The jet was there, as promised. Fully loaded and crewed. It shone under the massive floodlights of the Laputa Jetway, a strip of artificial land built out into the sea on the north side of the island, the only airfield in Laputa that flew fixed-wing aircraft. Gina kept one hand on the steps up to the jet, and stared up at the sky as if she could see the stars.
     “Come on,” said Hawthorn. He rested a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Let them sort it out themselves.”
     “That’s not it. I don’t give a shit about Laputa. If they really want to kill themselves, they’ll do it no matter what, but. . .” She let out a deep sigh. “I’m afraid.”
     “It’s okay. Jacob’s okay. I know you’re strong enough to stand up to anything this world can throw at you.” He offered a sympathetic smile. It was such a simple gesture, but it made some of the weight lift from her shoulders, and she found herself smiling back. “It’s gonna be an interesting trip however it turns out.”
     “Yeah. Hard to believe there’s ten billion people out there who have no idea what’s about to happen. Who never will, if we do it right.”
     “Gina, what’s our real destination? I know we’re not stopping in Missouri.”
     “East,” she said. “Maybe Nashville, or Charlotte. Wherever they are, I can find them.”
     An involuntary shudder went through him. “In the exclusion zone? I don’t think I packed a rad suit.”
     “It’s okay. I’ve been there before.”
     She started up the steps, and sat down in the stupendous luxury of the King’s own private plane. She didn’t spare a single glance for any of it. She didn’t think about Laputa or about her friends shouting at their monarchs until they were blue in the face.
     Exhausted, she curled up in one of the big, plush armchairs and slept the journey away.
     A tremor went through the plane when American traffic control established a remote link to the jet. It woke Gina with a start. She looked out the window as, guided by the local AI, the autopilot swung into final approach. Only a few blinking lights were visible in the pre-dawn gloom below. Airships waiting to dock. A thick layer of brown, dusty haze hid the sprawling bulk of Paine Airport, so that only the tops of the biggest hangars and airship docks were visible over the top of it.
     Then the jet’s nose dipped into the fog, and Gina saw pretty much nothing until the wheels hit runway with a heavy bump and faint screech of tortured rubber. Only once everything had come to a full stop did she loosen her white-knuckled grip on the arm rests.
     Hawthorn grinned. “First time on a plane?”
     “No, I went on a hydroprop once,” she said with practised nonchalance. “When I was seven.”
     She watched a big black four-by-four roll up alongside, with a kind of covered stairway in tow. It backed the stairs carefully up against the plane to form an airtight docking tube straight into the car. The driver then climbed up to greet his guests by the jet’s door. He wore a black suit with a shiny blue lapel pin that identified him as an employee of the Laputan consulate. Close-cropped brown hair and a wireless earpiece. He was one of those guys who wore a uniform on the inside, all the time, regardless of outfit. Gina immediately started imagining him in shorts and a pink Hawaiian shirt.
     “Miss Hart, Mr. Hawthorn. Call me Henry. The King has directed me to look after you during your stay. Your passports.” From his breast pocket emerged two perfect plastic cards with photos, information, biometric information, and the royal emblem of Laputa. The words ‘Consular Attaché’ and ‘Diplomatic Immunity’ were printed along the bottom. “I hope everything is to your satisfaction.”
     “Um. Yeah.” Gina held up her new passport and smiled. “I like it. So the Feds can’t touch us?”
     “Not without incurring the considerable displeasure of the Crown,” said Henry, grinning under his sunglasses. “Unofficial channels say we have something new in the works to keep our Federal friends honest.”
     “Yeah. I guess we do.”
     They went down to the car, where a plastic airlock provided access to and from the outside world. Made themselves comfortable in the VIP-grade seats while Henry started the undocking procedure. The car spat out its end of the docking tube and shut its rear doors. Then it drove into a nearby storage hangar and deposited the stairway back into its proper place. Free, they rode out in a long circuit of the airport in order to reach the main roads.
     Gina was glued to her window. The squat, radiation-proof terminal looked hauntingly familiar, though she’d only been there once. It was where Gabriel sprung his trap and caught Bomber and herself in one finely-orchestrated move. The beginning of the huge mistake in her belly. God, it seemed like a lifetime ago.
     Then she swung her attention around to Henry, whose thoughts were remarkably smooth indeed, and said, “So where did you take Gabriel? When?”
     “Jericho. Three, four days ago.” The tiniest flicker of surprise and worry showed in the timbre of his voice, the ripple of his mind. “I saw your video. They said you were good, but I guess I underestimated you even so.”
     “I guess you did,” she said, “’cause I haven’t even begun to read you yet.”
     Hawthorn looked back and forth between the two, mouth set in a flat line. He’d come to the same conclusions as Gina. From that point on he kept his hand near the hidden gun holster on his hip, just in case their new friend turned out to be as solid and reliable as his former King.
     Henry shut up and drove.

***

     There were no delays, no stopovers, no hotels. Henry took them to a warehouse on the outskirts of town where they changed from their oversized four-by-four to a Land Rover the size of a main battle tank. Like the car that took Gina to New Orleans, it shone from top to bottom with mirror paint, featured a staggering array of off-road equipment, and housed a full complement of radiation suits and supplies by the rear hatch. A bank of air filters and something that could charitably have been called a bathroom stall were crammed into opposite corners.
     “Cosy,” Hawthorn remarked sarcastically as he stowed his duffel bag under a chair.
     Gina threw him a wry smile. “I lived in a coffin before I met Bomber.”
     “God! There’s something seriously wrong with a world where this is a step up for anyone.”
     “Hey, it was cheap.” She reclined her chair into a makeshift bed and inspected the ceiling above her. She was probably going to get to know that ceiling intimately over the next few days. “I don’t think you can blame that on the Federation.”
     “After fifteen years of brutal murdering dictatorship, I can blame them for anything I damn well please.”
     Gina let it go. In the meantime, Henry climbed up into the driver’s seat and strapped in. He brought the instrumentation on-line, checked and double-checked everything in an exercise of untold patience. The Land Rover bristled with more buttons and data screens than a jet fighter. Finally, he took the helm and called out over his shoulder.
     “Strap in and I’ll take you to Jericho as fast as these wheels will take us.”
     “No,” said Gina. This made Henry’s mind wrinkle with surprise, although his face could’ve been moulded from solid concrete. “We don’t have time to waste following a cold trail. Take us east. Until you hit ocean or I tell you to stop, whichever comes first.”
     “Oh. I just assumed–“
     Hawthorn leaned over the back of the passenger seat and looked him dead in the sunglasses. “Assume,” he mouthed with supreme emphasis, “that whatever the lady says, goes.”
     Henry nodded and turned the Rover’s navigation systems in the direction of the Atlantic. Sixteen oversized cylinders growled to life, burning up irreplaceable hydrocarbons at an irresponsible rate, and spewing a cloud of planet-destroying fumes out the back. The ozone layer might have been in trouble if it hadn’t already abandoned Missouri as a whole.
     They headed east, and Gina prepared herself for her second trip into Radiation Alley. For the total absence of anything that moved or breathed, which began at the foot of the Appalachian mountains and continued pretty much until you hit international waters.
     Now all she had to do was locate the two people she wanted to find.
     Her mind extended from her like a pool of placid water, stretching in all directions across a landscape reclaimed by the wild. Given over to grass and wild shrubs because anything grown for human consumption would be spiced with radioactive poison. She could feel the land around her; the airport; a distant city pulsing with energy; isolated buildings still inhabited by the toughest of survivors, others empty and abandoned to the elements. The gentle outline of hills and dales, the bits where scraps of plant life were re-establishing a foothold, and the stretches of barren ground over a contaminated water table.
     Nothing escaped her notice. Wherever Gabriel was, he would run into her mind’s eye sooner or later, and she’d put an end to this sad story. Even if it meant telling the truth.
     Do you hear that? she thought at him. This time, you’re the one who can’t run away from me.
     The piece of him inside her squirmed, but said nothing. It made her smile. At this point, achieving anything that Gabriel didn’t want her to do felt like a victory.

***

     For once the visions didn’t come without warning or control. Gina went looking for them.
     In the back of the Land Rover, powering its way across dirt and broken tarmac, she sat cross-legged and pushed her mind further and further out like an athlete stretching her muscles. Every now and again she’d check for signs of Gabriel or Bomber or even Colonel Obrin, but so far she hadn’t found them. In the meantime she travelled without moving, halfway across the globe.

     Rat had her feet up on a small round table in the war room aboard Cloud City. Opposite her sat Harmony. To her left, Hideo. To her right, Jock. Several Guards stood around looking impressive in their armour. They still weren’t sure from whom they ought to take orders, but that seemed to be getting straightened out.
     “–So everything’s in position for the raid,” Rat was saying. A holographic projection above the table responded to a nudge of her toes, returning a map of the City’s Shanghai district. “We have Major Hawthorn’s resistance cell standing by to assault the nanofactory here, designated Tango One. In Sichuan,” the map swung away west, “we have a second team consisting of Laputan Royal Guard and tech specialists from the Blue Dragon Triad, designated Tango Two. Resistance is expected to be light, standard droids and some human security. We’ll move in as soon as we get word from our electronic warfare department. Jock?”
     She threw him a pleasant smile and handed the speakership over to him. As he stood up, the holoprojector conjured an image of a blue cube hovering above a gridded plain, connected to the ground by a small silver line. The main body moved and shifted constantly, extruding hundreds of smaller cubes every second, moving them around and reabsorbing them. A pyramid shape topped the main cube, beaming a searchlight in circles around the grid.
     Everybody at the table knew it on sight. It was the visual representation of an artificial intelligence.
     “Our job is going to revolve around containment. If we tip our hand, the AI will shut down those factories so hard we’ll never get them started up again. So, the first wave of our attack will take out all GlobeNet nodes around the Sword except one. That’ll render it very nearly deaf and dumb. Most of the Sword’s data will be forced to go through one pipe, making it easy to hide our connection in the noise. If it tries to retaliate by activating the virus, the command will have to propagate out slowly through that single node, or at least the local networks, giving us a chance to contain it before it spreads.”
     He took a deep breath. “The four of us will enter the Sword through the maintenance backdoor provided by Hideo. I’ve got a list of objectives to accomplish while we’re inside.
     “First, administrator privileges. If we gain control of the AI’s hardware, we win. Second, look for a software exploit. Anything that’ll let us kill the system without having to resort to desperate measures. Which brings me to number three. Physical coordinates. We have a rough location from the GlobeNet address, but it’s only accurate to within a few miles and heavily encrypted beyond that. If all else fails, as long as we know the exact location where the Sword’s being housed, the Royal Guard can launch an airstrike to take it out for good. This would cause something of an international incident. It’s our Plan C, but we’re gonna do everything in our power to make sure it doesn’t come to that.”
     “How do we know there aren’t back-up systems in other locations waiting to come online?”
     Jock had anticipated the question. “Backing up an AI isn’t hard if you’ve got enough storage. I can’t make any guarantees there. To achieve real artificial intelligence, though, you need a lot of processing power. That usually means a whole building’s worth of hardware, and even Gabriel’s wealth has limits. Technically you could spread the load out over a bunch of ordinary computers, but a distributed intelligence like that would be slower on the uptake and have some inherent security problems. If the Sword were running that way, it would only be more vulnerable to attack.”
     “Impressive work,” said Harmony, just short of offering applause. “Sounds like you two have this pretty well covered. I’ll sign off on it, if Kensei does.”
     All eyes swivelled to Hideo. He nodded stiffly. “I approve.”
     That was all he said. He hadn’t been the same, ever since he lost the Kingship and survived the very-nearly-successful attempt on his life. An unspoken agreement hung in the air between him and Harmony. Assassination was off-limits. They’d have to find other ways to undermine each other from now on.
     Jock stood up and made a small, formal bow. “Great. I’ll go tell everybody to get ready.”
     “Just one thing, Mr. Reynolds.” Harmony fixed him with a hard look. “The political opposition is already up in arms over my appointment and I’ve had to make a lot of promises to get this many resources together. If your operation goes badly, my government is finished. That includes Kensei, and your girlfriend, and you. On top of that we can wave goodbye to the equal rights movement for the next ten to fifteen years.” She smiled to take the edge from her words and murmured, “No pressure.”
     He swallowed. For a moment he stood frozen, trying to think of some snappy comeback that expressed his full confidence in the mission, but it wasn’t going to happen. He just left.
     Rat excused herself too, though she didn’t go after Jock. She’d already made up her mind about her part in the mission and he shouldn’t know about it until it was too late. If he did, she’d be arguing with him until she was blue in the face. It wasn’t even like she’d be heading into any real danger, but try telling him that. Not worth the effort trying to remind him that he was her boyfriend, not her babysitter.
     She went to the room and packed the rest of her things by way of shoving them into a bulging, groaning bag whose desperate zipper looked ready to burst under the strain. She took one of Jock’s shirts for good luck. Then she sat down and wrote out a letter explaining herself. Trying to remember her handwriting lessons from a long time ago, covering a page in her inexpert chicken-scratches. She hadn’t written anything by hand since her school days, but it seemed more personal than something typed — yet at the same time easier written down than said out loud in a holo recording.
     Delicately folding the laminated sheet, she left it on the bed, slung her bag over her shoulder and went to the transport pads.
     The decision had been easy, once she sat down to think about it. There were lots of hackers who could fill her shoes in VR but nobody was better than the Chrome Rat at getting into places she wasn’t supposed to go. She could do more good on the ground. If it came to gunplay, she would just hang back and let the guys in armour sort it out. Her sense of heroism and self-sacrifice did have limits.
     She closed her eyes and inched her way out into the open air, thousands of feet above the rooftops of Laputa, willing herself not to look down. A helicopter waited to take her to Shanghai.

***

     “Listen, babe,” Rat sighed into the phone for the tenth time, “it’s gonna be fine. They have a mobile VR rig I can use to be there for your part of the operation. No, when we go in there’s gonna be like six armoured guys right in front of me. I think I’m gonna be okay. Besides, they gave me a flak jacket. I’m putting it on right now. Listen, I really need to head, so stop freaking out and go do your thing. Love you. Bye.”
     She cut the call and tucked her phone away in a pocket. Her cheeks flushed when she glanced around and realised exactly how many people overheard her side of the call. The armoury was the most private place in the Resistance compound, and she was currently sharing it with three other guys who sniggered amongst themselves.
     The armourer, one of Hawthorn’s men, looked up from his blanket of carefully-arranged suit parts and gave her a grin. “Anxious girlfriend?”
     “You could say that.” She stifled a moan of pure despair.
     “Don’t feel too bad, kid. It happens to the best of us. I got a girl back in Geneva, French, real nice. Great ass. Keeps saying she’ll dump me if I don’t settle down and start a family.”
     “Doesn’t want you in danger, huh?”
     “Yeah. She hates all this James Bond shit.”
     “James what?”
     “Never mind.” He went back to repairing his suit. “I just remind her that I’ve come back alive every time so far.”
     Rat instinctively touched the spot on her belly where, some weeks ago, a bullet had gone in and out again. A temporary speed-bump to her faith in her own immortality. There wasn’t even a scar. It fucking hurt, though, and that was why she’d be taking precautions this time.
     “Thanks,” she said. “I’ll come back alive.”
     She threw her bulletproof vest over one shoulder and went out. The rest of the house was crawling with more Army dudes rushing to do their final prep. She weaved and dodged around them on her way to the van parked outside. It was big, black, and lined with well-hidden cooling vents. In the back, a military command centre complete with VR rig. It would be her place of residence until the Angel’s Sword was out of the picture.
     She climbed in, shut the door behind her, and dropped into one of the harness chairs which kept people in place even when moving at speed. A VR crown and a pair of goggles fit snugly over her head. Then she was jacked in, catapulting through GlobeNet into the little gathering place Jock had set up. An empty white room full of nothing except Jock himself.
     He crossed his arms as he looked at her. “Words cannot express how upset I am with you.”
     “You’re not my father,” she pointed out. “You can’t always have everything your way, Jockey boy. Every now and again, what I want got to fit into the picture, yeah?”
     He looked down, a little petulant, a little ashamed. He couldn’t think of anything else to say for himself before Harmony and Hideo appeared in the private box. There was no pretence this time. They wore their own skins and their own clothing, nothing more.
     “So this is what it’s all been leading up to,” said Harmony. “Let’s make sure nothing goes wrong and we don’t accidentally info-nuke the entire world. Mr. Reynolds, it’s your show.”
     Jock nodded thanks and gave the signal for his teams to begin.

***

     From the outside, it looked like a simultaneous cascade of failures. The GlobeNet nodes in Beijing and Hohhot went offline in a storm of error reports. Before anyone could respond to the crisis, three more nodes stopped caring about the insistent requests of their users. Much of Mongolia and Northern China were wiped off the face of the network. Local systems strained as they shouldered the burden of keeping hospitals, police, government and emergency services running — and nothing else.
     Alarms sounded at the offices of specialists everywhere, but of course most of those were in the Hacker Nations and part of the plan.
     The five downed nodes created a buffer zone around the Sword’s location. Only one path remained open, through the overloaded node in Tongliao, which would become the battleground for one AI and hundreds — thousands — of fleshy hackers all over the world. They would fight to counter the Sword’s every move. An army of prima donnas who were determined to make this their moment of personal glory. It was like herding cats, and Jock only hoped he could keep them focussed long enough before they succumbed to the inevitable infighting and one-upmanship which exemplified the whole rotten society of the Nations.
     All in all, both sides were pretty evenly matched.
     “The Sword is sending out queries,” announced Jock’s watchdog program. “It is requesting information about the failures. Tongliao data flow has been crippled by redirected Chinese traffic and connections from Laputa, Europe, others.”
     Jock nodded to himself. “Alright, I’m gonna put us through.”
     Everyone held their breath. A small hourglass materialised in the air and turned itself in slow circles. Blinking letters above it spelled out the words, ‘Please Wait!’
     Four pairs of eyes watched it go through a couple of revolutions. If Rat squinted, she could see each individual grain of sand tumbling from one end to the other. Even her own reflection stared back at her, realistically deformed by the curved glass. It was a shocking waste of processor cycles. It was just so useless, so superfluous, she couldn’t believe Jock ever spent time programming it.
     Then again, he had been a rookie too. Much as he wanted everyone to believe he sprang into existence fully-formed with the sun shining out of his arse.
     Her train of thought was cut short. The hourglass vanished from whence it came, the white room shimmered, and there was a feeling of movement that no human sense could explain. Then they were. . . somewhere. The ground shone blue, shot through with a grid of silver lines which pulsed like veins. A perfect flat plain all the way to the horizon. The sky was the pure black of infinity.
     “Login accepted,” said Jock, triumphantly. Then he looked to Hideo, the only one who’d been here before. “Your turn.”
     The ex-King brought his hands together over his head and drew a box in the air. It expanded into a simple rectangular door with a small unwritten label on the front. He flicked the label to the side, but rather than removing it, words slid sideways onto the paper. He went through several options before arriving at ‘System.’
     Turning the handle, he opened the door and waved everyone through.
     They arrived in a control room of sorts: A black expanse with a square, featureless countertop about three feet off the ground, outlined in blue wireframe. There was no visible way of interfacing with it, until Hideo walked up to the counter and a workstation sprang into being before him. Everyone else followed his example. Rat placed her hands on the smooth surface and watched three screens pop up around her head. Her fingers found the tactile shape of a keyboard. No time had been wasted on making the controls user-friendly. This was old-school.
     “There’s an admin backdoor,” said Hideo, “although I can’t be sure Gabriel hasn’t already patched it. I’m going to give it a try.”
     Harmony nodded. “Roger. Jock, Alex, you take the other objectives. You know what to do.”
     Rat started to sift through the local networks to narrow down the address, while Jock pulled up a list of all the software running on the big bank of machines which powered the Sword. A vulnerable package or two, but nothing they could really use for more than just general mischief. The Sword kept very up-to-date.
     Rat had a bit more luck. She found the company which supplied parts and maintenance for the mainframe, and despite their promises of total security, it was a simple thing to break the shipping address out of their receipts. Then she double-checked. The location was at least a hundred miles away from the GlobeNet node. Definitely fake. She sighed, threw it out, and started again.
     Then Hideo’s backdoor login went through, and everything went to Hell in a handbasket.

***

     Gina looked up. Something broke her concentration. For a second she watched from two pairs of eyes at once, and she hurried to shake it off. Dizzy and disoriented, she forced herself to stare out of the window until the nausea went away.
     The world outside the Land Rover was rough and rugged, and even state-of-the-art shocks couldn’t absorb the constant battering of the Appalachian landscape. There was a valley carpeted in crab grass, slowly regaining its fertility after years of fallout, elevated UV levels and acid rain. It bathed in the noonday sun, bleached by the harsh, unfiltered light.
     They were tracking up abandoned roads as broken as the natural rock, through mountains so majestic it made Gina want to start writing poetry. The land scarred but not defeated. She could even feel the faintest currents of thought in all this empty space, of small game reestablishing a foothold. In that respect it was nothing like the dead, apocalyptic wasteland of New Orleans. The fallout storms she’d seen there mostly confined themselves to the lowlands.
     She didn’t want to go there. Part of her was still rebelling at the idea of taking her unborn child into Radiation Alley at all, but she didn’t really have a choice in the matter. She just had to trust the rad shielding and–
     There it is again, she thought, and glanced around the cabin out of instinct, searching for the source of the strange distraction. She knew full well it wasn’t inside the Land Rover. It was just. . . Every now and then she could feel something on the very edge of her telepathic perception, like a distant, half-heard sound, or an itch that went away as soon as she thought about it. Something alive. Not an animal, either. Nothing so simple would make itself felt from so far away.
     There was only one possible explanation, and it made her heart skip a beat. Gabriel or Bomber, it didn’t matter. Wherever she found one she would probably find the other. They were like two trains running in opposite directions on the same track. She just had to move towards the fireball.
     “Turn left,” she told Henry, and he spun the wheel as requested. “Not that much. A little to the right. There, keep going.”
     Henry nodded. “You’re the boss.”
     “Where are we headed now?”
     “Middle of nowhere, North Carolina. Nothing nearby worth mentioning.”
     Gina pondered that. A stray memory came back to her, flaring up from some dusty, disused corner of her brain. Bomber’s old base, when he used to be in Colonel Obrin’s special super-soldier program, was located at Quantico. Not so far away. If that was a coincidence then Gina Hart was a virgin, complete with immaculate conception.
     And they thought she’d be led by the nose all the way back to Jericho!
     She cleared her throat and looked at Hawthorn. He stared back. They communicated without the need for telepathy; he trusted Henry about as much as she did.
     Taking a deep breath, she shut her eyes and reassembled her concentration piece by piece. She had to know what was going on in the City. She had to know if there was still anything left to fight for.

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