Her numb cheek jerked up from the table with a gasp. Panic thumped in her throat, but it went away as she realised she was out of the nightmare. Looking out over a city caught in pale morning light, the bright neon now dim and desultory as if it resented the sun. The only thing that still burned with some life was the big sign that welcomed authorised visitors to Laputa.
     I fucking hate that dream, thought Rat as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes. The clock on the wall read eight, which was no time for civilised people to be awake, and she groaned. She must’ve dropped off waiting for Jock. There had been no sign of him since he left on ‘business’, and that was two days ago. Not even a text message. Anxiety churned in her belly at the thought. She really wanted him to be all right, especially since she was now too shaky and worried to operate the damned VR rig and its sensitive brain wave controls.
     Gina hadn’t called either, which she’d promised to do as soon as she was safe or needed an assist. The two people most important to her, both out of reach, quite possibly in danger and needing her help. Rat didn’t bite her fingernails but she was tempted to start. She looked out the window sighing, Where are you?
     “Coffee?” asked Jock, placing a steaming cup in front of her. She muttered a quick thank-you and took a sip of the thick brown slurry. Then she spat it back out, leaped out of her chair and grabbed Jock by his collar, screaming at the top of her voice.
     “You! Where the hell have you been?!” She kissed him with all her heart, pulled back to look into his shocked eyes, and slapped him across the jaw. “That’s for making me sweat like that!”
     Jock held his sore cheek and stared at her blankly. “Jesus, if I knew you were gonna be like this, I wouldn’t have bothered coming back.”
     “Look, none of that matters right now,” Rat hissed, the words pouring out of her in a big torrent. “I got something to tell you, I need your help, this stuff happened while you were gone and–“
     “You’re right,” he interrupted calmly, “none of that matters right now. I got something to tell you.”
     “Hey, boy, this is important! I–“
     “You,” he said over the top of her, “are doing nothing except coming down with me to Cloud City tomorrow morning.” She fell into silence, confused. He continued, “Until then you’ll do everything I tell you to do, ’cause I called in some favours I really didn’t want to use and you’d better not let me down on this.”
     She stood agape for a moment. Cloud City was the Laputan equivalent of the Federal Houses of Parliament or the Kremlin, the highest halls of government. More importantly, it was the biggest airship ever devised, hovering high in the clouds over Laputa without any links to the surface. People got on or off Cloud City by helicopter only. Amateur cowboys like Rat simply did not set foot there.
     She asked slowly, “Why would I be going to Cloud City?”
     “Because you’re going to be running your first job,” he said, “and you’ll be graded on it by the King of Laputa himself. Do well and you’ll be the first woman to publicly make the ranking. Not your handle, not some fake identity. You.” He poked a finger at her forehead.
     “You . . . This . . .” Rat choked out, her throat so tight she couldn’t speak. She wasn’t sure how to feel. Ecstatic joy and gratitude fought with complete terror until they all ran together. Her eyes filled with tears, and suddenly she felt his arms wrapping around her head.
     “Thought I’d give you something better to do than worry,” he whispered. “Hope it’s not too bad a present.”
     Rat bit her lip. She knew she had something to tell Jock, something she had to do. She hesitated, then stuttered, “I– I ain’t worrying.” She wiped the wetness from her cheeks and smiled at him. “I never thought I’d . . . Jock, it’s the best present anyone could ever give me.”
     He nodded, satisfied. “So what was it you were gonna tell me? Something important?”
     “Nah,” she replied, “I guess it doesn’t really matter.”
     “Then get your ‘trodes on, we’ve got a lot to teach you by morning.” A big grin spread across Jock’s face, and he smacked her bottom on her way to the rig. Unamused, she turned and squeezed his balls just a little bit harder than he might find comfortable. Then she quickly retreated out of his reach and blew him a kiss, laughing as he hopped angrily after her.


     Rat hadn’t slept. Her brain was too wired with adrenaline, and her state of mind had been honed to a razor edge. Jock marched beside her on their way to the helipad, silent, running on coffee alone. The building’s big service elevator lifted them onto the roof and opened its doors. Rain poured into the cabin. Wind battered at them, slapping their clothes about. Neither of them felt it. They walked out under the blue-black sky, hand in hand, and waited for the circling helicopter to begin landing.
     The spinning rotors whipped the rain-soaked air into a hurricane. Rat raised an arm to shield her eyes from the spray, but couldn’t resist stealing a glance at the ski blades as they kissed the tarmac. It was a graceful movement, force applied with surprising tenderness. Just like hacking when your mind was in the zone.
     The pilot leaned over and wrenched the door open. Jock rushed to climb in first, already drenched and dripping, and took up the rear seat. Rat cursed him for the selfish cunt that he was and tried to get comfortable in the only chair left — the passenger seat. The place where she could see everything below her through the clear polymer canopy. Her throat tightened just sitting safely on the helipad, her heart pounded in her chest, and all she really wanted to do was to jump out and run screaming. By willpower alone she forced her trembling hands to buckle her seatbelt and fix her helmet. Nothing would keep her from a spot on the hacker rankings. Nothing.
     Her stomach made a sickening lurch. Her eyes were shut tight, but she knew they’d left the ground, headed up into the clouds. A flash of blue light hit her closed eyelids, some distant lightning bolt, and she shuddered. The seatbelt dug into her fingers where she clutched it but she couldn’t seem to let go.
     “Look,” Jock told her. She ignored him. He rapped his knuckles across the top of her helmet and hissed, “For fuck’s sake, look!”
     Rat opened her eyes. At first she saw nothing, but when her eyes followed Jock’s frantic pointing she caught a shadow in the darkness above them, something dark and huge and mind-blowing. Rat gaped. It was bigger than her wildest dreams. Other airships great and small hovered beside the massive bulk of Cloud City, connected by long thin cables and tubes, but even the mighty passenger liners were like ants next to Cloud City.
     At this distance she could barely see both ends of the balloon at once. The upside-down plastic domes that dangled underneath the enormous gasbag shone with light, the buildings of the city proper, caught in the middle of their morning routine. Out at the corners of the city were four great metal bays, suspended on wires, offering shelter to helicopters and small aircraft for landing and takeoff. Rat remained awestruck as she watched the nearest bay swallow her up. The helicopter set down on the deck with a clunk, but this time it was still hundreds of metres above the ground.
     “Why would anyone build something as fucked in the head as this?” she asked Jock, hopping out of the copter ahead of him. The deck was neat and tidy, and well-dressed people urged them towards a tube that would get them safely inside and away from the storm.
     Jock snorted and shook his head. “Because they could.”
     Rat took off her wet jacket and draped it over her arm, then followed the well-dressed people into a long boarding tube with a long escalator in it. The whole tube swayed where gusts of wind pummelled its sides, and Rat had to hang on to the handrails to keep her balance. Great way to start off, she thought sourly.
     Her mobile phone went off, bouncing loud electronic music off the walls. She dug it out of her pocket and stared numbly at the screen. She didn’t recognise the number, but she could take a guess who was on the other side. At length Rat bit her lip, silenced her conscience and turned the phone off.
     “Everything alright?” Jock asked her. “You seem on edge.”
     “It’s nothing,” said Rat.
     Suddenly she stepped out into the first dome of Cloud City, and her knees buckled with vertigo. Her head spun as she caught herself on the railing. Standing on a walkway in the middle of the upside-down dome was difficult enough, but she hadn’t realised that, from the inside, the dome was transparent. The whole world stood on display below her. The lights of Laputa glittered through the raindrops, half-obscured by shreds of cloud and muddied by the water running in rivulets down the tough polymer walls, but it dominated the view even from up here.
     Jock picked her up and supported her, whispering, “Just close your eyes and keep walking.” Rat nodded, but opened her eyes anyway. She couldn’t make herself look away. There could be nothing scarier than walking across a suspended catwalk in full view of the ground far below her.
     One step at a time, Jock dragged her towards the largest structure in the dome, a castle-shaped monstrosity clad in holograms to make it look impressive. Stone walls flared out high above them, growing bigger towards the top like an upside-down pyramid, supported by stone and timber buttresses jutting out of the lower walls. Huge stained-glass windows sat in metre-deep recesses, probably holographic as well. It was a riot of colour more intense than any real medieval monument.
     Rat sneered at the spectacle at first. The closer she got, though, the less sure she became. Finally she reached the edge of the moat and her eyes went wide. There were no holograms; the castle was actually made of real granite blocks, mortared together and lashed to the dome’s superstructure. The genuine glass windows above her sent streaks of coloured light everywhere, throwing intricate high-tech patterns and images on the floor.
     “Welcome to the castle in the clouds, Alex,” said Jock, a hint of pride in his voice. He stood out front for the security systems to scan him, and after a moment the great wooden drawbridge lowered to let them in.
     She forced a smile. “I thought you didn’t go for ceremony.”
     “I don’t, but I deserve a fucking medal for getting you this far.” He waved her inside. “Let’s go and see the King.”
     They crossed into the gatehouse and passed a functional-looking portcullis, ready to spear anyone caught under it. It gave way to a cobbled courtyard centred around a tall, intricately-carved fountain. Little gardens were scattered around to liven the place up with flowers and greenery. Rat stared at the stables where actual horses stood tied up outside, whinnying and drinking out of a wide trough. She could tell they were real purely due to the pervasive smell of sweat, manure and old hay.
     A band of footmen were drilling in the corner, swinging their great halberds, dressed in medieval breastplates and carrying swords at their belts. They moved with studied realism, but they lacked some undefinable quality; maybe the vibration of their supposed footsteps, or the disturbances in the air that real movements would have made. The holographic sky overhead and the almost-natural sunlight pouring down from it couldn’t be real either, inside a damn blimp. Still . . . Rat had a feeling it wouldn’t take much to start believing it.
     That had its advantages, too. The thick walls blocked out her view of the ground, giving her a bit of relief as her vertigo subsided. The eyes fooled the brain into thinking she stood on solid ground.
     She took Jock’s arm and swallowed the fresh excitement burning in her stomach. A man in an immaculate black suit greeted them from where he stood, next to the solid oak door of the main entrance, and opened the door for them. She half-expected it to reveal some dark castle corridor but instead she saw a large wood-panelled elevator covered in rich carpets, heraldic banners and other medieval imagery. The man turned the appropriate keys and pushed the appropriate buttons, then closed the doors behind them.
     Rat wondered at the decor of the elevator. This whole place could have easily been tacky but for the attention to detail. Whoever built it really loved this stuff.
     The elevator rose, then stopped. The man told them, “This is the throne room. Just keep going straight ahead, the King’s expecting you.”
     They stepped out into the most magnificent place Rat had ever seen.


     The King’s throne room wasn’t so much a room as an open ruin bathing in sunlight under a cloudy grey-green sky. The only visible walls were two parallel rows of crumbling stones, carved with reliefs so worn by wind and rain that none of their images could still be made out.
     A faded and torn red carpet led out from the elevator, and puffed out holographic dust where Rat’s feet stepped onto it. Sunlight touched her face with genuine warmth. She realised she couldn’t tell the difference between this artificial disc of light in the ceiling and the very real star at the heart of the solar system. The scale of the room’s design staggered her, it must’ve cost billions to create this space rather than simply bringing guests into VR.
     The carpet ended in front of a raised dais with a great wooden feasting table down the middle. There, standing tall at the head of the table, she saw a throne of green marble lined with intricate scrollwork. Platinum, silver and gold thread defined its shape. Unlike the rest of the ruin, these bits didn’t show any signs of decay, but they were no less believable. They were real things artfully enhanced with holograms and subtle lighting.
     “Welcome!” called a voice, and Rat spotted a man leaning languidly on the big throne, waving them closer. Jock nudged her onward.
     “Welcome,” the man repeated, studying Rat’s face as they approached the throne. “Welcome to my little castle and my little city. You’re the girl David has been talking so passionately about, eh? A true pleasure.”
     He smiled, and she felt an instant stab of dislike as she met his eyes. He was unmistakably Japanese, a tight bronze face topped with close-cropped black hair, and a red mark showed on the back of his neck where an old Zaibatsu tattoo had been lasered off. Rat’s Korean heritage bristled inside her. She’d never met a Japanese person she didn’t love to hate, and this smug bastard seemed pretty par for the course.
     Biting off the impulse to say something nasty, she glanced sideways at Jock. “Your name’s David?” she asked with a wry smile.
     “That’s right. I guess you deserve to know.” He nodded at the King. “This is Hideo Kagehisa, the King of Laputa, ‘Kensei’ on the rankings. He’s in the top fifteen, who all know each other and meet up every now and again to discuss the Nations’ issues. Don’t we, Hideo?”
     “We do indeed,” said the King. “David and I have been fast friends since college. I’m sure he’s told you absolutely nothing about me, so I won’t be offended if you feel a little awkward. Please call me Hideo, and I’ll call you Alex, if I may.”
     Rat shrugged. She’d heard of Kensei, a legend in his time and firmly entrenched as high as number three in the rankings, well above Jock and even more full of himself as a result. He hadn’t really done anything of note lately, though. Too busy being a king maybe. Rat stifled a snort.
     The King continued, “You understand that anything confidential mustn’t leave this room, ever, under any circumstances. David and I are trusting you with significant responsibility.”
     “She won’t let you down,” volunteered Jock.
     “Oh, I believe that.” The King flashed a patronising smile. “And I’m sure you’re well aware that it’s something quite unique to take girls–“
     “Women,” Rat corrected him.
     “–women onto the rankings, yes. Many have tried. It has never passed the vote of the Fifteen. However, if you have Jock and myself backing you, you could be in with a chance. Presuming you pass my test.”
     Rat barked a laugh. “You’re kidding me, right? That’s the ‘job’ I’m supposed to be running? Well, thanks for the vote of confidence, but I aced that when I was twelve. I’d be on the rankings twice over with fake IDs if I could just get this fucker here to sponsor my entries.”
     Standing at her shoulder, Jock shook his head and said, “We aren’t talking about that test, Lex. You aren’t a normal newbie, things can’t go the same way.”
     “You’ll be working for me directly,” added the King. “I need to make a run on a fellow Hacker Nation’s private servers. Normally I would never subcontract this, but today I am making a very rare exception, just for you. Your job, your rules, your responsibility.”
     Numbly, Rat stared from the King to Jock and back again. She wanted a chance, she wanted responsibility, but this . . . This had to be a joke. She looked to Jock for support, but as she met his disappointed brown eyes she knew she wouldn’t find any there.
     He said, “You need something to show the Fifteen, Lex. Something that proves to them beyond a shadow of a doubt that you belong here, something they can’t ignore, or they’ll just turn you down. You have to get all the would-be reformers on your side.”
     “Hey, whoa, you gotta be off your fucking nut, Jock,” she said in disbelief. Everything she’d been promised was melting away like snow in her hands. “You can’t expect me to pull this off on my own!”
     “I’d never have brought you here if I didn’t believe you could do it, Lex. It ain’t an easy thing to break into a secret club founded by guys. You won’t do it unless you face the same sort of challenges we had to overcome to get where we are now. Me, Hideo, all of us.”
     “You only had to take one piss-easy test!”
     Jock looked down, muttering, “I’m not saying it’s fair. I’m saying this is how it is, it’s the best chance I can give you. You don’t have to take it. We can be back on the chopper in ten minutes, just say the word.”
     She clenched her jaw so hard it hurt. Her whole life had been a battle against her own gender, and now every hurtful comment, every condescending look, every little humiliation she’d been forced to swallow surged up from her past with a wave of pure, towering rage. In that moment she wanted to rip the throat out of every man and woman who ever thought it was a weakness to be born without a cock.
     Shivering, clenching her fists tight, she ground out, “Fine. I’ll do it.”
     “You will be playing for keeps, Alex,” the King pointed out. “This is a real hack on a real system. If you get sloppy and leave any evidence, it will point only to you, and I will hand you over to them without a word of complaint. Understood?”
     “Perfectly,” she replied. “Now shut up and show me your fucking rig.”

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