“That’s it,” said Jock, his voice buzzing from the speakers of Rat’s mobile phone. “Looks like you’re clear of them. No one armed in the area, I’d call it safe.”
     Gina closed her eyes in relief and leaned her back against the wall, panting. The Spice still whirled in her head.
     One pill. One pill had kicked her ass like nothing she’d ever felt before. It overwhelmed her. She couldn’t shut out the thoughts of the people around her, ocean waves hammering against her mind.
     What’s happening to me? she cried out inside.
     Sinking to the floor, she gave up. Couldn’t fight it anymore. The only thing she could do was let it come, feel it and try to make sense of it. The Emperor’s confusion, his curiosity, his boiling hot anger. It contrasted with the deeper emotions under his surface, loss and hate twisting cold in his heart along with an evil little spark of hope. Then came Rat’s pumping terror — a pure, almost childlike fear — and his relief. His horror, even despair at what he’d gotten himself into. But even Rat had a core of resolve, a fierce desire to prove himself that kept him thinking and kept him sane.
     And from both of them, on top of everything else, she felt secrets within secrets within secrets. She knew she could never trust them. Like she could never trust anyone in her life. Like she could never trust Bomber.
     “Are you alright?” the Emperor asked her matter-of-factly. It wasn’t a question about anything that might be bothering her, he simply inquired if she was physically fit enough to keep up or if she needed to be left behind.
     She clamped her hands over her ears and shut her eyes tight. “Fuck off.”
     “Hey, we should find someplace to hole up for tonight,” Rat interjected. “We should be safe if Jock can wipe the camera logs, right?” He looked around for confirmation of his brilliant idea, proud of having thought of it all by himself.
     “Change of plans,” said Jock. “The Feds have taken over Simon’s case. He’s just been moved onto the justice fast track. If we want to spring him, we’d better do it now before he’s in a Fed interrogation cell.” Gina wondered at the slight tone of worry in his voice, as if Jock actually cared about the continued existence of another human being.
     The Emperor frowned as he inserted his own earbug. “Jock. Why is it you never bring me good news?”
     A stiff chuckle echoed across the radio. “Glad to see you’re still with us, sir.”
     “We will have to get him out before he talks to the Feds. That much is certain. Have you arranged transport?”
     “There’s an extra ticket to Hong Kong waiting at the airport,” Jock reported. “Passport, biometrics, holomask, everything.”
     “Excellent. The only problem will be getting to the airport unnoticed. They obviously know I’m in the area, so they are sure to be watching it.” He pulled another handgun out of his boot and turned to Gina. “Here, you may need this,” he said, and tucked it into her hand. Its grip was warm against her palm, but the warmth was different from that of her old Mk5. It was as if she could sense its killing purpose.
     “Wait,” she croaked. It was difficult to talk with the drugs running wild in her head, unable to let herself sink into trance, but she forced her lips to shape the words carefully and distinctly. “The people chasing you. You said they were Triads. You’re Triads.”
     The wave of hatred and resentment that rippled from the Emperor’s mind hit Gina like a blow. It was a hate as vast as mountains, as deep as oceans, and as black as deep space. His face contorted as he said, “The men hunting us are the trusted men of my ‘friends’, the other Triad Lords. With my fortress and most of my men in ashes, they imagine they can take my territory and divide it up amongst themselves. Criminals with the minds of criminals.” Then his iron will asserted itself. “There will be a reckoning for their mistake. But later.”
     “When you’re quite done,” Jock crabbed, “I’m ready to drop the Hangzhou power grid, everything but the airport. That should cover your way. How you get there is up to you.”
     “Rat.” Gina looked up at him. “You pick locks, right?”
     “One of my many talents,” he replied.
     “Good.” She smiled, and the Emperor let out a chuckle as he caught on to her train of thought. “Can you hotwire a car?”

***

     Their stolen BMW purred through the pitch-black streets of Hangzhou. Gina lay stretched out in the back, cradling her pounding head, while Rat sat to attention in the passenger seat and stared at the Emperor with adoring eyes. The town’s confusion gonged through her head like a church bell, painfully loud and impossible to soften. She could feel it coursing through the shadows and the candlelit rooms, down the rows of questing headlights and past the nameless hundreds lost in the dark.
     Gina felt a strange kinship with those lost, wandering souls. For them, it was as if civilisation had come to an end. Power blackouts were the kind of thing you heard about in your grandparents’ bullshitting sessions, not something to be experienced first-hand.
     Gina was pretty lost herself, adrift on a sea of possibilities, all bad. Door number one, insanity. Door number two, death. She wondered whether to add a third possibility: meeting Gabriel face-to-face.
     Even now she sensed him, a distant presence, like someone reading over her shoulder. It comforted her in a way she couldn’t quite explain. Every time she reached for that feeling, it was there, always in the same place. Her own little north star.
     A soft tingling touched her lips whenever she thought of their kiss. It curled them into an involuntary smile, and she hid a blush. The images of their meeting had faded from her mind like old photographs, but the emotions lingered, filling her with warmth. Still, it was too private a memory to properly treasure in a moving vehicle with two other people. She put it away in a secret place inside her head and chastised herself for letting her mood swing back and forth like this. Hope or despair, she ought to pick one and stay with it like everyone else did.
     They finally emerged into the low-wattage yellow glow of the airport car park. Refugees from the town had crowded to the lights, and now sat on nearly every square metre of ground. The Emperor pounded the car horn again and again, but they wouldn’t move.
     “Inconvenient,” he muttered. “We’ll have to abandon the vehicle. Get ready.”
     Gina snatched up her purse and got out, trying to keep a firm grip on herself and her brain. She reeled under the combined thoughts and emotions of the thronging crowd. It was a struggle to keep control, but she felt stronger now, despite an insistent yearning to take another pill. To feel the way she felt in the shopping street. Like an angel. She wondered if that was how it felt to be Gabriel.
     People surrounded them from all sides, asking questions in every possible language about conditions in town and relatives they might have come across. The Emperor barked at them to stand aside, but again they didn’t move. The Emperor got angrier and angrier. Gina watched in horror as his hand went into his coat, to some inside pocket, and she launched herself into the crowd to try and stop him. The wall of bodies refused to part. There were too many of them, and she was too late.
     The Emperor pulled something small and silver out of his pocket, shouted while pointing at the car, and then hurled it out into the crowd. Gina’s heart tightened, expecting it to explode any second, but instead the Emperor seized her by the arm and dragged her towards the terminal. People rushed in from all sides to try and grab the thing for themselves.
     “What was that?” she asked in confusion.
     “My motel key,” he chuckled, cutting through the press like a knife. He wasn’t a particularly big man but he knew how to use shoulders and elbows to amazing effect.
     The inside of the terminal building was even worse. People packed together shoulder to shoulder, huddling like disaster victims. The massive video cube in the middle of the hall showed every flight to be delayed or part of a three-hour landing queue. The Emperor scowled at the throng as a wolf might survey a flock of sheep.
     Meanwhile, Jock’s voice hummed, “I’ve given your flight landing priority. It’s already on the pad and leaving in half an hour. Your passport and equipment is waiting at the main information desk, I suggest you get moving.”
     “This brings back memories.” The Emperor stroked his moustache, then nodded. “We will find the desk. You must subvert security on our gate in the meantime, the new detectors can pick out a holomask in–“
     “Where’s Rat?” Gina interrupted suddenly. People of all sizes and descriptions pressed in around them, but the usual slouching, badly-dressed teenager was absent.
     The Emperor stopped in mid-sentence, closed his mouth with a click of teeth, and muttered a curse. “He was behind us when I looked. He should know better than to fall behind.” Then, “Jock, we have lost contact with Rat. Location?”
     “The tracker says he’s still outside, but I’m not getting anything on radio. He may have turned it off.”
     “We have to go back,” said Gina, but a hard, practical look from the Emperor gave her pause.
     “Out of the question. There is too much at stake, we have to continue.”
     “Too much at stake for you,” she shot back. “I don’t like him either, but we’re not leaving anyone behind.”
     “You’re a fool. I am getting out of here, with or without you. I am going to get Simon, and I am going to get my answers for all of this. If you prefer to play shepherd to children who cannot keep up, then go and don’t bother coming back. Now make your choice,” the Emperor growled.
     The air between them buzzed with electricity as they tried to stare each other down. The Emperor’s will was an irresistible force, but it had never encountered the immovable object of Gina’s stubbornness. Finally she made her decision.
     She turned her back on him and walked through the sliding doors, searching for an annoying brat who would almost certainly not appreciate the effort.
     Men. You’re all the same, she thought venomously. The tiny flicker of Gabriel in her head radiated a sense of amused reproach, but she ignored it.

***

     Only when she took in the massive, milling crowd in front of her did she realise the enormity of her task. Her heart sank into her boots as she saw the hundreds, thousands, idling in the car park and in the street. Some were even duelling with the airport’s emergency fire engines for control of the runways, but the firemen’s high-pressure water cannons gave them the upper hand. Finding Rat in this mess would be like . . . like finding a needle in a three-tier terraced hay farm.
     “It’s impossible.” She heaved a deep sigh, defeated and deflated. But then she felt the hard double bottom of her purse, the nubs of hidden pills pressing into her side, and she knew how it could be done.
     “Shit,” she added for good measure. She hadn’t even come down from her first pill yet. On the other hand, if Rat was in trouble, she couldn’t afford any delays. Even swallowing the dose now, it took a little while for her third eye to open.
     The pill was dry and nasty going down her throat. She looked around for a quiet corner to let it take effect, but every crevice was already occupied. For lack of a better option, she just sat with her back to the wall and prepared herself.
     The trance came over her slowly. It was as if a gossamer veil had been pulled over her head, tearing away when she struggled to her feet. She emerged on the other side of it with her mind thrumming like crystal. Thoughts and emotions reverberated off each other. They were auras rippling out from thousands of unique sources, creating eddies, currents, whirlpools and dead zones in the larger ocean. Gina could see it from the corners of her eyes, where the air shimmered and rippled in unnatural patterns, radiating out from the people around her.
     It nearly overwhelmed her in her still-fragile trance, but then three years of experience made itself heard, and she brought order where there was chaos. The patterns were there, they could be predicted if you knew how. And Gina did. She adjusted to the ebb and flow of the trance, taught herself how to skim along the surface without going in too deep, until it was almost natural. Even so, she remained on guard, afraid of what happened last time. She couldn’t afford to let it spin out of control again.
     She was a shadow flitting through the mass of bodies. Unfelt, unseen. She reached out and skimmed her fingers across the minds of hundreds, only the lightest of touches, trying to find one she recognised. Her mind worked tirelessly to sort the mass of input into individual sensations and filter out the one she wanted.
     For a moment she felt something familiar — but no, only a gaijin suit-and-tie she’d touched on a job two years ago. She discarded it and kept looking. New clusters of emotion drifted in and out of her range, and suddenly she tasted fear. A small knot of it hidden away in a distant corner of the airport. She homed in on it, found it buzzing alone in the middle of some dark thoughts and lusts that made her skin crawl.
     A small electricity substation rose out of the darkness as she neared the spot. It was apparently part of the town’s main power grid; the lights outside were blacked out, and the uneven rim of light peering through from behind the door suggested some makeshift arrangement inside. Before she could make out anything else, a dark silhouette stepped forward and challenged her in Conglom.
     “Go away! You have no business here!” it shouted at her. She reached out to touch him, felt the guilty, furtive protectiveness of a gang flunky guarding some illicit proceeding.
     She smiled and pressed in close with a few soothing words, pretending to be drunk whilst at the same time showing off her chest. He didn’t know what to think of her until all his muscles suddenly stopped working, paralysed by thousands of volts of tasered electricity. He didn’t even have time to call out, just dropped, twitching quietly. Gina kissed her loyal Mk5 — taking care not to burn her lips — and moved to peek through the heavy steel door.
     Several well-dressed people stood in a small semicircle. Gina counted one Caucasian and two Japanese, all in typical black business suits — and a smiling blonde woman with Russian features. She wore an understated blue suit with a bow tie. Gina couldn’t make out what they were saying until she laid her ear against the door, fighting to hear and see at the same time.
     “–surely an inconvenience,” the woman said in Conglom, “but we are professionals. Once we spotted a target matching your needs, we decided to turn a difficult situation into an opportunity. The number of people actually made it easier to cover our tracks. We do hope it wasn’t too short notice.” She added an ingratiating smile at the end.
     “Not at all, Ridley-san,” reassured one of the Japanese. “We are most pleased and impressed at your resourcefulness. But are you certain this is the merchandise we asked for? It looks . . . “
     “Have no fear, sir.” The woman smiled again. At the snap of her fingers, a large, tattooed thug stepped into view manhandling something small and ferocious-looking. The package hurled an impressive variety of muffled curses at the assorted businesspeople. Gina couldn’t see what was going on behind the row of bodies but she recognised the voice well enough despite the commotion, stifling a gasp. She’d definitely found Rat.
     At a second gesture from the woman, there was a sound of ripping cotton, and Rat squealed in horror in the thug’s grip. The people hummed and nodded with approval, moving just enough for Gina to catch a glimpse of exposed, teenage breasts.
     “I told you it was a girl,” chuckled the Caucasian man, tapping the side of his head. Gina felt a stab of horror and panic of her own, then stepped back in alarm as she felt the subtle touches of Spice in the man’s mind. He’d been preoccupied trying to read the other men in the room, but now he sensed Gina, and turned towards the door with a worried expression.
     “Someone’s watching us,” he said.
     The woman’s expression turned to stone. She snapped her fingers again, and Gina started to back away from the door just in time. It flew open, revealing a swarthy, strongly-built man in designer casuals. His dark skin had gone almost completely pink from the sheer number of knife scars forming a twisted network across his face.
     She reached out to him and knew his thoughts. Surprise. He blinked, unsure whether or not to try and grab her. She had a momentary chance to act, but the Mk5 was still recharging in her hand. She felt the temptation to run away and forget about everything. She seriously considered it. What else could she do?
     Then she heard the soft sound of Rat sobbing through some kind of gag, and her body acted without consulting her. The Emperor’s gun jumped out of her purse to train on the scarred man, her white-knuckled fingers gripping the cold steel as tight as they could.
     “That’s far enough,” Gina said, panting. Chemicals and hormones raged through her system, conflicting and confusing, until all she wanted to do was throw up. Her hands shook from the effort of maintaining control.
     “Who the fuck are you?” he asked.
     “None of your damned business,” she said automatically. “Now step back and bring my friend over.” When the man didn’t move, she dropped her forced calm and snarled, “Step back!”
     He did, hands raised carefully in the air. Gina inched into the doorway, felt the cold metal machinery all around them. The Japanese pair backed away from the gun as far as they could. The Caucasian stood aside and looked at her with the detached cynicism of the hired telepath. The tattooed thug still held Rat in a tight grip, but he too backed away. Only the woman stood her ground.
     “I’d be careful if I were you,” the telepath pointed out to the woman, crossing his arms and leaning against the wall in apathy. He wasn’t about to put his life in danger, and he knew that Gina knew it. “She’s high up on third eye, not exactly in a stable frame of mind.”
     “This is a joke,” the woman snorted at Gina. “Look at you, you’re so wired you couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. Put it down before we’re forced to hurt you.”
     Gina held on to the fierce protective instinct burning at her core. She forced steadiness into her voice as she said, “I’ve got fifteen bullets. There’s six of you. Come and try me.”
     That caused the telepath a good, hearty laugh. One of the Japanese cleared his throat and stepped forward. “Perhaps the deal–“
     “The deal goes as planned,” the woman grated. She made some kind of hand signal behind her back, and the tattooed thug acted with chem-boosted speed. He threw Rat into a corner like a rag doll and charged.
     The waves of bloodlust pouring from his mind told his story as well as anything. Gina felt the all-consuming fire of berserker drugs driving him, filling him with addictive rage. His mind was so far gone that he felt little else, unable to do more than eat, sleep, fuck and obey simple commands. There was no fear, no leftover spark of humanity.
     Gina pulled the trigger. Red blossomed from the thug’s shirt, yet it barely slowed him down. She squeezed again, and again, and again, could see the dark little holes it tore in his flesh, but he refused to fall. He was almost on top of her when she fired one last time. His head exploded backwards in a shower of gore. His body took two more steps before it slumped to the ground, twitching in a pool of its own blood.
     The scarred man gaped at the red and grey stains spattered across his expensive jacket. The Japanese cowered in a corner, and the telepath was hunched up against the wall, vomiting quietly. Rat lay limp on the floor in his– her ripped clothes, unconscious.
     Gina dropped her arm, and the gun slipped out of her slack fingers. It clattered loudly to the floor. Tears rolled down her cheeks, but she didn’t even feel them.
     The woman spotted an opportunity and dove for the gun, but a powerful backhand slap stopped her. The scarred man stood over her with a face like a tombstone. Without another word, he ushered the Japanese out the door, threw the telepath out with a bit more force, then picked up Rat in two huge arms and placed her into Gina’s arms, covered by his ruined jacket.
     “That man was my brother,” he rumbled at Gina. “Used to be, a long time ago. She,” he glanced at the woman in the same way he might regard an insect, “killed him. You just pulled the trigger.” Then he shoved her backwards out of the doorway. “Go. I’m going to do some things you don’t want to watch.”
     The door slammed in her face.

***

     Nobody troubled her as she carried Rat back to the terminal, the girl’s slender body wrapped in the scarred man’s jacket. Gina couldn’t say how much time had passed between leaving the Emperor and stumbling into the airport washroom. Nothing from the outside registered, not until she shut the door behind her and dipped her hands in cold water to get the blood off.
     She reached up to scrub her face but paused at the feel of fresh tears trickling down her fingers. The sheer enormity of taking someone’s life weighed in on her. Slaver or not, she’d made him die. She never wanted that. Never wanted any of it, not the Street, not Bomber, not Spice and certainly not the ‘privilege’ of getting to go into people’s sick, twisted minds.
     The only reason she’d resigned herself to the Street was because she wanted to die and was too chicken-hearted to do the job herself. Always thought the pills would do it for her. Now she’d felt someone really die. Felt that thug, that man, while the light of his mind switched off. Nothing left but darkness and cold. It made Gina want to live more than ever.
     “What’s wrong with you?” asked Rat’s voice from the corner, half accusatory and half simply confused.
     “Nothing,” Gina lied. Her brain and body were only just starting to calm down, slowly coming back to normal, or even a more regular kind of upset. The abject horror of the man’s death lingered at the back of her head. For a moment she remembered his face as dark-haired and Russian, with a thick moustache and a silver revolver in his hand, but she knew that was wrong. She quickly shook her head and banished the image from her mind.
     Rat looked around with unfocused eyes, then scoffed, “Don’t look like nothing.” After a moment he– she added, “Fuck, my head. What happened?”
     Gina turned around to look at her, a small shape in a bloodstained white jacket, propped up against a wall of yellowed tiles. Confused, Rat glanced down at her torn top, and Gina saw her face change as the memories returned to her. The girl gasped in horror and pulled the jacket tight around her to hide any sign of skin, fixing Gina with a hostile stare for daring to have seen.
     Gina sighed, “You’ve got nothing I haven’t seen before. I have a pair myself if you hadn’t noticed.” She leaned back against the sink, still unsteady on her feet.
     Finally, Rat forced calm into her voice and said, “Don’t tell anyone.”
     “I won’t.” Gina reached into her purse for a cigarette, found one, but paused before putting it in her mouth. Her mood had changed, and she threw the thing away in disgust. To Rat she asked, “Why?”
     “None of your business.”
     “Fuck if it isn’t,” she snapped. “I think you owe me an explanation after what happened.”
     Anger flashed in Rat’s eyes as she picked herself up from the floor. She was shaking on her feet, but her muscles were fuelled by a hundred churning emotions, echoing back to Gina through the Spice in her bloodstream. Rat hissed, “I don’t owe you shit. I’m a cowboy, a hacker, yeah? I could’ve got myself out of there just as easy. That’s what cowboys do, we get ourselves out of trouble, we don’t need anybody else.”
     “Just as easy.” Gina smiled without warmth. “Are you really that stupid? You’re, what, fifteen years old? Do you know what could’ve happened to you, what nearly did happen to you?”
     “I’m seventeen,” Rat said. “And you can quit lecturing me now. I know what I’m doing.” She turned her back and started to work the torn rags off her body. Bruises and scabs marked her skin from the treatment she’d received.
     Gina barked a humourless laugh. “Really? ‘Cause it seems to me like you haven’t got the slightest idea–“
     “You try being a girl in that crowd!” The scream came out of nowhere, carrying all the soul and fury of a wounded lioness. Rat wheeled around and locked on Gina with tears in her eyes. “Look at you! You should know what it’s like, what boys are like. Being looked down on, never trusted with anything except lying back and spreading your legs for ’em.” Rat clenched her teeth together and choked her emotions down. “You try being a girl with people like Jock and his cowboys. You’re either a piece of meat to be slobbered over or not good enough to be one of them, not ever, even if you’re better than they are. I had to pretend. I’ve always had to pretend.”
     She turned away again and leaned her head against the wall, sobbing quietly to herself.
     A wave of sympathy poured into Gina as the words hit home. Somewhere in that pit of anger and frustration, Gina had started to understand Rat. The bluster, the pretence and posturing, they were her shield against the terrors of the outside world. As long as she believed in her hacker-dom, clung to the sense of power that came with it, nothing could hurt her. But girls couldn’t be hackers, and hackers couldn’t be girls.
     Every trace of anger and hostility left her as Gina stepped forward and put her arms around the crying girl. Rat struggled for half a moment, then accepted the unconditional comfort of her embrace.
     A damaged speaker crackled Chinese from the corner. It repeated the same message in six different languages, each of which tugged at Gina’s mind as she tried to concentrate on comforting Rat.
     “Asia Pacific Air Flight 4121 for Hong Kong has finished refuelling. Final boarding will begin at Gate 7. We apologise for the delay, and Hangzhou officials assure us that power will be restored in a few hours. Please view the flights board for updated departure times. Thank you.”
     Without thinking, Gina took her ticket out of her pocket and glanced absently at the flight number. Then her eyes widened.
     “The power outage,” she said, stunned. Rat didn’t seem to hear her, so Gina gently shook the girl by the shoulders. “That’s our flight! Listen, we can still make it!”
     “To Hong Kong?” Rat sniffled dumbly, and Gina nodded.
     “Bomber still needs us. Come on.” Taking Rat’s hand, Gina quickly buttoned up the stained white jacket around the girl’s shoulders, then pulled her along at a run towards the gates.

***

     “It fits,” Gina said with a critical eye. To be completely honest, the top she’d snatched from the duty-free shop was more than a bit baggy on Rat’s thin, wiry frame, but apparently that was the way Rat liked it. The toilet cabins on the airship offered them just enough privacy to sort themselves out, as well as a good-sized waste bin in which to stuff the bloodstained jacket. That had raised a few eyebrows on their way through the airship, but they’d been in too much of a hurry getting to the gate to stop for a change of clothes.
     “Thanks.” Rat glanced in the mirror and decided herself to be adequately covered. She swept the room for bugs one more time, just in case, but found nothing. It was against the law to bug public toilets, but that didn’t stop some companies or individuals from doing it anyway. She rubbed the dust off her hands and continued, “Where’s my bag?”
     Gina shrugged. “Last I saw, the Emperor had all our stuff. We’ll deal with that after we land.”
     “Okay,” said Rat, crossing her arms. “No point doing anything before then, if he’s wearing a holomask. No way to recognise him.”
     “So we just lay low until we get to Hong Kong?”
     “That’s what I’m gonna do. I’ve had enough . . .” She started to shake, then clenched her fists and forced it down. “Enough excitement for one day,” she ground out between her teeth.
     Gently resting a hand on Rat’s shoulder, Gina said, “Take it easy, okay? You’ve been through a lot.” It sounded lame to her own ears, but it was the only thing Gina could think to say. Rat nodded silently and took a deep breath.
     “I think I’m gonna go plunder the dining compartment,” she said with a weak smile and a glint of mischief in her eye. “You okay being on your own for a bit?”
     “Yeah. I’m going to make a phone call, check up on some friends.”
     “Not on a public phone you’re not,” Rat countered firmly. “Use a VR rig, they’ve got virtual phone utilities built in. No in-betweens, much harder to trace.”
     “Right. Thanks, cowboy.” Gina smiled, and so did Rat before she threw up her hood and put on a fresh pair of sunglasses.
     They went their separate ways at the junction outside. The airship’s deck swayed gently under Gina’s feet, and she quietly thanked the airline for their complimentary seasickness pills. Grey clouds drifted past the ship’s great windows, and the distant lights of other airships were visible in the night sky. The windows themselves were massive round sheets of lexan set into the plastic and steel of the hull, decorated with riveted bands of bronze to make them look like portholes. Of course it didn’t matter that no seagoing ship had ever had portholes that large, or comfortable shag carpeting on the floors. It was the atmosphere that counted.
     She casually made her way through narrow but tastefully decorated corridors, drifting in the general direction of the public VR cubicles — one of the many perks of riding a first-class airship. The air tasted rich and fresh and every corner of the ship contained at least one variety of potted plant. The ceiling stretched high, curving steeply to one side to accommodate the massive helium balloon above it.
     Gina pulled the cubicle door shut behind her, and it slid into its socket with the vague sucking noise of an air seal. Between her and the outside world was a layer of vacuum covered with soundproof padding. Nothing she said could be captured as recognisable speech from the outside.
     The interior of the VR cubicle was made of soft, velvety rubber that moulded itself to the contours of her body. A complimentary bug scanner rested in its socket by the door along with another, smaller bug scanner for scanning the scanner. Very thoughtful. Anyone conducting business in such a cubicle could be moderately confident that no one was eavesdropping.
     She lifted the crown from its cradle and gently put it on, then straightened some of the electrodes which had bent double against her head. The terminal slowly came alive and projected a helpful welcoming hologram of a cartoon girl in a pink dress. When it opened its mouth there sounded a voice so sugary that Gina just wanted to strangle it.
     “Welcome to the Yumito Virtual Fun Experience,” the hologram said chipperly. Sunshine, stars and rainbows played through its hair while it hovered in Gina’s face. “Is this your first time using a virtual reality entertainment station?”
     “No,” growled Gina.
     “Would you like to go through the basic controls with me?”
     “No,” she repeated more forcefully.
     “Do you not wish to receive the tutorial before proceeding?” it said, almost hurt that anyone would try to avoid the prepared advertisement monologue.
     “No . . .”
     “Are you sure you want to proceed without the tutorial?” it hammered on in the same saccharine voice.
     “Yes!” Gina shouted, thumping the machine with the heel of her hand.
     “Thank you for using the Yumito Virtual Fun Experience! We are connecting you now. Please enjoy and be happy!” The hologram smiled, clapped its hands and faded away in a shower of coloured sparks.
     Unlike her experience on Jock’s rig, this time the virtual world slowly eased into her perception, like a photograph superimposed on her eyes becoming more opaque until the real world faded out completely. She took a moment to refresh her recollection of the controls. As long as she was in VR, she might as well have a little fun.
     A full-length mirror with a set of avatar controls followed her around the entrance, asking her if she wanted to change her default avatar. If she wanted, it told her in cartoony red letters, the cubicle could even reconstruct her own body as an avatar. Gina glanced down at the familiar Victorian frock, sighed, and sent the mirror away. A frumpy default avatar might not be fashionable, but it avoided drawing attention.
     “Virtual phone,” she said, and an exaggerated red telephone popped into existence in front of her, complete with antique-style rotary dial and wired horn. She picked up the horn and dialled the number from memory.
     At the beach house of Onounu and Mashei, a phone rang. It went off again and again, but nobody answered except the wind. A line of police tape covered the shattered door. Broken glass blanketed the warm, colourful carpets, and two bodies lay together in a pool of blood. Outside, Shanghai police leaned against their cars and smoked cigarettes to ease the wait for the special investigation team.
     Finally the phone made an incongruous beep like that of an old answering machine. Back aboard the airship, Gina stiffened momentarily, then went limp in her cubicle.

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