The idea of taking Banshee out of the picture obsessed Rat for hours. Her mind wandered every time she had to wait for another dull round of decryption, running over all the possible scenarios. So far they had more in common with idle fantasy than planning, since all her ideas depended on a lot of random chance and convenience, but they helped her figure out a few things. Chiefly, she needed three things to pull off the job. Line of sight, seclusion, and an escape route. When she had all those things, she’d recognise her opportunity. In an ideal situation nobody would ever know it was Rat who did the deed.
     For now, though, all she could do was sit, wait, and run through endless lists of data until her brain felt like so much porridge, just lumpy goo ready to leak out of her ears.
     “It’s not here,” she said at last, rubbing her eyes. They stung from staring at holograms too long. She closed the interface with a downward wave and stood up defiantly. “This whole drive is worthless.”
     The room went quiet. Banshee’s new right-hand man, whose name Rat hadn’t bothered to remember, was nominally in charge of this shift, and he tried to control the situation with an immediate rebuke. “We haven’t analysed all of it yet. We could be looking for documents in the megabyte range, there’s plenty of formats that small.”
     “Yeah, speaking of which, wouldn’t it be nice if you told us what the Hell we’re looking for?” A rumble of support went around the table. Many of the hackers, even the Irish ones, looked as fed-up as she did. “All we know is that after all this work we haven’t found a single byte of it.”
     The great irony was that Rat knew what they were looking for even if nobody else did, and she didn’t trust the reasons for the search. If Banshee wanted those faeries for no other reason than to prove his innocence, she’d eat her metaphorical hat. It gave her some satisfaction to know he wouldn’t get them from this mess of irrelevant corporate bullshit. Neither the island simulation nor agent software were here.
     She remembered her time in that sim with a shudder. If it hadn’t been for Kensei, she’d be blind now. She might’ve wasted her entire life trying to pay for a new set of optic nerves. And he never actually broke his promise to sponsor her. He just got distracted, caught up in this shitty situation. Maybe he would’ve honoured it, after things calmed down.
     And . . . And she missed Jock more than she wanted to admit. Having him around to talk to and sort things out with. When did she start caring this much?
     Banshee’s man bared his teeth at her in something almost like a smile, and he crossed the table to put a forceful hand on her shoulder. “Maybe you need to take a break,” he said, walking her to the kitchen door. “Do whatever. I don’t want to see you back here until you’ve had an attitude adjustment. Got that?”
     He jabbed a finger into her chest, then went back to the table, leaving the door swinging on its hinges behind him. Rat watched it fall shut. Alone and unguarded.
     A sudden smile curved her lips as she thought about it, and her hands found the gun tucked into the back of her trousers. Could it really be happening like this? Could it be so easy? She didn’t have a plan, but thinking ahead never was her strong suit. She could improvise with the best of them, and when she got this chance handed to her on a silver platter, how could she let it go?
     She looked around the kitchen for her next flash of inspiration. It was small, but everything anyone could need in a pub kitchen was there: a counter, a microwave and a really big fridge. It even had a little dumbwaiter to haul food and drink to the upper floors. Rat counted two exits, but the back door was locked and she didn’t have her toolkit. She went up on tiptoes to peer through the little window in the taproom door, only to find more disappointment. No way could she reach the stairs without being spotted.
     Then she stopped and took another look at the dumbwaiter. No built-in security. The shelves came out easy, made to be detachable. The controls were on the outside, but everything went automatically once you hit the right button. The sixty kilo weight limit would stop most people, but the designers clearly hadn’t counted on a skinny teenage girl with bad intentions.
     Rat folded her short, sinewy body into the carriage. It was a tight fit even for her, but she made it work through sheer determination. Then she tapped the ‘deliver’ button and hugged her knees to her ears, letting the doors shut her into darkness. Electric motors whined. Slowly, with a nasty grinding noise and a faint smell of smoke, they lifted her to the upstairs restaurant.

***

     It took a minute to get out of her cramped position, wedged in like she was, but eventually she stretched her legs and took a look around. Seemed like the same themes continued throughout the pub, lots of fake wood and soft lighting, big tables in cosy little booths. She found herself next to a long bar which dominated the room, all polished wood and brass taps, but dusty enough to suggest the place had been closed to customers for a while. The shelves behind the bar sparkled with hundreds of massive beer glasses, and more varieties of booze than Rat knew existed.
     Voices echoed from a room towards the back. Sounded like Banshee wasn’t alone. She crept towards the noise, silent as a mouse, and pulled the pistol from her waistband. The magazine fit into it with a soft click.
     Excitement throbbed in her chest, and her mind raced. It seemed like the moment of truth was edging closer and closer. She couldn’t stop thinking about Jock. He’d probably try to talk her out of this. He’d yell at her, spew out some moralistic bullshit about what being a hacker really meant, and how nobody gets hurt in VR. He’d treat her like a kid, like she wasn’t old enough to understand.
     She did understand though. She’d never had a real enemy before, but she knew she could handle it. She’d killed plenty of people in VR games. It couldn’t be that different.
     The noise came from the manager’s office, around the corner from the bar. She found the door ajar. Peering through the crack, she could make out Banshee’s back as he straddled a chair in front of a table or desk, but there was no sign of his conversation partner.
     “I don’t get what more you want,” he said, his voice tight and restrained. “It’s like you thought, she’s here and under control, and I got the drive. Nothing else is going to happen until we find what we’re looking for.”
     A low, distorted sound answered him, words filtered through a voice changer, inflection tuned to feel curt and threatening. “Don’t play games with me, Ryan. You never would’ve found that vault if I hadn’t held your hand. You won’t find the others.”
     “We’re not cracking piggy banks here. If you’ve got a problem with my methods, maybe you should’ve asked someone else. Want Razorblade’s number?”
     “This is not a discussion, Ryan. You’re in far too deep to end this partnership now. Either you work with me, or I hand your location and your entire battle plan over to Kensei quicker than you can scream.” The voice paused. “Out of time. I’ll have more instructions for you at next contact. Be ready.”
     There was a flickering noise and a fresh silence, signalling the end of the call. Banshee didn’t move from his spot. He fished a cigarette from a pack somewhere, lit it, and stared at the wall with a brooding kind of slump to his shoulders. Even from behind he radiated anger.
     “You’d better pray I never find you,” he spat, “because if I do, I’ll feed you your own guts on a platter.”
     From anyone else, that line might’ve sounded like bad comedy, hollow and overblown. From Banshee, it was a promise. Rat fought a cold shiver and quietly pressed the barrel of her gun into the crack between door and frame. Her finger stroked the trigger. They were alone, no one else around. She’d never get a better chance. One squeeze, one pop, and that would be all she wrote for Ryan O’Doherty.
     She licked her lips and sighted down the barrel. Lined it up with Banshee’s head, held the target in her trembling hands. The weight of a real firearm in her hands felt strange when her mind was trying hard to pretend this was another VR game.
     Angrily, she told herself to focus. She just had to finish the job. Hold gun, squeeze trigger. Nothing could be easier.
     She closed her eyes and held her breath.
     She could see it happening in her mind. The gun would kick and spit fire, one bullet spinning through the air, sonic boom ringing in her ears. The steel slug would disappear cleanly into Banshee’s head. He would slump forward, then stop moving altogether, and she would stand there watching the life leave his body. He’d be gone for good, just a bag of meat and liquids, no longer a person. He’d never bother her or anyone else again.
     The barrel began to weave, her whole body shaking as she tried to make herself do it. She tried to remember the way he threatened her, summoned up all her hate and anger to overcome the numbness in her hands, the thought of two empty eyes staring at her from a puddle of blood on the table. She sucked in another much-needed breath while her heart battered at the inside of her ribcage.
     Maybe she always expected someone, something, to step in at the last minute and stop her. Nobody and nothing did. No incredible dodge from Banshee, no Harmony to gently talk her down from the ledge, no telephone call with Jock’s reassuring voice in her ear. Just Rat and her decision.
     A moan escaped her as she started to tighten her ice-cold fingers. The trigger moved smoothly against her skin, part of a well-oiled mechanism, and she awaited the bang with gritted teeth. Every muscle in her body tensed to resist the recoil. Her heart skipped several beats in a row.
     There was a faint tick. Her fingers stopped, the trigger jammed halfway to the handle. With her breath caught in her throat, horror twisting at the very core of her being, she suddenly knew. She’d left the safety on. One tiny switch had stopped her from gunning a man down in cold blood.
     Her arms dropped, too heavy to support their own weight. The sheer enormity of what she’d almost done pressed on her shoulders like a lead weight. She couldn’t look up from her toes, feeling like the tiniest thing in the world.
     The Chrome Rat turned away, put the gun on the bar, and left it there. She crawled back into the dumbwaiter and shut the door behind her.

***

     She had no idea how many hours slipped away in that darkness. Not quite sleeping, not quite awake, she stayed there and didn’t think. Her head and heart were empty.
     The door clunked open. She jerked, surprised at the sudden intrusion on her self-imposed exile. The light outside was so blinding that she couldn’t make out a face, just a silhouette of a figure steadying itself against the wall. She heard a sigh of intense relief before the woman put a phone to her ear.
     “Cancel the search,” came Harmony’s voice. “We found her.” The next moment her arm was around Rat’s shoulder, helping her out of the dumbwaiter, chattering like a mother hen. “Goddamn you, Alex. You just love creating problems for me, don’t you? What were you thinking, pulling some kind of vanishing act in the middle of Banshee’s hideout?”
     “S-Sorry,” was all Rat could think to say. Probably all her bone-dry throat could handle. She leaned on Harmony because her cramped legs refused to bend.
     “You ought to be! We’ve been looking for you on the sly for hours, trying not to let the Irish find out you were missing!” Harmony helped her to a stool at the bar, then ran around looking for some water. She discovered one in an old fridge and pressed it into Rat’s hands. “Karen found your gun. We didn’t know what to think.”
     Rat sipped the water at first, barely able to swallow. After a few seconds though she managed to clear her throat, although she still couldn’t think of anything to say. “I . . . I just . . .”
     “Look, Alex, we’re in a delicate situation right now. We can’t afford shit like this. Imagine if one of them found your gun abandoned like that! You could’ve gotten us all killed.”
     “Killed?” echoed Rat. The word sent a funny feeling through her gut, a cold tickle that almost made her retch the water back up. For a second she wished she’d never come to Laputa in the first place.
     How had it come to this?
     Glancing at the time, then down the hall, Harmony touched Rat’s arm and gestured for her to come along. “We’re using a room down the hall, it’s not much, but it’s safe. You can stay until you feel better.”
     Rat nodded, climbed down onto shaky limbs, and took a few tentative steps with Harmony to lean on. It felt weird having somebody to help her, to care and comfort her. She’d been an orphan so long, relying on nobody but herself. The last person who went out of her way for Rat without expecting anything in return was . . .
     “You okay?” Harmony asked gently. “You’re crying.”
     “I’m fine,” she said angrily and wiped a sleeve across her face. She’s not your mother, came the voice in her mind, so loud she couldn’t hear or think anything else. Not Gina and not Harmony. She doesn’t know you, she’s got no idea what you really are. A liar, a spy, and a failed murderer. She’s just another stranger who can’t be trusted.
     With each laboured step, another piece of her armour fell back into place, until she felt nothing at all.

***

     Two of Harmony’s other girls worked from the room, glued to mobile terminals and Fed-style PDAs, juggling data in ways Rat didn’t quite understand. They had some kind of report waiting for Harmony when she walked in, and Harmony didn’t waste any time scanning the text. She slipped back into the role of revolutionary leader without missing a beat.
     Rat found herself a chair to lean on, to stop her legs from swaying. Things seemed almost serene here, nothing around but a few people doing their jobs in harmonious silence. It made her feel strangely guilty being the only one not working. Apart from sifting through more worthless data, she didn’t have a job as such, or any idea what to do.
     “What the Hell am I doing here, Harm?” she sighed. “I’m not a fighter, I get freaked out by the sight of blood, I don’t even know how to use a gun. Why in God’s name did you bring me along?”
     Harmony smiled crookedly and tore one eye away from her paperwork. “Because I trust you to watch my back. I can count on you to be there when I need you, and I know that when the chips are down, you’ll make the right choices.” She thumbed back and forth between two of the report’s pages and added, “Have a little more faith, Alex. We’re all in this together.”
     “Faith. Yeah. I’ll get right on that.”
     “You know,” Harmony dropped her sheet back on the table, maybe losing her patience a little tiny bit, “I get the feeling you’d be happier getting out more. Some recon work, maybe. Karen could always use another pair of eyes.”
     Even with Karen involved, it sounded like a good offer. She wanted to put as much distance between Banshee and herself as possible. “If it gets me away from working on that Goddamn drive, sure. Whatever he’s looking for, it ain’t on there.”
     “Mm, I didn’t think so. Luckily that’s not why we’re here.” She lifted herself to sit on the table, her lips curled into a slight smile. “Banshee’s chasing after a pipe dream. He doesn’t have a clue about the real value of that drive. How much it’ll hurt Kensei when we start releasing data, show everyone he can’t even keep his vaults secure. Even if Banshee finds something that clears him of half the shit that’s gone down these past few weeks, it won’t make a damn bit of difference.” She tapped the report beside her with a fingernail, explaining, “There’s been a civil war in Ireland. The big man wasn’t as popular back home as he thought. This other fellow, Argon, seized power and threw Banshee’s supporters out on their collective ass. Funny, Argon’d be a shoo-in for the Fifteen if we still had a Fifteen.”
     Rat listened, open-mouthed, and blurted, “Does Banshee know?”
     “Probably. He must have had some inkling or he would’ve shot us all on sight. I’m his only hope of getting back on the throne now.” Harmony broke into a laugh as she finished that sentence. “I saw it once, you know. The actual gold-plated armchair at the back of the big room in Ireland. He’s welcome to it, as long as he’s willing to play by my rules. The name Banshee still carries weight. Having him on my side will help keep the rest of the opportunistic fuckwits in line.”
     “You’re a pretty shrewd lady, Harm.” Rat smiled, and Harmony bowed her head to accept the compliment. “There’s just one thing I gotta wonder. How on Earth are you gonna bump Kensei out of his armchair?”
     “That,” she said, “doesn’t go beyond me and my close advisors. Politics is a dirty business, Alex. Don’t climb into the cesspool if you can avoid it. Now, I’d better get going, and you need to report to the basement.”
     Without further preamble, Harmony patted Rat on the arm as a quick goodbye and bustled out the door. Rat watched her go. Then she took a deep breath, put her hood up, and left the same way.
     The basement was two short hallways and a flight of stairs away. Rat dragged her feet for as long as possible. The thought of seeing Karen again did not bring her any joy. She just hoped they could get this over with quickly, like mature adults, and send Rat on her merry way.
     Karen’s eyes found Rat the moment she walked in. The growing, mutual dislike simmered in the air between them, all but striking sparks. Rat clenched her fists in her pockets as she approached.
     “Oh, I see,” Karen said, her lips pressed into a thin line. “Should’ve known something was up when Harm didn’t tell me your name.”
     “I’m here for the job, not the abuse.”
     “You haven’t earned the right to mouth off like that. Next time you fuck up, little girl, Harmony won’t be there to pick up the pieces. It’s just gonna be you and me.” She shoved an electric torch into Rat’s stomach, hard. “In the meantime, welcome to the exciting world of GPS mapping. We don’t know how far these tunnels go and where they lead, so we want a survey of the whole circuit, exits and entrances. Anything that isn’t blocked off. All you have to do is go there, we’ll rip the GPS data from your phone when you’re back. Even you should be able to handle that, huh?”
     All the breath knocked out of her, there wasn’t much Rat could do or say to argue while Karen ‘helped’ her through the trap-door. Rat’s furious look was answered by a smug, serene smile.
     “Have fun,” Karen said brightly and dropped the hatch shut with a bang.

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