The bar got really old really fast.
     The aroma of defeat and despair grew as the nanobots closed on Laputa. News reports became gloomy. Words like ‘hope’ quickly vanished from the line-up. The tide of nanobots was all but unstoppable, and there were cameras on the island’s western beaches observing their distant, slithering approach. Water slowed them for a time, but the horrible things either knew how to subvert even simple H2O, or they could swim.
     So, with the landlord gone — having neglected to lock the door — and the remaining patrons all wallowing in self-pity, Rat excused herself. She took some booze out and went to Silk Beach on the east side of the island. She plopped herself down on the sand and stared out across miles and miles of pristine Pacific splendour. Pristine on the surface, which was all that counted. Glittering, royal blue waters and cerulean skies overhead. The usual City smog was gone, along with the City itself. It left the beach as well as the weather calm and pleasant.
     Rat sipped at another bottle of fruity vodka, this one peach-flavoured and called Pascal. It was a good companion. Every now and again, though… Guiltily, traitorously… Her eyes would flick up to the sky and search for the camouflaged bulk of Cloud City. She never found it.
     “I hope I’m doing the right thing,” she said out loud. “I don’t feel like I’m going to die today. Maybe this thing doesn’t kill you at all. I don’t know why, but I just kinda know, you know?”
     She scrubbed angrily at an eye which was getting a little too moist. Nothing here deserved weeping over. Still, she let her gaze fall and sighed, “Wherever I’m going, I’m gonna miss you, Jock.”
     “Not for too long, I hope.”
     She whirled around at the voice, too fast, and ended up sprawled out dizzily on the sand. She was more obliterated than she’d thought. She looked up into Jock’s eyes and tried to shake her head.
     “Must’ve had more of the peach stuff than I thought,” she slurred.
     The vision of Jock bared his teeth in something that was only half a smile, and he said sharply, “It’s me, dumbass. I came back.” The sharpness melted away then, watching the way Rat’s eyes brimmed over. “I came back for you. You’re all I got.”
     “What about Kensei, and Harmony, and…?”
     Jock dropped to his knees in the sand. He clenched his hands tight in his lap. “I don’t know them. I’m not sure anymore if I really knew Hideo at all. But I know you, Lex. You were always there for me whether I knew it or not. It’s stupid, but I don’t think I can do without you anymore, I can’t stand the thought of being alone.”
     “I’m glad you came,” she whispered, and they merged into each other’s arms.

***

     Cloud City and its passengers drifted high overhead. They looked down on the devastation of their empires and wept, grieving for their losses.
     Then the arguing began. Accusations and mutual distrust. The triumvirate of Laputa, the other Nations and the Federation could agree on nothing, could make decisions on nothing, could accomplish nothing while their territory dwindled.
     Democracy eventually reasserted itself. After a two-thirds majority vote and a little bit of bloodshed, the Federation president, his advisors and all members of the Federal Police were declared persona non grata and ejected from the airship at its cruising altitude of fifteen kilometres up.
     Loyal to a fault, the Constables tried to execute a mid-air suit change, sacrificing themselves for the sake of their VIPs. It might even have worked, had their altitude been lower and Earth’s gravity a little less insistent.
     Those who didn’t freeze or died of hypoxia hit the placid waters of the Pacific as though it were a solid wall of concrete. There were no survivors.
     Hideo Kagehisa and Harmony Kohler made another truce. Even if all they had was Cloud City, even if the new world had no more need of hackers, they would try to lead what was left of their people through the apocalypse. Tears of loss flowed freely. For the first time in years, the former lovers hugged each other for comfort.
     Harmony committed suicide the next morning. She was found slumped in her chair, the screen in front of her was set to play the last video footage of Laputa over and over again. Cameras winking out one by one as the implacable sea of nanobots ate them. People dissolving into pink mush before her eyes. Everything she’d loved and tried to protect was gone, and her spirit died with them.
     In a brief ceremony on one of the helipads, Hideo and Karen scattered Harmony’s ashes into the skies of the Nation she loved. Karen didn’t want him there, but he insisted. Certain emotions he’d locked away for years began to trickle back into his heart.
     By the time their brief speeches were over, the two found a new respect for each other. They went back to his stateroom together, and spent the night grieving, remembering, then trying to forget.
     When the message arrived, the great airship set a course for New Fredericksburg and salvation. It was a sensible choice. A pragmatic choice. As far as Hideo knew, the survival of the species was at stake, and he had the resources to become a leader of the new world. Or, though he didn’t know it, the ‘old’ world. King of the remnants of one possible future, on a planet thrown fifteen years into the past.
     He sat in his throne room and tried to feel good about that. It was more than he could’ve hoped for under the circumstances.
     He finally got what he wanted, and it brought him no pleasure at all.

***

     New Fredericksburg thrived. The skies filled with airships and every other method of transport known to man. Even a few boats managed to hit the Rappahannock river before the sea routes were cut off. Survivors poured in from every corner of the world by the dozens, hundreds, thousands. All together they occupied barely a fraction of the city’s total living space. It was built to accommodate a significant portion of a species that was once ten billion strong.
     Gabriel’s nanobots crept up to the outskirts. There, sensing something, they stopped. They left well enough alone. It was as if they thought New Fredericksburg were already part of the swarm.
     The sigh of relief rippled through a crowd of thousands. They wouldn’t die today. Although, knowing the truth, more than a few of them chose to step outside the protection of the city and join the rest of the world in its interim state. They gave away their lives for the hope of resurrection in a better place and time.
     No one even knew when Hephaestus began to rebuild the world. But it did happen. It started in the City of China and went outward from there, a wave of objects forming out of the shapeless nano-slurry. Buildings, vehicles, roads. Trees and grass. Even animals, insects and creatures living in the wild. Not an exact copy of fifteen years ago, but a best guess. As long as things were approximately right, the laws of chance could sort out the rest.
     For Gina Hart, the nightmare became almost worth it when she could stand on the border of New Fredericksburg and watch Radiation Alley begin to bloom again. By the time the robots were done, she walked out onto the grass and got barely a twitch from her Geiger counter. Background radiation, nothing more.
     Humans came last in the great reassembly. The dead returned to life, and for those with brain maps on file, it was as if nothing had happened. The interceding fifteen years weren’t even a bad memory. Not so much as a blip.
     Some of the living never emerged from that slurry. Any children under fourteen years old. Their component atoms went into making the rest possible. That was where the nightmare became real again; the thought of all those lost souls would keep Gina up at night for years to come.
     Mahmoud knew this. He’d seen it in her eyes. She was so glad when he sailed the Son of the Wind into port, but her heart remained heavy. She felt responsible for failing to stop this whole mess from happening.
     Now he stood on the deck of his ship, smelling the salt of the Atlantic, with Maryam at his side. Most of the crew had remained behind in the city, but the Son of the Wind kept going out again and again, looking for more survivors. Not much point to it now. It had been hours since the last boat, and by all accounts there wouldn’t be any more coming.
     He looked at Maryam and thought about the letter he’d left in Gina’s care. Maryam had done the same. Letters for themselves, telling them what they’d need to know in the past. Where to meet up again, and why. It was no guarantee, but it was something. The rest was in the hands of love and fate.
     They might get back together. They might make a home on this old boat again. What was really certain, though, was that they’d get to hold Safiya again. That would make it worth it. She hadn’t even been his, but that never made a difference.
     Mahmoud nodded to himself. He counted himself lucky for the opportunity. He would close his eyes for a few minutes, and all the pain would be gone, so that it never existed. He squeezed his wife’s hand harder. She responded.
     The water, now crawling with nanobots, was beginning to turn silver. Like a sea of mercury. With the sun setting behind them, it was a staggeringly beautiful sight, one that would probably never be seen again on Earth. Finally the bots reached the boat and began to disassemble it with their usual quiet efficiency.
     “I’ll see you again soon, my love,” he said to Maryam.
     She nodded, and smiled, and pulled him into a final tender kiss. “I can’t wait.”

***

     It wasn’t easy to integrate two different Earths. The resurrected had to get used to people from the future, armed with records going years ahead of time, and never-before-seen technology. The survivors had to get used to the fact that they couldn’t go back to their old lives. Even the ones from fifteen years ago no longer existed, their places occupied by body doubles who looked the same, sounded the same, and, for the most part, acted the same.
     Nor did the government of the United States have a clue what to do with the strange new city inside their borders. The newly-elected New Fredericksburg Council, from their seat of power on Cloud City, suggested they be considered a separate nation. The President famously said, “We’ll think about it.”
     Gina and Gabriel replied, “Yes, you will.”
     And, in the interests of establishing friendly relations between the US and New Fredericksburg, the NFB Council transmitted a small package of files, containing the names and faces of virtually all the would-be founders of the Federation. They had been public knowledge after more than a decade in power, and the historical records stored on Cloud City were extensive. Around the world, the dozens of individual, independent terrorist cells which comprised the budding Federation were wiped out all at once, all the way to the top. The trials would continue for years to come.
     It was a good start. Once the politics were straightened out, the real work could begin.

***

     A boy in his mid-teens walked out of a corner shop in an average neighbourhood of San Francisco. He plunged his plastic spoon into his ice cream cup and wolfed it down in a hurry. Sweat drenched his shirt, making it cling to his body. The air-conditioning unit in the apartments had died again, and at this time of year, things stayed plenty hot after the sun went down.
     That was part of the reason why he spent so much time in the library. That, and because he’d figured out how to get complete access to the computer system, including the adult stuff. Boy was that enlightening! It got him curious about what else he could do with those computers, if he had the tools and the knowledge.
     “David Reynolds?” a voice murmured out of nowhere.
     He stopped dead in his tracks. “Who wants to know?”
     Looking around, he managed to find the speaker. A woman silhouetted in the glare of the streetlight. Her figure was an exquisite hourglass shape, with long red hair, bright eyes and a soft smile. All suspicion evaporated in a second. He was completely charmed, paying attention to her with every fibre of his being.
     “Whoa,” he whispered. “Who are you?”
     “Don’t you know? I’m your real-life no-bullshit fairy godmother.”
     He raised a skeptical eyebrow. “No bullshit, huh?”
     She smiled and came towards him, her heels clicking loudly on the pavement. She bent down in a way that didn’t quite give him the look down her top he was hoping for. She reached into one of the pockets of her simple, grey business suit and held a slip of paper in front of his face. Gingerly, he took it.
     To his surprise, it was a picture of somebody. A girl. Only a little bit older than him, some kind of Chinese or something, with smoky olive skin and a surly look on her face. Part of her forehead was obscured by a bar of encoded information. He knew enough about that kind of tech to guess it was probably a name, address and maybe a phone number.
     “Look her up in about fifteen years,” she said. “It’s gonna be true love.”
     He stared at her, then back at the picture, and boggled. A girl would actually love him? She was kind-of boyish, but if this woman was telling the truth, he didn’t care. Maybe it was a good thing. Maybe she’d like the same stuff he did.
     He gave the picture a reverent stroke of his thumb, folded it carefully, and tucked it away in his pocket.
     “Thanks, lady,” he said. But when he looked up, she was already gone.
     A little while later, halfway around the world, Alex Park looked up at her mother and giggled. She giggled a lot in general. She was a happy child, only a few weeks past her second birthday, without any idea that she’d been seventeen just a few days ago. She neither noticed nor understood when a strange red-haired woman came to her house, greeted her parents, and explained what had happened. The woman told them why their world was subtly different than they remembered it.
     She also gave them an envelope to hold on to, time-locked until Alex’s seventeenth birthday. Why, they asked? She replied, Because some things should have happened after all. Somehow she communicated her warmth and affection for the tiny girl in the other room. Jae-Sang and Yung-Hee Park nodded and promised to keep it safe until then.
     The woman didn’t come back, although Alex never noticed. Months passed, then years. The excitement on the news never seemed to wind down. One fateful night, the Parks decided to cancel their plans and stay home for the evening. Their car was never run off the road by a drunk driver, and neither of them died in hospital. They played with their daughter until she was exhausted and slipped into a soft, perfect sleep.
     Her future wouldn’t be without loss or heartache, but for that night at least, everything was right with the world.

***

     Nobody seemed to know what was going on, except that they all sat together in a waiting room, called up one by one. Sweeney. Fahlan. Yang. Dujardin. Every last man and woman of the platoon went out the door, and none of them came back. The room emptied out over hours of gruelling anticipation until only he was left.
     The call finally came. “Dusther,” said the little loudspeaker in the corner. He put down his magazine and went to the debriefing room.
     Someone was waiting for him by the door. Lieutenant’s uniform, long black hair tied up in a bun. When he tried to go inside, she shook her head and motioned him to join her. “Not you, Dusther. Come with me.”
     “This is where everybody else went,” he said, caught between confusion and mistrust.
     Her voice turned sharp. “Everybody except you, Corporal. Come with me.”
     He gave in and followed her down the hall, past several corners and endless rows of light-strips. When they arrived at the base commander’s office, Jacob’s heart leapt into his throat. She held the door open for him. The blood raced through his veins.
     Inside he found himself in the company of three people. He knew only one of them, the base commander, Colonel Obrin. The Lieutenant still hadn’t introduced herself, nor had she bothered to wear a name tag. The other person was in civvies, a red-headed woman, somewhere in her late twenties. He didn’t know her, but with a face like that, he already wanted to. There was something about the way she looked at him, though, her big eyes shimmering. Something haunted. Something sad.
     “You know the Colonel,” said the Lieutenant. “My name is Jezebel McCarthy, and this is Miss Hart. She’s a representative of the NFB Republic. In cooperation with NFB, the government has ordered a permanent shutdown of Project Hephaestus. The rest of your unit have already been provided with their transfer orders.”
     He gaped at her. “Permanent shutdown? Why?”
     “Good reasons, son,” Colonel Obrin answered. If the Hart woman looked haunted, the Colonel was worse by far, eyes bloodshot and face white as a sheet. His voice quavered. “Damn good reasons. Best not to ask.”
     “I– I understand, Sir.” Reluctantly, Jacob shifted back to the Lieutenant. “Am I gonna be transferred too?”
     “Correct. In fact, you’ll be joining the Colonel and myself at our new post. I’ve just been assigned as his adjutant at Hersham in South Carolina. As of now, and until further notice, all three of us are on detached service with the Army Aviation Branch.” She smiled and held out her hand to shake. There were warrant officer’s stripes in her palm. “Congratulations on your promotion, soldier. It’ll be a pleasure working with you.”
     Too overwhelmed, his brain shifted into military-trained autopilot to say, “Thank you, Sir. But, Sir, the AAB? Me? Why?”
     “It is believed that the training and implants you’ve received so far will make you an excellent pilot for the DARPA next-generation helicopter program. Once you complete your flight certification, you’ll become the newest member of F Squadron, under the command of Captain Caine. I can give you all the details when we get there.”
     Miss Hart swallowed like she were forcing down a lump in her throat. She husked, “You’ll do fine, Jacob. It’s where you belong.”
     “I’m glad you think so, Ma’am,” he said. He thought about being more flippant, but couldn’t find it in him. Not to someone who carried that much hurt inside her.
     The Colonel stood up abruptly. He was trembling, shaken to the core, and he refused to look at anyone. “The rest can wait. Dismissed, Dusther. Go pack your gear.”
     Jacob snapped a parade-ground salute and let himself out to find the barracks. Inside, he was a big ball of worry and confusion, but he had orders. Sooner or later this would all get straightened out.
     Besides, being a pilot didn’t sound too bad. Flying amazing machinery. Seeing sunlight again. He couldn’t say if he’d be any good, but he’d always liked helicopters.
     It was the first time in a while that the man who called himself Jacob Dusther looked to the future with hope.

***

     Hong Kong was as depressing as she remembered. StateSec goons regularly patrolled the streets, carrying rifles and truncheons and worse. Piles of uncollected refuse moldered in the corners of the poorer neighbourhoods. The starving and the desperate clung to the shadows, to prey on anything that came close, or crawled into the gutter to die. The level of human suffering on display was probably worse than the Federation even at its most brutal. It made a sad, horrible kind of sense, though. In the great bell curve of random chance, somebody had to end up at the bottom. Hong Kong had simply drawn the shortest straw.
     One thing did bring her some satisfaction, though. The way those StateSec patrols would goose-step towards her looking for an easy target, only to spot the little NFB Republic badge on her blazer and hurry the Hell out of her way. More than once she caught the flow of their thoughts and found herself wanting to make them stop having any thoughts, permanently. There were going to have to be some changes around here.
     She put her back to the poor neighbourhoods, for now, and began to move towards her destination.
     There were two guards stationed at the mansion’s exquisite wrought-iron gates. A big wall, topped with concertina barbed wire, ran all the way around the manicured grounds and gardens. Even glimpsing them through the bars they put her in mind of an expensive golf course. A posturing status symbol, not a place for human beings to be and enjoy themselves.
     “Do you have business here?” one of the guards asked, looking down his nose at her, clutching his rifle in immaculate white gloves to match his immaculate white uniform. Her response was silent, but — breaking out in a sudden sweat — the man did exactly what she told him to do. Moments later she was heading up the long gravel path to the house proper.
     Lord and Lady Vaughan weren’t home tonight. It was a date Gina remembered well. Another party for the StateSec high-ups, which she’d managed to avoid by faking a stomach bug. The only ones at home were Emily and the maid.
     She rang the doorbell. As fate would have it, it was Emily who answered. Gina felt her heart leap into her throat. It was like looking in a mirror that went backwards through time.
     “Can I help you?” the girl asked, not sure what to make of the strangely familiar woman on her doorstep. At first she peered out suspiciously through a crack in the door, then opened it further until they were face to face.
     “No,” Gina Hart said softly. “No, I don’t think so. But I can help you.”
     Another mistrustful frown settled over Emily’s features. The girl took a much closer look, she inspected every inch of Gina’s face, body language, clothing. Her eyes nearly popped out of her head when she saw the NFB emblem. “Oh! You’re from the future!”
     “That’s right,” said Gina. Her emotions made her stammer, and she had to fight to remember the lines she’d practised for this meeting, repeated in front of a mirror so many times. “And… And I know you keep a travel bag under your bed, packed and ready to go, as soon as you work up the courage.”
     Emily cycled through a whole host of different facial expressions, from disbelief to concern and back again. Finally she settled on understanding. In a trembling whisper, she concluded, “You’re me, aren’t you?”
     Tears prickled at Gina’s eyes as she nodded. She’d always been such a bright girl. “Listen, do you– Do you wanna grab that bag and get out of here? There’s a special place in NFB for kids who… Who are better off away from home. I know what you’re going through. You don’t ever have to see my face if you don’t want to, I promise, and it’s a good school with all the best equipment, and– And–“
     “Hey,” said Emily, gingerly taking Gina’s hand, “I don’t wanna spoil your moment, but you had me at ‘get out of here.'”
     They burst into tearful, nervous giggles together, and hugged in the doorway of her old home. Then Emily raced upstairs to get her things, and Gina sent a brief mental message to her husband-to-be, overflowing with happiness and relief. Letting him know the trip was a success.
     Together, Gina and Emily Vaughan walked out of the gate hand in hand, toward a better future.

***

     The baby was born seven months later. Before she ever spoke a word, she could hold crude telepathic conversations with her parents, and even place her thoughts into the minds of regular people. She was a prodigy. Unique, glorious and terrifying all at once.
     They called her Cassandra. It was Gabriel’s smiling suggestion, and Gina didn’t read anything into it until it was too late to change.
     They got married a few weeks after Cassandra’s birth, because Gina refused to squeeze her pregnant belly into a wedding dress. The ceremony took place on a soft, sandy beach a ways east of Hong Kong, long-overlooked by the City’s hungry land developers. A rickety wooden house provided the backdrop, freshly painted and still smelling of sawdust. It was blue, the colour of cloudless summer skies.
     Only a handful of people came to witness it. Onounu and Mashei. Hideo and his personal assistant du jour, a pretty little fuckretary with a vapid smile and a permanently confused look in her eyes. Emily, and the baby. There hadn’t been many invitations.
     A few whispered vows, all pretty words, good words. The roar of the deep green sea in the background lent them weight. Gulls squawked a little ways off, and performed occasional flyovers to gauge their chances of dive-bombing the buffet.
     “I didn’t think this would ever happen,” she said. “Not in my wildest dreams.”
     Gabriel asked, “Which part?”
     “All of it.”
     “I hope you aren’t disappointed.”
     A playful smile touched her lips. “I think I could get used to things this way.”
     There were hugs, congratulations, real food and fake champagne. Hideo didn’t stick around long. As the number one politician in the republic, he had important work to do. He always had important work to do. Coming here seemed like a solemn duty to him, some kind of obligation or remembrance. Gina doubted she’d see him again in this lifetime.
     Everyone else stayed. Emily still had a few days off from her school in New Fredericksburg. As for Onounu and Mashei…
     The reunion with her friends still made Gina look back with bemused affection. Onounu and Mashei took the whole situation with incredible aplomb. Their younger selves had never met Gina Hart before, it would’ve been years yet before their introduction, but after Gina explained and shared some of her memories, they accepted her in an instant. They welcomed her into their home as a long-lost friend.
     Thunderclouds began to loom, and they all hurried inside ahead of the rain. Gina squeezed Gabriel’s hand with one of hers and carried the baby in the other. Maybe she shouldn’t be involved with Gabriel, but it seemed like the thing to do. She’d changed him. Chained him, perhaps, but that no longer mattered. He had responsibilities now. Maybe she really wasn’t cut out for motherhood, but she definitely didn’t intend to go it alone.
     He seemed to enjoy communing with Cassandra, though. He couldn’t get enough of her, or of Gina. And, at her urging, he picked up some of his old work. To figure out what triggered Gina to become telepathic, and see if they could give that gift to others, if people wanted it. This time no one would be forced or coerced, and it wouldn’t happen through some horrible Spice-induced trance. They could start an enclave of willing and healthy telepaths.
     Gabriel stressed that it might take a while.
     Gina only returned to New Fredericksburg for short visits. That calculated grid of buildings and cross-streets never managed to appeal to her. The City, even this City from the distant past, kept calling out to her. Sooner or later it always pulled her back in.
     She did make regular trips back to the Street of Eyes, for old times’ sake, though it went by a different name now. An older name. The busy street market was still there, smoky and neon-lit, the cramped stalls selling pretty much anything the human mind could imagine. The endless crowd milled around shoulder to shoulder, bumping Gina back and forth. Crime and nastiness still went down by the bucketload, evidenced by the Yakuza street gang who tried to mug her when she took a breather in one of the alleys. They regretted it.
     Judging by the bodies in the gutter, she wasn’t their first victim of the night, but those gutters would get cleaned out before long.
     Something felt different about it all. It lacked the pervading sense of hopelessness and despair. These weren’t people who knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were circling the drain. These people fought for life by whatever means they knew how, and kept on fighting.
     Gina Hart knew these streets. She’d walked them, or others like them, for as long as she could remember. They might not be friendly, or pretty, or clean, but they were her home.

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