. Bit by bit she uncovered a piece of the metal reinforcement keeping the place up. Her movements seemed jerky and jittery, very unlike the hard-edged efficiency he was used to from her. Then a flash of realisation. Behind that faceless mask, she was crying.
     He put his gauntlet on her shoulder-pad, but took it away again when he realised what an empty gesture it was. Robbed of its humanity by the armour. He said, “Mary . . .”
     “Hey, Sarge,” she said, her voice surprisingly level. “Good to see you alive. I’ve almost got this. The steel framework runs all the way through. With a little juice from my suit battery I can turn this whole building into a big antenna.”
     “Okay. Okay, that’s good. When will it be ready?”
     She beckoned him closer and flipped open the radio panel on the side of his helmet, pressing a length of metal wire into it, and attached the other end to the steel reinforcement buried in the wall. “Give it a try.”
     He switched to the SOCOM emergency frequency and started to hail. “Mayday mayday mayday. This is Operation Normandy actual. We are trapped and under heavy fire, four remaining combat effective. Need immediate assistance. Mayday Normandy, over.”
     After a few seconds of tense silence, a woman’s voice responded, crackling and distorted. “No operation by that name is underway. Get off this frequency. Unauthorised use will be dealt with. Out.”
     He stared at the wall in blank disbelief. His mind strained to understand while the world crumbled to pieces around him.
     “Sarge?” asked Sweeney. “Sarge, are they coming?”
     He opened his mouth a few times, but couldn’t think of a thing to say.

***

     “None of this makes sense,” Jacob said to his corporals. “Why wouldn’t they acknowledge us? SOCOM requested the op. Everything happened just like Colonel Obrin said it would.”
     Fahlan glanced at the vault door and the two privates guarding it. A glowing spot had formed at the top right, red-hot. The first sign of a plasma torch starting to cut through.
     “Maybe things went so bad they disavowed us,” he suggested. “For all we know, the other teams are already dead.”
     That idea didn’t cheer Jacob at all. It had a certain twisted logic to it, the kind employed by special forces everywhere. He really wished he could offer a better explanation.
     “Whatever happens, we’re not givin’ up yet, okay? Iwetel, you and the others set up another barricade. Mary, keep workin’ the radio. I don’t care who you call or how you do it. Just get us through to somebody.”
     They gave a tiny “Yes, Sarge,” and went to work like soldiers. It wasn’t much, but Jacob couldn’t have hoped for more.
     His own morale wasn’t much better. The situation seemed hopeless. Once that torch finished cutting through, they’d be overrun, and then . . . God only knew.
     Frustrated, he picked up a rusty bolt from the floor and chucked it at the sloppy pyramid of waste casks in front of him. It made a loud
ding where it hit. The whole construction was so flimsy that it wobbled on impact. Everything here looked like that, like the workers didn’t even care what they were handling.
     Sometimes it seemed like nobody cared about anything. SOCOM would leave his squad to die without a second thought. The people here couldn’t even be bothered to stack piles of Goddamn nuclear waste with a bit of care and attention. And after all these months of trying not to think, not to remember, he still couldn’t find it in himself to–
     A thought tugged at him. Maybe it wasn’t that the workers didn’t care. Maybe they knew exactly what was inside.
     “Hold on,” he said, catching Fahlan by the shoulder. “Corporal, help me crack open these containers.”
     “Sarge? Most of our suits are compromised, the radiation would–“
     “If we’re all gonna die, I wanna know what we’re doin’ it for. Get them open. All of them.”
     Jacob did his best to help with his good arm. Mostly he watched while Fahlan worked the locks and bars, one by one. First the casks of caesium, technetium and iodine isotopes. Then the stored uranium and thorium tanks. They hissed and belched out clouds of inert gas when the airtight seals were broken.
     Each time, Jacob held his breath and then let out a hollow sigh. Every one of the containers was empty.
     “Jake,” Fahlan whispered. Rank and protocol forgotten. “I don’t understand.”
     Jacob was beginning to figure it out, but it wasn’t a welcome piece of knowledge. Sick dread twisted in his heart. All the strength seemed to drain out of his body, and he sagged to his knees.
     “We were supposed to lose.” He giggled at the sheer madness of it. “I should’ve known when we first arrived. Cornell had it right, and we didn’t even realise it. The owners here are so corrupt they’d sell anything to anyone. Chances are these guys already have all the nuke fuel they need. They’re here for
us.”
     “Are . . . Are you saying somebody at SOCOM sold us out?”
     “Somebody must have, Iwetel. Somebody did.”
     A heavy gauntlet tapped Jacob’s shoulder. Sweeney stood there, holding out the metal comm wire. He took it and plugged it in.
     “–mandy actual, come in,” came Colonel Obrin’s voice. “Sergeant, do you read? Your message was received. Report your situation.”
     Intense, glowing relief. He couldn’t keep his voice from trembling. “Colonel, this is Normandy actual. Things are seriously FUBAR here. It was a trap, Sir. Unless we get some reinforcements–“
     A rude beep from his suit computer cut him off. The Colonel was overriding his radio priority. “Sergeant, there’s no time. Yours is the only team that managed to report in. Is the fuel secure?”
     “There . . . There’s nothing here, Sir. Somebody must’ve set us up. The containers are empty.”
     “You opened them? You opened the containers?”
     “Yes, Sir. It was a simple bait and switch, and we walked right into it. It’s gotta be somebody at SOCOM–“
     “Sergeant, focus! Did you tell anyone else about this? Anyone outside Kagaso?”
     “Negative. We tried the emergency freq but they wouldn’t give us the time of day.” He swallowed. “Please, Sir, we need help or we’re all gonna end up fillin’ jars in some Chinese wetware shop.”
     A long, crackling pause stretched out between them. The cutting torch hissed and spat while the seconds ticked away. When Colonel Obrin spoke again, his voice was different, rough and full of emotion.
     “I’m sorry, son.”
     The faint click of a radio turning off, and then nothing at all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.