The first atomic warhead to hit the Sichuan nano-cloud was a small one. A bunker buster of barely two kilotons. It flashed into life over an abandoned residential neighbourhood of the City, and then it was gone, a fading impression of impossible brightness. The explosion ate a tiny, ragged hole out of the cloud; one which was filled again while everyone watched.
     What little radiation it threw off was absorbed, or ignored. Unlike their distant ancestor, these robots were not Hephaestus, and they were built to withstand the fiercest opposition.
     The second warhead performed an airburst detonation over the centre of the cloud, directly above the spot where Gabriel’s nanofactory had once stood. This was a MIRV, splitting into four different bombs which hit the nanobots with six kilotons each. Nuclear fire rained down over miles of ground, brighter than the sun, and…
     Again, the disappointingly small wound disappeared in seconds. The cloud barely thinned at all.
     The scene played out in the corner of Rat’s eye, where her phone’s projector offered running coverage from the Federal news. She still worked frantically in her attempt to cut the head off the snake.
     She couldn’t stop watching the news coverage out of desperate, morbid curiosity. On the other hand, it kept showing her very pointed reminders of what would happen if they got this wrong. Maybe it would be easier to run like mad and get the Federation to nuke the Hell out of this place. Then again, she wouldn’t trust them to wait until she and Julian Kelso were clear of the blast radius.
     Another bead of sweat trickled down her forehead. She wiped it away with an already-wet sleeve. “Disconnect the purple plug from the orange socket,” she told Jules, and he obeyed, fighting to keep his hands steady. It was nerve-wracking work. “Okay. Now we just need to… Um. Here, can you make sense of this?”
     She handed him his PDA, the layered screen crowded with schematics and instructions for the generator. He switched and rotated several of the layers in a futile attempt to make them easier to understand. He growled and tried a few more manipulations before he felt confident enough to make an educated guess.
     “If this works, and doesn’t immediately flood the room with lethal doses of ionising radiation,” he said, “then it should disengage the rest of the emergency safeties and lock the control rods in place.” Glancing at Rat, he added, “Meaning she’ll blow up rather than just shut down. I hope.”
     There was another bang on the wedged and welded trap-door to the surface. Steel groaned. Jules’s reinforcements wouldn’t last much longer.
     The Feds meant business. They always did.
     If anything, Jules sweated more than Rat. He took the last few wires and soldered them into place. Then he shut the panel and went to the back of the generator, where they’d cut a hole in the casing for an explosive charge. He took all the grenades from his uniform and stuffed them inside, setting the time detonators to go off in sync a few minutes from now.
     “Done! Now we just need to get out without–“
     The trap-door slammed open. Four Federal constables came vaulting down the shaft, their active camouflage rippling to make them nigh-invisible against the rough concrete. Guns kept every inch of the room covered while the squad leader made the necessary decisions.
     Their camouflage units fizzled out until only matt grey-black uniforms remained. Cool eyes stared out from their transparent visors. The leader turned her head to observe Rat and Jules in turn, several seconds each. Somewhere in that suit was a camera and a computer analysing their faces, transmitting them back to home base for identification. They would have their orders in a second, and there was nothing anybody could do to stop them.
     “Listen,” Rat began, but never got time to finish.
     The squad leader touched a button at her waist. Her helmet retracted, leaving her exotic, aquiline face exposed while she snapped a parade-ground salute.
     “Ma’am,” she said to Rat. “Sergeant Iwakura. I’ve been instructed to render to you, Alex Min Park, all possible assistance within the confines of standing orders.”
     Rat frowned. She found it hard to believe or trust anything out of a Fed’s mouth. “Say that again?”
     “I am to place myself under your authority,” the Sergeant repeated patiently. “My orders come directly from Federal High Command, per agreement with the sitting government of the Independent Kingdom of Laputa.”
     Understanding began to dawn. “Harmony,” Rat whispered, throwing a thankful look at Heaven.
     Jules coughed to announce his presence. “What ‘standing orders’ are those?”
     “High Command has initiated Ariadne Protocol, full response to a loss of control of nanoscale armaments. Phase One is to conduct evacuation of all persons of VIP grade D or higher. This includes you, Sir, Ma’am. Please return topside where our APC can take you both to a safe distance. Constable Haas will remain behind to oversee the remainder of this operation.”
     One of the constables, still masked by his helmet, strode forward and checked the breaching charge. He began to rearrange Julian’s grenades and add more explosives out of what he carried with him.
     When neither Jules nor Rat made any move to start climbing, the Sergeant tapped her foot. “This is time-critical, Ma’am. You won’t want to be here when Phase Two goes into effect.”
     “Why? What’s Phase Two?”
     “Multiple megaton-level detonations followed by mass dusting with nanoscale destroyers.” Again, she delivered that sentence without any kind of inflection or emotion. “There won’t be anything bigger than a molecule left standing.”
     Rat couldn’t help but gasp. “You’re burning the City?”
     “Lose the City, or lose the world, Ma’am.”
     That spurred them into action. Rat climbed, eyes tightly shut, and didn’t open them until she was scrambling out into the wreckage of Gabriel’s villa. Jules came next, followed by two out of four Feds. Their APC waited in the middle of the street, its loading doors still open and its engines still shimmering hot.
     The big mechanical beast roared into the air the moment the group jumped aboard. The Resistance helicopter was already aloft and joined them in formation. Strange, but true.
     “Where are we going?” asked Rat. Her voice trembled, and she strapped herself into a chair as tightly as she could.
     “Minimum safe distance, Ma’am,” the Sergeant answered. “Currently, Laputa.”

***

     Traffic towards Laputa swarmed the skies. Helicopters, airships and hydroprop planes all fought each other for space in the air, at the docks and on the airfields. The traffic controllers were overwhelmed. They landed and sent things out again as fast as they could, but many aircraft were turning away in panic or disappointment, making for the safety of Japan. If they had enough fuel to cross the sea.
     Rat’s APC made a beeline for a private airfield where a number of other Federal aircraft were being refuelled. Some very… luxurious-looking aircraft. As the APC touched ground, to Rat’s endless relief, she turned to the Sergeant and shouted over the engine roar, “Looks like we got some Federation guests!”
     The vaguest flicker of expression came over the Sergeant’s face, like a distant memory of emotion. She looked uncomfortable. “Your Queen has graciously offered to host Federation High Command while this crisis is resolved.”
     “The High Command is here?” Rat blurted in blank disbelief.
     “Correct, Ma’am.”
     The less said, the better, apparently. Rat wanted to rub it in but somehow that didn’t seem appropriate. Not with hundreds, thousands, millions of people over in the City about to get nuked into oblivion. She simply jumped down to the tarmac and followed her guide, since the Fed seemed to know where she was going.
     Jules took a few reluctant steps after her, then stopped, and said goodbye. He had superiors to report to. Rat hated to see him go after all the shit they’d been through together, but nothing she said could make him stay.
     After that she was alone, hurrying after the Fed and ducking the frenetic activity of vehicles and people all over the airfield. Loading robots darted around, weaving in and out of hangars and terminals to move cargo at a breakneck pace. Laputan Royal Guard stood watch at the entrance to each building and kept a close eye on the Federal Constables who strode around like they owned the place. Off to her left, a fiery roar announced the take-off of a Federal heavy APC, hydrogen flames licking over the tops of the blast shields. It lumbered into the sky and was off east, across the Pacific. It probably wouldn’t land again until it reached Hawaii.
     “I’m guessing you get running updates on this Phase Two,” Rat said to the Sergeant. “How long until they launch?”
     “T-minus twenty-three minutes and zero-eight seconds.”
     “Jesus! Why didn’t we go straight to Cloud City?”
     “We did,” the Sergeant said dryly, and pointed.
     To the naked eye it was invisible unless you knew what you were looking for. The only cue was a faint shimmering in the night air, where active camouflage bent the light around the huge bulk of airship. Anchoring cables and a long, helical boarding tube seemed to cut off in mid-air where they hooked up. Even the sound of the great engines keeping it steady faded to a background hum, subsumed into the general noise of the airfield.
     “That’s…” She trailed off. She couldn’t find the words to describe it. None of the ones she knew seemed adequate.
     There was no more conversation after that. They went as quickly as they could to the boarding tube, which — tall as it was — could only dock to a special elevator shaft which extended from the bottom of one of Cloud City’s inverted domes. At the top was a transport hub where shortcuts led to all of the most important destinations.
     Rat only had eyes for one thing, though. Someone was waiting for her.
     “Jock!” she cried, and threw her arms around his neck.
     He grinned. “Did you miss me?”
     She nodded vehemently. All animosity was forgotten, and she couldn’t see any grudges in Jock’s eyes. He was just happy to have her back. If only there were more time…
     “Come on, I’m supposed to take you to the war room.” He waved her to one of the passages and fell in step beside her. The Sergeant brought up the rear. Jock couldn’t help but throw occasional glances over his shoulder, unable to suppress how surreal it was to see a uniformed Fed trooper in these halls.
     The last time Rat set foot in the Laputan war room, she’d been presenting the plan for this rapidly-developing mess. Now… Well, she wasn’t exactly the conquering hero. Too many people had died for that. She wasn’t even a noble martyr, staying behind to make sure the installation got destroyed. That position went to two Federal Constables who sacrificed themselves without a second thought. Them, and half the population of the City.
     She swore under her breath. The real world made it hard to feel good about trying to save it.
     Three new faces sat around the central table, and Rat stiffened in unwelcome surprise. It wasn’t their presence that gave her pause so much as how unassuming they looked. For all their slicked-back hair and fine grey-black suits, they could have been a team of expert accountants here to balance some serious books. Only the instant familiarity of the President’s angular bronze face marked them out as the Federation’s highest public officials.
     “We need to get a move on,” said Harmony, and a flick of her hand changed the holo-display from a distressing map of the nano-clouds to the live camera feed from Constable Haas. “Are you prepared to detonate?”
     “Affirmative.” The Fed’s voice came back without the slightest hint of emotion. He was looking dead into the nuclear reactor he was supposed to crack, and not a tremble of fear showed in his tone. “Awaiting orders.”
     One of the High Command, a Chinese man and the only one with the rigid bearing of military experience, gave a tiny nod. “No point in drawing this out. Go ahead.”
     “Yes, Sir.”
     Rat looked away, horrified. She couldn’t watch. There was the momentary thump of an explosion, a noise like glass cracking, and then…

***

     The Constable’s feed flickered out. No feeling went into that act of suicide, nothing beyond switching off a robot or disposing of old rubbish. Rat had compared the Feds to machines plenty of times, and heard it from others — it was the best word to describe the empty-eyed loyalty and devotion to their job — but she still thought of them as people when the chips were down. Which turned this into watching more human beings die, helplessly, treacherously grateful that it wasn’t her.
     Then she hardened her heart and reminded herself of the practicalities. Better to lose some Feds who had already given up their souls anyway. Besides, if they got results…
     Everyone waited for news, breath caught in their throats. Harmony wore an expression of tense hopefulness, Hideo a deep frown. Jock put an arm around Rat’s waist and pulled her closer to him. He was tense, frightened for his life.
     The President of the Federation — undisputed dictator of over half the globe — was afraid too. He concealed it well. The prim, paper-thin line of his lips never wavered, his lower jaw jutted out in defiance, and he kept his legs crossed in a pose of unbridled casualness. The gnawing worry about his continued survival revealed itself in the thin band of white around his irises. The intensity of his gaze, focussed on the flickering hologram, was almost frightening in itself.
     Finally the holoprojector switched to a different feed. It cycled through a number of cameras trained on the encroaching nano-clouds, and kept a continuous wach on the earth-shaking explosion under Gabriel’s villa. A fountain of super-heated. radioactive hydrogen burst out from the trap-door. Suddenly, everything began to collapse. A sinkhole appeared under the ground and swallowed the entire city block. Buildings toppled like dominoes, and when the dust began to clear, the destruction was absolute. The Sword’s hardware existed no more.
     The nano-clouds stopped growing. They didn’t shrink, but their expansion ended in a stroke. They seemed confused, lost at sea, like an ant colony without a queen.
     “Cloud expansion has dropped to zero,” a technician confirmed. “Nanobot construction and renewal appears to have halted or slowed significantly. No shrinkage as of yet.”
     It was a victory, but nobody felt like cheering just yet.
     The President coughed into his lapel. “Initiate Mike One. Hold the others for now.”
     “Hold on a minute,” Harmony said immediately, alarmed, and Hideo was right beside her. “Laputa should get a say in any detonations on our doorstep!”
     “It’s already done, Miss Kohler.” His eyes lost some of their bulging quality as he met her gaze. The interruption actually seemed to put him more at ease. An invasion of killer nanobots was obviously out of his comfort zone, but he knew how to handle human beings, even foreign heads of state. “If there are any problems with fallout, you can count on our assistance in the matter. In the meantime I’d like to ensure we have a future in which to worry about it.”
     It was hard to argue. The bomb soon became visible through a number of wide-angle telescopes aimed at the brooding sky over Sichuan District. The nano-cloud showed up as a dark shadow against the diffuse glow of artificial light. Even now, much of the district had power, and the streetlights still worked. There would be survivors in the area, because there always were, too slow or too stubborn to leave their homes.
     The feed went white. Flash of light, thermal pulse, shock-waves shaking the telescopes even from hundreds of miles away. An entire district was flattened, wiped off the map. Only a growing mushroom cloud remained.
     It was the end of the City. Much of western China would be unsafe for human occupation for at least forty years.
     The sky glowed red in the aftermath. Though flickering and distorted, the feeds still worked, showing the sagging steel bones of once-mighty buildings. They towered over hills and valleys of black ash. Twisted wreckage no one could have recognised. Shadows half-seen through the dust.
     The Sichuan nano-cloud had been scattered and slammed to the ground by the blast. They were recovering, regrouping, but slowly.
     Dark specks appeared overhead. V-shaped Federation bombers which spread glittering trails of dust behind them, dusting the whole district with military nanobots.
     The two sides met in a torrent of sparks and flashes. Milions of tiny explosions filled the air as the little robots fought and died.
     “Will it be enough?” Rat asked quietly.
     “You tell us,” said the military-looking Fed. “We’ve never had to use the Ariadne Protocol. It was our doomsday scenario. Maybe in an hour we’ll know something.”
     She nodded. A hundred different emotions warred in her heart, but somehow she knew what she wanted to do most. She took off her jacket, spread it out on the floor, and knelt down on it. Somewhere out there was a holy city she would probably never see, but it was still there. That mattered. She wasn’t entirely sure why, but it mattered.
     “What are you doing?” asked Jock.
     “The only thing I can think of right now, Jock,” she told him bluntly. “Pray.”
     It was not something hackers were supposed to do, not in any kind of company, but she didn’t care. Let them deal with it.
     She wanted everyone to be alright, and as she prostrated herself, that was all she begged for.

***

     It was the longest hour of Rat’s life. She grabbed Jock and pulled him to their room, wrestled him into bed, and threw herself into the act of foreplay. They kissed, touched and groped their way across the sheets. She took him in her mouth until he was hard and gasping. Then…
     Nothing. She felt none of the usual fire. All she could think about was mushroom clouds and people melting into pink slurry.
     She turned away, sat on the edge of the bed and hugged herself. Even tears refused to come. It would’ve been better if she could feel something, anything at all.
     Jock wilted in confusion. He lifted himself up to put his hands on her shoulders. “Lex? Are you okay?”
     “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t wanna die, Jock.”
     “We won’t. I promise.” Shifting closer, he kissed her bare neck, but she shrugged him off. He grimaced at the tiny rejection. “Look, worst comes to worst, Cloud City will take off again and stay high above the action. We’re taking on extra food and water so we can last a long time.”
     That thought didn’t comfort her at all. Bitterly, she hissed, “Great, so we can watch everyone else kick it first.”
     “You’re just down in the dumps. We don’t know what kind of world it’s gonna be after those robots are done. And that’s only if the entire planet united can’t stop them.”
     She wanted to argue, to point out how much damage the planet would be taking from the nanobots and Ariadne Protocol combined, but she was too tired. More than anything, she wanted to be distracted and cheered up. She forced a smile and rubbed her head against him like a cat.
     “Thanks,” she told him. “Sorry I couldn’t go through with it…”
     Jock squeezed her shoulders and said, “I understand. Honest.”
     They sat and talked about nothing for a while longer. Then Rat excused herself and left in a hurry. Her stomach had just caught up to the fact that she hadn’t eaten for the better part of a day. Only military stimulants kept her standing upright.
     She raided a vending machine, making the dumb thing swallow a forged credit chip out of sheer habit, and sat with her back against the humming box munching fake chocolate and deep-fried protein. It was one of the best meals of her life.
     A pile of wrappers built up beside her. Once she finished, she just held her head in her hands and bit her lip in helpless frustration. Despite how hard she’d worked, despite everything, it was all out of her hands. By the end of the day, every bit of good or bad she’d done in the City and Laputa could be wiped out. She could only imagine how it would feel for someone higher up the food chain, like Hideo and Harmony, or the President. Here, now, they were just as powerless as everyone else.
     A tannoy system crackled to life in the corridor. “Message for Jock and Alex. Come to the war room immediately.”
     Rat launched from her sitting position into a dead run. Barely two minutes later she came vaulting through the war room doors, a big knot of anxiety clenched tight in her belly.
     She stared questions at Harmony and Hideo. Their faces told a whole story of their own. Stress lines on their cheeks and at the corners of their lips. Tired, bloodshot eyes. The characteristic clenched jaw-muscles of too many stimulants.
     Jock arrived barely seconds later. He held his breath together with Rat, and waited for the answer.
     “We’re lifting off in thirty minutes,” Harmony announced. “As far as we can measure, there’s no activity left in the Sichuan cloud, but the others are starting to expand again and we don’t know if the Federation has enough nano-destroyers stockpiled to put them all down. We’ve got more clouds developing in Europe, South Africa, Australia…”
     “Everywhere,” added Hideo, arms crossed. “It looks like a timed response to the Sword going fully silent. Which we hope means it’s dead.”
     Rat felt strangely numb at the news. She quirked an eyebrow. “Didn’t you guys see this coming?”
     “We did, and we tried everything.” He threw a glance at the President, who remained off to one side, immersed in whispered discussions with his aides. “The Prez cut power to every known nano-plant in the Federation, but there’s enough generators and black market factories out there to make that futile. We’re going to nuke every site as it pops up.”
     “Christ,” whispered Jock, “are we gonna have a planet left when they’re done?”
     “I don’t know, David. I hope so.”
     “You’re taking this all pretty calmly,” Rat told him, trembling. Her emotions gradually began to catch up with her. A train-wreck of them was piling up in her chest, and she didn’t know how to deal with any of it. “Am I the only one who’s freaking the fuck out? I mean, we’re about to lose the Goddamn Earth!”
     Harmony placed gentle hands on Rat’s shoulders. “If you have any ideas about how to save the day, Alex,” she whispered, her voice cracking, “we’re all ears.”
     Rat replied in a rush, “Nah. You wanted this job so bad, you figure it out. I’m getting off this glorified blimp.”
     She was serious. She hadn’t even realised how serious until the words came tumbling out, and she knew it was the only course for her.
     Shaking off Harmony’s touch, the Chrome Rat left the war room at a determined stride and headed back to the docking tube, counting the seconds until Jock would chase her down.

***

     He caught up to her a quarter of the way down the tube. He was panting, flushed, and struggled to keep up with her brisk pace.
     Outside the tube, through the occasional strips of transparent wall, the airfield looked dead. There were a handful of vehicles still pumping supplies up to Cloud City, but the gaggle of Feds were gone. No more APCs, no more civilian hydroprops. Anyone still left was probably fleeing the other way, putting every possible bit of distance between themselves and the fallout which would be raining down across China.
     Rat could see the awful yellow-brown colour of the horizon, the follow-up to Sichuan’s great big mushroom cloud, and for a moment her knees went weak. Large parts of her still questioned the wisdom of staying on the ground to face the death of the City. Her brain imagined the horror all too easily — half-melted steel girders forming the bent, blackened skeletons of ruined buildings, acid and ash weeping from the sky.
     Nothing she could do about it, she reminded herself. It was out of her hands now.
     Jock hissed, “Lex, what are you doing?”
     She gave a chuckle, dry as old bones. “Committing suicide, I guess.”
     “You can’t be serious!”
     “Look at my face, Jock. Tell me how fucking serious I am.”
     They stared at each other, and Jock shivered at what he saw. Rat finally broke step, stopping in the middle of the tube. Her hands clenched into white-knuckled fists.
     She said, “Hackers are supposed to care about nothing but themselves, yeah? Nothing we do really matters, so save your own skin and fuck everybody else.” She shook her head in rejection. “No. I don’t like humanity any more’n you do, but I can’t just sit tight while everything around me gets torched. Why would I be alive? Just because I happen to know someone with an airship?”
     “But what about us? What about me?”
     “Up to you, Jock. Walk back and stay in the sky with your friends if that’s what you want. I’m not gonna hold your hand.”
     That sentence was loaded with words she didn’t say out loud. Things like, Show me what you’re made of, and How much do I really mean to you?
     The haunted look in Jock’s eyes made her heart clench. He breathed deep, voice cracking, “You told me you don’t wanna die.”
     “I don’t. I really don’t.” Moisture built in her eyes. “But…”
     Words failed her. How could she talk to someone like Jock about souls, or the state of hers? She still wondered if he had more than a passing acquaintance with the concept of guilt. Instead she threw her arms around his chest and pressed herself fiercely against him.
     When he overcame his surprise, he put his arms around her waist, and held her for a long time.
     “I– I don’t know if I can come with you,” he whispered miserably.
     “Up to you, Jock,” she repeated. She fought down a lump in her throat. “You got twenty minutes to make up your mind.”
     Rat stepped out of his slack arms, made as if to take his hands, but stopped halfway. She lost the strength to lift her hands. Helplessly, she turned her back and walked away.
     Open air and cool tarmac awaited her at the bottom of the docking tube. She emerged, still wrestling with her emotions. Her eyes kept getting drawn back to the tube, to the all-but-invisible giant airship hovering overhead.
     She wanted Jock beside her. She’d never had anyone care about her before, not like this. She’d never been in love. Really, he was all she had; who else but Jock was going to pay attention to a skinny androgynous girl from Korea?
     And she gave him up, along with her one chance to get out of the apocalypse alive.
     “I must be out of my Goddamn mind,” she grumbled, and kept walking. Still wondering about her choice, but ready to stick it out until the end. Literally.
     At first she didn’t have a destination in mind. All of Laputa lay in front of her, and she still couldn’t think of anywhere she wanted to be. One idea was starting to take shape, though. This might be her last chance to get absolutely steaming drunk.
     A quick glance at her phone told her where to find the nearest airport bar, and she pushed her way in. Sticky, seedy, dim and done up entirely in various shades of wood-effect plastic. Populated only by the kind of people who didn’t have anywhere else to go during the end of the world. A clump of men crowded together at the bar to watch the newscast. They looked like airport workers, with maybe one or two lonely hackers thrown in. The bartender stood with them. He was on the phone, talking to what looked and sounded like a daughter, while one of the patrons manned the taps.
     She parked herself on a stool and said, “Don’t suppose you can do mixed drinks?” A shake of the man’s head confirmed her suspicions. “Just give me that bottle of Fortran. Red one, bottom shelf.”
     He obliged without comment, neither ID nor payment asked. She took the bottle, unscrewed the top, and chugged it. It tasted like fire and cherry vodka.
     The time of day ticked ahead in the corner of the newscast. Rat looked at it after every sip and counted the minutes until her ship cast off.
     She didn’t envy Jock his new home. Living out the rest of her days on Cloud City… The very thought cast a dark, depressing blanket over her, and her stomach flipped with vertigo.
     The news anchor continued to rattle off sentence after sentence, rapid-fire.
     “…Federal fast-action response teams are combating the clouds at every location. Officials say their efforts are meeting with success, and that despite mass evacuations from urban centres all over the globe, there is still hope…”
     Rat raised her bottle to that. No matter what, you could always drink to hope.

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