Dust: Chapter 08 Part 4

Noodles threw the crossbow at Kitty and she deflected it as easily as the bolts, reducing the weight of your virtual items has its disadvantages too. Kitty’s hand-to-hand was slightly hamstrung by the trailing chain around Ice Phoenix’s neck, but the great bird soon made a garbled moan and crashed down to the ground. One of her wings growing to the size of a skyscraper as she began spinning uncontrollably.

Noodles jumped back from Kitty, who finally ran out of chain and had to recall the end she had wrapped around Ice Phoenix’s neck. Noodles took the opportunity to pull out his last-ditch defence.

Noodles raised both hands to the sky and screamed “I have the Power”. A flash of lightning later and the Stoundheart sword materialised in his hands.

It did not help him. Kitty’s staff torpedoed out and smacked him right in the face. As Noodles stumbled back Kitty fell upon him. He managed to block her downwards hammer strike but as Noodles retaliated with a slash at her neck Kitty dropped low and knocked his legs out from under him.

A shot from Kitty’s staff sent the Stoundheart sword clattering away from Noodles’ grasp, a second shot to the face was enough to force his surrender.

Wait!” Noodles cried, one hand out in protest.

Kitty aimed the staff for the final strike, but held the command.

Please.” He sobbed. “Please don’t, they’ll kill me.”

[Do it.] I said. [Do it before he has the chance to try anything else.]

[What? He’s your friend.]

[RCF won’t kill him.]

[Really? So they just inserted a hot-wire into Noodles’ brain for shits and giggles did they?]

[They’re not Bond villains, they’re not going to waste a valuable asset that can tell them how their enemies’ think. If they kill him it’ll make our lives easier and their job harder. They won’t do it.]

Noodles stared up at her, because he had only ever programmed his avatar to cry in jest he looked more like he was holding in a sneeze. “Kitty?”

I’m thinking Noodles.” Kitty said. “How certain are you that your captors will kill you?”

They… they’ve told me they will. I’m just a brain in a biopod, they could kill me any time they want or just unplug me and wait for my brain to die on its own.”

Kitty sighed. [How long would a brain in a biopod survive autonomously?]

[You’d have to ask Tachi that one.]

She looked at Noodles. “Dust doesn’t think they’ll kill you. I’ve got you in one ear, telling me one thing and him in the other, telling me the opposite. I need to know how which of you is telling me the truth….” There was a pause before Kitty followed up with. “Hmmm.”


Noodles’ next breath caught in his throat. “Yes?”

They sent you in to track us down didn’t they?”

Noodles nodded. “Yes.”

Then if you tell them where we’re going, they’ll keep you alive.”

[Say what?]

If I take you out now, but you tell your captors we’re going to Seattle, they’ll consider your task a success and keep you around. If you can stay just one step behind us they’ll have to leave you alive.”

[Sending hit teams of cybernetic assassins after us the entire time.]

Noodles was nodding like the village idiot to all this.

Alright, we can do this. I just need to know where you are Noodles. When we’ve got the chance we’ll come rescue you.”

[Oh you have got to be fucking kidding me]. I logged out.

I phased out of the matrix and returned to the real world. Tachi looked up from his tall glass of iced tea and smiled. “Everything went okay then?”

I scowled. “Almost.”

I reached across to Kitty’s deck and hit the power button.

Kitty jolted violently as she was abruptly dumped from that world to this one. Her eyes flew open like they’d been forced and she almost choked on the air.

Fuck spider!” Kitty screamed so loudly it drew harsh looks from the gaggle of old ladies sitting around us.

What the hell was that?” I demanded

Ah-yah Puki Mak.” yelled Kitty.

I’m not the one who wanted to give Noodles a blow-by-blow of our escape plans on the off-chance we might be able to get our shit together and mount a suicide mission to save him.”

No.” Kitty said. “You’re the one who left Noodles alone to undo all of our work in the CCTV system.”

What? What does that matter anymore? The way you were talking we’re on the same side again.”

Kitty face-palmed. “Dust, if you were able to hitch onto my run in the matrix because you wanted to keep tabs on me what the hell stops Righteous Chrome Fist from doing the same? The moment you dumped me from the matrix you can bet your last nuyen they ordered him to mess with the CCTV footage again. They might not be on speaking terms with the cops but it’s still to their advantage to work together.”

I suddenly felt sick in my stomach. Tachi raised his eyebrows and cast his gaze my way.

I hated to admit it, but when she put it that way it seemed so obvious.

What’s that?” Kitty cupped a hand around her ear. “No smart-ass retort? Must be my lucky day.”

Tachi flicked a warning finger Kitty’s way. “Alright you’ve had your fun, now let’s fix the problem before we fix the blame any further.”

Tachi took a moment to think. “It’ll take some time for the authorities to uncover our likenesses. In the meantime we catch a taxi from here, take it to a rental company and hire a car to get us out of the city. We escape to a rural community and arrange overland transport from there.”

Tachi looked back at me, I was grateful he’d decided to do the talking because all I could think of right now were flashy ways to commit suicide.

It’s significantly less than ideal but drastically superior to being held in lock-up while Righteous Chrome Fist plot our demise. Wouldn’t you agree Kitty?”

Kitty looked away and snorted. “I guess.”

Then let us waste no more time.”

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Dust: Chapter 08 Part 3

From beyond the cloud we heard Ice Phoenix give a different kind of cry. Kitty shot the staff into the ground again and took to the air, launching herself diagonally away from her previous spot.

Then we worked out what that new scream meant, above the cloud we saw Ice Phoenix beat her wings and suddenly an artificial wind kicked up within the arena. The wind caught Kitty while she was in the air and hurled her around the room like a dented squash ball. Kitty bounced hard off the wall two or three times, grateful for the lack of pain sensors in the digital world.

Kitty abandoned her grip on her staff and it dematerialised. Instead she ran an app called Sticky Fingers and used them to grab onto the wall on her next bounce and affix herself in place.

That was when she saw Noodles, standing comfortably underneath Ice Phoenix in the eye of the storm she made with her wings. Noodles raised his crossbow and unloaded bolt after bolt at her, signalling for the wind to stop after he began to fire. The wind threw the first couple of bolts off target, but once it died down the rest were coming straight at Kitty.

Kitty disengaged her Sticky Fingers and let herself drop to the ground. Only for Noodles to signal for the winds to pick up again.

Again Kitty was dashed against the wall, she grabbed hold with her Sticky Fingers and hung on.

Noodles saw Kitty anchor herself in place and raised his crossbow again, aiming off into the wind he squeezed off another barrage of bolts.

The wind messed with their trajectory, but Noodles compensated and the bolts impacted hard with the wall beside Kitty, each one landing closer than the one before.

Kitty disengaged her anchoring and let the wind take her, catching just one of Noodles’ bolts as her penalty. Kitty ran her Invisibility app again.

On command Ice Phoenix opened her beak and breathed out a wide scattering of snow. The wind caught the snow and spread it across everything in the room, each tiny flake sticking like glue to the first thing they touched. Just to mess with her some more Noodles also reversed the direction of the wind.

Kitty fell arse over ankles in Ice Phoenix’s whirlwind. I felt my stomach lurch in the real world.

Kitty extended Sticky Fingers’ area of effect to her entire body, sticking her to the next wall she smashed into like a bug on flypaper. For a second Kitty just clung there as she was, twisted up like a pretzel as the snow glided by and clung to her.

When she felt she was completely covered in snow, Kitty turned off her invisibility app.

Noodles signalled for the wind to stop and Ice Phoenix stilled her wings, flapping only occasionally to maintain the illusion they had anything to do with keeping her aloft.

Noodles summoned a tablet into his hands and began scanning his surroundings.

Kitty waited for Noodles to turn his back to her. She summoned her staff, wedged it against the wall above her and pointed the other end down to Noodles, before simultaneously turning off Sticky Fingers and extending her staff.

Somehow Noodles had anticipated this move and as soon as Kitty was off the wall Noodles spun on his heels and aimed his tablet right down the line of her staff.

Kitty let go and plummeted to the ground. The snow covering her body turned a distinct yellow colour. Noodles signalled for the winds again, snatching Kitty up before she could hit the ground.

Kitty grit her teeth and let the wind carry her. She pulled herself into a ball to shrink her target profile and bounced across the walls. Noodles peppered the air around her with crossbow bolts, hitting twice.

Then Kitty noticed something, she looked up at the centre of the ceiling, right above Ice Phoenix and Noodles standing safely and unmolested by the swirling winds.

Kitty reached back into her apps and not only reactivated Sticky Fingers, but one called ‘Zoom-Zoom’ as well.

On her next impact her right shoulder adhered to the wall. Kitty unfurled and peeled back Sticky Fingers to cover just the soles of her feet and stood herself up on the side of the wall. Then Kitty began to run.

It was hard at first with the wind buffeting her this way and that, but ‘Zoom-Zoom’ soon lived up to its name and Kitty was sprinting along the wall. When she was comfortable that she had the hang of it, Kitty began making her way towards the ceiling.

Noodles signalled for the wind to change directions and for a second the billowing died down. Kitty recognised this for what it was and immediately changed directions, sprinting back the way she came, but still bringing herself closer to the ceiling.

The wind kicked up, but it was now behind Kitty. She reached the ceiling and began to circle towards the middle.

Noodles tried to change the winds again, but this only gave Kitty the chance to stop circling and make a beeline straight for the centre of the ceiling.

By the time Ice Phoenix had the winds going again. Kitty had already reached the centre. She summoned her staff and dropped straight down.

Noodles aimed his crossbow straight up and hammered at the trigger. Sending as many bolts as he could up at her. Kitty broke her staff in two connected by a long chain and got to work deflecting. He hands became a blur as she batted aside the incoming rush of energy bolts, pausing only to throw one of her sticks out to wrap its chain around Ice Phoenix’s neck. The loop made it impossible for Ice Phoenix to disengage the connection and in a couple of nanoseconds the entire ‘Something with Numbers’ virus would upload and wreak havoc.

In the meantime Noodles dived out of Kitty’s way as she flipped herself upright and touched down on the ground. Noodles brought his bow to bear against her but Kitty already closed the distance between them, dashing aside the only bolt Noodle got off.

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Dust: Chapter 08 Part 2

Ice Phoenix reared back her head for another blast. Kitty summoned another wall and took the time to delete her old ones to save memory.

As the snow crashed into her wall Stoundheart was upon her again. The elf warrior dashed at her, his sword out at hip height and with a mighty swing he sought to rend fair Kitty in twain. Kitty threw herself into a back-bridge, folding in half to grab the ground behind her heels with her hands. As Stoundheart’s magic sword missed her torso by centimetres, Kitty kicked up with her legs and turned back onto her feet again.

Kitty dematerialised her old staff and summoned a new one. While it was still forming in her hands she was forced to block Eldwin’s blade again. Kitty backed off a step and remained on the defensive, her skill package keeping up with Eldwin’s.

Kitty risked a glance away from him and saw Ice Phoenix hovering nearby.

[Funny.] I said. [Why doesn’t she attack?]

[Because Stoundheart would get caught in the blast. Noodles can’t afford the time it would take to reload a proxy A.I of his sophistication.]

[So while you’re stalemated against him, what’s Noodles up to?]

[Stalemated?] Kitty exclaimed. [Watch this!]

Interrupting her flurry of blocks Kitty lunged at Stoundheart with her staff. Like a pro he bashed the pole away with his shield. Kitty twisted her wrist and the last third of the staff detached on the end of a length of chain and swung back at Eldwin like it had a will of its own.

Caught by surprise Stoundheart barely had the time to even raise his shield the extra few inches he needed to block this new strike. Kitty redoubled her offensive, for every strike she initiated the flailing staff-end added two of its own. Kitty varied her attacks, striking high then low to keep Stoundheart off guard.

Unbeknownst to Stoundheart, the rear third of Kitty’s staff had detached as well and was snaking its way behind Kitty’s back on an ever-increasing length of chain. When she’d uncoiled enough slack, Kitty struck low with the front end and brought the rear down at Stoundheart’s head like a scorpion. Stoundheart blocked low on the first strike, getting ready to deflect the next two low strikes when the high strike not only connected square with his face, but threw him off enough for the next two low-strikes to connect as well.

Kitty spun the staff overhead and it snapped back into the one long pole again. She swung at Stoundheart’s side and he blocked with his sword, only for the last third to detach and carry on the momentum into his arm.

That last hit ended it. Kitty uploaded her ‘Something with numbers’ virus through her staff. Stoundheart reeled as random numbers appeared sporadically in his code, in an instant his right eye and left leg both stupendously enlarged as an extra digit was added to their size, his tunic changed colour and his sword fighting skill package became a garbled, confused mess. With a strangled moan Stoundheart slumped to the floor and began to twitch. When he noticed that his combat stand-in was down Noodles dematerialised him.

Ready for Ice Phoenix’s next blast Kitty automatically flipped away. When no blast came Kitty glanced around to find her.

In the time Kitty had been occupied fighting Stoundheart, Noodles had constructed an arena out of massive blocks of virtual ice. Two enormous semi-circular walls contained them, capped by a thick sheet on top. The endless blue beyond the walls made it hard to tell if they were semi-transparent.

Kitty snorted. [Noodles should know a cat doesn’t like to be boxed in.]

Kitty swapped out her staff for a hand-cannon the size of a microwave oven. Its virtual weight clearly didn’t match its mass as Kitty toted it as easily as a hair-dryer.

Kitty aimed that monstrosity at the nearest of the two semi-circular walls and let rip. A stream of white-hot lead emitted from the barrel, followed by the sound like a 747 taking off.

The almighty blast impacted hard with the frozen wall, erupting in a thick cloud of black smoke that obscured the result.

Kitty was already swearing under her breath before the smoke had even begun to clear.

[You know, if you were a man, I’d swear you were compensating for something.]

Kitty didn’t need the smoke to clear to tell her the result. If that shot had performed as intended the whole wall would be gone.

The high-pitched sound of a mortar shell bearing down on us announced Noodles’ next attack. Kitty returned to the air in the next instant, as the impact from the mortar’s explosion threw up a massive cloud of dust.

While rotating 720° degrees Kitty fiddled with some settings on the side of her massive gun. She stuck the landing perfectly, her stiletto heels skidding across the ground as she continued to slide afterwards. Kitty levelled her cannon at the wall again and pulled the trigger.

This time the blast also increased the speed of her slide.

Beneath the showy explosion of black smoke the massive semi-circular wall dematerialised.

Revealing dozens, if not hundreds of smaller bricks stacked behind it.

[Yeah]. Kitty sighed [We’re boxed in. Crap.]

The bird and the elf weren’t Noodles’ only proxies, he also had an often-overlooked little droid he’d named Build-E, whose sole purpose was to make structures out of virtual walls and hide them on the domain’s server rather than keep them on his own hard drive. Kitty’s first shot hadn’t worked because it was looking in the wrong place.

Another mortar round destroyed the last of the obstacles Kitty had thrown up and suddenly a hail of glowing purple bolts tore through the smoke. Kitty took one in the shoulder before her staff fully materialised and she was able to deflect any others that came her way.

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Dust: Chapter 08 Part 1

Chapter 8: The Duellists

Kitty and I recognised the avatar before us. I felt an invisible fist clench around my heart.

Noodles?” Kitty blurted.

[How did he even get here?]

Noodles strutted in. “So.” He said, cocking his avatar’s head to one side. “Did Dust hoodwink you into this gig the same way he did me: wave the old ‘prototype A.I.’ scent under your nose and promise a billion nuyen?”

Kitty opened a private channel. [His cut was a billion nuyen?]

[Our whole pay was a billion nuyen, split three ways it’s still a shitload of money.]

Kitty asked aloud. “What are you doing here?”

Our enemies have coerced me into changing sides. They’ve kinda got me by the balls.”

Kitty’s avatar absently licked her lips. “I remember you liked that kind of thing.”

[Thanks for sharing.]

Noodles forced a smile. “Cute. But when I said ‘by the balls’ I meant ‘they have my brain in a jar’.

They’ve implanted a wire between my hemispheres, on command they can heat that wire up and fry my brain like a cheese sandwich.”

Kitty yelled into the cype. [What? You told me he was arrested.]

[The hell I did. I said he got ‘picked up’. And by the same people who caught up with us in the car park.]

Kitty put on a fake smile. “So, asking you to let me go for old time’s sake isn’t really going to happen is it?”

Noodles summoned a repeating crossbow in one hand and a set of arcane tarot cards in the other. “No.”

The smirk on Kitty’s avatar vanished. She pulled herself to her full height and squared her shoulders. “Honey, I don’t care who your captors are. Your speciality’s proxy A.I., Mine’s PvP. Even if you had a belly full of Jolt Hypercola and I was getting off with my vibrator you couldn’t beat me.”

That was oddly specific.

Noodles hung his head and the hand holding the crossbow dropped by his side.

That’s right.” Kitty said. “Now tell us where you are. If we can find you maybe we can come rescue you.”

Noodles let the crossbow slip from his fingers and it dematerialised. “No, you can’t.” He sobbed.

Then he snapped his head up and looked her right in the eye. “Dust won’t let you.”

Noodles slapped the cards on the ground and a pair of glowing orange lines zipped across the floor towards Kitty.

Kitty fired her pole into the ground in front of her and catapulted herself away, retracting her staff and back-flipping at the apex of the jump.

The lines stopped running along the ground and burst upwards into pillars of light.

[Oh, that’s not good.] I said.

[It’s exactly what I thought he’d do.]

By the time Kitty’s needle-heels touched the ground again Ice Phoenix and Eldwin Stoundheart, Noodles’ most powerful proxy A.I., had fully emerged from the pillars of light.

Ice Phoenix beat her massive wings and rose into the air. The great mythical bird stood three times normal avatar size and was the lightest aqua blue I’d ever seen. Eldwin Stoundheart was a blond, eleven warrior in a green tunic and an enchanted sword and shield combo.

Stoundheart raised his shield in front of him and charged. While at the same time Ice Phoenix shrieked and unleashed a torrent of snow at Kitty. The torrent widened until it felt like the bird had chucked a semi-trailer in our direction. Kitty dropped her staff for a moment, catching it in on her foot before it hit the ground and put her hands together before spreading them wide.

A wall much larger than the barrier Kitty summoned earlier appeared before her. With a crash like a Tsunami smashing into the Hoover damn the torrent was halted.

Kitty kicked the staff back up into her hands, summoned a smaller wall to her immediate right and shot the staff against it, sliding out sideways in a weird display of matrix physics.

Kitty recalled the staff just before she cleared the edge of the wall and skidded the last couple of metres. Almost as soon as she was exposed she was deflecting blasts from Noodles’ new crossbow.

By this time Stoundheart had reached the mountain of ice created by the torrent. He ran up the slippery slope and leapt high into the air above Kitty, his sword raised for a killing blow.

Kitty halted her deflections for just long enough to fire a bolt up at Stoundheart. Forcing him to abandon his attack in favour of his shield.

Kitty moved aside to allow him to land and raised another wall to protect her from Noodles’ attacks.

Stoundheart landed, rolled and circled around to face Kitty anew. He rushed in, bashing aside the staff with his shield before striking down with his sword. Kitty allowed her staff to be turned aside then punched upwards with both hands, putting the middle of her staff between her and the blade. Eldwin pulled his blade back for another strike and Kitty dropped down into a spin and swept his legs out from under him. As he hit the ground Kitty widened her staff until it was the size of a small log and brought its new heavy form smashing down upon Stoundheart, who just barely had time to roll out of the way.

Kitty used the rebound to bring her staff up over her shoulder before firing the end at him. Stoundheart took the onrushing staff to the solar plexus and it carried him a good thirty metres away.

Kitty returned the staff to its default size just in time to hear Ice Phoenix shriek behind her. Kitty fired her staff without looking and let it carry her straight up. The new barrage just missed Kitty on her way up but the freezing flood collected her staff and knocked it down.

Kitty let go and tumbled in the air, bouncing hard off the newly created mountain of Ice. Kitty hit a macro in her command list and for a brief moment her avatar’s feet became heavier than lead, righting her body in mid-air and allowing her to land on the ground as gently as her namesake.

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Dust: Chapter 07 Part 5

[I don’t know who you are]. Kitty called down to the other figure. [But I’m about to own you like Spock owns Kirk in a fanfiction written by a lonely teenage girl.]

It was an old line. But still a good one.

The figure reconfigured to its real avatar, a sleek black and chrome cyberninja with a lithe, almost feminine figure under all that armour plating.

The Cyberninja drew a high-tech sword and screamed. [Shi-neh!]

Kitty had just enough time to drop her invisibility app before he was upon her.

Kitty parried three lightning-fast swings with her magic staff and gave ground by one step so they could both fit on the little platform. The cyberninja threw a dozen thrusts at Kitty’s face in the space of a second which Kitty deflected with deft but short movements from her staff.

At the same time she reached into her menus and changed one of the settings on her floating platform.

Kitty’s moves were as fluid and precise as an ancient master’s. They should be, she’d lifted them from the Total-Immersion game ‘Burning Soul’ and adapted them into a skill package. From the look of her acrobatics I guessed they came from ‘Taro’s Adventure’.

Cyberninja slashed at Kitty’s throat level, bouncing his blade off Kitty’s deflection and flicking his wrist around to come at her from the other side. Kitty ducked under this swing and back-flipped out of the way of his next. Once her high-heeled feet left the platform it disappeared.

Cyberninja plummeted to the ground while Kitty sailed gracefully through the air.

There being no pain in the matrix Cyberninja recovered quickly, dematerialising his sword and hadokening bolts of burning green at her.

Kitty summoned another platform while in mid-air and then immediately put up a wall between her and the next green bolt. After giving her opponent enough time to plan his next move Kitty removed the wall and unleashed a magical bolt of her own.

Kitty’s was a malevolent blast of dark purple that showed up in her active apps as ‘Something with numbers’. I had no idea what it did but it looked nasty.

Cyberninja wasn’t going to hang around to find out either. He unleashed his last bolt and back-flipped out of the way. Kitty deleted the platform under her feet before the last bolt could reach her and dropped safely back to the floor.

As the Cyberninja’s feet also returned to the ground, Kitty gripped her staff and twisted her wrists changing its colour from stark black to deep red.

Cyberninja fired another two bolts at her. So Kitty showed off a little, throwing herself into a butterfly-twist to avoid the first bolt while deflecting the second bolt at the same time.

Kitty stuck the landing, grounding herself as quickly as she could. Before her opponent could get his next shot off, Kitty aimed her staff at him and squeezed with her trigger finger.

The staff shot its end out at Cyberninja, extending the length of the shaft as fast an arrow from a bow. The end hammered into his solar-plexus, taking him clean off his feet and uploading the first packet of a virus called ‘Hardcrush’.

Kitty squeezed with her little finger and the staff retracted as quickly as it lengthened. When she had it back, Kitty stuck the end in the ground and squeezed her trigger finger again.

Cyberninja kipped back up to his feet and growled at Kitty.

He stopped when he realised Kitty wasn’t there anymore.

On pure instinct he looked up. The end of Kitty’s staff connected with his face a moment later.

That hit knocked him right off his feet again. As she dropped down onto him Kitty shortened her staff down to a two-foot stick and summoned a clone of it in her free hand. She caught up with Cyberninja on the first bounce and proceeded to play the drums on his head. ‘Hardcrush’ worked very differently to the ‘Signal cutter’ bolts. It attacked the hard drive, messing with its firmware and causing a catastrophic drive failure that forced his machine’s OS to shut down. With an unceremonious ‘blip’ he vanished from the matrix.

“Yeah.” Kitty grinned.

Kitty dematerialised her second stick and returned the first to normal in a flourish.

[That… that was pretty kick-arse actually. Well done.]

Kitty tossed her virtual hair. [It was nothing.]

I sighed, she’d stunted my new found appreciation of her at birth. [Now the difficult question: How the hell did they find us?]

[Doesn’t matter. He lost. Unless he’s got another machine ready to go we won’t be seeing him again.]

[What are the chances that he does?]

[Would you spend twice as much money buying two high-end laptops or put all that money into buying one really kick-ass machine? Makes as much sense as a street racer buying two Mazda SX-9’s when for the same price they could get one and drop in the engine from a Ferrari GT-10, with the change leftover they could add a pearl to the paint job.]

[Point. Any footage left to touch-up?]

Moe-Moe rolled her vidwindow back into view. [Mostly done, I’ve contacted some friends from the J. We’re still rotorscoping you guys out of the footage.]

[What about that guard he shot?] I asked. [Won’t he be raising an alarm in the meat world?]

[Absolutely.] Kitty said. [But we’ll be well on our way before he can do anything meaningful in the meat-world.]


Kitty stopped or a moment. Her avatar tensed where it stood, then her head flicked up from the vid-window and she rocketed up into the air again. Narrowly avoiding a glowing purple bolt.

Kitty turned a dizzying 180° in mid-air and landed facing the portal.

“Looks like I’ll have to dig another grave in the field.” Kitty said as she looked up at her assailant.

“That’s okay.” The boyish voice responded. “It won’t need to be a big one, after all you’ll only be burying my brain.”
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Dust: Chapter 07 Part 4

Barely a few minutes later, Kitty was inside the Chase’s security domain. Gaining access had been as easy as Moe-Moe had said it would be. With just a USB hub, bluetooth dongle and a pair of wire strippers, we’d spliced our way into the camera’s USB connection. The camera itself only went offline for thirty seconds.

I had talked Kitty into letting me hitch onto her deck so I could watch her work. As a hitcher I could only influence or hinder Kitty through conversation, but I didn’t want to sit in the food court twiddling my thumb.

The security domain Kitty had broken into was a lot smaller than I’d expected. It consisted of one ‘endless room’ of electric blue, though the battery of floating vid windows surrounding the principal user boxed it in quite a bit.

Moe-Moe was right, security was a token effort compared to what I’d immersed myself into for the last twelve months. Under normal circumstances there probably wasn’t even someone monitoring the system unless something special was going on.

Obviously today was one of those special times. The avatar of the security head poured over the floating screens, seems a ladder fell over in a maintenance corridor.

The security avatar noticed that another user had entered the domain and looked over his shoulder. In the time it took him to do that, Kitty had run her invisibility app and blipped out of existence. It also hid her IP tag and removed her presence from the user registrar. The downside was that it ate up active memory.

The security head looked at the entrance portal for a second, shrugged and went back to work.

Under the cloak of her invisibility Kitty walked up to the side of the security head and looked over the various screens. I counted one row of screens and estimated their total number at well over thirty, a pair of floating arrows underneath suggested there were even more.

Kitty reached out to the displays and touched one. Her view changed to that of the entire CCTV network, displaying what had to be close to three hundred cameras on a mosaic of thumbnail screens. Kitty noticed a search bar above that and used it to find the feed from the lower ground floor car park.

Our luck held, only one camera actually saw us getting out of the car.

Suddenly Moe-Moe’s vidwindow appeared beside her. [Excellent, now let’s see what we can do with this.]

[It’s cool Moe-moe, I got this. I’ve found the first shot, now I just need to overlay the images PR got me over the three of us and the cops’l be looking for someone else.]

[That would take a long time, you’d need to find subjects that have made very similar movements to the three of you, from the exact same camera angle and then you’d need to match the lighting.]

[Or I could just swap out the footage of us arriving with something from PR’s porn collection, that’d cover our entrance.]

[It would also flash a giant neon sign in the cops’ face telling them ‘We are criminals and we hacked the cameras to cover our tracks’. Now what I want you to do is grab the footage from that camera from a good five minutes after you got out of the car. Try to find a long stretch of time where nothing moves in the background. Loop that over the footage of the three of you getting out of the car. Then with a little rotor-scoping we can make it look like there was never anyone in the car at all.]

[Making the car look like a remote decoy. Moe-Moe, you’re a genius.]

[It’s what I do.]

Kitty noticed something on her HUD. She glanced at the security head, who was still gathering footage for his own purposes. This time it looked like a garbage spill next to the day care centre.

Kitty had worry in her voice. [Someone else is here.]

Moe-Moe sounded concerned. [I’ll get this done. Now it’s your turn to do what you do.]

Kitty turned away from the battery of vid windows and looked at the portal. She ran an app called ICU and a tablet appeared in her hand. Kitty held the tablet up in front of her like she was trying to frame a photo with its camera. On the screen I could see the matrix with all its pretty outer skin stripped away and floating tags with neon letters everywhere explaining what everything was. A blurry image of a humanoid shape stood next to the now enormous glowing portal, the tag that pointed at the figure simply read ‘?’

Kitty took one look at that question mark and jumped. The tablet dematerialising in her hand. A ball of glowing green fire tore through the virtual space she had occupied a nanosecond ago. At the apex of her jump Kitty summoned a platform for her to stand on with one hand and her magic staff with the other.

[What the hell is going on here?] Demanded a masculine voice. It seemed even our lightning-brained security head couldn’t miss all this commotion.

It mattered little, in the next instant the invisible figure shot him with a half-dozen green fireballs and he disappeared.

The electric green bolts and their effect on the guard reminded me of a virus from Noodles’ arsenal.

It was similar to the signal cutting software I’d used as an Electronic Warfare Operator back in the army. Each time one of the green fireballs hit you it uploaded a packet of the virus into your system, worming its way in through your software’s sense of touch, something you really couldn’t disable without feeling like a disembodied nothingness floating through the matrix.

I’d tried it myself and it wasn’t pleasant.

Once all of the packets were uploaded they installed the virus, which then entered the target’s wireless transmitter or cybermodem and began running a program that generated exponentially more complex formula the longer it went on. At the same time the virus interfered with the drivers for the coolant systems. Until the transmitter overheated and either shut down or burnt out.

It tended to be more effective against portable devices like net-pads or a palm-tops as their wifi hardware tended to be smaller, more delicate and a lot harder to replace. When Noodles was on his run into Kawada, he disabled his workstation’s on-board wifi and instead had a dozen USB dongles plugged into a pair of hubs in case a security hacker used a similar virus against him.

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Dust: Chapter 07 Part 3

Kitty growled and looked a dagger at me. “Fantastic. By now they’ll have footage of the car.”

Know anywhere we can ditch the car and lie low?” I asked.

We can catch a train out of Melbourne at Southern Cross station. I know back doors into their system. And Metlink’s pattern recognition software isn’t as well protected. I can mess with it easy enough.”

The light changed to green and Kitty put her foot down again.

Tachi interjected. “So we take a train out to a rural community with no CCTV and plan our next move.”

[It’s worse than that.] Moe-moe said. [As soon as you get out of the car any images of you the cameras manage to capture will be passed around CCTV networks all over the country. As soon as a match comes up anywhere the authorities will be alerted. You may get away on the train but they’ll just need to contact the police at the other end.]

Holy Crap! The bouncy ball knows things.”

Kitty pursed her lips thoughtfully. “We might not have to worry about Metlink at all.” Kitty said.

Kitty took the corner rather than go through the next set of lights and took us down into the underground carpark of one of the swankier malls in the area.

[PR] Kitty cyped. [Can you search around the J for anyone who knows anyone who’s ever pulled a hack on ‘The Chase on Elizabeth’ and can you search for all the big companies that trade in the the Chase and see if anyone’s pulled a hack on any of them?]

[On it.]

What’s the plan?”

Kitty took us down another level to find a space. “A mall like this will have its own security system, but unlike Metlink the authorities will need a warrant before they can access it.”

[Ha.] PR laughed. [You play on easy mode Kitty-girl.]

I put two and two together by the time she parked the car. “You wanna hack the mall’s CCTV and take our images out of their software?”

Kitty smiled at me. “Give that man a prize.”

With that I felt safe enough to pop the doors and follow her into the food court.

Can you do something like that on the fly?” I asked. “I mean don’t you need to do any recon or hunt for passwords or something?”

[Actually]. Super Moe-Moe Ball chipped in. [For a setup like this you’d probably have an easier time going in through their security cameras. I got a look at one on the way in, I’m searching for its model now.]

Kitty put her bag in her lap and unzipped the main section. She paused as she reached in to power up her machine. It took me a second to realise she was looking at Atom’s bag.

Didn’t you say Atom took control of an arcology’s security network?”

I did.” I said. “I know what you’re thinking. Stop.”

If he can move as quickly as you say he can he’d be our best bet to get into the CCTV network before the police can get a warrant.”

You seem to forget that the moment you plug him into the matrix he’ll shoot Silicon Dreams an SOS telling them exactly where we are.”

[No I won’t.]

So.” Kitty shrugged. “They’ll know we’re in the mall soon enough.”

Yeah the cops will know, I’m not worried about them. Last time I checked they’re not on speaking terms with Righteous Chrome Fist.”

[But Dust, really I won’t.]

[Grownups are talking now Atom.]

Patriot Rap appeared between us, saving us from getting any further sidetracked. [No-one we know has ever hacked the building and the few hacks against any of those companies were too far back to be useful now.]

Kitty wrinkled her nose. [So much for the easy way I guess. Moe-Moe this is your area of expertise, what do you recommend?]

[Well the good news is: The security system of your mall was built to be affordable and easy to upgrade. The cameras Kitty’s looked at so far are all the Wilkinson CM25 model which run off USB. If you can access one of the cameras you’ll only need to splice into the USB cable to get onto their computers, from there I can provide you with a virus that’ll give you backdoor access to the system itself. Spoofing their pattern recognition software from there should be a cinch.]

I did a double-take at that. [It can’t be that easy. In Neotokyo we…]

Moe-Moe interrupted. […you were dealing with a system designed to prevent intrusion. This isn’t a top-flight cybernetics arcology, this is shopping mall. This system’s primary focus is to lower insurance rates and corroborate incident reports.]

I shrugged. [That’s a nice theory but what are you basing that off?]

[Look at the guards Dust] Kitty said. [Even their uniforms are unobtrusive. They don’t have shoot to kill authorisation like Kawada’s people.]

Moe-Moe’s avatar nodded. [It’s a whole different game down at this level.]

I hadn’t actually noticed the guards on our way in, which only underscored their point. They were wearing business attire that you could only tell were uniforms because of the word ‘Security’ stitched into the back of their collars.

[Now.] Kitty said [PR can you source us some replacement images from CCTV in your area?]

[Do my best. Knowing security around here most peeps in the system will be black dudes.]

Kitty nodded. [Go as far afield as you need to.]

I raised my hand. [Be a little noticeable if you start monkeying with the insides of one of their security cameras don’t you reckon?]

Kitty frowned at me. [Do you want this done fast or do you want this done quietly? We don’t have time for both.]

I sensed my questions were annoying Kitty and shut the hell up.
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Dust: Chapter 07 Part 2

Tachi almost had to sprint to stay with us. [I’m going to try something: When she turns to attack me, try to put her in a hold. I’ll only need a second.]

[Do it.]

Tachi stomped his next step down hard so Kiru would notice and just like it had always been the next step in her dance Kiru changed direction and waved at Tachi.

Tachi pulled back. A half-second later he realised his right arm had declined to come with him.

Tachi gasped. I did as I was asked and I locked my arms around Kiru’s waist. Kiru went to elbow me so I buried my face between her shoulders. With a quick heave I raised her off the ground and slammed her into the concrete. Kiru hit hard and I scrambled on top of her to maintain my mount, going for wrist control immediately or this would all end up being an elaborate suicide.

Kiru’s arms flowed around my own like greased tentacles, before I knew it she’d caught my arm at the wrist and the elbow. I went to hit her with my free arm, but she twisted her wrists and then snapped my forearm right in the mid-point and folded it neatly in half.

It made the kind of sick, wet snapping noise that, even if I survived this, would haunt my dreams for the rest of my life.

I screamed like a Beatles fan before my pain editor could throw up a shield between my arm and my brain. Kiru punched me in the face to unbalance me, then gained mount with little difficulty.

She grabbed my throat and pinned my neck to the ground in a rape-choke, before triumphantly pulling back her free hand and extending her fingers. I had just enough time to wet myself before Tachi hit his sister with a step-up side kick that plucked her off me and sent her hurtling through the air.

Kiru arched her back in mid-flight, her fingers grasping hold of the concrete before twisting the rest of her body around to land gracefully on her feet.

That was when the parking lights on the white sedan Kiru was right in front of flashed on and the engine roared into life. Behind the wheel, Kitty threw the car into reverse and stepped on the accelerator.

Kiru’s cat-like grace disappeared as she jumped out of the car’s way, but Kitty had the space to correct her aim and smashed Kiru between the boot of her car and the hatchback parked on the opposite side.

Kiru lashed out at the car’s roof, but her fingertips bounced harmlessly off the metal. Kiru retracted her fingers and began pushing against the boot of Kitty’s car. To my amazement it actually began to move.

Kitty reached across the passenger seat and opened the door. “Get in!”

You didn’t have to tell Tachi twice, I felt a tug at the back of my belt and suddenly I was airborne. Tachi stuffed me into the seat like a school bag. “Get the roller door open. I’ll hold them off.”

Kitty switched gears and put the hammer back down, the tires squealing in protest as the car lurched away from Kiru. She tried to chase after us, but her knee-joint collapsed and she crashed to the ground.

As Tachi closed in to finish her off Kiru roared and pulled a breakdance move that spun her around on the ground, her hand-whips still working more than well enough to take out Tachi’s legs if he tried that again. Tachi carefully backed away as Kitty pulled the car up in front of the metal doors and they began to open.

I reached into the back seat and opened the door. “Don’t worry about her, we’re getting the hell out of here.”

Patriot Rap’s voice came back over the cype. [Make it fast. I got emergency frequencies coming at you from all sides.]

Tachi stole one last glance at his sister, cursed and broke into a sprint. He dived into the back seat.

Alright he’s in.” I yelled, but Kitty was already putting her foot down and gunning it out the door.

I snatched one fleeting glance back at our enemies before we cleared the threshold and got away, catching a glimpse of Crocman leading a broken Hair guy in a pitiful crawl towards their mistress.

Kitty almost got the sedan airborne as she coasted the car park’s ramp and muscled her way into the traffic. It was late at night on a Wednesday, but the CBD roads were still densely packed.

Kitty stopped at the first red light, her hands gripping the steering wheel so tight it drained the blood from her fingers.

Atom’s vidwindow appeared in my vision. [That was…]

[Traumatic.] I snapped.

[Yeah but… at the same time that was so damn exciting.]

[I’m glad you enjoyed it.]

[It’s just that, I had no idea how you were going to do it. And then Boom! You’ve sliced his foot clean off and Tachi kicks the other guy’s head into a pylon. It was amazing.]

I tried to laugh, but lacked the emotional energy and could only sputter out a cough.

The light changed to green and Kitty cannonballed the sedan across the intersection. She stopped at the next set of lights, barely fifty metres from the last set. She sucked in a breath and looked at me. “Was there a plan for what to do once you’d found me?”

Step 1 is skip the country. Step 2 is get to Seattle. Step 3 is make contact with our handlers and deliver Atom to them.”

In my head Atom made a worried noise, but didn’t actually say anything.

Kitty bit her lip. Then Moe-Moe appeared over the cype. [Assuming we don’t get picked up in the next five minutes.]

I sat up. [What’s going on?]

[Somebody just alerted the authorities. Calls about a bomb blast in the car park. There was a call about a fallen cyborg on someone’s car, but that one appears to have been buried.]
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Dust: Chapter 07 Part 1

Chapter 7: Cutting Fingers

I went right back to trembling like a rabbit locked in a cage with a tiger.

Kiru casually slipped off her tiny jacket and tossed it at Crocman. Then she pretended to loosen up her neck, which is about as necessary for a cyborg as a regular haircut.

Then she made her move. Kiru didn’t leap or dash at us, she was simply standing before us one moment and gliding into our midst the next. Kiru waved her hand in my direction and a monowhip emerged from all four of her fingers.

Needless to say I got my head the hell out of the way. With the practised grace of a catwalk model Kiru pivoted without breaking stride and brushed her left hand my way just as the strings on her right finished retracting. When she completed her turn her left arm continued its arc and swept a handful of monofilament wires Tachi’s way just as he was about to take a cautious step towards her.

Tachi held his step until the strings passed him and rushed in, right into a side-kick to his midsection. The hit forced Tachi back and Kiru stepped into close range. Bringing her arms up around her face in a dirty-boxing guard Kiru easily parried Tachi’s return punch before backfisting him in the face, trapping the back of his ankle with her foot and hip-throwing him to the ground.

I dodged Tachi’s falling body as I closed on Kiru with my knife. Kiru turned and shot out her deadly finger whips at me, forcing me to swap my charge for a dive-roll under her attack. I flew past her, narrowly avoiding the strings on her other hand as I got up.

Tachi took advantage of the distraction and got his feet back under him. Kiru immediately ignored me and brought both her hands to bear against Tachi. Striking out with one and then the other like she was making figure eight patterns with a pair of paper fans. Tachi desperately dodged around them, but Kiru had the initiative, each wave forced Tachi down a particular direction and into the path of her next, shortening the margin by which she missed with each one.

Before she could take off one of Tachi’s limbs I readied my knife and dashed in close to stab her in the back. The second I stepped within range, Kiru took one hand away from Tachi and waved it at me without even looking my way. I abandoned the attack and stayed put. Wondering in all seriousness if Kiru had an extra set of cybereyes in the back of her head.

Kiru pivoted again, putting both me and Tachi on the one side of her and stepped back, allowing her fingers to fully retract back into her hands.

Kiru put her hands on her hips and smiled at me. But it wasn’t just any old smile. Kiru smiled like she was about to lick her lips and give me the ‘come hither’ eyes.

Tachi.” I said, hoping my next words would diffuse some of the tension. “Your sister’s kinda hot.”

Tachi sighed. “Those were your last words Dust. You chose poorly.”

Kiru took her next graceful step towards me and brushed out her hand, I jumped back as soon as I saw her move the leg more than an inch, but she was on me in the next second anyway.

I ducked under the swing, rolled away from the one after that and quickly pushed up into a hand-stand jump to avoid a third. Straightening up again in mid-air I ran out of room and a parked car interrupted my flight path. I had just enough time to realise what had happened and say “Ow” before the next wave sailed towards my face.

I pitched my body to the side and dropped into a breakfall, grateful for the elbow padding in my jacket. Kiru had thrown her second wave at where my head would have been had I simply ducked down and gone for another roll like I had done thus far.

As the second wave passed over me I tucked up my legs and rolled away then. I knew enough to change my tactics after Kiru had seen them enough times. What I didn’t know was what I was going to do the next time she forced me into that position.

Tachi followed after Kiru, moving quickly but cautiously, ready for the moment she turned her attention towards him. Once I’d rolled out of range she did exactly that. Forcing Tachi to step away.

As Tachi retreated I stepped in and Kiru had another wave coming at me immediately. I interrupted the strings’ path with my knife a second before they would have divided my head into four flesh and brain plates of equal width.

The strings coiled around my knife, the monofilament edges grinding together and holding before the wires completed their loop and sliced effortlessly into the back of the blade. Kiru retracted her fingers and the knife disintegrated in my hands, the useless metal shards sprinkling down onto the concrete at my feet.

Hopelessly I threw the handle at her as I tried to get away. Kiru’s follow-up wave caught the handle in mid-air and wrapped around it. I managed to take another step away before it too was sliced into a dozen pieces.

Kiru continued to dance her way towards me. I kept dodging, slowly but surely making my way towards the rear door we’d come in by. I knew it was useless. I may have had stamina to spare but it was only a matter of time before I zigged when I should have zagged and she’d shred me like a carrot over a salad. I knew the door was coming ever closer and I wanted to just turn and run for it, but Kiru would end me the moment she realised her toy didn’t want to play anymore.
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Dust: Chapter 06 Part 6

Tachi cyped me. [Do you feel you can handle him again?]

[It’s not the student I’m worried about.]

[Kiru won’t do anything yet. Toshi needs to prove he was worth the replacement body.]

We all enjoyed one last moment of tense silence and then everyone moved at once. As Crocman threw himself at me, Tachi lashed out at the Hair guy. I stepped back in time to dodge the fist flying at my head and got ready to duck and weave around the next two. Kitty hugged Atom’s bag and bolted for the space between the nearest cars.

Tachi knocked Hair guy’s knee aside with a low-kick then brought the same leg up high and smashed the ball of his foot into the side of Hair guy’s face. He took the hit like it was a smack from a feather duster and stepped into Tachi’s space. Three fast punches forced Tachi to block high, then low, then high again. On the fourth Tachi went to bring his elbow in the way for an easy body-block when a sound like a mach-truck clearing its nose split the air. The piston-punch shot straight past Tachi’s guard and hit with the force of a sledgehammer wielded by Conan the Barbarian. It hit so hard it actually shook up Tachi’s brain inside his biopod. Before Tachi could completely recover Hair guy slid his fist back into his forearm, regaining control over his fingers in time to scoop Tachi off the ground and hurl him into the windshield of the nearest car.

Back with me, Crocman threw out his monowhip again. He’d gotten better, he hadn’t needed nearly as much wind up to get it out this time, but his target was still so obviously my neck that I knew to set my stance and duck my head to let the invisible cutting wire sail clean over me. While the monowire was still in flight I lashed out with my knife at Crocman’s knee.

Crocman pulled his whole leg out of the way before my edge could even taste fabric. But my swing was just the opener, the side-kick I’d set myself up for knocked Crocman off the one foot he had left to stand on.

Crocman hit the ground, cursed, then back-fisted the ground for good measure, cracking the concrete around his hand.

I rushed the Hair guy while his attention was still on Tachi, but he saw me coming out of the corner of his eye. He waited until I was just within range and threw out a back-fist at me.

I brought my monoknife’s broad blade in front of my face and Hair guy swung his forearm straight into it, slicing right through synthskin, silicone underlay, polymer casing, copper wiring and tungsten steel structure alike. The actual fist itself kept coming and smacked hard into my cheek before bouncing off. I hesitated just long enough to leave myself open for a gutfull of his other fist.

Fortunately he didn’t have two piston-punches. Not that a normal prosthetic fist doesn’t hurt like a sonuvabitch when it hits you in the soft-tissue, but it was something my pain editor could deal with.

From behind me I heard Crocman growl.“<He’s mine.>”

I played possum for a second. Doubling over from the hit I slowly lowered myself to the ground, before pivoting on my heels and slashing at ankle-height with the knife. Crocman’s pointy, brown-leather shod foot flashed in front of me for an instant before my blade separated it from his body.

As soon as I completed the turn I rolled to my side. Both cyborgs immediately went to follow me but without the use of his foot Crocman slipped on the concrete and collapsed face-first on the ground.

Hair guy successfully completed his first step, but was interrupted before he could take his next by Tachi kicking him right off his feet with a step-up side kick. For reference: this is a kick Bruce Lee would routinely use to pluck a man off the ground and hurl him into something vaguely designed to break his fall, Tachi hit Hair guy with the augmented cybernetic version.

Cyborgs being lighter than most people meant that when Hair guy took off, he flew. He hit a cement pillar with the force of a defensive line backer with poor depth perception. Desperately, Hair guy went to push himself away from the pillar. But Tachi caught up with him and punched his head in the same spot his foot had connected with at the start of the fight. I could actually see the metal skull beneath the fakeskin deform until his cybereye cracked and popped right out of its socket.

Hair guy rode the impact and spun around to take Tachi on anew. Tachi deftly kicked his opponent’s front foot aside to unbalance him and then sandwiched what was left of his head between the pillar and Tachi’s shin before he hit the ground.

<Good.>” Kiru said in the approving tone of someone who’s found the right colour for her curtains. Tachi and I whipped around to face her.

Kiru straightened up and unfolded her arms. “<I’d hate to tell father you weren’t worth bringing home.>”

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