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.
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.
The first atomic warhead to hit the Sichuan nano-cloud was a small one. A bunker buster of barely two kilotons. It flashed into life over an abandoned residential neighbourhood of the City, and then it was gone, a fading impression of impossible brightness. The explosion ate a tiny, ragged hole out of the cloud; one which was filled again while everyone watched.
What little radiation it threw off was absorbed, or ignored. Unlike their distant ancestor, these robots were not Hephaestus, and they were built to withstand the fiercest opposition.
The second warhead performed an airburst detonation over the centre of the cloud, directly above the spot where Gabriel’s nanofactory had once stood. This was a MIRV, splitting into four different bombs which hit the nanobots with six kilotons each. Nuclear fire rained down over miles of ground, brighter than the sun, and…
Again, the disappointingly small wound disappeared in seconds. The cloud barely thinned at all.
The scene played out in the corner of Rat’s eye, where her phone’s projector offered running coverage from the Federal news. She still worked frantically in her attempt to cut the head off the snake.
She couldn’t stop watching the news coverage out of desperate, morbid curiosity. On the other hand, it kept showing her very pointed reminders of what would happen if they got this wrong. Maybe it would be easier to run like mad and get the Federation to nuke the Hell out of this place. Then again, she wouldn’t trust them to wait until she and Julian Kelso were clear of the blast radius.
Another bead of sweat trickled down her forehead. She wiped it away with an already-wet sleeve. “Disconnect the purple plug from the orange socket,” she told Jules, and he obeyed, fighting to keep his hands steady. It was nerve-wracking work. “Okay. Now we just need to… Um. Here, can you make sense of this?”
She handed him his PDA, the layered screen crowded with schematics and instructions for the generator. He switched and rotated several of the layers in a futile attempt to make them easier to understand. He growled and tried a few more manipulations before he felt confident enough to make an educated guess.
“If this works, and doesn’t immediately flood the room with lethal doses of ionising radiation,” he said, “then it should disengage the rest of the emergency safeties and lock the control rods in place.” Glancing at Rat, he added, “Meaning she’ll blow up rather than just shut down. I hope.”
There was another bang on the wedged and welded trap-door to the surface. Steel groaned. Jules’s reinforcements wouldn’t last much longer.
The Feds meant business. They always did.
If anything, Jules sweated more than Rat. He took the last few wires and soldered them into place. Then he shut the panel and went to the back of the generator, where they’d cut a hole in the casing for an explosive charge. He took all the grenades from his uniform and stuffed them inside, setting the time detonators to go off in sync a few minutes from now.
“Done! Now we just need to get out without–“
The trap-door slammed open. Four Federal constables came vaulting down the shaft, their active camouflage rippling to make them nigh-invisible against the rough concrete. Guns kept every inch of the room covered while the squad leader made the necessary decisions.
Their camouflage units fizzled out until only matt grey-black uniforms remained. Cool eyes stared out from their transparent visors. The leader turned her head to observe Rat and Jules in turn, several seconds each. Somewhere in that suit was a camera and a computer analysing their faces, transmitting them back to home base for identification. They would have their orders in a second, and there was nothing anybody could do to stop them.
“Listen,” Rat began, but never got time to finish.
The squad leader touched a button at her waist. Her helmet retracted, leaving her exotic, aquiline face exposed while she snapped a parade-ground salute.
“Ma’am,” she said to Rat. “Sergeant Iwakura. I’ve been instructed to render to you, Alex Min Park, all possible assistance within the confines of standing orders.”
Rat frowned. She found it hard to believe or trust anything out of a Fed’s mouth. “Say that again?”
“I am to place myself under your authority,” the Sergeant repeated patiently. “My orders come directly from Federal High Command, per agreement with the sitting government of the Independent Kingdom of Laputa.”
Understanding began to dawn. “Harmony,” Rat whispered, throwing a thankful look at Heaven.
Jules coughed to announce his presence. “What ‘standing orders’ are those?”
“High Command has initiated Ariadne Protocol, full response to a loss of control of nanoscale armaments. Phase One is to conduct evacuation of all persons of VIP grade D or higher. This includes you, Sir, Ma’am. Please return topside where our APC can take you both to a safe distance. Constable Haas will remain behind to oversee the remainder of this operation.”
One of the constables, still masked by his helmet, strode forward and checked the breaching charge. He began to rearrange Julian’s grenades and add more explosives out of what he carried with him.
When neither Jules nor Rat made any move to start climbing, the Sergeant tapped her foot. “This is time-critical, Ma’am. You won’t want to be here when Phase Two goes into effect.”
“Why? What’s Phase Two?”
“Multiple megaton-level detonations followed by mass dusting with nanoscale destroyers.” Again, she delivered that sentence without any kind of inflection or emotion. “There won’t be anything bigger than a molecule left standing.”
Rat couldn’t help but gasp. “You’re burning the City?”
“Lose the City, or lose the world, Ma’am.”
That spurred them into action. Rat climbed, eyes tightly shut, and didn’t open them until she was scrambling out into the wreckage of Gabriel’s villa. Jules came next, followed by two out of four Feds. Their APC waited in the middle of the street, its loading doors still open and its engines still shimmering hot.
The big mechanical beast roared into the air the moment the group jumped aboard. The Resistance helicopter was already aloft and joined them in formation. Strange, but true.
“Where are we going?” asked Rat. Her voice trembled, and she strapped herself into a chair as tightly as she could.
“Minimum safe distance, Ma’am,” the Sergeant answered. “Currently, Laputa.”
Traffic towards Laputa swarmed the skies. Helicopters, airships and hydroprop planes all fought each other for space in the air, at the docks and on the airfields. The traffic controllers were overwhelmed. They landed and sent things out again as fast as they could, but many aircraft were turning away in panic or disappointment, making for the safety of Japan. If they had enough fuel to cross the sea.
Rat’s APC made a beeline for a private airfield where a number of other Federal aircraft were being refuelled. Some very… luxurious-looking aircraft. As the APC touched ground, to Rat’s endless relief, she turned to the Sergeant and shouted over the engine roar, “Looks like we got some Federation guests!”
The vaguest flicker of expression came over the Sergeant’s face, like a distant memory of emotion. She looked uncomfortable. “Your Queen has graciously offered to host Federation High Command while this crisis is resolved.”
“The High Command is here?” Rat blurted in blank disbelief.
The less said, the better, apparently. Rat wanted to rub it in but somehow that didn’t seem appropriate. Not with hundreds, thousands, millions of people over in the City about to get nuked into oblivion. She simply jumped down to the tarmac and followed her guide, since the Fed seemed to know where she was going.
Jules took a few reluctant steps after her, then stopped, and said goodbye. He had superiors to report to. Rat hated to see him go after all the shit they’d been through together, but nothing she said could make him stay.
After that she was alone, hurrying after the Fed and ducking the frenetic activity of vehicles and people all over the airfield. Loading robots darted around, weaving in and out of hangars and terminals to move cargo at a breakneck pace. Laputan Royal Guard stood watch at the entrance to each building and kept a close eye on the Federal Constables who strode around like they owned the place. Off to her left, a fiery roar announced the take-off of a Federal heavy APC, hydrogen flames licking over the tops of the blast shields. It lumbered into the sky and was off east, across the Pacific. It probably wouldn’t land again until it reached Hawaii.
“I’m guessing you get running updates on this Phase Two,” Rat said to the Sergeant. “How long until they launch?”
“T-minus twenty-three minutes and zero-eight seconds.”
“Jesus! Why didn’t we go straight to Cloud City?”
“We did,” the Sergeant said dryly, and pointed.
To the naked eye it was invisible unless you knew what you were looking for. The only cue was a faint shimmering in the night air, where active camouflage bent the light around the huge bulk of airship. Anchoring cables and a long, helical boarding tube seemed to cut off in mid-air where they hooked up. Even the sound of the great engines keeping it steady faded to a background hum, subsumed into the general noise of the airfield.
“That’s…” She trailed off. She couldn’t find the words to describe it. None of the ones she knew seemed adequate.
There was no more conversation after that. They went as quickly as they could to the boarding tube, which — tall as it was — could only dock to a special elevator shaft which extended from the bottom of one of Cloud City’s inverted domes. At the top was a transport hub where shortcuts led to all of the most important destinations.
Rat only had eyes for one thing, though. Someone was waiting for her.
“Jock!” she cried, and threw her arms around his neck.
He grinned. “Did you miss me?”
She nodded vehemently. All animosity was forgotten, and she couldn’t see any grudges in Jock’s eyes. He was just happy to have her back. If only there were more time…
“Come on, I’m supposed to take you to the war room.” He waved her to one of the passages and fell in step beside her. The Sergeant brought up the rear. Jock couldn’t help but throw occasional glances over his shoulder, unable to suppress how surreal it was to see a uniformed Fed trooper in these halls.
The last time Rat set foot in the Laputan war room, she’d been presenting the plan for this rapidly-developing mess. Now… Well, she wasn’t exactly the conquering hero. Too many people had died for that. She wasn’t even a noble martyr, staying behind to make sure the installation got destroyed. That position went to two Federal Constables who sacrificed themselves without a second thought. Them, and half the population of the City.
She swore under her breath. The real world made it hard to feel good about trying to save it.
Three new faces sat around the central table, and Rat stiffened in unwelcome surprise. It wasn’t their presence that gave her pause so much as how unassuming they looked. For all their slicked-back hair and fine grey-black suits, they could have been a team of expert accountants here to balance some serious books. Only the instant familiarity of the President’s angular bronze face marked them out as the Federation’s highest public officials.
“We need to get a move on,” said Harmony, and a flick of her hand changed the holo-display from a distressing map of the nano-clouds to the live camera feed from Constable Haas. “Are you prepared to detonate?”
“Affirmative.” The Fed’s voice came back without the slightest hint of emotion. He was looking dead into the nuclear reactor he was supposed to crack, and not a tremble of fear showed in his tone. “Awaiting orders.”
One of the High Command, a Chinese man and the only one with the rigid bearing of military experience, gave a tiny nod. “No point in drawing this out. Go ahead.”
Rat looked away, horrified. She couldn’t watch. There was the momentary thump of an explosion, a noise like glass cracking, and then…
The Constable’s feed flickered out. No feeling went into that act of suicide, nothing beyond switching off a robot or disposing of old rubbish. Rat had compared the Feds to machines plenty of times, and heard it from others — it was the best word to describe the empty-eyed loyalty and devotion to their job — but she still thought of them as people when the chips were down. Which turned this into watching more human beings die, helplessly, treacherously grateful that it wasn’t her.
Then she hardened her heart and reminded herself of the practicalities. Better to lose some Feds who had already given up their souls anyway. Besides, if they got results…
Everyone waited for news, breath caught in their throats. Harmony wore an expression of tense hopefulness, Hideo a deep frown. Jock put an arm around Rat’s waist and pulled her closer to him. He was tense, frightened for his life.
The President of the Federation — undisputed dictator of over half the globe — was afraid too. He concealed it well. The prim, paper-thin line of his lips never wavered, his lower jaw jutted out in defiance, and he kept his legs crossed in a pose of unbridled casualness. The gnawing worry about his continued survival revealed itself in the thin band of white around his irises. The intensity of his gaze, focussed on the flickering hologram, was almost frightening in itself.
Finally the holoprojector switched to a different feed. It cycled through a number of cameras trained on the encroaching nano-clouds, and kept a continuous wach on the earth-shaking explosion under Gabriel’s villa. A fountain of super-heated. radioactive hydrogen burst out from the trap-door. Suddenly, everything began to collapse. A sinkhole appeared under the ground and swallowed the entire city block. Buildings toppled like dominoes, and when the dust began to clear, the destruction was absolute. The Sword’s hardware existed no more.
The nano-clouds stopped growing. They didn’t shrink, but their expansion ended in a stroke. They seemed confused, lost at sea, like an ant colony without a queen.
“Cloud expansion has dropped to zero,” a technician confirmed. “Nanobot construction and renewal appears to have halted or slowed significantly. No shrinkage as of yet.”
It was a victory, but nobody felt like cheering just yet.
The President coughed into his lapel. “Initiate Mike One. Hold the others for now.”
“Hold on a minute,” Harmony said immediately, alarmed, and Hideo was right beside her. “Laputa should get a say in any detonations on our doorstep!”
“It’s already done, Miss Kohler.” His eyes lost some of their bulging quality as he met her gaze. The interruption actually seemed to put him more at ease. An invasion of killer nanobots was obviously out of his comfort zone, but he knew how to handle human beings, even foreign heads of state. “If there are any problems with fallout, you can count on our assistance in the matter. In the meantime I’d like to ensure we have a future in which to worry about it.”
It was hard to argue. The bomb soon became visible through a number of wide-angle telescopes aimed at the brooding sky over Sichuan District. The nano-cloud showed up as a dark shadow against the diffuse glow of artificial light. Even now, much of the district had power, and the streetlights still worked. There would be survivors in the area, because there always were, too slow or too stubborn to leave their homes.
The feed went white. Flash of light, thermal pulse, shock-waves shaking the telescopes even from hundreds of miles away. An entire district was flattened, wiped off the map. Only a growing mushroom cloud remained.
It was the end of the City. Much of western China would be unsafe for human occupation for at least forty years.
The sky glowed red in the aftermath. Though flickering and distorted, the feeds still worked, showing the sagging steel bones of once-mighty buildings. They towered over hills and valleys of black ash. Twisted wreckage no one could have recognised. Shadows half-seen through the dust.
The Sichuan nano-cloud had been scattered and slammed to the ground by the blast. They were recovering, regrouping, but slowly.
Dark specks appeared overhead. V-shaped Federation bombers which spread glittering trails of dust behind them, dusting the whole district with military nanobots.
The two sides met in a torrent of sparks and flashes. Milions of tiny explosions filled the air as the little robots fought and died.
“Will it be enough?” Rat asked quietly.
“You tell us,” said the military-looking Fed. “We’ve never had to use the Ariadne Protocol. It was our doomsday scenario. Maybe in an hour we’ll know something.”
She nodded. A hundred different emotions warred in her heart, but somehow she knew what she wanted to do most. She took off her jacket, spread it out on the floor, and knelt down on it. Somewhere out there was a holy city she would probably never see, but it was still there. That mattered. She wasn’t entirely sure why, but it mattered.
“What are you doing?” asked Jock.
“The only thing I can think of right now, Jock,” she told him bluntly. “Pray.”
It was not something hackers were supposed to do, not in any kind of company, but she didn’t care. Let them deal with it.
She wanted everyone to be alright, and as she prostrated herself, that was all she begged for.
It was the longest hour of Rat’s life. She grabbed Jock and pulled him to their room, wrestled him into bed, and threw herself into the act of foreplay. They kissed, touched and groped their way across the sheets. She took him in her mouth until he was hard and gasping. Then…
Nothing. She felt none of the usual fire. All she could think about was mushroom clouds and people melting into pink slurry.
She turned away, sat on the edge of the bed and hugged herself. Even tears refused to come. It would’ve been better if she could feel something, anything at all.
Jock wilted in confusion. He lifted himself up to put his hands on her shoulders. “Lex? Are you okay?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t wanna die, Jock.”
“We won’t. I promise.” Shifting closer, he kissed her bare neck, but she shrugged him off. He grimaced at the tiny rejection. “Look, worst comes to worst, Cloud City will take off again and stay high above the action. We’re taking on extra food and water so we can last a long time.”
That thought didn’t comfort her at all. Bitterly, she hissed, “Great, so we can watch everyone else kick it first.”
“You’re just down in the dumps. We don’t know what kind of world it’s gonna be after those robots are done. And that’s only if the entire planet united can’t stop them.”
She wanted to argue, to point out how much damage the planet would be taking from the nanobots and Ariadne Protocol combined, but she was too tired. More than anything, she wanted to be distracted and cheered up. She forced a smile and rubbed her head against him like a cat.
“Thanks,” she told him. “Sorry I couldn’t go through with it…”
Jock squeezed her shoulders and said, “I understand. Honest.”
They sat and talked about nothing for a while longer. Then Rat excused herself and left in a hurry. Her stomach had just caught up to the fact that she hadn’t eaten for the better part of a day. Only military stimulants kept her standing upright.
She raided a vending machine, making the dumb thing swallow a forged credit chip out of sheer habit, and sat with her back against the humming box munching fake chocolate and deep-fried protein. It was one of the best meals of her life.
A pile of wrappers built up beside her. Once she finished, she just held her head in her hands and bit her lip in helpless frustration. Despite how hard she’d worked, despite everything, it was all out of her hands. By the end of the day, every bit of good or bad she’d done in the City and Laputa could be wiped out. She could only imagine how it would feel for someone higher up the food chain, like Hideo and Harmony, or the President. Here, now, they were just as powerless as everyone else.
A tannoy system crackled to life in the corridor. “Message for Jock and Alex. Come to the war room immediately.”
Rat launched from her sitting position into a dead run. Barely two minutes later she came vaulting through the war room doors, a big knot of anxiety clenched tight in her belly.
She stared questions at Harmony and Hideo. Their faces told a whole story of their own. Stress lines on their cheeks and at the corners of their lips. Tired, bloodshot eyes. The characteristic clenched jaw-muscles of too many stimulants.
Jock arrived barely seconds later. He held his breath together with Rat, and waited for the answer.
“We’re lifting off in thirty minutes,” Harmony announced. “As far as we can measure, there’s no activity left in the Sichuan cloud, but the others are starting to expand again and we don’t know if the Federation has enough nano-destroyers stockpiled to put them all down. We’ve got more clouds developing in Europe, South Africa, Australia…”
“Everywhere,” added Hideo, arms crossed. “It looks like a timed response to the Sword going fully silent. Which we hope means it’s dead.”
Rat felt strangely numb at the news. She quirked an eyebrow. “Didn’t you guys see this coming?”
“We did, and we tried everything.” He threw a glance at the President, who remained off to one side, immersed in whispered discussions with his aides. “The Prez cut power to every known nano-plant in the Federation, but there’s enough generators and black market factories out there to make that futile. We’re going to nuke every site as it pops up.”
“Christ,” whispered Jock, “are we gonna have a planet left when they’re done?”
“I don’t know, David. I hope so.”
“You’re taking this all pretty calmly,” Rat told him, trembling. Her emotions gradually began to catch up with her. A train-wreck of them was piling up in her chest, and she didn’t know how to deal with any of it. “Am I the only one who’s freaking the fuck out? I mean, we’re about to lose the Goddamn Earth!”
Harmony placed gentle hands on Rat’s shoulders. “If you have any ideas about how to save the day, Alex,” she whispered, her voice cracking, “we’re all ears.”
Rat replied in a rush, “Nah. You wanted this job so bad, you figure it out. I’m getting off this glorified blimp.”
She was serious. She hadn’t even realised how serious until the words came tumbling out, and she knew it was the only course for her.
Shaking off Harmony’s touch, the Chrome Rat left the war room at a determined stride and headed back to the docking tube, counting the seconds until Jock would chase her down.
He caught up to her a quarter of the way down the tube. He was panting, flushed, and struggled to keep up with her brisk pace.
Outside the tube, through the occasional strips of transparent wall, the airfield looked dead. There were a handful of vehicles still pumping supplies up to Cloud City, but the gaggle of Feds were gone. No more APCs, no more civilian hydroprops. Anyone still left was probably fleeing the other way, putting every possible bit of distance between themselves and the fallout which would be raining down across China.
Rat could see the awful yellow-brown colour of the horizon, the follow-up to Sichuan’s great big mushroom cloud, and for a moment her knees went weak. Large parts of her still questioned the wisdom of staying on the ground to face the death of the City. Her brain imagined the horror all too easily — half-melted steel girders forming the bent, blackened skeletons of ruined buildings, acid and ash weeping from the sky.
Nothing she could do about it, she reminded herself. It was out of her hands now.
Jock hissed, “Lex, what are you doing?”
She gave a chuckle, dry as old bones. “Committing suicide, I guess.”
“You can’t be serious!”
“Look at my face, Jock. Tell me how fucking serious I am.”
They stared at each other, and Jock shivered at what he saw. Rat finally broke step, stopping in the middle of the tube. Her hands clenched into white-knuckled fists.
She said, “Hackers are supposed to care about nothing but themselves, yeah? Nothing we do really matters, so save your own skin and fuck everybody else.” She shook her head in rejection. “No. I don’t like humanity any more’n you do, but I can’t just sit tight while everything around me gets torched. Why would I be alive? Just because I happen to know someone with an airship?”
“But what about us? What about me?”
“Up to you, Jock. Walk back and stay in the sky with your friends if that’s what you want. I’m not gonna hold your hand.”
That sentence was loaded with words she didn’t say out loud. Things like, Show me what you’re made of, and How much do I really mean to you?
The haunted look in Jock’s eyes made her heart clench. He breathed deep, voice cracking, “You told me you don’t wanna die.”
“I don’t. I really don’t.” Moisture built in her eyes. “But…”
Words failed her. How could she talk to someone like Jock about souls, or the state of hers? She still wondered if he had more than a passing acquaintance with the concept of guilt. Instead she threw her arms around his chest and pressed herself fiercely against him.
When he overcame his surprise, he put his arms around her waist, and held her for a long time.
“I– I don’t know if I can come with you,” he whispered miserably.
“Up to you, Jock,” she repeated. She fought down a lump in her throat. “You got twenty minutes to make up your mind.”
Rat stepped out of his slack arms, made as if to take his hands, but stopped halfway. She lost the strength to lift her hands. Helplessly, she turned her back and walked away.
Open air and cool tarmac awaited her at the bottom of the docking tube. She emerged, still wrestling with her emotions. Her eyes kept getting drawn back to the tube, to the all-but-invisible giant airship hovering overhead.
She wanted Jock beside her. She’d never had anyone care about her before, not like this. She’d never been in love. Really, he was all she had; who else but Jock was going to pay attention to a skinny androgynous girl from Korea?
And she gave him up, along with her one chance to get out of the apocalypse alive.
“I must be out of my Goddamn mind,” she grumbled, and kept walking. Still wondering about her choice, but ready to stick it out until the end. Literally.
At first she didn’t have a destination in mind. All of Laputa lay in front of her, and she still couldn’t think of anywhere she wanted to be. One idea was starting to take shape, though. This might be her last chance to get absolutely steaming drunk.
A quick glance at her phone told her where to find the nearest airport bar, and she pushed her way in. Sticky, seedy, dim and done up entirely in various shades of wood-effect plastic. Populated only by the kind of people who didn’t have anywhere else to go during the end of the world. A clump of men crowded together at the bar to watch the newscast. They looked like airport workers, with maybe one or two lonely hackers thrown in. The bartender stood with them. He was on the phone, talking to what looked and sounded like a daughter, while one of the patrons manned the taps.
She parked herself on a stool and said, “Don’t suppose you can do mixed drinks?” A shake of the man’s head confirmed her suspicions. “Just give me that bottle of Fortran. Red one, bottom shelf.”
He obliged without comment, neither ID nor payment asked. She took the bottle, unscrewed the top, and chugged it. It tasted like fire and cherry vodka.
The time of day ticked ahead in the corner of the newscast. Rat looked at it after every sip and counted the minutes until her ship cast off.
She didn’t envy Jock his new home. Living out the rest of her days on Cloud City… The very thought cast a dark, depressing blanket over her, and her stomach flipped with vertigo.
The news anchor continued to rattle off sentence after sentence, rapid-fire.
“…Federal fast-action response teams are combating the clouds at every location. Officials say their efforts are meeting with success, and that despite mass evacuations from urban centres all over the globe, there is still hope…”
Rat raised her bottle to that. No matter what, you could always drink to hope.