“You know what the worst thing about having any kind of non-standard belief is?” I asked Atom between push-ups. “You have to defend them again and again to every bastard you meet.”
I’d folded the pod’s bed away, I’d never have the room to exercise otherwise. After a week of resting my plastic surgery was finally healed. I’d just taken the bandages off my face and I was looking forward to getting into a new exercise program.
Atom’s avatar cocked its head to one side. It had built its own avatar from the options available in the tablet. Now it looked like a mischievous mall-brat in sneakers and a sidewards baseball cap.
All he was missing was a pinwheel on its head.
“What do you mean by ‘non-standard belief?”
“Almost anything these days.” My breathing was getting harder, I forced out another couple of reps before rolling over onto my back. “Vegetarianism, refusing to own a smart phone, having religion, or not having it if you’re in the right part of the world.”
“So that’s why everyone bugs you about getting more cybertech all the time?”
“Exactly.” I said and pushed my feet out so I could start doing V-snaps. “I’m not one of those ‘human purity’ nuts. But so many people immediately start treating me like one right after I mention it. It’s one of the reasons why I prefer staying on this side of the world. In Japan cyber is everywhere.”
I stopped there, not because I’d finished speaking but because my abs were tightening up. I was getting soft, I hadn’t exercised at all during the crunch before the heist.
“Umm.” Atom began. “So why don’t you want any more cybertech in you?”
I brought my feet down to touch the carpet again and let them rest.
“Because it’s draining the talent pool. When I first joined the services they gave me a pain editor, a neural processor and a set of interface plugs so I could jack into my equipment. But before any of that we went out to Singleton and got our skills drilled into us. Training was treated like a master passing on a craft to a group of apprentices. The yanks treat it like an assembly line: people go in, soldiers come out. You hand new tech to a soldier like that, something that makes his job easier and he starts to rely on it. It’s like if you took a twelve year-old boy to a construction site and got him into a loading frame and he starts thinking he’s really strong because the machine lets him pick up a car. You put that kid in a fight against some mooks and he’ll dominate. You get a guy who actually knows how to fight and teach him a thing or two about how the loading frame works and you watch him pull that kid right out of it.”
“You really think so?”
“I don’t have to.” I told him. “I’ve seen it.” I got up and started stretching out my hips. “We’d just finished establishing a base at Changi airport, though we’d been patrolling the streets for a week by then.”
“When was this?”
“Liberation of Singapore. Austral-Indo war. Not surprised you haven’t checked it out. At the time the Japanese were keeping a close eye on China, the other eye on North Korea and their finger on the trigger.”
I changed my stretch to my hamstrings. Now that the surgery scars were healed I wanted to get back into running next week.
“Anyway. We’d already had some contact by this time. Already lost a few lads to the Indos. One of the guys in the platoon, David, refused to be called ‘Davo’, wasn’t handling it, so the Leftenant got him to help out the engineers to clear away all the pallets and supplies for the camp, keep him out of the firing line. A couple of days later he got a ‘Dear John’ letter.”
“What’s a ‘Dear John’ letter?” Atom asked. He never sounded bored or frustrated. Like he was hanging on every word.
“Well a ‘Dear John’ letter is usually sent by a woman, but not this time, to break off a relationship when they cannot do it in person. In the old days this was because the distance between the two of them made other methods of communication impossible, these days no-one has that excuse but the practice hasn’t died out.”
With my hammies all nice and loose I switched to loosening up my neck. “So David strapped himself into the loader and must have stewed on it for a few minutes. Then he just exploded, started throwing wooden pallets around like dinner plates, upturned a 20-tonne truck. When he charged at the radio tower that’s when the Left got into it. He put himself in between David and the tower. Left always was a ballzy sonuvabitch. Tried talking him down, tried sympathising with him, didn’t help. David grabbed a water barrel and hurled it at him. So the Left rushed him, dived under a swing from the loader’s crab-claws, climbed up the frame and hit the kill-switch. Even with the loader turned off David was still kicking and biting, right up until the Left forced him out with the quick-release, took him to the tarmac and beat the shit out of him. Someone with the stones to give it a try, who knows what they’re doing and knows because they’ve actually done it, will beat some shake-and-bake trooper with cool toys every time.”
I finished off my stretches and stood up again. Physically I felt good: warm, a little sweaty and nicely loose. Emotionally I was getting tired of talking all the time.
Then Atom asked. “What about your friends? How do they feel about cybertech?”
“I can’t speak for them. Maybe when we all meet up again you can ask them yourself. Anywayz mate, I’m bored, peckish and just a little stir-crazy, I’m going to head out for a bit.”
Atom’s avatar put his hands in his pockets and absently kicked at an imaginary stone. “Okay, you go outside, I’ll be fine here.” He grumbled.
“It’s just that every time you go I want to go out with you and see what the world outside is like.”
I knelt down and placed a reassuring (and more than a little condescending) hand on Atom’s casing.
I sighed, then shook my head. “Not a chance in hell.”
“But why? What harm could I possibly do?”
“I don’t have the slightest clue what you’re capable of little guy. It’s a risk I can’t afford to take, especially when I’ve got nothing to gain in return. I’m sorry I’ve gotta do this to you, but that’s just the way it is.”
Atom grumbled a little more, but I left without another word.
Beads of sweat broke out on my forehead from the moment I stepped into the sunlight. I’d been inside too long. I kept to the shady side of the street and made my way down to the convenience store on the corner. I wanted to grab a bottle of juice and look for a good seaside running track.
It was midday and the roads and walkways were coursing with humanity in all its forms, many of whom were desperate to find somewhere to eat lunch so they could get back on shift in time. Still there was more than enough personal space to go around, especially compared to NeoTokyo. I wasn’t fighting the currents of humanity here, nor was I enduring the curious and displeased looks on Asian faces at my anglo-celtic appearance. I saw plenty of vice versa, but Japan hardly has the monopoly on arseholes.
I actually made it down to the harbour before a vidwindow from Tachi appeared in front of me.
[Dust where are you?] Tachi asked. His avatar was a pretty samurai warrior with long, voluminous black hair and piercing eyes. Tachi once told me it was modelled on the Sengoku-era hero Uesugi Kenshin. I’d never actually looked the guy up so I couldn’t tell you how accurate it was.
[Can’t tell you, remember?] I shot back. [Far as I know I’m safe if that helps.]
[I’m sure Noodles thought the same thing.]
I immediately spun on my heels and turned right back the way I came, calling up the GPS in my Neupro to find me the quickest route back to my pod. Tachi’s vidwindow hurried to keep up.
[Explain.] I demanded.
[Noodles has been intercepted. I saw the body, it looked like they took out his vitals and hauled them away in a biopod for interrogation offsite.]
[Holy shit.] I threw my empty juice bottle in a recycling bin and picked up my pace to a jog. [How did you find this out?]
[They approached me first, so I started tracking down the pair of you. Noodles was painfully easy to find.]
[Well if I know you Dust, you’re somewhere in Australia. I’m at the domestic terminal in Sydney now. I just need to know which plane to catch from here.]
[Get a train instead. Get to Central station and give me another call. I’ll try and meet you there.]
By now I was sprinting. The midday heat immediately turned against me and any cool off I gained from my juice waved me goodbye.