The same thoughts rolled through Rat’s mind over and over as she rode the underground tram and wrestled with rusty, immovable doors. She kept going back to that spot at the office door. The awful impulse to squeeze taking her over, the harmless little tick that followed.
     She’d never failed so spectacularly at anything. It wasn’t even the kind of failure she could learn from. She didn’t feel any stronger for the experience, and she wouldn’t even try telling herself she could take another shot at it. The fact that she pulled that trigger, fully believing it would fire, gnawed at her. Had things really been desperate enough to justify it? Or had she just wanted some way out of this desperate holding pattern, trapped in a war she didn’t really understand?
     It had been like this ever since she came to Laputa. One raw deal after another. She catalogued every defeat, every indignity — real or imagined — she’d been made to suffer since she got here. The line between friend and foe had gotten blurry. Everybody still pushed her around, and she felt a burning need to get even somehow. Not by killing, but rather something elegant. Something devious. She wasn’t a fighter or an assassin; she was a hacker, right to the core.
     And she had all the time in the world to plan her revenge.
     With most of the tram exits either blocked off or chained up, there wasn’t much exploration to do. The only workable exit she found led out into some giant cooling unit for one of the arcologies. Rather than get lost in there, she turned back and resumed her search for the next one. She stopped to bathe in the light wherever the tunnels opened up, but the oppressive darkness suited her mood better.
     Three stations on, another rusty door groaned and gave way, sending her tumbling into brightness. The spiral promenade of York Tower loomed over her through a layer of clear glass. From the ground, she could see all the way to the top of the tower, three hundred floors of it. She grabbed hold of a railing to stop the mounting sense of vertigo.
     The gentle double-helix shape of the promenade coiled around the empty space like a pair of giant snakes, the entire height and width of the tower. Occasional bridges spanned the gap like nucleotides in a huge chain of DNA. Shops and restaurants lined every inch of the walkway. The glow of signs and logos mixed together to fill the air with multicoloured light, while holographic advertisements fought for the free space that remained.
     In the middle of the gap was a shaft of clear glass with all the tower’s elevators. Even the carriages were transparent, so that Rat could see all the people in them. Shopping, eating, working, killing time.
     She found the beginning of the ramp, dared herself to climb up a few floors. The helical layout meant the feeling of immense vertical space never stopped weighing on her. Still, she managed to reach the lowest section of shops without succumbing to a panic attack, and a cup of coffee in a little cafe calmed her nerves. Nobody had told her not to take breaks. She felt like she deserved one.
     It wasn’t even good coffee, probably just flavour powder dissolved in hot water, but it hit the spot and served as a good distraction. She kept her eyes on it for a long time, gathering her courage. She’d never been able to exercise so much control over her fear. Now she wanted to find out how high she could climb.
     She wouldn’t get the chance.
     Maybe it was intuition that made her look up just then. Some sixth sense or other. She noticed a woman hurrying past the cafe, going down. She looked rushed, hunted, and familiar.
     Rat jerked to her feet. She dropped a credit chip for the coffee and set off in pursuit.
     “Hey,” she called. “Wait up! I wanna talk–“
     She grabbed the woman’s shoulder. Suddenly she was sitting down, holding her nose as warm blood trickled down her fingers. The woman grabbed her by her collar and slammed her back against the wall.
     She spat, “Who are you? One of Kensei’s? I’m not gonna go like the others!” She paused, getting a good look at Rat for the first time. “Wait. You’re no soldier.”
     “You’re that reporter,” Rat sputtered. She couldn’t decide which hurt more, her bloody nose or the bruise on the back of her head. “I– I’m with Harmony. I thought you got arrested.”
     “I will be in a second! There’s a pack of Guards right on my tail. They already took my colleagues and I’ve got nowhere left to run,” she quavered. She ran a hand through her dishevelled hair. “Look, it’s too late for me. Get out of here. Get away, or they’ll take you too!”
     Too late, Rat thought. She didn’t budge from her spot. Couldn’t. She needed to do something for this woman, and her mind raced to find a solution.
     The reporter frowned and pushed her a few steps up the ramp. “What are you, deaf? I told you to stay away from me!”
     It hit her all of a sudden. The obvious answer, staring her in the face. The tunnels. The damn tunnels!
     “Come with me,” she said. She took the reporter’s hand and pulled her along to the rusty door at the bottom of the tower, into darkness.

***

     The tram station was right where she left it. The dark, concrete cavern echoed to the sound of their footsteps. A lightstrip recessed into the track let them see by its dusty glow, just enough to get them to the waiting carriage.
     Lucy, Rat suddenly remembered. That was her name. Lucy Hong.
     She looked around open-mouthed as Rat pulled her aboard. “This . . . I had no idea this was here!”
     “It’s a secret,” Rat giggled. She grabbed the throttle control and pushed it up to full. The carriage lurched, clunked, and finally began to accelerate along the big spiral shape of its track. York Tower faded away behind them, visible for a moment through a plastic skylight before the track plunged underground again.
     She offered her hand. “I’m Rat, or Alex to my friends. Pleased to meet you.”
     “Likewise,” Lucy replied. Her fingers trembled against Rat’s as the adrenaline rush ebbed away. “Thank you. This will buy me some time, but Kensei’s goons will figure out how we escaped. They won’t stop looking until I’m caught. I’ve got someplace I can go, but I have to get back up and make sure I’m seen.”
     “Huh.” Rat furrowed her brow. “I guess we can get off at the next station and–“
     The lights popped. The faint hum of electricity along the tram rails whimpered out and the control console went black. Emergency brakes ground the carriage to a halt. The next station, Orleans Tower, was still miles away. Rat’s heart sank into the pit of her stomach.
     “Shit,” said Lucy. She looked around desperately for another way out. “Shit! Okay, listen . . . I’m as good as caught already, but they may not have seen you. You hide. You hide, and you don’t come out until they’re gone. Understand?”
     She didn’t wait for a response. She took Rat’s wrist and made her jump down into the tunnel, then stuffed her under the tram, where the glowing heat from the brakes might hide her body from infrared. “Find Karen. Tell her our benefactor is in Laputa. She’ll know what it means.”
     A sudden, dazzling flash of light filled the tunnel. Thunder so loud it shook the walls and echoed endlessly in the enclosed space. Rat couldn’t hear anything after that. She watched it happen through the ringing in her ears, Lucy staggering down the tunnel until something invisible hit her from the side. It knocked her down like she weighed nothing at all. She screamed and scrabbled away. When she reached the side of the tunnel, she put her back against the wall.
     A hulking Laputan battlesuit swam into existence. An amplified voice boomed, “Lucy Hong, by authority of the Crown of Laputa, I hereby place you under arrest. If you do not cooperate, I am at leave to use all necessary force to uphold the law.”
     Rat glimpsed the two figures through a gap in the undercarriage. There was Lucy, face turned up to scowl at the trooper — an immense, vaguely-human shape that filled the tunnel from floor to ceiling. Rat shrank back from it. She cowered in the shadows, her own pulse thundering in her ears. She tried not to breathe.
     “Aren’t you gonna read me my rights?” Lucy snarled.
     “I would if you had any, ma’am.”
     “Do you even know what you’re doing? How many laws you’re violating? I’m a Goddamn journalist!”
     “Negative, ma’am. You’re not anything, anymore.”
     The trooper picked her up by the front of her shirt. She gripped his wrist with both hands. “Then what’s the charge?”
     “Conspiracy to withhold information. Conspiracy to commit sabotage. Conspiracy to terrorism and terrorist acts. Conspiracy to treason. I could go on, but it’s a long list.”
     The blank, faceless helmet shifted half an inch, looking over Lucy’s shoulder. She turned her head to follow. Quicker than she could react, a gauntleted finger pressed into the side of her neck. Pneumatic needles pierced her skin.
     She stiffened, then slumped. A drop of blood trickled down her shoulder. The battlesuit carried her in the crook of its arm like a sleeping baby.
     “Job done,” he said. Didn’t bother to shut off his voice projector. “Get to the transport.”
     In that awful moment, Rat didn’t feel like she had any choice at all.
     She wriggled out from under the tram carriage. Her eyes were wide and her legs sore, but she stood, defiant. “Leave her alone!”
     The battlesuit swept back to observe her. She didn’t flinch, staring down the black barrel of its autocannon. She hissed, “You heard me, you bastard. Let her go.”
     The thing, not quite a man in Rat’s eyes, did not obey. “Alex Park. Detention order, priority retrieval to Cloud City. We’ve had units out looking for you.”
     “Of course you have, and I don’t give a fuck,” she snarled. “I wanna see Kensei. You leave her alone and take me to him. Now!”
     “Huh.” He seemed to think about it for a moment. His tone sounded . . . amused. “Never retrieved anybody who wanted to be retrieved before. Alright, you can accompany us on the transport.” He stepped aside to clear a path for her. “Just this way, Ms. Park.”
     She summoned up the rest of her pride and swept past him, head held high. Aware of a faint wrongness in the air behind her. Tiny eddies in the current that betrayed more silent, invisible troopers walking at her shoulders as an escort.

***

     The ride to Cloud City never got any easier. She sat with her eyes clenched shut and sensed Laputa dropping away below her. Her stomach was a tight knot of terror. Cold sweat prickled her back. The military dropship didn’t have any windows to look through, but she could imagine the awful things she couldn’t see, in excruciating detail.
     Nobody spoke to Rat or even made a noise, though the suits occasionally looked at each other as if talking. She wondered what they were saying to each other. Then she went back to her desperate daydreams about solid ground and big, flat surfaces.
     A soft judder rolled through the dropship as it touched down. Rat was on her feet in an instant. She squirmed around the press of troopers and climbed through the slowly opening hatch. Anything to get some air.
     A security detail stood waiting for her on the landing pad. While Rat had to brace herself against the whipping wind, the faceless people in their light infantry suits stood glued to the floor like perfect toy soldiers. Ready to treat their prisoner with due gravity.
     She specifically didn’t look at the awful blue horizon, the clear skies all the way down to the Pacific Ocean. The longer she could fool her brain into thinking she was on the ground, the better.
     The disembarking battlesuits strode past the security guys without paying the slightest bit of attention. Only the commander stuck around, pulling up next to Rat with a curt salute.
     “Lieutenant. There’s no need, I’d like to escort her myself.”
     The security officer frowned. Then he resolved his inner conflict with a shrug. “Your call, Major. I’ll accompany you. Orders.”
     The commander directed Rat to a small hatch. The security lieutenant fell into step behind them. She was vaguely aware of Lucy’s body being offloaded onto a gurney and wheeled to a different exit. No telling which one.
     The hatch opened at their approach. She was sure the commander’s suit wouldn’t fit, too big in every direction, but it simply bent and slithered through like a greased snake. Rat followed and felt a familiar panic rise in her throat. Don’t look down, don’t look down, don’t look down . . .
     She was in a long tube suspended from the bottom of the balloon, the ‘ceiling’ of Cloud City’s habitats. One of the great upside-down domes stretched out below her, as though standing at the rim of a huge bowl. The castle of the King of Laputa sat in the centre. It was the same great lump of stone she remembered, flaring out towards the top like the hanging gardens of Babylon in reverse. Something about the colours seemed off, though. She suspected she was looking at it through some one-way camouflage.
     None of those rational thoughts did anything to help her, though. This was a million times harder without Jock there to keep her distracted. Her body froze. Her feet welded themselves to the ground, and she couldn’t make them move.
     “Acrophobic, right?” the commander said. “Hang on to me.” He scooped her up into the suit’s arms and carried her across. She clung desperately to that soulless metal shell, and hated herself for it.
     The end of the tube disappeared into a block of warehouses behind the castle. The lighting was dim and red, not meant for ordinary human eyes. She caught a glimpse of more suits resting in spider-armed cradles, empty. Racks of oversized rifles. Loading mechanisms for ammunition.
     They turned off from the path. It ended in a row of elevators, of varying shapes and sizes. The smallest one opened as they approached. The commander gently dropped her inside. The wood-panelled interior was identical to the one which had first carried her up to Kensei’s throne room, weeks ago.
     The commander glanced sideways at the security lieutenant. “You’re on your own from here, Ms. Park,” he explained. “No weapons or armour allowed in the throne room. The elevator will take you straight there, and the King asks that you wait for his arrival.”
     She couldn’t think of anything to say. So she just nodded and watched the doors close.
     The carriage seemed to move down at first. Then it stopped for a few seconds, and when it got going again she couldn’t tell which direction. Out of curiosity, Rat tried hitting the buttons on the control panel, but none of them responded.
     It finally came to a halt with a loud, mechanical clunk, and the doors whirred open.
     The torn and faded carpet leading into the throne room was the same. The artificial sunlight, however, was gone. A pale moon burned white in the ‘sky’, much larger than the real one. Thin, wispy clouds passed in front of it and cast their faint shadows over the bit of fake Greco-Roman ruin that housed the throne of Laputa.
     She walked down the dais. Traced the edge of the long table with her fingertips. The throne stood exactly where she remembered it, angular yet graceful, green-veined marble set with delicate scrollwork in platinum and gold. She touched it. Glanced around, saw she was alone. Grinning, she made herself comfortable in the royal seat of a Hacker Nation and imagined herself as its Queen. She’d have the fastest rig, pull the most dangerous jobs, and spend her whole life on the rankings as number one.
     “I think you’re in my chair,” said a voice from behind. She jumped and wheeled around to find Hideo Kagehisa’s tightly-smiling face. She glared at him. “Hello, Alex-han. I hope my people treated you with adequate respect.”
     She recovered quickly, biting her tongue to stop the impulse to swear. “Hideo. We got some things to talk about.”
     “We do,” he agreed, placing himself on his throne and his feet on the table. “Please, pull up a chair, and we can decide who’s going first.”

***

     Rat stood, arms crossed, and studied the King of Laputa. Hideo was the opposite of the man in the press conference last week. There he’d looked exhausted and overworked, frayed with stress and jacked up on stimulants. Now he lounged like a big cat, leanness outlined under a tight white polo-shirt. Hale and well rested. His eyes were bright and alert, as if all his troubles had gone away in a week, or they hadn’t really slowed him down.
     Tired or in-control, one of the two had to be an act, but Rat was no longer sure which one.
     “I said sit down.”
     “I prefer to stand,” said Rat.
     Another silence fell, a tiny battle of wills about who would give in first. Rat was determined. For once, she wouldn’t be the loser in these exchanges. She glared at Hideo until he shrugged.
     “Alright, then you’ll answer the first question.” He smiled and folded his fingers over his stomach. “Where have you been?”
     Her teeth ground together in cold rage. “Hiding. Where else?”
     “You’ll have to do better than that, Alex. I thought we had a deal. You wanted an assignment, and I gave you one.”
     “An assignment that nearly got me turned into dog food by a Goddamn machine gun!”
     “This is the real world. Risk is part of the game.”
     “Risk? We barely made it out of your fucking conference alive, and you’re still the prime suspect!”
     “‘We’? So he did escape?” Hideo’s eyes flicked away in mental calculation. “That’s a pity. I had a feeling, but the camera feeds were scrambled and I couldn’t be sure. I suppose if anyone were going to survive what happened, it’d be him.”
     “Him–” she started to ask, but caught herself just in time. “You mean Banshee?”
     “Of course. Who did you think I meant?”
     “Nobody,” she said firmly. “My turn. Why did you put a detention order out on me?”
     “I’ve had people trying to contact you for days. You weren’t answering your phone and didn’t reply to any of our casts. I figured a detention order might get you away from your new friends without arousing too much suspicion.”
     “When would I have had time to look for a fucking cast? I wasn’t by myself long enough to make any calls, let alone hijack an unsupervised rig!”
     That last part was, of course, a lie. But he didn’t need to know that.
     Hideo tilted his head to the side. “You’re a hacker, Alex. We make things possible.”
     That word affected her more than the rest of the conversation. It flooded her mind with memories, happy ones, of doing a job for the King of Laputa and of her reward. The first man ever to call her a hacker. She swallowed and tried to clear her head.
     “I believe it’s my turn.” Hideo kept his eyes on hers, unwavering. Reading her like a book. “Have you taken a look at your messages lately?”
     Rat’s hand went to her pocket and pulled out her mobile. The holographic screen lit up at a touch, alive and well. She pulled up the comm history and showed it to Hideo. Blank. Nothing received in the last two weeks. She shot back, “What messages?”
     “Interesting. May I?”
     He held out his hand for the phone. Hesitantly she let him have it, though she watched every move like a hawk. He twisted and pulled at the casing. The magnetic seals disengaged with a sharp warning click. Sliding the case all the way up, leaving the electronic guts naked and vulnerable, he gave the phone a little shake.
     Rat watched wide-eyed. A few tiny drops of gluey, silvery paste leaked out from between the circuits and landed on the tabletop. “What the fuck? What is that?”
     “Nanobot residue. Dead shells and waste. Looks like they’ve been adding some hardware.” He put the chunk of plastic and metal back on the table. Rat took it. She held it up at an angle to look into the tangle of wires. “That little blue node below the antenna is what they call an interceptor module. It selectively interferes with your calls, blocking them and rerouting them to a new destination. The question is, who put it there? Why? And how much do they know about your . . . association with me?”
     She focussed back on Hideo, still in shock. “I don’t believe this.”
     “It’s all easily verifiable. You didn’t think it was strange to go several days without any contact from me?”
     “I thought you were trying to kill me!”
     Surprise on his face. He was taken aback, like he couldn’t imagine how she could leap to that kind of conclusion. Rat wasn’t buying it for a second.
     “Did you order the attack on the Fifteen?” she asked sharply. “Was it your guys in the helicopter?”
     He waved his hand, dismissing the question as irrelevant. “Don’t waste my time.”
     “You owe me an answer, Hideo. Did you order it?”
     “No.”
     “Bullshit! I don’t believe you.”
     “You asked. I answered. Believe what you want.” He gave another tight smile. “But you still haven’t asked me the most important question. Most important to you.”
     “Fine,” she said. Her fists clenched against her hips. “Where’s Jock?”
     “Safe.”
     The phone lay on the table between them, and her attention flicked back to it at intervals. A hesitation in the back of her brain prevented her from reaching out. The thing felt diseased, infected with something to the point where she’d never trust it again. And for some reason that made her angry with Hideo, for telling her.
     “I want to see him.” When he didn’t respond, she repeated, “I want to see him, Hideo.”
     “No.” He studied her expression carefully, and held up a placating hand before she exploded. “Not until you do something for me first.”
     White-hot fury boiled in her veins, trying to grab control of her tongue, but she bit it back. She stayed in command of herself. The contempt in her eyes and the snort of disgust from her throat were entirely deliberate. “Is that how things are gonna work now? Blackmail?”
     “Always so crude,” Hideo sighed. “I’m not blackmailing anyone. Think of it as scratching my back, and getting yours scratched in return. Fair exchange.”
     “I’m not stupid. It’s blackmail, or extortion, or whatever you wanna call it. No deal.”
     Hideo swung his legs off the table and stood up. “Don’t misunderstand. You owe me, and right now I’m not sure I can still trust you. A lot of things have happened lately, Alex. Prove your loyalty and things can still go back to the way they were. A place on the rankings, with the support of not just the King of Laputa, but the Lord Protector of the Nations. That’s my new title. Like it?” He gave a little shrug. “That, or I promise you will never see or hear from Jock again. Your choice.”
     There was no denying it; he fought dirty. Rat looked away, reeling. She’d lost. Totally and completely. Her eyes found a small tree growing between two cracked pillars in the scenery and stayed glued to it. It helped to silence the gnawing of her conscience about the decision she’d already made.
     “What . . . What do you want?”
     Hideo put his hands on her shoulders and nodded in a grave, avuncular sort of way. “Don’t worry. It’s just a little thing, and it won’t take you any effort at all.”

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