A blood soaked hand reaches towards me. ‘Nina, thank goodness I found you.’
A moment ago, standing together in the New Frisco plaza, the cold wind of the aerial city whipping around us, I reached up to kiss Jack’s tender lips, when a heavy weight crashed into us—Trent. Now, all three of us are prone on the ground in a side alley where we landed in a heap.
Blood is plastered across Trent’s richly embroidered gold waistcoat. Pulling aside the buttons of his black frock-coat, I find the source of the blood: a wound in his stomach rhythmically pumping blood.
Trent is an old acquaintance. Once, I would have called him a friend, but that was before he betrayed me and stole by beautiful, but slightly decrepit, airship, the Shonti Bloom. He is also a spy for the Microtough corporation, the faction than runs Newtonsteign, the most powerful city in the skies. His name probably isn’t even Trent.
Quickly, because I can see the seriousness of the wound, I tear away a wide strip from the tail of my shirt and press it against Trent’s stomach. ‘Hold this here, it will help staunch the blood.’
I turn to Jack, a Cadet officer in the New Frisco Beats and my secret lover. “Jack, we have to get Trent to a doctor.”
But Jack, now back on his feet, is pointing his pistol at Trent. “Where is Nina’s airship, you rogue?”
Trust Jack to go into law officer mode. “Trent is wounded,” I emphasise each word. “We have to help him.”
With an obvious effort, Trent raises himself on one elbow. “Never mind that, Nina. Take this.” He thrusts a small package, wrapped in brown paper, into my tunic—managing to ruin my best Pilot’s Guild uniform in the process. ‘Take it to a Reaver named Papa Doyle, he’ll know what to do with it. Papa Doyle – got that?”
I nod, eager to get his rant over with so I can take him to a doctor. The dreaded word ‘Reaver’ reverberates round my brain.
“Repeat it to me!” Trent orders.
“Take the package to Papa Doyle,” I repeat wearily. “But not before we’ve got you to a doctor.” I try to raise Trent to his feet.
“The ‘Man’ will help you.”
I nearly drop Trent in surprise. “Not the man? Not Stan Wallingham-”
“-It’s very important, Nina. Don’t let her do it again.”
I don’t need to ask who he’s referring to: he means my mother, the deranged leader of the Gaia Foundation, a cult dedicated to the preservation of a natural earth, by any means. She is the reason my left hand is enclosed in a delicate exoskeleton of brass pistons, replacing the tendons she severed the last time we met. My darling mother loves my genes so much she would dearly like me to join her foundation—she doesn’t much care if I arrive dead or alive.
Long ago, the Gaia Foundation genetically engineered a small number of people to live in cities in the clouds, before releasing a deadly virus to wipe out the rest: the billions of humans that populating the surface of the earth. My mother, through her terrorist organisation, the Daughters of Gaia, continues that grisly work by destroying any sign of industrial progress. Now, according to Trent, she is planning another atrocity.
Technically, I am not even my mother’s daughter—I am her clone. Her genes give me the capacity to become just as psychotic as she. It’s all there, lurking in my mind and my personality waiting to break out: the shockingly single-minded focus, the disdain for human life, the obsession with a cause, the ability to sacrifice others for the greater good—everything my mother is and I will become. Which means I’m a monster—just like her.
I try always to take the opposite action to what I think she would choose, but I’m not sure that helps much.
The soft murmur of the street outside the alley, is shattered by the sound of a shot, which rings out behind me and reverberates off the walls. Trent jerks once, then flops across my lap, blood gushing from his mouth. He looks up in surprise and tries to say something, but has no words left. “Papa Doyle,” he mouths. “Don’t let her…” The spark of life leaves his eyes, his mouth falls open, his body slackens, and he droops limply in my arms. He’s dead.
“Trent,” I sob. “No. No, no, no.” In panic, I search for help. “Jack, what have you done?”
But Jack is staring unwaveringly down the barrel of his gun, at the mouth of the alley.
Just inside the alleyway stands a booted woman in a green velvet dress. Her face is hidden behind a dark net veil, draped from the brim of an elegant top hat—her dress exactly matches the wide green ribbon round the brim of her hat. She holds a parasol over her shoulder, conveniently shielding the scene in the alley from public gaze.
The woman is pointing a small sidearm straight at my head. Condensed gas still wisps from the barrel of the gun with which she has just killer Trent. Instinctively I know she is a Daughter of Gaia.
“What did he say to you?” the woman demands.
With his aim fixed firmly on the woman, Jack, manoeuvres himself in front of me and stalks slowly towards the mouth of the alley. “We are leaving now,’ her growls. “Make the slightest move and I shoot. Understand?”
The woman nods deliberately. “Then we will both die.”
“Exactly. And you never discover what Trent said.”
“I can’t leave him here,” I whisper, tears coursing down my cheeks, “Trent is dead.”
Without looking down, Jack takes my hand. He keeps me behind him as we sidle past the Daughter of Gaia and exit the alley.
Out in the main street, Jack shoves me behind him. “It’s you the Daughters want, so if you use me as a shield you should be relatively safe. I doubt they will fire on a Beat in public.”
I pull myself together, because I know he’s still taking one hell of a risk for me.
People stop to stare as we parade across the plaza: we must make a strange sight—Jack pacing steadily backwards, pointing his gun at what now appears to be an empty alley, and I shuffling along, crab fashion, trying to watch where we are going and keep myself behind the sculptured bulk of his body.
Guiltily, I realise how easy it is for me to concentrate on practical matters and push thoughts of Trent’s death to the back of my mind. “Jack, Trent is dead,” I whisper, “shouldn’t I feel more upset? Shouldn’t I be falling apart, bawling my eyes out or something? Or fainting with grief?”
Jack laughs, “Nothing fazes you, Nina. That’s one of the things I love about you—always focused on the task in hand. Sometimes, the focus of your mind is so sharp its terrifying.”
I’m reminded of something someone once said about my mother. “Beautiful and terrifying, that was your mother, Nina, beautiful and terrifying.”
Eventually, we reach another street and as Jack drops his weapon, I see a flash of green streak from the alley. Thankfully, she is heading in a different direction.
“Run!” Jack orders. “Follow me.”
I start along the street after Jack, ”Where to?”
“Beat Central in Beat Plaza, we will be safe there.” Jack ducks into a side street, he knows all the cut-throughs. If anyone can get me safely to Beat Central it is Jack.
I lengthen my stride to catch up with him. “Are you sure it’s the safest place?” My experience with Beats has not always been good. Only a few months ago a Beat Lieutenant tried to assassinate me.
“I promise you we will be safe there, Nina,” Jack calls back. ”Beats exist to ‘Serve and Protect’,” he adds proudly, “there is no better place to protect you.” Jack worships the Beats, he always has. His father, now mayor of New Frisco, was once the Beat Commissioner. The Beats are Jacks life and ambition. He’s an unfailing optimist—one of the things I love about him.
We pound through the side street and burst into another main street before skidding to a halt in Beat Plaza.
The steps of Beat Central are buzzing with law officers. The lady in the green velvet dress is already there, as are a few other veiled and smartly dressed women. She had a direct route from Central Plaza to here, while we were forced to take a dogs-leg.
For a hopeful moment I think the officers have caught her. Then she points directly at me and an officer blows his whistle. “Stop felons!”
Without waiting for Jack, I turn and run.
“Nina Swift. Jack McGraw. Murderers.” More shouts, more whistles, and a whole posse of feet pounding after us.
Jack catches up with me, “I don’t believe it. How can they possibly think we are guilty of killing Trent?”
“For a law officer, Jack, you are sometimes incredibly naive,” I pant. “A Microtough agent is dead. You were at the crime scene, brandishing a gun in public, and I’m covered in the victim’s blood. Of course we look guilty. It’s our word against hers and right now they believe her.”
We dash past a watchmakers. “We just need to surrender and explain,” Jack pants, quite reasonably.
“Are you kidding? Did you see how many Daughters of Gaia were on the steps? They obviously have the Beats in their pockets at the moment. We go anywhere near them and I bet they will shoot us down and apologise later.” My comment is underlined by a gunshot from behind us.
“Hell’s teeth, they’re shooting at us,” Jack gasps. It must be hard when your heroes morph into the bad guys. “Where do we go?”
I have an idea. “The Pilot’s Guild. They will shelter us until we can sort out this mess. Which is the quickest route.”
“This way.” Jack cuts into another side street before ducking into an alley by a grocer’s store.
The upper stories of the wooden houses close over us, leaving only a narrow strip of sunlit sky to guide us. No sunlight falls on the ground in these back streets, but I still stick to the shadows. The gloom gives me a sense of security, even though I know it’s false.
Jack leads me on a twisting winding route through the maze of narrow streets and back alleys. Soon we have shaken off our pursuers and can slow down to a steady jog.
The Pilot’s Guild is a sprawling three-story building overlooking the upper-most docks of New Frisco. We burst out of a side street, into glaring sun on the dockside, and sprint for the main doors.
With a stab of fear, I realise we are out manoeuvred. The well dressed Daughters of Gaia are already standing guard outside the Pilot’s Guild. I grab Jacks muscular arm and shove him into the cover of a rope-makers warehouse. “They’re here.”
Jack’s face creases into a look of confusion. “How could they possibly have got here ahead of us?”
“They didn’t, Jack, they out thought us. They had people coming here while we were heading for Beat Central. They know who we are and what we do—at least, they know me. They’ve probably been watching me since they arrived in case Trent made contact.
We sneak around the streets trying side doors to the guild, but they are all guarded. The Daughters of Gaia have the place locked down.
“They’re devoting a lot of people to this search, Nina,” Jack comments, thoughtfully. “Whatever message they think Trent gave you must be important to them.”
With a jolt, I realise Jack has no idea what really happened in the alley—he has no knowledge of the package I am to deliver, nestled against my heart, inside my bloody tunic.
“This way.” I lead Jack away from the Guild for a few streets then double-back to another section of the dockside. What I’m looking for is a flight of steps leading over the very edge of the floating landmass that is New Frisco. “Trent gave me a message to deliver. To someone I’ve never hear of, about something my mother is planning”. How easy it is to lie to Jack. I fool myself I’m doing it to keep him safe. Besides, if he doesn’t know the truth he can’t tell anyone else; he can’t betray me.
Jack sees where I’m headed and stops in his tracks. He has bad experience of the Under Deck. “We can go to my father, the Mayor. He will protect us, and help you deliver Trent’s message.”
“I don’t think the message is for anyone on New Frisco, Jack.” With a shudder, I remember Trent referring to Papa Doyle as a Reaver—enemies of the state of New Frisco; enemies of human kind. “Besides, if the Daughters of Gaia have infiltrated the Beats it’s with your father’s permission. I bet they’ve spun him some story about protecting us,” I add quickly, “and are guarding him just as close as the Pilot’s Guild.” There must be swarms of the Daughters on New Frisco—my mother’s sent the whole hive.
“My house then.”
“Even worse.” Jack still doesn’t understand the callous ruthlessness of the Daughters of Gaia. If they want me dead there is no safe place on New Frisco—except maybe one. The steps are unguarded so I nip across the open ground and clatter down the first flight.
Jack follows, but hesitates at the first landing. “I’m not sure about this, Nina.”
I carry on down regardless. Below are the wooden tiers of the Underdeck—the shanty town, dandling below the main landmass, equally as large as New Frisco and known simply as the Underdeck. “We need to get off New Frisco, Jack. As soon as we can.”
As I hoped, Jack follows me, while pondering this thought. “An unscheduled flight off New Frisco takes money, Nina. And contacts—criminal contacts.”
“I know just the guy. Trent said he would help us.”
“No. Not Stan Wallingham. This is a bad idea, Nina.”
“I know, but I have no other choice.”