Hurrying to keep up with the others, Rat scrambled down a set of slippery metal rungs deep into the bowels of Two-Gamma Arcology. Fear-sweat made her palms even slicker. She pressed on with a white-knuckled grip, cursing and brushing spider-webs off her arms once she finally touched solid ground again.
     She’d frozen up once on a ladder like this, unable to move up or down. She might still have been there if Gina hadn’t come back to rescue her. She saved her life. Heights never scared her quite as much after that.
     She only had a moment to think and centre herself before she had to run after Banshee and Harmony again. She needed to know what was going on. Assassination was one thing, but talking to Banshee could be more dangerous still.
     To his credit, Banshee gave no outward sign of familiarity. His eyes slid over her as if she were part of the furniture. Deliberate, of course. He didn’t strike her as the forgetful type. No, Banshee had his own reasons for not saying anything, and that raised Rat’s suspicions even more.
     “So is this the beginning of a beautiful friendship, Blade?” he said to Harmony, just on the edge of Rat’s hearing. “After all these years?”
     “An alliance, if you play your cards right.” Her tone put any attempt at familiarity in the deep-freeze. “You’ve got goals, and so do I. They could be made to fit together. You already proved that I can’t have you running around unchecked.”
     Rat still couldn’t believe her ears. Letting Banshee live shocked her enough, but this . . . This was fast getting out of hand.
     They ducked under a sign which suggested these tunnels were some kind of maintenance access to the sewage system. From the thick layers of dust on every surface, this place hadn’t seen a technician since it was dug. It probably never needed one. They built Laputa to last, to maintain its own services without any human attention. There were sensors and security cameras, but Banshee’s people had taken appropriate care to subvert each one.
     Rat had to wonder how the Irishman packed so much meaning into one syllable when he said, simply, “Why?”
     “Because you’re a psychopath!” Harmony rounded on him, her self-control slipping to betray a red flush on her cheeks, teeth clenched together in a rage. “You really don’t get the concept of a bloodless coup, do you, Ryan? You never let civilians get in the way of a good job.”
     Banshee showed as much empathy as an ice cube. “Collateral damage. Live with it.”
     “And there’s your answer,” Harmony sighed, deflating. She suddenly looked tired and alone. “I either join forces with you or I have to take you out, and I just don’t have the manpower. I’m basing this offer on the hope that you are the lesser of two evils.”
     “That’s presuming I say yes.”
     “It’s not presumption. It’s fact.”
     “You really think I’ll agree? Go along with you and your little emancipation scheme?”
     “I know you don’t give a rat’s ass about emancipation either way, Ryan. And that’s why you’ll accept. With half the Nations’ leadership dead, there’s gonna be a big power vacuum to fill, and you can have your fucking slice. You can have Europe as far as I’m concerned. As long as we get our reforms.”
     Europe? Rat said to herself, staring at the older hackers in shock. Except they weren’t hackers right now. They were politicians, working out a back-room deal.
     “My dear Blade,” Banshee said with an unfriendly chuckle, an unhinged sound that made Rat’s skin crawl, “you’re starting to sound like you think I’m responsible for that shooting.”
     She never replied. The tunnel opened out into a small underground tramway, designed to haul equipment and spare parts. Banshee invited everyone aboard a waiting cart. When he pressed his hand against the console, the wheels began to grind forward. Slowly but surely they rolled out from under Two-Gamma, through glass-roofed corridors and waystations which hadn’t seen a living thing in more than a decade. It seemed like each new part of the tunnel was even blacker and deeper down than the one they came from.
     Again, Banshee was the one to break the silence. “Alright. Alright, Blade, you got yourself a deal. I always fancied the idea of being an emperor.”
     Harmony stared into the dark and said nothing.

***

     They had to be halfway across Laputa before Banshee slowed the tram to an awful, groaning halt. Dust billowed up in clouds so thick that no light could penetrate them. Rat’s eyes ached, and she coughed uncontrollably, only able to move when someone pulled her by the shoulder. It was a long, blind stumble until they reached a small pool of light — another hatchway, like the one to Harmony’s compound.
     She crawled up the ladder, tears slipping down her cheeks, and blinked against the blue glare of a single energy-saving bulb. More dust swirled in the air until a harsh electric tick signalled an air conditioning unit coming to life. It made the whole space reek of ozone and recycled air while Rat took her first look around.
     “A wine cellar?” she asked, running her fingers along some ancient-looking steel casks. A few of them bore labels which looked like complete gibberish to her. About the only thing she could read was a retro-style painted sign on the wall, bearing the name ‘Finnegan’s Wake’.
     “Not just wine,” said Banshee, shaking the dust out of his blonde mop of hair. “Beer, spirits, whiskey. All the good vices.”
     Karen scoffed as she poked her head above ground. “A pub. We should’ve known.”
     “Are you serious? Their hideout is a bar?”
     “There’s Irish pubs in strategic locations across every city in the world,” Banshee explained, again with that mad little laugh. “We can go to ground anywhere, anytime, and always have a place to hide when the shit gets neck-deep. Wait here, I’ll kill the security.”
     He flipped open a metal panel next to the door and punched several codes into a small keypad. There was no way to observe the code, but Rat kept her mobile phone hidden in the palm of her hand anyway, filming Banshee’s every move. The footage might come in handy.
     Also, she just plain didn’t like him. She’d probably be happier if Harmony really had killed him.
     Banshee stripped down to an off-white tank top which showed all the rippling muscles of his wrestler physique. The kind of body that made you wonder if the owner hadn’t installed a few boosts along the way. “Since this is my home for the time being, however humble,” he announced, gesturing at one of his guys, “I’ll ask you nicely to unload your weapons and stow magazines. Patrick here will be keeping an eye out to make sure the rules are followed and there’re no unfortunate accidents. Savvy?”
     Harmony nodded. “Let’s all be on our best behaviour.”
     It took Rat a moment to figure out how to get the magazine out of her new pistol, and she could only feel relieved once it was out. The mag fitted snugly in her pocket. Meanwhile, Karen unloaded and inspected her assault rifle with well-oiled precision, muttering to Harmony out the corner of her mouth, “You sure this is a good idea?”
     “It’s diplomacy. He might hate me, but he’s smart. The plan is still good.”
     “What plan?” hissed Rat, but Karen silenced her with a contemptuous glance. That hadn’t been meant for her ears. She looked down, submitting, but inside she seethed with resentment. She deserved to know what was going on. If they wanted to play that game, she’d just have to employ her talent for overhearing conversations wherever she wasn’t wanted.
     Banshee opened the door and, as a gesture, went in first. Harmony followed him. Everyone else joined in single file, except Rat, who got into a staring contest with a ginger-haired Irish boy for last place. He was some skinny apprentice, only a year or two older, but he glowered at her like he thought having testicles made him something special. He refused to surrender until everybody else was up the stairs. Even then he watched her over his shoulder and insisted on shutting the door after her.
     “Don’t try anything,” he snarled. She looked him over, then spat on the ground at his feet. His impotent rage amused her.
     “–so I’m sure you have questions,” Banshee’s voice rolled over them. Rat hurried to join the conversation. Banshee gathered everybody around an old pool table at the heart of the pub, with rickety faux-wooden chairs for the guests, though nobody sat down.
     All eyes were on Harmony, even among the small group of Irish, who smoked and watched the affair in stoic silence. She leaned her hands on the table and said, “The vault.”
     Banshee grinned. “So you knew.”
     “What were you doing there?”
     “In the spirit of honesty and brotherhood,” he murmured, “I’ll show you.”
     His hand went to a hidden control at the corner of the table. A hologram sputtered to life above the green felt, a magnified overview of several dissected nanobots. The bots were an odd shape, bulbous, with large heavy arms that looked out of place on such a tiny device. It didn’t mean anything to Rat, and Harmony seemed no more enlightened.
     Banshee continued, “Think back to that big cyber-attack a few weeks ago in Europe. Nasty semi-intelligent virus. Ireland scored most of the cleanup contract for it.”
     “I remember.”
     “Well, we did more than clean up the mess. We made an interesting discovery we chose not to share with the other contractors.” The hologram skipped to a close-up of one of the arms. It had a core of communications-grade quantum wire leading straight into the oversized memory unit, and some kind of spike on the other end. And suddenly things started to click into place in Rat’s brain. “You see, this virus, it’s not just software. That’s what makes it so powerful. That’s why nobody could figure out how it got into so many fortified machines. It’s a zombie program with a hardware delivery system.”
     “These nanites?” asked Karen.
     “That’s right. That’s how it gets in. Somebody introduces these mobbos into the environment in a sneaky way, they head towards any EM emissions they can find, and make their way into every electronic system they can reach, completely bypassing the security suite by jacking the hardware directly. No muss, no fuss, nothing to stop them except full-scale nanoscreening. Only the Feds can afford that kind of security.”
     Harmony paled a little as she digested the information. “That’s why you were so quiet at the Fifteen. You knew.”
     “I figured Kensei was going to pin the tail on me. My past’s public knowledge nowadays, so who better to frame than old Banshee, eh?”
     “Then what did you find in the vault, Ryan?”
     “This.” He produced a small black box, a perfect cube, with a selection of different dataports on one side. Rat boggled at it. She knew what it was; a Fed-tech quantum storage drive, big enough to take the entire vault’s contents and put it into the palm of Banshee’s hand. “Evidence, we hope. It’s got to be Kensei. I don’t know how, or why, but he’s behind it. That means the source code is somewhere in Laputa. Most likely tucked away safe in one of his precious data vaults. Maybe not this one, maybe not the next, but I’m gonna find it.”
     Raising an eyebrow, Harmony said skeptically, “You think Kensei could afford to nanodust the whole of western Europe? I’ve had his job, it doesn’t pay that well.”
     “Who else could it be, Blade? You got a name for us? Anyone?”
     Silence. Nobody had an answer to that question, or at least, nobody liable to tell. Rat clenched her jaw tight and kept her secrets.

***

     It had been a long time since she slept. When the meeting turned into data analysis, going through the stolen drive and all its top-secret contents, Rat started to lose her concentration. It was all much less exciting than it sounded. Breaking the encryption, matching up chunks of scattered, broken-up information, and only then figuring out if the data was remotely valuable. Long spells of waiting followed by hours more of simple grunt work.
     Of course, being on Harmony’s team meant Rat had to pitch in. The job didn’t require VR rigs or complicated hardware. A dozen people just sat around the pool table waving their hands, using the big holoprojector as an interface. So Rat sifted through zettabytes of useless, irrelevant rubbish, corporate customer lists and half-finished software, bored out of her skull. Eventually she backed away from the table, folded herself up in a chair and drifted into a fitful doze.
     The sound of footsteps jarred her awake. She blinked and rubbed her puffy eyes, stared blearily at the person in front of her, then jerked to her feet. She didn’t know what was going on but it seemed like a good idea to face Banshee O’Doherty standing up.
     He took a glance around the room to make sure nobody was paying undue attention. Then he said to her, smiling faintly, “You get around, kid.”
     The hair on the back of her neck stood up. Even sleepy, she could tell she didn’t like his tone, and her defences started to engage. “I got a lot going on,” she huffed.
     “Find yourself a cause, did you?”
     Crossing her arms, she stood her ground and glared up at him. She’d had years of practice at putting on a tough front, although it would help a lot if her knees would stop shaking. “That’s my business. Don’t see how it’s any of yours.”
     “Mm. Just a word of advice, little girl.” He leaned in close, his huge body blotting out the rest of the room, and his voice dropped to a silky whisper. “You’ll want to figure out where your loyalties lie while you got the chance. We’re not fond of spies, you see. We don’t treat them very well at all, unless they make themselves . . . useful. You think about that.”
     He turned and swept away before Rat could think of a response. She was left to stare at his retreating body, her mouth open, her arms uncrossing to hang limp at her side. Tiny beads of sweat prickled her brow, and her heart sank down into the pit of her stomach.
     If there was anyone in this world who she did not want threatening her, he was it. You needed more than wisecracks and attitude against a mass-murderer.
     “What was that all about?” came Karen’s voice, not far from her ear, and Rat almost jumped. She hadn’t noticed her approach.
     “I– I don’t think he likes me,” Rat stammered.
     “Ah.” Karen afforded him a momentary glance. “Ryan was always unstable. Peacetime kept him calm for a while, but I think he’s missed having a war to fight.”
     “Unstable? He has totally lost the plot!”
     “Maybe. Harm is right, though. At least this way we can control him, use him to our advantage.”
     “You really think you can control that guy?” scoffed Rat. “Where’s Harmony? I wanna talk to her.”
     Karen eyes were hard as glass as they rolled down to look at Rat. She almost but didn’t quite smile in contempt. “She’s a little busy, Alex. Harm is not your mother, she hasn’t got time to put all your fears to bed whenever you get spooked. We’re fighting a war for your emancipation. Try acting like a soldier.”
     Something sharp and cold twisted in Rat’s heart, hearing those words. Then Karen got called away and left her to brood. Just as well. She didn’t feel like talking anymore, now that she knew exactly how much her opinion really mattered. She found a shady corner to lean against instead, and watched the world from under a deep scowl.
     Banshee’s promise spun round and round in her head, gathering awful momentum from every dark corner and primal instinct. Seemed like she was always spying on somebody for somebody else. She thought things had changed when she joined up with Harmony. That she found a more honest kind of life, where she’d be treated with a little bit of respect. Now things had come full circle, and she was back in the same shitty position where she started.
     Banshee scared her, even through the twin shields of anger and pride. She didn’t want to tangle with a homicidal lunatic. On the other hand, the Chrome Rat did not just fade in the face of simple threats of violence. Becoming the Irish bastard’s lapdog was not an option. She wasn’t a fighter, she got freaked out by the sight of blood, and she barely knew which end of a gun to hold, but you could only push someone so far before they started to push back.
     When she opened her mouth again her voice sounded different. Harder, more grown-up somehow, so much that it made her shiver.
     “The only advantage you’re gonna get out of Banshee is by putting a bullet in his brain,” she said, softly, so that nobody else would hear. Her fingers reached into her pocket and fiddled with the spring-loaded shapes of bullets in her pistol magazine. “And if you won’t do it, maybe I will.”

Leave a Reply

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