Her twelfth call to Jock — this hour — rang out. Rat winced as she flicked the phone shut. No way of telling if Jock was dead, incapacitated, or not bothering to pick up. Even Hideo wasn’t returning her calls. She didn’t want to give up hope until she knew for sure, but it was getting harder by the minute.
     About fifty other people in the cafe had their phones out too, calling friends or family or trying to hammer information out of GlobeNet. Nobody knew for sure what had happened. The meeting of the Fifteen had all been in total secret, so the only available fact was that three floors of that hotel had gone up in smoke. Rat couldn’t even remember the name of the place.
     Abandoned by everyone she knew, she sat and wallowed in her own self-pity. A holographic newscast flashed along the wall, providing live coverage of the hotel attack to the Laputan public without any actual facts. Some too-skinny reporter blathered away on the street and occasionally stopped people to ‘interview’ them for some hollow, meaningless soundbites. Rat hated it, but couldn’t work up the energy to look away.
     Until she noticed the big skinhead limping past the camera in the background, his long trenchcoat ripped and full of holes, a strange manic grin plastered across his face. Tattoos curled all around his throat where it poked up above his collar. It was Snake, and by the way he walked, he was hiding some serious hurt under his clothes.
     “Fuck!” she shouted, jumping out of her chair. Several heads turned at her outburst, but she didn’t even notice as she ran into the street. She knew where that report was being ‘casted. If she hurried, she might be able to catch him up.
     A long run and four sets of steps later, she burst into the lower street and searched the direction where Snake had been going. Little clues showed her the way through the twisty alleys of Laputa; torn pieces of leather, gobs of red-flecked spit, and fainter traces. Then she found a trail, smudged bootprints left in dried blood. She followed after.
     She finally stumbled on him in the porch of some backstreet flat block, sitting propped up against a door. His eyelids were closed but fluttered open at the sound of her approach. A glassy stare swivelled around to fix on her, and his grip tightened on some weapon hidden under his coat. “What do you want?” he challenged. Then he actually recognised her and softened a little. “Oh, hey, kid. What’re you doing here?”
     “I don’t know anymore, man,” she said, her voice shaking a little more than intended. “I was there when it all went down. You’re the only other person I’ve seen since. Don’t know who else made it out alive.” She felt her mouth shaping a desperate smile. “Right now you look like you need a friend about as much as I do.”
     She knelt down to examine him. He let her peel away the layers of clothing one by one, down to the jagged chunk of steel protruding from the pulpy flesh of his side. Rat didn’t know much about anatomy but, as she understood things, it didn’t seem to have hit anything vital. It just bled a hell of a lot. A red puddle had gathered at the bottom of his left hip, growing larger and larger.
     “I’ll be okay,” he grunted. “Help me get back up.”
     “We gotta get you to a doctor, Snake. Somebody’s gotta patch this hole!”
     He gripped her shoulder with a bloody hand. “Banshee will know someone we can trust. That’s where we need to go. You get me to him, kid, and I’ll sponsor you myself.”
     “You’re not gonna sponsor anyone if you’re dead,” she pointed out.
     “Then you better make sure I come home alive.” Grinning, he struggled to get up with only one hand, the other clutching his side as tight as he could. Rat helped him to his feet and gave him a shoulder to lean on. He was every bit as heavy as he looked.
     A few simple directions got them moving again, always through dark and secluded alleys, crossing the main streets only where they had to. Not that they saw any of Hideo’s troops around. There was nothing resembling law and order on these streets, and once the truth got out about the Fifteen, there were going to be riots. Proper fucking riots, like you used to get in the City before the Feds quelled all resistance.
     She thought about Federation uniforms strolling down the streets of Laputa, weapons drawn, and felt a shiver creep up her spine.
     Then Snake passed out on top of her. It was like having a big sack of potatoes dumped on her head, and her knees buckled. She couldn’t lift the guy. Hitting the floor, she just managed to push him off to the side. He hit with a meaty thud and lay motionless in the middle of the dreary alley. She swore out loud and slapped him hard in the face, several times, until he came round again.
     “Don’t do that to me!” she shouted at him, kicking him back up. He mumbled something unintelligible, then collapsed again. Sweat streamed down her forehead and her arms shook from the effort. She just couldn’t do any more for him.
     She finally asked, “What the hell happened back at the hotel, Snake? Who owned those copters? Was Banshee involved?”
     “Don’t know,” he whispered back. “Should ask him yourself.”
     “I will, if I ever get the chance!” She threw up her hands in frustration. “I can’t fucking carry you, you big bastard! What am I supposed to do now?!”
     He smiled. “Don’t worry, kid. You’re with Snake. You got friends.”
     “Friends like who?”
     The answer came in the form of a syringe jabbing into the side of her neck. Cold liquid pumped into her carotid artery, numbness radiating out from the needle like a candle flame. She couldn’t even begin to struggle. Her voice caught in her throat. On the inside she screamed over and over for her limbs to move, but they refused. She could only sit and watch paralysed as two hooded shapes pulled Snake into the shadows.
     Then the drugs kicked in, washing over her in a tidal wave of pure euphoria, and for a while the Chrome Rat no longer cared about anything or anyone.

***

     Hanging on to consciousness by her fingernails, she was aware of hands carrying her somewhere, but that was all. She couldn’t think or process sights, sounds, smells. The artificial joy subsided too slowly. Anything could have happened in those seconds, minutes, hours, all sense of time blown away on the wind.
     A second injection stabbed into her. It brought her around quickly, riding on a rush of adrenaline. Her heart pounded and her eyes fluttered open nervously to the sight of a human face, unfamiliar, blurry and distorted. She lay on the floor. The room was dark and bare, save for the few shafts of yellow light spilling in from a distant doorway.
     “Don’t make any sudden moves,” said a voice, and the lips moved to match. A straw found its way into her mouth and she sucked up a hit of sugary soda. “That’s not a threat, just some advice to save you a bad headache. Slow and easy does it.”
     Rat groaned, pushing herself up into a sitting position. Everything was still attached. She blinked a few times to clear her vision and, wetting her lips with her tongue, focussed on the woman’s face. She struggled to place her, but not for long. Memory came crashing back along with her ability to think about what was happening to her.
     “Hey! You’re–“
     “Nobody whatsoever,” the woman interrupted sharply. “You don’t know me, I don’t know you, and unless you’d like Banshee to cut your tits off, neither of us knows Harmony Kohler. He’s on his way down. Don’t fuck up.”
     The light in the doorway flickered, and a pair of heavy boots thudded down the metal steps. The huge, hunched shape of Ryan ‘Banshee’ O’Doherty pulled up a chair out of the darkness, straddling it as he stared down at Rat. His suit jacket was gone, replaced by a tight tank top that exposed the heavy golden crucifix chained around his neck. Those uncompromising eyes studied her for an eternity, and a little voice inside her went, Oh, shit.
     Hesitantly, the woman asked, “How is he?”
     “With the Doctor. In a coma.” Banshee coolly wiped his hands on a towel, then chucked it into a corner. “He might wake up, or he might not.”
     The words sank in coldly. A horrible hollow feeling rose in the pit of Rat’s stomach. Her fingers went numb, her teeth started to chatter, and she sucked at the straw to keep her brain from wandering. She didn’t want to think it had all been in vain.
     “Shit,” she said at last.
     “You did a good thing,” Banshee told her, while the woman packed up her medical kit and hid herself in the shadows. His deep voice tickled Rat’s ears with a pronounced Irish lilt. “If you hadn’t dragged him all this way, he’d be dead already. At least now he’s got a chance.”
     Rat husked, “I guess I should be thankful for that.”
     “Yeah. He and I were in prison together. We go back a long time.” He grunted and lit up a cigarette, adding, “So now I get to figure out what in God’s name to do with you. Snake made me promise not to blow your brains out. That complicates things, you understand.”
     A bit of the old fire flared up inside Rat. “I’m touched,” she deadpanned. “No, really. Thanks for possibly not murdering me.”
     “You got a mouth on you. I don’t suppose you know anything about that business at the meeting?” Staring coolly over the lit end of his cigarette, he seemed to read the answer on her face, and his stormy eyebrows dipped even lower. Red rage boiled behind those eyes. Rat began to understand.
     “Everybody’s gonna think it was you.”
     “Of course they’re gonna think it was us!” he hissed through his teeth, clenching his jaw like a vice. “Kensei’s set us up good and proper. When the fingers start pointing, they always land on the man with the terrorism sheet. That’s people being people. That’s why we’re not running for the nearest airpad. Because anyone associated with me is going to get caught and dragged at gunpoint in front of some kangaroo court, or put down like dogs ‘resisting arrest’. I know, because that’s what I’d do if I were in his position.”
     “So you’re sure Kensei made it out alive?” she asked.
     “No. I’m sure he was never there in the first place.” He calmed down a bit, and made a think-about-it gesture. “Kensei chose the venue. Nobody saw him until the moment he entered the meeting room. The room with the big holoprojector in the middle. He’s played us all for fools.”
     Banshee’s reasoning ground onwards with impeccable logic, but Rat wasn’t ready to believe it. She knew Hideo, sort-of. He was ruthless in his own way, but this? This was on another level.
     Shaking her head, she argued, “Maybe you’re right, but Kensei doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d hose down a room full of people with a machine gun.”
     “Oh, he’s got the stones to deal with things that get in his way. Take Razorblade. He did a real number on her.”
     In hindsight she shouldn’t have been surprised, but she was. It was tough to hide it. She just about managed to pick up her jaw and stumbled into a riposte of, “So? I hear you deal pretty hard with things that get in your way, Banshee.”
     “Mm.” Banshee stood up and shrugged into a thick armoured vest, worn smooth by long years of use, the pock-marks of fresh bullets clearly visible on its surface. “You’re free to go, kid. Don’t bother trying to find us again. We won’t be here.”
     And he left, just like that. The woman followed after him without a word. Only once did she throw a glance back at Rat, and in the dim light of the doorway she did not look happy. Not happy at all.
     The room emptied out. The Chrome Rat sat alone on a rough blanket, thinking. She had a lot of unique new information to process. Whether she believed it was something to decide later, but information — any information — was power. She believed that more than anything. So she checked her pocket for her mobile phone and smiled at the little blinking LED at the top. A single tap turned the light off. The voice recorder stopped along with it, saving its data to storage.
     The only thing left to decide now was how much she was going to lie to Harmony.

***

     She knew Jock would never believe it. Not from his old college buddy. That’s why he never suspected anything, why he let himself get suckered into going silent while something like this played out. Rat recognised the elegant simplicity of the ploy. It would take some shred of backbone to defy Hideo’s orders and contact her, which would be more than Jock could muster.
     It was an utterly ruthless and effective plan. Divide and conquer, remove all the potential obstacles, and take control in the confusion. She just couldn’t work out why. All the fingers pointed to Hideo, but what was his motive?
     The needle marks on her neck ached. She couldn’t resist rubbing them as she skulked towards the alley with the trap-door, nor to glance at every info screen she passed. Apparently Hideo was getting ready to host a press conference within the hour. His people were tight-lipped about what took him so long, and he’d still made no attempt to get in touch. That suggested she’d been cut loose, but she didn’t know what to think anymore, or how much she believed of Banshee’s story. Only one thing was obvious. More than half the Fifteen were dead, which left a power vacuum so big that anyone would struggle to fill it, but there were three people in an ideal position to take advantage.
     Banshee, Kensei, or Harmony. One of them was in Gabriel’s pocket, but which one?
     A lot of Laputan uniforms were coming out of the woodwork after their conspicuous absence. It didn’t do much for the atmosphere. Hackers tended not to trust authority at the best of times, and as details of the hotel attack began to filter out into the wider world, things were turning ugly. Rat could taste it in the air.
     She unlocked the trap door with a wave of Harmony’s card, went down the ladder, and made her way to the lair.
     The changes were hard to miss. Every room and passage buzzed with activity, people — women, Rat corrected herself — going to and fro, probably moving in and out of different hidden exits. They were all ferrying information to the VR team, who input everything with a few gestures and lip movements and then tried to predict what would happen in Laputa’s very near future. An old holoprojector threw several flickering newsfeeds onto the walls. They all ran the same story in slightly different ways, slightly different biases. Some even showed blurry video of the attack, which looked nothing like what had really happened. Just a shoddy holosim thrown together on the fly and sold off by some quick-thinking hacker. Rat admired a man who could think on his feet.
     “Hey, where’s Harmony?” she asked to the nearest face she recognised. The woman shook her head and passed her by.
     Rat smirked. If Mohammed would not come to the mountain, then the mountain must go to Mohammed.
     She went to the VR rig and tapped the shoulder of the girl in the straps. When the girl’s goggles turned clear to look at her, Rat said, “I’m here to relieve you. You deserve a break by now.”
     “Don’t I know it,” the girl sighed. “Help me out, would you?”
     Together they got the straps undone in a few seconds, and Rat helped to rub some life back into her joints before suiting herself up. It wasn’t the most comfortable ride without all the extra gear, but sometimes you just had to make do.
     She burst onto Main Street with a mission in mind. There was always a comms aggregator next to the entrance, and she pulled it up to fill her field of vision. In one sweep of her arm she selected every network, every message board, every casting list a normal person could reach, and even a few she shouldn’t have been able to use at all. Then she threw the message to the winds of the ‘Net, which would take it across the world in less than a second. Nothing alive could miss a cast of that magnitude.
     She made herself comfortable in one of the old places she liked to hang out, a hacker bar as far off Main Street as you could get, and sat listening to the gossip until someone got back to her. She kept her fingers crossed the whole time that it would be Jock.
     It didn’t take five minutes for Harmony to pop into existence next to her. She wore a cartoon avatar, a skinny woman made of flat solid colours and pencil marks rendered in three dimensions. It made her more than a little unreal as she rounded on Rat with narrowed, cross-hatched eyes.
     “That was really stupid,” she said. One tiny twiddle of her thumbs wiped all trace of Rat’s message from the face of the ‘Net. “What do you want?”
     “Thought you might wanna know, I just had a really interesting meeting with a guy called Banshee. He wanted to talk to me. I met someone else, too, who looked really familiar for some reason.” Rat smiled and watched Harmony’s expression change through several stages, all of them unhappy. “That why you warned me off?”
     “I warned you off ’cause he’s a dangerous lunatic. You get caught up with him, you’re gonna land yourself in a meat grinder.” Harmony sighed. “Look, Alex, you’re a smart kid. I’m not even gonna ask how you got into my machine or how you learned to use VR this well. You got the makings of a pretty good hacker — or you would if you had a cock, right? Well, I’m pretty fucking tired of that. Things are gonna change, I promise you, and this is our opportunity to take the Nations back and make them into what they were always supposed to be. I’d like you on my side.” She took a long look across Main Street. Everywhere, people hustled and bustled and carried on, oblivious to their world rapidly changing around them. She scoffed a little. “This place is way overdue for some revolution.”
     Rat hesitated. She didn’t stop to think very often, but this time she really had to examine her knee-jerk impulse to say no. She didn’t trust Harmony, not completely. But then, had she ever had a reason to trust Hideo? Or Jock? Had they really delivered on any of their promises or just used her when she was convenient?
     Swallowing, she whispered, “I . . . I like the sound of that.”
     “Great,” Harmony said gently. “I’ll see you in a few minutes. We’re about to start things off.”
     “Something big?”
     “You bet. Keep your eye on the news.”
     Harmony disappeared in a puff of smoke. Hurriedly, Rat dragged up a load of Laputan newscasts and pinned them in front of her. They were all getting ready for Hideo’s press conference. A few cameras still stuck to the rubble of the hotel and the confused stories emerging from it, but they were shutting off one by one.
     “The press conference?” she said, and her breath caught in her throat as watched the flashing screens.

***

     “Stand by for the King of Laputa,” said the petite woman behind the podium. It was almost impossible to tell that she was a hologram, her prim grey business suit creasing and folding in all the right places. She retreated a few paces backwards and stood rigid at the back of the room while Kensei walked in.
     Rat frowned as she watched him, her viewpoint from the VR captor as good as being there in person. The King of Laputa took to the podium without fanfare, all business in a blue designer suit and tie, and tapped a sheet of digital paper against the wood-effect plastic. The entire assembly of journalists waited breathlessly for him to speak. Even in VR, Rat could feel the thick, oppressive atmosphere in the room.
     “There has been an attempt on my life,” Kensei said in a near-mechanical tone of voice, “and though unsuccessful, it has claimed the lives of several other National leaders and important figures who were present in Laputa today. I have just been given a list of casualties. The news may horrify you, as it has horrified me.”
     He took a deep breath, then read off the names one by one. The presidents of Luxembourg and Puerto Rico. The chief of Trinidad. The two consuls of Elysium. In a flash, more than half the Hacker Nations were made leaderless.
     “This was an unprovoked act of terrorism, of political assassination, with the possible intent of staging a violent coup. We do not currently know the identity of the perpetrators, but a full investigation is under way, and we are tracking several suspects. We will not rest until those responsible are made to answer for what they’ve done.
     “To that end, I am declaring a global state of emergency under my Charter rights, compelling me to assume direct control of Nations left without leadership in this time of crisis. This action has already been ratified by a majority of the surviving council. We’re working very closely with the appropriate governments to make sure everything goes as smooth as possible. We all have to work together until this threat is behind us.”
     His eyes swept sternly across the room, and Rat couldn’t help but notice his dilated pupils and the tightness of the skin around his face. Most people wouldn’t recognise those symptoms, at least people who hadn’t spent much of their lives out on the street. Rat did, though. He was stimmed to the gills and desperate for the conference to be over with. He asked, “Are there any questions?”
     “Cedric Morgan, The National Interest,” announced a large, ebony-skinned man. “Do you expect this is the first in a spate of attacks? Are the people in the streets at risk of further violence?”
     “I would like to stress that our people have nothing to fear. Governmental guards will be posted in public places to help maintain order and coordinate law enforcement for the duration of this emergency, equipped with both lethal and non-lethal methods and trained to respond appropriately to any situation. Thank you.”
     Someone else rose up in a waterfall of long black hair, shrugging elegant shoulders inside a tight, tailored red blazer. “Lucy Hong, Prime Time News. Sir, it’s clear this attack took place during some kind of meeting of National leaders, one that you yourself attended, but nothing of the sort was announced to public channels or even to the hotel staff. What was the aim of the meeting?”
     “I’m sorry, Ms. Hong, but I can’t divulge classified information. Who’s next?”
     “Alex Kanoussa, The Little Laputan. Since word of this attack reached GlobeNet, there have been positively thousands of discussions about reported survivor Ryan ‘Banshee’ O’Doherty, the current High King of Ireland. We all know that, before Ireland joined the Nations, Mr. O’Doherty was an infamous cyberterrorist responsible for acts of sabotage that claimed dozens of lives. Do you suspect Irish involvement in today’s violence?”
     “As I said, we are tracking several suspects, but we have so far been unable to confirm anything. I have time for two more questions.”
     “Sir, Lucy Hong again.” The room seemed to quiet down a little, as if lots of people around the room were paying attention to that voice. Much as she tried, Rat couldn’t get a good look at the speaker. “We’ve had reports that the attack was carried out by a helicopter gunship firing into the hotel. Of course, I checked with air traffic control to see if they found anything out of the ordinary, but according to traffic logs the only armed craft in the vicinity belonged to the Laputan Royal Guard. Would you like to comment?”
     An audible hush fell as everyone waited for Kensei to respond. He worked hard to conceal his anger, speaking through gritted teeth. “Thank you, Ms. Hong. We have reason to believe that the craft involved was using advanced stealth technology to avoid detection. Anyone else?”
     “Sir!” The same voice, too sweet, too chipper. “Would you also not care to address rumours that you had heavy-duty holoprojection units installed in the function room? That none of the staff, including the guard at the door, remembers you entering or leaving the hotel this morning? That you may have engineered this scenario for your own benefit?”
     Silence fell like a lead weight. Kensei clenched his jaw so hard his cheeks went pale. It was now an obvious struggle to control himself before the eyes of millions of worried Laputans. He finally rasped, “That’ll be all for now, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for coming. We’ll keep you updated as best we can.”
     He exited the stage while the room behind him erupted into a storm of shouted questions, of demands for an explanation. Rat dismissed her array of newscasts and sucked in air. She’d been holding her breath without even knowing it. A blip of lag rippled across her vision, the tiniest hesitation in the smooth running of Main Street, as millions of people burst into conversation all over the world.
     “Not bad, huh?” Harmony’s voice chuckled triumphantly behind Rat. The older woman materialised with a sadistic smile across her lips. “We fired the first shot. This’ll come back to haunt him.”
     “That newscaster was one of your people?”
     “We have supporters everywhere, Alex. This isn’t an organisation. It’s a movement.”
     “Hold on, hold on,” Rat said, trying to make sense of things in her head, “do you actually think Kensei ordered that attack himself?”
     Harmony shrugged. “Don’t know, don’t care. When you’re taking on a giant, you gotta use every weapon you can get your hands on. We’re going to weaken him and wear him down bit by bit until he’s ready to go over.”
     “Right. Yeah. You’re right.” Swallowing, Rat tried not to think about the consequences. Nor did she want to analyse the curious similarities between Harmony’s accusations and the ones Banshee had made a few hours ago.
     “Hey, Alex, I gotta go. I’ll talk to you later, you can help us make our next move.” She gave Rat a friendly pat on the shoulder. “Seeya. Keep your eyes and ears open for anything else we could use.”
     A mumbled something escaped the corners of Rat’s mouth, but Harmony was already gone.
     The uncomfortable reality began to dawn on her. Either she was going to help ruin Hideo and everyone close to him, or stab Harmony in the back and say goodbye to her ambitions.
     In for a penny, in for a pound, right? she thought uncertainly, and disconnected.

***

     There was a hired car waiting for them outside Hunan train station. Bomber took the pilot’s seat without preamble, turned off the autodrive, and took off with as much engine noise and tire squeal as the little electric thing could manage.
     “Listen, Jake–” Hawthorn began, but to no avail.
     “Keep your mind on the job, Major. That’s all you should be doin’ right now.”
     That seemed to get the point across. With a long sigh of frustration, Hawthorn set to work checking their little arsenal, making sure each barrel was clean and every magazine fully loaded. It kept him busy, and the fewer words exchanged between them at this point, the better.
     The drive led them into the posh neighbourhoods at the heart of Hunan. It was easy to tell the difference by the open patches of healthy grass, the ordered rows of upmarket shops, the tasteful public sculptures and cherry trees blossoming artificially. Tower blocks didn’t exist here. Everyone lived in walled, gated villas armed with state-of-the-art security, little fortresses against the ugly reality of the world outside.
     Jock’s address turned out to be one of the smaller, more defensive places in the area. Its yellow plastered walls were topped with concertina razorwire, patrolled by full-fledged guard robots armed with shock guns, tear gas and rubber bullets. The house itself was a nightmare of art deco architecture, a vomit-yellow shape made entirely of pointless sweeps, curves and arches, an amorphous mass of concrete that someone had decided to paint over and put windows in. Wavy patterns decorated the edges of every window, pillar and doorframe in sight.
     A cartoonishly attractive holographic head flashed into existence as they pulled up outside the gate, a cheap automated greeter built around pleasant baritone voice. “May I ask who’s calling, please?” it asked in polite tones. Then it repeated the request in Mandarin and Conglom, and tried three more languages before Bomber lost his patience and barked at it.
     “Who lives here?” he snapped.
     “The occupier of this property has requested any details to remain private, as per Federal Statute Seventy-Six–“
     “I get it! Is there anyone else at the premises right now?”
     “A small party of visitors arrived by motor vehicle approximately twenty minutes ago. They have not yet left.”
     “Thanks. We’ll be back.”
     Bomber reversed around a corner and parked the car at speed, wrenching a high-pitched scream from the tires. He threw open his door, dashed out with his gun drawn, and scaled the wall in a few light-footed hops. The laser cut a neat segment out of the razorwire before he reached it, and he kicked it aside before landing fluidly in the garden. Hawthorn had already figured out the plan and dropped down next to him, barely a heartbeat behind.
     Some of the guard bots targeted them, mechanical voices commanding to stand down, but Bomber’s laser just turned them into clouds of smoke and burning electronics. He quickly took stock of the situation. The path to the front door was mined with shockdiscs, and they’d littered caltrops through the grass. An alarm screeched its warning in every direction, and some kind of unwanted attention was sure to follow. He grunted and nudged Hawthorn in the ribs.
     “In my footsteps, quick time. Try and cover me.”
     The villa’s defences tracked them mercilessly, launching gas canisters, rubber bullets, microwaves, gobs of adhesive and every other kind of less-than-lethal ordnance known to man. Bomber barely even noticed. He stepped around the caltrops like a dancer, or a ghost. At the same time he fired his laser again and again, wiping away threats in short sweeps of weapons-grade light. The rubber shells bruising his ribs didn’t slow him down, nor did the microwaves scorching his skin. Finally, arms over his head for cover, coughing and spitting up tear gas, he reached the front door and — together with Hawthorn — put his boot in it.
     They followed right behind the door as it flew backwards off its hinges. It knocked down several armed men in the entry hall. Running on instinct, Bomber grabbed one and lifted him up as a human shield. Hawthorn quickly dove into the nearest bit of cover and shoved his gun into another man’s neck.
     “Hold fire! We’re here to talk!” Bomber called out.
     “No, we’re not,” said a familiar voice from the other room. “Turn around and get out, Jacob. There’s nothing for you here.”
     There was a thud as Bomber’s human shield hit the floor. He stood up slowly, starting to shiver. The laser dropped from his slack fingers. Hawthorn released his hostage, holstered his pistol and went straight into the other room. There he stopped and saluted.
     “Colonel Obrin, Sir,” Hawthorn said, “with all due respect, I think you owe us an explanation. And . . . I’m not leaving until we get one.”
     Bomber staggered through the open doorway, took one look at the face of a dead man, and sat down hard on the cool wooden floor.

***

     The voices around Bomber seemed distant and unreal. Visions danced in front of his eyes of the old country house being bombed to gravel by Fed gunships, memories unravelling in front of him. He watched and listened to the Colonel, alive and well, and he almost didn’t want to believe it.
     “I really wish you boys hadn’t showed up,” Obrin said. He tipped some sheets of hardcopy from a folder into a metal dustbin and threw a lit match after them. The paper caught in seconds. Flames roared out of the basket, and the disabled sprinkler system let out a mechanical clunk as it begged to throw some water down.
     Hawthorn stood his ground like a soldier. “Sir, we haven’t compromised your operations, nor given the enemy anything he didn’t already know. We only found the place by going through Gabriel’s data. You’re lucky we made it here before he did.”
     That made the Colonel pause, swearing under his breath. Then he tossed more papers onto the fire. “There’s a reason why we set up the whole ruse of my death. It was meant to fool Gabriel and focus his attention somewhere else, or at least divide it, and give us some time to act.”
     “Why?” Bomber asked, his throat dry as a bone.
     “Why do you think? When the enemy’s got you over a barrel, you scatter. You use misdirection. Then you regroup and start to think about how you’re going to take him down.”
     There was an enormous crash from one of the other rooms, Obrin’s people destroying more evidence. The smell of burning plastic slowly permeated the room.
     “So you just cut us loose, Colonel?” Hawthorn snapped. He was getting frustrated. “You’re supposed to be CO, and you left us to hold things together without any support!”
     Bomber shook his head drunkenly, pressing his hands into his temples. Even with his whole world falling down around him, one thing lit up inside his mind. “You marched Gina and me straight into the lion’s mouth,” he mumbled. “We . . . We were just a diversion.”
     With the fire crackling merrily in front of him, the Colonel stopped to light a cigar on the orange flames. He took a long puff before turning to Bomber, and shot him down in the calmest tones.
     He said, “Don’t be naive, Jacob. You’re a soldier, and this is war.”
     “Sir, the cat’s out of the bag now. The least you can give us right now is some answers. What’s going on here? What are you doing?”
     “That,” the Colonel hesitated, “is part of the reason why I kept this a secret. You should go, now, before you see things you will not want to see.”
     Hawthorn ignored the warning. His eyes blazed as he stalked around the room, going through every door and closet, and Bomber followed him until he opened the little utility room where Pia Gonzalez dangled from the ceiling.
     She wore a white nightgown which barely hid the empty pistol holster strapped underneath her armpit. There was a noose around her neck, roughly tied together from the remains of a bedsheet, and handcuffs bound her wrists in front of her. From the red and blue bruises marring her skin, she’d been struggling with the handcuffs for hours, even days, before she died.
     From here, Bomber could see out into the paved-over garden, to the big canvas sheet covering something huge. He knew instantly what it was. Pia’s helicopter. That was what Obrin had wanted from her.
     Hawthorn knelt down and picked up a small, black box from the floor. An old holorecorder. It came to life at his touch, flashing with bright neon colours and pictograms, and moved to play it. Bomber took his hand and stopped him.
     “Not here,” he said, “not now.” Hawthorn nodded quietly and slipped the recorder into his pocket.
     “We didn’t kill her, if that’s what you’re wondering,” Obrin interjected from across the room. “I tried my damnedest to convince her. She was an A-grade pilot, she could’ve really helped us, but there wasn’t any talking to her. Finally we had to lock her in while we worked on the copter. Then . . .” He gestured at the body. “This is how we found her.”
     Shaking, Bomber turned to look at the Colonel again. A creeping sensation itched at the back of his neck but he couldn’t seem to scratch it. He struggled, “You cut her down. You get her a good funeral, with her family. Then we talk.”
     “Jacob, I have no–“
     “Do it!” he roared at the top of his lungs.
     After a moment Obrin inclined his head and motioned for some of his men to take care of Pia.

***

     Bomber went out into the garden and sat down on a bench looking out over Pia’s copter. He sat for a long time, drinking in the details as if looking into the casket of a forgotten lover. She’d kept it pristine. It wasn’t the stripped-apart, half-forgotten wreck he’d found in the care of the Hong Kong Federal Police. This was an armed and fully operational war machine. Some of the Federation’s best labs were still at work trying to duplicate bits of technology from F Squadron’s experiments. How Pia had managed to hide one for so long was anybody’s guess.
     Too many unwanted memories were spinning around in his skull. Squadron test flights. Hours and hours of simulations, maintenance, tweaking. Nights full of drinks and laughter, clashes and reconciliations, smiles on familiar faces. A whole life to have lost. Bomber tended to dwell on things, when he thought about them at all, and he couldn’t seem to repress the old days like he used to.
     And now Pia was dead. One more empty void in his heart. It felt like his past was unravelling somehow, like magnetic tape slowly winding off its spool.
     “Toledo’s on his way,” Hawthorn announced from the patio door. “He thinks he can help us get the copter ready to go. Break through whatever lockouts Pia put on it.”
     “By this point I’m willin’ to believe anything Toledo tells me.”
     A few hesitant steps took Hawthorn to the bench, where he leaned back and stared emptily at the sky. “It wasn’t supposed to end like this.”
     “No, but this is what we got. Whatever happens between now and tomorrow night, I’m still gonna climb into that cockpit and take Gabriel out of this sky. We don’t get to direct our own finale.”
     “Whatever happens, huh?”
     “That’s right.” Shutting his eyes against the dull ache at his core, Bomber added, “You got my wing, Hawk?”
     “I got your wing, Jake.” He sent a furtive sideways glance at Bomber. “Do you think we can trust the Colonel?”
     Bomber smiled mechanically and placed a finger against his lips. There was no room for that kind of talk here. No way to know who might be listening.
     A dark shadow fell over them as a small blimp came between them and the patch of clouds that hid the sun. It descended in a businesslike manner towards Pia Gonzalez’s villa. Bomber recognised the logo on the side as a haulage company, and several spindly robots abseiled down to check out the helicopter for lifting. It wouldn’t be flying under its own steam just yet.
     Two dozen spidery plastic tendrils took their laser measurements while Bomber and Hawthorn watched. Then they clamped themselves to the tarpaulin-covered bulk at just the right spots, hoisted their hooks upwards, and snagged the lines dangling from the blimp. Slowly, carefully, Pia’s copter took to the sky for the first time in years.
     “I wonder where that’s going,” said Hawthorn.
     “We’ll find out. In a minute or two he’ll ask me to pilot it, and I’ll say yes. Then you, me and Toledo are gonna make things happen.”
     “God, you’re depressing to hang around, Jake.”
     Bomber shrugged and stood up to stretch the kinks from his aching legs. Popping, cracking noises emanated from his bones as he worked them. They were probably never going to be quite the same, but they’d do. It was really his own fault for jumping out of an airship. Why on Earth did he do that? The more he thought about it, the stupider it seemed. Even a parachute would’ve helped.
     He gave a slight smile when Colonel Obrin appeared in the doorway, brusquely shoving a sheet of digital paper into Bomber’s hand. “Got a nano warning, boys. Somebody’s dusted the area. We need to move.”
     “Where to, Sir?” Hawthorn asked, fulfilling his part in the routine.
     “You’ll understand when you get there.” His moustache bristled as he looked Bomber in the eye. “That is, if Jacob is willing to rise to the call one more time to top off a distinguished flying career.”
     I’m a soldier, thought Bomber as he agreed to fly his last mission. And I’ll win the war.

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