“What do you mean, ‘detour?'” asked Gina, shaking off her grogginess. She divided her attention between Henry and the heavy black-and-yellow thunderclouds on the horizon, brooding, pregnant with evil. It was the biggest dust storm she’d ever seen. Swirls of old fallout whirled at the edges while polluted lightning flashed orange and green in its murky depths. It hung there like a big radioactive wall placed squarely between them and Fredericksburg.
     The driver concentrated on crawling down the hill of dry, cracked ground in front of him. The Land Rover swayed from side to side as the rubble slid around under its monstrous tires but it never lost its poise. “I mean I can drive this truck through that storm, Ma’am, but you don’t want me to do that. Not if you fancy the idea of coming back from this trip.”
     From the back seats, Major Hawthorn leaned in and asked, “How long are we talking here?”
     “Depending on wind factors, I’d say eight to twelve hours. Maybe more.”
     “We don’t have eight to twelve hours to fuck around,” Gina pointed out. “The fate of the world could depend on us.”
     Boy, did that feel weird coming out of her mouth. The planet ought to have better saviours than Gina Hart and Andrew Hawthorn.
     “I’m telling you, our dust filters aren’t gonna last. What the Hell else do you want us to do?”
     “Push through,” she replied in a voice like iron.
     “Push through?” Henry slammed his foot on the brakes, bringing the Land Rover to a juddering halt. He looked over his shoulder, jaw set and eyes ablaze. “Listen, girlie, I didn’t sign up for a suicide mission. I’ve got a wife and kids at home!”
     There was a soft click. The muzzle of Hawthorn’s pistol pressed gently against Henry’s temple. “I thought I told you that whatever the lady says, goes.” The Major’s rippling thoughts were religious in their intensity. The power of it hit Gina like a punch in the chest, but she tried not to let it show.
     A second of desperate tension ticked away. Suddenly, Henry moved, trying to dodge and grab the gun in the same movement. A full complement of cutting-edge soldier boosts made his reactions as fast as a bullet — as fast as Bomber, if not more. To Gina’s eyes he was a blur of explosive energy. A knife appeared in his other hand, and he twisted around to drive it deep into Hawthorn’s side.
     The seatbelt clicked and snapped taut, cutting his movement short. He didn’t have the reach. He wasn’t fast enough. Maybe he was never going to be.
     Neither was Gina. She tried to reach out, tried to stop Hawthorn, but she didn’t have time. A bang tore into her eardrums, louder than the world exploding, accompanied by the crack of punctured glass. Air whistled in through a hole in the driver-side window. The whole door was painted red and grey with what used to be their driver.
     “Fuck,” she groaned, and wiped a sleeve across her face to scrub away the spatters of blood.
     A few minutes later, Major Hawthorn had wrestled the body into the back and was doing his best to clean up. An emergency slap-on patch plugged the hole in the window. Gina forced her nerves to calm. It was nothing she hadn’t seen before. The Major was probably right in deeming it necessary. Better to just move on.
     Hawthorn said to the back of her head, “I’ve been watching his movements. I can drive this thing.”
     She slowly shook off the nasty after-images of Henry’s disposal, and gave the Major a long look. He was ready to get her to her destination at any cost. Not just for the sake of the mission, but because it was what she wanted. His feelings were a strange mix of awe, fear and love.
     She coughed to clear her throat. “Is it true what he said?”
     “Hey. I always figured this would be a one-way trip.”
     She nodded and let him take the wheel.
     They drove into the storm, and it engulfed them. They were invisible but blind. For a while Gina wondered if Gabriel could sense her coming, or if he was too busy with Colonel Obrin and his search. The piece of him inside her had been dormant for days now, as though all his attention were focussed elsewhere. To be fair, she’d be preoccupied too if she were about to complete her life’s work. He didn’t even know he was going to be a father, yet.
     God. She wasn’t looking forward to that part.
     Their time of arrival blinked red on the navigation screen. Three more hours. She thought about casting herself adrift again, to try to find Rat or Bomber, but she couldn’t bear the idea of not being here when they arrived. So she hunkered down and watched the time slip away minute by minute, butterflies in her stomach, wondering what she should expect.
     She deliberately ignored Henry lying in state in the back, especially when Major Hawthorn stuffed the body into the airlock and flushed him out.

***

     Every time Gina didn’t think the storm could get any worse, it would prove her wrong. Heavy shutters dropped over all the windows to protect them from getting scratched or cracked by flying debris. They were driving by instruments only, pretty much blind and inching forward at a crawl. The exterior cameras showed an endless maelstrom of brown dust. Gina couldn’t look at it for long before she started to see ghosts, vaporised by nuclear fire or succumbing to the slow agony of radiation poisoning. Statues of ash that crumbled in the breeze.
     She shivered. It was lonely out here.
     The silence inside the Land Rover felt oppressive, but neither Gina nor Hawthorn felt inclined to break it. The machine’s endless mechanical noises didn’t help at all — gravel grinding under the tires, the clunk of the industrial gearbox, suspension springs creaking and groaning under the strain. The only other sound was the soft chattering of Gina’s teeth.
     She kept fighting off the shaky panic attacks which had plagued her in New Orleans. It took all her concentration to stay on top of herself. She had much more control over things now, but in many ways she still had a long way to go. She barely knew how to use most of her talents, let alone understand them. She wished it came as easy to her as it did Gabriel. A lot of good people would still be alive. A few bad ones, too, but they didn’t deserve to die.
     Even with all this power, she couldn’t win every battle. She couldn’t seem to make the world into what she wanted it to be.
     The navigation computer beeped. It announced their arrival at the designated coordinates, and automatically loaded an old map of Fredericksburg from before it was nuked. It helpfully highlighted several natural landmarks in the area. It failed to take into account that they were all invisible through the storm, if the bomb hadn’t already knocked them down.
     “They’re here,” Gina said. There was no doubting the identity of those minds, only a few kilometres away. Gabriel and Colonel Obrin were somewhere in this storm. She took the wheel from Hawthorn, pointed them in the right direction, and stepped on the accelerator to send their giant vehicle barrelling down on the target. The smooth ground allowed them to build up some speed for a change, the old sand melted into glass.
     Suddenly the Land Rover emerged into a patch of calm, like the eye of the storm, a narrow column of ground where the swirling dust just didn’t go. The exterior cameras cleared up and the shutters raised as the computer judged it safe.
     The front windscreen offered a perfect view of two men surrounded by heavy machinery of all shapes and sizes. Robotic arms on wheels, strange blocky containers, control consoles, power generators and floodlights. Even a few abandoned cars, mirror-painted against radiation, sitting on their wheels or lying on their sides. Faded warning stickers in yellow and black adorned pretty much everything. It was unmistakably a worksite of some kind. Gina couldn’t even begin to guess what it was for, but the whole set-up exuded a sense of impending danger, in the way that only untested military prototypes could.
     It wasn’t new, though. Rust stained much of the equipment. It was all holed, rotted and battered down by years of wind and weather. By the look of it, the site had been abandoned in a hurry, a long time ago.
     Gina looked at the Geiger counter. The radiation outside was barely stronger than sunlight. She looked over her shoulder at the radiation suits, then at Gabriel caught in the Land Rover’s headlights, and threw caution to the wind. She kicked the door open and went outside.
     Colonel Obrin stood at one of the control consoles, the only piece of equipment on site that was fresh and shiny, his hands frozen above the keyboard. He looked thinner than she remembered, his head shaved, but she still recognised him without hair or moustache. His face and his mind were locked in sheer confusion.
     Behind him, Gabriel stood to one side. His coppery hair shone in the half-light. His eyes were bright and sharp, but slightly unfocussed, as if doing several things at the same time.
     “You made it,” he said.
     That didn’t seem like an appropriate thing to say to Gina, but she let it go. She approached slowly, step by step. “Whatever you’re doing, you need to stop it.”
     “It’s already been set in motion. There’s no turning back now.”
     “I am not in the mood for your cryptic bullshit today!” she lashed out, surprising herself and everybody around her. Now that she had the momentum, though, she wanted to keep it going. She tapped into her anger, her frustration, all the negative emotions she’d been carrying around for the last month, and hurled them at him like knives, one after another. “I’m tired of running. I’m tired of you evading my questions. I’m tired of this constant fucking chase scene! Read my lips, or my mind if you want to. One way or another, it ends today.”
     He sighed. Tired. So tired. “You might not like what you hear, Gina.”
     “I’m a big girl, Gabriel.”
     “Fine,” he whispered, barely audible over the faint keening of the storm around them. “Mr. Obrin. If you please.”
     The Colonel came back to life with a shock. He tapped one of the keys under his fingers. A loud, sharp hissing noise and a shower of hot sparks erupted from one of the cars. It had been rigged as a launching platform. A small rocket fizzed up into the air, above the storm, and exploded. Its shockwave flattened the dust like a heavy blanket thrown over the sky. Gina could feel it weighing down on her for a moment, blowing more dust into her eyes and hair, and then it was gone.
     At last — for the first time in fourteen years — the city of Fredericksburg, Virginia was revealed for all to see.

***

     On top of the barren, lifeless soil of ground zero, where not even grass was ready to return, stood a city. It was a fully-evolved metropolis, beyond modern. Towers of steel and mirrored glass stood in rows as far as the eye could see, arranged in a perfect grid. Every building had the sleek, efficient look of something designed by a machine. Between the skyscrapers were streets, of a sort. Strips of perfectly flat ground made from some glossy, silvery material which shimmered as you watched.
     Gina had to shield her eyes, and even then it was hard to look at this strange city. Every surface seemed to emit light, blazing bright, enough to turn the night to day for miles around.
     “God,” whispered Gabriel. “It’s really here. It’s just like I imagined.”
     Hawthorn gawked in open-mouthed astonishment. “It’s not possible.”
     “You’re looking at it, Major,” Gina told him. “Whatever it is.”
     “We should be looking at six hundred kilotons of crater. This. . .” Words failed him. He turned to Gabriel, demanding, “What did you do?”
     A mirthless grin split Gabriel’s face. “I’m afraid you can’t pin this one on me. The actual culprit is right here.”
     He showed what he meant by giving Colonel Obrin an amiable pat on the shoulder. The Colonel didn’t respond. He was transfixed, staring into the middle distance with a haunted look on his face.
     The longer Gina looked at the city, the more something got on her nerves about it. She couldn’t quite figure out what. It did look machine-made — Hell, it bore more than a passing resemblance to certain parts of Laputa — but it was more than that. Something in the way the buildings curved, or the way they swayed in the wind, or. . .
     She saw it. “It’s changing,” she whispered.
     Even as she watched, several of the towers altered their shape in subtle ways, following the aimless gusts of wind left over from the storm. Much like the streets, their surface shimmered and rippled in a way that made Gina’s skin crawl.
     “There is something very wrong with that place.”
     She looked over her shoulder, to where Hawthorn had Obrin by the lapels and was shaking him back and forth. The Major was shouting, “It’s because of Hephaestus, isn’t it? Did you let it loose here? Tell me the truth, right now!”
     Obrin seemed to snap back to reality. Moisture brimmed in his eyes. “I tried to fix it.” His voice came out choked and broken. “I tried to put it back the way it was.”
     And in that moment, Gina saw the truth. The memories came pouring into his mind and reverberated out from him like the note of a tuning fork, too clear and powerful to ignore.
     Fourteen years ago, he had stood in this exact spot, looking down over the city. Around him were the loyal men and women of the Hephaestus project. They wore bright yellow radiation suits. Fallout blotted the sky, and somewhere nearby he could hear the mournful cries of an animal in the final stages of radiation poisoning. One more thing to weigh on his conscience. But if he could do something here, if he could bring this wasted city back to life, that would be some kind of redemption. Something good would’ve come from all this.
     The equipment had been right where he left it, buried in a forgotten storage bunker at Quantico. His contacts in the new government had loaned him some vehicles and all the money he needed to show the potential applications of Hephaestus in the field. With the right dataset, the bots could collectively analyse any object and repair it, even something as complex as a human body. His work with the troops had proved that much. Not only repair, but enhance. The special heuristics program pioneered by Obrin’s team allowed the bots to learn how to make improvements to anything they could recognise. Even themselves, when instructed.
     Their value to science and medicine alone would be staggering, but for that, he would need backing. He would need investors. So, he had to give them a showpiece. He had to give them Fredericksburg.
     Three cars came crawling back up the hill and took turns going through the mobile disinfection unit. Down below, three blue barrels had been positioned at key points around the crater. Everything was ready and in position.
     At a command from Obrin, billions of productive little robots went out into the world, equipped with orders to rebuild the city of New Fredericksburg. They analysed everything that remained. Learning, teaching themselves about what had stood here before, what a new population would need. Offices, living spaces, shops, recreation, utilities, public transport. All the comforts of modern living. And once they were sure they understood, they set to work creating something which ticked all the boxes in the most efficient way possible.
     The onlookers oohed and ahhed as objects began to rise from the pool of silver putty. Bit by bit, the blasted wasteland transformed back to its former glory. More than its former glory. New, shiny, bigger and better than it had ever been.
     And somewhere, buried deep in the blackened earth, Hephaestus found a single living cell.

***

     Working backwards from DNA was a challenge even for Hephaestus, but with a plentiful supply of carbon at hand, it had everything it really needed. It began to decipher the vast amounts of information stored in that double helix of organic code. It crafted nucleotides and stuck them one on top of the other. It built another human cell, and delicately fitted it against the first.
     It learned more as it went, and this tied into what it already knew from its previous work on the human body. It spun out muscles, adipose tissue, and bone. A skeleton. Organs. Limbs and a head. A brain.
     And wherever it went, it made things better. Faster and stronger and more resilient. More functional, within the parametres of still being essentially human. This was what made Hephaestus such a triumph. It understood the purpose of the object rather than trying to alter it beyond all recognition.
     So, then, the human brain. Elegant in its structure. Endless in its capabilities. Possibly the ultimate organ ever created in nature, so powerful that most computers of the age still couldn’t match the full reasoning of an average human. If only so much of that power wasn’t wasted in muddy repetition, faulty storage and insufficient cross-linking. Hephaestus could do better.
     Eyes the colour of wildfire came open. A new-born human jerked up into a sitting position. He looked up at the skeletal city looming over him, rising slowly to blot out the sky. And he screamed.
     The panic in Colonel Obrin’s encampment was total. The howl could be heard, thought and felt for miles around. Men and women fell to their knees, clapping hands to the sides of their helmets out of primitive instinct, as if that could drown out the sound.
     “Turn it off!” someone called over the radio, and those who were still sane enough to press buttons fumbled for their controls. An answering voice came in shock, “Telemetry’s changing too fast. It won’t respond. It won’t obey the abort.”
     A man came running towards them from the middle of the Fredericksburg reconstruction zone, naked except for the film of nanobots crawling over his skin. He lashed out blindly with the power of his mind. Cars overturned. Metal buckled under its force. Some of the team were hurled off their feet, ripping their radiation suits against the barren ground. Others simply died where they stood.
     In the chaos, Obrin looked at his handler, the government operative assigned to evaluate the work. One moment the man was grabbing Obrin by the front of his suit, shouting words that no one else could hear, his radio forgotten. The next he toppled over backwards with his limbs in the air like a dead spider. With him went any hope of reviving the Hephaestus project. There would be questions asked, and repercussions. The new government, the Federation, was not forgiving.
     The nameless man stopped on a hill-top, panting heavily, as if the first of his senses returned to him. He looked down at the silver putty sliding over his skin and reacted with another explosion of primal fear. He wiped and tore and tried to get as much of it off him as he could. Colonel Obrin watched as the robots simply merged into his skin. In a wild panic, the man sliced two great chunks of stone out of the landscape, and slipped back into the mindless urge to escape. He fled down the hill, out of sight.
     Obrin glanced over what remained of his team. Most of them were wounded, contaminated, or both. Without intact suits they would never make it back to civilisation alive. Nor could they all fit into the single undamaged car.
     Below them, Fredericksburg continued to rise, but that no longer mattered.
     Unlike his team of scientists, Colonel Obrin was a soldier, and he made a very simple calculation. He had to protect himself. He had to contain this catastrophe and the best way of doing that was to make sure nobody found out about it.
     What was left of his conscience twinged, but a few more deaths laid at his door wouldn’t make a difference. Not now. As long as he was alive and free, there was the chance he could rebuild.
     He walked to the remaining car, got into the driver’s seat, and set off into the wilderness of Radiation Alley.

***

     “Oh God,” moaned Gina, swaying, holding her head. The rush of memories tailed off. Her eyes searched for Colonel Obrin and found him on his knees, his face buried in his hands.
     Her fingers curled, pressing the nails into her palms so hard she drew blood. She wanted nothing more than to pummel him to within an inch of his life. “You– You evil little man!”
     “It wasn’t supposed to happen this way,” was all he said.
     “Don’t tell me you managed to hide this for fourteen years,” Gina hissed. “What about patrols? Flyovers? Fucking satellite imaging!”
     Gabriel made a sound halfway between a chuckle and a cough. “Have you looked up lately, Gina? Seen any satellites? Flyovers? Patrols?” He mimed an airplane flying through the sky with one hand, and his other wrapped around it like a blinding storm. “Half an hour from now the dust will be right back where it was, twice as thick. Nobody’s come here since this idiot let Hephaestus loose on the world. I couldn’t have found it without somebody who knew where it was.”
     Staring out over the city, its buildings crawling as if alive, Gina still couldn’t make sense of it. “But why has Obrin been searching all this time, knowing Hephaestus was right here?”
     “I don’t think you could call these ‘Hephaestus’ anymore. Like the ones in my body, they’ve been through hundreds, maybe thousands of generations, improving themselves each time. Becoming something else. I’d be surprised if the current generation remembers more than a shred of their original programming.” There was a sad smile on his lips as he added, “You see, he didn’t just release the bots. He cut corners. He had to make them tougher to survive in Radiation Alley. He had to improve something which was built to improve.”
     In the background, Major Hawthorn made a strangled noise. “But the Laws of Nanorobotics–“
     “Do not self-preserve,” quoted Gabriel. “Do not self-modify. Do not self-reproduce. Obrin broke them all.” He gestured to the end result, the gleaming city of Fredericksburg. “Once he took the limiters off, once they started evolving, there was no turning back.”
     Gina turned, and studied Gabriel from a fresh perspective. His hands hung at his sides now, clenched into fists. His entire body was taut like a bowstring. For the first time, she got a sense of the emotions he was holding back by force of will alone.
     “Kind of a crap place to be born, don’t you think?” he said with a slightly manic giggle.
     “Gabriel…”
     “For a while I thought that if I could make more telepaths, it would help me understand myself. It didn’t. This is what I really needed. To figure out where I came from. To know for sure.” He grabbed Obrin by his collar, dragging the unresisting colonel to his feet. “To meet the man who created me.”
     Hawthorn stepped forward, one hand on his gun. “Let him go.”
     “We’ve already played that game, Major. Do we really need to play it again?”
     “I may not be able to keep you down, but I can hurt you.”
     “Truth. However, I can most certainly kill you.”
     “Stop it, the both of you!” Interposing herself between them, Gina stood her ground. “Nobody’s gonna hurt anybody. We’re here to talk.”
     Gabriel smiled at her, saying, “I’m afraid there’s not much more to talk about. This is the endgame. As we speak, my Sword should be finishing off your friends in the City, and the preparations are just about done.” He gave Obrin a little shake. The man hung in his grip like a rag-doll. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, Gina, but you wouldn’t be here if there were even the slightest chance you could affect the outcome.”
     “What have you done, Gabriel?” she hissed, not sure she wanted to know the answer.
     “To put it simply…” he hesitated, “No, to put it really simply, I want to turn back time.” He seemed to think of something funny, and gave the tiniest, bleakest chuckle in the history of laughter. “Turns out your friend Jacob and I have the same goal. I should never have been alive.”
     The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, but she fought it down and forced nonchalance into her voice. “Seems a little elaborate for a suicide.”
     “It’s not so easy when you’re full of robots who insist on repairing you, over, and over, and over…” He closed his eyes as if to block out some unpleasant memories. “Suicide isn’t enough. If anything of me remains, even a single cell, I might get rebuilt again. That can’t happen.”
     Taking in a deep breath, Gabriel prepared to explain.

***

     “Meet Colonel Keith Obrin, United States Marines, DARPA, Special Operations Command, Army Aviation Branch, and a few other services besides. Former commanding officer of Project Hephaestus, a military nanotech program tasked with creating a new kind of super-soldier, boosted far beyond any other unit of the era. When his bosses decided to cut Hephaestus from the books, it was just too much for poor Keith. He decided to go rogue. He stopped serving his country and started serving himself.
     “For the last fifteen years, this man has been at the root of everything. The nukes. The Federation. Jacob Dusther, Fredericksburg, me, you. I would never even have met you, Gina, if it weren’t for him giving the order to spy on me. For fifteen years he’s been chasing a pipe dream, a past that’s never coming back. At least not the way he wanted it.”
     Gabriel gave a cool smile at his own turn of phrase. He looked from Gina, to Hawthorn, to Obrin, and back again. His thoughts rippled out without any attempt to hide them, calm and clear as a reflecting pool.
     “The world has been paying for Keith Obrin’s foolishness long enough. I’m planning to reverse his mistakes. All of them.”
     “What are you saying?” asked Gina, her eyebrows knitted into a frown, not understanding. A cold, crawling feeling marched up her spine. Whether she could make sense of Gabriel’s statement or not, she got the distinct impression that it wasn’t just born of insanity or pride. “You can’t reverse time. There’s no way.”
     “There is one way, if you’re me. Remember, I’m smarter than the average bear.”
     “What?”
     “Never mind.” He sighed. “The simple explanation is that I’m not going to manipulate time at all. “
     He crossed to his car and lifted the heavy tarpaulin off the back. Underneath, strapped down to the bed, was a canister. A nanocontainer of immense proportions. Readouts burned a steady green on its little status display. All was well, at least with the bots inside.
     Gabriel went on, “I invented a derivative of Hephaestus that doesn’t repair so much as restore. It can analyse the location and state of things as they were many years in the past. Then I created a snapshot of the world from fifteen years ago, assembled out of every scrap of data GlobeNet has to offer. Medical records, education, employment, everything from damn near every computer built or operated in the last two decades.”
     A little light went on in Hawthorn’s brain. “Your botnet virus. It’s not just there to shut things down, is it? It’s there to learn. To spy on people.”
     “In a sense, yes. And I needed an AI to help me collate all those thousands of terabytes into a useful set of operations. Sword is managing the whole procedure from my home in the City. Does that put all the puzzle pieces together for you?” The interruption annoyed Gabriel, but he soon recaptured his serene smile. Nothing could keep him down for long in his moment of triumph. “I’m going to put things back the way they were before I was even conceived. Everyone can start over from a clean slate. No Spice, no Radiation Alley, no Feds, no Resistance and no Lowell Industries. None of Obrin’s mistakes and none of mine,” he finished, and radiated relief. He’d found a way to absolve himself of everything.
     Gina felt her skin crawl. Her life hadn’t exactly been a bed of roses back in the City, under the tender boot-heels of her father or the Federation at large, but the thought of wiping away those years was alien and abhorrent. They were a part of her. If they un-happened, she wouldn’t be Gina Hart anymore. She wouldn’t even be the real Emily Vaughan. She’d be someone, something else. Everything she was or would become would die here.
     She struggled to find the words. “Gabriel, I– I know there’s been a lot of bad stuff going on, but you can’t just delete fifteen years of history.”
     “Can’t, or shouldn’t?” he shot back.
     “Both!”
     Shaking his head, he said, “It’s been expensive, sure. Nanofactories and raw materials don’t come cheap. Impossible? No. I’m simply going to move a large number of molecules into a different position. It’s not time travel, and I’m sure it won’t be perfect, but it’ll work.”
     “Please, don’t. There’s got to be another way.”
     She took a few faltering steps toward him, thinking about the baby, about the words she desperately wanted to say but couldn’t get out of her throat. Would he even listen? Could anything change his mind?
     He moved closer, stopping just an arm’s length away, and gazed into her eyes. “Who exactly are you trying to save, Gina? Yourself? Them? Me?”
     “Everybody,” she insisted. The pressure inside her built up like a boiler containing too much steam. She strained and fought with the sick dread in her stomach. Tell him, she repeated to herself. Tell him, tell him, tell him now!
     “You know, I’ve always liked that about you.” He gave her a small smile. “You’re a redeemer. You don’t give up on people. You inspire them to be better than they are, just by believing in them. Who else would still be here trying to save me from myself?”
     He grabbed Obrin by the collar and pushed him toward the car waiting behind him. Then he made a sweeping gesture, inviting Gina to join him. “Come on. We have one more place to visit before the end.”
     “Where?” was all she could think to ask.
     “Where it all started,” he said. “Quantico.”

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