Gina sat in her cell, staring at the door. She wondered how she could ever have thought this plan would work. How stupid the whole thing seemed now! Break into the most heavily-defended building in Hong Kong, bust someone out of a Fed prison, and then escape scot free. Yeah, right.
     Then the Spice trance came on again, and her growing despair became remote, out of touch. Unpleasant memories forced themselves upon her, demanding that she sort them out in chronological order. She remembered being led here, blindfolded, rough hands pushing and shoving. New bruises from being thrown around and from the initial questioning. The interrogator had been full of cold anger and judgement, and took special pleasure in his job when faced with people who’d murdered four heroic Federal Police Officers in cold blood. The left side of her face was puffy and caked with blood.
     Even worse, the Feds had split them up. Bomber’s body had gone to the infirmary on a stretcher. Rat had gone down a different corridor on Level 3, and since then Gina hadn’t seen hide nor hair of her . . . Out of idle curiosity, she reached out with her third eye and was surprised to feel Rat’s identity radiating from a cell not far away. Her mood was as black as Gina’s.
     Gina smiled despite her state. Misery loves company. On a sudden whim, and without even thinking about it, she placed herself behind Rat’s eyes. Only days ago she would’ve had no idea how to do that, would have considered it impossible if she’d considered it at all.
     A nasty smell hung in Rat’s cubicle. It seemed to come from a suspicious collection of stains in the corner. They looked recent, and nobody had bothered to give the cell a good cleaning yet.
     Bruises ached on her arms and legs from being pushed around. She sat on the concrete floor, slow tears rolling down her nose and falling in drops. Sniffling, she wiped her wet hands on her brand-new orange jumpsuit, scrubbed at her face. The crushing despair inside Rat was too much for Gina to take, and she nearly pulled herself back, but Rat moved suddenly, went down on her knees facing the corner almost touching her forehead to the floor. She had no idea which direction Mecca might be in, but that didn’t seem to matter much just then.
     In the other cell, Gina gasped when she realised what Rat was doing.
     “Merciful father,” Rat whispered into the empty room, “I know I don’t talk to you very often, and I’m really sorry. I can’t remember any of the prayers. Now I wish I could. It’s just that . . . Well, I’ll get to the point. I, um, got myself into some trouble. Bad trouble. And I’d really, really like to get out of it again. So, um . . . Please? I’ll be good. Well, I’ll be better. I’ll start praying and stuff, I promise. I know you probably get a lot of these, and nobody really follows through, but . . . Please?” She bit down hard on her lip as she finished, embarrassed and ashamed, and decided that this farce was over. She got off her knees and examined the cell again, trying to think of what she could do to make things a bit easier on God.
     She started by taking stock of the things she had. None of her usual toys, of course, but she’d been careful. The Chrome Rat wasn’t so stupid as to walk into the lion’s den without some capture precautions. All the usual locations had been searched, and the memory of that burned hot inside her mind, full of anger and shame. That’s why she hid things where they only used a scanner, and only her most expensive stuff, masked to resemble organic material. She dug her pinky finger into her ear — Gina cringed at the awful sensation — and pried out a thin ceramic rod glued to the inside of her ear canal. That one little piece had cost her every bit of coin she’d made for three months. It might just turn out to be the best money she’d ever spent.
     Next she tugged at the lashes of her right eye until the lid pulled free from her sclera, and shook out four plastic spheres no larger than the head of a pin. They drifted almost weightlessly into her upheld hand, and she loaded them into the rod one at a time. A tiny light at the base of the rod blinked for a moment, indicating a full charge, and went out.
     Right, thought the Chrome Rat, to business.
     Kneeling in front of the door, she slid the rod into the lock and switched it on. The little infrared laser was invisible to the naked eye, but after only a second Rat could feel the heat pouring out of the keyhole, accompanied by little wisps of smoke. She rotated the base of the rod slightly to turn down the laser. Setting off a smoke alarm was the last thing she wanted right now.
     First she burned out the linkage to the local area computer network. That would throw up a minor maintenance flag on Lazarus, but it bought her some time. Working quickly, she cut through the casing protecting the main electronics, and surgically lanced out the power control chip. The lock, unable to get a computer response telling it what to do, interpreted the situation as a power failure and used its emergency battery to open the deadbolt. There was a sharp whirr of electric motors, and Rat slipped out of the way as the door swung open towards her.
     For a moment she considered putting her white prison shoes back on, but decided she’d be better off barefoot, and ducked into the hallway. She closed the door behind her and manually worked the deadbolt back into place. If she was really lucky, any robot sent by Lazarus would be fooled into thinking the door hadn’t even been opened.
     The place looked almost familiar to her now. White corridors, bright lights, distant footsteps and the whirr of robotic motors. The small coloured signs at the intersections started to make sense, and she believed she could work them into her mental map of the area. She took a second to get her bearings, made sure she had the way back to the surface committed to memory. Then she dashed off, quiet as a mouse, on her way to the guardroom.
     It was weird to feel air brushing against her skin and playing through her hair. Usually everything above her chin was covered by her preferred hood and sunglasses. Now she wore nothing but the orange jumpsuit, straight black hair tickling her shoulders, bare feet touching the cold floor. She harrumphed when she caught her own reflection in a pane of glass, and stopped a moment to look. Blue. Yes, her eyes were blue.
     A sudden noise snapped her back to reality. The guardroom was just down the hall, and she heard faint sounds echoing inside. A male voice talking in Conglom. There was no response, and the droning monotone suggested that the man might be recording something. The Chrome Rat crept closer and popped her head round the doorframe.
     One brief glance told her a lot. Fed uniform, sitting with his back to the door. He was busy sorting items from a plastic rucksack and logging them into the computer. None of the stuff looked familiar to Rat, but as long as it kept him busy, all was well.
     As she crept inside, she tried to dredge up the endless physical education exercises and lectures from her school days. Martial arts were a mandatory part of the curriculum for any child in North Korea. Rat had never done very well in any of them, but if she could just remember how to kick . . .
     Her leg snapped out like a steel bar, her heel hit the back of his head with a hard crack. He grunted and slumped forward onto the table. Rat, meanwhile, massaged her pulled groin and hopped around the chair to check his pockets.

***

     The Fed didn’t carry much of anything useful. There was a wireless earbug in his breast pocket, and his holster contained one of the Feds’ nasty riot batons. Rat gingerly took hold of the grip. The shaft telescoped out at the touch of a button, and the whole thing started to vibrate with the lethal voltages coursing through it. It was like trying to hold on to half a metre of solid evil. Rat turned it off and put it back, not prepared to try and use that.
     She tried on the earbug and heard the sporadic coded chatter of a Fed base on a stressful day. It was set to their standard frequency. Now that would come in handy, Rat decided with a grin, and secured it in her ear.
     Next she looked around for her own stuff, and found her clothes hanging from a storage peg. She looked longingly at them but there was no time to stop and change. Rummaging around, she found her bag of toys — empty — and a few other useless bits and bobs. The only weapon, stuffed away in an open locker, was Gina’s little taser, stone cold to the touch when Rat picked it up. They’d drained the battery. She switched it on, and it slowly started to charge itself. Lastly Rat spotted her precious mobile phone and pounced on it, but despite several attempts she couldn’t find any signal down here. Unsurprised, she clipped it onto her waistband for later.
     Only a few minutes left before somebody found her missing from her cell. She needed a plan to get everybody out of here, and fast. Pretty tall order with few options and no equipment. How could one person create enough chaos to fool both an AI and an army of Feds for long enough to make good their escape?
     Rat eyed the bottle of cleaning alcohol on top of the weapons locker and got an idea. She reached for it, and stopped when she felt a rifle barrel pressed into the small of her back.
     “Put your hands on your head,” said a cold voice by her ear, “and turn around, slowly. No sudden moves.” Quick hands tore the taser from her grasp and threw it into the corner.
     Rat’s heart sunk into the ground as she obeyed the voice. Caught this early in the game? How could she have let that happen? Blazing anger and despair roared up inside her, at herself and everyone and everything that got her involved in this mess. She looked up into the Fed’s dark, unhelmeted face, close to tears, and asked, “How did you rumble me?”
     “Cameras, puppet.” He watched Rat’s horrified expression and flashed a cocksure smile. “You forgot about ’em, eh? They’re in your cell, in the hallways, everywhere. Lazarus knew what you were doing the second you started. It just took us a minute to catch up with ya, is all.” His mouth widened into a leer. “‘Course, I turned ’em off before I went in here. I could kill ya right now and all I’d have to do is fill out a sheet of paper. You wanna be a good girl and stay alive?” Rat nodded slowly, which seemed to please him. After all there were so many things a girl, now alone and unarmed, could do for him. Dread choked her throat as he continued, “Then be nice to me, little puppet. Real nice.”
     “Okay,” the Chrome Rat murmured and pressed the button on her hastily-constructed emergency plan. The hidden laser in her palm lanced across the Fed’s face, burning out both his eyes. He let out a terrible scream and clawed at them with one hand, firing wildly with the other. Rat ducked behind him and kicked him in the groin over and over until he crumpled into a ball and stopped moving.
     “Was it good for you?” she spat, picking up the rifle and pressing it to his head. Her finger brushed the trigger, twitchy with anger and revulsion, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to fire. Finally she just chucked it away and scooped up the Mk5 from the corner, then grabbed the Fed’s little PDA, tucking both into her waistband. She glared one last time at the two unconscious Feds and growled, “Bunch of sleazy bastards.”
     The only other thing she took from the guardroom was her lockpicking kit. It looked somewhat battered but still serviceable, and all the bits seemed to be there, so she couldn’t waste any more time here. She paused in the doorway and kissed her little laser, thanking it silently, and slipped it back into her pocket. Lastly she took out the PDA and told it to give her a map. It did so, in exquisite detail and with a little flashing light indicating her current location. Little number codes hovered over each door for which the Fed had a high-enough security clearance. Rat really loved technology sometimes.
     First order of business, she thought to herself, need some backup. Or at least a diversion.
     “Prisoner search,” she whispered to the PDA. “First name Gina, any last name. Display list.” The PDA quickly sorted through its database and spat out only one entry. Rat tapped it. The name flashed up onto the screen, but the rest was blank save for the words ‘Locked File, Security Flagged’ blinking away in red. She frowned. “Okay. Locate prisoner, Gina Hart or alias of same. Plot route from current location and display.” She didn’t know the right terminology for its voice parser so she improvised whatever sounded like it might work. Sure enough, the simple computer interpreted her instructions perfectly, giving her a glowing blue map to Gina’s cell.
     She followed the route only in the roughest sense, dodging Feds and robots by taking detours and hiding behind corner. The place had been designed to defeat a stealthy approach, but they hadn’t anticipated someone who could open one of their precious cells in seconds. Determined, Rat forged on until she stood in front of Gina’s cell, and wondered if she really wanted to open it at all.
     “What a horrible thought,” she told herself. “She’s my friend. I think.”
     And a liability, said another, darker part of her that didn’t usually speak up. Remember what the Emperor said back there? Loose strings, they’re just gonna tie you up. Dead weight’s just gonna slow you down. He was right, and they killed him for it. None of ’em are worth getting caught again. You gotta get out while you can.
     “I don’t have time for this. They know I’m out, they’ll be after me soon.”
     All the more reason to turn around and walk away.
     “No! Christ, I can’t do that.”
     You know you can, or you wouldn’t be arguing so hard. It ain’t difficult. Just make a right face and put one foot in front of the other. You’ve done it before.
     “I don’t want to!”
     That’s a lie.
     The need to act pressed more and more heavily on her as the seconds ticked away. She remembered when she was stuck on that ladder. The terrible presence in her head pushed her down and held her prisoner in her own mind, like she was being drowned or suffocated, even violated sexually. She watched her hands moving horribly against her will. Powerless.
     Looking back at it now, Gina had saved her life, but there was still an unnatural, evil feeling that clung irrevocably to the whole experience. It shouldn’t affect her decision, but she couldn’t help it.
     “Snap decision,” she told herself, unable to stand still for another second, and she opened the door.
     Gina slipped back into her own head and tried to look surprised.

***

     “So what’s our plan now?” asked Gina after Rat had filled her in on everything she already knew. “If they know we’re loose, we’re just as doomed as we were last time. Oh.” Light-headed from the Spice, she stumbled and caught herself on the wall. She shouldn’t have spent so long in somebody else’s mind, everything so clear and real. None of her muscles seemed to work quite right anymore, like they were in a different place than they used to be. It got a little bit better as she kept moving.
     “I tried the stealth angle,” Rat said. “It didn’t work. What we need to do now is change the rules of the game.” She smiled, muttering some commands into her PDA. She’d obviously been thinking about this a while. “Follow me.”
     Gina sensed the small team of Feds coming to intercept them long before they came close. Even Rat with her earbug hadn’t heard them coming; they were maintaining tight radio silence. Rat quickly replotted their route and gave the Feds a wide berth, as well as avoiding the security robot routes clearly detailed on the little screen. Gina had to marvel at the little device. The Feds probably never considered it a possibility that one might fall into the hands of a prisoner, being carried by the rough, tough and only slightly corrupt.
     “What about Bomber?” Gina blurted suddenly. The question had been building inside her for hours now. She’d tried to stop herself from asking, afraid of what the answer might be, but she couldn’t keep it in any longer.
     “Don’t know if he’s alive or what. We’ll try and get to him if we get a chance. Here we are!” Rat slowed slightly to point up ahead to a door marked with yellow and black warning stripes. The simple, unadorned sign next to it read, ‘Utility Cupboard 301’, but the door’s massive construction put the lie to that description. It looked like solid steel deadbolted with a host of electronic and mechanical locks, keeping it shut from anyone and anything that might have the same idea as Rat. She snorted quietly as she walked towards it, digging a pack out of her waistband. “Good thing I brought my picks.”
     Watching Rat move towards the door, Gina was suddenly overcome by a surge of all-overriding terror. Something felt terribly wrong. Warning bells rang in her ears, and she moved to grab Rat just as the girl passed a branching corridor to her right. The robotic guns took only an instant to lock on and fire.
     Gina launched herself into a tackle that would’ve done any rugby player proud. Bullets whizzed past her ears as she caught Rat squarely in the small of the back, and they went down in a tumble, rolling behind the corner into relative safety.
     Blood coated Gina’s hands as she stood back up. The sight of it was too horrible to take. She sank to her knees and threw up on the floor, though only acid came out of her empty stomach. Soon there was nothing left to expel. She dry-heaved a few more times before the sickness subsided.
     Rat squirmed about on the floor and clutched her thigh, but she waved away Gina’s attention with a mutter of, “It’s just a flesh wound.” Red stains soaked the leg of her jumpsuit when she dragged herself back to her feet. She stumbled, dizzy for a moment, but shook it off in iron determination. Metal legs were already clicking against the floor. She shouted, “Hold them off! We can’t lose now!”
     “With what?” screamed Gina. She got no answer. Desperation drove her hand to her Mk5 and she fired wildly down the corridor. Lightning cracked through the air, well short of the lone security bot, but the bot’s legs froze to an abrupt stop. It braced itself to provide return fire, and Gina ducked back behind the corner an eyeblink before the lead started flying.
     Sweat dribbled in rivulets down Rat’s face. She stood by the door working the locks with blood-slick hands. “Just keep it going for a minute, just a minute.” She glanced down at the small canisters of knockout gas bouncing around her feet, trailing wisps of green smoke. “Ah, shit.” She pulled her jumpsuit up to cover her nose and mouth and worked at the locks with redoubled effort.
     Gina followed Rat’s example and covered her face. At the same time she begged the Mk5 to finish recharging. The security bot could just run in and kill them both at any time, but she hoped Lazarus didn’t know that. It would, of course. It saw everything and it knew exactly what her weapon could do. Maybe it was simply content to wait for the knockout gas to take effect and reinforcements to arrive.
     Maybe it changed its mind when it realised just how fast Rat was going through the locks. With an electronic spoofer and a full-powered locksmith’s laser at her disposal, she tore them down two at a time. More metal feet were racing towards the scene, but Rat was already throwing open the door. On the other side Gina saw exposed electrical wiring of all varieties, metal boxes and piles of insulation, all manner of counters and gauges. All the circuit breakers and fuse boxes for the below-ground complex.
     With her last ounce of strength, Rat threw the breakers and collapsed. The lights flickered but stayed on. The security robot slid to a halt not a metre away from Gina, stopped, then seemed to recover from its momentary confusion, its gun tracking once more on a dazed and coughing Gina.
     “SURRENDER,” demanded Lazarus’s booming voice, blasting from the bot’s loudspeaker. “THE GRID HAS MANY BACKUPS AND OVERRIDES. THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN–“
     Gina fired her Mk5 straight into Utility Cupboard 301. The world went white for one endless second, then blacked out.

***

     Blurry eyes fluttered open. At first she saw only the city, black scorched buildings under a red sky. Even the sun was red. Then she realised there was no sun, no sky, and the red suns were emergency lights casting their sullen red glow over the corridor.
     Gina coughed. The knockout gas sent drums pounding through her head, but the explosion had dispersed most of it. Only a vague swimming-pool smell remained, mixing in the air with the reek of burnt plastic. Black scorch marks surrounded the door. The only thing she could see inside the cupboard was a mass of molten plastic and soot-stained metal. A stab of worry went through her when she noticed Rat’s body, or lack thereof. Rat had been lying in front of the cupboard when it blew. Not anymore.
     Gina looked around in near-panic and found her slumped against the wall, face and hands blackened and cracked and oozing blood. More blood poured from the gaping rent in her thigh. The bullet had made a raw, pulpy hole all the way through. Rat’s desperate lungs worked hard to suck in each shallow breath of life, but they wouldn’t last forever.
     She tore the leg off Rat’s jumpsuit and bandaged the hole as tightly as she could. ‘Still breathing’ was good enough. They were headed for the high-security infirmary anyway. She picked up the PDA and ordered it to show her the way.
     Some people might abandon their friends in time of need, but not Gina.
     Panting and puffing, she dragged Rat’s body along through the corridors, past unmoving robots and around Fed patrols. Gina could sense them clearly now. Clumps of leaderless confusion without Lazarus to direct them. Frustration, inability to coordinate an effective trap. Gina simply went around or waited for them to move on. One time she had a scare when there were two patrols on either side of her, blocking off her only alternate route, but then one of the Feds imagined he spotted something and sent his team running off in the wrong direction. Gina wasn’t sure if it was luck or something she’d done subconsciously.
     Finally she reached her destination, a pair of automated doors with the words ‘Medical Centre’ printed on them, conveniently located just down the hall from the interrogation room. Gina gave a shudder, but took control of herself right away and gently lowered Rat’s body onto the ground. Then she brought up her Mk5 and dashed into the room. A sense of purpose burned in her eyes.
     She felt the Fed before she stepped through the doors. His back was to the door, standing next to a white-coated man in animated conversation. Upset and worried about the power outage. They stood in front of a one-way mirror looking at a patient, and only turned when they heard the doors come open. Gina pulled the trigger an instant after that, very nearly too late.
     The Fed moved like greased lightning. His pistol was in his hand and halfway up to a shooting stance by the time Gina fired. The bolt of lightning took a heartbeat longer to cross the room. She saw his fingers twitch against the trigger guard. Sweat beaded on his face, teeth clenched together. He focused everything into forcing his paralysed muscles to move just an inch further, support his weight just a second longer. Then his over-amplified nervous system blew out and his legs went out from under him.
     “Freeze,” she told the man in the white coat, “unless you want the same thing happening to you.” The air around the Mk5 shimmered with heat, and it hummed menacingly. He put up his arms in surrender. She smiled at the age-old gesture and took a careful step closer.
     “I don’t want any violence here,” he said. “This is a hospital.”
     “It’s a butcher’s shop. But I’m going to give you one chance.” She jerked her head towards the door. “You’re a doctor. There’s a patient lying outside for you. Get her in here. If she dies, you die.”
     Horrified understanding dawned behind his eyes. He stammered, “I’m not– We have orderlies–“
     “No orderlies. You.”
     “But I’m not a surgeon,” he insisted. The look she gave him convinced him otherwise, at least for the moment.
     He brought Rat inside under Gina’s watchful eye and laid her gently on a gurney. He turned to Gina in all seriousness and said, “Listen, I’m a radiologist, I’m not trained to program this model of autosurgeon. I haven’t used one since I was an intern! These injuries are far beyond anything I ever studied for! With Lazarus offline, there’s nothing I can do!”
     “Is there anyone else here who could?”
     “We have a trauma surgeon, but she went home an hour ago. I’d have to put a call through to her house.” He let out a short, manic laugh and ran a hand through his gel-choked black hair. “I wasn’t even supposed to be here! I only got called in a few hours ago because someone came in with acute radiation poisoning. Just my luck, eh?”
     “Yeah,” she replied, legs shaking. She couldn’t think about Bomber right now. He was dead, and there was a raw hole in her heart where his face used to be. “Yeah, I guess you’re having a pretty good day, ’cause I’m a real impatient woman with a gun to your head and not a lot of time. My friend is over there on that table, hurt. Now get to work.” She shoved him towards the control board and tried her best to look dangerous.
     Left with no alternative, the doctor did as he was told.

***

     The operation seemed to last forever. Seconds turned into minutes, each ticking by with endless finality. Gina heard the soft but insistent alarm stating that the patient was crashing. The doctor worked frantically, sweat dripping down from under his VR crown, fingers twitching whenever he needed to direct the spider-like robot behind the bulletproof screen.
     First it carved the bullet fragments out of Rat’s leg with halting, unsure movements, and finally managed to stop the bleeding. A fast IV drip attempted to alleviate the massive blood loss from the ham-handed cutting. Once that was done, guided by a long tubular appendage with an endoscope on the end, the autosurgeon went after patches of interior bleeding. It sucked and stitched and kept Rat’s failing heart going with little electrical pulses. It sliced off burnt skin from the face and arms and applied brand-new grafts from the sterile meat farm recessed into the wall. The autosurgeon moved more easily wherever its automated functions could take over, but lacking true intelligence of its own, it still needed a human to direct the procedure.
     At last, the heartbeat started to steady out and a bit of colour returned to Rat’s pale cheeks. Blood poured into her from the IV drip, but nobody could say if it were quick enough to stop her body breaking down.
     “That’s it,” he sighed in abject relief. The VR crown slid off his head, and he put it down carefully into its cradle. “That’s all I can do. The rest is up to God, and time.”
     “Not quite,” said Gina. “We need to be out of here right now. Stim her.”
     “What?”
     “You heard me.”
     “I can’t do that. She’s in no shape to take stimulants, much less move! Do you want her dead after all this?”
     Gina flashed him a grim smile. “No, but she needs to be awake for my plan to work. Stim her.” She prodded him in the back with her Mk5, and smiled when he obeyed. “Good. Now, do you have any nurse uniforms lying around?”
     The infirmary’s old supply cupboard yielded a stack of uniforms, old-fashioned blue button-up jackets with matching zippered skirts, none of them quite her size. In the end she erred on the baggy side, just for a change. The Mk5 strapped to the inside of her thigh with surgical tape. She couldn’t bear to touch the Fed’s pistol, but she searched in vain for something to replace her lost knife, wherever it was now. That knife had saved her bacon when it mattered, and she missed the feeling of its hard steel against her chest. Oh well, she sighed. Lastly she put on the blue nurse’s hat with an old caduceus emblem on it, two snakes coiled round a winged staff.
     “Great Buddha,” was the first thing the doctor said when he saw her. “It covers you from neck to knee, and still you make that outfit look scandalous.”
     “It’s a disguise,” she told him. A few touches of make-up, stolen from some nurse’s emergency kit, hid the cuts and bruises well enough.
     “Not much of one,” mumbled a voice from the corner. Rat worked up a smile and twitched her arm. “Why can’t I move?” Then, “Oh, I don’t feel so good.”
     Gina rushed to the bedside and helped Rat to sit up. “The two are related. We gave you a muscle relaxant so you wouldn’t hurt yourself. It’ll wear off in a minute.”
     “So who’re you all dressed up for?”
     “All part of my plan.”
     “Christ. Better be a good one.” She yawned. “Want to let me in on it?”
     “We’ll put you on a stretcher and wheel you out through the front door. If anyone stops us, you’re a medical emergency that can’t be treated here ’cause of the power failure. Just keep screaming, things’ll be fine.” Just at that moment, a chair flew through the one-way mirror and smashed an instrument table over on its side. Sharp glass and surgical steel went over the floor. A wild-eyed man in a hospital gown leaped through the gap and seized the doctor by the throat, Fed pistol in his other hand, and glanced around like a trapped animal.
     “I have had a gun pointed at me entirely too many times today,” said Gina wearily, too tired to be shocked. “Put it down, Bomber.”
     “Oh, you’re here,” he said. “That’s . . . um, good.” He looked down, confused. “I can’t drop my arm.”
     As he turned his head, Gina gasped in horror. The side of his head had been shaven and a raw red scar ran across his temple for the entire length of his ear. It looked medieval in its brutality. “What did they do to you?” she whispered.
     The doctor coughed, “I think I can answer that question.” He at least had the decency to look ashamed. “Dr. Ashigaru — that trauma surgeon I mentioned — they called her in for other reasons as well as patching him up. I was there, and . . . Well, after we managed to get him stable, the higher-ups were afraid of another rescue attempt, and the mindrip process was taking too long thanks to his implant. So they ordered her to try and cut it out of his brain.”
     Bomber blinked at him. “It can’t be cut out. If you tried, anything could happen.”
     “Anything did happen. The implant threatened to fry your whole cerebral cortex when it detected our stealth scalpel, so Dr. Ashigaru had to abort. Your EEG was practically flat for an hour after the operation.” Rubbing his stubbled chin, he added, “The implant may still be active and using you to protect itself from further tampering. Do you know its capabilities?”
     “If I ever did, they wiped that out a long time ago.” A faint sheen of sweat covered his skin. “I’m tryin’ not to pull the trigger . . .”
     The doctor smiled in utter fascination. “Amazing, you must have some top-level hardware in there. I saw your X-rays but I never guessed–” He stopped himself and coughed self-consciously. “I’m sorry, got a bit carried away. Cybernetics are sort of a hobby.”
     “So is there anything you can do to get that implant to sit back down and shut up?” asked Gina.
     “Not a thing, I’m afraid. We don’t have a cyberneticist assigned, they’re in short supply all over.” When that explanation failed to please his audience, the doctor suggested, “Maybe a muscle relaxant? He can’t hurt anyone if he can’t move.”
     “I don’t think anyone should be comin’ any closer right now,” said Bomber, voice trembling. His arm, too, started to shake.
     “What choice do we have?” asked Gina. Just as she finished her sentence, the door to the main ward slid open.
     The orderly didn’t even get the chance to see who killed him. The bullet was already bouncing around his brain before the door came fully open, the pill tray in his arms crashing to the floor, and Bomber was already spinning around to deal with his next target. The doctor flew backwards in a spray of blood. Two holes, one in his head, one in his heart. Then the gun swung towards Gina, only a few feet away, who — terrified eyes locked on the weapon, unable to do anything except watch her own death — never saw Rat fumbling the Mk5 from the back of her waistband.
     There were two sharp cracks, one after the other. Bomber twitched and sat down hard on the floor. Silence.

***

     “No,” said Bomber, his hands travelling across Gina’s body, searching for a wound. The touch brought her back to consciousness, and she realised she must’ve fainted.
     “No,” Bomber continued. “I shot you. I saw it.”
     Gina gently disengaged herself and climbed up to her knees, glanced down at herself. “I feel fine. I’m fine.” That didn’t appease him, and he moved past her to search the wall by eye and touch.
     “No bullet hole. This doesn’t make sense,” he rumbled, and checked the Fed pistol. A glimmer of emotion crossed his face then, just a moment of full-on astonishment. “I pulled the trigger six times. Magazine’s down only four rounds. How?”
     “Can we talk about this later, maybe?” interjected Rat. The sound of her voice seemed to bring the others back to their senses. Next she spoke to Bomber. “Are you feelin’ okay now? Any less fucking crazy?” He nodded slowly. “Then we still need to get out of here. Original plan’s still in effect, right?”
     Clearing her throat, Gina said, “Yeah. Yeah, it is.” She looked at Bomber in his blue hospital gown and frowned. “It’ll look suspicious if it’s just a nurse taking two patients out. You need to look like a doctor.” She gestured her chin at the expired Fed doctor without actually looking at him. If she didn’t look at him, he wasn’t there, wasn’t dead.
     Not wasting any more words, Bomber stripped the body, quickly putting on whatever remained free of bloodstains. After that he salvaged a wig from the cupboard and cut it into shape with a pair of shears. Gina meanwhile got her feet back under her and checked on Rat.
     “Thanks,” she said under her breath, picking up the Mk5 from the floor where Rat’s trembling fingers had dropped it. “You ready?”
     “No,” Rat answered. She radiated drugged energy and the tunnel-vision focus of stimulants working in her brain. Even barely conscious with a bullet wound in her leg, she took a kind of manic pleasure from the whole thing. “Let’s do it.”
     They wheeled Rat down the hall to the security elevator, which had reverted to manual control for the emergency. It still had power. A single yellow bulb burned in the ceiling, and green glowing neon surrounded the control panel. Gina hit the button for the ground floor and prayed for the doors to close.
     Which they did, but not before a battle-armoured Fed officer squeezed in, mouthing apologies for delaying them.
     “Official business, I’m afraid,” he said in Conglom. The voice had a metallic echo to it from inside the helmet. Smooth grey and black metal covered his entire body, augmenting his strength and speed far beyond human limits. If the need arose, that suit could kill all three of the escapees with its pinky. “There’s been a prisoner breakout. You haven’t seen anything, have you?”
     “No, sorry,” Gina replied. Rat punctuated the sentence with a bloodcurdling scream, and Gina whispered some soothing words. “Easy. We’ll get you to a hospital soon.”
     “What’s wrong with your patient?”
     Gina lied smoothly. It was a line she’d practiced over and over in her head. “He needs a special machine to survive, but ours went down with the power failure. We’ll lose him if we don’t get him to a hospital within the hour.”
     “Ah.” The Fed rocked back on his heels, trying to get the elevator to speed up by sheer force of will. “Do you need an escort? I can arrange a car to clear the way for you.”
     A brilliant and utterly false smile lit up Gina’s face. “Very kind of you, but we only need an ambulance.”
     “As you wish. At least allow me to escort you to the motor pool.” He suddenly cocked his head as if listening to a distant sound. “Forgive me, it seems even that privilege is denied me. I have been told to report upstairs. Important people are unhappy.” The carriage doors opened and he stood aside for the medical team. “Take good care of your patient, miss. And wish me luck.”
     “Good luck,” she told him sincerely and helped lift the gurney out of the carriage. She breathed a long sigh of relief when the doors closed again, taking him out of sight and out of reach.
     Gina stayed in front of the gurney for the rest of the way, down the immaculate white halls and into the same lobby where they’d first entered. She mumbled the words medical emergency to the woman at the desk, the very same one that had let them in, who didn’t even bother to look up as she overrode lockdown procedures and opened the outer door.
     Cool night air caressed her face. Her nose filled with the sweet smell of wet concrete and a hint of smoke from the wrecked helicopter, resting some ways down the car park under a thick sheet of plastic. It was being tended to by a very careful hazard team and a lead-lined nuclear disposal van. Bomber explained that a simple crash landing couldn’t possibly breach the armoured reactor, but getting rid of it was a challenge.
     They ditched the gurney in a corner and crossed the grounds under Bomber’s tactical guidance. Rat’s legs still couldn’t support her whole weight, so the others half-carried her. There were Fed eyes everywhere — almost everywhere — to try and compensate for Lazarus’s absence. It didn’t work. Nobody saw three shadows sneaking across the grounds, or at least nobody thought long enough to stop them.
     They slipped out the gate behind a Fed patrol car and crossed the street. Solid tarmac under their feet, then kerbstones and pavement. Gina’s heart pounded harder with each step. Sounds of chaos fading behind her, still unable to believe she was out again.
     A surge of pure elation overwhelmed her. Tears sprung into her eyes as she grabbed Bomber and Rat both and hugged them tight to her. She could tell they felt the same.
     Bomber flagged down the first taxi they laid eyes on, and they piled into it at a run. At last they sprawled out onto the fake leather interior in glorious freedom, heading for nowhere in particular. Any direction would do, as long as it was away.

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