Bomber didn’t know much. Even his name got fuzzy at times. There was only one thought which provoked no doubt in him: He was on the hunt. If anyone had stopped to ask, he probably wouldn’t have been able to say what, or why. Luckily no one did. He just knew where he was going on a level beyond rational thought. Nothing so primitive as instinct. Nothing so unsophisticated. It was a higher state, where his existence narrowed to a pinpoint and everything else seemed unreal, out of focus, passing through him like ghosts without provoking a moment’s hesitation.
     He was thirsty, and hungry, and tired, and none of those things mattered. He was an avatar of vengeance. A machine fit for only one purpose. Once that purpose was carried out, it would be the end of all things. He’d shut down, go black, and stay that way.
     For Sweeney. For Fahlan. For Cornell. For Frost and Dietrich and Harper. For dead men, dead women, innocents and sinners. Human beings who — like Bomber — could no longer remember who they were.
     It was enough to move a man to tears, but he was a machine. He had spent a dozen years trying not to feel and he’d finally succeeded.
     Sitting on a dry, flat floor, he laid all the parts of his arms out onto a blanket and began to fit them back together with the patient precision of a watchmaker.
     “Gina,” said a voice, and the vision flew away like smoke.
     She looked around like a startled deer and realised she’d kicked herself awake. The sheets were tangled around her ankles. Muttering, she looked at the clock, and saw it was four in the morning. She’d slept for three hours. Maybe less.
     Her bare toes touched the carpet. Brushed through it on her way to the kitchen. She said, “Coffee,” and one of the machines spat out a little styrofoam cup. She picked it up, tasted it, made a face and put it back. “Jesus. Sugar.”
     The machine buzzed, stirred white powder into the inky liquid and fell silent. It left Gina alone with nothing but the faint hum of the air-conditioner.
     On the other side of her window, Laputa was a mass of activity and neon light, regardless of the time of day. A little City in itself. She looked out over a huge, shiny plaza of shops and restaurants. Many places never closed. Robot-operated franchises, catering to hackers and other types who never slept when a handful of stims would do. A careful Laputan never had to interact with another living soul if he didn’t want to. Just avatars on the ‘Net.
     The coffee nursed away some of her fuzziness and the insomniac headache. Then she looked down into the half-full cup and remembered her checklist of things a pregnant woman ought to avoid. Her medical implant would filter everything out before it reached the baby — caffeine, nicotine and alcohol were at the top of its hit-list — but you were supposed to avoid any unnecessary wear and tear.
     She took a deep sniff of aromatic steam, went back to the kitchen, and poured the rest of her cup down the drain.
     “How about some water?” she asked her belly. She drank some without waiting for an answer.
     It was so peaceful here . . . It made all her anger and regret fade into the background. For the first time in God only knew how long, she was a little bit happy. Wondering about her future. She didn’t think she was cut out to be a mother, but maybe she could give it a try.
     She sat and watched the Laputan morning come to life. The hall lights became brighter to match the sky outside. Groggy people filed out into the streets on their way to work. Weird, how something so simple could be so comforting. No matter what happened in the world, people would get up in the morning and go to work.
     Unless somebody detonated the info-bomb. She shuddered, and for a moment her artifact — the ruined city, forever burnt, sagging like half-melted tar — flashed through her mind. Would that be the result? Famine, chaos, anarchy and death on a scale she couldn’t begin to comprehend?
     The hackers might be able to clean up the mess, but not before half the world ripped itself apart.
     Maybe this delay in Laputa was for the best. Stopping the apocalypse of the twenty-first century was a cause Gina could get behind. If the plan worked. That part was all up to the hackers. She’d be fighting her own battles with Gabriel in person, halfway across the world.
     Tomorrow. An ending, at last.
     She watched the plaza for hours, until the telephone buzzed. A message giving her the time of the helicopter pick-up. She showered, dressed, made herself up, and went to the pad to wait.
     Hawthorn was there. They didn’t need words, nor even telepathy. This would be their last day in Laputa, no matter what. The unspoken agreement hung heavy in the air between them.
     The copter barely took time to land before it lifted off again. Gina strapped herself in and watched the colossal steel city recede below her.

***

     The trip into Cloud City was as dizzying as ever. Gusts of tropical wind buffeted the helicopter from all sides. A small rainstorm washed the windows, and remained a big black blanket thrown over the world when they finally rose above it.
     Arriving at the castle, a chamberlain greeted Gina and Hawthorn by name. She led them to a large central room off the main courtyard. It was a kind of medieval banquet hall, furnished with sumptuous wood, brass, and natural cloth in every colour of the rainbow. Expensive banners and tapestries almost rained from the walls. The only synthetic fibres in the room were being worn by the guests.
     Gina couldn’t begin to guess who they all were. Dignitaries from other Nations, now largely unsure of their own status and influence. A couple of familiar faces out of Banshee’s group, first glimpsed through Rat’s eyes. Even — something of a shock — Harmony’s second-in-command, Karen. The statuesque blonde cut a very different figure out of her prison jumpsuit. The formal jacket and trousers fit her well, and were only slightly too thick to be normal clothing. She was clearly in charge of Harmony’s own security detail.
     A hologram projector in the ceiling threw a huge bank of screens against the north wall, each one showing a different camera feed from somewhere in Laputa. Gina guessed its purpose without even trying. The cameras were part of Laputa’s public address system, hooked into everything from bank machines to electronic billboards. They were there to measure audience reaction.
     The room narrowed at that end, and the floor raised up a few steps to become a modest stage. It looked like something big was going to be made public, but the guests had no idea what was coming.
     “This looks awfully slick,” Gina said. “Did he throw it all together on a day’s notice?”
     Hawthorn shrugged. “He’s the King.”
     Gina smirked and put it out of her head. She looked for Rat in the crowd, but found only Jock, taking care of tech stuff for the stage performance. Reluctantly she went to talk to him.
     “Oh, Gina,” he said when he noticed her. He was annoyed at the interruption, but determined to be polite. “Something I can do for you?”
     She leaned against a pillar and crossed her arms under her breasts. “Just wondering what’s going on. Your boss is a little light on the briefings.”
     “Sorry,” he gave a guileless look of apology, “I probably don’t know much more than you do. I think he wants it to be a surprise.”
     “You think surprises are a good idea in a situation this tense?”
     “It’s his show,” he said. Shrugged. “I’m willing to let him do it however he likes. God knows I’d wanna go out on a high after ruling a country for four years.”
     “Okay, Jock. Forget I said anything. I’m just remembering how his last surprise party turned out.”
     Both his eyebrows shot up, surprised and horrified at the accusation. “How . . . How do you know about that?”
     “Telepath,” she reminded him, tapping the side of her head, and walked away.
     She found herself a corner from which to observe and brood. She didn’t know why she was so on edge. Absorbing the thoughts and emotions of the room, she didn’t sense a single bad intention. Nothing beyond Karen’s passing temptation to strangle Hideo with her bare hands.
     And yet. Something kept nagging at her, expecting all Hell to break loose any second.
     Hawthorn came to join her, going over the security plans in his head. He muttered occasional adjustments into the microphone under his collar. “Our VIPs are about to arrive,” he told her. “Keep your eyes on the entourage. All three of ’em.”
     “Major,” she laughed, “I didn’t know you shared Bomber’s sense of humour.”
     “I didn’t know he had one.”
     “My point exactly.”
     She smiled, and Hawthorn bowed his head to concede the point. “Ouch,” he said. “Look, you know what to do. Tap this and it’ll give you radio straight to me. I want to know everything at the first sign of trouble.” He took a tiny black circle, barely half the size of his fingertip, and attached it under the lapel of her suit.
     He went and parked himself somewhere else, while a brief musical note drew the guests to attention. It wasn’t the blast of brassy trumpets Gina had expected, but a simple, understated tickling of strings. Conversations faltered and died. Every eye turned to the great doors. Artificial sunlight flooded in through the opening, and two long shadows touched the red carpet down the middle of the chamber. Harmony and Hideo, entering side by side.
     A hush came over the crowd. It was a moment of mythical proportions, Razorblade herself standing before them.
     The King of Laputa glittered with reflected light, dressed in his royal suit of armour and polished to a mirror shine. The crown on his head was every bit as bright, white gold and inlaid with a hundred precious gems. Harmony wore a combination of leggings, skirt and blazer, all different shades of blue, hugging and highlighting her curves without giving the eye an opportunity to fetishise them.
     A small crowd of supporters and hangers-on followed them in. On Hideo’s side was a large chunk of the Laputan cabinet. Tailored business suits styled in all the clichés of hacker chic. One seemed to be made of woven chrome. Another green and silver, printed like an old circuit board. A third was plain black except for an animated necktie which scrolled continuously through the endless digits of pi.
     A bare handful of people followed Harmony. Several women from her resistance cell and a couple of Irish dignitaries, previously Banshee’s boys. Karen came and fell in step with them. They all wore low-profile body armour as if ready for a fight.
     The procession stopped in the middle of the hall. Grinning, Hideo raised his hands and let his amplified voice boom out of every speaker in the room. “People of Laputa,” he called out, “we come to bring you a message of peace and reunification on this historic day. Rejoice! I present to you, your Queen!”
     He took Harmony’s hand and bowed low to her. She stared at him, a little unsure of herself, blushing from all the pomp and circumstance. Then, everywhere around the room, people began to sink to one knee. Soon the whole crowd was down, dozens of people, even Gina. Caught up in the moment.
     All the public screens in the Nation blazed to life, and dozens of people become hundreds. Thousands. Millions. Many didn’t grasp the full significance of it, not yet. But those who were quicker on the uptake knew that their world had changed forever.

***

     After that first moment of yawning silence, when everyone was still too shocked to make a sound, things began to take on a life of their own. Someone recovered from the surprise and began to applaud. The next moment everybody was doing it, all over Laputa, until the castle shook from the sound of clapping hands and cheering voices.
     Eventually Hideo motioned for quiet. There were more words left to be said. Escorting Harmony onto the stage, he turned with a flourish and raised his arms.
     “Though I’ve called you here,” he said gravely, “to witness the crowning of Harmony Kohler, once known to you as ‘Razorblade’, I’m sad to say that this is not a wedding. Laputa has only one ruler. Consider this my formal abdication from the throne.”
     The crowds hung on his every word. Even Gina’s well-trained cynicism couldn’t resist the pull of the moment, anxious to hear more even though she knew what was coming.
     A man in white ceremonial robes ascended the stage. In his hands he held a scroll of heavy parchment, wrapped around tubes of solid bronze. He stopped in front of the happy couple and unrolled it between his outstretched hands.
     Hideo continued, “This document transfers my station, with all its powers and responsibilities, to Harmony. I would like you all to bear witness to its signing.” He flashed a winning smile. “Though I will no longer be your King, I will continue to serve you all as Executor of the Integration Act, charged with the protection of our great Nations from anyone who would threaten our way of life. Some people are already calling me ‘Lord Protector’ of the Nations. To these people I’d just like to say . . . I’ll do my best.”
     A ripple of appreciative laughter went around the room. Hideo gave the stage to Harmony in a sweeping gesture, and she stepped up to begin a speech of her own.
     Something brought Gina’s mind to a screeching halt. Everything wound down until she couldn’t speak, breathe, think. The room flashed into stark relief, more real than it was before, as she tasted the thoughts of a man with a smuggled weapon in his hands and a mind stained with blood.
     He’d come from Harmony’s contingent. An Irishman. Pushing forward through rows of confused bodies, slipping a stealthy, fin-shaped dart gun from his waistband. All sorts of considerations blasted through Gina’s head at light-speed. How had she not noticed him before? Did she let herself get too distracted? Her hand went to the radio at her lapel, but in the heat of the moment she forgot how to use it. Instead she grabbed Hawthorn by the base of the spine and shouted, Gun!
     The Major jolted into action. So did a few of the Laputan Guardsmen, muttering into radios, drawing pistols. They couldn’t get a shot. Too many people in the way. There was nothing anybody could do, least of all Gina, as the man turned a tiny black barrel on the King.
     There was an earth-shattering click as the trigger pulled back. A pinging noise, a ricochet, as the first of the darts bounced off that exquisite steel armour. Hideo, eyes wide, reached for the shooter’s wrist.
     Ping! Another dart spun away into the crowd. Steel gauntlets closed on the man’s arm, wrestling for control. The trigger snapped three more times before its magazine was empty.
     When Hideo pushed the shooter backwards, clubbing him over the head with a heavy fist, he looked around to see if anybody was hurt.
     Some of the bystanders were bloody with fragments. Harmony Kohler lay on the stone floor of the stage, a hole clear through her head.
     Everyone finally had time to panic, and all Hell broke loose in the banqueting hall. A herd of terrified, screaming animals stampeded toward the gates, trampling bodies underfoot. Karen and Rat ran in the opposite direction. They vaulted onto the stage to help their friend, but at this point all they could do was grieve.
     Hideo stood over her bleeding body, his face a grim mask. “Cut cameras.”
     Gina stumbled, gasped. All the breath rushed out of her like a savage gut-punch. The world went sideways, and suddenly her eyes opened to the sound of Hideo’s speech from minutes ago. She looked around in confusion while Hawthorn appeared at her shoulder, reaching out to steady her.
     Harmony Kohler stood alive and well at Hideo’s side.
     “Gina,” the Major said, “what’s wrong?”
     She only had time to blink before she saw the assassin mount the stage, drawing his weapon. This time she didn’t even think about using her radio. She lashed out in a combination of panic and raw anger, coiling her will around the man’s brainstem. Holding nothing back, she ripped into his motor functions and made him stop.
     A living statue stood on the stage in front of the King and Queen of Laputa. The tiny dart gun hung in his frozen fingers. Hideo was all set to receive him, and didn’t know what to do when the expected charge failed to materialise. Harmony just gaped. So did the rest of the audience.
     Even the Royal Guard was taken aback. They stopped short, held by deep, nameless superstitions. No one wanted to be the first to touch him.
     They watched as Gina came forward and pried the gun out of the assassin’s unresisting hand. She tucked it into a pocket of her suit, turned a thin smile on Hideo and said, “You can thank me later. Maybe a knighthood or something.”
     At a flick of her wrist, the man crumpled like a wet rag, and she walked out of the hall while people did their best to pick up the ceremony’s shattered pieces.

***

     Gina spent the next three hours on a bench in one of the castle’s secluded spots, trying to reconstruct things in her mind. Searching for an answer about what had happened to her. If only she worked at it long enough, she felt like it would start making sense.
     She remembered the flash. Some kind of vision, obviously, but unlike anything she’d experienced before. Telepathy was one thing. This had been more like seeing the future, which went so far beyond reason that she started to convince herself she’d imagined the whole thing.
     Three hours got her nowhere. She went to Rat’s room to get a second opinion, but found only Jock, locked in the embrace of his VR rig. He looked up when he heard the door and switched his goggles to clear for half a second.
     “Oh,” he said, “Gina.”
     “You always seem surprised to see me, Jock,” she replied. Glanced around to make sure Rat wasn’t just hiding somewhere. No luck, just the tedious fucker in the ridiculous outfit.
     “Lex is with Harmony, if you’re wondering.” His voice turned far away again as he went back to work. Dangling in his straps, making weird movements that apparently did something in VR. “I just got away from the festivities. Wanted to review our close call on camera. You really did a number on him, by the way. They’re not sure if he’ll ever speak again, much less walk.”
     “I don’t care, Jock. I genuinely do not care.” She turned away and bit her lip. She used to be better at lying. “See anything interesting in your recordings?”
     “Not a lot. You just get this really far-away look for a second, then you point at him as he’s jumping and he fucking turns to stone! As a heads-up, that went out on millions of screens all over the Nations. By tomorrow morning you’re gonna be the next GlobeNet star.”
     She ignored the comment. Then again, celebrity might be a nice change of pace from being on the bottom rung. She said, “What happened after I left?”
     Another set of convulsive hand gestures caused the screens around the room to spring to life. It showed a time-lapse version of events, sped up to compress hours into minutes. “See for yourself. The Guard carries our friend away. Harmony sends her Irish contingent packing, then takes her oath as Queen. Hideo stands around looking rattled. Really,” he sighed, tired and frustrated, “nothing that explains how the guy smuggled a gun past security, or why. I know there’s some bad blood over Banshee but I never expected anybody to try and kill Hideo.”
     “Somebody did. It almost worked.”
     “Yeah. Almost.” He took his goggles off and rubbed his eyes to relax them. “I’m surprised you aren’t down in the pen working some magic on our prisoner.”
     “I got an invitation, but I didn’t go. I’m supposed to ship out in a couple hours anyway.”
     “Mm. Well . . . I’m glad you were here, Gina. Things would’ve gone a lot different without you.”
     “Too right.”
     Gina watched the feed for a bit. The same events repeating over and over from a dozen different angles. They started to mesh with her memory of what happened, bleeding together with the glimpsed future-that-never-was. It made her head spin. Dizzy, she caught herself on the back of a chair before she could fall down. The spinning sensation passed but the nausea stuck around. She leaned heavily against the chair and avoided the screens while she recovered.
     “Hey, you don’t look so good.” Jock sounded vaguely concerned. “Something wrong?”
     She didn’t want to talk about it. Not with Jock. On the other hand, she couldn’t keep it inside much longer before it ripped itself from her throat. She had to let it out or she’d go insane.
     “You said I got a far-away look,” she forced out. “There’s a reason. I didn’t read his mind. I couldn’t, I was distracted, and I’m positive the guy’s had avoidance training. I saw him pull his weapon and fire.”
     Jock pursed his lips in confusion, didn’t understand a word she was saying. “Eh?”
     “Listen to the words out of my mouth! I saw! Like a vision or something, I don’t know. I watched the guy come forward and wrestle with Hideo. His gun went off, but the darts couldn’t punch through that cooking pot Hideo was walking around in. One of the stray shots hit Harmony. Killed her instantly. I saw her oozing blood on the floor. That’s how I knew what he was gonna do before he did it.”
     “That’s not what I remember happening,” he said, almost making it a question.
     “No, Jock, it isn’t,” she growled, “because I stopped it from happening. Are you starting to get me yet?”
     The pieces finally clicked into place behind his eyes. He entertained her line of reasoning only in the most tentative sort of way. “Are you telling me,” he hesitated, choosing his words carefully, “that you can see the future?”
     “I can’t now. I could then.”
     “How?”
     “Tell me how my telepathy works and I’ll give you an answer to that question.”
     “I see your point. It’s not that I don’t believe you.” He took a deep breath, and by his secret thoughts, not believing her was exactly what ‘it’ was. Lying little shit. “It’s just, if it were anyone else making claims like that–“
     “It’s not anyone else, it’s me,” she said sharply. “You’re watching me right now, on those cameras, ripping out a man’s ability to move for the rest of his life. Think about that. Then let me know if you still want to tell me what I can and can’t do.”
     For once, he didn’t have a rejoinder ready to fire. He didn’t respond at all. He was watching the feeds on repeat, the assassin pulling his gun and vaulting onto the stage. Doing it again and again in an endless loop. Forcing a calm, steady voice, he said, “In your vision, Harmony got killed, but Hideo was fine.”
     “Um. Yeah. What does it matter?”
     “Everything,” whispered Jock. A wave of awful, icy uncertainty rippled out from him. Gina was about to break the heavy silence, to press him for an explanation, when he spoke again. “I don’t think Hideo was the target.”
     Without another word he unstrapped himself, threw on some clothes and grabbed her arm. Pulling her out the door. She could’ve overpowered him if it came to that, outmassing him by at least thirty pounds, but she was too shocked to fight back.
     “What the Hell?” she cried. “Jock, where are you going?”
     He set his jaw and took her into the elevator down the hall, furiously punching buttons. “Downstairs. I need you to talk to someone who can’t speak for himself.”

***

     The door to the penitentiary opened at a wave of Jock’s magic card-key. The sergeant on watch, and the extra detachment of battle-armoured Guards, snapped to attention as they spotted Jock and Gina. Six arms saluted as the pair came up to the reception desk, partitioned off behind a wall of bulletproof glass. The only entrance was by a heavy steel door on the left.
     As Gina came into the room, the thoughts of the men and women around her began to sink in, along with a startling realisation. They weren’t saluting Jock. She gave a nervous smile, unsure of how to respond.
     “Here to see the prisoner,” said Jock. Nobody had to ask which one.
     The sergeant pressed a button. One by one, the immense locks and deadbolts on the door snapped open. Gina and Jock were escorted through, into long, sterile white halls lined by cells which gave no clue what went on behind them. Only a few faltering thoughts told her that any of them were occupied. At length they reached a room with a one-way window. A Guard medic was doing her best to give a physical examination to a man who couldn’t even respond to her by blinking. Helpless tears streaked down his cheeks. Really, he ought to feel lucky he still had the wherewithal to breathe.
     “I don’t understand what you’re hoping to get,” said Gina. She really didn’t want to have to read Jock’s mind for an explanation. “There’s other telepaths around, you know. I’m sure they already interviewed him.”
     “Bear with me, Gina. Please.”
     That was an unusual word out of Jock. She didn’t know why she was here, she didn’t owe him any favours, but she got caught up in his emotional state. He clearly thought this was important. She sighed and began to clear her own head in anticipation.
     She said, “Fine. I’ll need someone on the inside to prompt him.”
     “I can do that.”
     “This would be easier if I knew what you were after, Jock.”
     “Just get his version of events. Start with how he smuggled a weapon onto Cloud City, and why.”
     He squared his shoulders and marched into the interrogation room. The medic looked up, surprised, and insisted on applying some more eye-drops before she let him evict her. Then it was just man-to-statue, the assassin in a chair, Jock seated casually on the table like in a bad cop vid. Gina closed her eyes and let herself step out of her body. She touched the ball of nervous terror that used to be a human being and steeled herself, refused to let it overwhelm her. She pushed his fear down, willed an island of calm into it. Then she let the images come.
     “Let’s take it from the top,” Jock said. “Where did you get the gun?”
     Long hours of telepathy avoidance training came to the fore, an automatic reflex to stop the immediate, unconscious access of relevant memory. His brain had been conditioned not to follow those questions to their destination. However, they hadn’t invented the kind of avoidance that could protect against Gina Hart in full control of her powers. She forced the image of the dart gun back into his mind’s eye and followed the trail of neurons that flowed from it, into his memories.
     A Laputan back alley. A man in a long coat. Hands exchanging a credit chip for a handful of steel darts. A helipad on Cloud City. Rubbish bin along the path of Harmony’s procession. Nonchalant disposal of a gum wrapper. Gun taped under the lid. Practised sleight of hand slipping it into his sleeve.
     “Why did you try to kill him?”
     This time she shut down the avoidance response immediately. Flash to Banshee’s face, to Kensei’s. Surging emotions of rage, wrath, the blind need for revenge. Predictable as a metronome.
     “What would have happened if we hadn’t stopped you?”
     An image that made Gina swallow bile. Hideo Kagehisa on the floor with his brain blown open, the assassin standing over him, triumphant. She realised she didn’t even know his name, and had no desire at all to find out.
     “Wonderful. Thanks for your help, I’ll be right back.” Jock left the room, taking care to shut the door behind him, and looked Gina in the eye. “Anything?”
     She shrugged. “Lone gunman. Revenge hit. Exactly as expected.”
     “I figured as much. Now we’re gonna do the same thing, except I want you to look for deep hypnotic suggestions. Memory blocks. Anything that suggests he was altered. You can do that, right?”
     “Um. Sure, but why? He doesn’t show any of the symptoms. He’s lucid, not confused. He seems to know what he’s done, and he’s rationally afraid of the consequences. That’s not the mental state of someone who’s been conditioned.”
     “No, you’re absolutely right, Gina. I’ll be very happy if you tell me I’m wrong.”
     Then the penny dropped, and she understood the reason for Jock’s whole charade. “You think it was a con! You think someone set us up, and Harmony was the real victim all along.”
     “Tell me I’m wrong,” he said again, almost pleading. “Look into his brain and tell me. All the evidence we’ve got is in that chair.”
     She put up a hand to quiet him. Pointing, she grabbed him by the shoulders and made him look through the two-way mirror. Inside, the assassin spasmed violently on the floor, frothing at the mouth as time-release poison capsules burst in his stomach. Jock could only stare in impotent horror.
     Gina had seconds. Maybe less. She planted her feet, breathed, stepped out of herself again — and crashed headlong into the dying man’s mind.

***

     She was doing something stupid. So very, very stupid. This was exactly the kind of business that turned telepaths into drooling, senseless vegetables for the rest of their lives.
     But if Jock was right . . .
     She tore through what was left of the man’s brain, a mass of randomly-firing neurons, like a power surge in an electric plant. A billion city lights flickering on and off every nanosecond. Feverish torrents of fear, doubt, and desperate prayer buffeted her from all sides. The door to his memory was wide open, and out of it came a tidal wave of information, every moment of his life flashing before tear-filled eyes. Too much for anyone to take.
     Gina stood her ground, driven by sheer bull-headed determination. She let it wash over her, absorbing in moments what amounted to a whole other lifetime.
     Belfast. She was a child. She ran, and played, and laughed. She fought, and hurt, and cried. She jolted from memory to memory, isolated shreds and highlights. Favourite toys. Birthdays. Communion. Punishments and humiliations. The time when she watched her school blossom into a sea of beautiful flames. The time when soldiers marched into her neighbourhood making lots of loud noises and her mother told her to hide in the loft. That night, and every night after it, Daddy didn’t come home.
     There were flashes of her older brother. Sounds of arguing. He took her to one side and explained he was going away. Something he had to do. It was about freedom and justice. Mother wouldn’t understand.
     She never saw him again.
     She grew up. Started going to meetings. She met two guys who went only by their codenames. They got her into the organisation. She learned how to handle a gun as well as a VR rig. How to make bombs, and how to make her voice heard in a political system that did everything in its power to hold her down. Together with her friends, she saw the revolution coming, and she helped to change things.
     Gina’s head spun from the continuous onslaught. Her brain felt like it was going to explode. She tried to shield herself, to block out more of the irrelevant memories, but they came faster and faster with the beat of his racing heart, pounding like a jackhammer. It was only a matter of time before it lost its rhythm. It faltered, convulsed, then stopped beating altogether.
     There was triumph, and cheering, and dancing in the streets–
     Official meetings, security arrangements, hard work–
     Machine gun fire churning through bodies–
     Bitter rage in Kensei’s voice–
     Whispers from a white ceiling–
     Steel darts clenched in an outstretched hand, and a note pointing to a public rubbish bin on Cloud City, seen through a grey haze like TV static. Gina stopped it. Forced away the unnatural mess. The hand reappeared, barest hint of a Laputan military tattoo on a shadowed wrist.
     Darkness. Cold. Gina screamed and recoiled like a wounded animal, but it held her, as irrevocable as the event horizon of a black hole. It was like an immense weight piled on top of her shoulders and on her chest at once, squeezing the life from her. She couldn’t tear away, couldn’t even avert her eyes as she stared into the abyss. Icy sweat prickled at the back of her neck. She was afraid not because it was horrible, but because it felt so safe. So utterly at peace. All she had to do was lay down her burdens and go.
     Like she could’ve surrendered to Gabriel that first time, and never opened her eyes at all.
     But she wanted more. She was Gina Hart now, and Gina Hart had things to live for. One of them was there with her, inside her, still waiting to be born.
     A sudden blur of motion. Her mind snapped back like a rubber band. When she opened her eyes again, she was in her own body, still looking through the two-way mirror. The assassin’s body was gone. Jock leaned against the wall, worried. Rat stood next to him with their fingers intertwined. The Guard medic from before was conducting an examination. She jumped back in surprise when Gina flexed her fingers.
     “Ow,” said Gina. Her muscles ached as if she’d overworked every single one of them. “What’s going on?”
     Rat practically jumped forward, her face a mask of intense relief. She took Gina’s hands and squeezed them. “Gina! Are you okay?”
     “Um. Yeah. Where did you come from?”
     “I’ve been here for two hours. Get me? You went away for a while, and we were too scared to move you.”
     “I was . . .” She glanced at the empty space where the assassin had been. Then she noticed Jock looking her full in the eye, and she offered him a grim smile.
     “Was I wrong?” he asked.
     “No, Jock. You weren’t.”
     He came away from the wall and sent a far-away look down the corridor. “Then we have some business to take care of.”
     “Yes,” she acceded, “we do.”

***

     Gina and Jock left the penitentiary together, moved by grim purpose. They were going to find the former King of Laputa and confront him for an alibi. Rat followed close on their heels, threw a constant barrage of questions, and ignored Jock’s persistent pleas for her to go away. She didn’t understand what was going on. She didn’t know why she shouldn’t be involved, and she hated being left out of the loop. It made her feel like a little kid who wasn’t invited to grown-up discussions.
     “Hold it!” she snapped, and grabbed the elevator door to stop it from closing. Wedging her foot in to make sure. “I’m as much part of this team as anybody, I have a right to know!”
     Jock shot back, “Jesus Christ, woman. How many times do I have to tell you no before you get it through your head?”
     “Go fuck a tree, monk–“
     The tirade stopped dead in its tracks when Gina placed her hands on the girl’s shoulders. “Alex,” she said softly, “you can’t come with us. The less you know, the better. Right now we need you to go back to Harmony and keep her safe. And whatever you do, don’t tell her about any of this, okay?” She took a deep breath. “I trust you. Please, trust me too.”
     Indecision flickered in Rat’s eyes. Then, looking down in defeat, she stepped out of the way. The door slid shut without a noise.
     From here it was a straight shot up to the throne room. That was where Hideo ought to be, packing his things and getting ready to move out. Jock kept his fists clenched. Gina sucked on her teeth to distract herself from the mounting tension.
     Jock cleared his throat. “Did you get any proof?”
     “Nothing that would stand up in a courtroom.”
     “I still have trouble believing Hideo would go this far. You know what would’ve happened . . . No Harmony. No alliance. No attack on Gabriel. Everything we planned would’ve fallen apart.”
     “He probably believed he was doing the right thing.”
     “I guess I don’t know him anymore.” He looked smaller, diminished somehow. “This place, being a King, changed him. I thought. . . Hoped I could turn back the clock and make him remember who he used to be.”
     “Maybe he really likes having his own airship.”
     “Gina, if it, um, if it comes to–“
     “I’ll take care of it,” she said, more harshly than she intended. “I don’t like being duped.”
     “No, I meant . . .” He swallowed. “Don’t turn him into a vegetable. Please.”
     She bit back a hot retort. As if that was all she ever did! And now it would be the only thing anyone knew her for.
     The great iron-bound doors swam into view, wreathed in artificial mist, and–
     In a flash the whole room became more real, more vibrant, as if through a high contrast filter. There was a sick sense of motion. Dimly, Gina realised she was watching the future again, walking past the opulent table and throne. Sensing thoughts and emotions that brought her to a dead stop. Something awful was happening in the King of Laputa’s office.
     She began to run, leaving Jock behind in the confusion. Her viewpoint bounced up and down, driven by dread and uncertainty. Would she be too late? She put her shoulder against the big door and pushed.
     Just in time to hear a soft puff, and the slump of Hideo Kagehisa’s body against his desk. He sat in the room’s only chair. His eyes were open, staring blankly into the middle distance from the surface of the sweeping steel arc that was his workspace. There was a note in his hand with spatters of blood dripping down the laminated, digital surface.
     She turned away and shut her eyes. Choking up. She bit back a tear as she stopped Jock from going in. She was going to be sick.
     A sudden touch jarred her out of it, back to the present. Jock came in front of her, worry in his eyes. “Gina?” he asked, his voice far-away, echoing faintly in her ears. “Are you okay?”
     She broke for the office at a dead sprint, and slid inside just as her vision was being repeated. Hideo sat at his desk, reading the note in his hand, his face scrunched up in confusion. In his other was a pistol. His head jerked up as Gina burst into the room. Then he yelped as she grabbed his mind by the short and curlies and made him leap out of his chair.
     A long, thin bullet passed through the huge wall-window with a soft puff. It split into a hundred jagged, tumbling bits. The rain of shrapnel buried itself in the desk where Hideo’s head had been. Gina rushed to the window and swept her mind out like the beam of a lighthouse, searching for the shooter. A telltale ripple of thought in one of the other buildings gave it away. Out there, through the scope of a heavy sniper rifle, Karen stared back at her.
     Hideo picked himself up just high enough to see the black furrows ripped into his heavy steel swoosh. Then he looked at the paper in his hand, and at Gina, his eyes wide as dinner plates.
     “It’s a suicide note,” he said shakily. “I didn’t write it.”
     Gina let out a weary, soul-deep sigh while Karen packed up her rifle and made herself scarce. She said, “I am so fucking sick of you people.”
     He stood there, staring slack-jawed. He didn’t need to speak to show he didn’t understand.
     “Figure it out,” she snarled. Washing her hands of Laputa and every fucker in it. “I have a plane to catch.”

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