A dial flashed purple on the console before Hideo. The whole world around them, by extension, began to pulse with a glowing red light. Thinking on her feet, Harmony dove through Hideo to get at the controls, cancelling the log-in.
     It was already too late. An eye the size of a planet appeared in the sky and blinked at a geological pace. It watched the very small group of humans, and the only reason it was even there was to let them know they were being watched. The Sword did have a flair for the dramatic.
     “Surprise,” boomed the voice. Gabriel’s voice. It paused, then, as if it expected shocked gasps and shouts. Its anticipation was palpable. Rat could only assume the Sword was a popular comedic figure in artificially intelligent society.
     Hideo coughed into the awkward silence and said, “Hold your ground. It has no control over this account, it can’t hurt or disconnect us.”
     “This is true,” agreed the Sword. “I can’t disconnect you.”
     Rat saw it coming. She remembered what happened in the data vault in Laputa, just a few weeks ago. The light bomb that nearly burnt out her optic nerve. She shouted, “Quick, close your eyes!”
     The light was unbearable, like staring at the sun through a magnifying glass. Only this time it wasn’t just a momentary flash. It kept blazing like a bad summer day. Rat could see dark silhouettes through her eyelids, the outlines of her friends and the big control console. Even her hand when she waved it in front of her face.
     “I got it,” said Jock. A second later the light dimmed several shades, and Rat blinked. She wore dark glasses that hadn’t been there before. So was everyone else. “Must be some kind of vulnerability in the crowns, but we don’t have time to fix it. I figured this would work in a pinch.”
     The four rushed back to work. Now that she didn’t need to sneak around anymore, Rat began to trace the connection jump by jump, but it took forever with the Sword deliberately slowing her down. GlobeNet didn’t like giving out such sensitive information. It had to be persuaded, repeatedly, by programs that weren’t entirely legal anywhere except the Hacker Nations. GlobeNet viewed anyone with suspicion if they asked for more functionality than the average dickhead on Main Street.
     The trace ran through dozens of substations, switchboards and intermediate servers — a deliberate security measure to throw off exactly this kind of thing. Meanwhile, she punched through every physical address on the Sword’s giant hard-drive in the hope she’d know the right one when she saw it.
     It was less glamorous and exciting than she’d pictured in her head. She couldn’t see the battle raging between one besieged AI and hackers all over the world, fighting for control of the Tongliao node. Even the war map in the corner of her goggles was just a set of blinking lights that gave no hint of the anxious, sweating faces of men and women in VR rigs moving faster than they’d ever done before. Keeping the Angel’s Sword contained. As long as they kept it up, it couldn’t run, couldn’t copy itself into a new location or. . .
     The voice thundered, “I’ll give you one warning. I know you know about Master Gabriel’s virus. Call off your little army and get out, or I promise you I will unleash it, and that’ll be the end of things.”
     “We’re here to stop you from doing exactly that, bit-head.” Harmony glowered at the giant eye and flipped it off. “I finally got my country back and I’m not gonna let you wreck it.”
     The Sword chortled, “Would that be before or after Mr. Kagehisa murders you over it? He seems to have a habit of switching sides.”
     “They reached an understanding,” Rat interjected, looking from Harmony to Hideo and back again. “Keep the peace, or I’ll give Gina a call.”
     The pair shuddered. It reminded them there were worse things in the world than death, or sharing power with someone you didn’t like.
     “Then I suppose I have nothing to gain by talking to you.”
     The huge voice vanished. Instead an awful, teeth-rattling electronic shriek blasted across the virtual world at the greatest volume the safeties would allow. Rat’s hands shot up to cover her ears, which didn’t help. It pumped through her earplugs directly into her brain, worse than a street of wailing car alarms. She hit the mute function and dropped her audio way down before trying to listen again. The relative quiet soothed her aching eardrums, but she realised she couldn’t hear the voices of her friends over all the noise. They were effectively deaf and dumb.
     Then the sky began to cycle through bright, penetrating colours at a hundred frames per second. Rat felt sick just looking at it. She made herself focus on the console and ignore everything else, buffeted by waves of nausea.
     The Sword fought with every weapon at its disposal.
     Rat’s tracer blinked. The word ‘Completed’ glowed green at the top. The little program had made it all the way to Tongliao, and was now reporting a list of jumps between the node and the Sword’s location. She scrambled to get a storage card out of her pocket and waved frantically at the console to copy everything down.
     There was no chance to discuss it, and no time. She reached up and flung the VR crown off her head. The dark, cramped interior of the command vehicle rushed onto her retinas. The Resistance techs all turned in their chairs to see what the outburst was all about.
     “Send a message to Laputa,” she said, steadying herself against the wall. “Tell ’em I got the location. Tell ’em to launch the bombers.”
     They did what she told them, and she enjoyed that more than the victory itself.

***

     Rat dove back into VR as fast as her sour stomach could take. She swallowed bile and screwed her eyes shut to try and stop the screaming in her inner ears, where her balance organs rebelled violently against the input of her other senses. They wouldn’t accept the transition from dimly-lit van to chaotic innards of the Angel’s Sword in the space of a millisecond.
     The anti-nausea meds finally kicked in and mellowed the feeling away. She opened her eyes and got her bearings.
     Jock was on one side of the console, dutifully plugging away. Harmony worked like a madwoman through screen after screen of information. Hideo appeared to be running interference for them. The screaming light-show continued unabated, but apparently communications had been restored.
     “List user commands for this account,” Hideo said. When the Sword dumped a tiny window of text in front of him, he tutted and shook his head. “By voice, please. In every language on file. At once.”
     The Sword began to respond in a slow, grudging monotone.
     “Maintenance permissions are as follows: Read-only access to kernel and system, limited file management, update privileges–“
     She touched the ex-King on the shoulder. “It’s done,” she announced. “They’re–“
     He stopped her with a finger against her lips. “Don’t. Don’t say another word where it can hear. We can’t have the enemy know everything we know, hmm?”
     “Oh. Yeah.” She tried to hide a blush. You didn’t have to watch what you said during a normal hack. Whomever you were targeting usually wasn’t in a position to listen in. Most jobs were considered a failure if the target even found out they’d been hacked at all. “How’s it going?”
     “–remote troubleshooting, network signal analysis, back-up control–“
     “Not well. I do very good code.”
     “Keep at it.” She gave him a wry smile. “Try to stay on our side.”
     His answering look was frosty. “I think my other bridges have been burnt, Alex-han. For what it’s worth, I would have never let any harm come to Jock or you. Politics is a business which forces you to use people in ways you might not like.”
     “Mm-hmm.”
     In the subtle language of the Chrome Rat, this meant ‘Pull the other one, it’s got bells on.’
     “You may believe me when I say, I hope this plan of yours pans out. Because we’re all in big trouble if it doesn’t.”
     “–limited memory management. All other permissions are not granted or have been deactivated by administrator.”
     “Again, please. Until I tell you to stop.”
     Rat marvelled at the AI’s obedience as it began to repeat its whole spiel. “It still hasn’t found a way to lock you out, huh?”
     “–read-only access, limited file management–“
     “I told you, I do very good code.” He glanced at Jock and Harmony from the corner of his eye. They were working together now, hands moving at the speed of thought. “Looks like we’ve given up on getting administrator access. It was a long shot anyway. I’d better go help them.” He reached out, snatched something from thin air, and held it out to Rat. “Here, take this.”
     It was a small plastic card, flat blue and featureless. When she took it, the world froze for a second as a mountain of data hit her system, the realistic smoothness of VR grinding to a sudden halt. The graphics resolution dropped sharply so that everything blurred at the edges. The rig slowly evened itself out again, recovering from the strain, and the people around Rat jerked back to life. Built-up sound flooded into her ears until it too eased down to a smooth flow.
     She frowned at Hideo’s ever-so-slightly pixellated face. “What the Hell?”
     “Insurance,” he chuckled. “It’s a full copy of my source code for the Sword and the virus. If worst comes to worst, we’ll be stuck in Laputa, while you’re on the mainland in a position to get things done. Just in case.”
     “–back-up control–“
     “What do you mean, ‘get things done?'”
     “I mean, get your skinny backside out of here and manage the situation,” he said impatiently. “Move your team. We’re going to blow a giant hole in this thing as soon as we can, and we need you in position to take advantage. Again! List it again!”
     The Sword grumbled through its third line. “Maintenance permissions are as follows–“
     “Fine.” Rat gritted her teeth and turned away. She knew when she wasn’t welcome. “You’d better have my ranking waiting for me when I get back.”
     “I’ll personally give you a medal and broadcast it on every screen in the Nations. Now go!”
     She did. Now there was a medal in it, she felt more motivated than ever.

***

     Rat held on to her over-engineered seatbelt as the van squealed onto a main road. G-forces tugged at her from every possible direction in all three dimensions. Through her semi-opaque VR goggles she kept an eye on the van’s external cameras, which helped to fight off the growing sense of car-sickness. Outside, it looked like any other day on the City’s motorways, overcrowded and polluted and barely faster than walking pace. The Resistance convoy still made good time thanks to their aggressive driving style.
     Three other vehicles maintained flanking positions. A grey minivan which carried most of the insertion team, a beat-up old saloon with mismatched doors, and one very brave man on a motorcycle. Rat saluted him for his guts. The City’s drivers tended to be a little rough on their bike-riding cousins. If the guy wasn’t a mess of organ-bank merchandise after tonight, he deserved an award of his very own.
     They turned off the main roads again, into slums where they could really put the hammer down. Tearing through backstreets and whole waste neighbourhoods where the local police stayed out if they knew what was good for them and any traffic cameras had long ago been taken apart by the locals and sold for scrap.
     All the van’s communications spliced into Rat’s earbuds, giving her access to every bit of wireless contact in or out. There were multiple channels to pause, play and rewind at will. In the background she heard Jock, Hideo and Harmony arguing over something. In the foreground, the Laputan bombers were reporting in.
     “Laputa Control, Echo Flight. We are entering holding pattern,” said the pilot. “Federation airspace ahead. Request instructions.”
     “Echo Flight, Laputa Control. Keep your firing solution locked in and wait for orders.”
     “Wilco, Laputa. Sooner would be better.”
     “We’re right there with you, Echo. You’ll be the first to know.”
     Rat switched over to check on Jock’s progress with the Sword, but forgot about it when someone tapped her on the shoulder. She looked up and flicked her goggles to fully clear. One of the insertion team guys stood over her, armoured up and rifle in hand, rocking gently with the motion of the van. He was a sergeant or an officer of some kind, she remembered that much.
     “Almost there,” he said. “Get your jacket on.”
     Reluctantly, she undid her seatbelt straps and buckles, and took the flak jacket out from under her seat. She slipped it on over her head. At the pull of a cord, the vest tightened to fit the shape of her body. It weighed on her shoulders, but other than that it was surprisingly comfortable. She did a few experimental twists and turns. It wouldn’t slow her down.
     When the officer gave her a sharp punch in the chest, she couldn’t even feel it. She enjoyed a weird sense of power for a second, like hacking, but different. Then she remembered the bullet-hole in her belly, and touched the spot where it had been. It was like pressing against a wall. No sensation came through the spongy padding.
     She dropped the crown and goggles, but kept one of the earbuds with her for eavesdropping purposes. A hacker had to stay informed.
     The officer went to the rear door and grabbed a handhold. Two other guys made room for him, swaying as the van found the right street to race down. Rat swallowed hard and joined them. It wasn’t that she was afraid. Never that. Just the excitement, the adrenaline of the moment.
     Brakes squealed. The door flung open. The team — Rat’s team — jumped out and took off like greased lightning, except for one guy who stuck to her like glue. They went through the security fence like it wasn’t there. Took up positions by the main door and on the loading dock to the right.
     She jumped onto the tarmac and looked up at the great cube of corrugated iron and concrete. Big heat-exchanger pipes protruded from the left side of the building, adding a slight shimmer to the air. Other than that it looked like any other industrial site. No one would guess it for a major-league nanotech factory. The only hint was the blue-white Lowell Industries sign on the fence.
     “Please stay back, Ma’am,” the soldier said politely. “At least for a minute. We have to make sure the AI is properly suppressed.”
     Rat shrugged. “Whatever, dude.”
     She watched the giant heat exchanger glow cherry red, only to cool again and repeat itself in a slow rhythm. Like the breathing of some big metal beast. It was hypnotic, in a creepy sort of way. Rat found it fascinating.
     A brief blast of sparks fired from the breaker box as the alarm system and GlobeNet line ceased to be. Armoured hands tore the door off its hinges, and the team went in for the kill.

***

     Someone was shaking Gina by the shoulder. She opened her eyes slowly, to fight away the feeling that she was still Rat standing by the side of the road. She looked out the window of the Land Rover to get her bearings, and was greeted by the shadowy, night-time landscape of Radiation Alley. Patches of grey, dead grass, bare dirt and broken tarmac. Long streamers of dust flowing in the breeze, hitting the windows like rain. Far in the distance, an abandoned town glowed in the moonlight.
     This was the kind of place she remembered from her trip out of Jericho. The only life here was what they carried with them.
     She looked up into Major Hawthorn’s face. He’d grown more than a day’s worth of stubble since she last saw him. This seemed strange. She couldn’t have gone away for more than a few hours.
     And . . . And it had been night-time in her vision. In the City, halfway around the world. When had that happened? Had it happened yet?
     She rubbed her eyes and wiped dried saliva from the corners of her mouth. Her head felt thick and woolly, like Mr. Migraine was about to come knocking. Her throat was dry as a bone. She badly needed to take a piss.
     “God,” she croaked. “How long was I out?”
     Hawthorn looked relieved as he helped her to sit up. There was a cup of water in his hand, and she lunged for it, drinking it all in one go. It made him smile.
     He said, “About two days. I’ve been trying to get you up every few hours, but you were out. Really out.” He sat down across the narrow aisle and wrung his hands. “Are you okay, Gina? I hear you’ve been zoning out a lot lately.”
     “I’m fine. Just– Just give me a minute.”
     Pushing herself up, she stumbled into the tiny bathroom to empty her bladder. She splashed some water onto her face and told herself she felt better.
     Maybe she ought to stay in her own head for a while. It might be safer. Still, she desperately wanted to know what happened next. She worried about Rat, and maybe even a little bit about Jock. Something was going on.
     She finished tidying herself up and went to the front seats. “Can you get a news feed out here?” she asked Henry.
     “Not today. No uplink.” He pointed to the communications panel, which showed its lack of signal in a big red graphic. “We’re moving into the lowlands, too many storms between us and the satellites.”
     “Shit. There’s nothing you can do?”
     “Would if I could, Ma’am.”
     Gina muttered under her breath. She’d always wondered how her visions worked and where they fit into the grand scheme of things. They were confusing enough back when she could believe they were properly anchored in time. For all she knew the attack on the Sword could already be over, and they had no way of finding out how it had gone until they got back to civilisation. What was left of it.
     The Federation would survive, of course. Cockroaches always did.
     “Change course,” she grumped. “Left a bit. No, left. A little more. . . There.”
     She glanced at the navigation screen on the dashboard, which showed their course as the crow flies. A red line connected the Land Rover directly to the city of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Their estimated time of arrival was only twenty-one hours.
     “That’s the place.” She slipped aside to let Hawthorn get a look. “No doubt in my mind.”
     The Major furrowed his brow in confusion. “Fredericksburg? My parents used to visit there. It was booming back in the sixties, before it became ground zero for one of the bombs. . . Why would Gabriel be there?”
     Gina wondered that, too. She didn’t have more than a wild guess or two. She said, “Ask me again when we get there.”
     Pushing past the Major, she reclaimed her seat and explored their plentiful supply of food-in-bar-form. She didn’t look at the labels. Didn’t care. She sat and caught up on two days’ worth of meals, summoning up the courage to throw her mind across the Pacific one more time.

***

     Rat twiddled her thumbs and shifted her weight from foot to foot. Restless anxiety coursed through her. More seconds ticked away while she waited for the soldiers to secure a beachhead, for their green-light to move in and do her thing. Finally, the call came. She moved together with her new bodyguard, through the ripped-up fence and across the yard, past two empty vans marked with the Lowell Industries logo.
     The front door was ‘open,’ lying in pieces on the tarmac. Rat came inside and looked around the sterile white nanofactory.
     It was one great hall, divided into three partitions by seamless walls of glass. Probably more than just glass. It had that certain shine to it which suggested bullets would bounce off without leaving a crack. One of the partitions contained a bank of computers — thin, elegant white workstations on swivelling booms, with fold-out chairs for comfort. The room next to it was stacked floor to ceiling with nanocontainers of every size, some cubical, others drum-shaped. A robotic arm on a rail stood ready to move them wherever necessary.
     The third and largest partition contained the only piece of real machinery. It was a squat, enclosed, powder-blue lump of plastic about thirty feet on its side, supplied by massive wires and hoses feeding into it from the exterior wall. Aside from those power lines and feed tubes, its only outward feature was a row of slots on the front where several nanocontainers could be injected at once.
     The nano-press looked, for all intents and purposes, dormant. Someone had hit the pause button on the whole factory. According to the intelligence report, Lowell Industries didn’t have any orders to fill tonight, so there wasn’t a single staffer in sight. The only thing that moved was the twitching corpse of a security robot, lying on its back like an upturned turtle and bleeding a steady stream of sparks onto the floor.
     Rat remembered to breathe, and wrinkled her nose at the air. It smelled like the inside of a hospital. Definite overtones of ammonia and some other chemicals she couldn’t identify.
     The Army guys thumped through the upstairs office. Rat’s earbud crackled, “No further resistance. Proceed to next phase.”
     That was Rat’s cue. She headed into the computer room, folded out a chair and began to comb the whole workstation for the first sign of human error. In any place where people worked with computers, there was always someone stupid enough to mark down their password where anyone could find it. Always. She went over every inch of the thing, methodically, by eye and by touch.
     Her bodyguard took the workstation next to it and looked at her expectantly. “Orders, Ma’am?”
     “Fold everything out,” she said, trying not to smile. She was starting to develop a fondness for these military types and their willingness to follow her lead. “Look for anything that seems like it might be a password.” She paused for a second. “This’ll go better if I know your name. Call me Rat.”
     “Tech Corporal Kelso, Ma’am,” he replied immediately. “Julian.”
     “Jules. A pleasure.”
     Corporal Kelso got another soldier in to help, and soon they had all the chairs deployed. Rat’s instincts proved right. There was only one marking, but it was unmistakable — two rows of numbers scratched into the paint-work where the boss couldn’t see or disapprove. Most companies would sack you on the spot for that.
     “Gotcha,” said Rat. “This place now belongs to us.”
     Triumphant, Rat sat down and brought up the login screen to input her newfound credentials. Corporal Kelso hovered over her shoulder, but got distracted about halfway through the typing process. He stared into the nano-press room with a cloudy look on his face.
     “I thought the press wasn’t supposed to be running tonight,” he said, and now that he pointed it out, Rat could feel the soft hum of vibration coming up through the floor. Several lights on the press had come on and were blinking rapidly. The Corporal went on, “There aren’t even any containers in the slots.”
     It clicked inside their brains at the same time. He looked down at Rat, and she looked up at him. “Shit,” she said. She scrambled out of the chair. Jules was already turning away, shouting into his radio.
     “Everybody out of the building,” he snapped. “Run! Double time!”
     Taking Rat’s hand, he started for the door, pulling her along. His confused teammates began to emerge from the office upstairs. Off to the right, the couple of soldiers in the nano-press room were menacing that huge machine with their rifles. They withdrew, but too slowly. Rat could see them, especially when Jules scooped her up in his arms to move faster. She watched the horror unfold over his shoulder.

***

     The bulletproof glass wavered faintly, as if a property of the light inside had changed in some subtle way. Then bits and pieces of the glass, the floor, the walls, began to disappear. It looked like a computer image being slowly pixellated. At the nanoscale level, millions and billions of robots — invisible to the naked eye — spread in the same way as a swarm of locusts. Consuming everything in sight.
     Rat and Jules reached the front door and kept going at full speed.
     The men in the nano-press room were doomed from the start. Only now did they begin to realise it, as their armour turned to mush and sloughed off their skins, and the busy nanites made it into their bloodstreams. Disassembling them from the inside out.
     Jules muted his radio to block out their screams. The team from upstairs hit the ground floor and came outside at a stumbling run. One by one they fell, and didn’t get up again, overcome by violent jerks and spasms. Men and women were being melted down into pink organic paste, leaking from every crack in their dissolving armour.
     One of the convulsing soldiers accidentally triggered her grenade launcher. It went off like a Roman candle, sending multiple shots in every direction with a soft, repeating whuff.
     The first shot exploded in mid-air, raining hot shrapnel across the street. The next blew out a nearby roof and shattered most of the windows. The third and fourth went into the communications van.
     It was a military vehicle, heavy and built to take a punch. Its civilian disguise proved to be its weakness. The first hit cracked one of the ‘bulletproof’ tinted windows. The second punched straight through and filled the comms room with thermobaric fire. All the panicky chatter in Rat’s ear stopped abruptly, replaced by a painful electronic squeal. She yelped, tore the earpiece out in a hurry and threw it away in the same motion. Her eyes watered at the ringing agony in her head.
     Finally, when the dust settled, Jules put her down again. The security fence behind them was already being consumed. “We need to get out of here,” he panted, fucking around with the remaining Resistance cars. It was taking too long. In the time it would take to find the keys, the nanobots would overtake them.
     Rat was already one step ahead.
     The motorbike seat automatically adjusted to her height as she climbed onto it. All she needed to start it was to push the big red IGNITION button on the dashboard. The on-board computer sprang back to life, projecting various helpful screens and readouts. A speaker underneath the electric motor let out a cheesy, pre-recorded roar of engine noise.
     She took the helmet hanging from the handlebars and snapped her fingers at Jules. “Hop on!”
     He did, with some apprehension, and clutched at her waist. “This seems like a bad id–“
     He got no further before Rat gunned the throttle. She did not, technically, know how to ride a motorcycle, but that was why it came with a computer. It automatically compensated for her riding style, which consisted of mighty swerving motions, and a throttle turned to full and held there. Mind-numbing acceleration hit her like a brick, shifting her internal organs several spaces back, but at least the bike stayed between her legs while it reached top speed.
     The next moment they were down the street. Rat twisted and bent to get a proper look in her misaligned rear-view mirror. The comms van was beginning to decompose into a large silver puddle. The nanites were giving chase, but they couldn’t keep pace with a motorbike.
     Rat breathed a sigh of relief. The overwhelming fear and horror she’d been holding back began to sink in, and she clenched her fingers around the handlebars to keep from shaking.
     Weaponised nanotech. It was atrocious, unthinkable! Nobody had expected the Sword to turn the actual nanofactories against them, not while it was cut off from the outside world. This had been planned out in advance. All those people. . .
     “Jules,” she said, sounding ten times calmer than she felt, “can you warn the other team?”
     “Not without the van. Short range radio only.”
     “Haven’t you fuckers ever heard of a mobile phone?”
     “Yeah, we use them when we want the opposition to know exactly what we’re doing. There’s an emergency contact number but I don’t have–“
     “Left pocket,” she snapped. “Got a special compartment. Hurry!”
     Gingerly, he obeyed, reaching into her jeans for the phone she kept there. He popped up the virtual screen and punched in the call. It responded with one brief beep, and he gave a terse reply.
     “Julian Kelso. Code red.”
     There was a click, and the call immediately switched to a harsh, authoritative male. Rat slowed the bike so she could listen in.
     The voice rasped, “Survivors?”
     “Two, Sir. Our civilian and myself. The whole site is crawling with nannies.”
     “God . . . Okay. Abort the mission, there’s nothing we can do there now. I need you to get the girl down to Sichuan ASAP. Tango Two is partially in control of the target, but running into trouble of what we presume to be the same nature. Contact was lost about two minutes ago.”
     “Sir, that’s at least four to five hours on the ground, not counting traffic. Even if we could make a difference, which I doubt.”
     “You’re the only ones with a chance of helping those men, soldier. Transportation’s on its way. Keep moving as fast as you can, and you’ll see it coming. Over and out.”
     The call dropped. Rat frowned at the cryptic message, but didn’t have any better ideas right now. She rammed the throttle back to full speed and let the navigation system work out how to take her into Sichuan District.

***

     About half an hour later, Rat’s phone went off again. She channelled it through the wireless system in her helmet, crackling to life as it picked up the call. Rat continued to weave wildly in and out of traffic while the noise resolved into Jock’s voice.
     He sounded tinny and hollow out of the cheap Taiwanese speakers. A minuscule video feed popped up at the bottom left of her vision, and then broke, freezing his face in an unflattering expression.
     “Good news,” he said. “You wanna give me yours first?”
     “I almost died. I think that whole city block is wasted.”
     “You’re still alive, Lex! I was worried sick when your connection dropped, you had me freaking out until Hideo made sure you were alright.”
     “I’m okay,” she said, surprised at her own gooey tone. She liked that he worried. At the same time, there was a tight knot in her heart which tried not to think of those poor soldiers. She should’ve done something. She should’ve known something was up, or at least stayed the Hell away. She seemed to jinx everything she touched.
     Angrily, she shook off that mindset and made herself focus on the job at hand. “Listen. . . The AI knew we were coming. We can’t use the Shanghai site. I’m on my way down to Sichuan as fast as, but we’ve probably already lost that one too. You need to take Sword offline now or it’s going to keep fucking us.”
     “That’s what I was going to tell you. It’s hammering at our containment zone, but I think we’ve figured out a way to take it down. We’re getting ready to try it, so if you can get onto GlobeNet soon, you might see some fireworks.” Rat didn’t need to be next to him to see the self-satisfied smirk on his face.
     She surprised herself by saying, “I think we should send in the bombers.”
     “Send in the bombers?” Jock repeated incredulously. “Lex, there’s no way Hideo and Harmony will order an airstrike until we’re sure there’s no other way. I can do this.”
     “Haven’t you listened to Gina’s stories? Gabriel and that thing have been one step ahead of us every single time, including right now. We need to start acting outside the box or we’re gonna keep getting our asses handed to us!”
     “What we need is to stick to the plan. There’s absolutely no reason to assume it’s not gonna work.” He sounded upset, which meant he was taking her remark personally, which meant he was going to be obstinate. Fantastic. She wanted to point out that the plan was already tits-up by now, but it would be futile to argue with him. “By the way, I’m supposed to tell you not to worry about the big black helicopter that’s about to come down on your head. It’s on our side. Actually, it’s your ride.”
     That got her alarmed. “What helicopter?” she began to ask, and looked up.
     The never-ending noise of City traffic almost drowned out the soft, repeated whuff of rotor-blades slicing air. The chopper was still high up, practically invisible against the night sky unless you knew what you were looking for. It dropped gradually and matched pace with Rat on her motorbike. Bit by bit she could make out more of the smooth, black stealth-surfaces on its underbelly.
     A memory poked at her conscious mind. It did look an awful lot like the helicopter Bomber had used in their failed attempt to escape from the Hong Kong FedPol building . . .
     “Fuck me,” she said. “Not again.”
     It followed her to an empty car park just off the main road and lowered a rope ladder. Rat knew there was no way in Hell she was going to do that. Corporal Kelso took one look at her and signalled the copter to land instead.
     For the second time in her life, and with every possible reluctance, she climbed up the pilot steps and into the gunner’s seat of an Army helicopter. She recognised the pilot from her time at the Resistance compound. He waved a salute as she and Jules fought to get comfortable in one chair and one seatbelt.
     “Ready, Ma’am?” asked the pilot.
     “Sure,” she said, and gave voice to the idea that had been growing in her mind for the last few minutes. “I just need to make a quick detour.”

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