The Chrome Rat kept her hands deep in her pockets as she walked. She glanced sideways at the Laputan trooper on the corner, noticed how his finger never left the trigger of his sonic pulse gun. Every major crossing was patrolled by soldiers nowadays, ever since the attack on the Fifteen. Of course they were only formality, a bit of street theatre for the benefit of the locals. Robots and automatic cameras handled shit like surveillance and security. The uniforms just sent a message, reminding everyone of the colours of their flag.
     And of what would happen if anyone got on the government’s bad side.
     She stopped to stare out a window. From here, two hundred stories up one of Laputa’s starscrapers, she had a good view of the huge arcologies which surrounded her on every side. They glittered like mirrors in the daylight. Beside her, a hologram of a public newscaster swayed from side to side, voice echoing tinnily from a wall speaker.
     “The motion will be voted on in emergency session later today,” the woman said, “where a majority of National leaders are expected to approve the integration bill, either whole or in part, effectively centralising Nations-wide government under a single authority. Quoted upon leaving hospital, President Arend of the Netherlands said, ‘We must put up a united response to last week’s devastating attack. This is the first step.’
     “The King of Laputa, ‘Kensei’ Kagehisa, has already been put forward as a candidate to lead the reforms. It is currently not known whether he intends to step down as King if the motion carries. For more on this story, we’re joined by political analyst Rupat Singh.”
     Rat shook her head and resumed her slow circuit of the tower. The walk hadn’t helped to clear her mind. All she’d done since she left Harmony’s hideout was brood. She couldn’t stop worrying about Jock, the insufferable arsehole, caught up in this mess just like her. She’d tried to contact him through every channel she could think of. His phone was dead. Messages via GlobeNet, both subtle and obvious, went unread.
     The thought of him dead in a ditch somewhere made her heart ache in a funny way. A lot of new emotions had wormed their way into her life over the last few months, until everything seemed too big and too complicated to deal with. She’d started out a petty thief with grand dreams, pretending to be a boy to be accepted in hacker circles, and terminally single by necessity. Now . . . Hell, where to begin?
     The only thing she could be sure of right now was the war. A quiet war, a hacker’s war, one that everybody claimed they weren’t fighting. Sooner or later, though, something was gonna blow up.
     Lost in thought, she almost didn’t notice the large holoprojection unit before it smashed down onto the walkway next to her. She started, and threw up an arm to ward off the shrapnel of tiny screws and shards of glass. Thankfully nothing got through her jacket.
     Panic gave way to anger. Rat started to scream something furious, her legs shaking with adrenaline, but she stopped when she spotted a team of light infantry battlesuits on the mezzanine above her. More of Kensei’s troops. They weren’t paying attention to her, thank God; instead they ran around pointing their guns at a row of kneeling people, carelessly ripping equipment out of an office front whose power had been cut. Only the physical sign still worked to identify the place.
     It said, in between decorative lightning bolts, Prime Time News. Known critics of the government, and friends of Harmony. Kensei was making a move.
     “Shit,” Rat hissed through her teeth. This needed to reach the right ears, fast. She forced a calm walk, as if nothing was the matter, while heading straight for the nearest bank of elevators.
     “Hey, you there!” someone shouted from behind her. “Wait a moment!”
     “Shit,” she said. She froze, fists clenched in her pockets, trying not to tremble. “Look, I didn’t see anything!”
     One of the troopers jumped the railing and landed nimbly twelve feet down. He approached Rat with long, confident strides, keeping his weapon at his side. He grabbed her hands, shoved them on top of her head and turned her towards the windows. She couldn’t even see his eyes through the mirrored visor on his helmet, just the lower half of his inexpressive face.
     “Name,” he demanded as flashed a handheld retinal scanner at her eyes, then continued to frisk her for weapons.
     “Alex Park. Look, I don’t want any trouble–“
     “Mr. Park. One moment.”
     He uploaded the scan to the central database, then waited for a response. A second later the scanner bleeped. It was not a friendly bleep.
     “Miss Park, pardon me,” he murmured, studying the hologram as it scrolled through her private information. “Interesting. We have a detention order out on you, Miss Park. You’re to surrender yourself and be taken to Cloud City immediately.”
     Rat was trying furiously to think of a witty response when she saw the ball of fire in front of her. It moved up the southern elevator shaft of the arcology just outside the window, barely a hundred metres away, blowing out windows as it went and blasting chunks of hot metal in every direction. When it reached the top, the heavy elevator carriages smashed through the ceiling and careened into the air between buildings, tumbling end over end until one cratered the ground and the other ploughed into the starscraper in which Rat was standing. The tower shook, steel screeching like a wounded beast, and the explosion shockwave rattled its windows so loud it left a ringing in Rat’s ears.
     Screaming. She heard screaming — not in pain, not really terror, but the panicky shouts of soldiers who’ve had a nasty surprise. The Laputan trooper beside her had disappeared. The whole squad ran around behind her like headless chickens, warbling repeated questions into their radios. They seemed to forget all about her and her ‘detention order’.
     So now she had a choice. Let herself be arrested and see what Kensei had in store for her, or get the Hell out of dodge.
     The next moment her feet pounded against the floor, dashing headlong to get out of sight, to reach the relative safety of Harmony’s hideout. She didn’t slow down or even breathe until she was down in the utility corridor, locking the hidden hatch shut above her.

***

     It took a while to come down from the unwelcome rush. Rat found a nice corner to collapse and breathe until her heart stopped racing. Even from down in the corridor, she could hear the activity going on in the hideout proper, where it was all hands on deck for the press war against Kensei and his regime.
     Still, they made Rat feel welcome as long as she made herself useful. She was one of the girls, united in their goal. It was actually pretty nice.
     Her pulse gradually slowed to normal, and her wobbly legs managed to support her as she got up. She had news, big news. She hurried the rest of the way into the windowless room.
     The place had been remodelled a little since the first time Rat had seen it. The bunk beds now clogged up the corridors in favour of a holoprojector crammed into one end of the room, blasting out a wall of simultaneous newscasts. Another ageing VR rig stood next to it, hooked up to a row of brand new data runs dangling from fresh holes in the ceiling. Heavy-fucking-duty data runs; the cables were as big around as Rat’s thigh.
     And of course there were women. Every piece of hardware had somebody at the controls, running it at full capacity. The efficiency of the operation was a little chilling. Harmony clearly had more manpower than money, but she used it well, and these women were motivated to get the job done. Nobody batted so much as an eyelid at the tactics they were using.
     Rat had managed to put together a decent picture of what was going on. Portable drives here changed hands as fast as credit chips on the Street of Eyes, since it was the cheapest secure way to transfer data at short distances. Every now and again someone would ask Rat to ferry one and, given half an opportunity, Rat had a tendency to snoop.
     One drive she’d inspected contained the minutes from several of Kensei’s cabinet meetings. Another was filled with personal — very personal — information about Laputa’s foremost politicians, members of Kensei’s inner circle as well as the opposition. Scandals, carefully kept secrets, everything, along with annotations from one of Harmony’s paralegals about how to put them to use.
     It even contained an entry on Jock, though a short one, and beyond his general involvement with the Emperor of Shanghai it seemed Harmony didn’t really know much about him. There were some pictures, though, freeze-frames of hotel video prior to the attack. Several entries and exits from Jock’s room, a few magnifications of faces. Jock was there. So was Kensei, and so was Rat.
     She’d swallowed hard and rapidly deleted everything with her face on it from the drive. Access records suggested that nobody at Harmony’s knew what they had, but it would only take one curious person looking at those pictures to land Rat in the shit. She didn’t want anyone compromising her newfound place among these women.
     Now she staggered through into the back and came face to face with Harmony herself, on her way out. She caught Rat just in time to stop a collision. “Whoa, Alex! What’s going on?”
     “Two-Gamma Arcology,” Rat said, her voice trembling even more than her knees. “They . . . They blew it up.”
     “We know, it just hit the news. I was about to go and–“
     “You don’t understand, Harm,” she interrupted. “I was there. I saw it happen.”
     The mood changed instantly. Harmony pulled her in and seated her at an empty workstation, dropping to her haunches in front of Rat, and gave her hands a reassuring squeeze. Harmony looked very serious, and for a second Rat could’ve mistaken her for the mother she no longer had.
     “Alex,” she said softly, “I want you to tell me everything that happened. Everything. Can you do that?”
     Rat nodded. Another concerned girl came and offered her a cup of water, which she sipped. In a weird way she enjoyed the attention, the feeling like she mattered here.
     So Rat spilled her guts about everything she could remember, leaving out only the part about the detention order, the part that could incriminate her as a spy. Stuff that Harmony really didn’t need to know.

***

     The whole operations room listened while Rat told her story. Most of it, anyway. Hearing about the surprise raid on Prime Time News caused a ripple of shock, worry, people rushing to get confirmation. Her momentary encounter with the Royal Guard earned sympathy and a few pats on the back. Then she described the explosion in as much detail as she could remember, and the frowns on Harmony and her aides deepened by the second.
     “You’re sure the fire moved up from the ground floor?” Harmony asked, voice flat and hard. “Absolutely sure?” When Rat nodded, she shared a long look with one of her personal aides, Karen. Karen was a pretty blonde woman whose narrow, steel-blue eyes contained all the warmth and pleasantness of a frontal lobotomy.
     “This has got ‘Banshee’ written all over it,” Karen said. She had a pronounced Irish lilt, very similar to Banshee’s, and her voice projected an iron sense of authority. “I should get down there. I can analyse the damage better in person.”
     Rat blinked. “Are you crazy? The place’ll be crawling with Guards inside of five minutes!”
     A paper-thin smile curled Karen’s lips. “If our friend really is responsible, they’re going to have their hands full. They won’t even notice I’m there.”
     She squeezed Harmony on the shoulder and went, no ceremony, no goodbyes. Rat wasn’t sorry to see the back of her. There were plenty of pleasant women in Harmony’s company, but Karen wasn’t one of them.
     Frustration showed in the set of Harmony’s mouth, and Rat could almost hear the gears crunching in her head. Taking another sip of water, Rat waited for her train of thought to arrive at its destination.
     Harmony threw an arm across the holographic newsfeed, which caused it to rewind and replay some poorly-angled footage of the explosion, shot from a security camera on one of the nearby starscrapers. The zoom function had been pushed to its limit; it showed individual shards of glass as the windows blew out one by one, slicing the air in detailed slow-motion.
     “Something bugging you?” Rat asked into the pregnant silence.
     “Somebody just murdered about four hundred of my people. Yeah, you could say something’s bugging me.” Acid dripped from her words, out before she could even think about moderating her tone. She patted Rat on the arm as a gentle apology. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to snap. I knew Banshee was planning something, but this . . .”
     Cold shivers crawled through Rat’s bones, but on the outside she turned it into a laconic shrug, not wanting to look weak. It took a bit of effort to keep her voice level. “The guy’s got more loose screws than a machine shop, and ice-water for blood. You can’t predict someone like that.”
     “Banshee’s a lizard,” Harmony agreed thoughtfully, “but he’s a practical kind of lizard. I mean, Two-Gamma’s like every other arcology in Laputa, he could’ve picked it by throwing a fucking dart. But then why go to the trouble of putting his bomb way the Hell down the building, far away from all the traffic and access points? Why bomb it at all? It doesn’t add up. I’d be tempted to call it a diversion.”
     The way Harmony looked at her told her it was a test, a question whose answer she already knew. She ventured, “Unless . . . Unless there was something in it for him.”
     Harmony nodded. “Something he wanted, maybe. Inside the arcology, or under it.”
     Underground. Rat’s mind immediately conjured up images of a different building elsewhere in Laputa, a long lift ride down to a complex which didn’t show up on any official map, so secure that even its owner couldn’t walk in unannounced. Kensei once told her there were three data vaults in Laputa, and only a handful of people knew where they were. He let her in on a big secret by taking her to one. In a way, it showed a lot of trust.
     “It’s a data vault,” Rat said. “Gotta be.”
     “Banshee’s probably there right now, downloading everything he can get his grubby hands on.”
     Rat kept her mouth carefully shut. Alarm bells rang in her head, warning against the impulse to blurt out a confession. She could give Harmony the location of the vault she visited, but not without making people wonder where she got the information. That couldn’t happen. She had to think hard, come up with something to say, anything that wouldn’t–
     “Come on,” the older woman said, and grabbed Rat by the arm on her way out the door. “We’re gonna go make that Irish fuck an offer he can’t refuse.”

***

     A huge spider-web of maglev tracks stretched between the towers and arcologies of Laputa hundreds of metres above the ground, suspended from the buildings by thin carbon cables and struts that looked too flimsy to support even their own weight. None of which helped Rat. She held on to the handrails with a death grip, knuckles white, and forced herself to look at the ceiling. Her eyes kept being drawn to the panoramic windows, though. To the dizzying drop that waited just outside the little plastic bubble of the maglev train.
     The only way she survived in Laputa was by convincing her brain to accept everything as ground level and every window as some kind of holo-screen. Sometimes it was easier than others.
     She whimpered softly to herself until they arrived at Two-Delta station. Holding tight to Harmony’s hand, she shuffled through the crowd of people towards the southern exit, along with just about everybody else. Excited chatter filled the corridors. From what Rat could understand, half the people here were rubberneckers trying to get a glimpse of the carnage.
     “I hear you can get the best view from the western stairwell,” said one man, travelling with the flow of bodies. “It’s got glass all the way up.”
     His neighbour piped up, “But from that angle Orleans Tower is right in the way of the view. I’m going to the northern stairwell.”
     Rat looked a question at Harmony, but she wasn’t paying attention. The first chance she got she dove into an express elevator and hit the lowest number on the board. A big red zero lit up the destination display, blinking slowly while the doors began to close. Two clever, quick-thinking people ducked into the elevator a split second before it sealed. Two women in baggy clothes wearing hard, knowing smiles.
     “Believe it or not,” Harmony explained over the rising hum of the magnetic lift system, “the quickest way to get there is through the streets, on foot. I have a key that’ll unlock the service exit. Let’s hope our friends are still there.” She speared the two newcomers with a look from under her hood. “Did you bring weapons?”
     “You know we’d never let you down,” said the woman on the left, in a hauntingly familiar Irish accent. She peeled a holomask from her face and changed from a complete stranger into someone Rat recognised — Karen. She unzipped the top half of her jacket and pulled out a shiny black submachine gun, handing it to Harmony along with a handful of magazines. The other woman shoved a shiny metal pistol into Rat’s hands, then shook a long, police-style shotgun out of her sleeve. It made a dangerous click as she snapped a magazine in place.
     “And the rest of your team?”
     “Moving into position. We got snipers in the western and northern stairwells, and two more in Orleans Tower and Two-Beta. Guard-issue weapons.” She grinned. “We were right. The blast pattern’s more like a breaching charge than a terror bombing. Banshee’s down there, and he’s going to have to come out sooner or later.”
     “Good work. Be discreet, I don’t want any of the shells traced back to us.”
     Still staring at the gun, Rat’s brain began to catch up to what was being said around her, and she looked up with a gasp. “What? You’re gonna kill them?”
     “That’s the plan,” Harmony murmured. She worked the slide on her SMG with an ominous click. “Whatever Banshee’s taken from that data vault, I want it. It definitely can’t fall back into Kensei’s hands.”
     The carriage arrived at the ground floor with a loud beep. They revealed a forest of huge concrete pillars sandwiching tinted glass shops and company lobbies, though most of the entrances were a few floors up. Cheap residential rooms led off down the left, while Harmony went for a service corridor on the other side, off-limits to civilians. There was nothing in it except pipework, wiring, and a tight squeeze to the dusty windowless door outside.
     Laputa’s streets crowded in around them when they emerged under the dark, cloudy sky. The bulk of Two-Delta arcology blocked what little sunlight made it through the grey blanket, and the rest was lost in the thick black smoke rolling down the street. They pushed through with nothing but a pair of electric torches to navigate by.

***

     Rat held her weapon like a live rattlesnake, caught between the rush of power and a serious case of the panic shakes. Things had become way too real in the last few seconds. Shit, she thought, her small fingers fumbling with the grip. Shit, shit, shit . . .
     Following without thinking, she circled the huge steel and glass bulk of Orleans Tower and finally came face to face with the smouldering ruin of Two-Gamma’s south side. Twisted steel and rubble sagged down into a part of the building that no longer existed. Fires still flickered somewhere in those black-scarred depths. Harmony and her friends stretched bandanas over their noses against the smoke, and Rat did the same with a pulled-up shirt as they dove into cover.
     A blast of wind washed over them and made Rat shield her eyes. She barely heard the Royal Guard dropship swoop down over her head, rotors slicing the air with a Dopplering hiss. It skimmed low over the ground towards Two-Gamma and deposited a small team of lightly-armoured troopers along the street, then pulled up again to disappear among the towering arcologies and starscrapers. The troopers gave no sign that they knew or cared about the four civilians huddled together behind them. They rushed the big hole in the ground where the southern elevator shaft used to be, weapons up and ready to fire.
     I shouldn’t be here, said a soft but insistent voice at the back of Rat’s mind. This is not me. I don’t do fighting. I don’t do guns. I should not be here.
     Harmony gave her a reassuring pat on the arm as if she could her thoughts. She reached into a pocket and produced what looked like a mobile phone, heavily modified with the biggest antenna Rat had ever seen, which crackled to life at the touch of a button. Everyone crowded in to listen to the noise.
     “Echo Team advancing,” said the tinny loudspeaker. “Bunker entrance is wreckage, no hostile presence. Elevator shaft has been blown open and drilled with rappelling lines. Black hats must still be down there. Will proceed.”
     Rat gawked. “You cracked their radio encryption?”
     “Oh yeah,” whispered Harmony, very pleased with herself. “We set up a real-time decoder and they haven’t got a clue. Information warfare’s what we do.”
     The faint rattle of automatic gunfire echoed down the street as well as across the radio. The voice cut in again, “Exchanging small arms fire down the shaft. Somebody’s here, all right. Corporal, hand me that launcher, I have–“
     “Holographic alarm!” shouted another voice in the background. “New contacts down the entire shaft! Lieutenant, it’s mined!”
     “Shit! Okay, up, everyone up! Go go–“
     The ground rumbled. For a single heart-stopping second it was like someone ran a jackhammer next to Rat’s head, a series of sharp raps echoing on the radio for a long time afterwards. The last signal before the transmission went dead was a breathless moan from some trooper who no longer had much of a set of lungs to scream with.
     Harmony closed the phone and stared hard-eyed at the rubble around the base of the arcology. “Meat for the grinder. Meant to make Banshee think he’s got a minute to escape before the Guard can regroup. They’ll have another team waiting in the wings.”
     “Poor bastards,” said Karen. She slapped a magazine into her assault rifle, then peered up over the concrete tendril that served them as cover, extending from Orleans Tower like a petrified tree root. “Let’s move in closer. The smoke should hide us, just stay out of any chaff patches. Get it in your eyes and they’ll be shredded to Hell. Get it in your lungs and you’ll be shaking hands with St. Peter.”
     “Who?” asked Rat, but she never got an answer. She had to rush to keep up, dashing across the open ground to the next tendril, the last one that would give them any cover from the direction of Two-Gamma.
     This time they got their heads all the way down. Only Karen looked out, squinting through her rifle scope. She held up a closed fist for attention. “I see bodies coming out of the shaft. Get ready. Let them thin each other out, then I’ll give the call.”
     Rat couldn’t help but look. Eyes stinging from the smoke, blinking away moisture, she watched a number of human silhouettes milling around in the wreckage. A distant sound percolated through the crackle of fires and the soft hiss of the wind, something Rat couldn’t quite put her finger on, intruding on the edge of her hearing. It went on for seconds until a sudden flash of realisation turned her head upwards.
     Eight suits of Federation-style battle armour plummeted down from the arcology roof. They landed within the space of a second, slamming craters into the tarmac like a burst from some huge machine gun, sending up huge clouds of shrapnel and dust. Blank metal faces turned towards the enemy, and Rat buried her head in her arms as all Hell broke loose.

***

     The noise was too intense for Rat to process, much less describe. The Laputan battlesuits cut loose with rapid-fire machine guns and filled the world with their awful, high-pitched rattle. Explosions followed, the hiss of rocket propellant, big clouds of dust and shrapnel everywhere. Chunks of pulverised concrete rained down on Rat’s head. Hot sparks landed in her hair, and she did her best to shake them out.
     Somewhere in the chaos, she heard Karen screaming, “Go, go, go!”
     Her heart stopped. The signal for the snipers. She couldn’t stop the impulse to look, glancing out to watch Banshee’s final moments through the dust, his face obscured by a gas mask but unmistakable by his stature and body language. Still very much the High King of Ireland.
     He’d obviously anticipated the Royal Guard’s attack. His people were hunkered down under thick cover, firing huge anti-tank rifles and armour-piercing rockets, and they knew how to use their equipment. Three of the Guards were down on the ground, and another stood slumped in the middle of the battlefield, a dead man held up only the shell of his suit.
     Too bad it wasn’t going to be enough. Blood painted the walls where Banshee’s team hid, and the intensity of fire dropped as more of the Irish were cut to ribbons. Then it was just Banshee and two other men against four Guards. And he certainly hadn’t counted on Harmony’s snipers.
     Their bullets travelled so fast they left silver trails in the air, like tiny bolts of lightning. For an instant, glowing lines connected the surrounding buildings with the helmets of each of the Guards. Four flashes of light and heat, four brain-spattered craters drilled in through the armour. The hulking suits stopped in place, catatonic without a living operator. And Banshee . . .
     He dropped down to an instinctive crouch, and for a second Rat thought he might’ve been shot. Then he stood up, hesitantly, not sure what to make of this new development. His free hand probed his torso for bulletholes. It didn’t find any. He frowned, confused but alive, and wrapped his fingers around the little gold crucifix hanging from his neck.
     “Take up secondary positions,” Karen whispered into her radio. “Watch the rooftops for enemy snipers.”
     Rat blurted, “I thought you were gonna kill him!”
     “There’s still time.” Flashing her icy smile, Karen jerked her head towards the wreckage. “Let’s go.”
     Karen and Harmony strode forward through the dust, and Rat kept pace. Banshee aimed his weapon, but when Harmony stopped to throw her hood back, he began to laugh. Loud, harsh humour in his voice.
     “Razorblade,” he called. “Are you my guardian fucking angel now?”
     “Sure. Don’t you see my little wings and halo?” She grinned without warmth. “I’m here to talk, not fight. Can I trust you not to shoot me for long enough to hear me out?”
     “I know you’re not here to fight, or you’d be dead already, with or without your little sharpshooters. Look down.”
     Holograms began to flicker all around their feet. Four smooth white domes appeared out of the road surface, covered in dozens of little pits where the launch tubes were hidden. Anti-tank mines. That was what the firefight had been for, Rat suddenly realised — Banshee’s people hadn’t been doomed at all. They were just packing their enemies into the killzone.
     Banshee twirled the little radio detonator between his fingers. “Pulling the same trick twice works more often than you’d think.”
     Not a hint of fear showed in Harmony’s expression. She crossed her arms lightly and said, “Then I guess you have to ask yourself how you feel about ‘mutually assured destruction,’ or ‘the enemy of my enemy.’ Personally, I suggest we take your escape route before Kensei’s goons come back and make us all dead.”
     He took a moment to weigh his options. Then he gave a tiny nod, and waved at his remaining people to secure the way. The women joined him walking single file, and Banshee marched at Harmony’s shoulder, talking quietly while Rat did her damnedest to eavesdrop.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *