Everybody tried to keep up the illusion of a pleasant chat. They studiously ignored the camouflaged soldiers in the background, so casually unobtrusive that you couldn’t help but notice them in the corners.
     Gina knew where they were, now that she was paying attention. Her mind’s eye picked them out even when the eyeballs in her head couldn’t tell them from the furniture. She could probably disable most of them if she tried.
     ‘Most’ and ‘probably’ didn’t make for great odds.
     Then she thought about the little spark growing in her belly, and wondered when she’d started to look at every situation as a fight waiting to happen.
     The King of Laputa took his time explaining the financial cost of a high-altitude VTOL, the difficulty in finding an insurance company for military hardware and the size of their premiums. Writing one off was an expensive affair. Hawthorn offered to raise the money, somehow, from somewhere. The King shook his head.
     “I would like you to perform a service for me,” he said. “My sources tell me that you’re uniquely qualified for this job. Upon completion, all debts are forgiven, and I’ll transport you to a destination of your choosing, anywhere in the world. I don’t care where you go. As long as you get the Hell out of my territory.”
     “Your ‘sources?'” Gina crossed her arms where she stood, leaning against the fake fireplace. She had declined his generous offer to sit. She was still fuming over the armed goons in her room, and tried to get her own back by way of sheer bloody-mindedness. It didn’t piss him off as much as she wanted it to. “The only people who think they know about me are pretty unreliable.”
     “Oh, I believe you know the people to whom I’m referring, Miss Hart.”
     “I do. I stand by what I said.”
     “Harsh, but probably fair,” the King murmured. “I’ll be honest. I don’t pretend to understand what makes you special among telepaths, but from what happened earlier today, I am convinced that you are unique in your field. That’s the kind of person I need. Someone who can spot threats before they go from thought to action.” His eyes searched her for a reaction, gave her time to ask questions, but she stayed silent. Shrugging, he went on, “I want you to attend a political meeting on my behalf. A classic reader job, with your own unique twist. Keep an eye on everyone, let me know what you find, and if anything happens that isn’t above the board . . . intervene.”
     Major Hawthorn piped out, “You’re expecting trouble?”
     “I learned a long time ago that it pays to be prepared.”
     “That’s not an answer,” Gina pointed out, “and I don’t have time to waste playing wet nurse. There’s a Street full of people who would be more than happy to take the job. We’re already booked on the next flight out.”
     “I’m the King of Laputa, sweetheart. You’re not booked on anything unless I say so.” His words rang sharp, rash, and he quickly regretted them. He clasped his hands together in apology. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be discourteous. If there’s anything you want that I can provide as payment, tell me, but unfortunately I can’t take no for an answer.”
     This time, Gina swallowed her temper. He did exude a certain charm that was hard to resist. She turned away from the fireplace, let her arms relax, and took several deliberate steps towards him. She saw his gaze drop to admire the sway of her hips. “I’m no hacker,” she said, towering over him. If he stood up, she’d still overtop him by a couple of inches. “I don’t know the first thing about Laputan politics.”
     “You don’t have to. You’ll–“
     “I’m also not a mercenary,” she interrupted. “I don’t hire myself out as a weapon. If I accept your . . . offer,” she stressed the word almost to breaking point, “it will be under the stipulation that I refuse to engage in violence. Physical or otherwise. If it’s gunplay you want, talk to the Major.”
     The King glanced at the ceiling and steepled his fingers thoughtfully. “Major Hawthorn has already agreed to contract as a security consultant on this operation. As for your terms . . . Very well. I accept.”
     That caught Gina off guard. Putting her hands out, she hurried, “Hold on, I didn’t actually make–“
     “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you,” said the King. He rose with a rustle of leather and velvet. “I look forward to seeing you both aboard my ship. A helicopter will be sent here at three o’clock sharp. I’m sure you won’t keep me waiting.”
     She was powerless to protest as he bowed and took his leave. She stood and watched open-mouthed. When the door finally closed on the last of his bodyguards, she swore. A soft, matter-of-fact kind of oath, more disbelief than anger.
     Being a telepath didn’t seem to stop her from getting conned.

***

     “Let’s just get through this,” said Gina. “The sooner we’re done here, the sooner we can catch up with Bomber and Gabriel.”
     She disembarked from the helicopter with aristocratic grace, steadying herself against the stiff high-altitude winds. Hawthorn followed after. He looked like a bad secret agent in his combination of suit, sunglasses and earpiece radio. Still, he seemed happy. They both took a minute to look back and appreciate the view from Cloud City’s landing pad. It was a clear day, the sun orange and gold. If she squinted Gina could see the shores of China in the distance. The beaches were much prettier from far away.
     Bit by bit, her eye was drawn away from that natural beauty by the scene’s mechanical grandeur. The ship’s proportions really did boggle the mind. All of her senses worked over-time to process the experience of being there. The air was crisp, thin, and smelled of ozone. The brilliant white balloon glittered so brightly it made her eyes water. Breezes assaulted her from several directions at once.
     It was like standing on an aircraft carrier suspended thousands of metres up in the sky.
     A man from the King’s staff waited to greet them. He escorted them through the airlock, onto the network of bridges and catwalks that were the only way of getting around Cloud City. The inverted domes which made up the ship’s ‘gondola’ took Gina’s breath away. They measured hundreds of metres to a side, floored in glass to give a constant view of Laputa bustling below your feet. It was a long way down. Long enough to make Gina sweat, and she wasn’t even afraid of heights.
     “I heard about this once,” Hawthorn piped up. “Impressive bit of engineering. I hope nobody ever tries to shoot it down, or we could call it the Hindenburg Two.”
     “The what?”
     “Never mind.”
     The medieval tower in the middle of the city only added to its surreality. Gina stopped to marvel at it. She didn’t know much about architecture, but anyone could see and appreciate the obsessive attention to detail. If not for its strange shape, growing larger the higher it went, it could’ve fooled a trained historian.
     The heavy stone gatehouse gave way to a courtyard with stables, holographic soldiers and fake blue sky. It didn’t take much imagination to convince herself she’d travelled back in time. The biggest shock, though, were the faces waiting for her. Rat and Jock stood at the far end, in front of a big central doorway, holding hands.
     It took a moment to get her numb legs moving again. Her feet seemed rooted to the ground. Then, hesitantly, she approached. Awkwardness filled the air between them.
     “Hi,” she said. It was the only thing she could think of.
     Jock cleared his throat, struggling to look her in the eye. “Gina, we . . . We owe you an apology. Simon, too.”
     A sudden wave of resentment bubbled up inside her. She pressed her lips together in a tight line. “Little late for that, don’t you think?”
     “Yeah. I don’t expect to mend any fences. I just want you to know I’m sorry.”
     “Tell it to someone who can’t read your mind.”
     Gina glanced down at Rat. Fresh anger threatened to lash out, but she held back, let it melt away. She could forgive the girl for a lot, unlike Jock. He was old enough to know better.
     “You, miss, need a swift kick in the ass,” she said. “But I remember doing a lot of stupid stuff at your age. Just keep in mind, when you make a decision, you’ve got to live with it. It could have consequences for the rest of your life. Understand?”
     Rat nodded slowly, fists clenched tight. Moisture glimmered at the corners of her eyes. Gina sighed and threw both arms around her. Thin, olive-tinted hands curled into Gina’s jacket and clutched at her.
     “I missed you,” the girl whispered.
     “I know.”
     Eventually Gina disentangled herself and fixed her death-stare on Jock again. “If we can dispense with the limp-wristed apologies, I’m guessing you were sent to manage me. Where will you be wanting my extorted services?”
     He winced as if she’d slapped him. His thoughts and emotions were all awhirl, wanting to explain or redirect her ire somehow, but he couldn’t think of anything that would work. Instead he decided to get angry at her for refusing to accept his magnanimous gesture. He didn’t dare to voice it out loud, though. He avoided her eyes at all costs as if it would shield his mind from her.
     “The meeting will happen here in the courtyard. Us here, them there, meet in the middle.” He indicated everyone’s positions with vague waves of his hand. His attention wasn’t really on the job. He blurted out, “Look, Gina, we need your help to make sure everything goes peacefully. You have no idea how important this is, and how much bad blood there’s been. Hideo is trying to make amends. It’s in your best interests that it goes well, because you’ll have me and Alex and all of Laputa ready to help you against Gabriel.”
     “Your help tends to vanish when things start getting real,” she pointed out.
     “Not this time, okay? I swear.”
     She didn’t answer. Turning her back, she swept the courtyard with her eyes and her talent. Judging it with the instincts she’d learned from Bomber. Behind the holograms it was a simple enclosed space. Only a few doors opened onto it, and it didn’t offer much in the way of places to hide. It’d be hard for either party to plan anything underhanded here. She nodded, satisfied.
     “It’ll do.” She glanced over her shoulder at the two lovebirds. “When is this woman arriving?”
     “Ten, twenty minutes. If she comes at all.”
     “She’ll come,” said Rat.
     Gina watched Hawthorn do his own survey of the area. A Royal Guard officer stayed at his shoulder, and the two carried on an animated discussion about the best placement of each Laputan soldier at the meeting. There would only be a handful, wearing dress uniform rather than battle armour. A nice change in her opinion. She was getting really tired of faceless, fleshy robots in a hard outer shell.
     All the voices in the courtyard hushed at once. The military types automatically snapped to attention. The King of Laputa emerged from the elevator, exchanging nods with everyone. He stopped next to Gina and shook Jock’s hand.
     “A civilian helicopter just requested landing clearance,” he said. “She should be here in moments.”
     Jock smiled awkwardly. “Nervous, Hideo?”
     “Will I ever hear the end of it if I say yes?”
     They shared a laugh. Then the King stepped away, double-checking the security measures one last time, whispering into his shirt collar. After a full circuit of the courtyard he waved at everyone to take their places. He stood at the head of the formation, Jock and Rat to his right, Gina and Hawthorn to his left. The suspense mounted. Even Gina held her breath.
     A woman strode through the gates, alone, looking as if she owned the place. Her eyes were a brilliant emerald green. Her skin shone like polished bronze in the fake sunlight. She wore tight jeans and a tank top that clung to the taut, athletic lines of her body. Shouting out her femininity to the world. On the front of her t-shirt was an electronic display of the hacker rankings — a fad in the Nations, common on the streets, putting your own handle and number in the middle of your chest as a way to brag without ever opening your mouth.
     From the reactions around her, Gina gathered this was another local taboo, now thoroughly stepped on.
     “Okay, you got me here,” the woman said. “Either arrest me or convince me you have something to say.”
     Gina smiled. She liked this ‘Harmony’ chick already.

***

     Harmony Kohler claimed her place in the courtyard like a soldier planting her flag in the middle of a battlefield. Here was someone determined to make a stand. She went to each of the assembled faces in turn, daring them to tell her she didn’t belong.
     To Gina’s surprise, Jock was the first to approach. He held out his hand with more dignity than she would have believed possible. “Miss Kohler. I know we haven’t really met, but–“
     “Jock Reynolds. I know exactly who you are. At least, I thought I did.” Harmony took the offered palm, finding a smile from somewhere. “Every now and again, people can still surprise me.”
     He gave an awkward shrug and said, “I had someone to open my eyes for me.”
     He returned to Rat’s side and quietly linked fingers with her. The girl blushed when Harmony saw the gesture. Guilt and embarrassment were written all over her face, but at a nod from Harmony, much of it smoothed away. Understanding was more than she thought she’d get.
     “Talk about surprises,” Harmony said. “You’re sneakier than I gave you credit for, Alex. Well played. Want a job when this is all over?”
     Rat gave a big, stupid grin. “I– I’ll think about it.”
     Finally she came to Hideo. The temperature immediately dropped to freezing. Their eyes locked in a battle of wills, like the proverbial unstoppable force and immovable object. Mountains would crumble before either of them gave an inch. Like stubborn children, they refused to be the first to speak.
     Gina didn’t need to reach into Harmony’s mind to sense the bitter enmity radiating from her. The woman hated, resented, and more. Old memories of tenderness only added to her chagrin. Hideo, on the other hand, viewed her as an uncomfortable reminder of the past. An inconvenience, and — somewhere deep down — a regret. He didn’t want to be here.
     To Gina’s surprise, their friends waded in to break the tension. Jock elbowed Hideo in the ribs, and Rat squeezed Harmony’s shoulder. It reminded them of why they were here.
     “I thought you had a joke to tell me,” said Harmony. “Finish it and we can get out of here.”
     “It’s not a joke. I’m offering an alliance.” The words came hard to Hideo, but he forced them out one by one. Harmony’s eyes grew wider and wider as he went on. “The Nations are a mess. We need your help to make things right again. I’m willing . . .” he shot a sideways glance at Jock, “I’m willing to make concessions.”
     Harmony cocked her head. “Like what?”
     “This.”
     At a wave of his hand, a door opened by the side of the courtyard. A pair of orange prison jumpsuits stumbled out of it, two confused and disoriented women, blinking against the light. Rat recognised them as Karen and Lucy Hong. Harmony barely kept from launching herself at them, throttling down the happiness and excitement to maintain her posture. She practically vibrated in place. The women came to stand behind her, still blurry, looking for the safest place to be.
     Hideo continued, sounding stiff and rehearsed, “If you accept, I’ll release all prisoners and turn over the Kingship of Laputa to you. No masks, no false identities. Full equality under the law, Nations-wide. I don’t care who bitches and moans.”
     “What’s the catch?” asked Harmony, suspicious on every possible level. Everything she wanted was being offered to her on a silver platter. By her arch-enemy. The world didn’t work that way.
     “In exchange,” he said, “I want you to recognise me as leader of the collected Hacker Nations, as stipulated in the Integration Act by Parliament. I want you to place your hackers under my authority–” He stopped himself and clenched his jaw. “I mean, under Jock’s authority, for at least one large-scale job. Maybe more, in the interests of National security.”
     The courtyard went quiet. Gina could see Harmony’s mind working overtime. The idea of placing herself under Hideo, offensive as it was, fell to the wayside as her attention gravitated to the other part of his speech. Her eyes shifted from Hideo to Jock and back again.
     “How large-scale?”
     Preening, Jock took a step forward and popped his collar. Douchebag. He never noticed Gina’s eyes roll, prattling on, “The biggest hack ever attempted. We want you to be a part of it.”
     To a hacker, the challenge was all but irresistible. It appealed to something primal, the kind of urge that made bulls charge headlong at a dangling cape, and pushed athletes beyond the limits of what anyone thought was possible. It was a force of nature.
     “I’ll listen,” Harmony said at length, “but I’m not making any promises. Got it?”
     With a wave of his arm, Hideo cleared a path to the big elevator. It didn’t look as inviting as he thought. He picked a skeleton crew to join him; Gina, Hawthorn, Jock, Rat, and Harmony. Together they rode up to the throne room.

***

     It was a silent trip. Everyone worked hard to look cool and relaxed. Maybe they managed to convince each other, but not the telepath in the corner, seeing through them like glass. ‘High alert’ didn’t go far enough. Gina had been in gun battles less tense than this.
     The elevator slid to a halt. Doors opened, and the group filed out into the throne room.
     It was done up to its full magnitude for the occasion. Elegant ruins baked in the fake sun, fake European fields stretching away to a fake horizon. Plants swayed in the wind, a breeze made real by hidden fans behind the hologram. Simulators piped flowers and fresh green smells into the air. It was as close to perfect as technology could get. If Gina didn’t keep reminding herself, she’d start believing in it.
     It made her want to kick off her shoes and run away into the grass.
     “Nice to see all those tax creds went to a good place,” said Harmony. She went to the big table and straddled a chair, crossing her arms over its back. “If this is how you’re planning to make amends for the last four years, you’re not doing a very good job.”
     Somehow, Jock found his balls before Hideo could get angry. He said, “You can either walk out of this meeting in charge of your own country, or with nothing but the clothes on your back. We’re not gonna force you to cooperate.”
     She flashed him a toothy smile. “Forgive me for not immediately buying into all your good intentions.” Then a tiny shrug, rolling one shoulder. “Like I said. Convince me.”
     “That will be up to Jock,” said Hideo. “All of this was his idea. Him and Alex.”
     “That’s a start.” Her smile turned on Hideo. “You’re saying you don’t want to move on to bigger and better things, becoming some kind of god-emperor and leaving Laputa to me as table scraps?”
     Jock coughed and stepped in again. “The Integration Act guarantees full autonomy of all member states. Think of it like NATO way back when, independent countries contributing to a shared military. It’s not a bad idea.” An expansive wave of his hand brought a holo-presentation flickering to life above the table. It showed the globe with all the Hacker Nations highlighted. In a few brief seconds, the Federation crushed each of the pulsing blue countries, one by one. “Before you dismiss it as baseless paranoia, I want to remind you of everything that’s happened over the past couple of months. Europe was knocked out for weeks, and most of the world thinks we’re responsible. The Fifteen are either dead, in intensive care, or scared shitless. Let’s not even mention Ireland. The Nations have never been weaker or more divided. We must hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.
     Harmony gave a reluctant nod. “Okay. I follow. What do you expect me to do about it?”
     “We know you have connections,” Hideo chimed in. “You’re also harbouring what’s left of Banshee’s people. If we put up a united front, bring out a message of reconciliation, others will fall into line.”
     Jock continued his speech, “After the handover, you would serve out the remainder of Hideo’s term, and be able to stand for re-election under the new equality law.”
     She was listening right up to that last part. Her expression soured in an instant. “I see. So the good old boys can vote me right out again.”
     “That’s up to you, Razorblade,” Hideo murmured, crossing his arms and radiating challenge. “Afraid you won’t do as well as you used to?”
     “Oh, I’ll do well enough to wipe the floor with you.” She stared daggers at him. “Get to the point, Reynolds. What is it you want from me?”
     “First, I have to stress that we’re not planning a direct attack on the Federation. There’s a lot of words for that, and ‘suicide’ is at the top of the list. Instead we’re going to secure a deterrent for our exclusive use.” Another gesture, and the hologram changed to show the nanovirus, software on the left, hardware on the right. Harmony’s eyes widened a fraction. “I think you already know about this. To put it simply, it’s the most advanced, widespread and tenacious virus ever conceived. Thanks to Hideo, we have a chance to take it away from the guy who created it. A man called Lowell.”
     Hideo stepped in to deliver his part. “I can count on one hand the number of people in this world who have a personal pet AI. This fellow, Gabriel, does. A nanorobotics tycoon with a personal agenda. The virus gives him the ability to shut down global communications for weeks, if not months, at untold cost to the Nations. However, we have a plan. Phase one: kill the AI.”
     That got Harmony’s interest back. She leaned forward, curious and expectant. “That’s . . . pretty big. I’m sorry I doubted you, Jock.” She scratched her chin in deep thought. “Kill an AI. Has that ever been done?”
     “Not that I know of. There’s never been a need.”
     “Interesting. Alright, go on.”
     The display changed to show the intense spider-web of interconnected systems across the globe. Then it filtered down to just the Hacker Nations. The number of connections was still mind-boggling, so many that the image couldn’t show them all. The largest concentrations melded together into thick braided ropes. “The second phase is inoculation. We can’t fight this virus the traditional way, or we’d be working till Judgment Day. We’ve got to hit it in the hardware. Once the AI is out of commission, we’re going to hijack two of Lowell’s nano-factories in the City. Thanks to Major Hawthorn,” he gave the Major a respectful nod, “we have blueprints for Gabriel’s nanorobot design. We’re going to manufacture new ones to hunt down and disable the virus at its source.”
     Hawthorn spoke up for the first time. “Will that work?”
     “Yes,” said Jock, “if we have enough hackers standing by. There should be enough materials on-site to cover the Nations and then some. Once we’ve knocked out the hardware vector, someone will have to manually clear the software agent from each infected machine. It’s quick and clever. Our automated scanners can’t catch it, and we don’t have time to code one that can. That’s why we need all hands on deck.” He threw significant glances at Hideo and Harmony. “Our combined manpower won’t be enough. To pull it off properly, we’re going to need every hacker fit to hold a keyboard.”
     “I don’t know about ‘hackers,'” Harmony said, “but I know some girls who’d be up to it.”
     “Everybody’s a hacker today.” Putting on a smile that was almost natural, Hideo held out his hand. “Are you in?”
     She reached out, hesitated for a second, and finally grasped Hideo’s palm. “Queen of Laputa,” she murmured. “It’ll be nice to make it official.”

***

     The finer points of negotiation took a while, but Gina suffered through it, doing her job. The sheer routine of it was kind-of comforting. It had been a while since things were this simple. Read people, log their thoughts and emotions, and prepare a report for later. She could almost do it in her sleep.
     When Harmony finally left the throne room, accompanied by Rat and Jock, she felt the mood shift. Hopeful talks were put away for military realities. Hideo Kagehisa, ex-King of Laputa, shrugged out of his masterfully-tailored blazer and hung it over the back of his throne. He punched some numbers into his PDA, pausing only to speak.
     “Reports,” he said. “Major, you first. Please.”
     Hawthorn cleared his throat. “I’m not sure what to tell you, Sir. The security situations we anticipated simply did not arise. First off, she came alone. That was unexpected. Maybe she was afraid for her people, or more confident of her ability to extract herself from a double-cross if she were alone. Either way, don’t mistake it for a sign that she trusts you.” He fell silent for a moment. Then, “Your friends seem quite chummy with her.”
     “Are you implying something, Major?”
     “As long as they have your confidence, I suppose not.”
     “Mm.” He turned away and put his considerable charm back to work. A smile and an expression of respectful attention, leaning his elbows on the table. “Miss Hart?”
     Gina looked up, distracted, and recovered by simply reading what he wanted from her. Just some words, nothing which required her full attention to vocalise. She started to speak from a small part of her brain while the rest returned to her original thought.
     It was a bit on the maudlin side. She couldn’t stop herself from dwelling on Bomber, worrying. If there were anybody in this world who could take care of himself, it was Bomber, but there was no telling how his vulnerable emotional state had affected him. The shock had upset his entire world. Even he didn’t just bounce back from that.
     Either way, the big lummox had better turn up soon, or she’d be very angry with him.
     “–a guarded mind,” she heard herself say. “I don’t know if she’s had avoidance training, but if not, she’s a natural. Keeps her cards close to her chest. She’s been sincere about everything said during the meeting, but that doesn’t mean she’ll play nice where you can’t see her.”
     The words didn’t go down well. Hideo looked back up, his unhappiness hidden behind a mask of casual ease. He was after something more concrete. “You can do better than that, Miss Hart. What do you think? Based on your exploration of her head, can she be counted on to keep her end of the bargain? You are, after all, my expert on human nature.”
     Frowning, Gina crossed her arms. It seemed he was determined to be one of those customers. The kind who demanded hard specifics and personal opinion in the same breath. Gina hated to be put on the spot. People were people, would always be people — soft, fleshy representatives of the chaos theory.
     She thought about what to say for a long time. His eyes never left her, but she stared back without flinching. The more powerful she became, the less patience she had for games. Being rushed most of all.
     “Yes,” she said finally. “She wants what you’re offering. She hates you on every possible level, but I think she knows this is her best chance. Try not to lord it over her. Go through her friends, and appeal to her patriotism. She has a problem with authority, but then, I think everybody here does.”
     “She didn’t . . .” He trailed off. The half-formed question and the half-formed thought were silenced before Gina could puzzle out their meaning. “Never mind. Thank you.”
     Gina tilted her head to the side. “I’ve got a question.” He quirked an eyebrow, and she went for it. “From what I understand, you’ve known this woman for years. Why am I here?”
     “If I understood Harmony Kohler, Miss Hart, I wouldn’t need your advice.” For a few distracted moments, the perfect politician’s mask slipped, turning him ten years older. Then he pushed to his feet and marshaled himself. “I’ll have a helicopter return you to your hotel. After tomorrow’s meeting, you’re free to go. My personal jet will take you wherever you’re going.”
     The words on the tip of Gina’s tongue were, Tomorrow’s meeting? She felt her blood wanting to boil, eager to make a scene, outraged and indignant. She knew it wouldn’t work. Hawthorn was making the same calculation. They shared a look, and shrugged at each other. His Majesty had them over a barrel. No choice but to suffer through it.
     The King dismissed them with a wave of his hand. Gina looked back once, in the door of the elevator.
     If she didn’t know any better, she’d say that he was annoyed at the way things had gone.

***

     Rather than go where she was told, Gina determined to find Rat again. She’d been getting flashes from the girl’s head for so long, it only seemed right to sit down and have a talk. There were things she needed to get off her chest. Most of all, she really wanted to talk woman-to-woman, even if her confidante was someone who didn’t know anything about anything. Gina had been cooped up with a crowd of boys for far too long.
     She reached out, spreading her wings through the castle and into Cloud City. It took her only a few seconds to find the intensely familiar, jagged-edge ripple of Rat’s personality. Young, sharp thoughts that burst out rapid-fire. Next to her was Jock, fretful and unsure. It seemed like he dropped most of the cocky, bombastic bullshit in his girlfriend’s company.
     Gina set off through the castle’s sweeping corridors, got lost a couple of times, backtracked and eventually reached the right hallway. She knocked. There was a sudden stab of panic and frustration from the room, the feel of bodies disentangling. The door cracked open an inch. The smell of sex was unmistakable.
     “What?” asked Jock’s voice.
     “Get dressed and leave,” she said, pushing him out of the way. He cried out in indignation and tried to cover his nakedness with a couch cushion. Gina ignored everything he said while she searched for something to drink. The little fridge offered up a couple of beers.
     Turning to Jock, who hopped furiously into his trousers, she added, “Christ, you’re still here? Vanish, David.”
     He slunk off like a beaten dog. Gina made herself comfortable on the couch while she waited for Rat to appear. It only took a moment before she was faced with a storm of black underwear and olive skin.
     “You knew!” Rat roared. “Don’t tell me you stopped being a telepath in the last five minutes.”
     “I’m sorry to interrupt your fun. This won’t wait.” Gina sounded tired, even to herself. The anger and attitude drained out of Rat, and she accepted the other beer, finding an empty spot on the couch. Awkward glances were exchanged. “I need to tell you about a lot of things that happened.”
     “I guess I do too,” said Rat, which made Gina giggle.
     “You really don’t.”
     “Huh?”
     Gina bit her lip. She’d meant to explain her visions, to admit she’d had a front row seat to Rat’s life for the last few months, but now that she was here she couldn’t find the words to express anything. How could she give names to things she didn’t understand herself? And, looking into those dark, inquisitive eyes, she didn’t think Rat wanted to hear it. Maybe ignorance was bliss in a situation like this.
     No, said her conscience. Not good enough. She had to own up, come clean, and start fresh. Somehow.
     She should have phrased it delicately. Something like, It’s a deep connection with the people closest to me, the minds I’ve touched the most. Gabriel might fall into that category too, but I can’t get into his head uninvited. What she actually said was, “I’m pregnant.”
     Rat stared at her, dumbstruck. A question was forming behind those eyes. Gina headed her off. “It was Gabriel. Don’t say anything.”
     Ignoring that last part, Rat sputtered, “You– With him?”
     Gina knew exactly what the girl was thinking. She bristled. “This isn’t some holovid with good guys and bad guys, Lex. We’re not here to battle ultimate evil and save the world. Gabriel’s a man. It doesn’t matter if he’s got freaky mental powers, I don’t care. He’s a human being like the rest of us. He’s . . . confused. Looking for himself.”
     “Most people who go on epic journeys of self-discovery don’t leave a trail of dead bodies behind them,” Rat pointed out. “What in God’s name were you thinking?”
     “Look, it just happened, okay? It wasn’t something I had a lot of control over. Besides, it’s not like you can hold the high ground, the way you and Jock got started.”
     Rat scowled. She didn’t think the two situations had anything in common, but she couldn’t be bothered to argue the point. “Alright. Fine. So tell me, if you two are all chummy now, why are you helping us to sabotage him?”
     “Because,” Gina began, and trailed off. The answer used to be on the tip of her tongue, but not anymore. The chase was over; she’d won, proven herself too tough to be charmed or kept in a cage, so he stopped trying. Now it was a game of keep-away. He obviously thought she could threaten his plans.
     Sooner or later, though, there had to be an endgame. The story would come to its inevitable conclusion, and she didn’t like what he seemed to have in mind for it.
     Every now and again, she could imagine how Gabriel’s apocalypse would look. Machines no longer talked. Every VR rig, every entertainment centre, every hand-held gadget went dark. The power died, and the lights with it. Even the tools to fix the problem no longer worked. People huddled together or ripped each other apart in the dark.
     Heart pounding in her chest, she shook it off and caught her breath. It was a little like a telepathic vision, but fuzzy, dreamlike. Her imagination running away with her.
     She never even mentioned the most important reason to oppose Gabriel. He still had part of her tucked away inside his brain, and she wanted it back. It was too intensely personal to share with anyone.
     She looked at the untouched beer in her hands. Deciding there was no time like the present, she put the bottle to her lips and drank it all.
     Suddenly Rat looked up, a revelation shining in her mind. “He doesn’t know, does he? You haven’t told him.”
     A miserable smile touched the corners of Gina’s mouth. “You’re the first,” she admitted.
     “Christ.” Rat pinched the bridge of her nose. “Look, I spent my whole life learning about hacking and crime and how to survive on the streets. I’m no good at girl talk. Are you. . . Are you gonna keep it?”
     “I’m not sure I have a choice.” Keeping her eyes on the floor, Gina thought back to what Jupiter had showed her, the tiny spark of life in her belly. “I don’t think this is a normal kid, Lex. I’ve been doing some reading. There’s not supposed to be any measurable brain activity until about nine weeks in, but I can feel faint little thoughts and emotions there. Right now.”
     Rat looked aghast. “You mean it’s self-aware? Right now?”
     “I don’t know about self-aware. It’s like, y’know, baby thoughts. Warm. Floating. Wet. Sometimes I think she knows I’m there.”
     “She,” quoted Rat.
     “Yeah. She feels like a girl. That’s the only way I can explain it.”
     “Awesome. Nice work, Gina. Good luck with your telepathic super-baby, let me know how it works out.”
     Gina couldn’t help but laugh. “You are such a bitch.”
     “Sticks and stones, baby.”
     Giggling, they hugged each other, and that made everything all right for a while.

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