Bomber herded the small crowd of punks into a corner. He kept his pistol in hand as he barked orders. All he wanted was to make them sit together quietly and without any fuss, but he enjoyed the sinister weight of ceramic in his hands. It seemed to complete him. Just holding it was enough to tame the punks — they stared at Bomber with religious intensity, their eyes shifting back and forth between the black shape in his hand and the blood pooling on the floor behind him.
Bomber looked at the dead girl and her knife and felt nothing.
He brought his mobile phone to life with a flick of his thumb. It came up with an image of Toledo with a big sniper rifle at his shoulder, and Bomber said, “Nice shooting.”
The Spaniard nodded to accept the compliment. He scanned the deathly silent warehouse through his scope and wondered, “So what’s next?”
“Interrogation,” said Bomber, and grabbed the punk leader by his collar. “Start talkin’, kid, and I might leave the rest of you alive.”
“I don’t know anything! Honest!” he gasped, on the verge of hyperventilating. “All they told me was they’d send someone around sometime to talk, that’s all!”
“Who’s ‘they’, and when?”
“Two hours ago, I was asking around for that guy you said! Grendel, right? That was it!”
Bomber’s pulse rose instantly. He shoved the hoodie away and went for his mobile phone again, hissing, “Toledo, scan the building for camouflaged IR signatures, right now. Gabriel may know our position.” There was no response, and Bomber swore under his breath. “Toledo, if you’re still active, give me some kind of sign!”
A patch of concrete exploded into chunks next to Bomber’s foot. He jumped back and dropped into a squat behind the nearest bit of cover, the mouldering old sofa in the corner. He pointed his gun at the ceiling searching for a target. His enhanced eyes could make out little flickers of heat and movement out the corners of his eyes. Lots of ghosts, but nothing he could shoot at.
Suddenly Bomber felt a warm rifle barrel at the back of his neck and heard the minute whine of active camouflage disengaging, well beyond the range of normal human hearing. Faint heat shimmers all around the warehouse implied that there were more guns standing by, as many as anyone could possibly need to deal with a Bomber-shaped nuisance.
“Down weapons,” ordered a voice by Bomber’s ear. He obeyed, dropping his pistol on the sofa. “Lean forward and spread your legs. Don’t get any ideas, your sniper’s already cooling his heels in our care.”
“Wait.” Bomber strained to look over his shoulder at the helmeted figure behind him, but couldn’t make out a face. “I know that voice . . .”
The soldier snorted and lowered his rifle a fraction. “Well well well. I’m seeing it, but I’m not believing it.” He shook his head slowly. “D’you know, I’d actually convinced myself it had to be some other Grendel. You’re supposed to be dead, Jake.”
Bomber spun around as the soldier took off his helmet and goggles. He saw sharp cheekbones over a square slab of a chin, a high forehead, inquisitive eyes and a neck like a steroid addict. He blinked a few times as old memories came to the surface.
“It’s been a long time, hasn’t it, Captain?” the soldier said. “There just ain’t time for old friends anymore.”
Nodding slowly, Bomber struggled to contain his shock and happiness at seeing someone he used to hate. He said, “Hawk, what the hell are you doin’ with a rifle?”
“That’s Major Hawthorn now, Jake. I’m in command of the Geneva cell.”
The major stepped back and stood at ease. In the corners his squad turned off their camouflage, swimming into view with their rifles lowered. They automatically went about securing the building and its perimeter, moving the punks outside to create some privacy. A moment later Toledo was marched into the building, head held high, relieved of his rifle but not his Spanish pride.
Hawthorn continued, “Believe it or not, it’s good to see you. F Squadron is past, this is the present, and at the moment we can definitely use the manpower.”
“I’m guessin’ Colonel Obrin told you about the assault he had planned.”
A flash of pain crossed Hawthorn’s face at the mention of Colonel Obrin. “It was my idea, Jacob. Although I didn’t know he’d be sending you. You were supposed to be here weeks ago.”
“I got held up,” said Bomber. No need to bother with unnecessary detail.
Shrugging, Hawthorn said, “Gotta watch your step here, Jake. We reckon Gabriel’s got access to most of the Federal surveillance net, we’ve had to play it real quiet. Does he know you?”
“We’ve met.”
Hawthorn smiled. “You always were a tight-lipped old bastard. Okay then, chances are he knows you’re here, and he’ll assume you want to attack his compound. What he won’t know is that we’ll be there to back you up. We’re gonna have to move fast.”
Several pairs of eyes followed Bomber as he picked up his pistol from the sofa, checked the chamber, and slipped it back into his holster. The atmosphere hadn’t relaxed a bit, and nobody trusted anyone else.
“How fast?”
Hawthorn shrugged off his camouflaged backpack and dropped it on the floor in front of Bomber. Then he faded back into near-invisibility with the faint hum of a portable holographic projector, little more than a shimmer even this close up.
“How fast can you get your gear on?” his voice came, ringing with amusement.
Bomber glanced down. “You’d be amazed,” he said, and unzipped his jacket.

     Rifle, pistol, grenades, variknife — Bomber went through them all on his mental checklist, the final check-up of his equipment. His suit of armour projected a blinking hologram of diagnostic results in front of his eye. All green.
He opened the rifle’s magnetic bolt and searched for any damaging grit in the mechanism. It was as clean as something fresh off the assembly line. He jacked the pistol slide, watched the bullet being ejected from the chamber, caught it in mid-air, and put it back in. He flicked the variknife out to its full length. It was similar to a Fed sword — same principle, a length of razor-thin wire stiffened by electricity to make a blade. Unlike a Fed sword, however, you could set the variknife to be any length and any rigidity you wanted. You never knew when something like that would come in handy.
Even as he worked, he was replaying the memories in his head. He couldn’t stop. Every time he looked at Hawthorn it was like staring into the face of his own past. F Squadron was supposed to be dead, with Bomber as its sole survivor. Sarah and Jamie Caine were gone. Nobody had heard from Pia Gonzalez in fifteen years. That left Bomber and . . . the one who did nothing. The one who ran away.
Bomber shut his eyes tight. Five drunk pilots were drowning their sorrows at the old drinking hole just outside their airbase. By morning the Feds would be there and everything would be different. Nothing and nobody could stay the same.
It was a night full of black jokes and bitter laughter. Somebody, Bomber couldn’t even remember who, jokingly suggested busting out their experimental helicopters and taking the Feds head-on. Joke became mock-seriousness as the five swore a pact they never actually meant to follow through.
The next thing they knew they were on their way into the base, driven by their commander, Major Sarah Caine. No one believed they’d ever make it this far. Adrenaline, madness and a sense of power overcame them as they scaled the last fence before the airfield, no one around to stop them. Young Lieutenant Hawthorn should have been the last to climb over, egged on by his comrades. He stopped in front of the fence and stood rooted to the ground. Just then it was like a cold wind of sobriety blew through them all. For the first time everyone realised the enormity of what they were doing, and that they’d gone too far now to go back. Except for Hawk. Hawk, younger by nearly a decade, had more to live for than any of them.
Now Major Hawthorn stood next to him, armed and armoured, briefing his squad over the low roar of the cargo plane’s engines. Their active camouflage had switched to neon-bright primary colours, like civilian skydiver costumes. All their weapons were hidden in pockets or holsters. Seen from the ground, there would be nothing dangerous or threatening about them as they plummeted out of the sky.
“–conclusion, everyone,” Hawthorn was saying, pointing at images that only existed behind the soldiers’ goggles. His main focus was a crudely-drawn floor plan with most of the areas designated with question marks. “This is the best map of the compound we have. No records are left of its construction, it’s exempt from safety inspections, and nobody ever goes in there except Gabriel himself. We got this out of a builder who worked on the complex’s original fittings, but his memory’s sketchy and any number of changes may have been made to the interior layout. Be extremely careful, you hear me? Anything could happen. Most likely anything will happen.” He took a deep breath to recover from his hurried monologue. “Any thoughts or questions?”
Bomber stared at the map and began to calculate all the possible routes into the heart of the complex. Then he jumped.
There was no parachute, no safety mechanisms, just the fastest and most shocking way to drop into a building semi-alive. At the pull of a ripcord the pack on Bomber’s back exploded, engulfing him in a bubble of soft cushioning plastic. Two air tubes stuck themselves up his nose. Then the bubble filled itself with anti-G gel until every part of him was pressed in tight. He looked out through his goggles at the rigid green slime, unable to move a muscle.
For a long time he was weightless. It felt like the Earth had vanished from underneath him. Faster and faster he went, a blind free-fall through the roaring air and winds, his pod bucking and tumbling with each gust. The thick plastic walls got warm, then hot, then burning. Soon they were completely obscured by a black film, taking away Bomber’s last blurry view of the outside world.
Then he and six other Army troopers ploughed into the roof of Gabriel’s fortress.
The pod vomited him out again in a wash of slime, but the gel slipped right off him, designed not to stick. He climbed to his feet, tipped his rifle down to drain the barrel, and hurried out of the rubble pile in case anyone decided to start shooting.
He was in a large, empty warehouse with two exits — one big shutter to the outside, one security door leading in. Fresh morning light shone in through the hole in the roof. Nobody else seemed to have landed in the same room.
“Hawk, Grendel. Are you and your boys okay?” he asked over the wireless link. His goggles showed the other troops as distant shadows, and the only way to identify them was by the names being projected onto his goggles.
“There was a lot of drift,” Hawthorn’s voice crackled. “Regroup at these coordinates.”
A pulsing green beacon of light appeared on Bomber’s goggles, somewhere up ahead. He could easily imagine he was just playing a video game, except in video games nobody ended up properly dead.
He examined the security door, only to find it locked by an old mechanical keypad. There’d be no cracking that code. Only one bolt, though. Bomber braced himself, leaned back, and kicked as hard as he could. The lock snapped like a box of matchsticks and the door flew open.
Bomber was instantly grateful for his gas mask. The hallway on the other side was choked with dust, layered inches thick on the floor and on top of unrecognisable bits of furniture. It was as dark as an old cave; the windows were so covered in grime that only a few photons could get through. Nobody had been to this part of the complex in years.
“All, Grendel,” he whispered. “Is it just me or does this place look like a fuckin’ haunted mansion? No signs of life or recent occupation.”
The others all reported the same, until Hawthorn hushed them. “Just ’cause it’s quiet doesn’t mean it’s empty,” he reminded everyone. “Proceed with caution.”
A moment later one of the squad piped up. “Hawk, Banjo. I think I got something here, Sir. Footprints leading into a stairwell, going down.”
“Roger, Banjo, I got your telemetry. Go ahead and follow those prints. Kirby, back him up. Everybody else, secure this floor and find any other means of going up or down. If you see one, take it.”
Bomber tapped his goggles into the troop telemetry as well, placing it over one eye. In an instant he could see everything Banjo saw, could even look behind him as Banjo descended the creaking vinyl steps. There were clear tracks and scuffs in the dust. Somebody had been using that route.
“This is a lot of space to be wastin’,” remarked Bomber, looking into empty rooms that gave no hint of their function. It reminded him of his visit to the New Orleans with Gina. Nothing had quite fallen down yet, but there was a feeling of deadness here, an absence of life that was all too similar to that post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Like walkin’ into a tomb, he thought silently.
Hawthorn was waiting for him by the time he arrived at the rendezvous point. The Major quickly finished assembling all of the squad’s telemetry into a rough 3D map of the complex, then sent it out to everyone. The floor plan suddenly became clear. Huge, sprawling, and abandoned.
“Everything here must have been going on below-decks,” said Hawthorn, a little bit bemused and a little bit anxious. “One single stairwell, no working lifts, no other way of getting down there. Bad tactical position. Any advice, Jake?”
“None, Major,” Bomber shot back. He indicated the stairs with his rifle. “Shall we?”
Flicking back to Banjo’s telemetry, Hawthorn looked around and finally nodded. “Okay,” he said.
They started their descent. Bomber went first, while another soldier brought up the rear. Command always walked in the middle.
Once he’d gotten a feel for the steps, Bomber went back to watching Banjo’s telemetry. The soldier soon hit the bottom of the stairwell and reported, “Hit ground, Sir. Dust marks lead through a doorway into a large chamber. Kirby is checking for traps but it looks clean.”
“This doesn’t make any sense,” Hawthorn muttered. “On the outside there’s lasers, tripwires, cameras, every damn thing. So where’s the internal security? Is he really stupid enough to think nobody would be able to get in?”
“Wouldn’t count on it,” said Bomber. He shuddered as he remembered looking into Gabriel’s eyes. Behind them lay the most insanely intelligent mind Bomber had ever encountered.
Hawthorn turned to look at Bomber. The goggles ruined any expression on his face, but his voice was full of sudden emotion. “Listen, Jake, when we get time . . . I want to talk to you about what happened.”
“Ain’t nothin’ to talk about, Major,” Bomber replied and pressed ahead, stonewalling any further attempt to get his attention.
He hit the bottom of the stairwell within minutes of Banjo’s team and looked around suspiciously. The floors here were concrete, built to last, and all the structural components looked sound. The building might be a trap but it wouldn’t just come down on their heads without some encouragement.
A sudden alarm buzz chirped in his ears and yellow signals flashed across his goggles. The telemetry link cut out in an instant, all contact lost. Next to him, Hawthorn jerked upright and hissed, “Banjo! Kirby! Report!”
Nothing answered him except a steady stream of radio static.
Bomber scowled, took cover behind the doorframe and did a quick inspection of his rifle. “I think we found your internal security, Major,” he said dryly, unhooking a scrambler grenade from his belt.
“Just like old times, huh?” Hawthorn flashed a tight smile. “You got my wing, Grendel?”
“I got your fuckin’ wing, Hawk. Now shut up and move.”

     The scrambler made a sharp pop as Bomber pulled out the pin. Then he counted to two and chucked it through the doorway, one second to spare.
Thick grey smoke hissed from pores in the outer casing, filled with reflective metal flakes that screwed up everything from lasers to radar. Then it went up like a flashbang. Thunder boomed through the cavernous chamber, deafening anyone and anything nearby, followed by a flash as bright as the heart of a sun.
Bomber dove into the smokescreen without hesitation. In one glance he took in the room and went for the nearest bit of cover, something that looked like a plastic bookcase or wardrobe lying on its side. A cloud of dust went up where he hit the ground, but instead of coming back down, a cold draft sucked much of it away towards the ceiling. There were fans spinning up there.
So the place has working electricity, thought Bomber. But that alone ain’t evidence of an AI mainframe, and still no sign of what got Banjo.
The next moment Hawthorn landed beside him and grunted, “I can’t see anything. Can you?”
“Not yet. There’s an exit over that way, where Banjo disappeared. Suggest cover to cover approach, Sir, with–” he checked the other soldier’s callsign, “–Stundog on overwatch.”
“Agreed,” said Hawthorn and muttered into his collar microphone. Then he slapped Bomber on the shoulder and nudged him along, leaving cover at a dead run.
They rushed across the room in seconds, their goggles adjusting for the near-total darkness around them. Nothing stopped them. No shots, no traps, no sign of any opposition. The dead silence worked on Bomber’s nerves, empty of everything except their own footsteps and the faint whirring of the fans up above.
“Something isn’t right here, Jake,” Hawthorn whispered, glancing around the scene where Banjo and Kirby had lost contact. There was no sign of the soldiers, not even a spent bullet casing. Nothing but a big dusty curtain strung between two concrete, faux-Roman columns. Definitely one of Gabriel’s additions.
Hawthorn went on, “You don’t lose telemetry like that without hostile action, but I didn’t see or hear a thing. There should’ve been a flash of something.”
“What do you want me to say, Major?” Bomber asked stiffly.
“I don’t know. I–”
There was a small click and all their electronics stopped working. Goggles went dark. The wrist controls on their armour blinked out. Their rifles, operated by modern electric firing mechanisms, turned into awkward plastic clubs.
Bomber swore as he tore off his headgear and threw his rifle to the ground. “Pistols!” he shouted, pulling his own out of its holster, and let his enhanced eyes adjust to the darkness. “I guess we know what happened to fuckin’ Banjo, huh?”
“Jacob?” echoed Hawthorn’s voice, trembling with self-control. “I can’t see.”
“Use your goddamned implants,” snarled Bomber, searching desperately for a target.
“Implants? Jesus, Jake, they stopped handing out eye jobs when I was a flyboy lieutenant!”
Fuck, thought Bomber viciously. Then he grabbed Hawthorn’s arm. “Okay, Hawk, stay close to me. You remember those hypno-training courses you did back in Basic? There was one on fightin’ blind, wasn’t there? Keep your mind on that and shoot where I tell you, if I tell you.”
“Yes, Sir,” said Hawthorn instantly. He seemed much happier to give up responsibility for the op.
With one of Hawthorn’s hands on his shoulder, Bomber shouted back into the big chamber, “Stundog! Hold your position and group up with anyone who comes down the stairs! You’re gonna be coverin’ our escape route if everything goes wrong!”
“Roger Wilco,” Stundog called back. There was no more sound after that, only the rustle of cloth as Bomber pushed through the curtain into the next space.
Two tiny points of light sparkled in the distance, tightly-focused blue beams that did nothing to light up the rest of the space. Bomber squinted at them but couldn’t make out anything more. Still he couldn’t find a trace of Banjo or Kirby. He checked the floors but found no dust in this room to show up scuffs, no blood or drag marks. Just a constant wind of hot, dry air blowing into his face.
“I don’t suppose you’ve got a flashlight,” he whispered. Hawthorn shook his head.
Then a voice laughed softly from the shadows, and all the lights in the room came on at once. It was like sunrise condensed into one millisecond. Bomber blinked against the light and nearly gasped when Gabriel appeared hovering in the air, dressed in white robes, holding a sword of pure fire. The image flickered gently where specks of dust whirled into it. A huge wall of plastic and metal rose up behind it, filling the room from floor to ceiling with electronics; a patchwork of technology that Bomber couldn’t even begin to identify.
“Gentlemen,” said the hologram with Gabriel’s voice, looking down at them with an expression of absolute serenity, “how can I help you?”

     Meanwhile, halfway around the world, several things happened at once and Rat was right in the middle of them. Hideo’s avatar materialised beside her and instantly yanked her head around, away from the door. In the same moment a column of impossible light washed over them, so bright and powerful that the entire world turned monochrome. Then the knight’s hands closed over Rat’s eyes and she blinked away the tears. The afterimage was still printed on her retinas, but slowly fading back to normal.
“What happened?” she quavered, too shocked to panic.
Hideo spat, “Booby trap. People used to use them in the early days as a final fuck-you. It switches your goggle failsafes off and burns laser light into your optic nerve. Blind you for life. We banned them when we first drew up the Charter, under charge of treason.”
Swallowing waves of nausea, Rat sent a probe ahead to access the trap’s code. The light flared up again. She hurriedly deleted the whole trap with her eyes closed.
“Jock, save me a recording of this on chip, please.” Icy rage rang through Hideo’s words. “I’m going to find the person who rigged this and hang him up by his own intestines.”
“How did you know it was there?” breathed Rat.
“A hunch. Please continue, you haven’t failed the test yet.”
She crept inside, through the impossibly thick doors and all the security systems embedded into them, and Hideo followed at a respectful distance. When she finally emerged on the other side, all she could see was a great vaulted hall clad from top to bottom in glowing yellow light, empty of features except for huge paintings hovering against the walls. At first Rat couldn’t make out what the paintings represented, but slowly she began to see patterns hidden in the oddly-coloured designs, text and numbers scrambled by more protection. She waved Jock’s card in the air, letting it do its work, and moments later the murky paintings began to resolve into screens of crisp and clear data.
“Fuck me,” she murmured, reaching out to touch the nearest list. It picked up the gesture and started to scroll down along the endless file. “It’s a bunch of GlobeNet addresses, complete with passwords. Home computers. Jesus, there’s thousands of them!”
“This is unusual,” said Hideo. His helm showed no emotion but his tone of voice hinted that something had rattled him.
Jock’s voice came in, blurting, “It’s a botnet. Damn, that brings back memories.”
“A botnet?” asked Rat. This kind of stuff must’ve been well before her time.
“It’s a list of computers infected with a hidden program, what they used to call a ‘zombie.’ The zombie can take complete control of its computers and carry out whatever instructions it’s been programmed with. One command and you’ve got ten thousand systems doing whatever you want.”
Shaking his head, Hideo pointed out, “But even if you managed to infect all these machines, Jock, there’s nothing useful you could do with them. We’ve had anti-bot protocols in place for decades. And look!” He waved his hand at some of the other lists, which scrolled obligingly. “These aren’t just home systems, there’s Federal government and police mainframes, Marxie military computers, and most of our own network backbones. These lists cover nearly every system on the planet. What could you possibly do with a botnet that big?”
There was a brief silence. Rat thought about it and suggested, “You could tell them to stop talking to each other.”
The silence lasted a bit longer after that. Nobody said anything as all the horrible implications of the idea started to unfold.
“Jock, I think we may have a problem,” Hideo said stiffly. “Please ask the guards to link us up to GlobeNet, I need to make some calls. This had better not be what I think it is.” Then he turned to Rat. “Alex-han, if this is a control centre for the botnet, there may be some prototype zombies around for testing. We need to know how the zombies work if we want to counter them. I will make sure you are compensated for your work and your trouble.”
Rat shrugged. “I can have a look around, I guess.” He started to turn away from her, but she caught him by the shoulder and said in a rush, “Does this mean I got the ranking?”
“I don’t have–” he began, but stopped himself when he caught the intense look in her eyes. His avatar took off its helmet, replacing it with his own sparingly-rendered face. “Very well, Alex-han. Since it means that much to you, you have my support. I think that with your drive and attitude you could make it into the Fifteen someday.” He summoned up a leather cowboy hat in his hand, which he planted gently on her head. A genuine smile cracked his cool facade. “Welcome to the brotherhood, Alex.”
The next moment he conjured up a glowing door into the vastness of Main Street and stepped through.
Sudden emotions raged in her chest but she swallowed them down, sacrificed them for the sake of keeping her cool. A dignified exterior was vital to hackerdom, even when all she wanted was to jump up and down and squeal like a girl.
She took off the cowboy hat and turned it over in her hands.
“Thanks,” she choked out. Then she turned her real body away, quickly, before anyone in the input room saw the tears rolling down the corners of her goggles.

     When she regained her composure Rat went back outside the mound to see what she could find. Emotions still warred inside her, although she had them just about under control now. Some kind of congratulations from Jock would have been nice but the boy wasn’t the most thoughtful or observant person in the world. He’d probably try to do something later, whenever it occurred to him.
A seemingly endless landscape of emerald-green hills shone under the simulated sun. There was a new rock where the faerie had stood, but that in itself wouldn’t be too odd. It was only when she spotted the other faerie rocks, hundreds of them dotting the hillside, that she began to think and suspect. They hadn’t been here when she first arrived; they’d all come to this mound or barrow, their ‘gathering place’, on some kind of trigger. And now they looked like they were waiting for something.
Zombies are designed to follow instructions, she remembered, digging deep into her limited knowledge of the old ways. She put her hands around her mouth to make a speaking cone. Then she shouted, “Ping!”
Almost as one, the faeries all rose up, shifting back into their man-shapes. They rumbled back at her, “Pong.”
“Status,” she told them.
“Standing by,” they answered.
Rat smiled. Whoever programmed these things was old-school indeed. ‘Ping’ was one of the most ancient networking tools around, hadn’t been in widespread use for longer than Rat had been alive. It measured how long it took for another system to answer back to you, timing the informational round trip. Nowadays, however, even the slowest data links had unlimited bandwidth and near-instantaneous transmission. GlobeNet was to the old internet as the internet was to a network of bongo drums. You just didn’t need these old tools anymore.
Except, maybe, for managing a botnet . . .
She pointed to the lead faerie and said, “Give me your commands list.”
“There isn’t one. If you want anything, just speak to us.”
Annoyed, Rat put her hands on her hips. “Then how do you work? Do you have some kind of voice interpreter?”
“Something like that,” it said shortly.
“Give me some more information, man.”
“You’re not on the access list.” It crossed its arms. “No access, no information.”
Trying to look nonchalant, Rat let her hands wander to her hacking tools, working invisibly behind her back. Something strange was going on. The faerie’s responses sounded scripted, but there was a hostility to his words that was well beyond normal. No mere program had ever spoken to the Chrome Rat like that.
“Who has access?” she pushed.
“We’d rather you didn’t ask questions like that.”
The temperature between Rat and the faerie dropped below freezing, and the other red-headed giants shifted restlessly.
“Let me get this straight,” Rat hummed. “You only respond to a master with a special password or something?”
“That’s none o’ your business.” The faerie was scowling down at her, and seemed to grow bigger by the second. “Have you been invited? Maybe you should come back while the masters are logged on.”
Rat snorted. “Okay, let’s add me to your password list.”
She summoned up a code window and tried to access the faerie’s programming, only to come up blank. He seemed to sense the attempt and somehow shook it off, roaring in anger. Then he lunged at her with a murderous look in his eyes, only to hit the impenetrable force field around the barrow. He pounded his fists against it, and moments later all the faeries were hammering away uselessly. Their deep-throated growl rumbled through the earth itself.
“You can’t keep me out forever,” she said and brought up the code window again.
This time the faerie staggered back, and fought a losing battle against Rat’s brain and fingers — despite the fact it shouldn’t have been able to fight her in the first place, not with full control of the vault system. Then he stepped back and, with a look of frustrated impotence, began to crumble into dust. The others followed his example, and Rat realised to her horror that they were deleting themselves. She was about to lose everything.
She acted almost without thinking. She thought a command at the vault’s systems, and the whole simulation froze in mid-movement, paused until further notice. Rat hurriedly brought up a code window and copied everything she could salvage from the self-destructing faeries. Then she shut down the simulation before it could go any further.
The sudden adrenaline rush faded, and she stared numbly at the chunk of data in her hand. “It committed suicide,” she said to herself. “It was intelligent. It saw right through me, and it killed itself to protect the owners.”
There was a sudden humming noise, and Hideo reappeared beside her. If looks could kill, his expression would’ve flattened cities. With a gesture he forced an avatar to appear for Jock, to make sure of everyone’s full and undivided attention, and gave a curt nod in greeting.
“I think I know who’s responsible for this,” he said tightly. “I think we’re going to have to convene the Fifteen.”
“Tell me it isn’t Banshee,” groaned Jock.
Rat piped up, “Banshee the High King of Ireland? That Banshee?”
“Who else? I’m sure he’s responsible for what happened in Europe. Don’t know why, yet, but I intend to find out. I think somebody hired him to do it.” He spoke through gritted teeth to keep his anger in check. “There have been unreasonably large payments into his accounts from a number of sources, but when I dig down far enough I keep coming back to one company. Does the name Lowell Industries mean anything to you?”
Rat stared silently at Jock. He had gone rigid as a plank. As soon as he regained control of his sphincter he punched through into Main Street, choking out, “I gotta go call someone!”
“It’s past time we were out of here anyway,” said Hideo. He took Rat’s hand and cut their connection, like changing the picture in a slide-show. The real world flashed onto her retinas and the spell was broken.
The real world almost instantly became an awkward dangle as Rat tried to unstrap herself from the VR rig. Nobody helped her or paid her any mind. Jock was still plugged in, and Hideo had already disappeared. Biting her lip, she finished disentangling herself and sat down to wait for something to happen.
It just had to be Gabriel, didn’t it? she cursed inside and tried not to think about Gina or the niggling little core of guilt at the back of her brain.

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