Dust: Chapter 06 Part 2

No! Not at all!” Atom protested.

Well of course, it’d say that. I wanted to say, or bluetooth her, but Atom would hear it either way.

Everyone ready? Password for my network is:…”

Alright Stop!” I held up my hand.

What is it now?”

I have to insist everyone turn off their wireless access before hooking up to Atom.”

Atom made his grumbling noise again.

Kitty looked at me like I was insisting everyone put on a lifejacket before the bus drove over a bridge. “Why?”

Because I don’t want Atom getting a message back to its owners telling them where we are. I’ve already fought off one cyborg assassin and I’d rather not let his cousins know where to find us.”

I’d never do…” Atom started.

Without looking I held my hand up at Atom’s netpad. “I don’t believe you.”

Kitty looked up for a second and disabled her access in her Neupro. “Alright, bluetooth only. Let’s do this.”

Kitty let us inside her virtual office for this conversation, an artificial reality domain inside her Neupro. They were popular with hard working office and artistic types, two demographics that don’t normally agree on anything. This is because when you’re inside the computer in your own head the thought ‘I need to click on that icon’ does the clicking for you. So tasks like writing, programming and data entry take a lot less time out of your day.
Kitty’s virtual office looked like the dingy hideout of a comic book super-villain. Spotlights that illuminated the critical areas like the cheesy wall-sized super computer, the workshop with the partially disassembled robot pieces and the dojo with the moth-eaten tatami mats and punching bag. Bordering the spotlight’s illumination was impenetrable blackness. Kitty was either trying to make the place look a lot bigger or a lot smaller than it really was.

With genuine affection I said. “Nice place.” I never touched my own virtual office so it was still on the default ‘noir detective’ theme, but if I ever did I could do worse than take my cues from Kitty’s décor.

Atom was staring up at the stupidly-large monitor for the computer. The display was divided into a dozen live-streams from all over Kitty’s apartment building. Her surveillance was extensive, but appeared limited only to the public areas.

That reassured the hell out of me. This was an early-warning system, not a blackmail network.
Atom turned from the monitors and its little puppet-mouth fell open in a smile. Only the painted facial expression subtly changing stopped it from being super-creepy.

Then out of nowhere the loudest (and shrillest) female voice I’d ever heard split the air from somewhere behind me.

Over here you guys!”

I whipped my head around, my hand on my pistol, only to see… what looked like a black Uncle Sam dressed for a Rambo sequel and a living rainbow bouncy-ball with googly-eyes and a pink bow, removing any possible doubt as to which of them spoke.

Uncle Jim Rambo was casually leaning against the lair’s gritty wall with his arms crossed. The bouncy ball looked like she couldn’t roll over and go to sleep casually. She constantly bounced and rolled about like a hyperactive squirrel was trying to get out.

Kitty took Atom by the hand and led it over to her friends. “Well, here it is: The world’s first truly sentient artificial intelligence. His name is ‘Atom.’”

It.” Tachi corrected again as he moved around her to join the circle.

The ball thing squealed with delight and floated over to Atom for a closer look. “Oh my God. You’re the real thing aren’t you?”

Yes” Atom said, painting a puzzled expression on its face. It reached out to touch her.

I raised my hand to speak. “Sorry if this seems a little off-topic but who the fuck are you two?”

Black Rambo pushed off the wall and offered me a friendly hand and an easy smile. “We’re friends of Kitty’s from the Jay. I’m Patriot Rap, from Flint, Michigan.”

And I’m Super Moe-Moe Ball! It is so good to meet you all.” She said like she was pacing out the words with a karaoke ball.

Alright.” I pointed a finger at PR. “You I get, political statement, fight the power. What the fuck is her go?”
Patriot Rap chuckled. “Why Super Moe-Moe ball? You ever find out I’ll buy you a beer.”

Tachi stepped forward and shook PR’s hand as well. “And you can call us Dust and Tachi. We worked with your associate Noodles to steal Atom here from Silicon Dreams.”

We know.” Moe-Moe bounced. “We helped him out with that job. I lent him my Little Green Men application.”
“And I gave him a hand with research and leg work.” PR added.

That’s how J. Random hacker works.” Kitty took over. “Members cut each other in on gigs when they need an extra pair of hands. We also share programs and expertise. For the right price that is, we aren’t Star Trek.”
Tachi took a cautious breath. “Then you already knew about Atom?”
Kitty shook her head. “We knew Noodles was on something big, but we never suspected it was this big.”

Oh good. Noodles did understand what ‘operational security’ means.

Moe-Moe lowered herself to Atom’s height. “How are you doing little-guy?”

Atom smiled and reached out to touch Super Moe-Moe ball. He giggled. “You’re all tickly.”

Moe-Moe giggled back. “Thank you.”

I had tremendous difficulty reconciling the programmer of the incredibly useful ‘little green men’ app with the bloody bouncy ball in front of me. This was the bleeding edge of hacker talent?
PR strode over to Atom as well and knelt down to speak to him. “Hey Atom, what was it like at Silicon Dreams? What did they have you doing?”

Mostly data comprehension and dissemination.” He rattled off with a shrug.

Really?” Kitty asked. “They built a super-advanced artificial intelligence just to read stuff and tell people about it?”

Well in detail they wanted me to be able to absorb mass amounts of data and then relay that data with various degrees of complexity, tailoring the level of detail based on what I knew about the intended audience.”

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Dust: Chapter 06 Part 1

Chapter 6: And now we contemplate our navel

I caught my reflection in a shop window and for the first time in weeks I didn’t flinch.

Absently my hand brushed against my cheek, confirming that the face in the reflection was in fact mine. For me to look this good, the damage must have been horrendous why else bother with a full replacement?

It’s a scientifically proven fact that there is indeed a ‘perfect’ human face, the ideal ratio being 1:1.618 (thank you Ultrapedia). With the template being that easy to follow, biotech companies mass-produce faces to those proportions. The good doctor likely cut out key pieces of my skull and dropped the template into place as easy as swapping out an engine. It wasn’t the first time I’d changed faces, but it was the first time I’d looked this handsome.

Will you be joining us sometime today?” Tachi asked my reflection as he slid into frame beside me. “Or shall I leave the two of you alone for now?”

You jealous?”

Tachi cracked a sly smile. “Of course Dust. The question is: of whom?”

Then he winked and walked away. Sonuvabitch, he beat me at my own game.

I caught up with Tachi as we crossed the street, visoring my eyes with my hand to keep the rain out of them. Normally I’d pull my motorcycle jacket over my head, but the pack on my back containing my pet A.I. stopped me.

Kitty’s front door had twin deadbolts hooked up to keypad with a long input screen, like she needed a fun way to memorise her citizen identification number. When we approached the door a blue-tooth chat request blinked into my neupro.

Kitty’s PVC-clad avatar reclined on a leather couch, a long cigarette holder smoking away in her hand. She lowered the cigarette holder and looked me in the eye. [Do you have it with you?]

I pointed over my shoulder. [It’s right here in my backpack.]

Kitty took a puff and thought it over. [Come on in.]

The twin deadbolts snapped out with a loud authoritative ‘clack’.

Kitty’s apartment looked exactly like I expected a hacker’s home to look. Power cables and empty noodle cups lay scattered all over the floor, piles of manga and comic books doubled as furniture and sexualised anime figurines covered every flat surface.

Kitty on the other hand, looked nothing like I imagined. She may have been svelte and compact, but where I was expecting a barely-nourished, adorable mousy-thing with anime-inspired cybereyes, what I got was a purring alley-cat in pleather thigh-high boots and a crop-top.

I’m up here Dust.” Kitty purred.

I cleared my throat. “Sorry.”

Kitty reclined on the black couch in the corner of the lounge room, her laptop sitting atop her lap (as God intended). A couple of large faded cushions lay scattered on the floor around an arrangement of old desktop computers which stood in for a coffee table.

Kitty eyed us lazily as we approached. The door closing behind us on Kitty’s mental command.

Tachi put on his favourite smile and confidently strode up to offer his hand.

It is a pleasure to see you again Miss Kitty.” Tachi opened. “I hear your reputation has only grown more potent since the Hamilton Job.”

Kitty smiled warmly at Tachi and never broke his gaze. “Doitashimaste Tachi-san.” She said as she accepted his hand. “So has yours, from what I’ve heard.”

I groaned.

Hush you.” Tachi dismissed me with a wave.

Kitty laughed coyly.

She doesn’t want a cute pick-up line mate.” I told him, sliding the backpack from my shoulder. “She wants to see what the wizard has in his black bag for her.”

Kitty grinned hungrily and sat up as I placed the bag down on the make-shift coffee table and pulled out Atom’s biopod.

Now that’s interesting.” She said. “Why put it in a biopod?”

[That’s because I’m a bio-processor.]

[She can’t hear you mate. Give me a second.]

Tachi answered for him. “We found some organic components when we opened it.”

You’ve seen inside it?”

We needed to clip its wings.” I said, sitting down on the bean bag. “It turned the security system against us when we tried to get it out of Kawada.”

[Would it help if I said I was sorry about that?]

[Not really.]

Wah Lau.” Kitty breathed. Her smile got wider as I pulled out the tablet and Atom synched with it. Atom’s new avatar began to appear on the tablet’s screen. It had traded in the mall brat avatar for a Japanese Bunraku string-puppet. It’d basically turned the cartoonish, human-looking mall brat into a more robotic, string-puppet version, with visible joints at the elbows and knees. I kept expecting it to suddenly go into ‘oni-mode’, sprout horns and turn its eyes yellow.

Atom” I said aloud as his new avatar began to appear on the tablet’s screen. “May I present the newest member of our team: Her name is Kitty.”

Atom waved his little puppet-hand. “Hello Kitty.”

I smirked.

[What’s so funny?]

[Nothing. Just keep going.]

Kitty leaned in for a closer look. Her face lit up like a kid-in-a-candy-store.

Hello Atom.” she said in the voice people usually reserve for speaking to newborns. “Are you named after Mighty Atom?”

Actually yes.”

Wah!” She exclaimed again, her voice reaching the pitch only dogs can hear. “Did your creator tell you it was okay to call him ‘Otousan’ when he first built you?”

Huh?” I said, raising a brow.

My creator was actually a lady. So that wouldn’t really work.”

Oh my god, that’s amazing.” Kitty said, her eyes softening up like a teenage girl starring at a Tobias Wint poster. “Let me hook you up to my deck so we can talk. Those tiny speakers are going to drive me crazy.”

I hurriedly spoke up. “You sure? You’ve got no idea what kind of shit it can throw at you.”

Kitty smirked and gave me a knowing smile. “We’ll be fine. You don’t want to hurt me, do you Atom?”

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Dust: Chapter 05 Part 4

J. Random Hacker were one of the successors to Anonymous after the crackdowns. Their underground roots were still evident in the meeting place. Between the thumping bass massaging your virtual ribs and the laser light show over the revolving dance floor, it was hard to imagine a setting that could look less like a meeting place for people whose passion was spending hours arranging programming code into meaningful shapes.

I saw Kitty’s avatar right away. She’d made the odd touch-up here and there, but overall the look was the same she’d had on the Hamilton job. Kitty’s avatar was a whip-cord lean woman in figure-hugging leather unzipped down to the navel. She wore impossibly tall heels and had little cat ears sewn into the hood, just above the googles she’d pulled up to reveal a face perfect enough to brand perfume. Couldn’t tell you what the inspiration for it was.

She was exactly where I hoped she wouldn’t be, out in the middle of the dance floor ‘tearing it up’.

I sighed. Compared to the majority of hackers I’ve known, Kitty was being punctual.

At least she was where she said she’d be at the time we agreed upon. In the past I’ve been led around like a lab rat through a hacker’s personal ‘Island of Doctor Riddles’ domain, forced to solve logic puzzles and answer trivia before they’ll ‘grant me an audience’. After a while the only thing keeping me going is the look on their face when I tell them their ‘Follow the white rabbit’ song and dance cost them the job.

I strode out across the dance floor towards her, deftly stepping around other dancers. I lacked the software to work out which ones were other users and which ones were programmed automatons.

Kitty had positioned herself right in the middle, gyrating her lovingly sculpted ass in time to the bass line. Under normal circumstances I would be happy to sit back and watch, but today I had work to do.

Here Kitty-kitty.”

Without ceasing her rhythmic rotations Kitty slowly turned around. The orbit of her hips around an invisible centre practically invited me to check out her arse one more time. I tried to keep myself from giving her the satisfaction, but my eyes betrayed me at the last second and flicked down for a quick peek. Lucky my avatar wears shades.

It’s been a while Dust. I see you’re sticking with the classic.”

I brushed my avatar’s cheek with my virtual fingertips. “It’s hard to go past this face.”

Kitty pursed her lips for a moment before smiling. “I know.”

I had enough by that point. “Can we grab a seat? There’s a lot of stuff we have to discuss.”

Sure thing.” She said. “The chat room’s this way.”

They actually call it a ‘chat room’?.”

I know. It’s so retro.”

Kitty led me over to the booths. The moment we stepped off the dance floor and into the chat space the volume of the music dropped from the thundering bass to a dull hum, still clearly loud, but suddenly it sounded like it was coming from further up the street.

Kitty strode up to one of the booths and leaned over, placing her hands on the table so she could pull her shoulders back and thrust forth her virtual cleavage. Sitting at the booth were an eight foot tall, 300kg Cyberdemon, complete with bull horns and arm cannon and a robed magician who clearly couldn’t decide if he wanted to be Dumbledore or Gandalf.

Hey boys.” Kitty very unsubtly purred, pushing her ample chest out even further for emphasis. “Mind if I borrow the table for a while, my friend and I have some business to discuss.”

Both of them brought their eyes up to Kitty’s face and smiled. “No problem Kit.” Said the demon. “Anything you need us for?” Gandaldore asked.

I was a mite curious why she bothered with the chest thrusting. The two (presumably) boys deferred to her as a seasoned pro. It had nothing to do with Kitty’s titties.

Kitty thanked them and we sat down. She glided into the booth’s bench seat and reclined on it like a supermodel posing her legs for a beach shoot. “So what’s the job?”

I parked my arse opposite her. “Tachi and I have buried ourselves under some heavy shit and we need an extra hand digging ourselves out. Preferably someone who knows how to drive a scoop-loader.”

Can’t Noodles handle it on his own? Or has hanging around you two for so long made him crave female company?”

To be honest I think we were all craving female company at that point. Staying in that warehouse for so many months felt too much like high school all over again.

Noodles got picked up.” I said bluntly. “I shudder to think of what’s happening to him now.”

God Dust. What did you do?”

I leaned in close and slipped my shades off. “We pulled off the crime of the century. The ultimate scientific marvel is sitting in my hotel room as we speak.”

Kitty’s mouth fell open like a drawbridge. “You don’t mean…”

… I do.”

Silicon Dreams’ pride and joy? The first sentient…”

I said yes. Don’t go broadcasting it to everyone.”

Kitty reached forward with a dainty, leather-clad hand and patted mine. “Relax Dust. This is a hacker house, the audio feed never extends beyond a metre radius. And the white noise generator keeps pumping out a droll background chatter. Only I can hear you.”

I did not relax. But I didn’t press it either.

Kitty bit her lip as she smiled. “What’s it like?”

The A.I?”

Yes.” Kitty whispered, she was practically oscillating.

It’s like a precocious ‘tween boy and a hyperactive terrier had a head-swap operation.”

Kitty smiled dreamily.I can’t wait to meet it.

Now I relaxed. “So you’re in?

I’ll need to know a few more details.Kitty’s smile became more serious and to my surprise, hungrier.

You want to know what Noodles’ cut of the purse was.”

Kitty made a lollipop appear from nowhere and enveloped it with her full red lips. She nodded.

A lot.” I said, proud that I kept my eyes on hers and not the lollipop. “A full, metric, shit of a lot.”

Kitty popped the lolli out of her mouth and shaped her lips into a satisfied grin.

I was so glad she didn’t actually start purring. That would have been too much.

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Dust: Chapter 05 Part 3

[So.] Atom began immediately. [How did you and Tachi meet?]

[What did Tachi just say to me?]

[Not to tell me all of your secrets. Implying that it was okay to tell me some of your secrets?]

[Yeah, no.]

[I don’t understand. Is the answer yes or no?]

[I mean ‘Yeah – I acknowledge your logic and that you are technically correct’ but ‘No – not gonna happen’.]

Atom made an unintelligible grumbling sound at me.

[How about we change the subject?] I tried.

[Okay… What are Tachi’s views on cybernetics?] Atom asked. [He says you refuse new augmentations because it makes you stand out as an individual.]

[He would.] I would have groaned if I wasn’t a disembodied voice. [See, in Japan raising such an opinion makes you an individual. Because the population is so big and so densely packed together even a fringe product has access to a wide audience and if the product is any good it will quickly gain a foothold in the market. Suddenly you’re seeing this new, alien product everywhere and it becomes commonplace. Here in Australia, the population of the Tokyo bay area alone is spread across the whole continent. When a new technology is introduced there are still those who take it up immediately, but your average Joe will encounter this product a lot less frequently in their day-to-day life. It takes a lot longer to overcome any stigma the newness of the product may evoke.]

[So you don’t trust cybernetics?]

[I don’t trust their users. I beat Crocman because he underestimated me. If he hadn’t been augmented, even after taking out those two cops he’d have been a lot more cautious when fighting me and would have taken the threat I posed seriously. I may have died.]

[So this works out in your favour? It causes your enemies to make mistakes.]

[Mistakes they wouldn’t make if they weren’t already convinced of their own superiority. Crocman is in a hell of a situation right now because of that arrogance. He not only failed his mission to recover you, he failed to sacrifice himself in the hope of achieving it.]

[I don’t understand.]

[When Tachi comes back with my tablet I’ll download some ebooks of Hagakure and Go Rin No Sho for you. Righteous Chrome Fist are big on that fatalistic samurai bullshit. They believe that if you commit to a task you need to see it through even if it means your death. That Crocman didn’t die when he failed means he didn’t try hard enough. As his master Kiru no Yubi trained him, so his failure must lie with her. If Kiru avenges her pupil she will have atoned for her part, but Crocman will remain disgraced.]

[Alright, but why are you so scared of her?]

[Because Kiru no Yubi is death incarnate.] I said flatly. [When it comes to the monfilament whip she is the clone love-baby of Beethoven and Mozart. The only circumstances under which I’d fight her were if she were standing around aimlessly on a flat, featureless plain and I was two kay away with a Barret sniper rifle.]

[Are the others like her? The other people coming after us?]

[No, which is the one bit of good news in all of this. Kiru is special, hell Tachi was special. When Tachi and I first met most of the rest of them were lower than Crocman’s level, no idea what they’re like now.]

[How is Tachi special?]

[He’s a free-thinker. The others, even Kiru, are just attack dogs. The master tells them to do something, they do it. That’s why Tachi became an independent, one day Daddy gave him an order and he refused. We’ve been partners ever since.]

[What was the order?]

[Tachi doesn’t like to talk about it…] Then the penny finally dropped. […and I’m not supposed to be telling you any of this.]

[I-I’m sorry, I was just curious. I get shut away for so long and then suddenly I have people to talk to again. I just get excited.]

I would have sighed. I glanced back at the operating theatre in time to see the doc straighten up, giving me my first good look at the patient. They were right, ignorance is bliss.

I turned back to Atom. [I know you’re sorry mate. So how about I make you a promise. When I’m able-bodied again I’ll put what I need together to set you up as a hitcher. You’ll be able to see and hear through my eyes and ears, but you’ll only be able to talk to me.]

[Really?] Atom exclaimed. I could just imagine him clutching his hands together as his eyes glazed over in happy tears.

[Until the moment you say or do something that annoys or hinders me in anyway. Then it’s back in the box for you. Got it?]

[Oh yes, yes, yes yes.] Atom said, and I could just as clearly imagine him nodding. [I promise Dust, I’ll be on my best behaviour all the time.]

I already knew I was going to regret this.

Everyone thinks they got the name for the matrix from a movie. Everyone’s wrong but it doesn’t stop them saying it. The pop culture nerds I hang out with insist that the name comes from an old book, and no, it’s not the book of the movie.

At any rate Im sure the concepts been modified a little since then.

The matrix is a computer-generated virtual reality that perfectly mimics the physical world (when it wants to anyway, some people prefer that retro ‘Tron city’ look). I shudder to think of the astronomical number of ones and zeros it takes to construct even a simple virtual domain. The thought of billions upon billions of switches turning on and off in deliberate sequence at a rate of trillions of toggles a second is a little more than my poor army-trained brain can handle.

The first thing I did after unpacking the tablet was completely ignore the avatar setup and log in to my cloud. Normally I would allow my Neupro to resync with my music collection while I was at it, but today I wanted to get moving and that thing is huge.

I swapped out the tablet’s bland selection of default avatars for the one from my cloud, a photorealistic recreation of the classic Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun Fat, complete with black plastic sunglasses, bullet-ridden trench coat and toothpick.

I couldn’t help but saunter into the virtual domain. When you look like the coolest man who ever graced the earth it’s hard to remain understated. I used to do the same thing in my Humphrey Bogart avatar, before Tachi introduced me to Hong Kong cinema.

Kitty had agreed to meet me in one of J. Random Hacker’s hangouts: an online bar called ‘the Gentleman Loser’. I’m told it’s another reference to old sci-fi.

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Dust: Chapter 05 Part 2

[At the risk of getting back to the point.] I dared to interrupt. [With Noodles gone and RCF on our case we need someone who can cover our backs on the matrix.]

[Oh I can do that!] Atom sounded exactly like a kid trying to get picked for the football team.

[] I sat (lay immobile on the bench, whatever) in still silence for a few moments. He was volunteering?

[I can’t let you do that Atom.]

[But why not? You saw what I could do at the arcology. I ran circles around your friend. I can do that for you if you let me.]

[I can’t trust you Atom.] I told him. [You’re the hostage. We kidnapped you and are planning to hand you over to our employers for an obscene amount of money.]

[Do you really have to?] Now he sounded like he was trying to get out of his homework.

[This far into the job? Yes Atom we do. If we backed out now they’d assume we were selling you to someone else and then we would have two murderous, mercenary teams chasing us. Do you understand?]

[Yes.]

Tachi spoke up again. [If not Atom…] I hoped that was just him being diplomatic. [Who do you have in mind to replace Noodles. Your little ‘thing’ with hackers is going to make recruitment difficult.]

[I was thinking of calling Kitty.]

[There’s a surprise.]

[What? She did good work on the Hamilton job and Noodles tells me she’s only gotten better.]

Atom asked [Who’s Kitty?]

[An attractive teenage girl Dust would love to get his hands on.]

[Okay, 1: Kitty is not a teenager.]

[But she does look very fetching in a short plaid skirt and her shirt tied in a knot above her navel.]

[2: You’re projecting. You clearly want to ’get your hands on’ her and this makes you think that I want to also.]

[But you do.]

[Of course I freakin’ do. You’ve seen her. But that is not the point. The point is that Kitty and Noodles are both members of J.Random Hacker so even on the off chance Kitty doesn’t want to follow in Noodles’ footsteps she can put the word out that we’re looking for someone with Elite skills. We’ve got Atom, the world’s first truly sentient artificial intelligence, hackers will throw themselves at us for the chance to work with him.]

[Really?] Atom asked.

[It] Tachi corrected.

[For the chance to work with ‘it’ then.]

[Why do you insist on calling me an ‘it’?]

[I just don’t want you to feel that we’re forcing a gender on you. You don’t have sexual organs so I don’t feel it’s right that anyone categorise you based on them.]

[Is… is that important?]

[Yeah kinda.] I said. [You’re lucky you wound up on the male side of that divide. It’s not a good thing, but even though it’s been almost a century since liberation if you came across as female you’d have a harder time being taken seriously.]

[It’s not lucky.] Tachi sneered. [Masculinity is still the default. To make Atom anything but male it would need to constantly talk about its hair and have a pink bow stuck on the casing.]

[Can we please talk about hackers now?]

[I thought you said you’d find someone easily?]

[Shut up.] I admit I did feel a little stupid at that point. [What’s the next part of the plan? We get us a hacker, then what?]

[Then I think we need to go back to Japan. Hide from our enemies right under their nose. Goliath is never going to see it coming.]

[Goliath? Maybe the Japanese bible is a little different, but on the TV special I saw David had God on his side, and the fact I immediately switched over to the porn channel pretty much guarantees we dont.]

[Then what do you suggest we do?]

[First things first, we gotta work out how long I’m going to be stuck in the clinic this time. If you can pick me up a prepaid tablet I can get online while I’m recovering. That should save us some time tracking down a hacker.]

[Prepaid tablet…] Tachi paused long enough to write a note in his head. [Anything else?]

[Remind the doctor that we can afford the really good anti-inflammatories. Oh and I need a new knife. Needs to be monofilament.]

Tachi chuckled. [I like how you said that so casually, like you were asking me for a tie.]

[Well then what would you get me for Christmas?]

[Probably some socks]. Tachi said. [I thought you said monoblades were too expensive for a weapon you may need to discard on a moment’s notice.]

[I was wrong. I’m man enough to admit that. If I’d had a monoknife I would have had an easier time with your cousin.]

[That guy who attacked Dust was your cousin?]

[You know, he may have been. What where his distinguishing features?]

[He had a thing for crocodile leather and a monovisor built into his face. Also he used a Shinjuki Slice ‘n Dice as his weapon. And from the way he refused to speak to me I think he might have been more than a little racist.]

Tachi was quiet for a moment. [Did he have some skill with the monowhip?]

[He cut off a policeman’s head and the body remained standing for several seconds.]

[That does not bode well.]

[Elaborate!]

[I do have a cousin named Toshi who used to follow my little sister around every time we had a family gathering. If she’s been teaching him how to use her signature weapon…]

[…We’re boned.]

[Huh?] Atom said [If Dust has managed to defeat the guy before why are you so worried?]

[Firstly] Tachi replied [Because life is not a Shonen anime and beating someone the once does not make them your inferior forever. Secondly, if Kiru’s disciple has been disgraced by Dust in this manner she may well be on her way to avenge him. And Kiru is not someone to be trifled with.]

[Hence: boned].

[I’ll go out amongst the world and handle our administrative tasks. In the meantime I’ll leave Atom with you. Try not to tell it all of our intimate secrets.]

[Yes mum.]

[Farewell Atom.]

[Bye Tachi]

With that Tachi disconnected.
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Dust: Chapter 05 Part 1

Chapter 5: Do the voices in my head disturb you?

I didnt really wake up, but I did regain consciousness. I only make the distinction because you cant really call it waking up when all you do is swap thoughtless oblivion for drifting in an endless void.

Optimist that I am I choose not to interpret this to mean I had bled to death on the street.

[Hello?]

The empty silence that followed suggested otherwise.

Suddenly the darkness engulfing me vanished in an assault of light, sound and imagery. It took me a moment to realise this was actually normal stimulus as my brain interpreted the stimulus to tell me I was in a doctor’s clinic. I was just waking up.

For some reason I was sitting high up on the wall watching the doctor bend over the patient he was operating on.

It took me another moment to realise that the lack of image resolution meant that I had been patched into the video feed for the operating theatre’s cameras.

The doctor’s assistant looked up as if she had noticed something. Her expression melted away into the thousand yard stare of someone running complex operations through their Neupro, then she brightened again as she returned her attention to the real world.

A second later Tachi’s voice appeared in my head.

[Good Afternoon Dust. The nurse said you were able-minded again. How are you feeling?]

I was about to respond with some glib remark from the archives when another voice entered my mind.

[I’m so glad you’re safe Dust. The doctor said he wasn’t sure you’d live].

It was Atom’s voice.

[Tachi, how is Atom hooked up to my mind?]

[It isn’t. I hooked it up to mine. We’ve been waiting for you to wake up before adding you to the conversation.]

I could have throttled Tachi. [Please tell me you’ve disabled your wireless network?]

[Of course I have. After I found Noodles’ remains I’ve only ever turned it on to call you.]

[Oh thank God.] I would have breathed a loud sigh of relief if I could have. For someone whose body is mechanical and itself contains several small computers Tachi knows nothing about them. It was bad enough that he had hooked himself up to Atom directly, if Atom had the slightest idea how to program a computer virus it was a safe bet we were now both infected. I reached into my apps menu and ran my anti-virus software.

[What do you mean?] Atom asked. [What about noodle remains?]

[That reminds me.] Tachi said. [How much have you told him about us?]

[A little.]

[Because I’ve never heard that story about the heavy-loader.]

[Okay more than a little.]

Atom excitedly piped up. [Dust told me heaps about the Austral-Indo war, about living on his uncle’s farm in Cairns, even operating as an independent.]

[Alright, first of all.] Began my vain attempt to dig out of this. [Cairns is a proper city, my uncle’s ‘farm’ is just a big property he had on the outskirts. ‘The farm’ was our pet-name for it.]

Thankfully Tachi interjected before I could make any more of an arse of myself. [If I may be so bold as to bring us back to the reason why we’re here: Our enemies have captured Noodles and almost destroyed you. We need a new plan of attack.]

[How bad am I?]

[You’ll be out of action for a while. Right now the good doctor is reinforcing your skull, after that he will begin to replace the skin on your back with sheet from the gene bank. The sheet is a close match but the pigmentation is off. You’ve looked better my friend.]

The sound of a small power saw caught my attention. I looked back towards the Doc just in time to see some pieces of bloodied bone hit the table.

I tracked the camera away to something else. Thankfully the doctor’s assistant was still in the room.

She was dressed properly for surgery so there wasn’t anything to really ogle at, but being a man I could make do.

[So how did they pick up Noodles?]

[I do not know exactly but I have some educated guesses. Noodles went to hide out in Syria, living on a diet of Halal cooking and their underground net access. Sound enough theory, hide from a major multinational corporation by embedding himself in fundamentalist territory. Trouble is the hacker community in Syria is small and inherently suspicious. Noodles most likely fell afoul of the town Judas.]

[That doesn’t surprise me. Damn it! I liked Noodles.]

[Well he’s in their custody now and given the state he’s in, I’d say completely at their mercy as well. Noodles will give them everything he has on us.]

[By ‘them’ you mean your old bosses, don’t you?]

I’d been waiting to drop that bomb since this conversation began. Tachi didn’t reply for the longest of times.

[What do you mean?] Atom asked. [Tachi used to work for Roxorgh?]

[Not Roxorgh, I used to be part of the family Roxorgh has contracted to recover you.]

[They hired a family? You mean like a criminal organisation?]

[They’re not just a family in the figurative sense.] I interrupted. [Righteous Chrome Fist are unique in Bõryokudan circles because many of their key members are also blood relatives.]

[Righteous Chrome Fist?] Atom asked.

[They’re a Yakuza gang.] I explained.

[Not really.] Tachi replied. [Yakuza gangs operate openly and see themselves as part of the community. They avoid engaging in covert activity to maintain this belief. Righteous Chrome Fist on the other hand operates exclusively from the shadows. They don’t work territory, peddle goods or run rackets, instead they offer a range of covert surveillance, extraction and assassination services.]

[And in their spare time they obsessively leaf-through cybernetics catalogues going ‘Oooh’ and ‘Aaaah’ and ‘Hey I don’t have that.’]

[Crude. But not actually that far from the truth.] Tachi said. [They’re transhumanists. Even compared to the average upper-middle class Japanese their augmentations are extensive. They attribute their rise to prominence in the space of a generation as evidence of the superiority of metal over meat.]

[The goon whose head I mooshed under a car says otherwise.]

[But at what cost Dust? If you’d been augmented…]

[I’d still have won, we’d just be talking about replacing a fifty thousand nuyen prosthetic body not a ten grand facial reconstruction.]

[Really? You think you would be happy with a cheap cyberbody? Let me assure you, you know not whereof you speak.]

[So if Righteous Chrome Fist are after you and Tachi is a former member of this ‘family’ is their mission a personal vendetta?]

That never failed to weird me out about Atom. He had the vocabulary of an English teacher but the voice of a kindergartner.

[Unlikely] Tachi replied. [If it were personal the agent sent against us would have been from further up the food chain. No, I would say RCF were contracted for this job for the same reason Dust and myself were for ours. We are the best at what we do.]

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Dust: Chapter 04 Part 4

I crawled on my back until I reached the wall and edged my way up it to get back onto my feet. Crocman vaulted across the gap, one hand on the car, one on the van and covered the length of the parking space before I was back upright. He kicked out when he neared me, when I pushed his foot down he got them under him and followed up with a high feint and a punch to the gut. I heaved as the air was forced out of my lungs like a kid sitting on a whoopie cushion and fell into a clinch. I plunged my knife into his neck but he replied with a knee to my gut, which forced the knife out through the front.

It wasn’t lethal for a cyborg. His air pump just revved up higher to compensate. I however, was still breathless. Crocman turned my knife aside and stepped in to get my back. His unyielding, prosthetic arms coiled around my neck.

Instinctively I moved to try to prevent him from closing me into a choke, but that was not his plan. He reached across my throat and undid the tip of his monofinger.

My eyes flew wide and I immediately brought up my knife-hand. By pure luck I caught him right in the cybervisor and plunged the length of my blade into his skull. Another horrific, but futile wound inflicted. At least the violent shock and the loss of depth perception loosened his grip enough for me to try wriggling out. He pushed my face down into the concrete, sandwiching my skull between a concrete slab and his steel-reinforced fist for a moment.

My brain ricochet around inside my skull a few times. I tasted exhaust and blood.

In the cramped space Crocman somehow managed to turn me onto my back. I got my head to stop swimming in its own juices and brought up my arms to defend it. So Crocman punched me in the gut to open me up.

While I sucked a mouthful of air into my vacated lungs Crocman raised his prosthetic fist again and brought it down on my face. My pain editor maxed out for a second, I could feel the fractures splitting across my jaw bone. He pulled his hand back and I saw my own blood on his knuckles before he brought it down again. A wet crack reached my ears as my jaw snapped like a disposable chop stick. Plastic surgery was the least of my concerns now.

In the next moment Crocman cocked his fist back again for his next hit, the one that would cave in my skull. With a clarity only combat experience and a pain editor could provide I waited until his fist was pulled back to its apex before making my move.

I pulled my hips out from under him and slipped out of his mount like a worm sliding between a toddler’s fingers.

Crocman’s fist thumped into the sports car’s passenger door and put a dent in it that rivalled the chrome rims for size. He tried to correct his position above me to regain his mount. I wrapped one arm around his neck and pushed up with my hips, catching him just as his balance was uneven and tipped him over onto the concrete.

Crocman put a hand on my chest and pushed himself out of my grip with sheer brute force. I grabbed his arm for leverage and tried to put myself in mount on him.

As we wrestled I noticed the tip of Crocman’s head disappear under the car’s ridiculously low-slung body, there was barely enough room for his head to fit underneath it.

Crocman copied my own tactic and pushed up with his hips, slamming my face into the dent in the and slipping his head further under the car until the handle of my knife caught against the skirting and stopped him.

His damaged foot also slipped on the concrete, allowing me to gain mount when his hips hit the ground again.

I seized upon the one idea I could think of, grabbed hold of my knife and yanked it out.

Crocman grabbed my wrist as I tried to bring it down onto him. His fingers closed tight around my arm and I was helpless to stop him to turning the blade away. To his surprise I actually pushed with him, until I was burying the point into the back of the car’s tire.

The loss of air pressure dropped the car the extra two inches I needed, dropping the car’s considerable mass onto his forehead. I heard a metallic crack as the skull integrity compromised and the weight trapped Crocman’s head under the car.

He wasn’t dead, the repeated grabs for my throat made that clear. I disentangled myself from Crocman, batting aside his hands and sacrificing fist-fulls of my shirt.

I didn’t like the idea of leaving him alive, but my experience with Tachi’s prosthetics told me I didn’t have time to carve out his brain case before any more cops showed up.

My pain editor noticed that my adrenaline levels were dropping and urged me to seek medical attention. I couldn’t even remember getting half of those wounds, so I kept going.

I checked under the van and found Atom’s bag right where I left it. I opened it up and found Atom’s braincase, minus my accessories inside. Poor little guy was going to have a rude shock when he came back online and saw me again.

As I raised myself up I felt the world slide under me for half a second. Someone screamed, which brought the world back into focus. A middle aged woman had strolled out to the carpark, she had two little kids in toe, a six year old boy and his little sister. They’d found the headless and handless policemen. Their attention turned to me when I bolted upright between the two cars. She took one look at what was left of my face, screamed again and fled, abandoning the shopping trolley to pluck the kids off the ground and run.

I stumbled towards the fire exit. My cype beeped and Tachi’s vidwindow appeared before me. [Alright Dust, I made it to central. Where do I go from here?]

I dunno.I actually said the words aloud, slurred them to be exact.

Tachi’s voice became very serious.

[Where are you?] He demanded.

[I’m in a car park… somewhere in St. Petersburg.] I said as I pushed open the exit and took my first clumsy step out into the street.

[I’m going to assume you mean St. Peters.]

[That’s the one.]

The alley outside was where the building next door kept its bins, but there was access to the main road from here. I stumbled in that direction.

[Dust, what happened? You sound terrible.]

[One of your buys… dumped me.] I mumbled.

[Stay with me Dust. Keep talking. I’m on my way to the platform for St. Peters now I’ll be there as soon as I can. What street are you on?

[That’s what I’m trying to… do.]

[Hang on Dust!]

That was when I passed out.

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Dust: Chapter 04 Part 3

My pain editor kept the worst of it from me, but I could still feel my chest tightening around my ribs. My body had enough, but I fought to keep going, looking for an appropriate place to catch my breath. Finally I settled for sneaking under a tradesman’s van with a high wheel base.

It was parked right next to an obnoxiously lowered sports car, complete with that tacky holographic paint that changes colour depending on the angle you look at it. I hoped the car would draw attention away from the beaten-up, off-white van next door.

I gasped for air, inhaling the smell of energy cells and warm plastics beneath the engine. But concealing myself from sight wasn’t going to achieve a lot if Crocman could still hear me panting like a smoker on a hot date.

The sound of metal and plastic scraping on concrete reached my ears and I froze. Suddenly stilling my breath became a lot easier. The scraping sound paused for a moment. I tried to quietly manoeuvre myself underneath the van so that I could see. If I’d been smart I would have crawled under the van on my belly and faced out the back. With some craning I found I could see a single foot that I guessed belonged to Crocman, the tattered remnants of an expensive leather shoe hanging loosely from a prosthetic foot was hard to mistake.

Then the sound of fleshy feet wearing boots joined in.

All right hold it.One of the cops yelled.

I was officially not going to get a better distraction then that. Slowly and gently I started crawling out from under the van.

Down on the ground NOW!The other cop cop yelled.

Then I felt a firm, titanium grip wrap around my ankle.

Oh Shit.” I said.

The next moment I was looking up into Crocman’s monovisor. The dull ache on my back told me my pain editor was concealing a new abrasion that likely covered most of my back and that most of my back likely covered the concrete under the van.

Hey Arsehole!the first Cop yelled as they moved closer.I’m not in the mood to play around. Down on the floor or I’ll drop the pair of you.

<You shitty little pests.>Crocman grunted in Japanese.

Crocman let go of me and rushed the closer of the two cops. The guy squeezed off a round that caught Crockie square in centre mass. Without even a flinch Crocman swept his hand in front of the cop’s face and then turned to face his partner. The second cop shot Croman twice to the same effect before Crocman rushed at him.

The first cop turned to keep Crocman on target, took a breath to steady his aim and died. His head falling clean from his shoulders.

The second cop hammered at the trigger, emptying as many rounds into Crocman as he could fit in before Crocman closed the gap. The sixth round caused Crockie to grimace for a moment.

Crocman took one step passed the cop and swept his hand down in a vertical arc. Both of the cop’s hands, still wrapped around the pistol, fell to the ground. A moment passed while the horror set in and then the cop began to scream. Thankfully he passed out from the shock, though whether it was the medical or emotional definition that struck first I couldn’t tell.

An instant later, the first cop’s body hit the ground as well.

In the time it took for Crocman to murder those two elite policemen I had managed to pull myself upright again and lean against the van.

Now I was screwed. A monofilament whip built into a cyberfinger is a celebrated weapon in Yakuza circles. It basically consists of a spool of diamond-hard carbon fibre installed in the prosthetic’s palm, the fibre is barely one molecule thick, weighted at one end by the detachable fingertip and extends out to about a metre. In the hands of a skilled user that single strand of carbon could slice through any plastic or organic material. An expert can add most metals to that list as well.

Crocman turned away from his handiwork and bore his hateful gaze into me.

Where is bag?Crocman roared at me.

I forced myself to remain calm. The words of my old Lieutenant whispered in the back of my brain. Only the insane may prosper, only those who prosper may judge what is sane.

I shrugged, at worst I’d be dead within the minute.

I brandished my knife and went back into my fighting stance. This, surprisingly, actually pissed him off more. He closed the distance between us in three steps, raising his hand for another swing.

I held my dodge for as long as I thought reasonable, then ducked as the razor-sharp wire sung through the air where my neck had been an instant ago. As he continued his swing I shot forward, got my hips under his and lifted him off the ground before dropping him on his face.

I got on top of him, pinning one of his arms with my knee while I went for the hand with the monowhip. I plunged my knife into his wrist and wriggled the blade around. I felt a few wires snip under the pressure, then pulled the knife out to have a go at the fingers. As soon as I took the pressure off, Crocman turned the tables on me. Despite the weight I was putting on his other hand Crocman actually sat up and tipped me onto my back. I rolled with the momentum and escaped his grasp, but slipped on my own feet and crashed down into the space between the van and the sports car.

Crocman dashed towards me and lashed out with a soccer kick to my legs, which I raised defensively and took the impact. My leg felt like it’d been smacked with a cricket bat and I pushed away from Crocman as he recoiled the leg and lashed out again, smashing a dent into the side of the van.

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Dust: Chapter 04 Part 2

“Oy!” An authoritarian voice boomed out across the street. “Stop right there.”

I hid my knife again. Across the street a pair of cops in lightweight tactical fatigues fearlessly charged across the morning traffic, nimbly dodging over and around moving vehicles.

It was about time a local police force had raised a parkour squad. If they’d bit the bullet on that ten years ago when I’d first left the services I might not have turned to a life of international crime.

Crocman flashed me an ugly look and dashed into an apartment block. I broke into a sprint again and followed, turning into the entrance in time to see Crocman punch a hole in the tempered glass door.

I charged down the corridor, the cops barely a step behind me.

Crocman took hold of the sheet of security glass and tugged at it, peeling out the entire panel like he was tearing the lid off a cereal box. The glass buckled and crumpled but stayed mostly in one piece as he turned it from a clear, flat sheet into a green, wrinkly rug.

Crocman cast the glass aside and jumped through the doorway. The cop and I followed a second later.

Crocman sprinted into the middle of the apartment complex, the courtyard space where the pool and the playground lay. He reached the threshold of the courtyard and quickly swung around to charge up the stairs.

I saw a faster way, across the courtyard a table sat against the wall beneath a bulletin board, the kind that carry passive-aggressive notes about where unwanted furniture should be dumped. Above the notice board was the railing for the first floor. I rushed across the courtyard, jumped off the table, kicked off the wall and grabbed the railing to scramble over the top. I turned around in time to see Crocman reach the top of the stairs and for the parkour cop to do basically the same as I did, only faster and with better technique.

I dashed away from him, keeping an eye on Crocman as he reached the next flight of stairs and started up it. I searched around desperately for another cheat way up.

Then I saw an old wardrobe lying on its side by the corner, someone was ignoring (or inspired) the passive aggressive note. I ran at the corner, jumped up onto the wardrobe, then the railing and then launched myself out at the railing for the next floor up. My hands closed around the bars and squeezed solid, tightening up my arms, shoulders and chest to stop myself before my face slammed into the railing as well. With my grip established I started shimmying my way up the bars.

With a heave the parkour cop caught the railing besides me.

Mid-shimmy, I turned to look at him. “Ballzy mother-fucker aren’t you?”

“Yeah.” he breathed back, powering up the railing, I got the lead out to keep up. “Go easy on yourself and give up now.”

I grabbed the top of the railing and heaved myself over it. “You’ll never catch him without me.”

The cop slipped in a quick “We’ll see.” Before I could get away from him.

The sound of splintering fiberboard brought my attention back to Crocman. He’d officially run out of stairs at that level and had found another way out. With a swift kick he smashed the doorknob on one of the apartments right out of its door before barging inside.

I rushed to keep up, swung through the doorway and bounded over the apartment’s overweight occupant where he lay on the floor. Crocman vaulted over the couch and I followed, he slammed his shoulder through the glass sliding door just as I cleared the couch myself and ran out to the balcony.

I legged it after him, throwing aside the ruined vertical blinds in time to see Crocman step off the balcony and fly out across the open air.

The next moment I was right there with him.

Adrenaline flooded my brain as I took in the shaky view of the neighbouring roof. Not the good kind of adrenaline that tells you how amazing this ride is, this was the kind that chooses from a menu whether you’re going to pass out, throw up or shit yourself before asking if it has the money for a combo-meal.

Below me Crocman stuck the landing superhero-style with both feet and a fist. Thumping a massive dent into the stainless steel before shooting back up and sprinting again. Being not as light as his prosthetic body I fell a bit short of his crater, but still managed to land on the roof, thank god.

My shoes gently kissed the roof and told my legs to collapse as my body continued to ride gravity down. I threw myself into a shoulder roll to spread the rest of the impact across my body and redirect the momentum, allowing me to come out of the roll running again.

Behind me I heard the parkour cop do the same. Only that lucky bastard got to wear armour for his uniform. My pain editor told me my shoulder and hip were probably fine, but I might want to give them the day off after this.

I vaulted over a solar-panel and dodged around an old TV antennae, trying to keep Crocman in view with all the rooftop clutter between us. I skipped over a roof turbine and then had to leap to clear a skylight.

Ahead Crocman kept on, but he was getting closer. For the first time in this whole chase he was actually getting closer.

Spurred on I found a reserve of energy I hadn’t used yet and fired it up. Skipping around some more solar panels I closed the gap between us.

But not before we ran out of rooftop. Undaunted Crocman leapt off the edge of the building.

I glanced up and saw the multi-storey carpark besides the the townhouses we’d run across. I leap after him, throwing myself for maximum distance. We couldn’t reach the car park at the level we jumped and for a painful slo-mo second I got to guess our trajectory would take us to the next level down.

Crocman repeated his three-point landing and even with the wind rushing past my ears I heard his metallic ankle joint snap. He pushed off to launch himself again and slipped, muscling through it with his leg Crocman managed to get going anyway. The limp only slowed him down a little.

Then I hit the bitumen and threw myself into another roll. The impact was worse this time and my pain editor flared red in a few places but I got back to my sprint with less trouble than Crocman had.

Crocman rounded the corner to the ramp down. He would have disappeared in the next moment but for the fire exit door next to him bursting open to admit the second parkour cop inside. Crocman only hesitated for a moment, he wasn’t given another one. The cop scooped Crocman off his feet and dumped him flat onto his back.

I saw Atom’s backpack slip from his shoulder just before he hit the ground. Landing between me and the cop. I ran low, snatched the bag off the ground and without breaking stride rolled over the back of the parkour cop and kept going towards the ramp.

The first parkour cop vaulted the railing and landed in front of me, a commanding hand pointing right at my face.

Alright stop.”

Before he could add “In the name of the law.” I threw the bag at his face and when he caught it I grabbed his shoulders, got my hips behind his and threw him to the ground. With a deft flick of the wrist I extracted the bag from his grasp and sprinted down the ramp.

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Dust: Chapter 04 Part 1

Chapter 4: The Thrill of the Chase

I got my lazy, tired arse back to the pod hotel as fast as humanly possible. Catching a taxi had been tempting, but at peak lunchtime I wasn’t going to chance it being any faster.

If they’d already caught Noodles and ‘approached’ Tachi (whatever that meant) it was a safe bet they were closing in on me. Plan A was: Get back to the hotel. Grab Atom. Rendezvous with Tachi at Central station. Disappear. That last one was going to require breaking out the false identity that Noodles didn’t help set up.

I dialled in my room code at the front door, flew up the stairs and charged down the corridor. I froze, my door was open. Either the cleaners had ignored the ‘do not disturb’ sign (for the first time since I got here) or the mysterious they had gotten to Atom already.

My sweat chilled, like someone turned the thermostat in my body down to zero.

Then I heard the sound of a bag zipping shut and my heart started beating again. Someone was still here. I slipped my only weapon out of the sheath on my ankle. A seven-inch, double-edged, throwing knife made of high-density ceramic. I crept towards the door, reversing my grip on the knife to hide it behind my arm.

I watched the shadow in the doorway. For the first time since I checked in I was grateful for the obscenely small size of my room. I could tell just from the shadow’s size that the thief was standing over the bed. It was too far to rush in, so I waited by the door.

I heard the thief sling the bag over their shoulders and watched their shadow grow in time to their footsteps.

I exploded around the corner. Before I could even get a clear look at my opponent I locked his neck into a clinch and smashed my knee into his gut. The impact was solid, like I’d rammed my knee into an Ikea cabinet. Before the pain could even register with my editing software, I transferred into throw stance and slammed my opponent into the floor before dropping down and pressing my knife up against his throat.

That was when the knowledge of my opponent’s prosthetic body finally caught up with my brain. I could only tell by the weight of it, the prosthetic was easily of the same quality as Tachi’s.

I also recognised the backpack he was holding. Before I could draw my knife away from his unbreathing throat he punched me in the face.

Damn it! I just had that fixed. I literally took the bandages off THIS MORNING!

I rocked with the impact and collapsed onto my arse.

My opponent flipped around to his hands and feet with incredible speed and I got a good look at him at last. If he hadn’t just broken my nose I would have laughed. The guy looked like the bass player from a Guitar Wolf cover band. Crocodile leather the colour of Irish beer and a pair of black designer jeans covered his body and installed in his face was a cybervisor styled to look like wraparound monoshades.

Crocman dived onto me. I got my feet up in time to catch him and kicked him over me. Catapulting him across my tiny room before crashing into the wall.

I shot to my feet and spun to face him. My pain editor keeping my head from swimming from the agony in my face. I could feel blood dripping down onto my shirt.

Crocman got upright real quick, his backpack flailing around on one shoulder.

He glowered at me. I glared right back. I tried to figure out a way to cross the bed without exposing myself to counter-attack.

Then Crocman did the last thing I expected him to do. He ran.

Without taking his eyes off me, Crocman shattered the window of my room with his elbow then dived head first out the opening.

The hell? We were on the second floor.

I hurdled over the bed and looked out the window. Crocman had landed on the roof of a station wagon, caving it in. The backpack containing Atom prevented him from landing in a shoulder roll. Then he slipped and fell off the edge, braking the window of the car next to his.

That slip was my only decent break in all of this. I put my knife between my teeth, pirate style, climbed out the window and grabbed onto the drainpipe right next to it. (This was exactly why I’d chosen this room, though at the time I thought I’d be the one running away).

Just in case you were wondering, climbing down something as flimsy as a drainpipe is not fun. Trusting all of my weight to what was clearly the cheapest length of PVC at the hardware store would have made me piss my pants if I hadn’t already sweated it out on the run back.

I was about a metre down before the pipe gave way, fortunately the bonnet of the station wagon caught me before I hit the bitumen. I bit down on the ceramic knife, feeling the edges cut into my cheeks. My oft-mentioned pain editor and my ukemi training joined forces to let me claw my way back to my feet. I spat my knife back into my hand and took off after Crocman.

Crocman revved up his enhanced prosthetics and took off down the street, leaving me behind like a bullet from a shell casing. I pushed myself harder, a clenching in my chest told me a stitch was on its way.

It wasn’t long before we ran out of open street. Further up a crowd had formed between a convenience store and a bus harbour. Heedless Crocman ploughed right into the middle of the group, knocking several people on their arse before he got tangled in the limbs and went down with them. Hope lent me a bit more puff and I rushed to catch up.

The bus everyone was waiting for pulled in as Crocman extracted himself from the heap, losing an extra second when he realised he’d dropped Atom’s bag and snatched it off the pavement.

One big guy got in Crocman’s face and roared at him, letting him have it for not looking where he’s going. I raised my knife to plunge it into Crocman’s neck while he was distracted. But Crocman nutted the bloke in the face and pushed passed him.

I lowered my knife and rushed through the aftermath. Crocman was already gaining ground on me.

Then I finally caught a lucky break.

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