A harsh, insistent beep from the nightstand brought Rat back to the waking world. Groaning, she rolled over and rubbed her eyes before slamming the ‘receive call’ button. A small hologram of Jock’s face popped up in front of her, looking her up and down. She felt like a lump of pickled flesh with red eyes, cracked lips and a very bad migraine.
     “Hi babe, sleep well?” he chirped, giving her the smug smile that sober people always reserved for anyone they knew who happened to be suffering a bad hangover.
     She cleared her throat painfully to let her speak. “Fuck off and die, Jock.”
     “Not today. You already missed all the arrivals, but if you hurry you might just make it to the first council session. Hideo’s given you an invite.”
     Sluggishly, Rat’s brain began to assimilate this information, and the facts dropped into place behind her eyes one by one. She nearly choked, sputtering, “The Fifteen are meeting? Now?”
     “That’s right. A few people are gathering in the conference hall right now, the session starts in half an hour.” He scratched the back of his head and smiled a little, looking unsure for a moment. “Oh, Hideo asked me to give you this message. I’ll patch it through for you. See you later, Alex.”
     She could only nod, and the hologram of Jock disappeared only to be replaced by one of Hideo, as stiff and polite as ever. It offered a tiny bow.
     “Alex-han, I trust you remember our conversation yesterday. It’s time to begin. From now on, you don’t know us. Not myself and certainly not Jock. You are not our friend, and if anyone asks, your invite was obtained by hacking the hotel systems. There is no way to trace the invite back to me and the hotel room has been transferred to your name as well. I’ll send you instructions later tonight on how to contact us privately. That is all. Good luck, and good hunting.”
     The next moment his image fizzled out, the call cut off, and Rat was left staring at a blank patch of wall. She cursed and rolled out of bed in search of something to wear.
     Somehow she’d managed to strip herself naked in her sleep, and her clothes were in a dirty pile on the floor. Not that she’d think of wearing something so . . . gendered to the most important social event of her life. One step at a time, learn to walk before you try to run, all that shit.
     The hoodie and jeans almost jumped out of her travel bag. She quickly pulled them on in the mirror, stopping only to run her fingertips over the tiny scar on her thigh. You couldn’t even see it now unless you were looking for it. A small reminder of what bullets felt like from the receiving end.
     Lastly, she ordered a hangover cure from the minibar, which the robo-tender squirted into a shotglass as some kind of frothy yellow concoction. She gulped it down and almost made it to the door. Then the overpowering aftertaste of rotten bananas flooded her taste buds, and she doubled back to empty the tray of complimentary biscuits into her mouth.
     The hotel seemed more alive than the day before. Little clumps of people gathered around the plush hallways, talking in whispers, sharing the latest gossip. Rat slowed her pace long enough to catch the general gist of the conversations. Rumours were going around about some kind of important meeting in the hotel, but nobody knew the details, or at least they weren’t telling. A blanket of secrecy covered everything.
     At least the horrible cure seemed to be working. The fog in her head cleared bit by bit, and she no longer felt like she had treacle running through her veins.
     She ducked into the main elevator and rode it to the floor marked ‘Conference Hall’. The little information screen showed it to be about three times the size of the other floors. When Rat got out and looked around the holographically-enhanced room — all majestic arcs, tasteful lighting and sumptuous wood — she realised that three storeys in a Laputan arcology was pretty damned big.
     There weren’t as many people in the hall as she’d expected. The gathering seemed to consist mainly of bodyguards, big guys with square jaws and an unhappy disposition. If Rat looked closely, she could see the tiny antennae sticking out from behind their right ears, connected to some kind of comm implant. Security kept their distance from the crowd, though, and there was another barrier zone between the genuinely important people and the members of their entourage. She slipped unnoticed into the ranks of hangers-on and stuck close to the European contingent, all speaking Conglom in various funny accents.
     “I wasn’t sure about this location from the start,” someone moaned, a young blond man with a body far too lanky to carry off the designer casuals he wore. A wispy moustache covered his upper lip and failed entirely to make up for the rapidly-receding hairline up top. Rat imagined the hairs fleeing his scalp like rats on a sinking ship. “Why hold any kind of meeting here? If Kensei has such an important thing to discuss he should’ve come to us with his evidence!”
     The guy next to him, a big skinhead with scaly tattoos coiling around his neck, almost burst out laughing. “Don’t be an idiot, Jordy. Who else is gonna volunteer to host a meeting like this? Never mind the political implications, think about the money.”
     Rat spotted her chance. She interjected, “It can’t be costing him that much. I’ve been around, and Kensei’s got power like you wouldn’t believe.” She gave a humourless smile as the people turned their attention on her. “What I’m wondering is, why hasn’t he gone whole hog and held this thing on Cloud City?”
     “That’s a good point,” the skinhead admitted thoughtfully, looking Rat up and down. “It’d be a lot more secure, I’ll give you that. Maybe he suspects some kind of foul play.”
     “Could be.” She nodded up at him and held out her hand, which he shook with a friendly squeeze. “The Chrome Rat. Rat to my friends.”
     “Call me Snake. The weedy boy next to me is Jordy-Five-Seven. I don’t think I’ve heard of you, what’s your ranking?”
     “I only just passed the test, got no sponsor for my entry yet.” She shrugged and glanced around. “Best place in the world to find one, huh?”
     He seemed to understand, and his blue eyes glinted with sympathy. He said, “Don’t worry, if you’re good, somebody will sponsor you sooner or later. It took me two years before I met Banshee. Hell, Jordy here only got sponsored because the Dutch president took pity on him.”
     Choked noises emanated from Jordy, and he went red in the face with helpless fury, but he didn’t dare to say a bad word in front of Snake.
     Meanwhile a hint of genuine surprise flickered across Rat’s face. With a bit of effort she turned it into a starstruck expression, and she mooned, “You know Banshee? That’s awesome!”
     “It’s not as glamorous as it sounds,” he chuckled. “Trust me, I– Is something wrong?”
     Rat had stopped listening to him. The blood drained from her face, leaving her pale as a sheet as she recognised a familiar pair of trainers from across the floor. She muttered weakly, “I’ll be right back,” and backed away from the group, keeping her eye on the hooded figure skulking around the edges of the meeting. It couldn’t be . . .
     She managed to steal a glance inside the figure’s hood, glimpsing the outline of a face, and she knew for certain. It couldn’t be, but it was.
     Damn it, thought Rat, and she crossed the floor like a missile towards her newest problem.

***

     Rat grabbed the figure’s shoulder and stepped out in front. She suddenly found herself on the other end of a weapons-grade stare. Eyes like twinkling green emeralds held her, and the lips below curled into a smug little smile. The face showed no hint of surprise or fear, only a certain kind of welcome. Rat almost believed it was pleased to see her.
     “Harmony,” she hissed, keeping her voice low. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
     “Sightseeing,” Harmony said casually. “Let go, Alex. You don’t want to act suspicious in this company.”
     Biting her lip, Rat made her fingers unclench. Harmony shook her arm free and jerked her head to the side in a ‘walk with me’ gesture. They ambled along the periphery of the crowd while Harmony threw occasional furtive glances into the centre, towards the members of the Fifteen who’d gathered there. There was meaning in those looks but Rat couldn’t tell what kind.
     They spent a few moments walking silently before Harmony spoke out of the corner of her mouth. “I see you been mingling. Had a change of clothes, too. Maybe you’re not such a prod after all.”
     “Seems we’re both full of surprises, lady,” Rat said darkly.
     Harmony laughed, but as the sound left her throat it downshifted to a deeper, more masculine tone. A voice changer, probably inside the cheap silver necklace around her throat. The changer disengaged as she whispered, “We all got secrets, Alex.”
     “So why are you here?”
     “I told you. Reconnaissance. When the Fifteen call an emergency meeting, you know something big’s up.” She threw Rat a razor-sharp smile. “What about you? Trying to follow in my footsteps?”
     The conversation broke as the crowd stirred, brought to action by some invisible signal. Everybody started to file towards the elevators. The session was beginning. Rat and Harmony joined the queue, exchanging whispers in the tight press of bodies.
     “Ain’t you worried somebody’s gonna recognise you?”
     Harmony shrugged. “Let ’em. They couldn’t keep me out of Laputa. They can’t keep me out of here.” She glanced around as people crowded into the elevators up to the private conference room. Those who weren’t invited stayed behind looking desultory, drowning their sorrows in cocktails and canap├ęs. Then, nudging Rat, she said, “Did you see Hid– I mean, Kensei, in that crowd?”
     “No,” admitted Rat. “I don’t think he was there.”
     “He wasn’t. It’s weird, he should’ve attended his own reception.” She reached up inside her hood and rubbed her eyes. “Why were you making buddies with that Snake guy, anyway? You know he’s on Banshee’s crew?”
     “Is that a problem?”
     “Banshee isn’t what I’d call ‘nice people’,” she chuckled darkly. “He was the New IRA’s lead hacker for six years before we took over Ireland. Funny thing, they don’t advertise that little titbit anymore. Can’t say letting supposedly reformed terrorists onto the rankings ever sat well with me.”
     Rat whistled in appreciation. “Damn. Boy’s got credentials.”
     “Yeah. He’s definitely got those.”
     Their conversation paused as they packed into the elevator, shoulder to shoulder with a dozen other awkwardly silent people. Rat and Harmony went to opposite sides of the carriage and tried to look inconspicuous. One of the hackers had brought his prod up with him, a pretty blond girl in a denim miniskirt and see-through top, and she seemed to take delight in engineering ‘accidents’ where she ended up rubbing against every other body in reach. A momentary flash of surprise crossed her face when she bumped into Harmony. For a moment Harmony leaned close, as if whispering something. The girl went quiet and behaved herself until they arrived at the conference room.
     The place had been transformed since Rat last saw it. Completely blacked-out with pigmented windows, thermal sheeting and duct tape, there wasn’t a photon coming in from the outside. More of Hideo’s guys guarded the door. They searched anybody who set off the scanners, and kept out everyone who lacked an invite. Everyone who wasn’t important enough to warrant attending. The prod in the denim skirt stormed back to the elevator without her boyfriend, red rage and humiliation plain on her face.
     By the time Rat and Harmony entered the room, the headcount had dwindled to around forty people who could produce legitimate invites. Some of them were new faces to Rat, but she recognised Snake, and Jordy, and even a few of the more intense people gathered in a circle at the centre of the room. The Fifteen.
     Some of them wore simple business suits or casual stuff, hoodies and t-shirts, but those in unique costumes were instantly recognisable. Among others, Rat spotted a ninja, two vampires, a wolfman, a golden-crowned king and someone in traditional Japanese samurai armour. She could barely keep herself from staring all around her in bug-eyed awe. Half of these people were like Hideo, rulers of their very own Nations. This group could change the world.
     When she studied Banshee, though, she had to wonder. He was easily the tallest man in the room, built like a wrestler, with fierce blue eyes and a short crop of black hair. In a word, intimidating. His image was softened only by his expensive tailored suit — black, of course.
     And he didn’t look the slightest bit worried or clued-in that he was about to be accused of treason.
     “I count thirteen people in the circle,” Harmony whispered, taking up an empty spot along the curved wall. “Know who isn’t here?”
     Rat took a closer look and felt her heart sink straight into her shoes. “No Kensei,” she replied, “no Jock.”
     “Exactly, and I trust those two about as far as I can throw ’em. What the hell are they up to?”
     Just then the guards outside snapped to attention, and Hideo strode past them, gleaming from top to bottom in medieval plate armour. Metal rustled as he walked to his spot in the circle. He stood there like he owned the place. He did own the place, Rat had to remind herself, and he exuded the stiff confidence of a Japanese politician. After the whispers had settled down a bit, he took out an electronic writing pad and formally cleared his throat.
     “The ring is now in session,” he announced. The crowd went quiet to hear him speak.

***

     “Gentlemen. Friends. I’m sorry to keep you waiting, and for the short notice of this gathering,” Hideo began tersely, bowing low in the Japanese fashion. “I also regret to announce that Jock will not be joining us for this session. Something important has come up regarding this case, rendering him unable to attend.”
     “We have eyes and ears, Kensei,” someone muttered from the shadows, “just get to the point.”
     The temperature in the room plummeted as Hideo’s eyes swivelled in the direction of that voice. “What I’m about to tell you is far too sensitive for public channels. It concerns all of us, and its impact is far-reaching.” A cloud of holographic light sprang to life at a wave of his hand. It formed a large globe in the middle of the room, stuck full of hundreds and hundreds of glowing red pins. Most of them crowded around densely-populated areas around the world, particularly the Nations, as well as developed areas of the Federation. Hideo gave a thin smile. “This is a graphic representation of GlobeNet hotspots and backbone servers. Pretty normal, you might say. However . . .”
     Suddenly some of the pins in the globe turned green. More and more of them changed in a strange pattern, radiating outward from a single source, until nearly all had changed colour. “This is a representation of the same machines following some investigation by Jock and myself. The green pins are infection markers. We have evidence that they carry a new kind of zombie program the likes of which hasn’t been seen in over fifty years.”
     Acid resentment knotted in Rat’s stomach as Hideo failed to even mention her involvement. She bit her tongue to keep herself quiet, only to spit a thousand curses at him in her mind.
     She listened as Hideo laid it all out for them. The holographic emitter provided individual displays to each of the Fifteen, which Rat could just catch over the shoulder of the guy nearest to her, showing a full code analysis of the zombies and tentatively linking them to the blackouts across Europe. There was no mention of Gabriel, or Banshee, or the Chrome Rat. Not even in passing.
     Somebody stepped forward from the circle. “How was this evidence obtained?” he asked, and Rat saw it was the man in the grey ninja suit. Blue eyes peeked out through his mask and a few stray blond hairs stuck out from underneath. “With respect, Kensei, it’s difficult to take such a big claim seriously without more information.”
     “And who’s responsible?” shouted someone else.
     “The evidence was appropriated from a local data vault in Laputa. We accessed a backup of a high-security file from another vault.” Hideo looked around for any further questions, but no one spoke up. They believed him. “As for responsibility, I have reason to believe that someone in the Fifteen is either in control of these zombies, or working in tandem with the man who does.”
     He let the silence fall like an atom bomb. Everybody held their breath. The drop of a pin would’ve been deafening, and for a fleeting moment Rat thought she saw a smile on Hideo’s lips, aimed at Banshee. Banshee smiled back.
     There was a soft thump from outside, audible even through the thermal padding. Half a heartbeat later the windows erupted inwards in a cloud of broken glass. The people who stood there were ripped apart in an instant, or sucked out through the jagged, gaping hole. Light poured in while air rushed out of it, and Rat heard the chopping of helicopter rotors even as the muted rattle of machine gun fire tore through the room.
     More than half the Fifteen crumpled to the ground in pools of their own blood.
     She felt a hand on her shoulder, pulling her out of the path of the bullets, and she stumbled away at a clumsy run. She was faintly aware of Harmony’s voice shouting, “You’re with me! Come on!”
     People didn’t so much run as stampede for the elevators, a mass of panicked bodies with Rat and Harmony caught in the middle. The first carriage filled up and went, then the second. More and more of them tried to crowd inside, but there was no room. Rat recognised Jordy’s wide-eyed, blood-stained face as somebody kicked him out of the elevator and shut the doors in his face. He let out a wordless scream of despair, but it didn’t last long. A machine gun bullet blew his lungs out through his ribcage.
     “Stairs,” Rat panted and dove down the thin metal staircase next to the elevator shafts, holding on tight to Harmony’s hand. The steps were rickety, exposed, barely fit for purpose, but also the only chance Rat and Harmony were going to get.
     Tumbling down the steps, Rat gasped over the pounding of her heart, “Did you see . . . where Kensei and . . . Banshee went?”
     Harmony gulped down air and fell the last few feet to the conference hall floor, now clear except for a few confused stragglers. She hissed, “Don’t ask me! I fucking ran away!”
     “Where the hell are Kensei’s troops?!”
     “First you save your own skin, then you start asking questions!”
     They barrelled through the big doors into the main corridor for this floor, mostly devoid of traffic at this time of day, but full of kitschy shop fronts and flashy holograms to confound the eye. A few worried-looking souls had come out to wonder loudly about the explosions. Rat and Harmony ignored them, rounding the first corner, and then slowed down by some unspoken agreement. They wound down to a casual stroll as if nothing was wrong.
     Rat shook her head in a daze. The adrenaline rush faded away in a hurry, and the come-down hit her like a sandbag. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. She just wanted to break down and collapse, but she forced her legs to keep going though they felt heavy as old lead.
     “What the fuck just happened, Harm? What was that?” she babbled. Her tongue just rattled off words without any kind of thought. “I don’t understand. It don’t make any sense. One second Kensei was there talking and I blinked and everything just– Everything just . . .”
     “I don’t know. I’m guessing Hideo’s traitor saw it coming and came loaded.” Harmony stopped a moment, staring off into the distance, and put a hand on Rat’s shoulder. “This is bad, Alex. Nobody planned for this, nobody’s prepared. Not for a civil fucking war. Things are gonna get ugly real soon if we don’t do something.” She shuddered and shook her head as if to clear it. “I’ve gotta try and sort stuff out. Contact a few old friends if they’re still alive. You get to the hideout, you’ll be safe, and I’ll meet you there when I’ve got something.”
     She ran off before Rat could even begin to think of a protest. Rat’s fingers found the little key card in her pocket, still reeling. Then she took her hand away and headed for the nearest elevator going up to her floor.
     I don’t know where you’ve gone, Jock, she thought angrily, but I’m not sitting this one out. I’m gonna do something. Anything.
     The big red-painted bulk of a firefighting robot rolled past her in the street, powering along at breakneck speeds. She turned to watch it teeter round the corner to the conference hall. Little bit late, she added, and spat on the floor after it.
     Then the doors closed behind her, giving her a few precious minutes of privacy, and her armour cracked. She’d held her emotions in check, but now the cork came off the bottle, and everything came tumbling down on top of her. She sank to her knees and buried her face in her hands.
     Two dozen people had been torn apart in front of her, and all she felt was relief. Relief that it wasn’t her.
     The Chrome Rat began to sob quietly in the corner.

***

     The familiar sounds and smells of Shanghai rushed in on Bomber as he emerged from the train station. The air stank of stale sweat, oppressive and unmoved by wind. He tried to divide the soup of human experiences into individual stimuli, and identified them one by one. The angry beeping of ground cars stuck in traffic. Footsteps of grubby children running after each other. Cheap tofu frying on street corners. Pigeon droppings and dog piss. They were all there, and he hadn’t missed them.
     Behind him, the wedge-shaped maglev train swooshed away down its steel track, climbing up into the sky on big pylons of concrete. The only sound of its passing was a faint rush of air sliding over its top.
     “You used to live round this way, didn’t you?” Hawthorn remarked.
     Bomber’s lips drew back in what could charitably have been called a smile. “Yeah. I did.”
     He’d picked his old flat because it stood dead in the middle between the maglev station and the Emperor’s fortress. Covert, convenient, plenty of escape routes. Plenty of places to hide stuff.
     The walk didn’t take long. The apartment building’s big pink sign rose out of the smoky fog like a noisy grave marker from ancient times. Much to Bomber’s surprise, his old accessway had been blocked; the local government had boarded up the building next to the hotel and covered it in ‘condemned’ warning tape. Bomber stared at it. For the second time since he got the apartment, he was going to have to use the front door.
     It was a mess when they got to Bomber’s floor. The door lay in pieces in the middle of the living room. The Russian goons had kicked it down and left it after a quick ransacking. This being the City, the place had been promptly robbed of everything that was or wasn’t bolted down. Blank walls stared back at them. No more kitchen, no more bathroom; they’d stripped it down to the plumbing.
     Hawthorn looked around and whistled. “When these guys burgle you, they don’t mess around.”
     “Yep,” said Bomber. He knelt by the utility meter in the kitchen, just about the only thing still attached. It was a square grey box with a small flashing screen that informed him his water bill was overdue. He dug his fingernails under the loose screws in the casing and pulled them out one by one.
     “What have you got in there? Credit chips? Fake IDs?”
     Allowing himself a thin smile, Bomber ripped the case off the meter and threw it over his shoulder. “Not exactly.”
     His fingers reached under the pile of fragile electronics, strained a little against the tangle of wires, and finally closed on a soft plastic handle. With as much care and delicacy as he could manage, he wrenched it free of the meter’s guts and pulled it out, then held it up to admire it.
     “Oh, shit,” breathed Hawthorn. “You kept it.”
     Bomber nodded, drinking in the sleek black shape of the pistol. It was almost shark-like in appearance, with heat exchangers as fins and air intakes that formed long black gills along its muzzle. “It was the only useful thing out of my emergency kit that still worked. The Feds weren’t gonna come lookin’. As far as they know, I crashed straight to the bottom of the ocean.”
     “If I remember right, and I do, the Feds don’t look too kindly on unlicenced laser fire in their territory. Especially in the City.”
     He rubbed the tiny scar on his scalp, a memento of his brief stay in Federal care. “Fed law is the least of my worries, Hawk. I got a lot to pay ’em back for. So do you.”
     That affected Hawthorn somehow; he broke eye contact, clenching his jaw. Bomber couldn’t tell if it was simple grief for the family he’d lost, or something else entirely. Something didn’t feel right.
     “Don’t you, Hawk?” he pressed, watching him closely.
     Hawthorn snapped out of it in an instant, took control of himself and looked at Bomber with a level expression. “Yeah,” he said. “I do.”
     “Something wrong?”
     “Not at all. Have we got everything here? Where are we going next?”
     Glancing around the empty apartment, then at the laser in his hand, Bomber nodded to himself. There was nothing left for him here. That life belonged to Simon Caine, and he no longer existed. Bomber didn’t want it anymore.
     “We’re goin’ to a bar,” he said. He jammed the pistol deep in his pocket and headed outside. He didn’t look back.

***

     A three-headed Chinese dragon squirmed above the pub door, flickering slightly where dust particles interfered with the projection. Its heads were perpetually frozen in a huge roar, but the body behind them undulated from side to side with scaly, snake-like grace. Two Mandarin sentences spun around the dragon and intersected at clever angles so that their meanings changed at several points along their revolution.
     Bomber had always liked the sign. Right now it read, Good luck and happiness come to those who bury the bodies carefully.
     He nudged Hawthorn in the ribs and pointed at the individual heads of the dragon. “Three heads. Triad place. Watch yourself, okay?”
     “Why? What have you got to do with the Triads?”
     “Used to do odd jobs for a guy called the Emperor. People know not to fuck with me. You, they’ve never met before.”
     “Jake, I’ve been fighting and dodging Feds for the past ten years. I’ll be okay.”
     That was a solid argument, Bomber had to admit. Certain people might be more dangerous in a fight, but they were only individuals; there were around two hundred full Constables stationed in the City alone, plus hardware, and several thousand junior Constables. Add to that the Federation’s massive intelligence network and Hawthorn’s credentials started to look good by sole dint of him still being alive.
     Bomber shoved his way through the door and strode past the steroid-enlarged bouncer without even looking at him, trusting Hawthorn to follow his lead. The rectangle of fake wood thudded closed behind them. Bustling out of the little cloakroom, they entered the bar itself, and Bomber listened as the conversation in the room came to an abrupt halt. The bartender took one miserable look and started to take the cups and glasses off the counter, whether they were empty or not.
     The design of the bar showed just how much a good decorator could do with green, red and brown. Lots of wood stained to look ancient, fake paper walls backed by brick or concrete, antique copper taps raided from some older pub. Endless strings of dim paper lanterns hung from the rafters, throwing tasteful light over everything.
     The silence deepened when Bomber strode further inside. All the normal bustle had stopped dead, reduced to a hundred hostile eyes staring at him. He did his best to ignore their looks, as best as his automatic threat-search would allow it, and scanned the crowd for anyone he recognised.
     Bingo, he thought, homing in on one particular face. Bomber takes the fucking jackpot.
     He crossed the floor to a large table tucked away against the far wall of the bar. He leaned over it casually and looked his man dead in the eye.
     “How ya doin’, Stoney?” he said with an unpleasant smile. “Not watchin’ the door anymore, huh?”
     The still-faced Chinese man in front of him rested his elbows on the table and shook out his waist-length black hair. A big scar marked his face that hadn’t been there before, a long pink trail going up one cheek and into the forehead, like a cut or a glancing blow from a bullet. One blind, milky-white eye stared from the scarred socket. It was basic damage, he could have easily gotten a cybernetic replacement, but Bomber remembered the Triads were always a bit funny about gangland honour. It might be some kind of punishment.
     The man inclined his head a few millimetres. “Mr. Simon. I thought you were dead.”
     “Not yet. The Emperor is, though. He went rabid and I had to put him down.”
     Three of the man’s companions slid their chairs back and reached for weapons, but Bomber was faster. He slapped the nearest gun out of the way, kicked its owner in the crotch, and pulled the laser from its hidden pocket over his stomach, shoving it up the second gangster’s nose. The third one might have been a problem, but Hawthorn curled an arm around the poor man’s throat and jerked tight in one smooth movement. Hawthorn’s free hand caught the knife coming for him, then twisted it calmly out of the choking man’s grasp.
     Staring up at the spectacle from his chair, Stoney never moved a muscle. He said, “The Emperor is no longer our concern. We have a new lord here, and I am his right-hand man.”
     “Good to see you moving up in the world,” Bomber scoffed, finger on the trigger. “We should have a drink sometime, reminisce about the old days.”
     Stoney’s calm brown eyes swept to the laser gun, then back to Bomber’s face. “You’ve changed, Simon,” he noted, the slightest edge of surprise to his voice. “When did you start to care about anything?”
     The moment suddenly lost its tension. By some unspoken agreement, they’d reached a mutual truce, and the gasping man sagged out of Hawthorn’s grip. Bomber and the other gangster lowered their guns at the same time, hiding them back where they came from. Even the one on the floor settled down to a low whimper.
     Bomber slid into a now-empty chair and leaned his elbows on the table. “A lot of things have changed, Stoney. Stuff’s gonna be goin’ down in the City, and I want the Triads aware, maybe even involved.” He threw a meaningful glance over his shoulder at Hawthorn. “Some friends and I are going after the guy responsible for bombing your old base. Who sent the Russians into your territory, and left you vulnerable to the Yakuza. We thought you might want in on the action.”
     “You’ve got a funny way of asking for help, Mr. Simon,” Stoney said, steepling his fingers under his nose.
     “So I’m told. Are you in or out?”
     “If I find your claims to be verifiable,” he answered sharply, “then I might be able to talk to my lord on your behalf. However, I do not think he would consider it a worthy use of our time and resources. If he says no . . .” He exchanged hard glances and silent nods with his men. “Officially, my hands are tied.”
     Bomber gave him a shrewd little smile. “And unofficially?”
     Turning even grimmer than usual, Stoney touched the still-fresh scar on his face, then clenched his fingers into a fist. He hissed, “Unofficially, I have a few scores left to settle.”
     And that was exactly what Bomber wanted to hear.

***

     “Charming people,” said Hawthorn as he shut the bar door behind them, leaving him alone with Bomber and the City lights. Fresh pavement crunched under their feet as they walked. Where to, nobody had decided yet. “We should throw them a dinner party sometime. Have all the nice gangsters round.”
     Bomber grunted, hands in his pockets, watching his feet move one step at a time. With the job done his manic mood had worn off; now he was turning over plans in his head with a kind of morose persistence. It was mostly a matter of matching up resources and tactics with his memories of the airship and Gabriel’s profile. Anything that he knew wouldn’t work, he discarded. Anything that might conceivably stand a chance, he filed away at the back of his brain for later use.
     He said, “They’ll come in handy. Sometimes you don’t get to pick and choose your allies.”
     “Now you sound like Sarah.”
     “Don’t,” Bomber warned.
     “Suit yourself. By the way, we found something for you. It’s not great, but you can’t expect miracles on this kind of notice.”
     He held out a writing pad. It flashed up wireframe drawings of a truly ugly helicopter, an old Recommunist gunship stamped together out of car body panels and sheet steel. Unusually, though, most of the original armament looked intact. That was promising at least.
     “She’ll fly,” he added.
     “Great. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
     Hawthorn chewed his lip. “She’s still on your mind, isn’t she?”
     A cold wind blew through Bomber’s heart, and he shifted his head sideways a fraction to catch Hawthorn out of the corner of his eye. “I’m not gonna tell you again, Hawk.”
     “You aren’t the only one who cares, Jake. I never knew what happened to any of you until you showed up and told me. Jamie was my friend.”
     He clamped his teeth together so hard his jaw went white. Clenched fists trembled in his pockets, but he kept walking, silent as a fresh-dug grave.
     “Honestly I don’t give two shits whether you like me or not,” Hawthorn went on stubbornly. “I told you I wanted to talk. I was there, I’m not just going to let them fade away by never speaking of them again. It’d be an insult to their memories. Sarah wouldn’t have wanted that.”
     He knew he’d made a mistake as the words left his mouth. Even with his own boosts he never saw Bomber move, there was just a blur and a feeling of acceleration. The next moment Hawthorn hit the wall, the air knocked out of him, feet dangling off the ground. One irresistibly powerful hand pinned him against the concrete just by sheer pressure. The other was stopped in mid-punch an inch away from his throat. Bomber shook visibly, face pale, and read the fear in Hawthorn’s eyes.
     “Don’t you ever talk about Sarah again,” he whispered, and let go.
     Hawthorn fell to his knees coughing, and gasped, “Because nobody hurts more than you do, right, Jake?” He tested his ribs for any serious injuries, and stood up with deliberate slowness to glower at Bomber. “Go on. Blame me for it. Blame me for everything, I don’t mind, ’cause I wish I’d gone with you, Jake. I fucking wish I had. And I’ll tell you something else. Jamie was more than my friend. Do you get that, or do I have to spell it out for you?”
     The words sank in slowly. Bomber stood there in silence for a long time, before turning away and heading back down the street. Hawthorn caught him up in a few steps, stubbornly keeping pace beside him. There was no way the subject was going to get dropped. Until Bomber’s phone went off.
     He dug it out of his pocket, glanced at the little holographic screen, and went for the answer button in a hurry. The word ‘JOCK’ flashed up a few more times before the call connected.
     “What’s up, Jock?” he said into the little plastic stick.
     The voice on the other end dripped with acid sarcasm. “Oh, that’s fucking inspired, Simon. How long did it take you to come up with that one? I expect it was the product of several months’ hard thinking, at least.”
     “Get to the point or get off the phone,” Bomber rasped. He’d already used up too much of his patience.
     “You asked me to call you with anything important. I’ve been tracking Gabriel’s AI across GlobeNet for the last few days. It’s been casting all over the place, but activity suddenly stopped after it pulled up a street address in Hunan district. The details are in your mailbox. Either he gave up or he found what he was looking for.”
     Bomber flicked the hologram over and checked. The information was already there, as promised, and he couldn’t help an appreciative hum. “Damn. You’ve been earnin’ your keep for a change, Jock.”
     “Oh, that’s not everything. I also got you a tentative lead on Gina.” Jock preened, all too pleased with himself. “Underground sources say there was a scuffle in Odessa a few days ago, some shots exchanged between independent aircraft and a Federation task force. There was a girl involved, no clear identification. All video and satellite imagery has been put under lockdown by Federal order.”
     “Federal order? That stinks to high heaven.” He shook his head. “How does havin’ the Feds on her back do anything for us?”
     “Number one, I couldn’t get the old video, but I did manage to run a satellite trace on that group of jarheads. They’re heading into the City like they got a purpose. Number two, if they’re going after her, then they already know where she is.”
     “Any clue as to their destination or ETA?”
     “The best I can tell you is a day or two, depending on where in the City they’re going. They could make any number of course corrections between now and then.”
     “Okay, thanks. That’ll give me something to work with. In the meantime I’m gonna need–“
     Jock coughed to interrupt him. “Simon, I gotta run. There’s a lot of stuff going down in Laputa right now and I can’t hang out on the phone. Don’t bother calling me, I’ll contact you again later. Jock out.”
     The call cut off with a hurried click, and Bomber was left staring at a wall, fuming silently. That was unusual for Jock. Worrying. He slipped the phone back where it came from and grunted.
     “Bad news?” asked Hawthorn.
     “Maybe. Don’t know yet. Either way, there’s work waitin’ for us in Hunan.”
     The phone vibrated in his pocket to announce the arrival of a new message. Bomber turned and started walking again, back to the train station, with Hawthorn in tow. There was no time to waste.
     Thankfully, the Major kept his mouth shut for the rest of the trip.

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