Gina’s body rested on a pile of soft leaves. Golden sunlight played through the lush, green forest canopy above her. There was no wind, however, not a leaf moving out of place. Gina noticed the strange silence, completely barren of animal life. The air itself had a familiar dreamlike quality to it.
     Gina eyed her surroundings for a minute, then sat up and said, “Again?”
     This time there was no one there. No Gabriel, no one else, just her. Her feet made no sound when she came upright, looking around the fuzzy forest glade. The ground seemed solid enough to walk on, but the dirt and leaves never sunk or crumpled, just motionlessly supported her weight in stark opposition to the laws of physics. It was more like a photograph of a place, not a real location at all.
     As she reached the edge of the glade, faint sounds piqued her interest. Water. Soft, rolling murmur of ocean waves. She made her way down the incline towards the sound, and when she reached the bottom, the forest fell away on both sides.
     Gina was on a beach. Again, the sand refused to take footprints, but at least here was something moving. The ocean was blue, alive and beautiful.
     A woman stood ankle-deep in the water. The surf lapped calmly at her feet, and she stood staring out across the sea, her arms at her sides and her hands balled into fists. Great red wounds were torn into her body, but there were no bones or organs inside. The only thing that came out was blood, slowly trickling down her legs to mingle with the waves.
     The woman was stark naked, Gina realised, and so was she. She felt a sudden burning moment of self-consciousness, but then it was torn away as recognition hit Gina like a sledgehammer.
     “I’ve always loved this place,” the woman said in a husky, knowing voice that Gina knew all too well.
     Gina opened and closed her mouth a few times, stammered, “Onu?”
     “Gina.” Onounu waved goodbye to the ocean, then turned to Gina with a warm smile and hugged her fiercely. The wounds on her body were gone, disappeared, without so much as a stain remaining. “I was hoping you’d call.”
     “But you can’t be here,” Gina argued weakly, lost in the surreality. “You’re in Shanghai . . .”
     Onounu shook her head. “No need to worry about that now. I’m here to help you, that’s all that matters.”
     “What’s going on? What is this place?”
     “Difficult to explain. It’s a recording I made, just in case. I wanted to make sure I could reach you if I . . . couldn’t talk to you in person.”
     “Couldn’t what? What do you mean?” Disentangling herself from Onounu’s arms, Gina stepped back and looked at the woman in front of her, and a terrible sense of dread squeezed tight around her heart. “You . . . You . . .”
     “I know. I’m dead. That’s the bad news.”
     Tears fogged Gina’s eyes from the horrible sense of loss that nearly overwhelmed her. She sank back into Onounu’s embrace, clinging to the image of her friend for comfort. “Oh my God . . .”
     Onounu stroked Gina’s hair and said, “Hush, girl. You’ll have plenty of time to grieve for me later. Listen to me, I can’t keep you here for long and we need to talk.” She took Gina’s hands and squeezed them gently. “Hang in there, just for a while, okay?”
     Gina looked up at her, saw the pleading in Onounu’s otherworldly brown eyes, and knew that she couldn’t afford fall apart now. It took strength she didn’t know she had, but somehow she willed herself back together.
     “Okay,” she said at last, forcing herself to pay attention. “I’m listening.”

***

     Taking Gina’s hand, Onounu led her across the beach to a high, narrow wooden house, its bright blue paint flaking slowly in the wind. Gina’s eyes stung at the sight of it, but she kept walking. The doorway was open. Its shattered door lay outside on the gallery. Gina followed Onu inside, looked at her bare feet walking across the broken glass without discomfort. She spotted an old brick of a phone in the corner of the main hallway, and it seemed to be playing back a tape without sound.
     “This is where we died,” Onu said tranquilly.
     “How?”
     “Bullets, mostly.” She smiled at her own gallows humour. “He was there.”
     Gina knew instantly who she meant by ‘he’. The well of dark emotions inside her stirred, and she choked, “It’s my fault. I got you into this.” The words just made her want to cry. “I’m so sorry.”
     A sharp squeeze of her shoulder brought Gina back to attention, and she found herself staring in confusion into Onounu’s businesslike expression. “Let’s face facts, Gina. You may not have known what you were bringing, but I had my suspicions. We were doomed the second I let you cross my doorstep. Don’t have any illusions about that. You’re my friend, you needed help, and I’d do it all again. Guilt profits no one. Right now, I need you to know what happened.”
     Onounu closed her eyes, and suddenly her forehead split open to reveal a third eye, white and blind and wise beyond comprehension. Motion sickness overcame Gina, and she bent over retching, until a hand dragged her back upright and she found herself staring into Gabriel’s face.
     She sat on her knees in front of him, holding her bruised ribs. Gabriel radiated sympathy as he squatted down to face her up close. His gentle fingers stroked the hair from her eyes and the blood from her lips.
     “I’m sorry my men treated you so badly,” he said. “They were under the impression that you’d know where I can find someone. A girl by the name of Gina. She’s travelling with a man, brown hair, average height, average build. Goes by the alias ‘Simon’.”
     “No,” said Onounu’s voice, struggling to speak through her swollen lips. Everything hurt.
     Gabriel stared into her. She resisted it with every ounce of her strength, and his eyes widened in surprise as he found himself stopped unexpectedly for a moment. Then — gently, with respect — he pushed down her will to strip her bare. And found his answers. He couldn’t look away from her, utterly crestfallen. The disappointment in his eyes seemed to lash at her very core, hurting her far more than any beating could’ve done. He looked down, saying, “You really don’t know, do you?”
     She shook her head. In that moment, her heart nearly burst with pity and love for this man, and she would have done anything for him. Anything. She knew she’d lost, and she didn’t care.
     Sound of glass shattering. One of the men in Onounu’s vision went down in a spray of blood, machine gun bullets tearing through the air in a hurricane of death. Gabriel let out an unmanly sound of surprise and dove for cover, cursing under his breath, pulling Onounu with him. He seemed chagrined by the whole situation, that someone managed to get the drop on him.
     “Shit,” he said. “Didn’t feel them coming. Time to get the hell out of here, gentlemen. Bring the women along, I don’t want anything happening to them.”
     Another rip of gunfire. The bullets simply blew through the walls as if they weren’t there, and the upturned table in front of Onounu exploded in a shower of deadly splinters. Time seemed to slow down as they pierced into her, her body thrown backwards by the force of their impact. The next thing she knew, Gabriel knelt over her with pity in his eyes, half-obscured by a red smear of blood over her eyes.
     A cold voice boomed from outside, “This is the Federal Police. Surrender now. We won’t ask again.”
     “You never asked in the first fuckin’ place,” Gabriel growled under his breath while he waved his remaining men out the back door. To Onu, he sighed, “Things never go according to plan, do they?” With her last remaining strength, she managed to touch his knee, and he nodded. “I’ll give her your love.”
     Gina became herself again as the vision went black, found herself back in the house alone with Onounu. The terrible emotions left her breathing hard and ready to break down crying.
     “He broke me, just like that,” Onounu whispered. Shame and horror carved dark lines in her face. “Not with torture. Not with hate or malice. Gently.”
     There was nothing Gina could say. Nothing she could do to make it better. So she stayed quiet and bit back her tears. At length Onounu collected herself and resumed her determined look. She continued, “I needed to warn you, so I made this before I died. You’re going to come up against him, Gina. I wasn’t strong enough. You’re going to have to be stronger.”
     Sudden despair filled Gina at the thought. “You’re joking. How could I be? You were stronger than me, you always were.”
     “I’ve been working on something to help you. After you showed me that artifact in your head, I thought you might need it. Come on outside, listen.”
     They went out onto the beach together, and Gina felt the soft rustle of the waves wash over her. But that was all she could hear. She started to look around, wondering what Onu meant, and then she really heard the ocean for the first time.
     A soft melody played in the rush of the water, each wave a different instrument. Together they played something Gina knew she’d heard before, like shreds of a song that she’d once listened to but couldn’t quite remember. It refused to take a solid form in her mind.
     “Remember the tune,” Onu said. “It’ll help you.”
     “What does it do?”
     She giggled, “That’d be telling.” But when Gina threw her a look, her twinkling eyes gave in, and she amended, “You’ll know when you need it. Trust me. I don’t have time to explain.” She glanced over her shoulder at a point far down the beach, stared at it for a while. Then, “I’ve got to go now. Mashei’s waiting for me.”
     “No!” Gina reacted violently. “Stay. I need you with me.”
     “I wish I could, girl, but it’s not up to me.”
     “Please,” Gina whined, her voice cracking, and clung tight to Onu’s hands. “I don’t want you to be gone.”
     The smile on Onounu’s face was the most heartbreaking thing Gina had ever seen. She said, “We’ll be fine, Gina. Let me go.”
     The long, slender hand fell from Gina’s grasp, and Onounu expelled a heavy sigh before she set off down the beach. Gina stayed behind.
     “Onu?” Gina said softly after only a few steps.
     Onounu turned. “Yes, Gina?”
     “One last thing . . .” She hugged her elbows and studied Onounu’s face as she asked, “Why am I naked?”
     “Oh. Um.” Onu flashed a mischievous and slightly guilty smile. “I always wanted to see. You know, just once before I kicked off.” She shrugged, blushing. “Sorry.”
     Gina couldn’t resist a smile. That was Onounu, all right.
     “See you around,” she said.
     “I’d be worried if you do,” murmured Onounu. “Goodbye.”
     Drowsiness overcame her as she watched Onounu’s tall, stately figure recede into the distance.

***

     She woke up encased in a bubble of soft rubber and a throbbing headache. The first thing she saw was a line of text dancing in front of her eyes, saying, “User timeout exceeded. Connection closed.”
     She lifted the VR crown off her head and put it back on its cradle. The ‘Please return equipment to cradle’ light on the door blinked off, and the button marked ‘Open door’ blinked on. The door made a soft hiss when she touched the button, then popped open.
     “Ladies and gentlemen,” said a soft, female voice over the intercom system, “we are now arriving at our destination, Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok. Please return to your seats so that we may begin landing procedures.”
     Alarmed, Gina checked the time readout inside the cubicle, only to find that all fourteen hours of the flight had passed her by. Muttering curses under her breath, she picked up her belongings and scrambled out of the cubicle to get back to her seat.
     Rat was waiting for her in the window seat by the time she got back. “Where have you been?” the girl asked. “Haven’t seen you since we split. I tried buzzing the cubicles but nobody squelched back.”
     “Sorry, I was pretty out of it,” said Gina. “Spent the whole trip off my tits in that cubicle.”
     “Yeah. VR’s like that.” She produced some painkillers from a jeans pocket and handed them to Gina, who swallowed them gratefully.
     “Down we go,” Gina sighed, making herself comfortable in the soft, roomy chair. Money was a great thing, but in lieu of that, having a hacker on her side would do.
     The airship swayed gently in the wind. It eased down towards the ground in a slow spiral, lowered its landing hooks, caught them on the moorings, and pulled itself the rest of the way in. Within minutes people were on their feet and collecting their luggage.
     They passed uneventfully through the security gates. The guards there looked worried and annoyed, as if their equipment wasn’t performing quite right and they were just keeping up the pretence in the hopes of giving a good impression to anyone travelling first-class.
     “Welcome to Hong Kong,” said a woman on the other side of the gate, repeating it mechanically over and over while handing out fliers. “Enjoy your stay. Welcome to Hong Kong. Enjoy your stay.”
     Gina remembered wading through the clean and well-lit terminal, out the revolving doors, into the parking lot. Rat tried her phone again once they were outside, but couldn’t manage to get through to Jock. Cursing, she put it away again and flagged down a sky-blue taxi on her own initiative. Gina didn’t mind. She was happy to delegate responsibility for a little while.
     “Mandarin hotel,” Rat said to the driver after they settled into the slightly sticky back seat. “Fast’s better than slow.”
     Gina daydreamed the trip away, thinking of the past, the relative peacefulness of her life just a week ago. A wave of crushing sadness overcame her whenever her thoughts turned to Onu and Mashei. She swallowed a sniffle and wiped away the oncoming tears, but nothing could take away the burning guilt deep inside. And then there was Gabriel. Her confused feelings for him didn’t help any.
     “Did you say something?” asked Rat, and Gina shook her head. “Okay. Just thought I heard you talk, is all. Yo, greaseface, is that the hotel?” she asked the cabby.
     “Yep. That’ll be six hundred and twenty dollars. Cash or card, I don’t care, just make up your mind.”
     Rat paid him. They’d barely climbed out of the taxi when her mobile beeped, and she answered it with a flippant, “Fashionably late, huh?” She beckoned for Gina to lean in closer.
     Jock’s voice buzzed, “Yeah, been talking to the Emperor. He’ll join back up with you later. Are you at the hotel yet?” He didn’t wait for a response. “Ah, good. I’ve booked you a reservation under my handle, just give the desk clerk your aliases when you check in. Everything secure. Don’t abuse the service too much, though, we don’t want to be bad guests.”
     “Are you sure it’s safe to stay here?” Gina asked uncertainly. “I mean, what if Gabriel traces us again?”
     Jock snorted his disbelief with a generous helping of condescension. “Are you kidding? Haven’t you ever heard of the Mandarin? Their client registry is kept only on paper and gets locked into a tungsten-reinforced vault every night, where it’s guarded by a small army. The people who stay here are so rich that nobody can afford to bribe the staff. These hotels are the safest places to stay in the world. Not even the Feds have managed to get their hands on a Mandarin registry.” He smiled so hugely that Gina could sense his smugness over the phone. “Forget advertising, forget tourism, forget IT. Anonymity services are the industry of this century.”
     “And you wanna know the best thing?” Rat chimed in, excitement in her voice, causing Jock to let out a chuckle. “Hackers stay for free. We’ve got an understanding with them, y’see.” Grinning, she started towards the door and said, “Catch you later, Jock. We got five stars waiting for us.” Then she hung up.
     The building before them looked like the unholy union of a Greek temple and a sports car. Everything shone in that mass of polished granite and marble, but it was all done up in austere tones and marked by a touch of restrained elegance. It was aerodynamic. The architect had to be a genius, Gina reckoned, because despite everything it somehow managed to look attractive.
     The same style could be seen across the lobby. Rich but not excessive carpeting, comfortable but not indulgent chairs, lush but not ostentatious plants, and an opulent but not cluttered bar-restaurant. Syrupy golden light splashed everywhere from globes that dangled on invisible wires from the ceiling.
     They cut through the main lobby to the massive semi-circular hotel desk, a solid barrier of exquisitely carved and polished wood, behind which stood a gaunt moustachioed man watching them with wary eyes.
     “Can I help you?” he asked in a painfully neutral voice. He was trying hard not to offend anyone just in case Rat and Gina were not the deadbeats they appeared to be.
     Rat beamed him a huge, uncharacteristic smile. “Hello, we’re checking in on behalf of Mr. Jock Reynolds. I believe he made reservations for us. My name’s Rat, and this is Beauty.”
     Wordlessly the clerk turned to check the name in his book, and absorbed the information without so much as a twitch. “Very good, sir. Please give Mr. Reynolds our compliments.” He scribbled some notes and pressed a few buttons embedded in his desk. “Room 207, down the hall on your right as you leave the elevator. The door is unlocked, you’ll find your keys waiting for you inside. Do you require help with your luggage?”
     “We can manage, thank you very much,” Rat said, enjoying the exchange perhaps a bit too much. “Does it come with room service?”
     “All our rooms come with room service, sir.”
     “That’s great, that’s really great.” Rat turned away with a casual wave of her hand and said, “Thanks again!” as she started towards the elevators. Gina kept pace beside her.
     Glancing over her shoulder, Gina muttered, “Could you try not to piss off all the hotel staff?”
     “Relax, it’s not like they’re gonna kick us out.” She gave Gina a friendly punch on the shoulder. “Come on, it’s a free ride, baby! Live a little!”
     “Okay, fine. I’ll live,” she said reluctantly, unconvinced.

***

     Inching into their hotel room, Gina knew that there’d been some mistake. The Hilton paled in comparison. The floors were a soft shade of red, the ceilings white and towering, and the walls sloped out on both sides to give the customer an open feeling. A massive set of glass sliding doors led out onto the almost overgrown veranda, bathed in silver moonlight. Other rooms had their own terraced gardens sprawling out above and below, a great man-made slope of marble and concrete down to an open swimming pool at the very heart of the structure.
     Viewed from this side, the Mandarin stopped being a hotel and became more like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
     It was a relentless assault on her lower-class social status. Elegantly comfortable furnishings, all the electronics her heart could desire, a bed the size of a small country. Off to one side stretched the palatial bathroom, with a hot tub big enough to drown a whale.
     Gina now had her very own tightly-uniformed 20-year-old valet. And a maid.
     And despite all that, there wasn’t a single bug to be seen. The hospital handed out bug scanners, listed phone numbers of independent security retailers, and offered to relocate anyone to a room they might feel more comfortable in, just to prove that this hotel could be trusted.
     “Fucking hell,” she said at length.
     “Yeah,” Rat agreed. “Yeah.”
     “You stayed here before?”
     “No.”
     “I’m not sure I want to go in. I might get lost,” Gina whispered.
     “I’m not sure I’d mind,” said Rat. “Come on.”
     By the time they’d finished exploring the room, the servants were gone and a tray of cold drinks had materialised on the table. Several perfect cubes of ice bobbed around in the multicoloured liquids. Gina had no doubt that, if the drinks went untouched for a while, they’d disappear as surreptitiously as they’d arrived.
     Flopping down on the high-tech foam bed, she asked, “So what’s the deal with this place? Why do hackers stay for free?”
     Rat talked in between mouthfuls of snacks. “It’s part of an agreement they made with the Hacker Nations. The Mandarin gives free rooms and a place to hide to us Citizens, and the Nations take care of the Mandarin’s security and makes all the Citizens swear not to try and hack one of the hotels. According to Country law, anyone who tried would get his Citizenship revoked, his accounts seized, and he’d get stricken from the hacker ranking. That’s pretty much full-on banishment from the Nations.”
     “Christ. Has anyone ever managed it?”
     “Heh, you don’t get it, do you?” Rat smiled. “That’s the official penalty. If someone ever actually managed to hack the Mandarin, d’you really think word would get out? That they’d ever let it go to trial? None of ’em would get another client in this lifetime.” Lowering her hood and taking off her sunglasses, Rat’s smile turned into a grin. “No. What they do is take ’em behind the chemical sheds and . . .” She folded her hand into a pistol shape and mock-fired it. “I hear there’s a few bodies.”
     Gina decided she didn’t want to think about that right now. Gracefully changing the topic, she said, “So when are we going after Bomber?”
     “Don’t know yet. Soon. If the Feds have got him, we can’t wait too long. Feds don’t piss about.”
     A sudden snort of amusement burst out of Gina’s nose. “Speaking like you’ve done this before.”
     Looking sheepish for a moment, Rat said, “Well, I bust myself out of minimum-security once.” Even she seemed to think it was painfully inadequate. “No Feds, though . . .”
     “We’ll just have to do the best we can. I’ve seen Feds, I know what they’re capable of.” Gina shuddered at the memory. “God, I’m tired.”
     Rat looked around suddenly, snapped her fingers in annoyance. “Then I guess we’re gonna have to bunk together. This is the only room we got on the reservation.”
     “Jock,” Gina growled.
     “Yeah. Must’ve had a good laugh over putting a boy and a woman in the same room. Idiot.” She shrugged and started to take her clothes off, moving just a touch woodenly, as if the thought of baring flesh in front of someone was uncomfortable. “Oh well. You already know. No point being shy, huh?”
     Then she stopped to think about something, and asked over her shoulder to Gina, “You don’t snore, do you?”
     “Me?” yawned Gina. “Never! I’m a proper lady, you know. Me, snore, the very thought . . .”
     She yawned again, mumbled some more unintelligible things, and drifted off — still in her clothes — with sounds like a revving chainsaw.

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