Rat glared at the walls of the ‘waiting room.’ Stewing in her anger. Every once in a while she’d get up and kick at the door until her foot hurt and she had to sit down again. Nothing she did seemed to matter. She got screwed regardless of what she did or who she was working for.
     She checked her phone one more time. No signal, no way of getting in touch with the outside world. She was out of the loop, separated from Karen, locked up for hours without anyone to talk to.
     It drove her up the wall. There was no more terrible punishment for a hacker than to be cut off from the supply of information.
     Eventually she exhausted herself. She fell asleep on the room’s only concession to furniture, a crude plastic bench bolted to the wall. Tossing and turning fitfully until the sound of the door startled her awake. She staggered to her feet and, dazed as she was, prepared for a fight.
     The moment a man walked in, she leaped at him without hesitation. He caught her in his arms and hugged her right back.
     “Tell me it’s really you,” she whispered. Moisture prickling at the corners of her eyes.
     “In the flesh,” Jock said softly. He pulled back and looked at her over the rims of his glasses, his coffee-coloured cheeks dimpled in a smile. “Did you miss me?”
     “Bastard. You utter bastard. I’ve been worried sick about you, and that’s the first thing you say?”
     “You don’t waste any time jumping down my throat, huh, Lex?” He chuckled, nuzzling her hair. “I’ve been looking all over for you, you know. You were ghosting for days, and I can’t really leave Cloud City with the situation down there. People know I’m close to Hideo. I’m liable to get snatched or killed in the Goddamn street.”
     Rat frowned. She didn’t think things were that bad . . . And something about Jock seemed off. Not entirely at ease. Every now and again, a tiny muscle twitched under his left eye, like he were trying and failing to wink.
     “So you’ve been here the whole time?” she asked. Searching his eyes for something. Anything. She could read the stress in his body language, the tension in his shoulders. He should’ve said something about it by now, she thought. He should’ve complained.
     Nodding, Jock took her hand and led her out into the hall. They were the only ones there. Blank, pastel-coloured walls stretched out on both sides. Rat shuddered. It was eerily reminiscent of the Fed building in Hong Kong, and Jock’s blasé attitude didn’t make it feel any more welcoming.
     He said, “Hideo needs his friends now more than ever. I don’t think he has many left.”
     “Really? After he had them all shot?”
     “Look, Lex, you don’t know Hideo like I do. He’s not a murderer.”
     She gave a cynical, contemptuous snort. “Maybe you don’t know him as well as you think, Jockster. I just saw him give the order to paint a room in Banshee-brains. An unarmed prisoner. Blammo.” She mimed firing a gun under her chin. Jock tried to respond, but she continued right over him. “Don’t say it ain’t the same as pulling the trigger, and don’t ever tell me I don’t understand. Got that?”
     Jock looked at her for a long time. Maybe deciding whether or not she was telling the truth. Finally he took a deep breath, and tapped his pocket. For a brief instant, the lights in the hallway dimmed, flickering like a damaged fluorescent tube. He’d done something, and now he was grabbing Rat’s shoulders, looking serious. He took her through a side door, which turned out to contain an emergency stairwell.
     “I believe you,” he said softly. “But he’s still my friend, and this is still the middle of Cloud City, okay? It isn’t safe. Take the fucking hint already.”
     She glanced around, looking for cameras and listening devices, even though she already knew they’d be invisible to the naked eye. Jock squeezed her shoulders tighter. “Okay! Okay, Jock, I get it. I’ll be as subtle as a really subtle thing.”
     She noticed the lights flicker again. A feeling of unseen attention washed over her, as if some predator were stalking her from a set of imaginary bushes. Exactly what human sense was ringing those alarm bells, she didn’t know. Just that it was something old, primal, and more than a little creepy.
     “So what’s the game plan?” she asked, trying to sound casual.
     “Walk with me. I’ll fill you in along the way.”
     “Where are we going?”
     “You’ll see when we get there. Don’t worry, you’ll like it.”
     The grin on Jock’s face was not at all reassuring. Rat listened and mentally prepared herself for . . . pretty much anything.

***

     “Welcome to casa Jock,” he said. Where exactly they were in the King’s castle, Rat couldn’t tell, but after a brisk walk and a long ride on the elevator, the place had begun to look less like a prison. The carpets returned, the nice sandstone and other medieval trappings, along with subtle hints of modern convenience woven into the whole.
     Now she was looking at the Cloud City equivalent of a bachelor pad. None of the stylish furniture saw much use. The sumptuous black leather, the polished glass, none of it had a speck of dust and the kitchen even less so. The only item which showed any sign of wear or tear was the giant VR rig taking up most of the far wall. The air blowing from the heat exchanger shimmered like a desert mirage.
     “So this is where you’ve been these past few weeks,” she said. A tiny note of bitterness might have crept into her voice just then, remembering all the times she’d been manhandled, drugged, threatened, shot at, and more.
     “Working, yeah. Trying to save us all from the impending info-pocalypse. You may recall.” He took a VR crown out of its cradle and handed it to her. “In the minutes when I wasn’t scouring the entire city for a certain somebody.”
     She felt a smile creep up on her despite herself. “I’ve been around. Guess you weren’t doing a very good job.”
     “You are such a bitch.”
     They fell into each other’s arms, flowing from embrace to kiss and back again. Rat found herself breathing quietly into his shoulder, eyes shut tight, happier than she would ever admit. Wires dangling down her hands and back. Jock was a jackass, but he was her jackass.
     “Alright,” she murmured as she started to fit her crown into place, “tell me the game plan.”
     The goggles slipped over her eyes, transporting her to the virtual wonderland of Main Street in the time it took her to blink. She materialised as her usual computer-self. The avatar was stored in an implanted data chip and travelled everywhere with her. She took a moment to orient herself, to let her brain acclimatise to the visual chaos and flashing colour. Buildings and people made of every substance real or imagined, into every shape the mind could process — and even a few that only made sense to computers.
     Jock appeared next to her as some trench-coated tough guy she didn’t even recognise. He gave her a sideways glance, sunglasses on, and started a casual walk down the middle of the street. Rat kept pace beside him. With a gesture, Jock conjured up a repulsion field which made everyone else within a certain distance simply disappear. It offered them a little more privacy as he sucked in a deep breath and prepared to talk.
     “The game plan is to ride things out. We’ve been working on a local countermeasure against Gabriel’s bots, and I think we’re almost there. We can shield Laputa from the worst of it. It’ll buy us valuable time, enough to get the political situation back to some form of sanity.”
     Stopping in mid-movement, Rat did a double-take. “Ride it out?” she quoted. Searching his eyes for some sign of levity. There was none. “My God, you’re actually serious. Are you fucking stupid?”
     “I love it when we fight,” he replied, rich with sarcasm.
     “No, Jock, I’m not fucking around. Gabriel ain’t some comic book villain who’s gonna take his time after he flips the switch. If we let him do this, that’s it. Game over. He wins.”
     “Lex . . . We can’t stop it.” He sighed, sunglasses staring at the floor. “The Fifteen are broken up. Half the Nations still don’t have a proper government, and the few that aren’t in chaos wouldn’t trust us to wipe their noses. Nobody trusts anybody anymore. We simply can’t rally the manpower to fight this thing head-on.”
     “So your alternative is to just let it happen?”
     “I don’t see what else we can do.”
     Rat felt her fists clench of their own accord. Anger roiled in the pit of her stomach, and she grabbed the front of Jock’s coat, dragging him into an alley. Running a little program to encrypt everything she said to him. She shoved him up against the wall and held him there.
     “Wake up, Jockey boy!” she shouted at him. “Stop being such a damp squib and actually think! Ever since we found out about this mess with Gabriel, things have been going from bad to worse. Somebody is doing their damnedest to make sure the Nations won’t be putting up a united front. And with every passing day, who’s the only one that appears to be profiting from the situation? Your dear old friend Hideo.”
     “Don’t be ridiculous. He’s trying his best to put everything back together!”
     “You just said it yourself, Jock. We’re divided. Nobody trusts anybody. I think that’s the way he wants it, until the big bomb goes off and old Kensei wanders onto the stage as our gracious fucking saviour. They’re in this together somehow. I just know it.”
     He brushed her hands off and fixed his coat. “Lex, I’m not blind. Hideo is a little out of control, sure. But without him we wouldn’t even have known about the botnet. How do you explain that?”
     “He needed a reason, didn’t he?” she shot back. “He had to get the Fifteen together in Laputa. Remember what happened to them.”
     “You . . .” Jock’s face went through a range of uncomfortable expressions. His Adam’s apple bobbed, swallowing. “Jesus. What if you were right, Lex? What would we do?”
     “If I’m right, we’re gonna need evidence. We–“
     The words died on her lips when another avatar sprang into being next to them. She immediately recognised Kensei’s armoured knight, opening his visor to greet them.
     “It’s good to see you two reunited at last,” he murmured. “You can thank me later. David, I need a progress report on the countermeasures. We don’t have time to dilly-dally. Can you walk me through it right now?”
     Jock nodded stiffly. “Um. Sure. I’ll get us back to the local network.”
     Rat remained quiet, but she followed along and watched closely. Ranking or no ranking, the big picture was finally coming into focus, and she didn’t like it one bit. She was tired of making deals with the devil. She still had a conscience somewhere. It wouldn’t stay silent, and — she knew — neither would she.

***

     The countermeasure wasn’t much to write home about. Just a crude hack which would divert the zombies into a virtual machine, letting them shut down fake systems while the real ones stayed up and running. The challenge, and the most time-consuming part of the job, was getting the hack to work on the thousands of different machines in Laputa. Every possible configuration had to be catered for. Every permutation of parts and software.
     No wonder Jock couldn’t make it work worldwide. That’d take an army.
     Rat kept her eyes on Hideo for the whole tour. He was all smiles, like old buddies and business partners. She remembered the cracks appearing in his facade, down in the belly of that data vault, but here he was the ultimate politician. If he was upset about the loss of a large chunk of the Laputan economy, you couldn’t tell by looking at him.
     “Good work, David,” he said at the end. “Get Alex to help you. You should be able to cover all essential systems in Laputa, if you don’t spend too much time on . . . recreation.”
     There was a moment of awkward silence while Jock tried to decide whether he wanted to get offended or not, and Rat bit her tongue on an immediate surge of anger. She might’ve spoken up, but she couldn’t find the words to express how upset she was. Then Hideo laughed and slapped his old friend on the shoulder. Dispelling the uncomfortable atmosphere with a smile.
     “Lighten up! It was a joke!” He glanced over his shoulder at Rat, just for a moment. Her avatar’s face was blank and expressionless. If he could’ve seen her actual state of mind, he’d probably throw her right back into a cell. “I have full confidence in you. Both of you.”
     “Then let us work, alright?” said Jock. “The sooner I can get Lex up to speed, the better. There’s other things you could be micromanaging.”
     “Always the impatient one. You really haven’t changed a bit, have you, David?” Hideo chuckled, then waved away the question. “I’ll keep you updated. I’d appreciate if you did the same.”
     The shiny suit of armour faded out of existence. Rat flicked a glance at her system monitor, to make sure he had really left, and wasn’t just hiding to spy on them. Astonishingly, it seemed like there was nothing up his sleeve this time.
     Maybe she was paranoid. Maybe everyone ought to be.
     Jock let himself fall backwards. A chair popped into existence to catch him, and he landed with an unhappy oof. The strain was starting to show even on his avatar. He looked . . . different. Older than she remembered him. There were lines in his face she didn’t recognise. He’d always been a skinny little fuck, but Rat could tell he’d lost weight.
     “Sorry it couldn’t be a happier reunion, Lex,” he said.
     “Forget about that! We’re together, right? We can do this.”
     “Do what?” he shot back. A flash of irritation came over him. “What the fuck do you expect me to do? Turn on my best friend? Bring down the only government we have left? Even if that sounded like a good idea, I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
     She frowned. “Are you sure about that? ‘Cause I heard the resistance has been getting help from an anonymous insider, and I’m starting to wonder who it might be.”
     “Great. You worked it out. Give yourself a Goddamn medal,” he grumped. “What good has it done? I gave them all the intel I could, and now Banshee’s dead, and Kohler doesn’t stand a chance by herself. That leaves . . . Who, exactly? Simon and his dysfunctional friends? Give me a break. I’m through with that maniac bossing me around when we’ve got our own solution right here.”
     Stepping forward, Rat straightened her fingers and brought her open palm across Jock’s face. The movement was simulated, but the pain was real, beamed into his brain by the VR crown. As was the disorientation when his head whipped to the side. He nearly fell out of his imaginary chair.
     “If no one else’ll do it, then it’s up to us,” she decreed. “We’re in the middle of Cloud City, Jock! If we can’t find any proof here, it doesn’t exist, and you can clear him of suspicion once and for all. But if it does . . . We can blow this whole thing wide open.”
     He touched his cheek, then turned to look at her from under half-closed lids. “You really are crazy.”
     “That’s right, and you can’t talk me out of it. With or without you, Jock. Your choice.”
     Little gears ground away in Jock’s mind, still pretending to weigh his options. As if he could say no. By now she knew him better than he knew himself, and he responded to leadership. A certain dominant touch, giving him a job to focus on, giving him purpose. Not that he’d ever admit it. He was still a product of hacker culture.
     “You are a bad influence on me, Lex,” he sighed. “Tell me your plan.”
     Rat smiled and leaned in to kiss him. “First,” she murmured softly against his lips, “we code.”

***

     The rush of it never went away. To stitch together blocks and modules at the speed of light, even write whole streams of information by hand, and then shave off every byte of unnecessary weight until the application was honed to a razor edge. She moved like she had a purpose.
     In that moment, her body dancing next to Jock’s in the VR rig, she knew beyond doubt what she wanted — needed — in this world. First, to be a hacker. Second, her boy at her side. Third, to feel like she was doing some good in the world. Maybe make up for some past mistakes. That kind of thing.
     She finished off another application and threw it into her personal data folder. Another soldier in her digital army. So far it was mainly decoys, things to distract Cloud City’s electronic security and the people manning it. She was especially proud of the little utility that’d turn a local group of fire alarms on and off at random. Spoofing flame-like graphics on the camera feeds. Jock didn’t seem convinced, but Rat knew it was going to be fun.
     “You give these guys too much credit,” she told him. “By the time they figure out it’s not a real emergency, we’ll have been in and out of Hideo’s little ‘throne room’. No sweat.”
     “I’m with you, Lex, but do you really think Kensei is the type to leave incriminating evidence just lying around?”
    &nbsp”If he’s as dirty as I think he is, he can’t hide everything. Besides, he’s Japanese. He’ll have a running record of everything up to and including his daily bowel movements.”
     “You’re an awful, awful racist, you know that?”
     “Yeah? Suck it up, sweet cheeks.”
     “You know you still haven’t told me what my role’s supposed to be in this adventure.”
     “It’ll be easy. You just make your way into Hideo’s office and snoop around.”
     That summation didn’t go over well. Jock nearly had kittens, especially because she kept smiling at him. She cut him off by grabbing a handful of his balls.
     “Shut up and think. If they find you there, it’s the King’s best friend dropping in to discuss important business. If they find me, I get the chop for treason. If they find both of us, maybe we can get executed together!”
     He gave a grudging nod, beads of sweat forming on his forehead at being caught in such an intimate grip. He put a hand on her elbow but she didn’t let go. He moaned, “Alright, I see your point, but I’m no good at being the action guy. That was always Simon. Not me.”
     “I know. It’s not like I’ve ever run support before.” She gave him another little squeeze before letting go. His physical feedback was set to full, and she liked making him grunt. “I can handle it if you can.”
     “I . . . I can do it. But I want a promise from you,” he insisted. “Promise me that if we don’t find anything, you’ll leave him alone, and we can get on with things. That’s all I want.”
     Rat searched his eyes, surprised by the question. “Okay, Jock. Okay.”
     There was real fear and worry in his eyes, but he put a brave face on it as his avatar faded out of existence. Logging off. Probably aiming to work himself up for his big performance.
     She followed suit, blinked as the real world assaulted her eyes, and hung up her VR crown. The sudden need for attention was overwhelming. Something to take her mind off the pressure. She ran after Jock and pounced on him, dragged him to the bed, pushed him down. She started to peel away her clothes. Nudging the bra straps off her shoulders. Letting her panties show through the undone fly of her jeans. He eventually got the message.
     “We’ll be okay,” she assured him, smiling as she gyrated. “We’ll win, and everything’s gonna be fine.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.