Gina hadn’t been sure about her own logic until she started to hear noise. Metallic clunks and thumping that didn’t come from the airship’s on-board equipment. They vibrated through the floor despite the soundproofing, despite the external wind barriers. She perked up immediately and began to look around.
     Even tired and dispirited, she could sense the ripples of human thought washing over her. There were people outside the airship. Military thoughts, sharp, focussed on their own senses and the objective in front of them. Chains, cables, hooked up and lashed down. A Laputan craft. She crossed to the wall and leaned in to listen more closely.
     “They’re towing us,” she whispered in wonder. “We’ve got no engines and drifted into the traffic lanes.”
     She figured somebody would show up to check out the drifting airship, but she expected a civilian tug at most. Not the Laputan Royal Guard.
     The Sword interrupted her thoughts. “What did you say?”
     “Nothing.” The lights flickered and dimmed for a few seconds, gasping for voltage. “Getting short on power?”
     “Don’t be coy. Your little stunt knocked out the primary and auxiliary turbines. You know we’ve been running on batteries ever since.”
     “My heart bleeds for you,” she murmured. “So how long have you got left? An hour? Two?”
     “I’m not housed on board. I can manage everything through a remote linkup, including the airspace around you. Once we’re out of the way of traffic, I’ll divert energy to life support and turn off everything else.”
     “Aren’t you afraid we’ll escape?”
     “No.”
     “Oh, I keep forgetting, you’re a machine. No silly human emotions like fear. Do you need me to rephrase?”
     “I understood you perfectly. As for fear, if I’m ever in a situation that warrants it, I’ll let you know.”
     Gina smiled to herself. Emotion wasn’t the only thing the AI still needed to learn. She could teach it a few things about deception, because it wasn’t exactly subtle about wanting her to stay put. There was a reason why it didn’t call a tug until it absolutely had to. It didn’t want any humans within thinking range of this little telepath.
     The troops out there had probably had avoidance training. However, she knew first-hand how much that mattered against somebody like Gabriel. Somebody like her.
     Her hand closed around the top of a fire extinguisher. Taking a deep breath, she pulled it free and pivoted on the ball of her foot. She swung the heavy aluminium canister like a club into the autodoc’s delicate, robotic body.
     Metallic limbs crunched, snapped, curled up like a dead spider. Cold blue hydraulic fluid spurted across Gina’s arms and face. She swung again, and finally hit home. The broken shell vomited red and yellow sparks as its electrics shorted out. A circuit breaker tripped with a loud thump, and the room was plunged into darkness. Emergency mechanisms unlocked the room’s hatch with a pop.
     Gina got her arms around Hawthorn’s armpits and lifted. She took a running jump into the placid pool of his mind, shouting at his brain to work, wake up, move. His eyes snapped open as a burst of adrenaline reached his heart. He came back to life screaming.
     “Time to break out, Hawk,” she hissed at him. “We may not get another chance, and I’m not spending another minute trapped on this fucking blimp!”
     Hawthorn’s convulsions stopped. He blinked. His pupils were as big as pennies, constricting again as she pulled him off the autodoc table and into the lit hallway outside. “Where– Gina? Am I dead?”
     “No, but you gave it your best shot. Just don’t make any sudden moves.” She helped him find his feet again, smashed the glass on an emergency supply key. The locked cabinet nearby offered up oxygen masks and lifejackets. One for each of them, slipping over bodies and faces. “Follow me. I’m busting us out of here.”
     Hawthorn had enough presence of mind to draw his pistol and aim it in a trembling hand. He put several holes through the security droid trying to intercept them. It sagged into a smoking heap, and Gina kicked it out of the way.
     “Busting us out how?” he asked, letting her guide his stumbling steps toward the stern. Through the bead curtains into the white room with the painfully elegant furniture, awfully similar to the infirmary they’d escaped a minute ago.
     “Just hang on.”
     There were carabiners attached to their lifejackets by little reels of safety line. Along the walls, every few metres, was an anchor hook. Gina never paid attention to airship safety lectures, but she was an avid fan of trashy action holovids, and had seen them used once. They kept people from getting sucked out during rapid decompression.
     She secured herself, then Hawthorn. Locked the reels. Closed her eyes and let her mind drift beyond her body, into the tightly-focussed planes of cognition projecting from the Laputans. They were almost flat. No unnecessary thought. They worked at the towing rig like ants, weaving a carbon fibre web between the airship and their VTOL.
     Come here, she sang to them. Everything you ever wanted is behind this wall. Nothing else matters. You’ll stop at nothing to get in here.
     They were armoured military engineers. The hull of the gondola lasted barely ten seconds, torn open by frantic metal hands.
     Gina and Hawthorn held on to each other as the air blasted out of the room. Emergency doors slammed shut. The chairs tumbled across the floor, the glass tables cracked and shattered, and soon everything was sucked out into the indigo sky. The force of it lifted Gina off her feet until the last of the internal pressure was gone.
     Past the Laputans’ metal faces was a VTOL craft, hovering on its thrusters. Running lights blinked along the black shark-like shape.
     That’s where we’re going, she said to Hawthorn, placing the words in his mind like soap bubbles. He couldn’t respond, only watch her grab their anchors and unhook them. You’re a pilot, right?
     She grinned at him behind her mask and advanced like a goddess preparing to walk on thin air.

***

     The wind was an icy whip stinging her cheeks, throwing her hair into a frenzy. Streams of red lashed out in every direction. The bitter cold made her eyes water. Closing them, she stepped out through the hole the Laputans had made for her. Commanding them with a smile. She could hear confused, frightened radio chatter through their ears, but they paid no attention to it. Their sole task in life was to carry Gina along the tow-lines to the waiting craft.
     The VTOL looked like a shipping container with the nose of a main battle tank. Grey, because nobody had bothered to paint it a more exciting colour. The sole exception was a small, white Lockheed logo emblazoned on the side. A delicate manipulator arm sat curled up under its chin. Heavy struts suspended the main fuselage between four intimidatingly-sized jet nozzles, blasting blue fire into the world.
     Waves of engine heat washed over Gina, almost hot enough to take the hair off her arms. The roar was overwhelming. She could even see other airships and hydroprop planes in the distance, little dots taking off or heading in to dock somewhere in Laputa.
     Huge, ape-like hands caught her with the utmost delicacy. The engineer suits had four of them. They shimmied foot over foot along the lines, upside-down, into the waiting airlock, unable to resist their compulsions even if they wanted to. Whatever consciousness they still had was paralysed with terror.
     A sudden alarm blared inside their helmets. Lights began to flash yellow and red. The Lockheed’s thrusters turned, propelling it away from the airship. Taking up slack in the lines until they pulled taut, squealing. The airship made its own noise of protest, a deep metal moan, and began to follow.
     Gina’s helpers simply rode the tightening lines upward. Their hands and feet glommed onto the VTOL fuselage like cybernetic suction cups. Scurrying to the exterior hatch, they put Gina down so carefully that she barely felt the deck under her wobbling feet. She steadied herself and sent them back for Hawthorn. Moving them along the web like a bunch of grotesque puppets, dancing on string.
     The Lockheed made another course correction, pouring more thrust into its engines. Everything shuddered around Gina. An unexpected roll sent her off balance, threw her in the direction of the open hatch. She flailed, reached, grabbed for anything she could. Her fingertips found a handhold at the last possible moment. Electric pain shot up and down her arm as all her weight dangled from three knuckles, halfway out of the hatch.
     She stared directly at the island of Laputa where it met the South China Sea. Very, very far below her. Even the giant towers and arcologies looked like grey specks from up here.
     Hand over hand, she pulled herself back inside. She was shaking like a leaf. Her mouth was open, probably screaming. A wild kick against the big red button labelled ‘Close’ produced the desired effect. The airlock whispered shut behind her.
     Safe, she put a hand over her heart and willed it to slow down. It took a while, but she regained her calm. Then she remembered the plan and shuffled into the troop compartment.
     The Lockheed’s guts were every bit as military as its exterior. Dark, grey, Spartan. Cold as a meat locker. The only colour came in the way of warning stickers, little blots of bright, saturated primaries. Bold letters in black and red stated that improper touching of anything came with the risks of danger, death and unemployment.
     A large aisle ran up the middle of the craft. Equipment lockers hemmed it in on either side, giving way to oversized bucket seats for the armour. They were empty except for one, cradled in the padded V-shape of a gravity harness. The reclining engineer-suit looked old, scarred by a hundred dirty jobs. It was dusty and motionless in a way that suggested nobody had worn it in a while.
     A stroke of luck. The hatch to the cockpit was unlocked. Gina moved in cautiously, since an absence of humans didn’t mean an absence of hostility.
     Two chairs stood waiting by the primitive control system — buttons, switches, sticks and throttles. It was another back-up, in case the remote mechanism went tits-up. Hackers didn’t like giving jobs to meat when machinery and radio waves would do. The only reason they used human soldiers at all was to prevent their entire military from getting hacked.
     Nothing threatening. Gina let herself relax, blew on her numb fingers, and looked out the window for Hawthorn.
     He must’ve spotted her, because he waved at her from the hole in the gondola. Pointed at the VTOL, making urgent gestures in sign language she didn’t understand. She let the Laputans go for a moment while she concentrated on his amped-up, rapid-fire thoughts. They rippled out with the speed of a machine gun. She struggled to make sense of them. Shivering, fighting the cold to keep focus.
     They’re remote-piloting the craft, she understood. It was nothing she didn’t already know. Other than that . . . Something about control. She couldn’t get a clear meaning before she had to reassert her will over the helpful engineers. Beads of sweat formed and froze on her forehead from the effort.
     It was already too late. Explosive bolts ejected the towing anchors one by one. They tumbled away from the fuselage, useless hoops of plastic with knots attached.
     Gina watched in horror as the lines went slack. The entire airship pitched like a boat on wild seas, throwing everybody overboard.
     Major Hawthorn and the engineers plummeted like sandbags. The Laputans grabbed on out of sheer instinct, swinging wildly from carbon fibre vines, still attached to the gondola on one end. They dangled underneath the airship and eventually came to rest.
     Hawthorn, on the other hand, flailed his arms but couldn’t reach the lines. Gina banged her palms against the glass as if she could catch him from here. She felt her heart sink as she watched him shrink into a dark dot against the sea below.
     He was accelerating towards planet Earth at nearly ten metres per second squared.

***

     Gina had seen this exact sequence of events before in holofeatures. Someone would fall from a great height. The hero of the piece would chase them down, assisted by a vehicle or superpower or even just pure grit and skill. They’d match speed, catch the victim, and fire up the engines. Parachutes would open. Everyone would gradually slow down to a hover, mere inches from the ground, alive and well. Cue happy ending.
     The only other outcome would be the creation of a small, bloody crater somewhere in southern Laputa.
     “Oh God,” Gina mumbled. She hadn’t had time to panic yet. She dove into the pilot’s chair, lowered the G-harness, and by then Hawthorn was already half a mile below her.
     She didn’t know much about piloting, but she knew what would happen when she cut all four throttles at once. The remote controls disengaged automatically. The background hum of the engine disappeared, and the Lockheed’s nose dipped until the sky vanished behind a rising wall of water and land. For a moment, the only sound was the rush of air sliding over the cockpit. Then a dozen different alarms filled the air. Many colours of blinking lights warned her of impending doom.
     Now Gina had time to panic, trying to figure out the controls without any training or experience. She knew in her heart of hearts that she was going to crash this thing. Still, it was pretty sturdy. She might survive.
     No. No, that was stupid. She might not have Bomber’s training, but she’d spent a lot of time in his head. Wherever she went, she carried him with her. She closed her eyes and slipped into those memories of simulators and helicopters, of knowing exactly what to do, and let her hands move like his.
     Once she got the engines angled the right way, she started to gain on the dark speck that was Hawthorn. Hurtling toward the surface at a speed that made her stomach tie itself in knots. She had to fight for every yard as the atmosphere thickened, threatening to rip the craft to shreds.
     The Lockheed was built for heavy work, fixing airships, compensating for the wind rather than slicing through it. Speed wasn’t in its job description. The vertical plunge quickly revealed some of its limitations. Nameless things began to rattle deep in its belly. A high-pitched mechanical whine rose from the big air intake under the nose. Soon the entire craft shivered, bouncing on gusts of wind like a giant pinball. It was all Gina could do to keep the nose pointed down.
     Just a little further, she thought. Stroking the flight wheel as it bucked and thrashed. A wild animal, wounded, in pain. Hang in there, baby . . .
     There was a loud, metal clunk. Another warning light, another siren. The robotic manipulator arm whipped around into the side of the cockpit, skipping off the glass like a pebble. It left a trail of visible cracks across the port canopy. Gina glanced over her shoulder. She could have watched the damage grow, ice forming on and inside the glass. Then the arm ripped out of its socket and tumbled away before her eyes. A cloud of debris followed it, into the aft air intakes.
     “Shit,” she said. “Shit!”
     The two rear engines sputtered and began to die. The cracks in the cockpit spread into an ever-larger spider web with each punishing gust. The broken canopy began to buckle inward, held together only by the layer of impact gel between panes.
     Gina growled deep inside her chest. She was almost there, could see the Major’s face, grey and wide-eyed. Those towers and arcologies which had felt so far away looked awfully, inevitably close.
     She was screaming out loud.
     “Hold together, you fucking American piece of scrap! Just a little further!”
     It wouldn’t. She could feel it, through some inherited instinct or telepathic sense, that the arm had done too much damage. A moment of paralysing indecision, followed by clarity. Bomber was a master at this action hero bullshit, and Gina had quite a lot of his knowledge at her disposal.
     As quick as she could, she pulled her G-harness off, grabbed the parachute from under the seat, shrugged into it. She floated out of the chair while buckling all the straps.
     Several things happened at the same time. Without anyone at the controls, the remote pilot mechanism turned the autopilot back on. What remained of the engines quickly realigned to stop the VTOL from crashing into inhabited land. Lastly, Gina rolled sideways and pulled the emergency ejection handle.
     The canopy blew away on explosive bolts, sucking her out into the big blue sky. The chair launched on booster rockets, and dangled from its own parachute far above her. Gina was curled up into a ball, her head spinning, but still there. Grabbing Hawthorn and hooking him to her parachute harness. Laputa so close she could almost touch it. Remembering the one time she’d gone skydiving, with Alfie, and her oath to never do it again.
     Her heart pounded, every beat throbbing behind her eyes. Finally her trembling fingers found the ripcord. She pulled. The deceleration hit all at once, so violent and abrupt it dislocated both her shoulders.
     The last thing she saw through the dark red haze was the edge of an arcology roof, and above, a trail of smoke and fire curving away to sea.

***

     Gina woke up in bed. The soft, luxurious sheets coiled around her arms and legs were monogrammed with the swooping M of the Mandarin Hotel. She didn’t know how she got back, but it seemed she was safe.
     A glance down at her body told a lot about her unconscious adventure. Stripped down to her underwear, scraped, battered and bruised to Hell. A couple of deeper cuts had been neatly bandaged. It looked bad, but she didn’t feel it. Just a dull universal ache when she tried to move anything but her head.
     She started to remember bits and pieces. Brief flashes, wind dragging her across the hard ‘crete. A knife sawing at the tangled parachute strands. Arms lifting. All disjointed, in no particular order. Her heart raced when she thought of the escape. So much stress and fear. She shut her eyes against the memories, put a hand over her breast and took deep, calming breaths.
     She swung her legs over the edge of the bed and wobbled upright. Thick red carpet tickled the soles of her feet, unused to the feeling of natural fibres against her skin. Her clothes were gone, probably ruined, but her travel bag was where she’d left it. She picked up a fresh outfit, matching boots with a blue skirt and blazer. A good, familiar fallback. They fit a little tighter than she remembered, and she stroked her belly, still unable to see herself as a mother. Sooner or later she wouldn’t be able to hide it anymore.
     Sighing, she took her make-up kit and set to work disguising the damage on her face. By the time she was done she was the very picture of perfection.
     Finally she dared to look for Bomber. She had no idea what to expect, but at least she was kind-of counting on him to still be here. She searched and called for him, but the only thing she found was a disposable razor abandoned in the waste bin. His bag was gone. He’d cleaned himself up and left.
     Biting her tongue, she stopped herself from leaping to conclusions. Maybe Bomber had a good, rational reason. She’d still be mad, but she would give him a chance to explain once she was done shouting at him.
     In the meantime she ought to check on the Major, see if they could get back in touch with Stoney, and so on. Keep herself occupied.
     She hesitated halfway to the handle. The door to Hawthorn’s suite stood open, ajar. It roused her Street-honed suspicion immediately. She took her hand away, dusted the cobwebs from her brain and reached out to survey the room.
     She sensed several people, placid yet alert. Guarding something or someone. A pair of more active minds sat together in the middle, talking at a volume so low she couldn’t hear them, and she didn’t have the focus to read the words out of their heads. One was definitely Hawthorn. The other felt unfamiliar.
     A soft, mechanical click sounded by her left ear. The cold muzzle of a gun brushed against her skin. She felt, rather than saw, the battlesuit behind its active camouflage. Barely a blur against the backdrop of clean pastels and red. What little mind Gina could feel there was twisting, squirming with telepathy avoidance techniques. Trained to the highest standards.
     “We’re not here to harm anyone,” it said in a robotic monotone. “Stick to peaceful conversation and you will be fine. Go on in. You’re expected.”
     A camouflaged goon in her room! Gina choked down her anger at the invasion of privacy. Even with all her powers, she wasn’t sure she could disable the intruder before he blew her brains out. Not in her current state.
     She summoned up all her dignity and went inside.
     Major Hawthorn sat in an expensive armchair, vat-grown leather and handcrafted stitching, next to the immense glass coffee-table. To his right was an equally sumptuous sofa containing an Asian man somewhere in his thirties. The stranger wore a semi-casual suit so black it seemed to drink in the light, more sinister than formal, immaculately tailored to his shape. The kind of suit which implied its wearer was not just your average mobster, but a wrongdoer of impeccable wealth and taste.
     Gina might’ve pegged him as Japanese, but he seemed too relaxed, legs crossed, spread out in his seat. She’d dealt with enough Yakuza to know how much they treasured the sticks up their respective arses. So, if not that, then what?
     She made a tiny bow from the waist as a greeting.
     “Major,” she said stiffly in Conglom, “are you going to introduce me?”
     The man put up his hand. “I can introduce myself. Miss Gina Hart, I presume?” He smiled. He spoke perfect, lightly-accented English. “My name is Hideo Kagehisa, known among the hacker community as Kensei. I am the King of Laputa. A pleasure.”
     Oh, fantastic, Gina sighed inwardly. “Likewise, your Majesty. What . . . What can we do for you?”
     That smile widened by the tiniest fraction, and he tilted his head to the side, like a cat who’d just caught the fattest mouse of his career.
     “Oh,” he murmured, “I’m so glad you asked . . .”

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