We’ll win, and everything’s going to be fine, Rat told herself. Again. And again.
     She watched from the safety and comfort of Jock’s VR rig, patched in through a hidden camera in one of his shirt buttons. Riding lifts and wandering stone-clad hallways. The castle was so much bigger than it looked from the outside. She’d searched for a floor plan, but nothing comprehensive seemed to exist. The King of Laputa didn’t have to answer to any building standards or safety agency. He did things however he damn well pleased.
     A Guardswoman in light armour stopped Jock and asked for his retinas. He leaned in to let the machine scan the back of his eyeballs. The results must have been good, because the trooper immediately stepped aside and saluted. Jock gave her a nod on his way past.
     “Aren’t you a big-shot?” Rat murmured, smiling. “Nice work, Jockey boy. Mind your heart rate.”
     Suspended in the corner of her vision was a little readout of his biofeedback. His heart was thumping, eyes shifting rapidly, his sweat glands on overdrive. In other words, he was nervous.
     “You’re welcome down here if you think you can do better,” he hissed into his lapels.
     “Whine, whine. Just don’t act suspicious. If they twig you, we’re toast.”
     He elected not to respond. According to his vitals, some of his nerves had shifted to grumpiness.
     A few more scans later, he finally made it to the throne room. One swipe of a hacked keycard opened the doors for him. Creeping across the threshold, calling to make sure nobody was in. Only his own voice echoed back. He let the lock fall shut behind him.
     The decor was still the same as Rat remembered, but with the holoprojectors switched off, much of the misty, gloomy spectacle went out of it. It became a collection of unimpressive, tumbledown rocks, a long table with too few chairs, and a throne too shiny by half for its surroundings. Deeper in, she was more affected by the bit she hadn’t seen before — the huge castle gate to Hideo’s office.
     Two chunks of iron-bound oak stood in Jock’s way, at least twice his height and heavy enough to stop anything short of a nuclear bomb. The only way through was a little wicket set into the left gate. Jock crossed to it and furtively pressed down on the latch. It was unlocked. He entered the office without a hint of trouble.
     “This is too easy,” he said. “I don’t feel right.”
     “You’re fine, Jock. We’re in Kensei Central, not everything’s gonna be locked and barred.”
     “Okay. Okay, but you let me know the second you sniff anything coming this way!”
     “You’ll be the first,” she quipped. It was so like Jock to start pissing himself at the moment of truth.
     He absorbed the room in a long, slow pan, giving Rat a good view. It was surprisingly minimalist. Despite its size — only a little smaller than the throne room — it featured just one shelf of strange mementos, a desk, and a plush chair stitched together from lashings of expensive leather. The walls were stark, white on one side, mirrored glass on the other. It helped draw the eye to the smooth, stainless steel curve of that desk. It was oblong, kind-of wrapping around the chair, kind-of not. A large holoprojection lens protruded from the ceiling above it.
     When Jock inched further inside, Rat realised the far end of the room was capped by a single, gargantuan pane of glass. It offered spectacular views of Cloud City below. She had to close her eyes and focus on other parts of the camera feed.
     The shelf of mementos drew Jock like a moth to a flame. He picked up a small, old-fashioned picture frame. It showed him and Hideo shoulder to shoulder, together with two more guys Rat didn’t recognise. They were in some tech-themed bar-slash-nightclub. Big screens and primitive VR units crowded the background. When Jock angled the frame differently, the picture changed. First to their college graduation. Then another ceremony, different in tone, all formal suits and even a few dresses. Something to do with the formation of the Hacker Nations. Some of the faces in that one were definitely familiar. A couple of the Fifteen, now dead. Banshee. Harmony Kohler.
     Funny. In every picture that scrolled by, Jock and Hideo were side by side. Inseparable. Maybe she’d underestimated their friendship.
     He put the picture frame down. “Lex, you notice anything funny about this room?”
     “Funny ha-ha or funny peculiar?”
     “You are not old enough to use that phrase.” He gave his surroundings another careful pan. “Something’s missing here. It doesn’t feel like a hacker’s private sanctum. And I’m not talking about a fridge full of soda and stimdrinks.”
     In a flash of inspiration, Rat put two and two together. She blurted, “There’s no VR rig.”
     “Bingo. This definitely isn’t where he jacks in from. Try cycling the camera, see anything out of the ordinary?”
     Flicking through the different view settings, Rat tried to squeeze more information from the little spy-toy. It was a lot harder than it ought to be. Jock had ten tons of this cheap Taiwanese nerd-ware lying around, just for shits and giggles, never expecting to actually use it. Not for anything serious. Quality merchandise it was not.
     The only thing which worked to any degree, the thermal imager, told her nothing. The room was cold as a cucumber. She could only see two hot spots: the holoprojector, and the picture frame where Jock had touched it, imbuing it with his body heat.
     But . . . also not where Jock had touched it. Some interior mechanism had responded to the movement, above and beyond changing the images.
     “Check the picture frame again,” she told him. “I think something’s up.”
     She guided Jock to the tiny heat source, but it was impossible to tell from the outside what would trigger it. The surface looked smooth, unblemished. Whatever was there had been built in. For a second Rat wondered if it could be a bug planted by one of Hideo’s enemies, then discarded the theory. There were no transmitters in Kensei’s office that Kensei didn’t know about.
     “If it wants a voice sample or something, we crash and burn,” Jock pointed out.
     “Just think for a minute. You’re his best friend. He’s probably built in some kind of emergency access for you, in case something happened to him. What kind of secret handshake would he use?”
     “I don’t know, Lex! I’m not Hideo. I shouldn’t even be here, he trusts me. I gotta get out.” He turned, glancing back at the door. Trapped in indecision between his girl and his best friend.
     ‘I don’t envy him,’ Rat thought suddenly, Jock’s voice echoing out of memory. She repeated the rest of it out loud. “‘Hideo and I made a bet when we were at college, which one of us would be the first to get their own country. He won.'”
     Jock made a confused grunt. “What are you talking about?”
     “Shut up. I need a minute.” Her brain continued to work at it, deriving clues, making leaps of pure intuition. She commanded, “Say ‘long live the King.’ Don’t ask why, just say it.”
     He did. Something clicked, and seams appeared in the section of wall with the shelf on it. It swung open in a lazy, heavy way, like a proper secret door. Red light spilled out from inside. Wisps of cold steam curled across the floor.
     “Whoa,” Jock said.

***

     If there was another rig like this anywhere on Earth, it was a state secret. Rat couldn’t think of one, and she’d seen Jock’s hardware back when he worked for the Emperor in Shanghai. As Chinese crime lords went, the Emperor had been right up there, and he’d supplied Jock with the state of the art in everything, the best money could buy — about equal to the rig Rat was jacked into now. It didn’t even play in the same league as the King of Laputa’s private booth.
     It felt more like a living creature than a machine. Veins of liquid nitrogen traced through the skin in fractal patterns, throwing off more icy steam. The soft, rhythmic noises of pumps and motors were its heartbeat. Every surface was covered in a film of alternating silver and inky black. Nanoscale memory chips. Other parts, like the little bulbous protrusions arranged in a diagonal grid across the black monolith, were unlike any mainstream component on the market.
     The suspension straps were so light she could see through them, and the crown . . . A specimen of angular perfection, dotted with more electrodes than the most expensive model in stores. In the corner lay a trunkline bigger than any Rat had ever seen, a thousand wires and cables twisted together into one mother-unit, feeding the rig with vast amounts of data and electricity.
     Rat could sense the untamed potential of the thing, even through a tiny button camera.
     “Smells like ozone,” Jock remarked. He almost touched one of the pulsing arteries, but stopped himself just in time when he sensed the cold radiating from it. He would’ve lost the skin off his fingers, if not more.
     “Look around. What else do you see?”
     Jock examined the compartment inch by inch. Almost all the available space went to the rig, except for a small locker crammed into one corner. It contained an anti-friction suit tailored to Hideo’s body, and a space to stash his day clothes, currently empty.
     No joy. Rat had hoped against hope they would find some kind of hardcopy, but hackers would be hackers. If it couldn’t be done in the digital world, it wasn’t worth doing.
     She took a deep breath. “Are you up to breaking and entering Hideo’s private computer?” she asked. Jock nearly had kittens, but she cut him off. “Shut up! We need to do this, it’s important.”
     “Think about it. You really believe he’s just gonna leave incriminating evidence all over his own system?”
     “Maybe. There’s got to be something we can use. He went to all the trouble of hiding this in meatspace, so maybe he’s less tidy with data.”
     “Too thin, Lex.”
     “We came all this fucking way. We may never get another chance, Jockey boy. You wanna turn back now?”
     “Yes.”
     “Put the Goddamn crown on your head.”
     Rebellion never came easy to Jock. He took the crown from its stand, waffled for a minute and muttered to himself. Reluctantly, he settled it on his head. The goggles folded over his eyes. Rat chewed her lip, unable to see what Jock was seeing. She jittered in her straps with nervous excitement.
     “Jock?” she asked when he didn’t say anything. “Is it working? Can you patch me in?”
     The sound of her voice reminded him she existed. “Um. Sure. One minute.”
     Only seconds later, a message window popped up in the corner of her vision, asking her to accept an incoming connection. She did. The information wrapped around her, a full simulation, assaulting her with light and sound. The rig next to her ticked as extra cooling systems came on-line. It began to hum, louder and louder. All its systems strained to render the exquisite new world blasting into Rat’s eyes.
     She swallowed and took it all in. It was information overload, more than her eyes or her brain could parse in one glance. Instead she absorbed it piece by piece until she could handle the whole picture.
     Clearly, living in his own high-tech fortress with all its holograms and expensive affectations wasn’t enough for Hideo Kagehisa. When he retreated into his own personal space, he stood at a wide, open balcony atop a steep hill. Below it, the countryside stretched out for miles and miles of stone, grass and heather. Villages. Fields. Keeps and castles. A perfect medieval world, more perfect than the middle ages ever were. Suggestions of soft, herby smells beamed into Rat’s brain without ever involving her nose.
     Some children were playing outside. They laughed and waved up at Rat — or Jock, rather — as they ran down the dirt road, kicking a ball of old leather. They played rough and nasty, kneeing and elbowing each other like only little boys could.
     “Master?” came a voice from behind, speaking liquid Japanese. Jock whirled around at the unexpected sound.
     A woman stood in the centre of the room, dressed in an elegantly simple cotton dress. Green, the same colour as her eyes. Her skin was tanned and impossible to pin down to any ethnicity. She demurely clasped her hands in front of her and kept her gaze down.
     Rat’s breath caught in her throat. She recognised the woman’s face. So did Jock.
     “Harmony,” he whispered.
     She gave him a quizzical look and changed to English without missing a beat. “My name is Tranquility, Master. Don’t you remember?”
     This rendered Jock utterly speechless. Rat cleared her throat, hissing, “It thinks you’re Hideo, man. Talk to her.”
     “I don’t want to! It’s creepy.”
     “Let’s just hope it’s completely innocent and totally not what it looks like. Talk!”
     The Harmony-replica continued to stare at him. Her expression of concern was so convincing, so life-like, it made Rat’s skin crawl. Jock stammered, “Hello.”
     Rat buried her metaphorical face in her hands. Her boyfriend, the orator.
     The acknowledgement of her existence seemed to please Tranquility to no end. She bowed like a geisha. “Hello, Master! How may I serve you today?”
     Totally not what it looks like, thought Rat, starting to feel sick. Nope, nope.
     Another awkward silence stretched out between Jock and the construct. She stared expectantly until he came up with something else to say. “Um. Can you, um, can you show me what Hi– What I’ve been working on?”
     “Of course, Master. Let me fetch your papers for you.”
     She turned and, swaying her hips far more than necessary, went to a large wooden desk near the fireplace. Gathering up an armful of parchments and notes. The viewpoint tilted slightly as Jock checked out her backside. Then, efficient as anything, she unwrapped the scrolls and left them hovering in mid-air before him. There were dozens of them. Each window displayed only a tiny chunk of its information, waiting for a touch to bombard the viewer with even more.
     Job done, Tranquility knelt on the floor and waited there. “These are all the items you referenced or modified in the last three months.”
     Rat was thinking on her feet. Still in control of her system, she started to record everything she could see of those files, while Jock was still standing around holding his balls. The simulation around her grew a little choppy, with essential processing power being diverted to another task.
     Hideo’s rig wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. It was damn near powerful enough to run its own AI.
     “Alex, are you seeing this?” Jock asked. He glanced from scroll to scroll, struggling to figure them out. Letters, numbers, images. “Not all of it’s text. There’s a few audiovisual archives.”
     He pointed to a rectangular black window with a big ‘Play’ button on it. It showed a brief clip of an older Japanese man, slick black hair and a blue suit, explaining that Amasawa Group would no longer be needing Laputan data protection services. They were pulling their contracts.
     “This all looks like business stuff. I see mail, I see contracts and call logs . . . Everything’s legit.” Glancing down at Tranquility, he added, “Freaky, but legit.”
     Rat’s heart sank. Had she really been so wrong? And if not Hideo, who was behind it all? None of it made sense anymore.
     “Let me look at some older files,” Jock said. He gathered up the cloud of data and put it to one side. “What’s the oldest you’ve got?”
     “I have been in operation for four years, two months and nineteen days, Master. Nothing you keep here precedes that date. Some information may have been copied here from older systems, but I wouldn’t know.”
     She produced a stack of dusty, leather-bound tomes from a drawer, and placed them in the air one by one. They were written in complete gibberish.
     “Would you like me to apply your stored encryption passwords, Master?”
     A moment of stunned silence passed between Rat and Jock. Security point of failure number one, lazy password management. Number two, a slavishly helpful home-brewed agent who couldn’t tell one user from another. For such a fastidious guy, Hideo had made a major cock-up.
     On the other hand, maybe he just trusted his best friend not to stab him in the back.
     Jock coughed, “Yes! Please. Decrypt everything.”
     The yellowed books became a whirlwind of activity. Pages and pages of chaotic, illegible characters began to resolve into reams of English and Japanese. Sometimes both at the same time. Rat only understood bits and pieces. Most of it dealt with getting Cloud City built and operational. Political stuff, treaties and alliances. Jock browsed the titles and headers without getting bogged down in endless volumes of text.
     Finally, he paused at a small chunk of code. Its purpose was obvious to anyone who could read. Hidden in a low-level government computer, it would create fake listings for hackers who never existed, and fill out ballots for them. A simple trick which completely bypassed the heavy security on Laputa’s voting software.
     “He rigged the election?” Rat asked, dumbstruck.
     “There’s a chance he never used it, or it’s not his.” Jock rubbed his temples. He didn’t believe it himself. “There’s always a chance.”
     “This . . . This is huge. We’ve got to get it to the press!”
     “Hold on. There’s more.”
     A different leather-bound volume from around the same date yielded an interesting personal log. A calendar of dinners and private rendezvous. Also in attendance: ‘Razorblade’ Kohler. Even for close friends, their choices of venue were a little . . . romantic.
     It didn’t take much for Jock to put two and two together.
     “Holy balls,” he said. “He was ploughing her!”
     Rat realised her mouth was hanging open. She wiped it with the back of her hand, and fit together the new information with what she’d already seen and heard. “He knew she was a woman. He wanted her out of the way so he could take over.”
     “I still can’t wrap my head around it.” His voice sounded raw, hurt. “This isn’t the Hideo I know. Why would he do it? He only wants what’s best for the Nations.”
     Suddenly his attention shifted to another chunk of gibberish. Encrypted text, indecipherable to the naked eye. Clearly it didn’t use any of Hideo’s normal decryption passwords. It stood out like a sore thumb, like it didn’t belong with the other files. Not something a normal computer would use. It was a thousand times more dense, as if every character had to count.
     “Wait. That’s nanocode.”
     “Say what?”
     “Nanobot programming,” he explained, examining the file close up. “Can’t tell what it’s for, it hasn’t been opened in years. I’ve never known Hideo to play with nanocode. I didn’t think it was his thing.”
     The puzzle pieces began to fall into place in her mind. It was the key bit of evidence she needed to make sense of everything else. Kensei wasn’t trying to fight the info-weapon — he created it. Made it look Irish to shift suspicion onto somebody else. Everyone fell for it, hook, line and sinker. Even the Chrome Rat.
     Intense relief washed over her. They’d hit the jackpot. Complete and total vindication. She was right, oh so right. It didn’t feel as good as she imagined, though. There was a bad taste in her mouth. Part of her had wanted Hideo to be innocent as much as Jock did. No matter where they went from here, it was going to cost Jock his best friend.
     She tried to think of the best way to break it to him when one of her pre-programmed alarms went off. Kensei was coming down the hall to the throne room door. Adrenaline tightened Rat’s throat, and she had to swallow a big lump before she could shout, “Abort, abort! He’s back! Get out of there fast!”
     That was just the first thing to go wrong.

***

     Her view of the medieval house vanished as Jock cut the connection. Rat switched back to the spy-cam, shoved it into a corner while she worked. She couldn’t do much without arousing suspicion, but she had some ideas to buy them some time. Thanks to Jock’s special card, she could access the throne room and all its support systems. She quickly kicked the bio-recognition module offline. Watched through another camera as Hideo walked up and stopped, surprised, when the door didn’t open.
     “Read error,” chimed an electronic voice. “Please use card lock.”
     He sighed. It clearly wasn’t the system’s first malfunction. He dug his magic white card out of a pocket, swiped it. Rat introduced another error. A red light came up on the lock, and Hideo’s frown deepened. He swiped his card again. This time the door swung open with its usual elegance. He relaxed, but punched in a maintenance request on his PDA before continuing inside.
     Jock sat on the throne of Laputa, all casual, his feet kicked up on the big table. He waved at his old friend. Hideo’s face changed when he realised he was not alone. It was a complex mix of emotions, but Hideo communicated one thing clearly with a mere glance at Jock’s trainers. Jock coughed, took his feet down, and vacated the throne.
     Hideo sat down in his rightful place and folded his hands behind his head. “I don’t know what it is about my chair that makes people think it’s cool to sit right down in it.”
     “Pure envy, man. You’re the King. Everybody wishes they had your job.”
     “It’s a pretty good job,” he admitted. A tiny smile cracked his iron facade. “I didn’t think you still wanted a country of your own.”
     “Not really. But sometimes it’s fun to imagine.”
     Jock sat down on the edge of the table and put his feet on a nearby chair. He was tense, nervous, constantly trying to stop a hundred nervous tics from showing. His heart rate and perspiration had gone through the roof. Rat fervently hoped he was a better actor on the outside.
     “You don’t talk to me anymore,” he said at length.
     “Try being the King. See if you have time for anything.” He forced a light tone to take the sting from his words. “You’ll always be my friend, David, but you’re better off without a head full of state secrets. That’s the kind of thing which makes you a target for violent opposition types.”
     “But I’m already a target. You said so yourself.”
     “David–“
     Jock cut him off. “You changed, man. You play your cards so close I barely know you anymore. I look at you and ask myself, who is this guy? What’s going on in his head?”
     A deep, tired sigh hissed out of Hideo’s lungs. “If you have some point to make, make it.”
     “Okay. Yeah. I’m leaving Laputa.”
     Stunned silence followed him. Rat gaped much the same as Hideo did, unable to believe their ears. What in God’s name was he doing?
     “David, you can’t be serious. You’re the core of my viral defence team!”
     “You’re the King. Find somebody else. I . . . I can’t be here anymore.”
     Rat bit her lip. He was gonna blow it. She felt it in her guts; he would confess the whole thing, and get himself killed in the process. Rat would probably be listed as ‘collateral damage.’ Her mind raced for a solution. She plunged herself into GlobeNet, went sprawling onto Main Street, and searched for straws at which to clutch.
     It was probably the worst place to look. Information overload, too many bright colours and flashing lights. Doorways, facades and street stalls designed to catch the most world-weary eye. Any merchandise you could imagine, virtual or physical, got pushed here. Even the sky was made up of a hundred moving images, advertisements fighting for space in the viewer’s oversaturated brain.
     With all the options in the world, she had no idea what to do.
     She glanced back at the camera feed and stared into Hideo’s razor-sharp eyes.
     “If it’s something I did, we can talk about it,” he insisted.
     “You’ve done a lot of things, Hideo. I’m just not sure I still believe in what they are.”
     “Are you accusing me of something, David?”
     “Should I be?” Jock retorted. “I’ve got a guilty conscience about a lot of things, but they don’t compare to the size of the skeletons in your closet, huh?”
     Hideo held his ground. His face was still as a reflecting pool. “Anything I’ve done, I had to do, for the greater good.”
     “You almost sound like you believe that.” Jock stared at the backs of his hands. “When exactly were you gonna tell me you’ve had me doing ridiculous make-work all this time? That you’ve been in cahoots with Gabriel for years?” He let a few seconds of painful silence tick away. “Honestly, I don’t care if you fucked Razorblade over. I can even forgive you for doing it to Alex, and to our pathetic excuse for a democracy. But you did it to the Fifteen. You did it to me. I can’t let that go.”
     Rat swallowed the lump in her throat. She’d never heard such raw pain in his voice.
     He finished, “That’s why I’m leaving. So I don’t do anything I might regret. I’m not gonna make a fuss, I’ll take your dirty secrets to the grave if I have to, but you can’t expect me to stay and pretend.”
     The camera was turned away, leaving Hideo’s face out of shot. There was no way to know what went on inside his head. Rat’s heart didn’t beat at all while she waited for him to talk. To do something.
     “You’re right, David. About almost everything.”
     Jock looked back. Hideo ran a hand through his hair and stood up, slowly. Some of the rigidity had gone out of his posture. He looked like a man at confession. “Let’s continue this conversation in my office. I’ll explain. I need you to understand.”
     “Is this some kind of trick? Because if it is–“
     “Please.”
     Surprise stopped Jock’s mouth from moving. The word sounded so real, so heartfelt, that he couldn’t say no. He nodded and followed through the big wooden door.

***

     Rat never thought much of Jock’s decision-making. Going with Hideo might well be the cherry on the cake of his stupid choices. On another level, she envied their bond so much it hurt. She wasn’t very good at friendships. Her relationship with Gina illustrated that well enough.
     The boys went to Hideo’s desk and sat down on it, side by side, staring out the great window. Hideo opened a drawer and fished out two bottles of beer, twisted open the caps.
     Jock accepted one and took a long pull. “Nice place,” he said.
     “Thanks.”
     “How come I don’t have a giant desk with a fridge in it?”
     “I figured you’d be too busy pissing around in VR to need one. Want me to hook you up?”
     “Nah. You’re right. I don’t need it.” He swirled another sip of bubbly, yeasty brew around his mouth. “I keep trying to picture all the years since we left college, and I can barely remember any of ’em. When did we grow up?”
     Hideo shrugged. “You tell me, my friend. You’re the one who went away. You didn’t want all the politics and infighting.”
     “I still don’t. Tell a thousand hackers what to do,” they finished the other half of the phrase together, “and they’ll do a thousand completely different things.” A tiny chuckle made Jock’s camera jiggle, and he looked down. “Why, Hideo? Just tell me why.”
     “Because,” he sighed, “Harmony was running us into the ground.” He paused, took another drink, collecting his thoughts. “I was the foreign minister for four years. I knew her government inside and out. Don’t get me wrong, she was great with the economy and the interior — but try to tell her about anything outside Laputa, even the other Nations, and she just didn’t want to hear it. This country was her baby. Anything from beyond the border got waved off as irrelevant, no matter how much I warned her. I had to do something.”
     “Warned her about what?”
     “Our enemies, David! You were there when we carved the Nations out of chaos and war. We were united, and we made the Federation fear us. Enough to keep us safe. And now look at us.” He waved an angry arm at the window, getting more animated by the second. “A fragmented, leaderless bunch of deadbeats, turning on each other like sharks if you dangle enough shiny zeroes on a pay slip! That is how the Feds have made us weak. They’ve wanted to snap Laputa up for years, we’re sitting ducks militarily, and the only reason they haven’t invaded is because we had safeguards in place. We had the ability to disrupt, misdirect and control. But, while we were living hand to mouth and bickering amongst ourselves, they’ve been dumping trillions into their cyberwarfare programs. Read the reports if you want!”
     He jumped off the desk, took a heavy red folder out of another drawer and tossed it at Jock. Dozens of sheets of digital paper spilled out across the steel surface. Rat could only imagine how much hardcopy it contained.
     “They’re nearing parity, for God’s sake! I went into business with Lowell to give us a deterrent, one against which the Federation has no defence. I had to be King to implement everything. The only way it’s going to work, the only way it can work, is if we all stand together. No more Nations. Nation, singular.” Quiet, diamond-hard conviction rang in his voice. “Europe was our test-firing exercise. A warning. I guarantee you it got their attention.”
     “A test-firing exercise?” Jock shot back, his voice breaking. “People died in Europe, Hideo!”
     “I know! It was Lowell’s idea. I should’ve told him no, but . . .” Hideo’s anger flowed out of him in a soft sigh. He hunched his shoulders as if suddenly weighed down by his own conscience.
     Jock held his beer in trembling hands. Drained it down to the dregs, then threw it as hard as he could at the window. The bottle shattered. It was the loudest sound in the world.
     He settled down again, leafed through a few of the hardcopy sheets, though he barely looked at them. He said, “What the Hell happened to you?”
     “It’s like you said, David. I grew up.”
     Jock swallowed, absorbing his friend’s words. “So what does Gabriel get out of this . . . arrangement?”
     “Use of my code. The AI.” Hideo sat down again, his voice soft and flat. “I developed the software for him, in secret, just after I joined Razorblade’s cabinet. Took fucking years to get it functional, but then, so did the nanovirus.”
     “And the reason you knew about the trap that nearly blinded Alex–“
     “–is because I put it there.”
     Silence descended. Hideo looked at Jock, waiting for some kind of response, but nothing came. The tension built, and built, until he burst out, “Talk to me, man!”
     “It’s–It’s just so much worse than I thought. This is it? This is why you killed Banshee and the Fifteen?”
     “No,” he said immediately. “Banshee was a terrorist and a criminal, I don’t regret him for a second, but I did not send that helicopter, David. I didn’t kill them.”
     “Then who did?” Jock asked, blank-faced.
     “I don’t know. Honest, I don’t know. Everything I’ve done has been in the best interest of the Nations, and that’s the truth.”
     Jock gave his friend a long, penetrating stare. Something was happening in his brain. Grinding towards an inevitable conclusion. Rat watched it happen, still at a loss for words.
     “Maybe I’m a fool,” he said, “but I believe you. I believe you want to do right. You will always be my friend, Hideo, and that’s why I won’t turn on you. You worked hard for what you’ve got. Most of it, anyway. But I want some concessions.”
     “Name them,” whispered Hideo.
     “First, the AI. You know where it is?”
     “Partly. I have a GlobeNet address, a remote login with maintenance privileges. I’ll send you the information.” He hesitated. “What are you gonna do?”
     “Break in and rip the fucker to bits.” To Rat, he added, “Lex, listen up. I want you to deliver a message to Harmony. Fast and in person.”
     Rat cocked her head curiously. “What’s the message?”
     “Ask her . . .” A faint smile curled his lips. “Ask her if she wants to be Queen of Laputa.”

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