“What do we do now?” asked Rat. She stood over Bomber with her hands hovering a few inches above him, feeling like she should do something but too afraid to touch. The creeping horror of the building had finally wiped the grin off her face.
     “Cut him loose,” the Emperor ordered, tossing her a sheathed Fed sword from the corpse. Rat took a moment to figure out how to deploy it, then started sawing through the tough fabric. To Gina he said, “Talk to him. He knows your voice, remind him who he is and where he is.”
     Gina nodded in response. She stepped up and took Bomber’s hand in hers, felt the whipcord tension in them. She opened her mouth to talk to him, and she realised she didn’t have a clue about who he was. Much less what to tell him.
     “I don’t know what to say,” she said in a small, humiliated voice. How insane it all was — how insane she had to be! She nearly died for someone she didn’t even know.
     Bomber let out a deep breath, and all the tension seemed to flow out of his body until he hung limply in the chair. Rat stepped back in surprise and alarm, accidentally nicking him on the hand with the sword. He didn’t move or cry out as blood welled up out of the wound. Gina rushed to check for a pulse.
     “Still breathing,” she sighed with relief. “Don’t do that to me, you bastard. We’ve come all this way. You can’t croak on me now.”
     She reached out to take his hand. His fingers wrapped loosely around her thumb, empty of strength but not of will. Her free hand found the button to release the hooks on his eyelids. They swung away, and Bomber shut his eyes as tight as he could, like he wasn’t sure this rescue wasn’t another of the room’s terrible illusions.
     Rat moved around to the other side of the chair, cut the straps, and pressed a patch against Bomber’s neck. “Antidote,” she said by way of explanation. “He’s doped up on muscle relaxants and psycho shit. This’ll help.”
     “What kind of psycho shit?”
     Rat didn’t look happy about hearing that question. After a while, she answered, “The kind that’ll make you believe any fuckin’ thing you see. Fucks with your mind bad, real bad.”
     “Enough to get past his training?” asked Gina, one eye on the Emperor guarding the door.
     “A good knife could do it if wielded with care and patience,” he said with the voice of experience, a faint smile on his face. The smile quickly disappeared when he added, “Feds, however, are not the careful or patient sort.”
     “Right.” She gently clasped Bomber’s hand to her chest, beaming a fragile smile down at him. “Hey, Bomber. Or Simon. Whatever the hell your name is.”
     Glassy eyes swivelled to make eye contact with her, though they didn’t quite seem to understand what they saw. She reached out to touch his forehead. It was slick with the cold sweat of panic and helpless effort.
     “It’s okay to come out now,” she continued. “You’re safe. At least for a while, I think. We still need to get out of here, but that’s for later. First things first. Um.” She glanced around. “I’m not sure how to tell you this, but you’re about twenty metres underground in the Fed building in Hong Kong. They’ve been . . . doing stuff to you.”
     Bomber blinked a couple of times, focusing on a spot several inches above her head, and said, “I know.”
     She almost cried out when she heard his voice, and blurted, “You’re back!”
     “I think so,” he said, his voice weak and hoarse from screaming. “What took you so long?” The corners of his mouth curled up into the ghost of a smile.
     “You were counting on us to rescue you?” blurted Rat, astonished.
     “Of course. Why else would I turn myself in?” He lifted a hand to his forehead to rub his eyes. “God, I feel like shit.”
     “Hold on, hold on,” Gina said. “You turned yourself in?”
     “Gina,” he looked up at her like a man confronted with the sight of the sun after a long time underground, “I found out some things. About Gabriel, I mean. Until he got wind of it. Wasn’t very happy about people snooping into his past. His guys tried to grab me, boxed me in. I couldn’t get out. So I bust into the police station and confessed some things. Then they turned me over to the Feds.” A shadow passed over him for a second, but he quickly shook it off. “Listen, I know where we gotta go.”
     Her stomach did backflips at seeing him again. Emotions churned in her belly — excitement and fear, fondness and dread, lust and pity, and a whole mess of others. She hesitated and stammered as she spoke. “T-Tell me about it later. Later. We need to get you out of here, right now.”
     For once he didn’t argue with her. Instead he gripped the sides of the chair and swung his legs down to the floor, slowly putting weight on them. After a few cautious seconds, he satisfied himself that he could indeed stand upright. “I think I’m okay to walk. You guys got a plan?”
     All conversation stopped short when his eyes met the Emperor’s. The two men stood facing each other, and the Emperor’s face showed no sign of emotion at their reunion.
     “Simon. Did you perform that favour I asked of you?” the Emperor asked in a silky soft tone of voice.
     “I did,” he said.
     The Emperor nodded in acceptance of this fact. “Good.” The next instant his gun was aimed unerringly at Bomber’s head. “Then we are done. Any last words?”

***

     “What the hell is this?” demanded Gina, looking back and forth between the two of them. The gun hung in the air at the end of the Emperor’s arm, waiting to be fired in an act of summary execution. The serene smile on his face made her angrier than anything she could remember.
     Bomber answered, “He’s decided I’m no longer of any use to him. I’ve paid my debts. I’m not an asset to him anymore, just a liability.”
     “How delicately you phrase that,” the Emperor chuckled. He kept both eyes on Bomber as he told Gina, “Drop your bag, please. And your purse. I am not about to make that mistake again.” Her hand had already moved halfway to her Mk5, she really didn’t want to put the purse down, but she grudgingly did as told.
     Bomber kept his arms at his sides, rigid as a statue while he looked the Emperor in the eye. “What about the girl, then? And the boy? More liabilities to be eliminated?”
     “You yourself should know about leaving loose ends.”
     “Hey, I ain’t no fuckin’ liability to anyone,” Rat snarled, ready to defend her reputation tooth and nail even in the face of a maniac with a gun. The Emperor remained unimpressed. His eyes were glued to Bomber just in case anyone got any ideas.
     It was obvious, Gina realised. He considered Bomber to be the only threat in the room. She clutched her hand to her bosom slowly, so as not to get shot for her trouble. Her eyes met Bomber’s.
     “Yes,” Bomber said, “I know all about loose ends.” And his arm twitched, just enough to get the Emperor’s attention but not enough to provoke an immediate gunshot. The Emperor’s eyes flickered to track the movement just for an instant. Enough for Gina. She lunged and drove her knife hilt-deep into his arm.
     It was a testament to the Emperor’s nerve and self-discipline that he didn’t let go of his gun. Threatened from two fronts with only a single weapon, he knew what to do, and his split-second reflexes pulled the trigger down to the metal. A string of automatic fire cracked through the air towards Bomber, and the Emperor backed away from Gina as his gun — slowed but not stopped by the wound — turned towards her.
     The knife was stuck in the raw red wound and twisted out of her grasp as the Emperor moved. Disarmed and out of ideas, she had one endless moment to stare into the Emperor’s murderous eyes, just waiting to die.
     Then the barrel lurched sideways and the Emperor dropped like a stone. He didn’t even twitch when he hit the floor, already dead. Bomber stood over him, panting and clutching his chest, blood oozing between his fingers.
     “Nice work,” he wheezed in a nasty, wet voice that didn’t seem to come entirely from his throat. “Had me worried for a second there. I figured he’d wait ’till we were out.” Inspecting his wound by eye and feel, he added, “Think he punctured a lung.”
     Gina’s eyes moved with horrified slowness from the red stain on his jumpsuit to his pale, drawn face. “God, we’ve gotta get you to a hospital!”
     “Be fine as long as I can stay somewhere safe for a while. Just get me out of here.” He looked at Rat for a second, who was climbing out from behind cover with a dead look in her eyes, staring at the corpse. The Emperor, one of her greatest role models, lay in front of her in a bleeding heap of humanity — and her image of him as an invincible colossus of self-made power came tumbling down. “Friend of yours?” he asked Gina from the corner of his mouth.
     “Yeah, I’m everybody’s fuckin’ friend!” Rat screamed, suddenly livid, launching into Bomber with a fury even more intense than anything Gina had seen from Rat. “I just love people I don’t even know who fuck up the plan to rescue them from the biggest hive of Feds on the continent! Well hey, buddy, you just killed our only ticket out of the dungeon! Now what the fuck are we gonna do?!”
     A bloody smile crossed Bomber’s face, baring red-stained teeth. “Leave that to me. Bring the bags.” He started for the door, but his wobbly legs had lost their adrenaline strength, and he went down to one knee without even realising it had happened.
     Snatching up her purse, Gina pulled his arm over her shoulders and supported his swaying body as they stumbled out of the room.

***

     Gina slotted the needle back into the first aid kit. She started to look for something more permanent than the simple slap-on patch on Bomber’s chest, but he stopped her with a resolute look on his face.
     “No time,” he said, “this’ll do. Help your friend.”
     Gina nodded and went over to the door, throwing her weight against the heavy cabinet that Rat was trying to turn into a barricade. Together they managed to slide it into place by fits and starts. Bomber, meanwhile, struggled to his feet and stumbled into the supply cabinet without a word.
     “What are you doing?” she asked him.
     “Arranging our way out,” he said with a mad smile on his lips.
     “Don’t joke around, Bomber. I can’t take that right now.”
     “I’m not. See,” Bomber explained in tones alternately harsh with pain and giddy from the chemical haze, “I knew when I went in that — worst-case scenario — I’d probably end up here. Had a chance to jack into VR, study the building a bit. Found some floor plans from when Hong Kong StateSec took over and refurbished the place.” He grinned his horrible bloody teeth at Gina. “Pretty much rebuilt the whole interior from the ground up, complete with a brand new air system.”
     “Whoa, stop there,” said Gina. “Air system?”
     “A whole network of ventilation ducts between the floors and some of the walls. Big enough for a man, with manual controls for the machinery, in case of emergency or counter-insurgency procedures. Or if the high-ups needed to get out the building. Thank God for institutional paranoia.”
     “But the Feds know about them?”
     “Yeah, but the ducts ain’t wired into Lazarus. Feds kept ’em free of automated electronics. They’re even on a separate electrical grid. A little bolt-hole in case Lazarus ever turned on ’em. Ah!” He staggered back from the cabinet with a grunt, holding a large fire extinguisher, then wedged it firmly against the side wall.
     “You’re actually serious?” asked Rat. “What do you think this is, a bad action flick? You expect us to go through the vents?”
     “Yep.” As he stepped back he drew his gun and said, “Duck.”
     The extinguisher — and the wall next to it — exploded in a shower of super-cooled gas and concrete shards. Bomber shielded his eyes with his arm and turned away, careful to keep his skin covered from the gas until the ventilation system had sucked it all up, and Gina followed his example. Once the dust settled she peeked out again. Where the extinguisher had been was now a hole in the floor, lined with a jagged edge of sharp rubble and sheet steel, leading into a simple rectangular duct. A primitive light strip was recessed into the duct ceiling, and its floor was covered in a sticky brown soup of rotting blood and human waste.
     “Huh,” he said. “One of the drains must’ve burst. I guess if Lazarus can’t fix it, it doesn’t get done.” He looked at the others and shrugged. “Well, it beats standing here getting killed. We don’t have a lot of options at this juncture.”
     One whiff of the atmosphere down there almost convinced Gina to take her chances with the Feds. She could barely stand to be within sight of the hole. Still, she knew they couldn’t stay here, and a series of soft scrapes and screwing noises from the door confirmed it. Those sounds were every inch as disturbing as the smell, telling her that somebody was planting charges to blow the heavy mechanical lock from the outside.
     Bomber glanced up at the sound, obviously something he’d been expecting but would’ve liked to have happened a bit later. “Getting ready to bust in. We should be out of here when they do.”
     “You said there were guards,” Rat said. She stared down the hole, lips drawn back in disgust, but her brain was still working on the problem at hand. “They could be waiting for us wherever we come out. How’re we gonna get past them?”
     “We can avoid ’em, ’cause we got something they don’t.” He reached up to playfully ruff Gina’s hair. “Our very own telepath.”
     No! Gina wanted to scream, but looking into Bomber’s bruised and puffy face, she couldn’t find it in her to tell him no. It was like the whole universe conspired to get her to take just one more pill, and one more, and one more.
     “Alright,” she said, trying to hide the miserable fear and resentment from her voice. “Alright. But I’m going to be seriously fucked up when it kicks in. I can’t help carry you.”
     “I can handle that.” Rat met their surprised glances, looking back and forth between the two of them, adjusting the heavy bag slung over her shoulder. “Well, what are we waiting for? An invitation?”
     Clambering down the hole with a physical ease that surprised Gina, Rat dropped herself the last few inches and landed badly off-balance. The weight of the bag knocked her sideways into the tube wall, where she came to rest for a few seconds muttering breathless obscenities.
     “Not as easy as it looks,” she called grumpily once she’d recovered from the impact. “I’m okay, come on down.”
     Gina helped to lower Bomber down the hole, then glanced over her shoulder into the holographic room. Somehow, for some reason she couldn’t quite explain, a twinge of guilt tugged at her heart.
     “Are you sure we should leave the body?” she asked.
     “Let the Feds have him,” hissed Bomber. For a moment he turned into the stone-hearted thing that sent icicles of fear down her spine, the thing that killed people as easily and thoughtlessly as it might snuff out a candle, but he quickly regained control of himself. “They’re not gonna get much out of a corpse.”
     The only sound left in the room was the subtle stretching of plastic explosive pushing deeper into the lock. Minute electronic beep of a detonator reporting readiness. Every noise outside rang clear as day through the big keyholes. Not much time left, Gina knew, and she bit down on her tongue, staring at the strip of pills in her hand. She didn’t want to. She shouldn’t have to. It wasn’t fair. She’d never had the courage to end it quickly, and now that she’d finally found her will to live, it seemed like there was no way off the path to self-destruction.
     Finally she decided her self-pity had reached critical mass and put it away in disgust, swallowed one of the little capsules, and climbed down. Moments later the lock blew into pieces, and great battle robots crashed through the door with guns ready to tear apart their targets, and found none.

***

     Many of the light fixtures had burnt out, leaving great islands of darkness in the light. Thumps and clanging noises echoed all around them, their origins unclear. It could’ve been someone banging on the walls or a whole Fed squad tromping just around the corner to try and head them off, there was no way to tell. They passed the busted drain, sharp metal intruding into the duct, and the sludge all around them thickened to the consistency of custard.
     Bomber and Gina could just manage a low crawl through the ducts, up to their elbows in sludge, while Rat dragged the bag along on all fours. Bomber kept a decent pace despite the bullet through his lung, although his laboured breathing got louder and shallower as the effort took its toll.
     Gina’s head floated on her shoulders, felt like it were wrapped in cotton wool. The exercise fired her metabolism, and the Spice was starting to hit her bloodstream, bringing with it the muddled lucidity of the third eye trance. It was early, too early, and it came on fast.
     ‘Never again’ would be too early for Gina’s liking. She could take a step back and see her mind starting to unravel, bits of the outside creeping in, hallucinations, other people living in her head . . . Mental note, she told herself, check in to loony bin when this shit is over.
     “You don’t look so good,” Rat puffed through her teeth, grimly hauling the heavy bag from knee to knee.
     “Spice. It’s starting.” Gina pinched the bridge of her nose. Her thoughts were individual raindrops falling into a pond, forming little eddies of understanding where the ripples flowed into each other. The pond was dark and murky and seemed to move in slow-motion. There were fish in there as well, and God only knew what they were for.
     Bomber rasped, “Can you feel anything?”
     “Not yet,” she told him, which wasn’t entirely true. Little whispers of thought and emotion ran through the building and into her body like an electric current, faint, without words or coherent images. Gina couldn’t make heads or tails of them. There was only one emotion she could make out, a pronounced undercurrent in everything and everywhere around her.
     Rage.
     Shivering and lost in her oncoming trance, Gina bumped head-first into a wall. She sat down hard on the bare metal of the tunnel, looking around in confusion. The tunnel had opened up suddenly and now ended in a vertical steel shaft several floors high, sharply square and covered with long streaks of rust. A single unsteady-looking ladder disappeared into the dimness above, covered in sharp burrs and peeling slivers of rust to make the whole thing a little bit more dangerous. Its builders obviously hadn’t thought much of health and safety.
     Bomber was the first to start up the rungs. He grunted with every step, and started dripping blood halfway through, but he made it up all the same, propping himself up against the wall in a half-sitting position. Gina followed him up, concentrating hard on each rung to keep herself from drifting, and Rat brought up the rear. Gina finally made it to the top, and went down on her knees to give Rat a hand. She popped her head over the rim just in time to see the bag hit the bottom of the shaft with a terrible crunch. Echoes rattled off the walls for what seemed like an eternity before they finally died down.
     Everywhere, heads turned and searched for the source of the noise. Gina could feel them homing in like hounds on a hunt. She glanced down at Rat, but Rat never even looked at the bag as it fell. She just clung to the rungs in silence. Cold sweat stood out on her forehead, and her shoulders were shaking.
     “My arms won’t work,” she said to the wall.
     Gina frowned. “What are you talking about? Of course your arms work.”
     “No, you don’t understand. I can’t let go.” She looked up at Gina with terror-wide eyes. “It’s too high.”
     “You’re afraid of heights?” Gina asked incredulously, and Rat nodded. “Why didn’t you tell us before?”
     “How?! What was I supposed to come out with? ‘Hey, little note, I know we’re bein’ chased by a small army of people who want to kill us all slowly, but I’ve got this slight problem with high places . . .'” She relaxed her grip slightly in her fit of anger, but as soon as she realised what had happened she cried out and yanked herself tight to the rungs again.
     The hard-edged feelings and killing thoughts of Feds on the warpath closed in all around them, a frenzy of sharks with blood in the water. Gina said frantically, “Come on, Rat, you’ve got to keep going! They’re gonna find us any second!”
     “I’m telling you,” Rat said through gritted teeth, “I. Can’t. Move.”
     In desperation Gina swung herself back over the edge and climbed back down to where Rat was stuck, about two-thirds of the way up the ladder. Her heart pounded with adrenaline and her head throbbed from the Spice, a whirlpool of emotions, only a few of which were her own. She reached out to Rat and called, “Take my hand, I’ll guide you up!”
     “I’d be happy to, but I can’t. I . . .” She bit down on her tongue, moisture in her eyes as she looked up. “I’m sorry.” When Gina didn’t seem to understand, Rat’s voice turned into a hoarse scream of, “Go! Go on without me!”
     The hopelessness in Rat’s heart scythed into Gina. It was sharp and bitter, every inch as strong as if it were her own. She wanted to turn and run away, leave Rat to her fate, but she found that she couldn’t do that any more than Rat could let go of the rusty steel in her hands.
     Gina’s hand and mind reached out in a single motion. She didn’t know how she did it, it was something out of instinct. For a few seconds she saw out of Rat’s eyes, saw the fingers locked around the bars, pried them loose one by one. Astonishment and abject panic fought for control of Rat’s mind, but Gina was already there, quieting them. Her fingers locked around Rat’s wrist and pulled.
     All of Gina’s muscles screamed in pain. Her mind felt like it was being twisted by massive hands. Rat fought her body and mind every step of the way, but she refused to let go. Another step, another, and another, and then they were over the edge. Safe. She crumbled, all the energy gone out of her limbs, flat on her back on the tunnel floor.
     After a few tortured breaths, she called Bomber’s name. He didn’t respond. With a fading burst of energy she kicked him in the shins, and he started awake.
     “Christ,” he said thickly, looking down at the trickle of blood oozing from his chest and through his fingers. “I was starting to drift. Thanks.”
     “We can’t stop here,” Gina panted, her fingers crusted with blood and rust. “They’ll be coming up this way in a few seconds.”
     He nodded grimly and pulled her to her feet in the larger tunnel, high enough to walk upright. She tried to do the same for Rat, but Rat jerked away from her touch and scurried to her feet a short distance away. The fear and awe and loathing in her eyes said everything that needed to be said. Gina had done something bad, something that made her unnatural and wrong, and she might never be normal again.
     And out there, somewhere in the great wide world, Gabriel smiled.

***

     They wandered on in silence. Gina stayed in the front, occasionally changing direction at Bomber’s say-so. Rat stayed in the back to be alone and as far from Gina as possible. There were Feds all around, their footsteps and muttered voices echoing through the tunnels from all sides. Gina wondered if she could reach out that far and make them take a wrong turn or something like that. And if that were possible, should she?
     Something had gone wrong somewhere along the way. That much was obvious. Spice was a receiver, not a transmitter. It couldn’t . . . shouldn’t be able to make her do the things she’d done. Onounu had managed some pretty weird things in her day, as did the other old veterans of the Street, but they couldn’t possibly exceed the effects of the drug. Nobody could. Nobody except Gabriel.
     You did this, she thought at him, but got no response.
     They came to a heavy metal door recessed in a block of grey concrete, and Bomber came forward to have a look, beckoning Rat over. Gina was almost heartened by the sight of a wall made of something other than sheet steel or plasterboard. As they crowded in, she noticed the door lock, like something out of ancient times. It was a ten-digit mechanical number pad, the numbers long gone to use and rust. Exposed alarm wires ran from the lock into the door.
     Once Rat had identified the lock, she said, “Tell me we’re not supposed to open that.”
     “Can’t pick it?” asked Bomber, still short of breath.
     “It’s an antique, man. I’d either set off the alarm, cause the door to lock down, or both. No way to get around one of these without the code.”
     “I was afraid of that.” He placed his hand against the bare concrete at the doorframe and ran his fingers lightly down, searching for something. “Don’t know if this code still works. Worth a try.” He seemed to find what he was looking for and, running his fingers over some notches in the concrete, called out a short number sequence.
     Rat gaped at Bomber in shock and awe. “How the hell did you know that was there?”
     “The Emperor told me about it once. This is nearly the same way he escaped from StateSec, long before you were born. And they never found out how.” Bomber stepped back and punched his numbers into the lock. It popped with a loud metal clack, and Bomber allowed himself a smile as he pulled the door open. “The man was a legend, all right.”
     A bullet grazed his cheek and tore a hole through Gina’s loose-fitting top, missing her by millimetres. She dropped to the floor while Bomber slammed the door shut again, muttering, “Shit, shit, shit!”
     “And this is why, in the real world, you don’t go through the fucking air vents!” snarled Rat. “What the hell are we gonna do now?!”
     “Gina!” Bomber grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her to get her attention, his own body braced against the door in case anyone tried to break in. “How many are there?”
     “I . . .” She stopped herself short of telling him she couldn’t do that. This was an emergency, and just because it wasn’t easy didn’t mean it couldn’t be done. She pushed her mind beyond the door, casting herself out like a net, and tried to cover the whole room without scattering her mind into little pieces. The strands of the net kept together by willpower alone. It echoed against other minds in the room and tried to feel their individuality. She counted one, two, three . . .
     “Three Feds,” she said firmly. “Don’t know about bots. They’ve got backup on the way as well.”
     “Then they’re gonna have to make some room,” Bomber answered, pulling a pair of concealed handguns out of his jumpsuit waistband. Gina recognised them as coming from their equipment bag, but she had no idea when or how he’d gotten his hands on them. “Make no mistake, this job’s been easy so far. That’s over now.” He glanced over his shoulder as if he could see through the door, then continued in a monotone, almost robotic voice. “From here on in there’s gonna be Feds and ‘bots crawlin’ all over the place, and we can’t hesitate.” His eyes focused on Gina. “Quick answer. Can you kill?”
     That, Gina knew immediately, was not the best question to ask someone with a load of Spice raging in her bloodstream. A dark torrent of smells, sounds and images poured through her. She could cope with the old, faded memories of corpses she’d seen on the Street. It was the fresh ones that gave her trouble. There were too many. The Russians in the alley, the duelling gangers, the Triad man hunting for the Emperor, Onounu and Mashei. Each death replayed itself before her eyes and she couldn’t seem to stop.
     But all of them were just a build-up to the most vivid scene, the most horrible memory in her head. Her stomach heaved at the feeling of her finger squeezing the trigger. The gun kicking back into the heel of her hand. Blood spattering across her clothes, dripping from her hands. A curl of smoke pouring out the barrel. The dead thug lying on the cold concrete floor front of her, blood and brains seeping out of him.
     Acid burned at the back of her throat and her eyes filled with moisture as she stammered, “I– I–“
     “Can you kill?”
     “No!” she cried out. Tears stung her eyes and she turned away, sobbing silently, wet droplets slowly washing away the flashbacks. Even with her back to him she could feel Bomber’s eyes on her. They didn’t judge or disapprove, but they were . . . disappointed.
     “I can,” Rat said into the silence. She took one of the guns from Bomber, a small pistol with a bright red fire/safe switch on the side. She looked Bomber squarely in the eye, doing her best to ignore Gina shuddering beside her.
     “Good,” Bomber answered, checking Rat’s gun for her. Then he turned back to Gina and rested a sympathetic hand on her arm. “Don’t worry. Keep that taser of yours handy, it might save the day, and nobody’s gotta die. Yeah?”
     Gina nodded and scrubbed angrily at her eyes. She was more upset with herself for breaking down than for her inability to kill another human being. But she had her Mk5, and its warmth in her hand was like a ten-thousand-volt security blanket.
     “On three,” said Bomber, and she watched as he counted down on his fingers.

***

     The next few minutes were a confused blur of activity, and Gina couldn’t figure out what was happening and what they’d already done.
     The door swung open. Bomber moved as if he felt no pain. Gunshots. A mad dash across a room crowded with storage pallets and forklift trucks. That gave them some good cover against the automatic fire pouring from the Feds. At one point Gina remembered zapping the machine gun emplacement with her Mk5, welding the gunner’s hands to his weapon.
     She didn’t know how they made it into the other room. Her next clear memory was of helping Bomber slam the big metal locking bar across the warehouse door. Little dents appeared in the wall where bullets rammed into the corrugated steel. They scrambled away from it in case the steel gave way, but it never did, and the hail of bullets soon stopped.
     Panting, Gina gradually came down from the rush of their flight, and got her head back under control. Her heartbeat slowed as she glanced around.
     The ceiling disappeared so far up into the darkness that Gina couldn’t make it out. The only light came from large spots erected along the walls, pointed at each of the vehicles in the warehouse, all arranged in separate parking lots. There were town cars, jeeps, lorries, armoured cars, tanks. This had to be the motor pool.
     Rat immediately went over to one of the tanks to check it out, but Bomber trudged on ahead to a bunch of storage bays at the far end, all covered by a big blue tarpaulin.
     “Help me get this off,” he rasped. A trail of blood drops followed at his heels and pooled wherever he stopped. His face was white and drawn, his eyes unfocused. He spat blood-stained phlegm onto the flat concrete floor.
     Gina had no time or desire to argue. Bit by bit the tarpaulin came off, and revealed a slender black helicopter the likes of which she’d never seen. It was low and wide in the middle, and tapered to a sharp point at the front around the large cockpit. A bunch of exposed electrical wires hung under the cockpit to mark what had once been a weapon mount. At the back the copter had an aeroplane tail instead of a tail rotor. The canopy stood open, and inside were two big bucket seats waiting for a pilot and a gunner.
     “Wow,” said Rat, having lost all interest in the tanks. “Now that is slick.”
     “Get in. I need to start up the reactor.” A harsh, rasping cough rocked through him. He seemed somehow smaller when he straightened himself out again, only to find the others still staring at him dumbly. “Move! Anyone still out here without a rad suit in ten seconds is gonna have a real bad day!”
     That spurred Gina and Rat into action quickly enough. They scrambled up the pilot steps as fast as they could and squeezed the both of them into the gunner’s seat, leaving the walled-off pilot’s chair free for Bomber. Olive drab bulkheads surrounded Gina, all covered with black computer screens and manual safety switches. Instead of a set of main controls, however, the only thing in front of Gina was a small niche containing a primitive VR crown resting calmly in its cradle.
     There sounded a clear, metallic click, and the world started to rumble. Back-lights behind the safety switches sprang on. The screens came to life, ticking off diagnostic information. Lists of text and little green bars scrolled down them, although occasionally a yellow bar would stick at the top of the screen while the checks continued. The violent pumping of coolant liquid bubbled everywhere around Gina.
     Suddenly she saw Bomber, toppling over the edge of the cockpit into the pilot’s chair. She tried to get up to see if he was all right, but the canopy swung closed before she could do anything.
     “Bomber?” she asked nervously, squirming under the weight of a seventeen-year-old girl squeezed into her lap.
     “I can hear you,” he breathed, and she instantly knew he was dying. Intense pain radiated through the walls and into her third eye. She heard him swallowing something, and he headed her off before she could ask her next question. “Anti-rads, just in case I make it. This thing was meant to have a full crew with hazard suits. It’s got a nasty output.”
     All her questions seemed inappropriate just then. Instead she simply said, “You’ve done this before.”
     “I was a test pilot in the old US Army Aviation Branch. Top secret stuff. Last project before the Federation took over, we were workin’ on nuclear copters with integrated energy weapons, VR controls, nano-maintenance, really advanced stuff.” His breathing seemed to steady out a bit as he talked. “Mini-reactors, lightweight and low-output, but with plenty of power for the main gun. Good for at least fifty years without refuelling. We had five prototypes, one for each stage of development, all working. And then we woke up one morning and there wasn’t any United States anymore.”
     Meanwhile he put the copter through its pre-flight procedures. Gina saw the yellow-marked systems flashing with the words, ‘Self-repair initiated’, and they turned green one by one, while the warehouse doors buckled under the Feds’ brute-force assault.
     “When the Feds came to take over our base, a couple of the pilots in my squadron decided they didn’t really like the idea of them bein’ in power. They made a break for it with four of the birds and blew the base behind ’em. One and Two used their birds to start a pretty short-lived guerrilla war against the Federation. Three was never heard from again. Number Four, though, he had the bright idea of takin’ his all the way to Hong Kong, maybe hire himself out as a merc to StateSec. Only the Feds got there before he did. Caught him, threw him in a cell to rot, ripped all the best tech out of his bird, and then forgot about it in storage.” He flipped a loud mechanical switch. “Still workin’, though.”
     The last yellow marks disappeared, and the rotors came on like the beating of mighty wings. They started to turn lethargically, as if they were all rusted up, and something nasty rattled in the mechanism. But in a matter of moments the rattling died away and the rotors really cut loose.
     The copter lurched off the ground, turning around inside the tall warehouse, looking for a way out. There was none. They’d forgotten to unbolt one of the vehicle doors, and Gina felt her heart sink.
     “There may be a slight bump,” Bomber said, and plunged the copter directly into the wall.
     It tore through the half-inch of corrugated steel like a brick through a car windscreen. Bomber grunted at the controls, fighting for altitude with most of his rotor blades torn to pieces, and turned the motor to its maximum output. He was starting to pull away from the Fed building when a missile slammed into the side of the copter. The impact sent it lurching sideways, G-forces slamming Gina into her seatbelt straps. The last vestiges of rotor shattered themselves against the ground as the copter ploughed end over end through the car park. Great chunks of asphalt whirled through the air in a frenzy of devastation. Gina would’ve thrown up, but the Gs weighing in on her sucked the gorge right back into her stomach.
     When they finally came to rest, Gina struggled to undo the belt, wrapped tight around her and Rat. The button wouldn’t depress at first, but with some pushing and pulling it finally popped loose. She scrambled to open the cockpit canopy and get the hell out while they still had time.
     She looked up into the glare of street lights, their escape route only a stone’s throw away, partly blocked the inexpressive face of a Fed battle helmet. It echoed with a deep commanding voice, “I suggest you stay still and offer no resistance.”
     Gina went numb inside. Metal hands tore her out of the copter and bundled her into a tough plastic sack. She screamed and clawed uselessly at the inside of the bag, needing to know what was happening, but she couldn’t even make out the words from the shouting voices outside. The only emotions left to her were frustration and terror.

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