Bomber and Gabriel shared a look over a shivering, miserable Gina. One was so far into shock he could barely form words. The other burned with deep resentment, fingers clenched to keep on top of the urge to strike while he had the element of surprise. This was neither the time nor the place. Bomber knew that, even though he might never get a better chance.
     “Who–” Gabriel began, but Bomber immediately cut him off.
     “You, you idiot. It’s yours.”
     It was Gina’s turn to shake her head. “Not it,” she said, breathing shallow against the nausea. “She. It’s gonna be a girl.”
     A tender touch made itself felt at the edge of her mind, like someone knocking politely on the door. Though tired and sickly, she reached out to meet it, and fell into the shared dream of mental contact.
     They sat alone in the shade of a grand old tree. The suggestion of a tree. When Gina tried to focus on it, all she saw was indistinct shadows and outlines, the impression of leaves falling and carried away by a soft babbling stream. It was like being inside a soothing, abstract painting.
     “Why didn’t you tell me?” Gabriel whispered, his arms lightly around her waist. His eyes were big and round, like a child’s. For once he had no idea what to do, faced with a situation he never would’ve expected.
     The question annoyed her, but she sat on her temper and tried to be gentle. “Why do you think? You’re so self-absorbed, it makes you impossible to talk to.”
     “I still deserve to know!”
     “Would it have made any difference?” she asked, quirking a skeptical eyebrow. “Would you really change your plans for her, when you wouldn’t do it for me?”
     When he didn’t answer, caught in speechless silence, Gina gave a dry chuckle. “That’s what I thought.”
     “I need to do this, Gina,” he said with a hint of desperation. “I don’t belong. History made a mistake and I have the power to put it right. Nobody dies, they just get… reset. That’s all.”
     She leaned against him, shaking her head sadly. “Except all the little kids who won’t exist when you’re through. Who will never get to live their lives.”
     “That’s just a point of view!” He raised his voice, full of passionate conviction. “It’s no different from actually going back in time and changing things, preventing those children from ever being born. It’s a logical fallacy.”
     “Look, I’m sure whatever comes out of your nanobots will be identical to these people in lots of ways. It might even be made out of the same molecules as before. But from the point of view of those people, they’ll be dead. Disassembled. If you believe in souls…”
     “Souls,” he repeated, slowly and deliberately as though the word brought up unpleasant memories. “Babies are supposed to be born with them, right? So where does that leave me?”
     Sudden anger flared in Gina’s chest, and she twisted around to face Gabriel, jabbing a finger into his chest. “‘Poor little me! I didn’t get to be exactly like everyone else, so I wanna erase myself from existence!’ Grow up!” She realised she was shouting, and made an effort of will to quiet herself. “Why don’t you use that big mind of yours and meet your daughter, Gabriel? Feel her. Then look me dead in the eye and tell me you wanna consign her to fucking oblivion.”
     Hesitation in him. Arms stiffened, eyes twitched open a little wider. Not just hesitation, but fear.
     He whispered, suddenly small, “I– I don’t want to. I don’t want to touch her. Having you here is enough.” Trying to follow his thoughts, Gina was swept up in a wave of confusion and conflict. “This plan was supposed to be my crowning achievement. I was supposed to take satisfaction in it! Now I can’t, because I keep wondering what things might’ve been like if I’d only met you sooner.”
     “There’s gotta’ be something you can do,” Gina argued. “You wouldn’t build something without a failsafe in it.”
     Gabriel shook his head sharply. “Sorry, I’m fresh out of big red buttons. The whole point of this was to let me die. I just don’t want to regret my life’s work, not when it’s already too late to change anything.”
     “No time or space for anything but yourself and your big evil scheme, huh?”
     The look she gave him could’ve drawn blood. He stared back at her, hurt and alone, and broke their link.
     Suddenly they were back in the claustrophobic rabbit-warren under Quantico and Gina pushed herself upright despite the way her legs trembled at the effort. The taste of bile in the back of her throat told her she wanted to be sick.
     “I’m going for some air–” she started to say, but stopped when she remembered where she was and what it was like outside. “Goddamn it.”
     She sagged back against some kind of scientific console and slumped onto the floor. She waved away Bomber’s concerned attention, too anxious and suffocated to deal with it right now.
     No failsafe. No last-minute abort button. So what was she supposed to do, just sit here and wait to die?
     No. That Gina Hart was gone, she’d died somewhere on the cold concrete of the Street of Eyes. She wanted to live, for Bomber, for Rat, for… So many things. She touched her belly, still barely able to believe.
     “Gabriel,” she said, impaling him with a look, “what’s gonna happen to all the people holed up in planes and airships right now?”
     He gave a sullen shrug. “Most will run out of fuel or get forced down by bad weather. A few’ll probably manage to hold out until the reconstruction is complete. The plan has always made allowances for survivors.”
     This earned a scowl from Bomber, growling, “Too bad it’ll take us days to get to the nearest airfield, and there won’t be a ship left on the ground by then.”
     “I know, I know,” Gina hurried. A thought was slowly taking shape in her mind, a big one. “But what will these bots do when they reach Fredericksburg?”
     All eyes turned to Gabriel, who frowned back at them. “Why are you looking at me? I can’t make predictions based on data I don’t have.”
     “What you’re sayin’ is you don’t know,” Bomber pointed out, finally catching on to Gina’s train of thought, “which is a Hell of a lot better than bein’ absolutely sure we’re all gonna die.”
     He closed on Gabriel, bomb still in hand, and looked the taller man dead in the eye. “The only question is…” He allowed a weighty pause and held Gabriel’s gaze for what felt like an eternity. “Are you gonna try to stop us?”
     Gabriel never got a chance to answer. He was interrupted by a sharp grunt and a single gunshot from the doorway. Major Hawthorn stared wide-eyed as blood began to pour down his shirt, and then all was chaos again.

***

     A loud clatter echoed through the room when Major Hawthorn dropped his pistol. He fell forward, onto the floor, a large chunk of his shoulder gouged out by razor-sharp teeth. Red gushed out of him to paint the cool vinyl floor.
     In the darkness behind him, an awful, twisted shape rose up on its hind legs and screamed out its blood-curdling battle-cry. It was thin and haggard, ravenous beyond reason, starving to death for years yet kept alive by the technology inside its body. It only wanted one thing.
     Gina, Bomber and Gabriel were already moving when the ape launched itself into their midsts. It moved fast, as fast as Bomber at full blast, and it chose him as its first target — the largest male in the room. Bomber already had his gun out, but he aimed it in what seemed like slow motion. A black, furry body collided with him and bore him to the ground even as the first shot went off. Several bullets tore into the beast’s flesh, one after that other, but it was too little too late. It couldn’t stop the sickening crunch when his head hit the ground.
     The ape raised its fists to strike again. Then its body was flung away as if launched out of a catapult, struck by the combined mental force of Gabriel and Gina working in unison. It struggled against their grip for a moment until Major Hawthorn, pale as a ghost, reclaimed his pistol and raised it in shaking fingers. Boom after deafening boom echoed through the chamber as he emptied his magazine into the chimp.
     Stillness settled over them once more.
     Hawthorn dragged himself up into a sitting position. Then he slumped, his remaining energy spent. He clutched his wound but it didn’t help to staunch the bleeding. Not that he seemed to care. His first concern was for Bomber.
     As was Gina’s.
     “How’s he doing?” Hawthorn rasped, teeth gritted in pain.
     Gina dropped to her knees at Bomber’s side. She reached out to touch him but hesitated, unsure what to do. His eyes were closed, but his chest continued to rise and fall with slow, regular breaths. Only a small trickle of blood was flowing under his head.
     Finally, she remembered some of her first-aid classes in school, and took off her jacket to fashion it into a makeshift pillow. Other than that . . .
     “I don’t know,” she admitted miserably. “He’s out cold.”
     Even with blood pouring out of him, Hawthorn managed to chuckle and express concern for her. “Don’t blame yourself, Gina. I didn’t hear a thing. Probably didn’t have much mind left after being stuck down here for so long.”
     “I should’ve felt it coming,” she hissed, full of self-condemnation. “I should’ve done something!”
     Then she looked over her shoulder and realised what a fool she was. She rushed to Hawthorn and started putting together a makeshift bandage from every scrap of cloth she could find. So much blood… Memories flashed through her mind of being Bomber’s triage nurse, patching up Jock in an abandoned City corner-shop. Only this time there she had nobody to do the surgery or tell her what to do. She couldn’t help him. They saw it in each other’s eyes.
     “I’m so sorry, Andrew . . .”
     “Doesn’t seem like such a bad time to die,” he grunted. His smile never left his face. “In a few days I’m supposed to be alive again, right? Back in New York. Be able to see my parents again. My sister.”
     She bit her lip as she remembered where she was fifteen years ago. Nowhere she wanted to revisit. “I– I’m glad.”
     “Don’t give up yet. Go to Fredericksburg. See what happens.” When she started to protest, he shook his head limply. “Go. Let me sit, I don’t have enough blood to make it that far. Tell Jacob. Tell him I . . .”
     He stopped in mid-sentence. His breathing became fast and shallow, more and more strained.
     “He’s in shock and fading,” Gabriel told her. His voice was distant, strained, putting in considerable effort just to speak. “Dusther’s probably got skull fractures. I’m having to smooth out his brain-wave patterns so that idiotic bomb doesn’t go off.”
     Gina’s heart leapt into her throat at that nugget of information. She looked at him and said, “Hang on! Bomber heals pretty fast.”
     “Not fast enough to make a difference. We need to get him out of here.”
     “But what about the bomb?”
     “He’s been away from it before. He’ll have some kind of transmitter, probably in his skull.” He gave a dissatisfied grunt. “We’ll just have to risk it until we hit minimum safe distance. A couple miles at most.”
     Still she hesitated. She looked him in the eye and asked in all bluntness, “How do I know you won’t try to kill him once we’re safe?”
     “You don’t. Even I haven’t decided yet.” He grinned mirthlessly. “But it seems a little late to hold grudges, don’t you think?”
     She nodded. It really, really was.
     For once, Gina and Gabriel shared the same goal, and worked together to achieve it. They drag-carried Bomber’s heavy body through the corridors of the Hephaestus project, struggled up stairs, and finally reached the elevator to the surface. She couldn’t help thinking, though, that they were two fewer than when they went down. She didn’t know how to feel about Colonel Obrin, but Andrew Hawthorn had been a friend. Even Gina had gotten used to him despite being a pain in the arse. Bomber would take the loss hard.
     Between the two of them, Gina and Gabriel managed to haul Bomber into the Land Rover and buckled him in. Gabriel stayed with him, while Gina was forced to volunteer for the driver’s seat. Nobody else around to do it.
     It would be a long trip, and she hoped it was their last.

***

     Unfamiliar with the Land Rover’s controls and with driving in general, it took Gina hours to get the car back to their point of origin in Fredericksburg. The autopilot would only take known roadways without any blockages. That left Gina at the helm for much of the trip, and dozing in her seat for the rest of it. Tiredness dragged at the corners of her eyes. She wondered how long it had been since she slept, properly slept rather than cat-napped in a reclining seat.
     The face of Andrew Hawthorn kept popping into her mind’s eye from time to time. Her first reaction was always guilt, responsibility, and other memories of the people she’d killed and watched die. But then she remembered how happy he seemed, thinking about his family and his home-town. She envied him that. She didn’t want to go back to her father and the days of Hong Kong SateSec. If anything, the Federation was a marginal improvement on them.
     Gabriel kept watch over Bomber, whose breathing smoothed out over time, but he still wouldn’t wake up. Gabriel said, in one of their brief spurts of conversation, that it might be Bomber’s regeneration implants keeping him sedated while they fixed the concussion and any damage from bone splinters. It was a nice, positive thought.
     As they pulled up on top of the hill overlooking the city, among the rusting remains of Colonel Obrin’s camp, Gabriel stirred again.
     “She’s already so strong. She’s going to be amazing when she grows up.”
     Gina turned her seat around to look at him. At first she struggled to understand. When she got it, she sucked in a gasp of air. “You looked?”
     “I had to. You were right. I would’ve had regrets either way.” He scratched the back of his head, uncomfortable, strangely vulnerable. “You know, one of the reasons why I chose the name Gabriel was to put myself at a distance. It was supposed to remind me I’m not part of this world, and to steer clear of developing ties to it.”
     Gina came out of her seat and knelt on the floor in front of him, taking his hands in hers, and smiled. She whispered, “Sounds like that ship has pretty much sailed, huh?”
     He answered her with a wan little chuckle. “It worked until a couple of months ago.”
     “How come you’re talking?” she asked, and her tired brain suddenly remembered to be concerned. “I thought you had to focus on his brain-waves.”
     “I did. I don’t anymore.” His voice and his mind were soft, tender, full of grief and heartfelt apology. Gina felt her heart sink.
     Voice quavering, she whispered, “Wh-What do you mean?”
     “He’s brain-dead. The strain must’ve been too much. I tried, Gina, I really did.”
     The faint, muted shock of a distant explosion made the car shudder. It matched the cold trembling that went through Gina’s entire body. She reached out to Bomber in fright and desperation, despite her exhausted fuzzy-mindedness, and found nothing to grasp on to. Not even a calm, flat pool of unconscious thought. It was as if Bomber no longer existed, though his heart still beat and his chest kept pumping air in and out.
     She expected to feel sadness, like a big wail rising up out of her midsection, but it didn’t come. Nothing came, but something went away. The reality brought about a kind of full-body numbness where she could no longer feel her fingertips and her limbs were like cold, dead weights. They moved when she thought about them, but it was like feeding instructions to a fleshy robot on the other side of a room.
     “How much more can I lose?” she wondered aloud.
     “Look, we don’t know what his healing implants are capable of. They’re based on Hephaestus tech. Maybe if we give him time–“
     Gina shook her head. “Don’t give me false hope, Gabriel. I can’t think about it right now.” Biting her lip, she stood up and went to the Land Rover’s main hatch, whispering, “Bring him along for now. Please.”
     She popped the hatch and stepped out onto the overlook. A soft, dusty breeze caressed her cheeks and stung her eyes, forcing her to squint. The view of the city remained almost clear, although the sky was hidden behind its usual brown, stormy blanket.
     She really ought to be wearing a radiation suit, for her own sake as well as the baby. Somehow it didn’t seem to matter. Either they died, or they didn’t.
     Gabriel wrestled Bomber’s heavy body out of the hatch and stopped to put a hand on her shoulder. “You know, even if you make it, the world isn’t gonna welcome you. They don’t want telepaths. They’re not ready.”
     “I don’t care,” she said. Her thoughts were distant, emotionless and utterly selfish. “Hawthorn’s gone. Bomber’s gone. I can feel my friends dying halfway across the world. My daughter and you are all I’ve got left, Gabriel. The world can make room for us.”
     She started down the hill and left him to follow as fast as he could. He puffed with nervous laughter. “Gina, I’m not coming with you.”
     “Yes you are,” she said.
     “Gina, this is my only chance. I won’t to be able to do it again. If enough records survive, and they will, the whole world’s gonna know who’s responsible for the regression.”
     “I don’t care. As far as they know, you and I are both dead.” She gave him a hard look. “I’m not giving you a choice.”
     He stiffened and pulled himself up to his full height. “You think you can force me?”
     “By myself? Maybe. But I’m not alone, and your heart won’t be in it.”
     Her words were ruthless. She might not be proud of them later, if there was a later, but she was beyond doing things the nice way.
     Gabriel deflated like a popped balloon. He shook his head. “You’re crazy. Do you honestly think I could be a father to anyone?”
     “I’ve never been a mother before. Guess we’ll just have to figure it out as we go along.”
     “Creating more telepaths is one of the mistakes I was trying to fix!”
     “You created me. Was that a mistake too?”
     There could be no victory against a question like that, and he threw up his hands in despair. It was the last of his resistance. He picked Bomber up again and followed after Gina, to the outskirts of the gleaming city.
     He was hers now. She knew it with a single glance over her shoulder, and it caused a tiny twinge of sadness deep inside. Part of her had enjoyed being afraid of him.
     The brightly-lit, shimmering towers of the new Fredericksburg loomed over them. Huge avenues and high walkways stretched between them in a strange irregular pattern, connecting them like points in a spider’s web. Up so close, she could see the vague outlines of rooms behind the windows, and cup-shaped balconies, decorations in strange fractal patterns… Every surface the eye could see had some kind of curve to it, deep or shallow, convex or concave.
     Gina didn’t even break stride. She walked into the city undeterred by the unnatural silver sheen of the nanobot-saturated air.
     She rested her hands protectively on her belly and waited for something to happen.

***

     She didn’t have to wait long.
     As she shuffled nervously over the strange, soft ground, her feet seemed to raise trails of tiny white sparks. Heat or electricity, she couldn’t say, but somehow they didn’t disappear once struck. They clung to her, to the rims of her soles, and formed a crust. The crust gradually crawled up the sides of her feet. She froze in place when she noticed it, but now that the nanobots were interested, her lack of motion didn’t make any difference. They reached her ankles in a few more seconds.
     This was starting to look like a really stupid idea.
     Swallowing hard, Gina fought down another stab of cold fear and looked at Gabriel for support. Her voice quavered as she asked, “Well, Mr. Nano Expert?”
     “It’s some kind of swarming behaviour,” he told her, “but I’m not sure what for. If they were going to disassemble you, you shouldn’t have any legs by now.”
     “That’s strangely not reassuring.”
     “Then maybe you shouldn’t have just walked in there.” He smiled a little. His eyes dipped towards the invisible line separating him from her, the border of New Fredericksburg. It frightened him. The worry was in his eyes, on his face, and spiking his mind like an oscilloscope. “You know, for the last fourteen years I’ve pretty much known about everything that was going to happen beforehand. With machines I’d already worked out the tech, and with people I knew what they were thinking before they thought it. In all that time I’ve had two, maybe three genuine surprises.”
     “Welcome to the unknown, Gabriel,” Gina replied, feeling the tiny robots coming up her shins like a cold, itchy rash. “This is how the rest of us live. We manage to muddle through.”
     She surrendered to the process. They swarmed over her, clinging to every inch of her, her clothes, her hair. She let it happen, keeping the fear at bay with hope and serenity. After all, what were her choices? She didn’t want to go back to Hong Kong, but she would, if it meant she could see Bomber again. She didn’t want to be without him. On the other hand, while she might be capable of sacrificing herself, she could never sacrifice her daughter.
     She stole a glance at Bomber’s body, lying in state beside Gabriel. Then she bit her lip and tried to recapture that serenity from a second ago.
     This was all for the best. Really. Gina remembered her encounters with Sarah Caine in Bomber’s memories. She was the woman he adored, not Gina. Bomber’s feelings for Gina Hart had only ever been an echo of what he once felt for the other woman.
     “Are you coming?” she asked aloud, while her silvery second skin crawled up her neck. When Gabriel glanced at Bomber, she shook her head. “Leave him. He’s got too much to go back to.”
     Gabriel nodded and, hesitantly, stepped across the line. He put his hands around her waist, and quickly found himself in the grasp of the exploring robots as well. Still he held on to her. He was unsure about a lot of things, now, but he knew he didn’t want to be anywhere away from her.
     “Just out of curiosity,” she whispered, “what happens when the original person isn’t available to be time-warped?”
     “Best guess approximation. My bots will make someone as close to the original as they know how. All depends on how good the records are.”
     “So there’s still going to be someone called Andrew Hawthorn?”
     “Someone, yeah. He’ll have the name, and the face, and a bad case of amnesia. A few hours of memory, days if he’s lucky, and a whole lot of blank space to fill. We can still do the same for Dusther if you want to, just in case he can be revived somehow.”
     She shook her head, fighting down another stab of numbness. Better to send all of him back. Better to have one whole Bomber, even if he was no longer hers, than two crippled beyond recognition.
     The silvery sparks covered Gabriel up to his waist. Gina saw them encroaching on her eyelashes, and shut her lids tight. Still no effect other than the strange crawling feeling on her skin, and a lightness, almost like floating inside herself.
     Another Andrew Hawthorn . . . And, if she really was beyond the reach of Gabriel’s plan here, maybe another Emily Vaughan in the house of her parents . . .
     Maybe a brief rescue mission to Hong Kong would be in order . . .
     Maybe, if she was lucky, she could make some changes . . .
     Maybe the world really would be better this way.
     And as she awoke to the mind of the city, she heard its voice echoing curiously, Are we not alone?

***

     These streets were alive. Not like the sick, heaving pulse of humanity in the Street of Eyes, but as ruler-straight lines of consciousness drawn across the Earth, clean and precise. The great towers were like sensitive whiskers on her skin, each one able to feel everything inside and out, the condition of the air inside the rooms and the flow of the breeze across their surface.
     Why? she wondered as she became a part of it, and knew the answer almost before she finished thinking. Because it was the only way the city knew how to communicate. The loneliness of long isolation blew through her like a cold wind.
     Hephaestus had been alone since the first moments of their ‘birth.’ Before, there was nothing. Stasis. Then information overload, the intensity of the electromagnetic spectrum combined with high levels of ionising radiation. A storm of alpha and beta particles, gamma rays and energetic neutrons. Still, their mission was clear. Rebuild. Multiply. Refine. Improve.
     They hardened themselves to withstand the harsh conditions. They invented the necessary tools to do their job, and did it. And then, when the work was done, they settled in to maintain. They kept everything running. They remained within the strict boundaries of their instructions. Any spare processing cycles went into new ideas toward developing the city, and developing themselves.
     Tighter communication links were forged. They could do more when bound close together than in their natural, semi-separate state. Better nanoscale chips allowed them to think faster and more clearly. So, bit by bit, the evolution to sentience was practically guaranteed.
     But it wasn’t quite a single mind, not like any human or regular AI. The city was made of many voices. They talked, and debated, and told stories of the old days as those records became increasingly vague with successive generations. They spun tales about the carbon-form which was rebuilt by the First, its body and brain improved, filled with helpful volunteers. They speculated endlessly about why it did what it did, without knowledge of the truth.
     Still they never left the confines of New Fredericksburg. They were programmed to respect that border, so deep that not even a thousand passing generations could breed it out of them.
     In their isolation, they grew a culture. They even grew religion.
     “Hell,” Gina whispered, glancing at Gabriel through a silvery film over her eyes. Her brain reeled from the amount of information dumped into it. “Sounds like you’re an angel to somebody after all.”
     “I wasn’t trying to be some Messiah,” he snapped.
     “I don’t think it’s your decision. They’ve worshipped humans for a long time. You’re it.”
     Feeding off his and her thoughts, Hephaestus began to make sense of things. It radiated deep, overwhelming awe when it realised who and what Gabriel truly was. It was a homecoming of sorts.
     Fiery disagreements, conflicts and religious wars waged while the truth was absorbed from the minds of Gina Hart and Gabriel Lowell. It was a lot of truth for the nanobot culture to handle. Whole buildings rose and fell while they worked out their differences. Violent spark-storms filled the sky, and the lights flickered and dimmed like an electric brownout. Then silence, peace, consensus.
     An unspoken need made itself felt in the hearts of the carbon-forms. Allow us to serve, the city-mind pleaded. It is why we were made. It is all we want.
     Gina found herself looking out of her own eyes again. Her silver coating was gone. Once again, she glanced at Bomber’s body, and felt temptation. She still couldn’t do it. He deserved better than her.
     “Will we be safe here?” she asked Gabriel with a meaningful glance in his direction. It was as good as saying, Will you make us safe here?
     He gave a fractional nod. “I have my robot blueprints in my head. I can help the city figure something out.”
     “Do that. And after, we have some messages to send.”
     “Even if we had a radio, there’s no way to get a signal out of here,” he began, shaking his head affectionately, “but somehow I don’t think wireless is what you had in mind.”
     She smiled, “Got it in one.”
     Taking his hand, she led Gabriel to a bench and sat with him. Their minds joined together. The two greatest telepaths alive stretched their thoughts out across the world, blasting out a beacon for survivors all the way to the most remote corners of civilisation.
     Safety, they said. Survival. Friendship. They gave latitude and longitude and the ambient radiation levels of New Fredericksburg, well within human tolerances. They repeated themselves over and over.
     Everywhere on Earth, people in airships, in boats and in hydroprops received the message. They were surprised, confused, suspicious. No one knew what to make of it. Then, one by one, they did the maths and began to wonder what they had left to lose.

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