“You know, I’m really sick of AIs,” said Gina. “Get us the Hell out of here, Major.”
     Lunging for the hatch, Hawthorn shoved his rifle in the gap before it could close. The motors whined and, grinding against the obstruction, died a fiery death. Smoke poured from the maintenance panel as bits blew out one by one. Hawthorn wrenched the rifle out again and ran to the other hatch, but couldn’t reach it in time. He slammed his fist against it in frustration.
     “Gonna be a little difficult now, Gina,” he growled. “Every security measure on board will be active, intelligent and after our asses!”
     “That’s something of an overstatement. My orders are very clear regarding the safety of Miss Gina while she’s detained. However, Master Gabriel was less specific about you.” There was a tiny hesitation in its speech, as if distracted by some background process. “Speaking of people with limited lifespans, where is Dusther?”
     Hawthorn frowned. “You’re expecting an honest answer? I thought you said ‘artificial intelligence’ doesn’t mean ‘gullible.'”
     “Fair point. In a few minutes it won’t matter anyway.”
     A deep, metallic thud echoed from the stern of the ship. The deck began to move beneath their feet. A few things slid off the secretary’s desk from the hard, listing turn.
     “Just so you know,” the Sword went on, “all our lifeboats will be sealed this time.”
     Gina and Hawthorn exchanged a look. She steadied herself against the bulkhead and said, “Was that what I think it is?”
     “We’re undocking,” he swore under his breath. They both knew that soon the ship would be too far off the ground for any kind of escape. He bashed his rifle butt against the hatch out of sheer frustration. No amount of violence would get them through there. “Damnit, where are you taking us?!”
     The Sword made a noise somewhere between laughter and complete indifference. It didn’t have to answer, and made that fact perfectly obvious with a deafening silence.
     The airship yawed slowly in a half-circle, started to rise out of the big plastic lattice of the airship dock. Gina pressed her forehead against the porthole behind the secretary’s desk and watched Laputa fall away below her. The idea of getting captured again, of being at the whims of Gabriel and his stupid pet computer, began to burn like a lump of hot coal in her chest. Somebody was always trying to lock her up in a tower somewhere. As usual, nothing would ever change unless she changed it.
     “We’re getting out of here,” she said. “And I’m gonna crash Gabe’s little party whether he likes it or not.”
     She pushed Hawthorn aside and reached out to probe the unyielding hatch door. Her fingers and her mind glided over the smooth metal, exploring, studying its tiniest cracks. She could see now. Not just people, but objects, the way her ripples bounced off them and left a clear outline in her mind.
     It was nothing like the old days, staggering around in a Spice-induced haze as if her brain were wrapped in plastic. She felt so far beyond that now. Like, after years of stumbling around in darkness, emerging into the open air for the very first time.
     Spreading her search outward, she sounded every inch of the thick bulkheads. High quality, nanomesh-reinforced steel. Hard enough to take a missile strike without buckling. This was the airship equivalent of an armoured car. However, Gina was betting there’d be a cubbyhole somewhere. A secret way out in case the ship got boarded. If there was, she would find it.
     After the bulkheads didn’t offer anything, she made her way around the secretary’s desk and placed her fingers on the smooth, polished deck. It didn’t take her long to penetrate the thinner plates. Jackpot, she thought.
     A hidden crawlspace ran below the floor and disappeared into the bowels of the airship. A route Hawthorn clearly didn’t know about. It wouldn’t be in the official floor plan, probably hidden from mechanical scanners. Gina felt really proud of herself for a second. Only . . . she couldn’t tell how to open it. There was no obvious line between the desk and the tunnel. If it worked on some kind of disguised switch or computer command, they might never find it.
     “Fuck it,” she said. She reached into her bag and took out Bomber’s laser gun. Aimed it at the floor, pulled the trigger.
     The invisible beam touched metal. It heated up instantly, hissing and spitting smoke in little blue clouds. The cleverly-disguised hinge melted and burned away with repeated lashings of the beam, and finally gave way with a pop. Gina wormed her fingers into the gap — the part of it that was cool enough to touch — and lifted the floor panel away. The cramped space underneath bristled with dangerous-looking wires and fluid lines, but it looked big enough to crawl through.
     This time, when she held out a hand to Hawthorn, there was no fear or revulsion in his eyes. He gazed open-mouthed like a newly-minted worshipper at his Messiah.
     “We need some parachutes and an exit, Major,” she murmured. “Wanna go find them?”
     He nodded slowly, and went first into the tunnel as her bodyguard, rifle in hand. They weren’t out of the woods yet.

***

     “I can see you,” the Angel’s Sword pointed out. Its voice echoed in from somewhere, distant but around. It had taken on a wheedling, persuasive note. “I also know exactly where all the ducts lead out. On the other hand, if you surrender, I promise no one will be hurt.”
     Ignoring that voice was harder than Gina would’ve imagined. Its pitch and resonance played on you, immaculately tuned to affect the human brain. It was the sound of perfect physical and psychological science. Hawthorn’s military training helped him get through it, but Gina only had her own willpower to defend herself.
     They reached an intersection, and Hawthorn aimed his rifle down them at random. Looking for targets. “Which way?” he asked.
     “Up. You’re sitting on the controls.”
     “Oh, sorry.”
     Gina pushed him out of the way and studied the little panel recessed in the floor. It operated the hatch leading below, but Sword had obviously gotten to it first. The screen blinked on and off with some kind of critical error. It didn’t respond to her touch at all.
     Time for more vandalism then. She put the muzzle of her laser against it and pulled the trigger.
     The beam bored through the plastic screen. The gel inside burst outward like popping corn, then ablated away to nasty, yellow smoke. Gina didn’t have Rat’s experience or delicate touch, so she had to dig around, turning the beam this way and that to find the lock’s electronic heart. Eventually it made a loud clunk and opened access to the emergency mechanism. A wheel and a ratchet. High-tech stuff.
     Hawthorn took the wheel and wrestled it to the unlocked position, then worked the ratchet until sweat dripped from his eyebrows, opening the hatch a few millimetres with each stroke. The Major’s eyebrows raised when he realised just how thick the steel was. It looked like it could withstand repeated atom bombs.
     “Where does this go?”
     She answered his question with a devious smile. “Engine room.”
     “Like it. I’ll follow you.”
     She swung her legs over the edge, let herself slide down the curving shaft. The walls closed in even tighter, so she tied her bag to her ankle and crawled on. The exit wasn’t far.
     Suddenly, a string of explosions echoed from behind her like a pack of firecrackers going off. Gunfire. Several short bursts, interspersed with more mad ratcheting. She had to clamp her hands over her aching ears to protect them as she kneed and elbowed her way to the last hatch. She wedged her back against the wall, wrapped her fingers around the laser’s grip, and reached out again.
     She flowed out through the walls. Sensed the shape of the tunnel, the vast space of the engine room and its spinning turbines. Sharp edges of two security robots lying in ambush. Predictable, but not the only thing Sword had planned. To her right, down the tunnel, Hawthorn shimmied his way towards her. Moving backwards, guarding their rear.
     “I don’t think our artificial friend wants us here,” he called over his shoulder. “One less robot to worry about, though.”
     “Just stay close. He’ll take pot shots at you, but he won’t risk me getting hurt by a stray bullet.”
     “Are you sure you wanna second-guess an AI?”
     “I’m not. I’m second-guessing Gabriel, and I know exactly what goes on in his head.”
     The laser lashed out again, drilling into the controls. The weight of it felt reassuring in her hand, the way her Mk5 used to. Only this time she had a lot more power to work with. Little wisps of steam began to rise as she held down the trigger. The cooling fins on the laser’s side glowed a faint red. Even the grip was getting uncomfortably hot.
     Swearing, she finally had to let go. She tossed the gun from hand to hand until it cooled down enough to hold again, blew on her singed knuckles, and went to work on the burnt controls with her boot heel. They gave out after a few solid kicks, unlocking another wheel and ratchet.
     Glancing at Hawthorn, she said, “Give me a grenade. You brought grenades, right?”
     “Silly question.” He pulled two of the little black spheres from the carabiner on his belt. They had blue streaks down the side, and a big red button under a clear flip-top cover. “Variable fuse EMP, should fry everything in the room. The timer is however long you hold down the button.”
     “Got it.”
     As soon as the Major started ratcheting, she forced the grenades through the gap, throwing them in amongst the rapidly-retreating bots. They couldn’t get away fast enough. A brief thump, a crackle like arcing electricity, and a metal crash as eight pairs of spidery legs failed at once. Gina glanced through the gap and found one still active, but unable to lift itself off the catwalk floor. It couldn’t turn its guns to fire at anybody. She helped to crank the hatch the rest of the way and slipped through.
     The engine room was a long, wide space crammed in underneath the habitable sections. An oblong bowl shape full of spinning turbines, drive-shafts and other oily mechanical bits. Metal catwalks ran between them to give access to all the machinery. Most of the electronic controls lay in ruins from the EMP blast, bits of burnt wire and melted circuit boards leaking out between the seams.
     Hawthorn jumped out of the duct and stopped to sniff the air. “Smells like burnt plastic, smoke, and knockout gas. I’d put a mask on.”
     Gina quickly dug around in her bag for a breath protector and goggles. They fit awkwardly over her holomask, pressing the needles harder into her skin, but there wasn’t time to take it off. The Major had already done the same.
     “Alright, so you’ve seen through most of the simple tricks,” Sword’s voice flowed out of the intercom speakers. “Let me just point out one thing. Even if you manage to disable the engines, this isn’t an aeroplane. You’ll still be stuck in the middle of the sky. You could technically pop the balloon . . . But then we’d be coming down a little bit faster than you’d like. Your options are surrender or suicide.”
     Smiling, Gina took two more of the little grenades from Hawthorn’s belt. These were a little different, with red and yellow streaks all over them. It didn’t take a genius to guess what they would do.
     “Surrender isn’t an option,” she said. “Not ever.”
     She flipped open the covers, pressed the buttons, and threw them both into the primary turbine.

***

     A sharp, awful rattle assaulted Gina’s ears as the grenades were sucked inside. Rapidly-spinning blades ripped themselves to bits against the hard outer shell. Then the fuses lit off, and the turbine interior changed into hot shrapnel.
     She’d already hit the deck, and Hawthorn joined her just in time. The turbine housing bulged outward from the expanding force inside, then burst into a million pieces. Sharp metal scattered in every direction, ricocheted off the walls and tumbled madly through the air. The floor heaved, a tremor rolling through the whole ship, and Gina took delight in it. She did this. It gave her a rush of power and control, changing the world around her on a whim.      “That was not the plan I would’ve gone with,” said Hawthorn, picking himself up. “Now we can’t use the engines for a controlled descent.”
     “I’ll figure something out. At least this way he can’t take us out of Laputa. There’s a lot of things I’d rather do than go swimming in the West Pacific.” She paused and glanced through the cracked glass of the control room. “There should be a switch for balloon pressure around here, right?”
     “Not one that works, now. Even if it did, that damn AI would have its bits all over it. But we might be able to reach the manual valves from here.”
     He picked his way across the buckling catwalk, avoided all the sharp chunks of turbine blade sticking out or littering the floor, and waved Gina to follow him around the corner. A narrow hatch was hidden there between some storage containers. With the power out, the manual controls didn’t need any persuasion. They opened automatically.
     He gave Gina an impatient look as she tiptoed through the debris. “Come on! This leads to the balloon supports. We can open up the gas pumps and let some air in.”
     Again, Sword’s voice flowed from a distant speaker somewhere, a hollow sound trapped between plastic walls. “Not to try and dissuade you,” it said dryly, “but if you improperly deflate the balloon, everyone aboard will die. Not just yourselves. The innocent staff, and probably a number of civilians on the ground. Thought you might be interested.”
     “Too bad,” said Gina. She followed Hawthorn up the long ladder and came out into the balloon substructure. Looking around with a sense of wonder.
     It was like being in the rafters of some futuristic cathedral.
     The space was at least two stories high, slightly bigger around than the gondola, supported by beams and arches of nanotube-reinforced aluminium. Colourful pipework and electrical wires followed the contours of the ceiling. A few of the lines merged into the balloon’s gas compartments, but Gina couldn’t begin to guess where some of the others went.
     Hawthorn looked around for the controls, and pointed toward the stern. All the pipes came together in a forest of valves and motors. He was there before Gina even reached the top of the ladder. “Bingo! Just have to figure out which one is the–“
     The rush of feeling was immediate, intense. Six lines of heat and pain pierced her chest. Then it all vanished into numbness, shock, gonging through her. Fingers instinctively went to touch the bullet holes, to keep in the warm red blood. Or rather, the places where the holes should be. She hadn’t been shot.
     “Hawk,” she whispered. Then, as a wave of panic restarted her heart, “Hawk!”
     She practically vaulted onto the deck, scrambled towards the prone body of Major Hawthorn. Blood pooling beneath him. A security droid appeared from its ambush spot next to the manual controls, crawling out to finish the job. Barrels tracking while it emerged from the pipework.
     Gina’s laser caught it just below the camera cluster. Black smoke billowed everywhere the beam touched. The robot jerked back, but there was no room for it to dodge; she ran straight at it, scorching black furrows in its armour. Backing it into a corner. Then, suddenly, its weapon arm twitched and snapped two taser prongs into place under the barrel. Gina’s eyes went wide. She dropped just in time to watch thousands of volts of electricity arc through the air above her.
     She took aim again, but too late. The droid bunched its spidery legs under its body and jumped up onto the ceiling, dangling like a bug, and skittered away through the supports. Gina screamed in frustration and held the trigger down. Sweeping the beam across the underside of the balloon until the whole space was dark with smoke.
     Finally she threw the useless, overheating thing down and rushed to Hawthorn’s side. His eyes were open but glazed over, breath coming in shallow gasps. Gina bit her lip. Her hands hovered over the holes in his chest, but she didn’t even know where to begin.
     “Hang in there, you bastard,” she hissed. “Don’t you dare die on me now!”
     “Can’t tell me . . . what to do,” he coughed. A bloodstained grin on his face. “Not–Not in the chain of command.”
     He managed to raise one arm, indicating the rightmost valve on the control panel. She grabbed his trembling hand and shook her head in violent denial. “No! I’m in charge here. Bomber would never forgive me if I didn’t bring you back.”
     “I believe this is where I come in,” echoed Sword. Warbling from a little speaker on the damaged security droid. “We have an infirmary on board. Controlled properly, the autodoc could save the good Major’s life. But only if you leave that pressure valve well enough alone.”
     The tiny lifeline made Gina’s heart skip and her mind race. Doubt and fear sat like a lump of ice in her chest. “Why the fuck would I trust you?” she demanded, looking over her shoulder.
     “Because otherwise the world will have to do without Andrew Horatio Hawthorn, Major, Geneva cell of the United States Armed Resistance. My orders are to keep you here. If that requires fixing him up, so be it.”
     She looked down at the expiring spark in front of her. Black, soft death slowly smoothing out its ripples in the firmament. Biting her lip, she made her decision.

***

     “You’d better fucking appreciate this, Hawk,” said Gina as she manhandled the Major onto an operating table. He convulsed, coughing up blood, and it took all her remaining strength to strap his limbs down one at a time. Sweat dripped from her forehead. Her clothes clung to her skin but she barely even felt them.
     The infirmary was a mass of shiny, padded plastic. Pastel walls, blue ceiling, white everything else. There wasn’t a sharp corner or hard edge in sight except for the tightly-folded metal flower suspended from the ceiling.
     Gina had never seen an autodoc like this before. It looked only half-finished, as if someone built it in a garden shed, rough and unpainted. Many of its robotic arms ended in weird tools that no hospital should ever need. All of them showed signs of frequent use.
     She ran her fingers through her hair and whispered, “What on Earth does he do in here?”
     “Research,” Sword answered curtly. “Illegal nanotech is a cutting-edge business, you know. Stand back.”
     A pithy reply died on her lips. She moved away from the table and watched the evil-looking thing descend on Hawthorn’s body. It took her a while to realise she was covered up to her elbows in blood. Smears of it on her face, in her hair. Dull surprise throbbed behind her eyes as she held up red-stained fingers. Waggled and studied them.
     Flashback of being pressed into service as Bomber’s triage nurse, working in a detached haze to patch a single bullet hole. The same feeling of warm, sticky ooze drying on her fingers.
     She swallowed, queasy and uncomfortable, and tried to shift her attention back to Hawthorn. Bad idea. His chest had been folded open like a blooming pink flower, poked and prodded by several of the delicate arms. They injected gobs of silvery paste deep into each bullet track. Millions of crawling nanorobots, moving with a mind of their own, knitting things back together at the smallest scale. When Hawthorn spat up another mouthful of blood, it was flecked with tiny metal dots.
     “Are– Are those Hephaestus?” Gina asked. Not sure she wanted to know the answer.
     “One of many derivative designs. We don’t have a working original. That, you might say, is what the problem has been all along.”
     Gina couldn’t feel any more shock than she was already under. She took a few trembling steps to the sink in the corner and tidied herself a little. Red water rushing down the shiny white drain. Doing her very best not to hear the soft, wet sounds behind her.
     “So that’s why you were after Colonel Obrin?” she ventured. “He was convinced you had them, so you’re shit out of luck there. Got to love the irony.”
     “That wasn’t the goal. We were never expecting to find the originals. However, somewhere in the good Colonel’s head is every blueprint, every project meeting, every internal memo. Things which can’t be learned from a few dead shells. He’s well-trained, but he can’t keep secrets forever.”
     “Why?”
     “I . . .” The AI actually paused. “I’ve spent a lot of spare cycles on that question.”
     “Don’t tell me Gabriel never let you in on it.”
     “He’s used to keeping secrets from everybody. He is very good at it.” The robotic arms folded Hawthorn’s chest shut and sprayed a thick layer of skin-bond over the incisions. “There, stable enough for purpose. Just add rest.”
     To the naked eye, there was no sign that Hawthorn had just undergone major surgery. Gina looked at him resting peacefully minus shirt and jacket. An impulse to touch welled up inside her. Gingerly, she put her fingertips against his wrist. His skin was warm, and she could feel the faint throb of a heartbeat underneath.
     “When will he wake up?”
     “A few hours after I stop giving him sedatives. He has several implants that will help to speed up recovery. I wouldn’t try moving him, though. The nano-sutures could rip if his organs start shifting.”
     “Subtle. I get it, you know. I can’t exactly carry his carcass out of here by myself.” Gina grabbed a stool to sit by Hawthorn’s side. “Don’t suppose you’ve got a deck of cards anywhere.”
     “It’s not on the manifest.”
     “Figures. Some peace and quiet will do.”
     She took Hawthorn’s hand and settled in to wait. Sighing. For the moment she was out of ideas, tired of running and fighting. Besides, her plans had a habit of not working out.
     She thought about Gabriel, the amount of trouble he went to just to keep her away, after spending so long trying to catch her. The irony almost made her laugh. She could tell he hadn’t reached his goal yet, but by the time she managed to escape, it’d be too late.
     Unless . . .

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