The night passed by, dark and dreamless, Gina didn’t stir until the first rays of morning sunlight touched her face. It poured through the glass sliding doors like a river of honey and turned the room to gold.
     Blinking against the brightness, Gina turned over and went back to sleep. She didn’t get long before the alarm clock on the nightstand started buzzing.
     After a few random thwacks failed to turn the thing off, she was forced to wake up in order to search for the ‘off’ button. Sleepy fingers fumbled with the infernal contraption — which had apparently been bolted to the nightstand — but failed to find the proper button. Finally she found the electrical cord and yanked it out of its socket. The alarm died in a satisfying warble of electronic noise.
     Just when Gina had crawled back under the red silk sheets, a voice said, “Begging your pardon, miss, but there’s a call waiting for you. He requested to speak to you as soon as you were up.”
     “Jesus, fine,” she muttered and sat up in her island of sinfully sweet comfort. “Put him through.”
     “Rise and shine, girls,” Jock said chipperly from the video screen on Gina’s nightstand. “I hope you had a good night’s sleep.”
     “We did, actually. What do you want?”
     Jock’s mocking tone didn’t change, but she knew that he was serious when he continued. “I’m here to give you the good news. It’s on. Today.” He let that sink in to her sleep-muddled brain for a moment, then said, “We’re going in before seven o’clock tonight. Probably closer to six. That means that, as of this call, you got maybe six hours to get ready before you need to start getting to the Fed building. I suggest you get on with it.”
     Rubbing her eyes, Gina tried to think, and felt Rat creep up to listen over her shoulder. She asked, “What? Why before seven?”
     “‘Cause that’s when they’re coming in to move him. I got hold of their schedule and a bunch of other stuff to cover up the real objective, and they’re not too happy with me right now.” He chuckled. “Speaking of which, I’m gonna be moving shop as soon as you’re all out and safe. Off east to Laputa, hide out and make sure they can’t find me or anything that might lead to me.”
     “Just make sure you don’t end up the same way,” Rat interjected. “I ain’t coming for your black ass if you get jacked.”
     Gina leaned forward, said, “Can you get in touch with the Emperor? He’s still got all our stuff.”
     “I can’t reach him right now, he’s temporarily out of contact. All according to plan. But I know he’s dumped your bags in a spot near the Fed building, I know where it is, so everything will go smooth as long as you keep to the schedule.”
     “I guess that’ll do. Anything else?”
     “Nope, just remember, six hours is all the free time you got. Better spend it preparing, whatever the hell you ‘paths do. We’re up against the fucking Feds here. I want as wide a margin of error as we can get.”
     “Right. Bye.” Gina hung up with the touch of a button, biting down hard on her tongue. She didn’t want to take Spice again. She didn’t like what it was doing to her anymore. But that was all she was good for, and Bomber needed her help.
     Rat scratched her head and said, “So this is it, huh? The big day?”
     “Looks like it,” Gina agreed. “Better get dressed.”

***

     The Federal Law and Police Hong Kong Building, formerly the Hong Kong State Security Building, formerly the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Forces Hong Kong Building, formerly the Prince of Wales Building, loomed over them like a giant upside-down wine bottle hammered into a block of concrete. It was a monstrosity of 1970s architecture, and neither time nor its owners had been kind to it in its hundred-year lifespan.
     From the outside, the building was an unbroken slab of concrete, although you could still make out the shapes of old bricked-up windows on every floor. An electric fence lined with concertina razorwire kept the grounds free of virtually any living thing. At one time there had been greenery on those grounds, even swimming pools, but all of that had been cut down or filled in. Now there was only tarmac and grey concrete barracks.
     Originally it housed the headquarters of the British garrison in Hong Kong, until they handed it over to the Chinese in 1997. The Chinese held it until Hong Kong won its independence in 2049, just a few years before Gina was born. Hong Kong StateSec turned it from an office building into a fortress. It quickly gained a grim reputation, people being brutalised and tortured in underground cells, and worse. After the big coup, however, the Feds did little to improve the building’s image.
     The square where Gina stood was flanked by long posts, topped with suspicious-looking grey-brown orbs that you could hear moving whenever you turned your eyes away. They each contained about half a dozen cameras, capable of every mode of vision known to man.
     The scariest thing about them was knowing there was nobody on the other side. Every bit of security here was wired directly into the Feds’ own AI, housed somewhere in that gravity-defying atrocity sitting darkly at the heart of Hong Kong Central.
     The sky above it was the deep, dark blue of a coming storm.
     “Do you believe in hate at first sight?” asked Rat, “‘Cause I’m convinced.”
     “I believe it,” Gina said emphatically. She searched around in her head for the little essence of Gabriel. It was weaker now, without the Spice reverberating in her blood, but she could just sense its presence. He didn’t like the building either. She got a strong impression that he didn’t want her to go in there.
     She’d hated this place ever since the Feds took over. Hong Kong State Security hadn’t exactly been full of nice people — in fact, most of them were Feds now — but at least you knew where you stood with the secret police of an oppressive dictatorial regime. You had a general idea what they were up to because every now and again the government would release a grand statement or manifesto, or somebody would have the courage to speak up about torture and the occasional death squad.
     With the Feds, though, nobody talked. Nobody ever talked.
     Six hours had gone by in their full-featured hotel room while Gina did absolutely nothing. She just sat staring out a window, digging up old memories, and then burying them again in a hurry. The sights, sounds and smells of her old home district stirred up some uncomfortable memories. The past touched her more strongly here than anywhere else.
     She was fourteen years old the day the Federation took over Hong Kong. ‘Federation Day’ was apparently the best name anyone could think of, so they took that and ran with it. There were banners on every corner and military cargo jets thundering overhead covering the streets with bright leaflets and artificial rose petals. The world was united — but not before the east-coast of the old United States had been nuked to glass with stolen Russian weapons, and several world leaders had mysteriously vanished or died in tragic accidents.
     The old Hong Kong government capitulated pretty quickly after the president suffered some unnamed mishap in his bathtub. The rich and well-connected of Hong Kong certainly weren’t happy to see the Federation move in, spelling the end for their little golden age of prominence and decadence.
     Hi, Mom, Dad, she thought to herself as she remembered their horrified faces on F-Day. But the Federation did pretty well by you in the end, didn’t it? Isn’t it Mr. and Mrs. Director now? Administrator? Fuck, I forget.
     “Found the bags,” Rat announced over the radio, pulling two amorphous black shapes out of the bushes behind the old City Hall. Gina heard the subdued noise of a zipper. “Looks like everything’s here. What do you wanna do now?”
     “What I want to do is run and don’t look back.”
     “Yeah.” She tapped her earpiece. “Yo, Jock, got the bags and all set.”
     “Good. Find the back gate of the building grounds. Follow Connaught Road Central to the edge of the fence, turn left and follow the fence, keep it on your right. You’ll know the gate when you see it, it’s a vehicle entrance, there’ll be a couple of unmanned rollers and tanks in the parking lot. There’s someone guarding the gate, but don’t worry. Talk to him.”
     “Got it,” said Gina, shouldering her bag. They started walking.
     She made a quick mental catalogue of all the things inside that bag. It contained pretty much an entire super-spy arsenal, and the interior was lined with an X-ray image — a sheet of lead-backed film that, when scanned by an X-ray machine, would show nothing but the contents of an ordinary travel bag. Toothpaste and pyjamas. Just the thing a couple of misdirected tourists would carry.
     The fence seemed to go on for miles. Rat was starting to struggle with her heavy bag and trying hard not to let Gina know. Gina worried that Jock might have been wrong about the gate, but then she spotted it and let out a sigh of relief.

***

     The Fed at the guardhouse didn’t seem to be so pleased to see them. He was a young Caucasian with blonde hair and dark, cautious eyes. He fit his uniform like a Greek statue, and his face had the vaguely square look that the Feds seemed to favour in their constables. Gina waved to him with a smile, which seemed to make him uncomfortable.
     “This is a restricted area,” he said sternly, though trying not to sound belligerent. “I’m sorry, miss, but there’s no loitering allowed. You and your friend will have to keep moving.”
     Okay, thought Gina, talk to him. Christ. Talk about what?
     She put on a slight pout and looked wounded as she stepped closer to him. “Aw, c’mon. You look like you know the place, can’t you at least give us some directions? We’ve been walking for ages and I don’t know where we are.”
     Some of the air seemed to go out of him like she’d just dispelled any possible excitement, and he scratched the back of his head as he said, “How do you get lost in Hong Kong Central? Haven’t you got a GPS?”
     “I’d have one if I could afford it,” she said smoothly, pushing out her chest for the full charm effect. The light of the afternoon sun shone perfectly down her top. “We’re travelling on a budget, like on TV, yeah? Across the world on a thousand dollars a day? We’ve been on target since India, just got here yesterday, but now we just want a place to stay for tonight.”
     The Fed swallowed and pulled his eyes from her chest back to her face. He started to sweat when he caught her wicked smile and let her touch his arm without protest. She murmured, “Maybe you’ve got a place, huh? I could make it worth your while.” And on the inside, Come on, Jock . . .
     “I can’t do that, miss,” he struggled, fighting to keep his discipline. “Not that I don’t want to, but I’m on the job, you see. Besides, I’m just a recruit. I live in the barracks here. What am I gonna do, hide you two in a closet for the night?” He shook his head. “Can’t help you, miss. Sorry. Please move along.”
     “Come on,” she said, getting desperate, resisting as he pushed her away. “Um, just five minutes in the tool shed?”
     He brought up his rifle to keep her at arm’s length and said firmly, “It’s time for you to go, miss. If you don’t move away, I’m authorised to use lethal force.”
     Gina stepped back and dug her hands into her sides. This was not going as well as she’d hoped, and now she was out of ideas. “Jock . . .” she growled under her breath, and almost as if summoned, things began to happen.
     A dark shadow appeared in the space behind the Fed. Before anyone could react, a long arm reached around him and locked an iron grip on his rifle. Fed-trained reflexes tried to twist out of the lock, and almost managed it, but the arms were too strong. An elbow curled around his throat and, with a sharp jerk backwards, snapped his neck.
     The Emperor stepped out of the shadows, slowly lowered the Fed’s body to the ground, and started going through the dead man’s pockets.
     Rat was the first to speak, gawking wide-eyed at the body. “That was awesome,” she whispered.
     “Thank you,” the Emperor grunted. He checked the rifle’s chamber to make sure it was empty, then pulled a holomask over the Fed’s face and started stripping him out of his uniform. “I am not sure this one is entirely my size, but it will do.”
     Coming out of her shock, Gina stammered, “What the fuck did you just do? There’s cameras all over the place! There’s patrols every ten minutes!”
     “Jock disabled the camera circuit and looped it to a recording. Patrols have been temporarily suspended. There is nothing to worry about.”
     “You killed a fucking Fed! Of course there’s something to worry about!” She was nearing hysterics now. “God, you were gonna kill him anyway. Why? You made me talk to him like that, when you knew you were gonna kill him . . .”
     The Emperor didn’t concern himself with answering her. He buttoned up his new uniform jacket, pulled the holomask off the body, checked the inside for stains, then put it on. Finally he buckled something black and tight around his throat below the uniform collar. Gina couldn’t see him with his back turned, but when he finished and got up again, she saw the dead Fed standing there in his place. And also lying on the ground in his skivvies. The two were identical to the naked eye.
     “Are you ready?” the Emperor asked with the voice of the dead man.
     “Yeah.” She swallowed. “Um, yeah.”
     “Oh, sweet! I’ve heard about those,” jabbered Rat, unfazed by the still-warm corpse lying on the ground next to her. “Voice synthesiser, samples someone else’s voice, then straps to your larynx and makes you talk exactly like ’em. Undetectable by the human ear, you need a full voice analyser.” She was grinning ear to ear. “Fuckin’ beautiful. Do I get one?”
     “A bit short to be a Fed, are you not?” the Emperor chuckled. “Just do your part. We’re going inside.”
     Knowing the truth behind the holomask didn’t lessen its psychological impact on Gina. She kept her distance from the Emperor, disguised as he was. The whole thing was too weird to believe, and right now she was afraid to think of what might happen to her sanity if she started believing in it.
     There was no guard at the door. Any remaining life seemed to have left the area with the death of the Fed, and nothing could seem to fill the void that Gina felt around her. A terrible absence of something. The grey landscape fell away behind them, steel-banded concrete giving way to white linoleum and plasterboard. The whole place was antiseptically clean, even the empty reception desk.
     A door marked ‘Staff Washrooms’ opened on their right. A woman Fed in a junior constable’s uniform walked out of it, glowered as she caught sight of them. She obviously resented anyone who dared to show up during her toilet break, making it look like she’d abandoned her post.
     “What do you want, pleb?” she demanded of the Emperor.
     “Look afraid,” he snarled under his breath at Rat and Gina. Louder, he continued, “I caught these two sneaking around outside the gate. They looked suspicious. I checked them, didn’t find anything, but I figured I should bring them in just to be safe.”
     The constable frowned, then sighed, “Yeah, alright. I’ll buzz you in.” The console bleeped when her fingers touched it, and the large armoured door behind her swung open. “Interrogation block’s clear, on you go.”
     “Be careful,” Jock’s voiced echoed in their ears as they marched into the belly of the beast. “Every door here is wired with holodisruptors, metal detectors, everything. Each time I disable security on one they’ll be more likely to notice something’s up. As soon as that AI starts tracking me, we’re on a time limit. Countdown reaches zero before you’re out, I’ll have to disconnect and you’ll be on your own.”
     The Emperor accepted the information without even blinking. “Understood. I will call the door numbers out to you.”
     “Okay. I’ve got some old building plans from the public record, way out of date, but they may be–“
     “That won’t be necessary,” the Emperor decreed. “I’ve been here before.”
     Jock said nothing after that. Gina suppressed a cold shudder and glanced along the featureless white walls, broken only by the occasional bump, gap or shadow. The Emperor stared hard at these whenever one came into view, and didn’t relax until it was safely behind them. Disturbed, Gina reached out to touch the walls, just for the feel something solid — and drew her hand back with a half-swallowed shriek. The wall felt superbly wrong to the touch. It was smooth where it should be rough, it was warm where it should be cold, and slick. It left some kind of residue on her fingertips when she drew away.
     The next thing she knew, the Emperor’s hand was locked around her throat and the eyes that were not his glared balefully into her. He growled, “Be silent or I’ll cut your throat myself. I will not allow you to gamble with my life. Now, I want you to nod that you understand. Don’t speak. Nod.” Gina nodded, and the powerful grip vanished. The Emperor turned away from her and continued to their first obstacle.

***

     It was a simple steel-framed blue door with a key card box mounted to one side and a camera globe above it. The globe was identical to those on posts outside, moving slowly to keep track of the approaching party. The words ‘Security Door’ were written in large red print on the wall next to it, along with a number. A small back-lit sign on the wall pointed its arrow at the door, stating that this was indeed the way to the interrogation block.
     “Door 106, blue,” muttered the Emperor, then ran his stolen key card through the box. The camera globe froze with a click and the door swung open. It made no protest when the Emperor stepped through. “Nice work, Jock. This may succeed after all.”
     Jock snorted at the insult to his professional pride. “Did you forget my ranking, sir?”
     “Never.”
     Again, they met no resistance in the corridor beyond. They passed rows of numbered doors on both sides, all thoroughly soundproofed, but one or two of them bumped and trembled at irregular intervals. Once Gina could swear she heard screams, as if someone had pressed his mouth against the inside of the door and howled with all his might.
     “Holding cells,” the Emperor said to no one in particular. “We’re looking for the black level, three floors down. That is where they will be holding him.” He glanced at Gina and Rat to make sure they understood. “Speed is required. I have not managed to gain access to the prisoner records so we will have to search every cell. Simon will have held out so far, but I’ll be surprised if he lasts until his transport arrives.”
     Gina frowned at him. He seemed to have relaxed a bit, enough for her to dare a question. She asked, “How do you know that?”
     “Simon has training, military anti-questioning indoctrination. Implants, boosted metabolism, everything. It is the only thing that has given us enough time to stage a breakout. Without it, I would be as far away from Hong Kong as possible right now.”
     “Bomber was in the military?” she blurted out.
     “That is my conclusion. I’ve seen the implants. They are not of a kind that is available to civilians, not even to me.”
     “And you didn’t steal them?” chirped Rat, giving him a conspiratorial smile.
     “I may someday. At the time, he was more valuable to me alive.” He held up a hand and pointed to one of the doors leading off the corridor. It was marked with a small moving pictogram of a white silhouetted figure walking up some steps. “That stairwell will take us down to the level above the black level. There’s only one entrance to the black level, and we’ll need to pass a major security checkpoint. Not something we can simply shut down. And there will be guards.”
     “So what do we do? Crawl through an air vent?”
     “Not exactly,” he said softly. He gave Jock the door number for the stairwell and opened it with a swipe of the key card. No security appeared as they went inside and wound down the galvanised steel steps, hard-soled boots clanging against bare metal.
     The white plasterboard decor went on unchanged, even deep underground in a disused stairwell, and that was slightly disturbing in itself. Regardless of the obvious Feds, the place seemed too clean for human habitation. A Fed garrison-cum-prison building wouldn’t exactly feel welcoming under the best of circumstances, but the level of sheer eeriness went further than that. Only a machine could be comfortable here.
     The third door opened as easily as the others. The sense of wrongness only increased when they emerged out in the pastel white corridor. Dozens of featureless cubicles stretched out on either side, blocked up with heavy steel doors and watched by unblinking electronic security. The Feds used these to interrogate some of their more dangerous prisoners, and Gina had to wonder at the people who worked here every day. In the simplest terms, she was standing in a maximum-security dungeon twelve metres under Hong Kong. Not even a proper medieval-type dungeon, either — one of those new-fangled ones where torture was trim and tidy.
     “This way,” the Emperor declared and led on. “Jock, any danger?”
     “Doesn’t look like they’ve found us out yet. You may need Rat to open some locks, though.”
     Rat had her tools in hand before Jock finished his sentence. There was a small bag holding a selection of ordinary mechanical picks, stuck to the back of a little palmtop computer. The computer was wired on one side to a blank slip of plastic the size of a credit card, and to an alligator clip on the other, which could splice directly into any wired connection. A tiny wireless antenna stuck out the top to complete its arsenal.
     They halted at the first off-colour landmark Gina had seen, a large blast door that was painted completely black. Another simple card slot was mounted on the side, and two Feds watched them from a small control room opposite the door. The red mark on their uniforms declared them to be constables on disciplinary review, stuck with the worst of the drudge jobs, possibly pending dishonourable discharge. And it took effort to get sacked from the Feds.
     “What are you doing down here, pleb?” one of the Feds asked in a savage voice, half with suspicion, half with boredom. “You know you don’t have clearance for Level 3.”
     The Emperor shrugged nonchalantly. “My sergeant told me to report here. Got some high-risk prisoners, they need to go into black.”
     “Then why didn’t your sergeant send someone with clearance? We’re not fucking stupid, you know.” He got up and stared hard at the Emperor, but carefully kept Gina and Rat in his field of vision at all times. “We know what you fucking plebs do with the women you get down there. Or maybe you were after the boy?” He glanced at Rat, and there was a flicker of something like pity in his eyes.
     Switching tactics, the Emperor sighed, “Alright, you’ve caught me. It was just the woman, I promise. Come on. It’s not like I can use just any cell, can I?”
     “He’s got a point there, Paul,” said the woman next to him, scratching her head with a pen. “Remember when Wong and Declan tried that? Courts got hold of the camera records, administration dropped both of ’em like a shit-covered brick. Just for doing some little dissident bitch, like it was against the law.” She shrugged and threw a sympathetic glance at the Emperor, the man she thought was a young Fed recruit. With effort she managed to avoid looking at the prisoners the entire time, which — being prisoners — would be beneath her notice. It kept them from becoming human beings, subject to empathy and consideration.
     “Yeah, well . . .” Paul made a face. “Alright, you can use one of the empty cells. But no marks on her, and I want you out before the next patrol, got it? I never saw you, and you weren’t here.” He glanced at Rat again, like he felt he needed to do something, then fixed the Emperor with a hard look. “And you leave the boy alone. No hands-on to minors, that’s where we draw the line.”
     The Emperor gave him a huge smile and thanked him profusely as the door locks disengaged. Half a metre of tungsten-reinforced steel swung open very slowly, moving as if in a dream.
     Gina had watched the conversation with a detached feeling, like watching a horror film from the comfort and safety of your own home, something that couldn’t really be happening in the really real world. Something too horrible to contemplate. She walked along in a haze, through the black door into some kind of airlock, and waited to be led out again.
     “Okay,” sighed Jock, “I took out Level 3 security, but I think I may have tipped off the AI that something’s up. I’ll try to keep it suppressed as long as I can. Hurry, you haven’t got a lot of time.”
     “Roger,” the Emperor growled, taking Gina by the hand and dragging her out of the airlock. His free hand tore the holomask off his head and threw it into a corner, then stripped off his voice synthesiser. To Gina’s shock, his skin was dry, like he hadn’t shed so much as a drop of nervous sweat. “Follow me. If you come across any Feds, there’s stun grenades in your bags. And real weapons should you decide you have the stomach for them. Still, if anyone proves too much trouble, you may call me.”
     He took the Fed sword from his holster and flicked its blade out of the grip like a half-metre switchblade, barely thicker than a steel wire and sharper than any razor. There was a killing smile on his face as he added, “Stealth is no longer an issue.”

***

     Gina peered through the small lexan window recessed into the door in front of her. It looked out onto a little holding cell, one of many along this corridor, consisting of four padded white walls and a lot of empty space. The cell lacked even basic sanitation. The only notable feature was the single white lamp set into the ceiling, bright and terrible like a tiny sun.
     “It’s empty,” she said to nobody in particular. The cells, like the corridor, were as clean and desolate as the rest of the building.
     “The cells are only for keeping people between sessions,” explained the Emperor, jogging down to the nearest branch of the hallway to get his bearings. Finally he motioned for the others to follow him and headed down the branching corridor. “Our best bet is the interrogation room. I know the direction, but I’m not sure how to get there from here. Keep your eyes open, you will know it when you see it.”
     Rat glanced around with a hunted expression, the disturbing sterility of the building started to work on her. “Where the hell is everyone? I thought we’d be up to our eyeballs in Feds and prisoners down here.”
     “You’ve seen too many action movies,” Jock reproached. “They go through prisoners pretty fast. As for patrols, Lazarus — the AI — already does that far more reliably than they possibly could. Any Feds you see are gonna be interrogators or prison escorts. Food, water, security, that’s all handled by robots under Lazarus.”
     The Emperor interjected, “Another reason to keep your eyes open. They may start sending robots that aren’t part of the Level 3 security grid, and I would rather not have a group of armed security bots snapping at my heels.”
     As if on cue, the click of metal feet on linoleum sounded faintly up ahead. The Emperor stopped dead in his tracks and caught Gina with an outstretched arm before she cannoned into him. “Damn,” he breathed. “Quick, hide!”
     Gina whispered a baffled, “Where?” Then Rat caught her hand and dragged Gina into a cell she’d just picked open. As soon as they were sure nothing would see them, they both popped their heads round the door to watch.
     The Emperor moved like flowing silk, slipping soundlessly into a corner. The footsteps clicked closer. They were soft but clear, high-pitched, like they belonged to something small. Something small with a machine gun, most likely. Just when Gina was sure it had to be just around the corner, ready to jump into view and start shooting, the footsteps stopped.
     A few seconds went by in silence. Gina’s heart thumped like an overworked bass drum. Time seemed frozen, nobody daring to move, and Gina almost jumped out of her skin when she heard another click, and another — slightly smaller, slightly softer, slightly farther away. Receding into the distance.
     “It’s patrolling the main artery,” the Emperor grumped. “We should be able to avoid it if we move quickly and quietl–“
     Something pulled Gina’s attention to the door opposite the Emperor’s corner. For a moment it was as if she were looking at that door from the other side, a hand reaching for the handle. Then it swung open.
     A Fed walked out of it, looking over his shoulder, continuing a fragment of conversation with the person inside. “. . . think you’ll change your mind pretty soon, Allie. I really do. Just you . . . wait . . .” His head swivelled round too late to react to the big black shadow moving towards him. The door fell into its lock behind him, cutting off his only possible direction of movement.
     Gina saw the moment of shock when he made eye contact with the Emperor. She saw the blade come down in a flash, so quickly that the Fed had no time to scream. She saw the blood arcing away as the body hit the floor.
     “Jesus,” whispered Rat, paling.
     The Emperor stood over his victim, blood and bodily fluids dripping off his sword. He knelt down to check the Fed’s pulse, then — satisfied that there was none — moved on to checking the Fed’s pockets.
     “Is he . . .” Rat swallowed, unable to finish the question. It was obviously the first time she’d seen real blood dripping out of a real dead body. Life slowly slipping away. Gina, however, couldn’t feel that horror anymore, not after the bodies she’d seen in the street gutters, in the dark alleys, in the remote power substations. To her it was different, something cold and guilty burning deep inside, bringing back unpleasant things she’d seen and done. She did her best to ignore it.
     She squeezed Rat’s shoulder. The momentary nudge of comfort seemed to brighten Rat back up, and the girl’s smile returned.
     Gina picked her way out into the corridor, wilfully avoided looking at the mess, and waited there until the Emperor found what he was looking for. He lifted a small pocket computer to his face for a closer look, then jumped to his feet with a triumphant flash of teeth.
     “Ha! I’ve got it!” he said. “Prisoner records, cell listings, everything I was missing. It’s all here.”
     Again, excitement spasmed in Gina’s belly. “Then you know where Bomber is?”
     The Emperor nodded to himself, dragging his finger down the screen in search of something, then bared his teeth in triumph. “Cell 304. Simon Caine. It is over there.” He pointed to one of the cells they’d already checked. “For the bad news, that cell is empty.”
     “So where’s Bomber?”
     “I’m checking the interrogation schedules,” he said. “It looks like . . . Ai.” Even the Emperor seemed shocked at what he read. “They must be close to breaking him. Nine hours in the interrogation room is almost unheard-of.”
     “Bomber’s tough,” Gina said stubbornly.
     “He will not be tough for much longer. Map!” he growled at the palm computer, and it obeyed with a beep. “Security overlay, and plot a route to the interrogation room.”
     “This is Jock,” a voice said in Gina’s ear. “I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, but I think–“
     His voice disappeared in a burst of static. The next instant, an alarm started howling through the corridors, and Gina had to cover her ears against the noise.
     “TRESPASSERS,” said a very different voice, booming through the radio so loud it hurt. Rat screamed and clawed at her earbug, fighting to get it out. “YOU WILL SURRENDER.”
     Not “I demand your surrender”, thought Gina, or “surrender or die”. You will surrender.
     She tore the earbug out and crushed it to pieces under her boot-heel. There was no doubt in her mind about who — or what — had just spoken to her. It used a human voice and spoke human words, but there was nothing human on the other side of that transmission. Her heart pounded and her stomach heaved, sick with churning emotions.
     The Emperor gritted his teeth, filling his free hand with a gun he’d kept hidden underneath his clothing. “Quickly. We have no time to waste.”

***

     He whirled round the corner and had his gun on target before the security bot could finish its step. Its spider legs jabbed down to brace against the floor, the machine gun on its back started to swivel towards him, but it could only move so fast. Three gunshots roared through the air, and the robot fell to the ground with three smoking holes through its centre of mass.
     Old fires raced through his blood. It had been years since he had need to fire a gun himself, since he’d had to kill out of necessity. So many years, so much time spent on building an empire, on diplomacy and exchanging favours. Wasted. All of it, wasted.
     His only thought now was of revenge. Revenge on the Feds, revenge on his traitorous fellow Triad Lords, and revenge on those who cost him his fortress. Not necessarily in that order.
     He ran dead ahead down the new corridor, surprising a Fed who was responding to the disturbance. Hardly a challenge. The Fed dropped with a bullet through her brain before her helmet had a chance to deploy.
     They didn’t know what they were up against. Fed nerve-boosting and combat implants were good, but restricted. Held down by laws and regulations. The Emperor got his boosts in the back alleys of Hong Kong and Singapore, where the supposed limits of the human body had no meaning. He was limited only by the speed of thought.
     They were all going to pay.
     Gina clutched her head and bit back a scream as her consciousness ripped back into her own body. Head spinning like a whirlwind, she dropped to her knees and doubled over, burying her head in her arms. This couldn’t happen, she told herself. It was impossible. She hadn’t taken any Spice, she shouldn’t be hearing anybody’s thoughts, much less have the Emperor’s elemental rage slammed into her brain like a hot iron. The experience was overwhelming, the images still flashed on her closed eyelids. For a moment she felt the little piece of Gabriel inside her, trying to warn her of something, but she couldn’t make it out. The only thing she knew was that the Emperor hadn’t stopped to wait, and now Rat dragged her bodily to her feet and pulled her along.
     “Come on, girl,” panted Rat, hauling at Gina’s hand and trying to keep up with the Emperor at the same time. “Now’s not the time to have a meltdown! You gotta keep going!”
     “I . . .” A massive wave of nausea crashed into her, robbing her of the ability to speak. She stumbled blindly after Rat, lost to the world. By sheer willpower she managed to swallow her gorge, but any semblance of strength went out of her again the moment the Emperor called a halt.
     Her vision narrowed to tunnels framed with red and black, like looking through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars that was also on fire. Ash people danced in front of her eyes and the skin of her fingers seemed to flake away in a scorching wind. A terrible sensation blazed behind her eyes, the tearing-cobwebs feeling of the Spice trance but not quite — as if something had jammed a wedge into her third eye and was forcing it slightly ajar.
     “The interrogation room is on the left here,” the Emperor said, peeking around the corner. “End of the corridor. There may be guards. We have no time for games, so pull yourself together.” He snorted contemptuously. “There’s–“
     Nobody had heard the Fed approach, not even the Emperor. Only Gina felt an itching sensation behind her eyes, almost forcibly pulling her head around until she looked behind her — directly into the barrel of a Fed assault rifle. Ice shot up her spine, and her gaze skipped upwards to a pair of dark, goggle-shielded eyes, narrowed in judgement. He looked into her as she looked into him.
     He settled the rifle’s stock comfortably into his shoulder, let out a long breath, and pulled the trigger. The bullet cracked through the air towards her, crossing the half-metre of distance in an instant.
     And missed.
     Suddenly the Emperor’s sword was sticking out of the Fed’s head, and they were running again, Rat pulling Gina along like an ambulatory sack of grain. “Move!” Rat shouted at her. “There’s more of ’em right behind us and I’m not gonna carry you!”
     Gunshots rattled from behind them as they plunged headlong towards the interrogation room. The door swung open, and a large security bot came tromping out in the middle of loading its weapons, shaped like an oversized ostrich with machine guns for wings. Then it vanished in a cloud of grenade smoke, steaming pieces of metal littering the blackened floor.
     A bullet panged off the steel door the same instant that Gina disappeared behind it, and the Emperor slammed it shut after her, chest heaving from exertion and excitement. Inhumanly-quick hands drew a pocket knife from somewhere and jammed it into the lock to keep it from opening again.
     “How long’s that gonna hold ’em?” asked Rat, a big grin on her face, still having the time of her life.
     “Long enough,” the Emperor panted. He took a quick look around the room and kept his gun ready. Once he was satisfied that nothing was actively trying to kill him, he checked Gina for bullet holes, finding none.
     “You should be dead,” he growled accusingly, and the haunted expression on Rat’s face implied agreement. Their eyes were on her like a group of medieval villagers might survey a suspected witch.
     “Why’re you looking at me like that?” she gasped, teeth chattering with residual terror.
     The Emperor’s lip curled in disgust. He stepped back from her unsure whether or not to kill her on the spot. “I saw it happen. Nobody could miss from that range. It was unnatural.”
     “Can’t we just be happy that I’m still alive?” she said. That reasoning didn’t seem to impress the Emperor, but he looked away and lowered his gun, concentrating instead on their surroundings.
     The moment Gina actually looked at the place, her skin started to crawl. Even the pure white walls couldn’t disguise the purpose of this room. They could not disguise the tables and chairs with strong plastic straps. Not the concrete floor scarred with the marks of high-pressure hoses, attempting to clear away the curious stains around the drains in the floor. Not the generator in one corner with its bare electrodes, not the large tub of red-clouded water. Not the display racks full of sharp things, all clean and shiny, but with just enough visible wear on them to show that they’d been used. Pain and horror were embedded into the very air.
     An older Fed, a woman with greying hair, came out of an unseen part of the T-shaped room wearing an exasperated expression. She saw the Emperor’s uniform and started, “Well! What the hell is all this commotion–“
     The Emperor’s gun was at her throat before she could finish her sentence. “Be silent,” he commanded, and was obeyed. “We are looking for a friend of ours who is being kept here. He goes by the name ‘Simon Caine’. You will take us to him, won’t you?”
     Swallowing the lump of fear in her throat, the Fed bobbed a slow, careful nod. She obviously didn’t want to set off the homicidal maniac. Instead she put up her hands and turned around, leading the way to the far end of the room. An open door waited on the right, and through it another small, cube-shaped room.
     That room was more horrible than anything she’d seen. It was empty. Completely blank except for something resembling a dentist’s chair, sprouting robotic arms that ended in needles and tubes of liquid, heavy straps holding a body in place. Gina could feel the charge of static electricity in the air as she followed the Emperor inside. The residual power of a massive hologram generator. When she came closer, she saw that the body was a man in an orange jumpsuit whose eyelids had been pulled back by tiny robotic hooks, forcing him to watch. Intelligent eyedroppers watched his eyes and watered them as needed. Everything had to be kept in top condition, after all.
     She saw the man’s face, and her heart broke when she recognised Bomber, his body taut as a wire and twitching like a madman. The only sound were his moans and gasping breaths.
     For the longest time she couldn’t tear her eyes away from him. But then she noticed the Emperor, looking around the room and not liking what he saw. His face twisted slowly into an expression of such ice-cold rage that Gina backed away, pulling Rat with her.
     It was a good thing she did. In a single smooth instant, he shoved the Fed against the wall and blew her brains out.

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