A video recording played over and over on Rat’s screen. It was the last transmission from Tango Two, the Sichuan strike team. Blurry image of a nano-press, partly in ruins, its entire right side shredded by shrapnel. What remained of it leaned to one side, and only a small trickle of silver dripped from one of the nozzles. Just enough to be dangerous.
     She’d muted the audio, but she could remember the voices all too well from her first viewing.
     “Our objective was to take that thing intact and operational, Sergeant. We can at least use what’s left of it.”
     “Sir, with all due respect, those… those things already took Hong!”
     “I understand the danger. Everyone needs to hold position until we can figure out how–“
     The rest of it was lost in squealing distortion. A few shots rang out through the static before the feed washed out completely. In all likelihood, those were their last moments, and Rat didn’t enjoy the thought.
     Jules didn’t like it either. He said petulantly, “We should be following orders. Those men are counting on us.”
     “That’s not what I need right now, pal,” she shot back. The Chrome Rat wasn’t here to be whined at. “You are just gonna have to trust me.”
     She did not look out of the cockpit at the world, the City, spread out below her in a seemingly infinite urban sprawl. She paid no attention to the rows of glittering streetlamps, or the logos and advertisements in blazing neon and holographic light. She couldn’t care less about the ant-like motion of cars trundling up and down the motorways. They were all things she ignored fervently in an attempt to fool her brain into believing she was in a very noisy room somewhere low to the ground.
     The only indication of reaching the City’s outskirts was a slight thinning and tapering, as the tops of the buildings gradually shrunk down out of the clouds and approached ground level. Patches of greenery poked out between the concrete. People here had gardens, and space to turn around in. Every now and again you could even find an empty plot, bereft of any development. Nobody had bothered to pave it over yet.
     For a helicopter this fast, it was a relatively quick jaunt north from Shanghai, but Rat grudgingly admitted — on the inside, at least — that Jules had a point. If this was a wild goose chase they would lose precious time. Rat might’ve been able to hack into the building from the outside, shut down the nanopress, or something…
     Still, this felt like the right call. She always did best when running on instinct. Her hunches and gut feelings saw her through many a tight spot. Something kept telling her that this was where she should be. She trusted Jock’s abilities as a hacker, but it wouldn’t be the first time it all blew up in his face.
     “Don’t land too close,” she told the pilot. “Put us down a few blocks away, near a public VR terminal if you can manage it.”
     The helicopter slipped out of the sky with all the quiet gentleness of a gliding leaf. It touched down in one of the empty lots, armoured rotors skimming the tops of a chain-link fence. Pieces of cut wire went everywhere. A few curious locals, hanging out of their windows to observe the landing, had to duck behind cover.
     Rat wrestled out of her seatbelt, popped the canopy, and already had one foot out before the wheels even touched earth. She practically leaped the rest of the way, so anxious to be back on solid ground. Jules hurried after her.
     “Pilot says he’ll circle the area and wait for our instructions,” he told her, as their feet left grass for pavement. She accepted the news without comment.
     It was an ordinary street corner, a bit more spread-out than its brethren in the inner city but no significant variation on the theme. There was space to walk, space to drive, and neglected bus stops which served a route that hadn’t been driven in years. The only real landmark was what Rat had asked for; a garishly-coloured cube of four booths, a lifeline to GlobeNet for all the people who couldn’t afford their own hookup or didn’t have the space for it.
     “You still haven’t told me what we’re gonna do,” Jules remarked.
     Rat gave him a thin smile without breaking her stride. She opened one of the booths, and wrinkled her nose. It smelled like a used bathroom. She looked at the others and found they were worse.
     She said, “We’re here in case everything else goes wrong.” Then, “And it will.”
     She slid her credit card through the slot, grabbed the VR crown from the wall, and jacked in.

***

     Public VR terminals had all sorts of blocks and security measures installed to keep people from abusing them, but those were meant to keep out the ordinary citizen or ignorant teenager. Rat was no virgin to this game. Every aspiring hacker started out on public rigs, and even this worthless off-the-shelf hardware could be coaxed into giving a little more than the designers would’ve wanted. With enough work you could almost make it useful.
     First, she took a shortcut to the Stor-All on Main Street and called up her private folder, just for emergencies. From there she ran all the little programs which would give her full control of everything.
     The rig gave an obedient beep. It was ready to serve her as its Queen.
     First things first, she downloaded and put on her own custom avatar. She wouldn’t be caught dead wearing one of those off-the-shelf jobs. Looking cool was essential to your innate hacker-dom, and many took it as a point of pride to show an avatar which kind-of resembled you.
     That took care of the fashion problem. Next she overrode the lock on international connections and manually entered the address of Cloud City’s super-secret open line. The next moment she was catapulted into a blank white room, with three avatars manoeuvring around a collection of blank white cubes. She recognised Jock, and Harmony, and Hideo, though they were nowhere near as detailed as before. All three looked at her in frank astonishment.
     “Yo,” she said. “How are we doing?”
     This caught Jock off-guard. He opened his mouth, then closed it again, and said, “We’re fine. You’re supposed to be on your way to Sichuan district.”
     “Who says I’m not?”
     “Never mind, not important.” He hurried back to the console — one white cube among many — and resumed working feverishly on something Rat couldn’t even see. Her rig refused to display it. She could force it to, of course, but it would probably kill itself trying to render that much detail. “We’re kinda busy here, Lex.”
     She made her way to the next cube over and casually leaned back against it. Even in bad VR, she could see the way Jock tensed up at her nearness. That meant something hadn’t gone to plan. She knew him too well, and although being right meant bad news for everyone, she couldn’t help the warm glow of self-satisfaction in her chest.
     She said, “That doesn’t sound ‘fine’ to me. Need any help?”
     “We just have to figure something else out, is all. It’s under control. We’re handling it.”
     “No,” interrupted Harmony, “we’re not.” The older woman stepped away from her console and threw up her hands in frustration. “We were ready to sail right through that opening, and it closed seconds before we made our move. It was anther ruse and we fell for it.”
     Jock sputtered, “That doesn’t mean–“
     “I’m afraid it does. We’re running out of time, Jock.” She let out a deep sigh. “Mr. Kagehisa, I intend to authorise the bombing run. Do you concur?”
     After a long moment’s thought, Hideo said, “I do.”
     A complicated gesture of Harmony’s hands summoned up a high-tech control panel. It looked like a slick piece of homemade software. She hooked directly into the Laputan military frequency and began to issue her orders.
     “Echo flight, this is Laputa. I want payloads on target. Send them on and come home–“
     The voice from the other side cut in before she could finish. The flight leader delivered his words with clipped, military urgency. “Contact! Multiple infrared signatures closing on our position. They’re almost on top of us! Computer ID, Federation Hyperion air-to-air missile.”
     Everyone began to crowd around Harmony’s screen, which now showed the bombers’ radar results in real-time. Rat was no expert but it looked bad.
     “Threat confirmed,” came the response from the Laputan command centre. The operator’s voice twanged with forced calm. “Detect eight missiles fired from four launch locations. Drop altitude and take evasive action.”
     The flight leader obeyed without hesitation. One of his pilots, though, held position and broke into the radio circuit. “Negative, Echo One! There’s no way we can survive this. I am committing.”
     The radar screen morphed into a camera feed from the plane’s bomb bay. It was a surprisingly empty space. It only contained one launcher, and in that launcher was a long, thin, strangely-finned missile.
     The bay doors opened. Some more radio chatter, argumentative, but nobody was listening to it. Rocket engines flared to life. The missile trembled in its cradle for a moment and flashed away into the distance.
     The video feed became a burst of white light. The radio chatter died. Echo flight was gone, but they got off one confirmed launch.
     Jock couldn’t tear his eyes away from the dead camera, crestfallen. Harmony looked horrified. Hideo was harder to read, but the clenched fists by his side told Rat enough.
     The missile launch was a triumph worth cheering, but at the same time a new awareness began to creep over her. It occurred to her where that missile was headed, and where she was in relation to it. Uncomfortably inside the envelope labelled ‘margin of error.’
     There was no time to feel sorry for anyone.
     “I gotta go,” she said, and punched the rig’s emergency shut-off.

***

     The Lariat missile, pride and joy of the Marxist arsenal, had an operational range of eight hundred miles. More than enough. Its navigation package, too, was among the best in the world. Range-finding lasers lashed out in every direction several hundred times a second, reading the landscape to an almost manic level of accuracy. This let the missile skim the City’s rooftops barely two metres above concrete. Several times it rattled past the windows of an inconvenient starscraper, giving their residents a close-up view of six metres of rocket-propelled menace. Then the sonic boom blew out the glass and knocked everybody to the ground.
     At certain points along the Lariat’s flight path, anti-missile defences awoke from their slumber and swivelled to search for a clear shot. Ultraviolet laser beams stabbed invisibly through the night to intercept, and failed to connect.
     The missile bobbed and weaved and swam through the air like a living thing. It detected enemy lock-on and used the buildings around it as cover. One by one, it left the defence cannons behind, and they stood down.
     They were out of range. Nothing could stand between the Lariat and its programmed target.
     Meanwhile, Rat stumbled out of the VR booth, catching Jules by the arm. He allowed himself to be led. By now he was well past the point of protesting anything she did, and learned to respect her survival instincts.
     All he asked was, “Why?”
     “Cruise missile,” breathed Rat.
     “Ah.”
     At Jules’s suggestion, they searched for an underground space, somewhere to protect them from the blast. Rat insisted they had to be able to see the impact. They compromised on a metro station a few blocks away from Gabriel’s address. They huddled together in the stairwell, fearfully watching the sky, wondering if their pilot was still up there somewhere.
     “This is the last time I try to outsmart a computer,” she said sourly, and braced herself.
     It happened in a fraction of a second. No warning, no sign of impending doom. A momentary streak of light across the sky, barely more than a firework. Then…
     Sonic boom and explosion merged into one earth-shattering sound. The ground shook. Chunks of tile and plaster fell from the ceiling. Lights flickered. For a few seconds the whole block was plunged into darkness, but a lively orange glow started up around the corner. Something was on fire.
     Rat unclenched her fingers one at a time. After a while she had almost let go of Jules. She was still shaking off the pulse-pounding fear when he made his way up top and whooped in triumph.
     “Direct hit,” he cheered. He turned to her and threw his arms wide. “We’re still alive!”
     She gave a hesitant nod. Was this the end of it? Had they won?
     Of course not, said her trained, professional pessimism. Not yet, not until they made sure the Sword was really dead.
     The Chrome Rat emerged back onto the street and began to walk toward the devastation.
     Broken glass crunched under her shoes. The streets were covered in wreckage, scattered brick and concrete, patches of still-burning jet fuel. People stood in doorways and on balconies, worried. The streetlights around the impact area had gone out, and a few of the buildings were without power.
     Rat continued to the large, walled villa at the end of the road. Only a small section remained. The rest was gravel and ash and half-melted stone. A few scorched bushes crumbled into powder as she pushed her way through.
          The intact portion consisted of a small circle around the villa’s fireplace, now choked with debris from the collapsed chimney. Everything had been peppered and scored by shrapnel. A piece of abstract metalwork still hung over the mantle, but from the way it drooped, it probably used to look prettier than it did now.
     Not ten metres away, a deep crater curved into the ground where the missile had struck. A few pieces of twisted metal were left, nothing more.
     At first glance, it just looked like somebody’s house, no secret doors or tricks up its sleeve. A cold nugget of doubt built up in Rat’s gut, wondering if they’d hit the right building, but she quashed it. No point second-guessing. This was the address, so this was the place.
     Then she noticed a metal gleam from the corner of her eye, firelight reflecting on something in the floor by the fireplace. She dropped to one knee and dug at the rubble. Jules, searching on his own, rushed in to help.
     There, tucked away under what used to be a rug, she found a heavy trap-door leading to the cellar. The impact had warped and dented it almost beyond recognition. The concrete around it was gouged and scarred. The edges had fused to the frame, welding the whole thing shut, and no amount of pushing or pulling would get it unstuck.
     “Leverage,” said Jules. He found a heavy piece of rebar, wedged it into a crack, and together they gave it everything they had.
     Metal ripped and tore. It let out a loud, protesting screech,but it finally gave way with a sudden pop. They hefted it aside and looked down. It was deep, very deep, and she could swear she saw a light burning small and steady somewhere below.
     She smiled at Corporal Kelso and asked, “You ready to be a hero?”
     “We’ll find out,” he said and, grabbing the ladder, volunteered himself to go first.

***

     It was another awful test for Rat’s fear of heights. She managed to go down rung after rung, keeping a firm grip on herself, until she was halfway along and the floor came into view far below. She clamped on to the rungs in a pounding rush of panic, and couldn’t budge herself until Jules gave her a sedative from his suit supply. It was strong stuff. After a few seconds she stopped being afraid of anything.
     “Keep an eye on your breathing,” Jules said, concern in his voice. “These can be very bad for you if you aren’t trained.”
     Rat nodded and resumed her climb. Her feet hit bottom without ceremony. She inspected the cellar, then breathed a long sigh of satisfaction.
     For once, maybe for the first time in this grudge match with Gabriel, they’d been right. She was looking at the Angel’s Sword.
     Vast banks of processors stood in lines on the other side of a glass wall. Temperature readouts on each box blinked rapidly as they checked and re-checked the conditions inside the server room. Wisps of super-cooled steam curled along the bottoms of the smooth, black monoliths, giving no hint of the power that pulsed beneath their carbon-nanotube shell.
     The ceiling had sagged inward, and Rat counted a few shallow marks and fissures from the missile strike. Even the foot-thick glass was cracked and frosting over with condensation. A small fuse box in the corner shot out random showers of sparks, making the lights dim each time. Everything else kept running as though nothing had happened.
     A direct hit by a warhead designed to crunch military bunkers, and it came away bruised but functioning. This place could certainly take a punch.
     “So this is what an AI looks like,” Jules whispered.
     Rat nodded and understood his awe. Those processing towers exuded a palpable aura of menace, all wreathed in white smoke. The Sword was in there, and she knew what it was capable of. Any second now she expected its voice to pour out of some hidden speaker, lecturing and carrying on in its usual tone of smug self-satisfaction.
     “I gotta hand it to you, Ma’am,” said Julian, “you were right on the money. We have a strike team on the way but I don’t know how long they’ll be. If the Feds haven’t already stopped them.”
     “We should hurry.”
     She crossed to a large metal door covered in yellow-black warning stickers. Pushing it open, she encountered the beating, mechanical heart of the whole operation.
     It was a deceptively small room. Along the west wall, a heat-exchanger fed liquid helium into dozens of thick pipes and conduits. A recess in the east wall contained a bank of controls that had gone askew from the impact. Damaged wiring bled out from behind and underneath the heavy metal casing.
     In the centre, a white metallic pyramid stretched from floor to ceiling, covered in complicated holographic screens and yet more warning stickers. Rat recognised the one with the yellow background, black trefoil leaves going down and to the sides. It blew all the artificial cool out of her system in one fell swoop.
     She was standing within eight feet of an operational nuclear reactor.
     She looked at Jules. He looked back at her.
     “I guess that puts high-explosives out of the question.” Jules’s tone was dry as old bone. “No wonder he built this place like a fortress.”
     By an effort of will, Rat tried to dislodge all the horrible what-ifs from her brain. She could’ve been in the danger zone of a nuclear meltdown. If that missile had gone a little deeper, or struck in a more sensitive spot…
     “Do you know how to shut it down?” she asked, though she almost didn’t want to hear the answer.
     “Oh, sure, I do this kind of thing all the time.”
     “Sarcasm, right?”
     “Just a tiny bit.” He grinned to ease the tension. “Can we get into the server room instead?”
     Rat shook her head. This time, she was all business. “I’m sure that suit of yours is very fancy, but the cold in there can kill a person in less than ten seconds. I’d turn off the cooling but the controls are over there.” She gestured at the damaged panel, well beyond their ability to fix without parts.
     “Let me call Headquarters. There’s gotta be someone on staff who can walk us through.”
     Jules took Rat’s phone and dialled, while up on the surface, an emergency siren began to sound the impending arrival of the Federal Police.

***

     It took a minute to get through to the command centre in Laputa, and another to make them understand the situation. The call bounced up the chain of command faster and faster until Jules had to hand the phone back, and Rat found herself back on conference with her friends in high places. Jules, wound up tight by the incessant siren wail, went to secure the entrance. Anything to buy them a few more seconds from the Feds.
     “Alex-han,” came Hideo’s voice, “I won’t waste time asking you what you’re doing there. Suffice it to say, your disobeying orders might be the best thing that happened to us all day.”
     “Good,” she shot back. She wasn’t in the mood to justify herself to anybody, especially dear, sweet Kensei. “Did they brief you?”
     “They briefed all of us,” Jock cut in. He sounded like a whole barrel of sour grapes, but he did his best to rise above it. “Hideo’s not kidding, Lex. We’re still trying but it looks like you are our best bet.”
     Back to Kensei. “We received the recordings from your telephone. That reactor is a very secure set-up. It would present a challenge for a fully-equipped tech team.”
     Trying to keep on top of her stress, Rat pinched the bridge of her nose and paced in a circle around the room, keeping to the outer edge, away from the reactor. “You’re warming me up for something I don’t wanna hear.”
     “Alex.” Harmony, this time. The whole gang really was there. “How… How do you feel about the phrase ‘controlled nuclear detonation’?”
     Things went very quiet for a minute. Nobody could believe their ears, even Harmony. The thought of it made her sick, putting hundreds, maybe thousands of civilians in danger.
     When Rat still didn’t respond, Harmony started again, “I’m sending you an image. Tell me what this looks like to you.”
     Overcome by morbid curiosity, Rat held out the phone in front of her and summoned up the tiny screen. Whatever she was expecting, what she saw didn’t match it. It didn’t make any sense until it zoomed out far enough to make out landmarks, the shapes of buildings, seen from the top down. It was a satellite photo of some kind. But it didn’t make any sense.
     At first it was a simple, featureless plain, flat as a pancake and just as uninteresting. A pervasive sense of wrongness grew in Rat’s hindbrain as the image continued to zoom out to reveal the ‘plain’ was more than a mile across, smack in the middle of Sichuan district. It sat right where downtown used to be. Even more interesting, the edges of it rippled slightly, so it looked like the circle was expanding to swallow more and more.
     A second image flashed into being beside it, and this time she recognised it right away. Another, much bigger circle was eating out the pulsing heart of Shanghai. Then another, in what looked like Bangladesh. One of Gabriel’s other nanofactory sites. The strike teams had left it alone because it was just too far out of the way.
     “What in all that’s holy?” she whispered. She saw but she didn’t understand. The mind couldn’t comprehend that the land and everything on it had been reduced, recycled, into their base molecules and prepared to be used again.
     Little sparks and flashes showed at the edges where the cloud came into contact with Federal nanoscreens. The cloud always won, overwhelmed them by sheer weight of numbers. Dozens of planes and helicopters were in the air, circling and observing. One of them backed away to fire a missile into the cloud. It was gone, disassembled, before it reached ten metres in.
     “Whatever’s going on, I don’t think we triggered it,” Jock tried to explain. “Maybe just moved up the schedule a little. We’re not sure how much these clouds rely on the AI, but it’s got to be doing at least some of the thinking for them. We need to finish Sword off or we don’t stand a chance.”
     A second rocket detonated right at the edge of the cloud. The explosion proceeded normally in every direction except forward, where it looked for all the world like it met a strong headwind. All those hot, fast-moving atoms were converted like every other piece of matter in front of the ever-expanding cloud.
     “I think I’m about to get an angry call from the Federal ambassador,” said Harmony. It was almost a sigh. “Maybe even High Command. You can bet your ass they won’t hesitate about nuclear detonations, and they won’t worry too much about controlling them.”
     “There is a chance, if we hit hard from all sides, the clouds will run out of raw materials before they become self-sustaining,” Jock added, though he didn’t sound too confident. “There are a lot of rare metals involved.”
     “We can hope.” Harmony smiled. She didn’t believe it either.
     Rat cleared her throat. It took several attempts to dislodge the thick lump that kept her from speaking. “What if I can’t stop this? What if it’s already too late?”
     “I wish I knew, Alex. All that matters right now is that we’ve got exactly two chances. Gina’s been out of contact for almost two days. The other one is you.”
     A soft electronic chime told Harmony she had another call. She dropped out of the circuit, leaving Rat with Hideo and Jock.
     “We’re sending some more data,” said Hideo. “Interactive manuals and references. It should help you disengage the safeties and set up a partial core melt in that reactor.”
     “Hey, I didn’t agree to anything yet!” She paced back and forth, panicking at the thought, and let the fear make her angry. “What about all the people living here? What are they gonna do?”
     “What about all the people who will be turned into slurry by those clouds if we don’t find a way to stop them?”
     She bit her lip and looked down at her toes. She didn’t have a good answer to that.
     “Hey, Hideo,” she whispered.
     “Hmm?”
     “Ever wish you were still playing for the other team?”
     “Alex-han,” he replied, “I would be a God-damned idiot if I still thought Gabriel’s goals were compatible with mine.”
     The sudden roar of dropship engines made Rat jerk in surprise. Her heart skipped a couple of beats, and her mind filled with memories of her stay as a guest at FedPol headquarters in Hong Kong. Not an experience she cared to repeat.
     “We don’t have much time.” Hideo sounded distracted, as if doing several other things at once. “Jock and Corporal Kelso can help talk you through it. Good luck.”
     Rat winced. Never before had that phrase been more inadequate for the job at hand.

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