The morning smog smelled sweet and fresh. It was so unlike the sweltering afternoon smog that choked the life out of plants and people alike, or the tired evening smog that tasted of smoke and oil. Dewdrops glittered in the haze like crystals, cool wet fingers where they touched Gina’s skin. Looking up, she could almost see the sky.
     She walked hand in hand with Bomber down the beachfront. Poisoned silver sand crunched under her boots and filled up her socks, but she didn’t mind. It made her feel like a little girl again, six years old and playing by the sea.
     “Do you think we’re being watched here?” she asked.
     Bomber glanced around, squinting as if against the wind. Of course, there was no wind here, not a breath. The air never moved.
     “Possible,” he said neutrally. “Can’t see any cameras, but that don’t mean they ain’t there. At least they ain’t built the satellite that can see through this crap. Not yet, anyway.” He snorted and gave the sky a flippant salute.
     “You’re really not from around here, are you?”
     “Mississippi. Before the bombs, anyway.”
     She nodded sympathy and fell silent. Nuclear annihilation was the last thing she wanted to think about, not with the twisted city and its ash people hovering on the edge of her awareness, waiting for a moment of weakness.
     A brightly-painted beach house rose tall and blue out of the mist. It was a high and narrow building roofed with dark ceramic tiles, probably larger than it looked from the outside. Gina smiled to herself, remembering. One time, two years ago, she’d stayed here a few days getting away from the Street. Later, saying goodbye again, a voice told her she’d always be welcome here, but she never came back. Funny thing. She couldn’t say why.
     Someone stood waiting for them outside in the gallery, dressed in a thick red jacket and long brown skirt. The gallery around them, however, was the colour of the sky, the way Gina remembered it from when she was a girl. There had been birds in it back then, real birds, and it had been safe to walk in the sun without blocking cream.
     She was too distracted by the house to notice the figure rushing towards her. Suddenly she found herself engulfed in a pair of strong, wiry arms. The woman embracing her was a full head shorter than Gina but had no problem holding on, her skin tanned like a ripe olive, gleaming black hair hanging down to her ankles. Gina put her arms around the woman and bit back a sniffle.
     “It’s good to see you too,” she said. She glanced up at Bomber, who stood awkwardly to one side, and smiled to let him know everything was all right.
     “Never thought I’d set my eyes on you again,” the woman sighed. She stepped back but still held Gina’s hands, beaming. “Look at you! Two years and you haven’t aged a day. It’s shameful, you make the rest of us feel old.”
     Gina shook her head. “I could never make you look old, mei-mei. Where’s Onounu?”
     “Inside. You know how she hates the cold.” The woman grinned and gestured them towards the front door. Her prominent Chinese cheeks and the crow’s feet around her eyes made her look like a merry little goblin. “Come on, come on! We’ve got a fire going and some soup, fill you right up, I know how bad you eat, and don’t pretend it’s not true. Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?”
     Rolling her eyes with exasperation, Gina went ahead and surrendered in advance. She knew there was nothing on this Earth that could dissuade Mashei — the determined, some would say relentless mother-hen of the house — from being who she was.
     “Mashei, this is Bomber,” she said patiently. “He’s the one that’s been getting me into trouble.”
     “Oh, I’ll be having some stern words with him later.” Mashei smiled warmly as she closed the front door behind them, sealing out the wet and cold. She unwrapped herself and threw her heavy jacket on the coat rack. “Please take off your shoes. They’ll be safe here, don’t worry.”
     Bomber and Gina followed her example. The air inside tasted of smoke from a stove in the corner of the living room, merrily burning driftwood. It filled the house with cosy warmth. Gina shuddered with pleasure and hugged herself, hands gripping the rust-stained elbows of her borrowed suit. Here was a place that felt like home no matter where you were from, its walls panelled with rough, honest wood and bearing hundreds of old photographs of the people who gave the place its life.
     Before they even had a chance to protest, the two of them were pushed down onto a tired old sofa and handed ceramic bowls full of steaming hot broth and dumplings. “I’ll go get Onu,” Mashei said and disappeared upstairs.
     While Bomber sat blinking at what had just happened to him, Gina stared into her bowl and made a face at it. She smiled wryly when he gave her a questioning look. “Won ton soup, she’s been trying to feed me this ever since we met. I hate won ton.”
     “I’ll take it if you don’t want it,” he said, digging into his bowl with relish. She put hers on the table in front of him.
     “Knock yourself out,” she announced.
     The broth was gone in seconds, and he let the remaining dumplings fall into his mouth like doughy ping-pong balls. He mumbled through a full mouth, “Never give up a free home-cooked meal.” Then he swallowed and let out a contented sigh. “Best food I’ve had in months.”
     “Thank you,” Mashei whispered humbly from the doorway. She stepped back into the room, arm-in-arm with a much taller but similarly Chinese woman, two polar extremes of oriental physiology. Where Mashei was short and sturdy, Onounu was thin and delicate, with a heart-shaped face and eyes that seemed to go straight through you. Gina still felt a stir of unease whenever she gazed into those deep brown pools. Eyes that had looked a little too far.
     “It’s good to see you, Gina,” said Onounu, “we’ve missed you.” Her voice was soft and musical, and her eyes pierced Gina like she was transparent, made of nothing more than smoke. “I’m glad you came. There may not be much time.” She gestured at a side door without any change of expression. “Come, let’s begin.”

***

     The thick smell of incense stung Gina’s nostrils. She knelt on the red carpet of the chamber and waited. The borrowed robe swished across her shoulders like silk. Mashei had insisted on washing Gina’s suit, if not burning it, and Gina was happy to wear something else for a while. Bomber looked vaguely uneasy from his seat in the corner, and he coughed into his hand, finding the pungent smoke hard to breathe. A thin film of sweat covered his skin. Gina could see it glisten against the candlelight. The room was stifling humid and getting hotter by the second.
     “This ain’t really necessary, is it?” he whispered to Gina as Onounu lit the last stick of incense.
     “No,” Gina replied with a lopsided smile, “but I think it makes her more comfortable. Now shut up, would you? I’m supposed to be clearing my head.”
     Mashei stood watching the whole preparation from the doorway. She wore a serious expression that seemed out of place on her smile-worn features. At last, when everything was ready, she hugged Onounu and the two shared a long kiss. Then Mashei retreated from the room, leaving the others to get on with things.
     “So is anything wrong with her?” Bomber asked despite Gina motioning for him to shut the hell up.
     A gentle smile creased Onounu’s face. “That’s what we’re here to find out.” The grey streaks in her thin brown hair seemed to writhe in strange patterns as she moved about the room. Once the curtains and candles and everything was in place, she knelt in front of Gina, placed a capsule of Spice on her own tongue, and swallowed it dry. Again she smiled. “Just like old times.”
     They waited in silence for the drug to take effect. Onounu breathed in a deep, regular rhythm. Then she opened her eyes again, and this time they were empty of expression, nobody home inside. She was somewhere else.
     “I will talk you through this,” she said in a flat, detached voice. “Gina, bring me to the nightclub.”
     Gina nodded and called the scene up from her memory. She concentrated on each sensation until it was a part of the larger vision that maintained itself without requiring her attention. First the beat of the music, the pulse of the crowd. Smell of sweat mingled with alcohol. Light flickering in rainbow colours. Bodies rubbing together. Lust, raw and animal. Gina’s pulse quickened as that surged through her, but she bit her tongue and kept control of the vision.
     It was all there now, the club, down to the finest detail. She found herself walking to the tables in the back, but this time they were all empty save for him. Gabriel sat there with his mocking smile and lit a cigarette. Shadows pooled around him under the flickering light of the match. A lump of cold terror shot into her throat, she turned to run, and–
     “Don’t,” Onounu said. Gina froze. “That’s not what happened. Don’t break the framework, relive it as it was.”
     Swallowing, Gina forced herself to turn back. The other men were there now, talking amongst themselves in her vision, and the woman, Gina couldn’t quite remember her name. Gina sat down at their table, her head swimming with drugs, and touched Gabriel’s mind.
     The twisted city flashed into her mind as sharp as the first time she touched him, crystal-clear in its horror. This time she was prepared for it. She retreated into an emotionless grey state, so she felt nothing at the frozen people and their children slowly flaking in the breeze. She hurried through that memory, and slowed down again when she came to the white place. A cold dagger of fear pushed through her detachment, and that terrible voice rang, “You shouldn’t do that.”
     A strange sensation gonged through her head, like a burst of mental static, and everything went dark. Onounu cried out.
     Gina snapped out of the memory and opened her eyes, finding Onounu limp in Bomber’s arms, pale and breathing hard. Gina rushed forward — to do what, she wasn’t exactly sure — and anxiety trembled in her hands as they fluttered over her stricken friend.
     “No,” Onounu panted. “No, I’m alright. Just give me a moment.” She closed her eyes, then gave Gina a weak smile. “Same old Gina, always getting yourself into trouble.”
     “What was it?” she asked desperately.
     Onounu lost her smile, and her expression darkened. “You definitely picked up an artifact, a bad one. It almost got me too. No wonder, a shock that hard . . .” She shut her eyes tight as if fighting off a terrible headache. When she reopened them, she fixed Gina with a deadly serious look. “You’re playing a dangerous game, girl. That man has some bad things locked up inside his head. Plans, memories or fantasies, I don’t know — but I don’t think he likes people looking at them.” She hesitated, licking her suddenly dry lips. “He was inside you as you were inside him. He’s strong. God, he’s strong, maybe stronger than me. You . . .” She hesitated again. Then her face softened and she touched Gina’s hand. “Please, be careful.”
     Before she could say anything more, the curtains flew, and Mashei whirled into the room like an angry mother bear whose cubs were under threat. Things seemed to materialise into her hands, first aid kit in one and a pillow in the other. She quickly banished Gina and Bomber back to the living room and bent over her wife, determined to be worried despite Onounu’s reassurances.
     For the moment, Gina and Bomber were left to their thoughts and to hot bowls of soup.

***

     “So he is a telepath,” Bomber said, scowling in deep thought. “But that don’t make any sense. He’s got his own fuckin’ AI, but he takes Spice? Why not just hire someone else and let them burn out their brains?” Hissing in frustration, he turned around and resumed pacing the other way. A few more laps and he’d start putting holes in the carpet, thought Gina.
     Gina shrugged. She lay on the sofa while Bomber padded across the room, pausing occasionally to warm himself by the little stove. “Maybe he doesn’t trust anyone else.”
     “No,” he said flatly. “No, this whole thing stinks. There’s somethin’ here I’m not seeing. I mean, he’s got gangs waiting on him like busboys. Anyone with that much power leaves a trail.”
     “So we go back to Jock?”
     Bomber stopped in front of the stove and snorted, sending up a flurry of dust and ash. “That yellow son of a bitch? Geek’s probably holed up in some bar pissing himself. He acts tough, but he’s really just terrified all the time. That’s how the Emperor controls a guy like him. He’s more afraid of the Emperor than anything else.”
     Gina rose to join him by the fire, suddenly cold herself. She mumbled, “Probably with good reason.”
     “No doubt. But as these guys go, the Emperor’s pretty okay as long as you stay on his good side.”
     “How do you live like that, Bomber? Hanging out with gang lords and killers, fake names, always on the run. Never able to show anyone the real you. I don’t understand.”
     He said nothing for a few seconds. Then, “My name’s not Simon.”
     A sad smile twisted her lips, and she gently took his hand, side by side in front of the warm stove. “Never thought it was.”
     “Listen,” he said, turning to face her, “I need to do a little investigatin’ on my own. You’ll be safe at the Emperor’s base. You can lay low there until I check out a few sources, maybe find somethin’ we can use to get clear of this. Can you do that?”
     Anger flared in her as his words started to sink in. She abruptly let go of his hand and backed away, scowling up at him. “What? What the hell do you expect me to do in the meantime, sit around and wait for hubby to come back?”
     He blinked in complete astonishment. “That’s not what I’m sayin’!” he protested. “I just need to do this alone. I’m serious, I don’t think you’d be safe.”
     “Well maybe I don’t need you to tell me what I can and can’t handle!” she snapped, jabbing a finger at his chest. “I’ve survived on the fucking Street for three years without you to look after me, I can damn well take care of myself!”
     Bomber just stared at her, uncomprehending. The emotions rushed out of her as suddenly as they’d come, and her shoulders sagged as she turned away, twining her fingers into her hair. She said, “God, this whole thing is driving me buggo.”
     “Guess how I feel,” he replied.
     “Yeah, well, you’re the only one who seems to know the first thing about what’s going on here,” she snapped. A thought struck her then. “What did you do in Seoul? It’s got something to do with this, doesn’t it?”
     The scowl returned. “That was personal.”
     “There’s something you’re not telling me,” she said flatly.
     “There’s a lot of things I’m not tellin’ anyone, a lot of things you’re better off not hearin’ about. Believe that. But on this job, you know as much as I do. Maybe more.”
     “More?”
     He looked at her as if she was dense. “Christ, girl! You were inside his head. Unless it was all just some weird mind-fuck, whatever you saw in there has to have a meaning.”
     A cold wind blew through Gina as she recalled the memories. She shuddered, crawling back on the couch and pulling her knees up to her chin. “What it means is he’s insane,” she said.
     “Maybe,” Bomber admitted, “but there’s gotta be a trail. Jez wouldn’t let me find out anything my way, afraid of makin’ waves.” He smiled darkly then. “Me, I’m plannin’ on makin’ some goddamn waves.”
     Footsteps came clumping down the stairs, and Mashei returned to the living room, her usual smile only slightly dimmed. “Onu’s resting now,” she said. “She’ll be fine, but you won’t be able to see her again today. I’ll make some cots for you to sleep on tonight.”
     Bomber reluctantly left his spot at the stove to talk to Mashei face-to-face. “What about the thing in Gina’s head?”
     “There’s nothing you can do about an artifact, Bomber,” Gina sighed. “You either survive it and it goes away or you go buggo.”
     “Right,” he said, and the subject was closed. He obviously didn’t like dwelling on things beyond his power. “Probably best if we don’t stay here, don’t want to put you in danger. I need to go back for my stuff anyway.” To Gina he added, “You’ll be safer at the base.”
     She sighed and got up, started putting her shoes back on. “Alright. Alright, I’ll go.”
     They went despite Mashei’s protests, but not before Gina would accept a bag of old clothes in and around her size. There was sniffling and a number of hugs before they finally made it out the door.
     The Emperor’s warehouse was burning merrily by the time they got back.

***

     “Shit,” Bomber muttered under his breath. He glanced around, cataloguing possible escape routes as more onlookers crowded in behind them. Disasters always attracted their own suite of spectators. The fire roared high, belching thick black clouds of smoke, and threw flickering shadows across the walls like the dancing darkness of the burnt city. Gina could feel its heat on her face even from across the street.
     He continued, “We gotta get out of here. They’ll have people circling. Cameras. Fuck, we gotta get out of here.” He had one hand deep in the pocket of his grey-and-black anorak, and his eyes darted around like a caged animal’s.
     Gina felt the need for action rising in her blood. Without warning she took his arm and dove into the mass of people, slipping through it with learned ease from her years on the Street. Bomber reacted with a start but allowed himself to be led. Gina knew how to go unnoticed in a crowd, and hoped Bomber would trust in that competence when he could see it right in front of his face.
     Sure enough, people seemed to drift naturally out of their way and then refilled the gap behind them without losing a beat. Nobody even noticed the pair swimming upstream like salmon. At last they flowed out into a side street and kept on walking, same pace, same rhythm, arm in arm and never looking back. They might as well have been part of the scenery.
     Somewhere along their unbroken stroll, Bomber squeezed her arm to get her attention. She forced calm into her muscles and casually turned her head to look at him. He pitched his voice low for her ears only, saying, “Don’t look back. Shop window, five fronts up, see the reflection. Across the street on your seven o’clock.”
     She nodded, keeping her eyes on the upcoming mirrored window. The moment came; she caught a glimpse of a shadow just where Bomber said, keeping pace with them from across the street. Brown overcoat and a low, broad-brimmed hat.
     “I see him,” she whispered, swallowing the stab of fear. “What do we do?”
     “Turn the next corner. Hide when I give the signal.”
     “Hide? Hide where?”
     “Wherever. Just get out of sight until I’m done.”
     Gina’s senses were on overdrive when they turned the corner. She imagined she could see every glint reflected by the dirty mirrored windows, every poorly-lit cobblestone, every grain in the cracked asphalt. Sound of cars in the distance, faint sirens, the oohs and ahhs of spectators at the warehouse. Hints of kerosene and ammonia prickled Gina’s nostrils, part of the City’s own unique smell, dark and acrid like oily smoke — tonight only with real smoke.
     One thing was clear as she analysed the street around her. Bomber knew the neighbourhood. He’d picked the perfect getaway destination, empty of all life except the rats, no one to witness or tell. Only old flat blocks still lined this road, abandoned by everyone but squatters and other suicide-seekers. The entrance alcoves were lined with yellow warning tape, the doors boarded up with great red signs pronouncing each building to be condemned. Hundreds died in these glass-and-concrete crates every year, by accident or by design. One more death wouldn’t raise an eyebrow.
     When Bomber flashed the subtle hand signal, Gina bolted for the nearest concrete pillar and ducked behind it for safety. It was big enough to protect her while peeking around the corner, so she glanced past it and saw Bomber already across the street, pistol in hand, wrestling a brown overcoat into the shadows. The soft puff of a silenced gunshot echoed across the silent street. A pig-like squeal rang out from underneath the coat, and Gina gasped at the sound, crying out, “Stop!”
     Bomber froze, looking down at the fistful of overcoat, and furrowed his brow.
     “Jock?” he said, his mind refusing to accept what was happening. The overcoat collapsed sobbing to the pavement. The stones underneath were staining dark red.
     “Help me,” it sputtered.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *