Gina watched from around the corner, not sure what to do. He just sat there like a broken puppet staring into space. That by itself wasn’t unusual for Bomber, but this time, nothing she tried could bring him out of it. Wherever he’d gone, it was somewhere she couldn’t reach him.
     The memory made her shiver. Their link had collapsed like a heap of sand. It was as if she could feel his mind break in her hands. He just . . . stopped. She tried to reach out to him again and again, but found nothing to communicate with. Just a living, breathing piece of meat.
     Betrayal. The one thing that still hurt Bomber through all the layers of cynicism and detachment. It must’ve cut so deep that he went away inside, to protect himself, and for a moment Gina wondered if he’d ever come back from that place.
     “No wonder you’re so screwed up,” she said softly, hugging herself. “You spent your whole life being a thing. An experiment, or a weapon. That’s what they made you.”
     There was a knock at the door. She got up to let Hawthorn inside.
     “I got your message.” He glanced around the small sitting area, grimacing at what he saw. “I kinda hoped you were kidding. What happened?”
     She took his hand and pulled him into the bedroom, away from Bomber. There, sitting on the side of the bed, she gave him a tablet of Spice and showed him, piece by piece. It was easier passing the memories from her own mind than digging them out of Bomber’s. They flew by in quick succession, the last days of Sergeant Jacob Dusther. Hawthorn’s eyes grew wider as the story played out in his mind.
     “The Colonel? Are you serious?” he whispered. Then he caught himself. “No, of course you are. I . . . I don’t understand. None of this makes any sense.”
     “How well did you know him?”
     “Not like Jacob did. The Colonel was my CO for a little while, that’s all. I never saw him socially. Not even after he left.”
     “You don’t have any idea why Obrin would turn like that? Why he’d commit treason to help the Feds?”
     “I don’t.”
     “Then we’re gonna have to find out for ourselves,” she said in a voice like cold steel. “If Bomber’s not in any shape to infiltrate that airship, we’ll have to do.”
     Hawthorn’s opinion was obvious. He thought she’d snapped along with her boyfriend. He began to argue, but the look she gave him told him to shut up before he said something he might regret.
     She stood up and paced around the room as she went on, “I’ll need someone to take out robots and computers for me. Anything which doesn’t have a mind. That’s your job. Humans . . . Humans won’t be a problem.”
     “What about Jake? Won’t someone need to stay behind and look after him?”
     “I don’t think he’s going anywhere,” she said, though it hurt. “Don’t worry. I can keep Stoney in line in Bomber’s absence.”
     Gina gave a terrible, mirthless grin. Nobody would want to get on her bad side today. She continued, “You have your orders, Major. We’re leaving in half an hour regardless of what anyone else says.”
     The command, both vocal and telepathic, worked just as she intended. The military training inside him responded without hesitation. He jolted to his feet, confusion and fear in his eyes as he fled the room.
     She was alone again. On the other side of the wall, Bomber sat as still as an old stump.
     I’ll be okay, she thought to him. They can’t hurt me. Nothing can hurt me anymore. Who knows, I’ve been holding back for so long that it might be fun to . . . cut loose.
     The faint outline of the burnt city stayed on her closed eyelids, like a visual representation of the tear in her soul. It didn’t bother her anymore. She was a survivor, she learned to live with the pain, and it might prove useful besides. All her anger and all her hurts concentrated into a telepathic weapon.
     She’d just have to stop herself from going overboard. Somehow.
     She breathed in, focussed her mind to a knife edge, and went looking for something black to wear for her mission.

***

     Stoney took the news badly. Too bad for him. Gina wasn’t taking no for an answer today, and when all was said and done, he did show up on the roof to catch their air-taxi. He even brought the bag of tricks he’d promised. Wordlessly, he doled everything out between the three of them, holding his tongue until that job was done.
     Fully-equipped, Gina stood like a warrior goddess. Black tank top, form-fitting jeans and a black leather jacket to match her boots. She could’ve been carved from Greek marble. A little rucksack of helpful equipment dangled from one shoulder, including two disposable holomasks, some smoke grenades, a tight-wave wireless transmitter, and Bomber’s stealthy laser gun. Just in case.
     “You’re not going in with us,” she told Stoney one more time. “Me and the Major only. I don’t know you well enough.”
     Even his legendary poker-face had difficulty keeping still, the corners of his mouth twitching. “This whole affair is tactically unsound. You need a third man, and I don’t mean myself. Simon would never allow an operation to go ahead without being involved. He ought to be here, conscious and on point.”
     She gave him an empty smile and said, “Maybe you were misinformed. I know you had all kinds of arrangements with Bomber, but he’s not the one in charge. I am. Keep that in mind.”
     The words hung heavy in the air. She knew how to project authority when she needed to, and neither of the boys felt like arguing the point. For the first time since she met him, Hawthorn looked at her with a bit of respect. Not friendship, but respect.
     He turned his attention back to the little porthole at the front of the cabin, and Gina caught a glimpse over his shoulder. Their air-taxi zoomed between the tops of the starscrapers. It banked ponderously left and right to dodge traffic. Other taxis, government helicopters, camera drones, and of course the incomprehensibly vast airship docks. Huge multi-coloured blimps were anchored in vertical rows, as many as five to a row, all glittering in the afternoon sun. Seemed like today was a busy day for Laputa.
     “Almost there,” Hawthorn announced. His eyes locked onto their destination, the central hub of trade and transport for the city, her biggest and shiniest airship complex.
     It began as a hundred-metre-tall spire sprouting from the roof of Two-Alpha arcology. At the top it fanned out to a large, spoked wheel, and was surrounded by a cloud of delicate scaffolding which prevented the ships from being blown away or bumping into each other. Pink docking tubes connected the ships to the ring, through which people and cargo were funnelled down the shaft and into the city.
     Despite the impressive size of Laputa’s arcologies and the height of the towers, it was the airship hub which caught the eye more than anything. A masterpiece of futuristic design.
     “Alright! Alright, I’ll help you,” said Stoney, “but I want you to keep in constant contact. And if you get caught, you won’t hear from me again.”
     “Your selflessness warms my heart,” Gina replied. She shouldered past him to the door and grabbed a handhold in anticipation of their descent.
     The landing was over in moments, concluded by a green light and a little ding from the loudspeaker. Clever magnetic suspension kept them from feeling any of it from inside the cabin. The door folded outward, and a shaft of honey-coloured sunlight fell on Gina’s eyes.
     She ran her fingers through her hair and stepped out into the blazing afternoon. The air on the landing pad was heavy and hard to breathe, but to a girl from Hong Kong, it tasted good. Helipads were one of the few places in Laputa open to the outside, and at this humidity, it felt like taking a warm bath in the sky.
     “Have a little faith, boys,” she added, luxuriating in the sun. “Gabriel thinks he’s already won. He thinks we’re not a significant threat to his plan. I’m gonna prove him wrong, and anybody who gets in my way is gonna regret it.”
     The boys fell into line as she went for the concourse. The outer door opened without a challenge, but the inner door was patrolled by a Laputan guard with a body scanner on his hip. He held up a hand to stop her, but Gina didn’t even look at him, paying as much as attention as to a fly buzzing around her head.
     She thought, Get out of my way.
     The guard’s face screwed up in confusion. He was sure he’d seen someone approach the checkpoint, but everything got all muddled, all turned around. Maybe he’d imagined it. He didn’t see anyone now. For no reason he could remember, he put his own fingerprint down on the machine before he went back to admiring the pretty sky outside.
     Hawthorn watched the guard over his shoulder until he was out of sight behind the tinted glass. He let out a long, heavy breath and rubbed a few beads of sweat from his eyebrows. “Gina . . . You are one scary lady.”
     “Easy on the flattery, Major,” she said with a sarcastic smile. “You’re gonna need better lines if you’re trying to chat me up.”
     The dock concourse flared out to fill the interior of that hollow ring. A supporting wall blocked the view on the left, but on the right it was bounded by a huge seamless arc of glass. The immense shapes of the airships floated there, all but stacked on top of each other. Giant spindly-looking brackets held them in place, telescoping in and out like giant shock absorbers. The only way to the docking tubes was on the upper level of the concourse.
     It didn’t take long for Gina to find it. She could recognise Gabriel’s ship anywhere. Her eyes followed the boarding tube down where it flowed smoothly into the glass, stoppered off with a heavy security gate. A sign above it displayed the airship registry code and the words RESTRICTED PRIVATE in big red letters.
     “Masks on,” said Hawthorn as they mounted the stairs. The gate was on a small, restricted-access mezzanine under tight security. Gina unzipped her bag and pressed one of the masks over her face.
     Her skin itched like mad as a hundred tiny needles pricked into sensitive flesh, then melted away on a wave of chemical numbness. The projectors fizzed as they came online.
     She caught her reflection in a piece of brushed aluminium. Unlike the old pull-over masks, her hair was still the same, but in every other way she looked like a different woman. High cheekbones. Thin pink lips. Deep, sallow eyes which looked like she needed a good night’s sleep.
     Stoney waved some kind of card key, a virus or override which cut power to everything on the mezzanine. Camera lenses shuttered over. The screen above the door went blank. Two hidden compartments with heavy security droids opened on the opposite wall, but they didn’t attack. Instead they turned their backs and unlocked their control panels for maintenance.
     “This lasts about half an hour,” he explained, “so make it quick. I’ll do my best to support you from here.”
     Hawthorn already had the door open. If Stoney was right, they’d get no more than thirty minutes before the alarms started blaring and all Hell broke loose.
     “Are you ready for this?” Hawthorn asked.
     Gina Hart didn’t answer. She went, striding up the spiral ramp to the airship. She fished two Spice tablets from her breast pocket and kept them clenched in her fist. Insurance, in case Gabriel put in an appearance. Not a hint of fear showed in her eyes.
     She wasn’t just ready. She was eager.

***

     Gina let her mind flow out. She became a drop in the ocean, travelling outward in all directions. She intermingled with the smaller, weaker ripples of other human minds disturbing the world’s smooth surface. There were several on the airship and oh, so many more on the concourse. Hundreds. Millions of thoughts.
     “Got it,” said Hawthorn. He was working on the emergency access panel with a screwdriver and a portable welding torch. Something inside made a popping noise. He grabbed the manual hatch release and heaved, forcing an opening. “Come on.”
     Gina barely registered his speech. She was in a world where doors were meaningless, and even the thickest walls barely attenuated the flow of thought. Her body followed after Hawthorn, but she was already miles ahead, disturbing the ripples, altering them with delicate touches. Creating discordance out of harmony. Bad thoughts fed on each other and bred like wildfire.
     “Security guard, first door on the left,” she said clinically. “Now having a panic attack. Don’t go in there.”
     There was a grimace on Hawthorn’s face. His skin crawled, being reminded of what she could do to people against their will. He snapped, “Look, I don’t need to know how you deal with them, alright? Just deal with them.”
     She said nothing. That freaked him out even more.
     The antechamber was a curious mix of avant-garde design — white plastic, chrome and glass — and brightly-coloured emergency kit. She saw a neon yellow evacuation slide packed in a clear case around the doorway. Minimal white chairs gathered around stark, solid glass tables. Orange lifejackets in a box in the corner. Pale light-globes hovering just below the ceiling. Bright red fire extinguishers arranged around the room.
     Memories flashed into her mind’s eye. Last time she was in this room, Gabriel had dressed it up to look like a normal passenger liner. Fake stewardesses had greeted her at the door. This was more like somebody’s private yacht. An elegant bead curtain decorated the main exit on the left, carefully positioned to hide the emergency blast doors. Behind them, a wide central corridor ran down the length of the gondola.
     “Okay, I read up on this model,” the Major announced. “The automated security should be offline during maintenance mode. As long as we don’t cause an emergency activation, it won’t be a problem. The bridge is at the far end of the gondola. We get in, set the computer to dockside control, and let Stoney crack it open for us.”
     “There are two men in that room,” she replied, wading through their thoughts. “The pilot. And somebody else, I’m not sure. A mechanic?”
     “We can deal with that when we get to it. First, the bridge is secured with a card lock and every kind of biometric scanner under the sun. We need to find a way around them. Now,” he waved vaguely at the ceiling, “there are some access ducts along the big data pipe between the bridge and the engine. For the next half hour they should be completely unprotected. They’re only designed for robots, so it’ll be a fucking tight fit, but I think we can make it.”
     Gina coughed. “Or I can get somebody to open the hatch for us from the inside.”
     Clenching his jaw, Hawthorn replied, “Fuck me, I’m glad you’re on our side.”
     He pushed through the beads with rifle on his shoulder. Stoney’s little trick had put most of the ship systems into maintenance mode, leaving only the basics – lights, electricity, and core computers. Only ship’s crew would know anything was wrong.
     “Clear on infrared,” he said. “What does your brain say?”
     Gina dragged her mental fingers through another ripple. “Same as before. Two men on the bridge. And . . . A secretary, I think, last room on the left.”
     “Gabriel has a secretary?”
     “Why don’t you go and ask?” she shot back. “She’s busy, anyway. No threat to us.”
     “And you’re absolutely sure Gabriel isn’t on board?”
     She hesitated. The ripples around her seemed normal, sedate, safe. None of them had that crisp, intense awareness and overwhelming sense of power. “I don’t feel him,” she offered.
     “Great. Let’s go threaten some people.”
     The hatch to the bridge was heavy, locked, and adorned with a number of friendly devices. Fingerprint reader. Retina scanner. Voice analyser. Facial temperature recognition. Hyper-encrypted key system. But as usual, the biggest point of failure in high-tech security was the humans operating it. Gina’s thoughts were liquid, radiation, plasma. They went wherever she desired them.
     There’s something you’ve forgotten, she whispered. It’s urgent. Terribly urgent. You need to leave right now.
     The suggestion spread out from her like a silent shout, overpowering lesser currents in the ocean. She felt their minds hesitate. Stopped what they were doing. A brief argument, tension about that forgotten something, until the anxiety won out. They grabbed their things and punched the hatch control. Stopped again when they came face to face with Gina. The pilot reached for his gun, but instead got Major Hawthorn’s steel-toed boot in the stomach.
     “Gentlemen,” said Gina, smiling as she strode into the room. “Thanks for letting us in. You wouldn’t happen to know which one of these is the main input terminal, would you? You don’t have to say anything. Just think.”
     In the surprise and confusion, they couldn’t stop themselves. All it took was a few stray neurons firing at the wrong moment. Gina grinned. She plucked her answer from their minds like taking a ripe apple from the tree.
     “Thanks again,” she whispered in a tone as smooth as silk. “Now sit down and be good while we get on with things. You can do that, can’t you?”
     They nodded, staring round-eyed. It never even occurred to them to disobey the siren song caressing their minds.

***

     “Accessing now,” came Stoney’s voice, hissing with encryption noise. “It may take a moment. Looks like a custom-built system.”
     Gina rolled her eyes. Stoney always said so much less than what was needed, and it was starting to piss her off. Especially when she couldn’t reach in and observe his thought processes as they worked. “What does that mean?” she demanded.
     “It means it may take a moment,” he replied blandly. Then he amended it. “It means I can’t get much. This thing is so secretive I doubt it’s compliant with Federal regulations. But who’s going to tell a nanotech trillionaire off about his computer?”
     “So what can you get?”
     “A few things. One moment.”
     The terminal flicked to a different screen, black text on blue. A list of airports and the dates when the ship was docked. Gina stared at it, but it didn’t reveal anything new; just several weeks in various places around the City, with occasional trips down to Calcutta and Singapore. She shuddered when she read the log for Odessa halfway down the page. It even marked the hours spent at Paine Airport, Missouri, waiting to spring Gabriel’s big trap.
     She was about to comment when she noticed something below the entry for Laputa. Logs of every time the outer hatch was unsealed. It hadn’t recorded the current break-in, but before that, the last time the hatch opened was more than twenty-four hours ago.
     She tapped it with a fingernail. Hawthorn, standing next to her, followed it and made a surprised noise. “Stoney, can you look at the travel manifest? Does it mention the intended stay in Laputa?”
     Another pause. Then, “Two weeks. Other than that it just says ‘Business’.”
     “I’ve never known Gabriel to stay in one place longer than a few days,” Gina pointed out. The list in front of her confirmed it. None of the stops ever lasted more than four. “I don’t think he’s here for the food or the culture. What else can you access?”
     “That was it. I’m not a hacker, Gina. You would need someone extremely well-equipped to crack this level of security.”
     A sharp response flared in the back of her brain, but another thought cut in front, and she suddenly found her smile again. She turned to the pilot and the . . . navigator, she read, as his ripples passed through her. Co-pilot and chief engineer in one overpaid package.
     Sweat beaded the men’s foreheads. They were both ex-military, but all the training and discipline in the world couldn’t hide their nervousness. They were helpless against the red-headed sorceress.
     “There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” she murmured. She dropped into a squat, facing them at eye level. “Boys, I want to talk about your boss.”
     Hesitation. The pilot shifted, swallowing, wondering if he could carry off a lie. Fear had turned him morose, and he kept his eyes on the floor as a sign of defiance. “We don’t know anything,” he spat.
     She traced a fingertip along the pilot’s jaw. He didn’t flinch, only gritted his teeth even harder. Then he stiffened. His back jerked up against the wall, arms and legs spasming like an epileptic seizure. Wide eyes twitched, then rolled back into his head. Gina grabbed him by the brainstem and began to twist. She examined his jumbled thoughts with cold detachment, watching them boil to the surface on a wave of terror.
     Their lips moved at the same time, but only Gina’s voice came out.
     “Ben, I want you to hold the ship in port until I’m back,” she said. “This is what I’ve been waiting for. I’m meeting some friends in town for a day or two, and they’ll help me charter a jet on the sly. Don’t ask why.”
     “A jet, sir? Why can’t we take you?”
     “I told you not to ask. Anyway, if some people drop by looking for me, stall them as long as you can. Especially if they’ve got any Feds with them. I don’t know how much time I have and I’ll need every second. Okay?”
     “Understood, sir.”
     Their right arms snapped a parade-perfect salute. Then all life bled out of the pilot’s body. He toppled sideways like a bag of sand and stayed there, barely breathing. Meanwhile Gina stood up slowly and stretched her neck. No headache. No dizziness. To her surprise, she felt good. Powerful and in control.
     Hawthorn appeared at her shoulder, hands clenched at his sides. His voice was a dry whisper. “Jesus, Gina, what did you do to him?”
     “Whatever it took. We’re in this to win, aren’t we?”
     “Yeah but–“
     “If he’s strong, he’ll survive,” she interrupted him. “Not your problem, Major. As for you . . .”
     The navigator stared back at her, strung like a piano wire. His shaking bones knocked softly against the bulkhead behind him. His eyes had grown to the size of dinnerplates, pink and bloodshot.
     Gina didn’t have to do anything. He fainted all on his own.
     She patted Hawthorn on the elbow. “Come on, I wanna see Gabriel’s office. He might have left a clue or two.”
     The instinctive impulse to shy away, to cringe from her touch, flashed through him. He barely managed to suppress it. Tearing his eyes away from Gabriel’s pilot, he forced a smile and gestured for Gina to lead the way.

***

     “A charter jet,” Gina marvelled, checking the unconscious body of Gabriel’s pretty little secretary for anything useful. There was an ID card around her neck, embedded with a wireless chip. A ring of electronic keyfobs. An electric-ink tattoo of a barcode decorated her wrist, powered by her own heartbeat. Gina couldn’t tell whether that was security or a cosmetic thing.
     Snapping up the ID, Gina told her holomask to scan the secretary’s biometrics. The needles in her skin stung faintly as her holographic face changed to match. Retinas, heat profile, everything. Only a hologram detector would tell the difference, and thanks to Stoney, they were offline.
     She eventually finished her thought. “You know, I didn’t think anybody used jets anymore.”
     “They don’t,” Hawthorn replied. “Too expensive. You can’t find the hydrocarbons to run them, and the Feds don’t allow hydrogen rams for commercial use. Everything in the sky nowadays has a propeller on it.”
     “So Gabriel’s spending an awful lot of money to be the exception to the rule. To get somewhere in a hurry.”
     “That follows, yeah.”
     “And you wouldn’t need a jet unless you were going a long way,” she said, waving her new ID at the secure hatch in the corner. A lens scanned her face. The control panel light blinked green, and the hatch slid open. “The kind of distance that regional flights don’t make. You’d have to take an airship instead.”
     He turned to her in the hatchway, frowning in thought. “Gina, where are you going with this?”
     “Don’t interrupt. Am I right or not?”
     “Well . . . Yeah, I guess. Hydroprops only do short flights to keep costs down.”
     “Then I know where he’s going.” She smiled, pushing past him into Gabriel’s office. She wanted to enjoy the suspense for a little longer.
     The ‘office’ was not a room she recognised. She hadn’t been on the airship long enough to see it, but she already knew he spent a lot of time here. His presence had soaked into the walls. She could practically feel him hovering over her shoulder, watching her as she took in the details.
     An unmade bed, the covers partly on the floor. A desk strewn with high-tech tools. Two blue nanocontainers, much like the one she found in Austin but not as advanced, opened and bare. There were several empty spaces on the desk where things had been, visible by their imprints in the dust. A heavy machine stood dormant in the corner, partly built into the wall. Gina wouldn’t have known what it was except it had a cubical slot where one of the nanocontainers would fit.
     She reached out to the machine. It came alive at her touch, an image flickering into the air just before it. She knew it immediately. It was one of the same nanobots she first saw at East Electronics, months ago.
     “America,” she said, at last. “If I wasn’t sure before, I am now. He’s obsessed with Hephaestus. Hephaestus is connected to Radiation Alley, and Colonel Obrin’s knee-deep in all of it. Now that Gabriel’s got him, I’ll bet you anything that’s where he’s headed.”
     “So, anywhere along three thousand miles of the Eastern Seaboard?” Hawthorn asked with gentle sarcasm.
     “I don’t see you helping.”
     “Oh, I’m working on some ideas. Stoney,” he licked his lips thoughtfully, “look up a list of chartered departures since this thing docked. Maybe we can narrow down his destination. And in the meantime . . .”
     He grabbed one of the empty nanocontainers and pushed it into the machine’s receptacle. It immediately flashed up a list of options, and Hawthorn zoomed through them with practised ease, faster than Gina could follow. A slideshow of different nanorobots flashed past the screen, many variations on a single theme. All of them took obvious inspiration from the broken Hephaestus bots. It ran through them all like a mechanical bloodline.
     “There!” Hawthorn said, triumphant. “It’s outputting samples of all the designs in memory. Everything Gabriel’s worked on. I–“
     Gina jerked forward and accidentally put her hand through the holographic screen. It flickered and distorted around her wrist. “Stop! Make it go back,” she said, operating the screen with a few clumsy waves. She managed to stop it at the design she recognised, her eyebrows dipped in a brooding frown.
     “What is it?”
     “Spice,” she said, unsure what to think or how to feel. “I saw analyses of it at Jupiter’s place. I figured Gabriel had a hand in it, but . . . I don’t know. Are there, like, research notes in here? Anything written down?”
     The machine withdrew its injection tube from the container and beeped to indicate it was finished. Hawthorn touched Gina’s shoulder, gesturing his chin at the exit. “We can look later. I think we’ve got what we came for, so let’s not push our luck.”
     That was when the lights burst back to full power, the door slammed shut, and klaxons started blaring in their ears.
     “This is the Angel’s Sword,” an artificial voice boomed from speakers in the ceiling, “and I think you’ve already pushed your luck far enough.”

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