Gina clenched her jaw as she tumbled wildly down a bottomless black pit. Lightning flashed and boomed somewhere in the distance, some kind of discharge, a dreamworld representation of their battle of wills. Her arms were locked around Gabriel’s legs. He tried to kick her off, claw his way up out of the dream, but she held on. How much longer she could keep it up, she didn’t know. Every time he battered at the walls of their temporary prison it was like taking a baseball bat to her head, and there was no escape.
     “Let go,” Gabriel called back. “He’s dangerous to you and to me, it’s got to be done!”
     “I won’t let you kill him!” she roared with her mind as much as her mouth, and Gabriel faltered for a moment against the power of her resolve. He looked down at her face, his eyes wide. She screamed, “Do you understand?! I won’t let you, ever!
     Gabriel bared his teeth and stopped in mid-air. Gina suddenly felt a hard floor under her feet and rolled away from him, while Gabriel touched down on the invisible plane with cold precision. He towered over her, his expression both angry and confused.
     “I don’t understand you, Gina,” he said. Gina felt frustration in him, urgency, annoyance at her for her stubbornness. There was no evil in his decision to kill Bomber, no more than a vague touch of jealousy — to Gabriel it was a purely practical choice.
     He continued, “You were ready to help erase his every memory of you, and now here you are, trying so hard to stop me from simply removing him. It doesn’t make any sense.”
     She climbed to her feet and returned his stare, her vision blurring in time with the pounding in her head. “You’d understand if you were a human fucking being,” she forced through her hoarse throat. “I don’t care if it’s convenient, or if you think it’s justified. You’re not killing him.”
     “What difference would it make to you?”
     “Do you even remember what you said, Gabriel?” she asked him. “Nobody was supposed to die on this ship. Nobody, not even Bomber.”
     “Plans change, Gina. You have no idea how much bad news this guy really is.”
     “That’s not the point!” she went on angrily. “He’s not just a body, none of them are! I’ve killed people, really killed them, blood and guts and . . .” She quickly shook off the nightmares building behind her eyes. Her knees started to buckle, but she made herself stand and whispered, “They’re people. They’re more than objects, more than just flesh and bone, you’re fucking living proof of that! And when you forget that, when you forget what makes them unique and irreplaceable, all you see is another bleeding body on the floor in front of you.”
     “So it’s not him you care about, huh?” he replied in a clinical tone. “You just don’t want anyone getting hurt.”
     “Stop it. It’s not gonna work, you can’t manipulate me, not this time.”
     “I haven’t tried,” he pointed out.
     “No. No, you haven’t.” She took a deep breath to steady herself and rally her thoughts. “So did you think there was something special between us? That I care about you just ’cause of a lay?”
     “That’s not why I think it, I’d know if you were just trying to use me. Please, Gina, stop this now and we can still–“
     “You’re not killing him,” she repeated thickly, her eyes focused on the spot where she thought he was standing. She could no longer see through the red haze. “You’ll have to go through me first.”
     “Are you that hell-bent on committing suicide?” he asked. “I am trying to save your life! If you don’t end up killing yourself here, then he’ll do the job for you! I don’t care what you think, you’re important to me. Just stop this and we can forget the whole thing ever happened.”
     She shifted her weight to keep from falling over, head spinning. There was music playing somewhere, the same annoying tune over and over and getting louder and louder every second, and no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t seem to make it go away. She choked out, “Make a decision, Gabriel.”
     “I– I can’t–” He hesitated, bit his tongue. Gina felt the emotions boiling inside him. He was conflicted and unsure, more vulnerable she had ever seen him, yet at the same time she could feel the immense grip of his mental power starting to squeeze her from all sides. He still wanted her to surrender, didn’t know how far he’d go if she forced him . . .
     “Just fucking do it,” she spat. The pressure around her built up, slowly crushing her insides together, making it difficult to breathe. It was like being caught in a hydraulic press. Something had to give way soon.
     “Stop it!” he shouted, his heart racing close to panic. “I don’t want to do this!”
     Gina bared her teeth into a tortured smile. Breathlessly she kept on pushing him, goading him. “Come on. Show me that cold-hearted killer that’s in there. Show me how you do it.”
     The intense pressure on her chest increased, forcing a grunt of pain out of her lungs with the last of her air. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see, could barely feel her bones starting to crack. But she could sense his eyes staring at her, wide and full of madness, like a cornered animal. For an endless moment she knew with absolute certainty that he was going to kill her. Her consciousness slowly went black.
     All of a sudden the weight dropped away from her. She collapsed to the ground gasping for air, and Gabriel fell to his knees beside her, wanting to touch — to see if she was alright — but unable to lift an arm towards her.
     “I knew it,” she said between gasps. “Knew you couldn’t.”
     He hung his head. “I didn’t.” After a long pause, he tried to look up but couldn’t meet her eyes. He simply said, “Take your friend and go. Do whatever you need to do. Just come back.”
     Haltingly, she pushed her arm across the floor to take his hand. “Okay.”
     The dreamworld faded away in front of her eyes.

***

     “Step away from him!” yelled a woman’s voice, at first unfamiliar, then slowly matched to memories sparking in Gina’s disoriented brain. The woman. Jezebel. She stood at the end of the hallway in a shooting stance, pistol held in front with both hands, aimed at Bomber — who stood over Gabriel’s prone body with finger on the trigger. For a moment Gina wondered where he’d gotten hold of a new gun, but it didn’t come as much of a surprise. It was an essential part of him. Wherever he went he would either already be carrying a firearm, or he would liberate one at the first opportunity.
     “Put it down, Jez,” he replied coldly. “You shoot me, he’ll be dead before you’re finished pullin’ the trigger.”
     Jezebel took a careful step forward, never lowering her eyes or her weapon. “It wasn’t a request, Simon. I got boosts a lot like yours, so don’t push your luck. Step away.”
     “Don’t try to bluff me.”
     A slow grin spread across her face at that. “I was a Marine field lieutenant, Simon. You really wanna find out what my implants are like?”
     “Stop,” croaked Gina. Her mouth was dry as bone, and she worked to get some saliva into it. “Don’t.”
     “Gina?” Bomber asked without turning his head. It was a hundred questions and meanings compressed into two syllables.
     “I’m okay,” she coughed, “just put your guns down. It’s all right.”
     He ignored her, white-knuckled fingers squeezing cold steel. “All right?” he barked. “‘All right’ ain’t the term I’d use.”
     Gina never knew someone could feel so betrayed. It was a tight ball of darkness in his heart, layers of twisted emotion curled around a gallery of distorted faces, many of which she recognised. There was Colonel Obrin and Captain Caine, the old copter-pilot girlfriend. Jock and the Emperor. East, and an unfamiliar man in a Fed uniform. Gabriel and Jezebel featured prominently, with a whole furnace of rage dedicated solely to them. But even that paled before the coldness at his core, the resentment he felt for Gina.
     She could feel his emotions as if they were her own. Jezebel’s as well, her thoughts as clear and determined as her expression, a stark contrast to Bomber’s calculating fury.
     “I’m not putting anything down until he steps away,” Jezebel said icily.
     Gabriel swallowed hard and shook his head, pushing himself an inch up off the floor, then grumbled over his shoulder, “Jez, do it.” Flame-coloured eyes turned to look at Gina, and he added, “We’ve . . . reached an agreement.”
     “You– What did you do to her?” hissed Bomber. He grabbed Gabriel by his hair and shoved the gun up under his chin. He roared, “What did you do?!” When he got no answer, he pulled back the hammer of his pistol with a menacing little click. Jezebel’s fingers twitched in shock, and she just barely managed to stop herself from pulling the trigger. Bomber, however, was past caring about her, all his attention focused on Gabriel. “I’m done playin’ around with you, madboy. You’re gonna give me some answers. And don’t you even think of tryin’ anything on me. Bashing you with a pipe might not take, but I’m pretty sure this will.”
     Struggling to her knees, Gina cried, “He didn’t do anything! They’re letting us go!”
     “We are?” blurted Jezebel. The very idea seemed offensive to her. As little as she or anyone knew for sure about Bomber, the thought of letting him run free sent all kinds of alarm bells ringing in her head.
     Bomber glanced from Gabriel to Jezebel and back, not sure what to think. His blood thrummed with adrenaline. Every heartbeat sent a supercharged burst of pain through his head. He snarled, “Bullshit. I’m not fallin’ for any more mind control crap! Now get back!” He kneed Gabriel in the stomach, knocking all the air out of his body. In the same instant his weapon arm flashed up to train on Jezebel.
     For Jezebel there was only one possible reaction. She squeezed. A rip of automatic gunfire burst out from her pistol, bullets whizzing through the air where Bomber had been. He had planned for her move and was already out of the way, only mildly distracted by a single bullet grazing his arm. Before Jezebel even realised her error, Bomber had calmly put one round through her heart and another through her head. Calculated down to the millisecond and executed with absolute ruthlessness, like a chess match to the death.
     Silence descended like a shroud. The moment hung in the air, shock too real for the human mind to accept. They might not all have known Jezebel very well, but she had been real. She was a person, something more than the sum of her physical parts. All the things that made her what she was poured out of her with the torrent of blood . . .
     . . . And then reality flooded back in. Gina caught sight of Gabriel slowly rising to his feet. The expression on his face turned her blood to ice in her veins. She closed her eyes and willed Bomber to stop, to turn and run like hell. He hesitated only a heartbeat before moving, almost leaping the distance towards Gina.
     Gabriel didn’t move to stop them, only looked. Watched Bomber grab her and drag her down into the hatch. His voice, however, reverberated in their heads like bouncing pebbles, undiminished by distance. “You were right, Simon,” he said in the tones of Death itself. “We are done playing.”
     “This isn’t how it was supposed to happen,” said Gina, helping to rip open the lifeboat door. Gabriel landed heavily on the metal grating behind them, but Bomber slammed the door in a hurry and locked it shut. Gina strapped herself into one of the six empty seats, still in shock, not sure whether she was doing the right thing. “It’s wrong, it’s all wrong!”
     “Too late for that now,” Bomber replied. He reached for the lifeboat release switch, and froze as he saw Gabriel’s face right outside the porthole. To his horror, the door lock — only operable from the inside — started to undo itself without being touched.
     “I let your friend talk me out of killing you,” Gabriel murmured. “That was my mistake. It won’t happen again.”
     Gina leaned forward, pleading, “Please!” She wasn’t quite sure what she was begging for, but it was the only thing she could think to say. Gabriel’s eyes flicked to her for an instant. That’s when Bomber saw his chance.
     “Hold on!” he barked as the door flung open, and flipped the switch that sent the lifeboat tumbling into freefall, thousands of metres above the ocean. Before Gabriel could react, Bomber leaped out of the falling pod and tackled him. That was the last glimpse Gina caught of Bomber, strapped in and hurtling away from the airship at terrifying speed, the lifeboat door left flapping and banging on its hinges.
     All the breath was ripped out of her lungs by the thin atmosphere at this height, but she screamed anyway, a soundless cry of pure anguish, fear, frustration and helplessness. The lifeboat tumbled wildly, bone-crushing G forces pressing down on Gina’s chest. Her lungs felt like they were going to burst. Then, somewhere in the deep recesses of the capsule, an oxygen sensor realised that there was nothing to breathe inside and automatically slapped an oxygen mask over Gina’s face.
     She passed out just as the first molecules of breathable air enter her nostrils.

***

     The shock of the lifeboat hitting the water jolted her halfway into consciousness. Freezing cold water running around her ankles did the rest. She squealed and gasped in surprise, trying to get her feet out of the murky Atlantic sludge while her clumsy hands fumbled with the seatbelt. She was already shivering from the cold. No lifejacket on, no waterproof clothes, nothing. And the lifeboat was sinking fast.
     Finally she managed to get the seatbelt undone and sloshed through the mounting water to reach the main control panel. She found a large button labelled ‘INFLATE’ and bashed it with the heel of her hand. A large orange airbag deployed out the side near the hatch and inflated itself. Another, symmetrical airbag sputtered out the other side but refused to inflate. Gina cursed her luck.
     Her boots filling with water, she tore at the equipment locker until it came open, then grabbed whatever looked handy. Flotation jacket, flare gun, water filter, a bag of protein bars and a battery-powered heat strap that would keep her torso from going hypothermic. She tried the emergency mobile phone but the provider had long gone out of business, leaving it without a signal. She chucked it over her shoulder and started up the ladder, leaving the first aid kit as too big and clumsy to carry up with her.
     Every part of her dripped as she sat down. Her jeans were drenched through, as was her jacket, but she had no other clothes to wear. She looked around at the lightening sky and felt a sudden stab of homesickness. She was terrified and alone, and there was no one to help her. The world was empty.
     The feeling rattled her to her core. Never in her life had she been more than a few metres away from another human being, probably more than willing to help if she needed anything, just based on her looks. Even in New Orleans she’d had Bomber, the driver, even the gunmen. Now she could look from horizon to horizon without seeing a solitary sign of life. Even the airship had disappeared, either long gone or rendered invisible against the clouds.
     “Shit,” she said, looking at what her world had shrunk to. A half-sunken lifeboat, bobbing up and down in the ocean, still taking on water. The icy Atlantic wind whipped past her on all sides, and she started to shiver. Numb fingers undid her jacket, jeans, shirt and bra, all of them cold and limp with seawater. She drew the line at panties, though — soaked as they might be, she wasn’t about to sit completely naked on a life raft at sea for any amount of time.
     Her teeth started to chatter while she fumbled with the heat strap. The old Velcro fastenings didn’t want to stick together very well anymore. Once secured she hit the button, and warm relief poured into her muscles, instant heat like an electric blanket all around her. But that wouldn’t protect her from the wind or the sea. Reading the instructions on the strap, she put her wet shirt back on over it, and watched it slowly start to dry with dull curiosity.
     She didn’t know how long she sat there, dressed in nothing but a shirt and a pair of panties. The hours dragged on and on. She still had the mobile phone Rat had given her, tucked into a pocket of her jeans, but whenever she tried to make a call it informed her that her number had been blocked. Probably Gabriel’s doing.
     Once she searched for the little spark of him inside her head, but she couldn’t find it anymore.
     Night fell all too quickly. The sickly grey sky turned yellow, then indigo, then black. There were no stars. No light except a stubborn little LED inside the lifeboat that refused to die, sending its faint glow up through the murky waters to hold back the darkness. For her. In this tiny ocean world, it was her only friend.
     She tried to rub the sitting cramps from her legs, but didn’t dare move too much for fear of sinking. The waves remained calm and flaccid, but she didn’t know what she’d do if the wind really picked up. She never considered drowning an option, but it was starting to look inevitable.
     At some point she fell asleep. When or how she didn’t know, but it could only have been out of pure exhaustion. She awoke at sunup, just as tired as before, and watched the lighter shadow move up along the thick grey clouds. Sunrises and sets had always fascinated her. What wonders lay hidden behind the sky’s blanket. She’d never known what it really looked like until Bomber took her to Austin.
     There were a lot of things she’d never have known if it weren’t for Bomber. What it felt like to kill someone. Or betray someone, even for their own good. Why girls would pretend to be boys, what happened to you in a Fed prison, what it was like to have someone force their way into your mind and take out everything they wanted to know. And being made to enjoy it.
     She understood why Jezebel did what she did. Jez knew she was being manipulated, recognised it for what it was, and didn’t care. It didn’t matter to her, didn’t change the way she felt.
     Gina had come to love Gabriel in her own way, despite knowing, feeling. Despite the way he frightened her. She could talk to him, though, maybe even bring him around to a less fucked-up way of thinking. He wasn’t beyond help. Maybe she was all he needed. That annoying spark of hope left her unable to dismiss her feelings for him.
     And maybe he was just using her like he used everyone else, and it all fitted into his grand plan somehow. She still had no idea what any of it meant. The burnt city still flashed across her eyelids from time to time, although the artifact was receding. His little workplace in Radiation Alley, the nanobots, the AI doing his bidding. So many questions she never got to ask.
     Another night crept up on her. The sea had been rowdy during the day, but it became far more agitated as the inky blackness swallowed up the world. Gina threw up the bits of protein she’d managed to choke down, and held on for dear life against the pitching and rolling of her little raft. Her arms and legs started to ache from the effort. Her jeans and jacket, which she’d used as a makeshift blanket, washed away as a wall of water rolled over her. She spat out salt water, praying for the raft to hold together, and it didn’t break apart just yet.
     Brushing the drenched hair out of her eyes, something in the distance caught her eye. A light. Somewhere out there, a light was burning, and that meant a ship or some type of land. She held on as best she could and dug her flare gun out of the large pouch at the front of the heat strap. Holding it up at the sky, she pulled the trigger and quietly promised lots of things to any deity who cared to get involved.
     A single red flare arced into the sky. It burned brightly for a few seconds, then fizzled out again on its way back down. Gina pulled the trigger again just to be safe. A second flare shot out. If they missed the first one, then this one at least should get through.
     She clung to her raft and wished the tiny little lights to get closer as another wave broke over her.

***

     The ship had to have seen her. The lights grew slowly in the distance, only a few miles away now, often hidden from sight for terrifying seconds by the rising and falling of the waves. Another wave battered against Gina’s body, trying to knock loose the cramped, frozen fingers which clung so desperately to the plastic airbag. Just a few minutes more, she told them. Just a few minutes and she’d be saved.
     Then the skies opened up. A torrential downpour of freezing rain hid the lights from her eyes, and she scrambled desperately to get another flare up into the sky. It launched, but sputtered and fizzled out before it even reached the top of its arc. Gina shook the gun and tried to fire again. It did nothing.
     She banged it against the metal shell of the lifeboat, trying to get it to do something, but in her desperation she took her eye off the sea. Suddenly she gasped and looked up. Out of nowhere there was the biggest wave she had ever seen in her life. It loomed over her, an even deeper darkness against the night sky, and swallowed her up with all its force. Her fingers slipped. She was floating, knocked out of her senses by the wave, and tried to call out for help.
     The lights were so close now, she could almost reach out and touch them. Her hoarse throat soon stopped making any noise at all, and she couldn’t even lift her arm to wave as the lights passed her. What a shame to fail when her salvation was so close at hand . . . Something dragged her under, and she didn’t resist. She had no fight left in her.
     Suddenly the water dropped away. It sloshed off her in drips and streams, and she landed on something hard, rough ropes and wood grating against her skin. Careful hands cut off the remains of her wet clothes and wrapped her up in a blanket. She knew what the worried eyes behind the hands were thinking. Had they arrived too late?
     Somebody put a cup to her lips and poured hot coffee down her throat. Nothing had ever tasted so good. Her arms spasmed in pain as circulation returned, and everything went black.
     It was light again when she opened her puffy eyes. She hung in a hammock aboard some kind of ship, wrapped up in a wet but warm blanket, and she saw her clothes hung over a small electric heater in the corner. A shirt and a pair of panties. This was all she owned in the entire world.
     She struggled out of the hammock and landed heavily on the real wooden floor. She looked at it with a certain degree of suspicion. Nobody had used wood to build boats for decades. Passing on the still-dripping clothes, she staggered out of the room wearing only her blanket. She didn’t know why that seemed like a good idea.
     The opposite door on the corridor was open, leading to some kind of galley. A woman wearing a red head cloth stood behind the kitchen counter, apparently cooking something. Gina stared at her. She was wide as a rugby player and her belly jiggled as she walked, but she seemed to be having fun. She sang a tune in some unfamiliar language.
     She caught sight of Gina when she turned back to put something on the counter. She cried out in shock and dropped her wooden spoon, rushing over to try and push her back into bed, but Gina had no time for that. She wanted to know where she was. So she dodged the large woman and headed back up the corridor, up the stairs to the light.
     A bright yellow sun greeted her, caressed her face and started to dry her still-wet hair. A cool breeze played aimlessly in every direction, and the waves were calm. Further on deck, three men in thick brown coats were hauling in a net of ultra-fine nanomesh by way of frayed hemp rope and a squeaky set of pulleys. The net was filled with evil-looking brown sludge, which they deposited in a tank at the front of the ship.
     “The fuck is this?” Gina wondered aloud.
     “Ah, you’re up,” said a deep voice from behind her. She turned to look, and her eyes found a brown-skinned man larger than the galley cook, as broad as he was tall, his massive belly restrained by a thick leather belt. He wore a waterproof blue anorak, a pair of brown jeans and a baseball cap, as well as a luxurious black beard of a size and softness that other men could only envy.
     He continued, “We picked you up alone in the water last night. Hypothermic, going into shock, very bad. Maryam was worried you might not live to see the morning, she tended to you all night. And here you are!”
     She nodded. Was that how it had gone? She thought so, but her memory seemed fuzzy, like looking at it through the wrong pair of spectacles. Her head ached as if a rock band had just moved in and were testing out the drums. She pulled the blanket tighter around her against the wind. “Who are you? Is this your ship?”
     “This is indeed my boat. My name is Mahmoud, but you may call me Captain if you like. You have already met my wife Maryam.” He gestured down the steps at the large woman in her nightgown and red head cloth, who gave him the evil eye before trudging off to mind the pots. “Forgive her, she worries.”
     Gina asked, “So where are we, Mahmoud? And what are you doing here?”
     “Why, we are fishermen, miss,” he proclaimed enthusiastically, “and this around you is what we call ‘the sea.'”
     She snorted with humour at Mahmoud’s delivery. “Fishermen. What the hell’s there left to fish out here?”
     “The Red Tide,” he murmured. “You would call it ‘harmful algal blooms’. The Federation pays us to dredge the algae when it gets thick, keep it from poisoning the water too badly. Wouldn’t want one of the rich children to get sick swimming. Some days we even get some fish caught in the filter. Good eating!”
     Strange coldness crept up Gina’s spine, and she started to shiver. Within moments the woman, Maryam, returned with big bowls of stew piled in her arms, one for every member of the crew — and a particularly full bowl for their unexpected guest. Strangely enough it didn’t smell of moulded protein, and a quick taste confirmed that fact. Real beef. She nearly threw up from the sheer richness of it, but she choked down bite after bite anyway, too good and far too expensive to waste.
     “Thank you,” she told Maryam as the woman returned to her husband. Gina wasn’t sure Maryam understood until she broke into a big smile and started belting out words in a thick English accent.
     “Thass aight, hen!” she blathered at a volume that seemed to embarrass Mahmoud. “Jus’ glad we got you all safe and dry and owt!” After a moment’s thought she added, “D’you know when you’ll be wantin’ off? We only put into port when we go ‘ome, really, but we c’n make an esseption!”
     “No, that’s okay, thank you. I got nowhere else to go at the moment and I don’t want to hold you up any more than I already have.” She still clutched the blanket to her clammy skin with weak, trembling fingers. “I’m lost,” she said.
     The big woman smiled again. “Don’t worry, dear. Life will always find you.”
     Gina didn’t know if she wanted that to be true or not.

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