Dust: Chapter 11 Part 4

Kitty looked down at the table and grew quiet again.

So Atom spoke instead. [Why is Kitty upset?]

[She doesn’t want to talk about it. Got my theories though.]

[So what can you do to help her?]

[Not much.] I said.


[Alright mate. I’ll do my best.]

I finished reassembling the whole gun, cocked the action and listened for anything amiss. When I only heard the bolt lock back in place I dropped the hammer and heard an empty click. Everything was in order. “You still want me to talk?”

Kitty nodded.

This.” I said showing her the gun. “Is the Heckler and Koch PD9. The greatest close-quarter battle weapon ever built. If any firearm was designed by a martial artist, it’s this one.”

Kitty had started to roll her eyes, until I mentioned martial artist. Then she just scrunched up her face. “What does that mean?”

It means the designer understood what was required of the situation and built the weapon around that.”

Isn’t that what they normally do?”

I laughed. “If it was, there wouldn’t be so many copies of the Colt 1911 on the market.”

I picked up the PD9 and pointed out its features. “She’s got a bullpup layout, which means the magazine feeds from behind the pistol grip, so the barrel of the weapon runs almost all the way to the back rather than stopping in the middle like on a conventional rifle. That makes the weapon a lot shorter without sacrificing accuracy and range by shortening the barrel.”

I grabbed one of the long helical magazines and fed it through the space between the top of the gun and the scope mount, it locked in place at the end with a satisfying snap.

Helical magazines hold three-times as much as a double-stack, though reloading like this does take a little practice to get it down to the same speed. But the scope mount has a fluted tunnel underneath it, which helps guide the magazine in.”

I cocked the weapon again and turned it on its side to show the ejection port.

Because the action is behind the trigger and the magazine loads from the top, this allows the spent casings to be ejected downwards, the extractor barely gives it a nudge and gravity does the rest. No hot brass flying in the face of your mate beside you.”

I started swapping the PD9 between my left and right hands. “Weight distribution is almost perfect for firing one-handed, allowing you to easily switch between hands as needed. If you’ve taken cover from the right side of a corridor, you just swap hands and stick your left hand and eye around the corner, exposing as little of yourself to enemy fire as possible.”

Can’t you do that with another gun?”

Not as quickly and a lot of western armies don’t train their people to shoot with their off-hand. I learned that from a guy in Singapore. He was an ex-cop before he joined the services, he got winged in his right shoulder in the middle of a fire-fight and had to swap to his left until EVAC. Because he’d actually practised shooting his rifle with one-hand and with his off-hand we weren’t down one extra gun for that fight.”

I felt my eyes go glassy at the memory and I smirked. “Harry, Wild Harry Townsend we called him. He wore a pistol on each hip like a gunfighter and he could get them out faster than you could spit.

I was hunkered down with him behind this old Datsun in Bencoolen. He’d emptied his mag and was swapping it out for a fresh one. Just then these two Indos come screaming ’round the corner, right into our flank. I put two shots in the first guy, then swung around to get the next before he got Harry and all I saw in my sights was this splash of red and he dropped.

I glance at Harry and he’s holding his left pistol down by his thigh, he drew it while still crouched and hip-shot this guy square in the face.”

Kitty tensed up at that. “How do you do that? How do you make killing someone sound fun?”

It might have something to do with me leaving out the part where I pissed myself.”

Kitty smirked and looked at me. “For real?”

Well I was heavily dehydrated from sweating furiously in the tropical heat, but yeah I wet myself. Fight or flight’s a bitch that way.”

Kitty opened her mouth like she was about to speak, then closed it again. She stopped herself, scrunched up her eyes and threw them open again. She took a breath.

I dreamt about the carjacker.”

Atom butted in. [Is that what you theorised was bothering her?]

[Well aside from the spray-on cheese on the burgers nothing else has really rattled her these last few days. So yeah.]

What happens in the dream?” I asked aloud.

I just hear the bang and suddenly I’m in the back of the truck again. And we stay in the truck, not moving, not speaking. After an eternity, the driver gets back in and starts up the engine.”

Kitty took another deep breath. “I didn’t know the guy, I never even saw his face. But I was there when he died. We’d won, he tried to steal our truck and the Raskols roughed him up, stole his gun and threw him out the door. I thought it was over. I thought that was going to be the end of it. Then I heard the shot and I knew that he was dead.”

Kitty exploded at me. “And then you sit here and talk about that thing like it’s a sports car. I can’t understand it.”

HEY YO!” Patriot Rap yelled from the sleeping quarters. He’d joined us earlier that day. “Say your sweet nothings over wireless kids, the grownups need their shut-eye.”

Kitty and I looked at each other and then looked down at the table, suitably chastised.

Then from Tachi’s bunk we heard. “Delicately put sir.”
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Dust Chapter 11 Part 3

Tachi looked thoughtful. “The third was around the time I went looking for you in Australia. And Aleppo is where I found Noodles’ remains.”

Yeah, but it’s hardly conclusive.” I said. “Couldn’t some rich Assyrian just decide he wants to have cybersurgery at one of the top specialist clinics in the world?”

Surely there’s cyberclinics closer to home?” Kitty countered. “Istanbul, Cairo, Dubai. They’ve all got fantastic cybersurgery clinics. And if he was admitted way back on the 3rd for regular cybersurgery what’s he still doing here?”

Tachi pursed his lips to one side. “It might not be 100% conclusive, but it does bare further investigation.”

Then a spark flashed behind Tachi’s eyes. “Atom. Look for any patients with Japanese names and read them out for us. But only if both first and surname are Japanese.”

Atom summoned a vidwindow into his hand and read off it. “Isamu Kojima, Masahiro Tetsuoka, Sachiko Miyamoto, Daisuke Yamada, Hanako Tezuka, Ryoko Shimatani.”

Hold.” Tachi raised his hand. “Repeat that last one.”

Ryoko Shimatani.”

Tachi clicked his finger at me. “I believe Kiru no Yubi is a patient as well.”

I made a rolling motion with my hand at him. “Explain?”

Ryoko Shimatani, is not only the younger sibling of my sister Sana’s favourite heart throb when she was fourteen, she also used the name as an alias online.”

Oh god.” I said. “She wasn’t one of those was she?”

Now Kitty rolled her hand at me. “Explain?”

Tachi did it for me. “It was a popular thing in Tokyo for little girls to pretend to be, not their idols, but their idols’ siblings while online. To get attention from their gullible friends. Sana always was nostalgic about that age.”

Super Moe-Moe Ball giggled “What were you doing at that age?”

Tachi cocked his head to one side, as if he could read his history on the ceiling. “Trying to decide if I liked boys or girls.”

Kitty pressed her lips into a smile. “And?”

Tachi gave her the ‘come hither’ eyes. “And it’s time to get back to work.”

Yes please.” I groaned. “What are we doing now?”

Now?” Tachi smiled. “Now we get to move onto the fun part.”

The night before the heist I was sitting in the planning room of our rented safe house. We hadn’t fully re-synched our sleep patterns for a post-midnight break-in, so some of us had managed to get some sleep.

I hadn’t, and I likely wouldn’t until the sun rose next morning. That’s okay, because it was tomorrow night that we’ll be pulling the job.

[So that’s why you’re still up while the others are asleep?] Atom asked. His vidwindow floated around me, which was interesting conversationally, but his visual point of view was still limited to the tablet’s camera.

[Not really.] I shrugged, shaking the solvent bottle to see how much was still in it. [I just get jittery before big gigs like this. This one time it happens to work to my advantage. Well I hope anyway, I might still get tired in the middle of the job.]

Conscious of those who might not be as fortunate as I was, I’d moved myself to the meeting room and spread out a blanket on the table where I checked over the parts of my weapon.

[So what are you doing?]

[Well.] I said looking over the disassembled submachine gun. [This is a new gun so I’m checking over each piece to make sure they’ve been properly machined and fit together. After that I’m looking at the springs for correct tension and metal fatigue and then I’ll make sure that everything that needs lubrication is just wet enough.]

Up late, playing with your gun.” Kitty’s tired voice grumbled from the doorway. “I’m sure there’s a euphemism for masturbation in there somewhere.”

I glanced over my shoulder at her. Kitty was wearing a tight-fitting white t-shirt and black panties.

[Is that more of that ‘sexual tension’..?]

[Shut up].

I sighed quietly and turned back to the machine parts. Remembering my mental note to look at Kitty without checking her out. “What’s the matter? Can’t you sleep?”

Kitty joined me at the table and put her head in her hands. “Bad dreams.”

I picked up my weapon’s barrel and looked down it to see if there were any grit inside. I didn’t find any but put the brush through it anyway. “You’re kidding right? How old are you?”

Kitty gave me the look I’d become most accustomed to, the one that told me she thought I was stupid. “I keep thinking of Port Moresby.”

I put the barrel and the brush down. I dropped the attitude as well. “You want to talk about it?”

Kitty turned her eyes away. “No.” She said. “Talk to me about something else. What are you doing?”

Kicking the tires.” I said. “PR came through for me with this gun, but until I look it over I don’t know what condition it’s in. If I’m going to be trusting this thing with my life she and I had better get acquainted.”

Kitty ‘Hmphed’. “So it is a euphemism for masturbation.”

Grow the fuck up.” I said flatly, picking up the frame. “Is it masturbation when you defrag your hard-drive? Or when you spend hours on end coding an update for your skill packages?”

Kitty gave me a lazy look. “Coding isn’t masturbation. It’s love.”

I started putting the barrel assembly back together. “Well this isn’t love. This is life.”

Kitty gave me the stupid look again. “I think you’ll find it’s not. Quite the opposite.”

I threw Kitty a grin. “Mine. Not theirs.”
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Dust Chapter 11 Part 2

The ‘Silicon Hills’ were doing a lot better economically and Texas itself was in better economic shape than many other parts of the country. The lack of burned-our husks on the side of the roads suggested the Texas rangers were keeping the peace better than the California highway patrol. And generally, wherever we went we were greeted with a friendly, if obnoxious “Howdy Stranger.” Casual perusal of a few local-news blogs revealed murmurs of a secessionist sentiment bubbling among the population. But that could be just because it’s Texas.

In many ways it reminded me of Australia, we both had the reputation of producing large, rugged outdoorsmen, ready for the rough and tumble but not too hot on table-manners and social mores.

I also recognised how many of them would immediately play up to the stereotype on the slightest inkling we might be from out of state. One service-station attendant even surreptitiously donned a ten-gallon hat from behind the counter when he saw the rental number plate on our car.

Naturally I played back by ending every sentence with the word “mate” and responding to the “Howdies” with an enthusiastic “G’day”

It was the first time in my life I missed my slouch hat from my dress uniform. If I’d had that in Texas, well let’s just say “that’d be grouse mate.”

Also being Australian, Kitty joined in. But when that created the illusion that we were husband and wife (somehow) she stopped immediately. It became another thing she resented me for.

Tachi’s Uesugi Kenshin avatar stood at the head of the table in Kitty’s ‘bat cave’.

The rest of us were parked at the side chairs in our default sitting positions. I leaned back in my chair, PR’s Uncle Sambo had his feet up on the table and puffed on a cigar as wide as a toilet roll. Kitty reclined across her chair and preened her nails, while Moe-Moe bounced and rolled in her seat.
Next to me sat Atom, who had upgraded his avatar again. It’d switched back to human but had given the mall brat an age upgrade, now he looked like a youth in a black motorcycle jacket, baggy Kevlar jeans and a pair of tech specs.

Tachi began the meeting.

Our first objective is to confirm that Noodles’ braincase is in fact within the John Meadows Memorial Hospital.” Tachi began. “Once that has been achieved we can move on to other, more difficult tasks.”

PR puffed out a jet of smoke. “Oh so now you don’t believe us?”

As Kitty was quick to point out to Dust, there is a real possibility that Noodles’ conduct was being monitored. Therefore we must also entertain the possibility that Noodles has deliberately misled you and that this is a trap, albeit one riding on the slim chance that we would even attempt this rescue.”

Moe-Moe bounced up. “Well we’re here aren’t we?”

We’re only here because of what we’ve discovered about Atom’s capabilities. Unless RCF have been extensively briefed on Atom, beyond the bare necessities needed to recover it, it is doubtful they would have anticipated this.”

I jumped in here to move things along. “So if it turns out that we cannot confirm that Noodles is somewhere in the facility, we pull the plug. We pack our bags and head to Flint.”

Kitty nodded. “We have the work email address of fifty hospital employees. I asked Atom to find out which of the employees best fit the profile of ‘class clown’ to give us an avenue through which we can deliver our first virus payload. It will be in the form of an email loaded with funny cartoons and other joke pictures. So it’ll seem like the sort of thing this person would do anyway.”

Super Moe-Moe Ball giggled, shaking her floating ball. “That payload is a little gem of mine called ‘Running commentary.’ It’s basically the direct-to-brain equivalent of the old keylogger software. Every command our victim inputs into their computer is stored in a transcript. We’re going to record the first 24 hours of commands he or she enters into their machine and find their access commands through that.”

PR gave a sharkteeth smile. “Atom can read through all of our victim’s emails, to get us an idea of who is who in the building. Access to the corporate directory should also allow us to pinpoint who their head of security is. From there, it’s just a matter of finding out how to squeeze him.”

Or hopefully it could be as easy as helping him misplace his tablet for an hour.” I added.

Kitty looked at me. “Won’t that raise suspicion?”

You’d be surprised.” I shrugged. “Raising the alarm at the first sign your highly sensitive information has gone walkabout is a good idea. But for some reason bureaucrats get snippy when their security head makes everyone do the lockdown dance because he can’t find his tablet. Until he’s certain the thing has been stolen he’ll keep it quiet.”

Tachi raised his hand. “Again you are jumping ahead. We won’t need the security head’s access just to find if Noodles is in the facility. An administrator or even a receptionist’s access might be enough. If you can gain access to our victim’s computer, might you be able to forward our hilarious virus package to such a person.”

Kitty nodded. “Absolutely.”

Then that, I might suggest, is what we concentrate on.”

Our unfortunate ‘class clown’, one Herschel Stampson (what parent gives their kid a name like that?) must have been freaking hilarious, because Roberta Teracluse, the work contact we found in his account, forwarded on the email herself. By the time ‘Running Commentary’ got back to us, it had managed to install itself on every machine in her department. Come tomorrow, we would have all their access as well.

Days later I looked across the table at Kitty and asked. “What did you send?”

Kitty grinned and bounced her eyebrows at me. “Funny cat pictures.”

Tachi put his hands together. “Looks like it’s only a matter of time before…”

Found it!” Atom exclaimed. “In Lab B of the Vanderburg building. We have a patient that was relocated from Al Kalimat hospital in Aleppo, Syria on the third of this month.”

I looked at Tachi. “…before Atom rattles off the answer?”

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Dust Chapter 11 Part 1

Chapter 11: Legwork and Recon, abridged

I objected, naturally, but they’d been expecting that.

Kitty and PR wanted to see what Atom was capable of if they taught it to hack.

For reasons I’ve been over already I made it plain that was not going to happen.

Kitty and PR reasoned that because Noodles had already been told we were in Seattle, Atom sending off a distress call wouldn’t make any difference. They would monitor Atom and if it did send out anything they didn’t like the look of, the connection to the matrix would be severed and we’d clear out. They also promised that if Atom did get off a warning, they’d copy how he did it and start crying wolf all over the city, sending Roxorgh on a merry chase.

If they reckoned they could turn even a worst-case scenario to our advantage, I was interested.

Atom took to hacking like a flower-child to LSD. Kitty and PR cooked up a wireless card that logged all activity running through it, detailing every ISP address Atom visited and checking them against an extensive list of no-nos that would immediately alert Kitty and PR if it so much as glanced at them.

To my surprise Atom did not make a beeline to its masters and present us to them on a silver platter. What it did do was scan through terabytes of data looking for access codes to John Meadows Memorial hospital, where Noodles had told Kitty he was just before I pulled the plug back in Melbourne.

It searched for every name associated with the hospital that it could find then combed four different social networking sites looking for matches that lived in the area. From there it began looking for pets, children, favourite movies or games, references to childhood stuffed toys, anything that might conceivably be their passwords, then looked for significant numbers from their lives that might be relevant. As Moe-Moe explained it was basically what any hacker would do to work out someone’s password only Atom was doing it a lot faster and for hundreds of people at a time.

Atom took it one step further and gave the prospective passwords a dry run on a couple of different public email sites. Checking for username and password combinations that worked. From the hundreds of individuals Atom originally found, he successfully logged into the public email accounts of around twenty of them. One trick I liked was that Atom set up a free account for himself on each of these sites and then deliberately failed to log into his own account to test the security measures. He noted which sites sent out a warning email after X number of failed attempts and knew not to exceed that number and give himself away.

From there Atom went into the contacts lists of those employees and found work email addresses of another fifty.

My avatar turned to look at Kitty’s. “How long would that have taken the three of you working together?” I asked.

Hard to say.” Kitty replied. “For tasks that would require this much crunch work we’d rope in others to share the workload.”

Rough estimate?”

That many people? Three months.”

PR’s avatar beamed. “Fucking amazing is what it is. Atom is the future of computing.”

That sounded about right considering how long it took Noodles to do similar work, and Noodles had construct A.I.’s to help him.

I pretended to look at a watch my avatar was not wearing. “And how long’s it been?”

Since I began searching for the details of the employees or when I started looking for names connected to the facility?” Atom answered, as brightly as a first year trying to impress the professor.

Option B.”

Two hours, Nineteen minutes and 45 seconds to this instant.”

My virtual fingers rubbed my virtual chin. “Let’s hear the rest of this proposal.”

Which is how we ended up in Austin, Texas.

Getting to Texas from Washington had taught us a lot about the state of the union, or in PR’s words, ‘The Divided States of America.’ PR gave us a location in a town just outside the Washington border and from there we travelled overland illegally by hoverjet. I was highly impressed by our pilot, who effectively did the work of three people at once, at breakneck speed. Not only was she screaming across open plains, running rivers and poorly-maintained highways at well over 200km per hour, but she was detecting radar emitters, monitoring radio traffic and launching countermeasures.

Pretty much did the entire job I did when I was an Electronic Warfare Operator in the army.

On top of that she was forever keeping one virtual eye on the radar screen and the constantly up-dating GPS route, which kept changing depending on the movements of state troopers, border guards and unmanned aerial drones.

Even considering she was in a direct-to-brain interface with the hoverjet’s systems and thus doing all of this at the speed of thought, it was still incredible work.

The disturbing part was that we needed her at all. She was, in effect, smuggling us across the country and past the authorities. We hadn’t even done anything illegal yet.

The hovercraft dropped us off at a warehouse on the outskirts of Dalhart, just inside the border.

Inside the warehouse was an old bomb of a car PR had ready so we could drive to Austin.

Texas was not at all what I’d been expecting. After the demilitarised zone stylings of the state borders on the west coast, I was expecting everyone to be walking around with six-guns on their hips, screaming ‘Yippie Kai-Yay as they jumped their gas-guzzlers over hay bales and looking sideways at everyone not wearing a ten-gallon hat.

Though everyone I spoke to insisted that such places did exist in Texas, Austin was completely different.
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Dimestore Wuxia has launched

And Dimestore Wuxia volume 1 is out of the pipeline and into the world. Right now it’s available in Print on Demand paperback through Createspace and in ebook through Kobo and iTunes and will be out on Kindle within the next few days.

It’s a cliche to say that one is really excited to see their latest book being released into the wild. And that’s because it’s really fucking exciting. Call it repetitive if you want but there’s only one feeling to describe seeing your babies take their first steps out into a wider world.

For those of you who missed the coming soon announcement Dimestore Wuxia is a fusion of the old cowboy adventure pulps of the United States and the martial hero tradition of the Wuxia novels from China. So naturally I took what I liked from both traditions and threw the whole thing into space.
Because I can.
This will be the first of what I hope will be a six novel series, I’m already three-quarters of the way through the second-volume and have most of the third plotted out. Once Dust of the Earth has finished its run on this blog I’ll start updating with chapters from Dimestore as we go.

With some prompting I might be persuaded to include some special features information regarding Dimestore’s Technology. Those guys are centuries further into the future than Dust and Tachi and I wanted the tech to feel appropriately advanced, but I didn’t want to bog the scenes down with technical descriptions of what Nanomachines do, how a future city is different when its designed around flying cars and the tactical advantage of a six-barreled pistol.
So if enough people ask I might include some a techno-fluff section where we just have fun talking about the technology.

In the meantime, enjoy Dimestore Wuxia.

Dust: Chapter 10 Part 4

Have I come at a bad time?”

As always, Jay’s voice was as smooth as honeyed bourbon. He sat himself down at the free chair at our table and jacked into Kitty’s deck.

It was early in the day, between the mid-morning and lunchtime crowds and yet Jay had appeared as if he’d just stepped in from off screen. I made a mental note to set up a hidden camera next time we arranged a meet. There was clearly a thing or two to learn from our Jay.

Jay already had his coffee from a place just down the road in his hand.

[Jay old friend.] Tachi brightened and offered his hand.

Jay and Tachi shook. [Good to see you again Tachi.] He smiled before offering me his fist for a bump. [Dust? What happened to your arm man?]

I gave him the fist that wasn’t in a brace and we bumped. [I had a boo-boo, it’s getting better though. The other guy lost his foot.]

[Impressive.] Jay said. [As is your new friend here. Miss?] Jay reached for Kitty’s hand.

[You can call me Kitty.]

[Ah.] Jay said, he took Kitty’s hand and held it knuckle-side up like he was going to kiss it, but patted it with his thumb instead. [The boys call me Jay. It’s lovely to meet you.]

With a blink I could see Kitty bite back a sarcastic retort. She smiled back and thanked him.

[Now gentle-folk.] Jay said, putting his hands together. [I don’t wish to waste your time so I’ll move as quickly as I can. First: Well done on the Kawada job, my employers had their reservations that you could get it done. It made me a very happy man when they we conceded that I was not over-selling your abilities.]

I could practically smell the ‘but’ hanging over the conversation.
[However.] Jay continued. [The job is, sadly, not over.]

[Yeah it is.] I said. [We got it out, we brought it here. I can practically kick it to you under the table right now.]

[And yet.] Jay said apologetically. [I am unable to accept it at this time.]

Kitty tilted her head to one side. [Why not?]

Jay inspected the state of his fingernails. [My employers, along with anyone else suspected of being my employers are being watched by the wounded party, much in the same way a school teacher watches a child holding a rock. They cannot afford to be seen dealing with you.]

Tachi nodded gravely. [So we must go back into hiding?]

Jay thought about this. [For at least another month. Then they will be happy to complete the contract with you.]

[Can you work on that with them?] I asked. [See if you can persuade them to come get it any sooner?]

[I can try.] Jay admitted. [It can be a delicate thing to ask for. It’s hard to make it look like I’m not chasing them for my payment.]

Jay considered this for a moment. [You know… if offloading the thing as soon as possible is really such a priority for you. I can take minding fees out of your payment and leave it with some people I know.]

Kitty and Tachi shared an uncomfortable look and I agreed. I did not get my arm snapped in two just so RCF could mop the floor with Jay’s minders and recover Atom.

I shook my head at Tachi. Kitty released the breath she’d been holding.

Tachi reached for Jay’s hand again. [We will wait until we hear from you.]

[I promise you.] Jay said. [I’ll do my best to persuade them. Set up an anonymous email account and send me the details. I will get back to you before the end of the week.]

Jay and Tachi shook again. Then he shook mine and Kitty’s hands and left. I watched him walk away but he didn’t do anything clever or cool, he just upped and left.

Kitty rubbed her hands together thoughtfully. [So if that’s their answer, what’s the plan from here?]

[We sit around with our thumb up our arse while we wait for Sinotech to relocate their testicles.]

[Crude.] Tachi said. [But apt. The hard part, of course, will be finding sanctuary from the long arms of the Roxorgh group and Chrome Fist.]

Kitty clasped her hands in front of her. [Or alternatively.] She said. [We could strike at them first].

I cocked my head to one side, like if I looked at her from a different angle I might see what she was saying in a way that didn’t sound suicidally stupid. [And how directly the hell would we go about that?]

I was more than a little surprised when PR appeared in front of me in a vidwindow. [By ripping the brain right out of their matrix support.]

I snapped my angry eyes on Kitty. [Please tell me you haven’t been broadcasting our entire conversation to your friends.]

Kitty put up her hands. [I haven’t. I just brought him in because he has a proposal for you.]

My eyes narrowed at him. [Shoot.]

[Aiight.] PR said. [My proposal will net you three distinct advantages. Firstly, and leastly, if you even attempt what I’m suggesting, I will offer you protection from your many enemies. My people are out in Flint, which given the current socio-economic climate is difficult to get to without an army. Additionally, I have an army, albeit a small one. Once your psycho cyber-chick and her henchborgs have fought their way across half the Divided States of America, she’ll still have my Deadmen to contended with, as well as your formidable selves, fresh, rested and healed up by then.]

[Wait-wait-wait backup a sec.] I held my hand up at the vidwindow. [YOU have an army?]

PR’s avatar grinned and crossed his arms at me. [I do. You’re looking at the head of the Jamestown movement.]

My eyes all but popped out of my skull. [You’re THE Patriot Rap? I thought you were just some poser.]

[Naw, I’m the real thing baby. The Separatist himself.]

Tachi put his chin in his hand. [And you commit petty computer crimes and do leg work on the side?]

PR waved off the suggestion. [Not me my friend, I have people to do that for me. I’ve been in thick with J. Random Hacker since high school so I keep in touch, when I heard Noodles was onto something big it got my interest so I gave him a hand.]

[Kind of like what you’re doing now?]

[Exactly. You see the second advantage of my offer is the direct result of your efforts, that being the aforementioned lobotomy you’ll be performing on their hacking talent.] PR paused for dramatic effect. [Finally, if all goes well, you’ll have Noodles back safe and sound.]

[Win.. win.. and win.] I said. [Gee, looks like it’s our lucky day. Where’s the reality PR? Where’s the part of this plan I won’t like?]

[That’d be the part where you have to risk your neck for someone else.] PR smirked. [Oh and the bit about pulling a job while you’re already on another job.]

I went to retort to that when Tachi cut me off. [And what is it that you, Patriot Rap, hope to gain from all this altruism?]

PR grinned at us. [You’ll be satisfying my scientific curiosity. But there is another catch I was about to mention. Kitty and I have been chatting with Atom, we’ve learned a lot about what the little guy can do.]

Kitty snapped her fingers suddenly. [Actually PR, it might be better to show them this part.]
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Dimestore Wuxia: Sample Chapter

So I’m in the last stages of getting the first volume of Dimestore published. I’m just waiting on a proof copy to make sure there aren’t any glaring problems (Gaiman’s law has bitten me in the arse before) and then it’ll be available on Amazon and Createspace.

As it stands it should be available on iBooks in the next few days. Oh and I’ve worked out my issues with iBooks and Dust of the Earth should also be available there in the same time. I’m lazy so I might be a little late updating the Buy Books page. But I will make a loud announcement when it’s ready.

In the Meantime, here’s the entire first chapter of the first volume of Dimestore Wuxia. I’ll be updating the site with chapters of Dimestore once Dust of the Earth has finished it’s run.

Dimestore Wuxia: Chapter 01

Balthazar rose a glass of gulping whiskey to his pudgy lips and threw it back. As the anti-septic taste of the Hole’s brewed liquor washed over his tongue and burned its way down his throat, he couldn’t help but smile.

Nothing, not even ‘the hole’s’ broken air conditioner could bring him down today. Today he stopped being Balthazar the petty hood in a two-horse town on a barely terraformed rock and became Balthazar Rosario, criminal kingpin.

He brought the glass down to the table and bellowed for another. The robot barkeeper poured some more swill into a glass and handed it to one of the regulars to bring to the boss. ‘The Hole’ or ‘The Drinking Hole’ if you were high falutin’ could only better live up to its name if it had actually been built into a pit in the ground. A disused hangar in a corner of the Starport would have to do.

Nothing in the Hole had originally been built for the purpose it now served. Tables, chairs and even the bar were made out of wood pallets, milk crates and other detritus. The chair holding up Balthazar’s extensive weight had been pieced together from the remains of five other chairs from all over the starport.

The regulars weren’t much better. The specimen that brought Balthazar his drink smiled nervously as he placed it on the table before him, revealing the three teeth he’d lost in a disagreement with another regular last week. At the bar the lowest rung on the pecking order was repeatedly spilling water in front of the robot barkeep, watching as it rushed out to wipe it up after him. This far out on the periphery the options for company were as limited as they were for air conditioning. The broken unit above Balthazar’s head allowed the atmosphere in the bar to bloat with humidity. The settlement wasn’t big enough to have its own dome so they couldn’t even open a window to let some air in.

Balthazar took his new drink in his hand and raised it from the table. He wouldn’t have to endure this place much longer. But rather than take the money and split like some amateur, Balthazar planned to pour the profits from today’s score back into his enterprises, expand out to the other settlements on this world. He planned to build up some real capital before he aimed his backside at the whole damn planet and took off for the stars. Maybe after a while, when he could no longer stand this hole but still didn’t have enough money he might hire someone to act as an intermediary, insulate himself a little from the filth.
But all of that would have to wait.

The light above the door flashed red, someone was passing through decontamination. Balthazar cast his eyes about the room and accounted for all of the regulars. Either someone’s partner had come to coax them back home or his buyer had finally arrived. The light stopped flashing and the doors parted, emitting the stranger into the room. Balthazar’s heart rate picked up, it was definitely his buyer, but he may have got more than he bargained for.

The stranger strode into the suddenly silent room, protected from the bar’s oppressive heat by a suit of Ranger combat armour. The Stranger stopped two steps in and scanned its gaze across the room.

The room scanned back, a dozen pairs of eyes looked over every bit of the Stranger’s armour, from the six-barrelled pistol on its thigh to its short, slim stature. The larger members of the bar smirked, if that armour was legit and the newcomer really was a Federation Ranger, then they must be a kid. Some bright-eyed green horn who thought they could clean up the periphery with a badge and an attitude.

Balthazar cleared his throat from the back of the bar and the Stranger brought its chin up to see him. “I believe you’re looking for me.”

“That depends.” The Stranger said as she approached. Her voice was firm, assured. “Y’all know anything about an SC-210 Deep Strike Fighter that found it’s little way onto the second-hand market?”
Balthazar took an angry set to his jaw and downed his drink. She had that annoying tone in her voice that said she wasn’t going to be cooperative.

“I do.” He said.
The Stranger reached Balthazar’s table and loomed over him. “Then you can help me find the man I am looking for honey. And in return I can take that craft off your hands and not charge you with possession of Federal Property.”

Balthazar pretended to inspect his empty glass. “That Star Fighter cost me a lot of money, why would I give it over to you for nothing?”

The Stranger bore her gaze into Balthazar’s eyes and said “A get-out-of-jail-free card ain’t nothin’.”

Balthazar smiled, turned his glass upside-down and set it on the table, the signal all the regulars were waiting for. “It is when compared to two Deep Strike Fighters.”

All around them the inhabitants of the bar left their ramshackle chairs and stood up. Earning Balthazar’s favour just as he was about to come into a lot of coin wasn’t a chance to let slip through your fingers.

The Stranger sighed. “This was a mistake.”

Then she moved. Before the nearest man to her was out of his seat the Stranger spun around and smashed the back of her elbow into his face. Without pausing she stepped through and completed the rotation with a left-cross at his friend’s jaw.

A third man stepped in on her already, grabbing her from behind so the rest of them could lay into her. The stranger dropped down into a low stance and out of his grip, grabbed his arms above her and folded herself forwards to throw him onto a table made out old wood pallets and kegs. With a loud crack the table collapsed under his weight and crashed to the floor.

The crash bought the Stranger enough time to draw her shock baton. The next regular had already charged in, already fully committed himself to his haymaker that he couldn’t stop the stranger’s baton poking him in the gut. As the powered shock travelled up his nervous system to turn out the lights, the Stranger barged past him and zapped another regular in the side of the head.

The next man grabbed a chair and caught the Stranger’s baton as she thrust it at him. Thinking fast he turned the chair away, catching her baton and tying up that arm. The Stranger replied by bumping her hip under him, disturbing his balance long enough to pull him the opposite way and wrench him off his feet. She buried her knee into the side of his face before extracting her baton from the chair’s legs and tapping him in the gut with it.

A bottle smashed into the back of the Stranger’s helmet, stunning her long enough for one of the boys to kick her in the back. The Stranger fell forward, landing half on the floor and half on her last victim. The man who hit her followed up with a kick to her ribs. She rode the impact and rolled away, getting her feet under her so she could get back up.

Balthazar decided that this had gone on long enough and drew his pistol. He fired a warning shot across the room to get everyone’s attention.

Unfortunately, the Stranger’s reflexes were too quick to realise what Balthazar had intended. When she heard the shot her pistol leapt from its holster and she put a round into Balthazar’s elbow before he could realise his mistake. The sudden pain caused him to yank his arm away just as the bullet broke his grip on the pistol, sending the gun flying across the room.

The three remaining regulars unfroze and reached for their own guns. The Stranger had only a moment to realise she wasn’t going to get the drop on all of them and took off in a head-long rush for the bar.

The first man with his gun out set it to full Rock’n Roll and opened up on the Stranger. She poured on the speed, the hail of bullets cracking past her shoulders until she dived right over the bar and into the arms of the robot barkeeper.

The sudden introduction of 65kg of soldier plus armour into the droid’s working load knocked it off its feet and they collapsed in a tangled heap.

While the first man reloaded the other two opened up. Their pistols emptying dozens of rounds all over the bar. Bottles shattered, ashtrays disintegrated and bullets ripped holes through the flimsy plywood panels. The Stranger untangled herself from the robot barkeeper and pulled it up to use as a human shield. As their fire pelted repeatedly into the robot’s metal body she set her own pistol to ‘Hammer’ and blasted a shot from all six-barrels at once into the bar. Her first shot punched out a fist-sized hole, opening enough of a window to see the first gunman reload his pistol.

Her second shot blasted a fist-sized hole through his sternum.

Seeing their companion stumble into a table and collapse encouraged the last two men to seek cover. The Stranger tried to move around to see through the hole she made but they over turned some tables and she couldn’t get line of sight to them.

The Stranger slowed her breathing and forced herself to calm down. She could hear her assailants reloading behind their barricade and worried they might get their act together to fire and manoeuvre

around her. She needed a way to flush them out.

Behind the visor of her helmet she glanced her eyes up at the ceiling and breathed a sigh of relief.

Just as the two men resumed their fire the Stranger aimed up and put a hammer-shot in the middle of the fluorescent lights dangling above them. The shot obliterated the fitting, shattering the tubes into clouds of dust-fine glass that rained down onto her targets.

The two men panicked and stopped shooting. In the next moment the Stranger vaulted over the bar again and hurled her shock baton at the furthest man, catching him clumsily in the chest but still making enough contact to send electric shocks rippling through his body.

The next moment the Stranger’s feet touched the ground and she sprinted towards the last man. Desperately he brushed some glass dust from his face with the back of his sleeve and squeezed off a shot at her.
The Stranger pulled to the side as she kept charging and felt the bullet thump into her shoulder just before she reached him. She batted aside his gun-hand, elbowed him in the face and threw him over her hip and onto the ground.

He struggled beneath her, trying to get his gun turned back towards her to get off a shot. The Stranger pinned his wrist to the ground with her armoured knee, snatched her baton off the body of his friend and put him to sleep.

Balthazar finally saw his chance, his pistol had landed on a table at the far end of the bar. He’d been crawling across the floor so as not to be noticed, but when he realised that all the shooting was happening between himself and the exit he’d decided to circle around.

Now, finally, all he needed to do was grab his pistol, set it to ‘Spear’ and put a bolt through the meddlesome stranger.

But just as Balthazar reached the table he realised the Stranger had already caught up with him.

She stood on the other side. Her pistol and shock baton back in their places on her armour.

Balthazar looked up at her and began to pant with fear. He glanced down at the pistol, then back up to the Stranger. She crossed her arms.

“I wouldn’t.”

Balthazar tried anyway.

The microsecond before Balthazar’s fingers touched it, the Stranger’s heel landed hard on her end of the table, tipping the opposite edge into Balthazar’s chin and launching the pistol up into the air.

The Stranger ignored the pistol as it sailed past her ear and landed somewhere on the floor behind her. Balthazar crumpled onto the ground, nursing his aching jaw.

The Stranger popped open her helmet, revealing the face beneath. She had short, fire-engine red hair and demin-blue eyes that could cut diamonds. A small scar marked her face just below her left eye.

“Now.” She said. “A wise man once told me to be hard, but fair. I’ve been hard, now I’m gonna be fair, but if y’all don’t tell me what I want to know, then I’mma go right back to being hard and y’all ain’t gonna like none of that.”

Balthazar considered his options. It didn’t take long. “What do you want to know?”

“Who sold you the Fighter?”

Balthazar swallowed. “One of yours. He wore Ranger armour, tall guy, dark. He wasn’t eager to keep it, I’ll tell you that, let me bargain him down to a song.”

“He give you a name?”

Balthazar shook his head.

“When was this?”

“Last week. Tuesday.”

The Stranger narrowed her eyes at something for a moment. “He gave you his ship, is he still on-planet?”

Balthazar lowered his hand from his jaw. “I doubt it. He left with his Chinese friends. They didn’t look like they were from around here.”

The Stranger clenched her jaw at that. Balthazar shifted uncomfortably on the ground.

She uncrossed her arms. “Alright, you can go.” She reached out to him. “Just hand me the key to his fighter and we’ll call it square.”

Balthazar’s bruised mouth dropped open. “You’re not going to charge me?”

“Hard.” the Stranger said. “But fair.”

In the decontamination chamber Penny closed her helmet over her head again and waited for the atmospheres to equalise.

Once the red light went out the door slid open and she stepped outside.

On her way out she summoned Seera, the dispatch A.I., and a feminine form in glowing blue appeared in her augmented reality vision.

[Good day Ranger Dreadful.] Seera smiled enthusiastically as she fell into step beside Penny.
[How may I be of assistance?”]

[C’mon Seera, don’t give me that formal talk, please. Call me Penny.]

[I am sorry Ranger Dreadful, but Headquarters have determined that informal interaction leads to unprofessional behaviour.]

Penny sighed. [Let ’em know I said that’s a stupid idea.]

[Complaint acknowledged].

[Fine.] Penny said. [I need a local ambulance response to The Drinking Hole at Horowitz Starport, Hangar 17. Multiple concussions, some minor electroshock injuries and one fatality, suggest at least three ambulances.]
Seera nodded. [Very well Ranger. As per procedure: we will be expecting a copy of your feed regarding the incident for evidence and personal review purposes.]


[On what charges shall you be arresting the perpetrators?]

[None.] Penny said. [I am choosing not to press any charges at this time, but if you could prepare the paperwork for one charge of possession of Federal Property Exceeding 5 million credits, one charge of Obstructing Justice and one charge of Assaulting An Agent of the Federation for a Mr Balthazar Rosario just in case someone needs it. Include my feed in the evidence.]

[Understood Ranger.] Seera nodded. [Is there anything further that you require?]

Penny pursed her lips in thought. [Yeah, actually. I need a full list of all drop ships coming and going from Horowitz Starport over the last 14 days. I’ll also need their full passenger manifests.]

Penny hoped that would be enough. Anhur was about as far out on the edge of the periphery as you could go without giving up on all human comforts. The lack of ships coming and going made picking out the unusual ones a lot easier.

A dull pain in her shoulder reminded Penny of the hits she’d taken back at the bar. By the time she made it to her ship it had only got worse.
[One last thing Seera.] Penny winced. [Call an ambulance for myself. I think the adrenaline’s done worn off.]

Dust: Chapter 10 Part 3

We made it to Seattle without so much as a road rage incident.

We did, however, see a burned-out car riddled with bullet-holes every two hundred k’s or so. It became a game I doubt the coach company had thought of when they installed the cameras on the coach’s exterior. Through the screens built into the backs of the chairs we could see out of every side of the coach. Some people were boring enough to use these screens for their intended purpose, watching movies, playing games and listening to music. Our game involved calling out whenever we saw a wreck, whoever called it first got a point. You had to be specific what you were calling out, it was either ‘car wreck’, ‘truck wreck’ or ‘motorcycle’. I still reckon ‘motorcycle’ should have been worth two points because they were harder to notice and four syllables long.

Kitty was surprisingly good at it. She could speak really quickly and clearly when she wanted to. Once I’d actually started talking before her but she got both words out before I could finish.

We passed another hint that something was definitely amiss when we crossed the Oregon border.

A chain-link fence complete with secured gate made the exact line between the states impossible to miss.

A pair of autoturrets on top of the gate tracked onto our motorcade. The guards behind the machine-gun turrets on the SUV’s aimed back at the gate guns. There didn’t seem to be any toll booth to stop at and the motorcade never made any indication of slowing down.

When we closed to less than a hundred metres a sensor must have liked what it saw. The heavy, armoured door dropped down into a slot in the road, revealing rows of razor-sharp teeth lining its top edge. I figured the door teeth must double as road-spikes to catch unauthorised vehicles sneaking through.

Our game of ‘spot the wreck’ came to a screeching halt after that. Oregon was clean, green and wreck free. For the drive through Oregon, Kitty plugged into Atom for a chat, Tachi perused the coach’s music selection and I played Tetris on my Neupro.

When we reached Seattle we realised we’d forgotten to play the game again when we crossed the Washington border.

On getting to Seattle we had a day off to chill out, rest up and, my favourite, have a second shower in the space of a week. Then I blinked and it was the next day and time to go back to work.

But that was okay, because this whole adventure was about to end. We’d made it to Seattle, now all we had to do was meet with our handler and arrange a time and place to drop off Atom.

So we picked out a spot at a cafe in the Northgate Mall, which incidentally is in an area of the city that is officially called ‘University district’ because that’s where the university is. And I thought we didn’t fuck around with names where I come from.

[So who is this guy again?] Kitty asked.

Kitty sat directly opposite me and had ordered a tall soy latte with hazelnut syrup (they called it a Grande, because apparently coffee is French in the US). Rather than cyping we had Kitty’s deck sitting in the middle of our table and had plugged ourselves into it to speak privately. This way we couldn’t be eaves dropped on and produced no wireless signal to intercept.

[He’s our handler.] I replied.

[You can keep saying that all you want, it doesn’t actually explain anything.]

I sighed and Tachi tagged in. [He’s a professional middleman. Providing his mysterious employers with the anonymity they require to do business with the unwashed likes of my associate.]

I looked at Tachi. [Yeah cheers mate.]

Kitty turned to him. [Does he have a name or are we just going to keep calling him the handler?]

[In my head I like to call him ‘Mr. Johnson’.] I said. [Face to face I settle for ‘Jay’.]

While I turned my eyes back to our surroundings Tachi continued. [‘Jay’ has been our handler since this contract first began. It was he who first approached us to spy on Silicone Dreams and find out how their research regarding Atom was progressing and it was he who took our proposal to extract Atom from Kawada to his employers. When he came back we negotiated the terms of the contract through him and received our advance. We haven’t spoken with him since the day we extracted Atom.]

[And now we get to put this whole thing to bed.] I said, putting my hands together.

Kitty pursed her lips for a moment and her eyes softened. She took her gaze away from me.

Tachi put a reassuring hand on Kitty’s. [Sadly this will mean an end to your engagement, but fret not child, you’re still young, you’ll find another.]

Not used to having Tachi’s silky sarcasm directed her way Kitty blanched, she flicked her eyes back towards me. [What? Now you think there’s sexual tension between me and Dust?]

Tachi ‘hmmmed’ and cast me a knowing look. [My dear I was not referring to my suave companion. I was referring to the paramour in the bag at your feet.]

Kitty blinked. [Atom?]

Tachi put his palm to his sternum. [No? Then I am terribly sorry my dear. It’s just that the two of you have spent nearly every waking moment in each other’s company since we left Melbourne. Oh that is most disappointing, I was looking forward to the service.]

[I was looking forward to the reception.] I chipped in. I looked around us again for any sign of our handler.

Kitty smiled. [Only if you two invite me to yours.]

Tachi exaggerated a sigh. [I’m still waiting to be asked.] He cradled his face on his hands and fluttered his eyes at me.

I shrugged. [I’m still waiting for your dad’s permission. He doesn’t like me.]
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Dust: Chapter 10 Part 2

One house we passed was getting raided by the cops. A heavy armoured car with a ram on the front had busted down the door, tactical officers in navy coveralls and body armour were standing around with their SMGs and assault rifles as the perps were dragged out in handcuffs.

The Raskols pointed and laughed as the cops led their prisoners into the armoured car. A few perps had blood on their faces and vacant looks in their eyes.

The Raskol nearest me stuck his head out of the back of the Unimog and yelled something in pidgin. A couple of the cops turned to scowl disapprovingly at him, one gave him the finger.

None of them seemed to give rat’s arse about the assault weapons our Raskol’s openly displayed or that they seemed to be taking them somewhere specific.

Ten minutes later, the driver slammed on the brakes at a faded zebra crossing. The driver started hurling abuse at someone on the road and then quickly cut himself off when that someone started yelling back.

Kitty looked at me. [What’s going on?]

I shrugged and tried to look through the tiny holes in the flap. I got distracted when I realised they were most likely bullet holes.

The leader Raskol, seated on our side of the flap behind the driver, beckoned to one of his boys, who got up and quietly made his way over to him. The driver opened the door and got out, through one of the holes I thought I could see he held his hands up.

I glanced at Tachi. [Are they getting jacked?]

Tachi wrinkled his nose. [Looks like we should have picked a better escort.]

The truck jacker got behind the wheel and went to close the door. The leader chose that moment to flip up the tarp. Immediately his henchman was on the jacker, wrapping his leather belt around the jacker’s neck and planting his boot in the man’s back while he yanked the belt towards him.

The jacker brought his pistol up to shoot him, but the leader caught his wrist just as the gun was coming up and twisted it out of his hands.

The henchman released his hold on the man’s neck and kicked him out the door.

A single gunshot rang out while the henchman put his belt back on and sat down. In the next minute our driver had resumed his place behind the wheel and put the truck back in gear.

As the truck pulled away I glanced out the back of the land rover, catching sight of the car jacker’s corpse by the side of the road.

The leader said something in pidgin and all the Raskols laughed.

Kitty put her hand to her mouth and gasped. She was as white as a ghost.

Without further incident the Raskols dropped us off at the airport. The Raskol leader bid us a friendly ‘now get da fuck out’ and we left.

From Jacksons international airport we got a flight to Singapore and from there San Francisco. A day later, we were the other side of the pacific.

Suddenly ‘Third world’ and ‘First world’ felt a lot more literal. We walked down a street in Chinatown and actually saw a policeman helping an old lady cross the road.

Speaking of roads, in San Francisco they were paved with hexagonal solar tiles, providing power for the street lights at night. Electric cars outnumbered biodiesel ten to one.

Before we’d even picked out a hotel to stay in Tachi and I checked ourselves into respective clinics and got our arms seen to. Tachi was over and done with in an afternoon. The cybertechnician cut open his Realskin at the shoulder, popped out his stump and replaced it with a new arm before sewing up the cut. Fakeskin was applied to the new arm and over the weeks if Tachi maintained it properly his Realskin would grow back over it.

I was another story. My radius and ulnar both needed to be heavily reinforced, splinted and immobilised in order for the bones to regrow. I threw a lot of money at the Doc to speed up the recovery process. Metallic internal splints were installed along my bones. Kiru had unfortunately snapped them clean in half, so they had to have interlocking teeth cut into them with Nano-machines so that they would slot back into place with each other.

Finally, because I made it very clear I intended to remain physically active after very little rest the doctor added an external splint that locked over my forearm and provided a fair degree of shock absorption. I could still use my hand, but was advised not to wherever possible.

It also meant I could finally turn my pain editor off. Which was like coming back to the office after a long holiday to find your inbox overflowing. My body took the opportunity to introduce me to all the aches, pains and accidents I’d been ignoring since Kiru snapped my arm. I suddenly remembered all the times I’d stubbed my toe and thought I was a gentle bump.

The price for the whole thing was little short of obscene, the doctor offered my lack of health insurance as an explanation. In Australia my facial reconstruction and regrowing all the skin on my back had cost less than that.

It wasn’t just the medical bills that raised my eyebrows. The price for overland travel through the US was outrageous. It took laying my eyes on the coach before I understood. We hadn’t booked a bus, we’d booked a motorcade. Our coach was escorted by four sleek, armoured SUVs with machine-gun turrets built into the roofs. The coach itself was lined with ablative armour which sloped in the middle. Like they were expecting it to shrug off anti-tank rockets.

The weirdest part was how everyone else boarded the coach like nothing was out of the ordinary. One little old darling gave the driver a hard time for not treating her bags like they were made of fine china. I looked at Kitty and Tachi in the hope that I wasn’t the only one who found any of this strange. Tachi raised both his dapper brows and Kitty’s eyes were as big as dinner plates.

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Dust: Chapter 10 Part 1

Chapter 10: Land of the scared, home of the trapped

We knew we’d reached Port Moresby when the subtle vibration of the ship’s engines stopped humming through the container. We knew the customs officials had finally finished their song and dance when a loud metallic thump hit the roof of our box and plucked us off the stack of containers.

We’d wisely put away all of our knives, forks, the gas burner and anything else remotely dangerous when the engines stopped. But still I had to dive for the floor and hold onto the table-leg for support as the crane operator swung the container around like a kid playing with toy nunchucks.

We were lowered just slowly enough to minimise damage to the container. I got the feeling the guy in the crane wasn’t happy at the boss today and was taking it out on the cargo.

We came to a halt on what I hoped was the back of the truck that was supposed to pick us up. I relaxed when a new, smaller vibration started up and the sensation of sideways movement resumed.

Kitty ran straight for the chemical toilet, which annoyed me, but only because she beat me too it.

A good half an hour later the truck carrying us pulled up to a stop and a forklift put us down on the ground.

The next moment the container’s doors were opened and we had our first exposure to sunlight in almost a week. The wave of humidity that hit me in the face immediately made me miss the container.

At first glance it was hard to tell if the guys who let us out were proper paid workers or members of the Raskol gang my smuggler mate was in with. One guy wore a pair of heavy working shorts and a flannel shirt with no buttons, his mate sported a wife-beater and the bottom half of a set of coveralls tied around at the waste with an occy-strap. The mystery solved itself when they pushed right passed me and went straight for our leftover food.

We trundled outside into the yard, or more accurately, the cheapest-looking shipping container residence I’d ever seen. When the idea was first floated to build residential properties out of shipping containers, the short-sighted people who tuned their noses up at the idea were thinking of this.

Containers were stacked four-high around us, some with slapped together wooden staircases leading up to open doors, others with ladders stolen straight from a hardware store either leaning against the crates or welded to the side of the wall. Some people had even bridged gaps between upper levels with a couple of timber planks. A few had stretched sheets of corrugated iron across some gaps to make roofs. A sheet lying between two stacks that was bent right up the middle suggested some idiot had mistaken one for the other.

Kitty stared ashen-faced at the whole scene. Seeing as how laughing at other people was still something she and I could bond over I nudged her elbow. “How many accidents do you reckon they have a year?”

Kitty did not take her eyes off the scene. “With or without the aid of alcohol?”

That was when I noticed the abundance of long-neck bottles strewn around the place.

Tachi pointed out a shipping container with a large window cut out of the front, suggesting it was the head office. “If you are quite done pointing out the shortcomings of others I believe we need to ask there for transportation.”

We approached the office and Tachi politely rapped his knuckles on the doorway before sticking his head inside.

Excuse me gentlemen. Our mutual friend the Mister Lionhead of Singapore tells me that my companions and I would be able to trouble you for assistance with transportation to the airport?”

The half-dozen figures in the ramshackle office/arsenal all turned at once, cigarettes dangling precariously on the edge of lips.

The state of dress from our two dock workers were a good warm-up for these blokes. Flannel, torn cargo pants, faded camouflage fatigues, plastic sunglasses and corn rolls predominated the fashionable Raskol these days. A catholic collection of Kalashnikovs were everywhere within reach and each man visibly displayed a handgun as well. In ages passed the handguns would be home-made zip guns, little better than muskets. While some of them may have been wrapped in gaff tape the outlines of first-generation Glocks were hard to miss.

What fuck you here do?” The one seated behind the desk asked. He leaned back in his seat and flashed us an aggressive smile with betel-nut stained teeth.

Tachi flicked his eyes towards me. [Eloquent.]

Tachi tried again. “We’re friends of Lionhead. We want to go to the airport. We can pay.”

Yah?” The man said as he stood up. “How much?”

Tachi shrugged. “Fifty nuyen.”

Get dah truck.” The man said, snapping his fingers at the nearest of his goons.

I got the impression these guys could stretch a steep cab-fare pretty far.

Kitty and I went back outside while Tachi got their bank details.

One of the Raskols brought an ancient Unimog around and we all climbed in the back. From the amount of gear the boys brought with them you’d think we were launching an offensive. Every seat that wasn’t holding myself, Tachi or Kitty had a Raskol’s arse parked in it and all of them had a Kalashnikov in their hands. As soon as we were ready the leader pulled up the canvas flap separating the driver’s cabin from the tray and barked to get going.

The brief, worried thought of what exactly we were going to do if they turned on us shot through my mind. The leery sideways looks the boys kept giving Kitty did not make me feel better and were clearly making Kitty feel worse. She crossed her arms in front of her and tried to make herself less noticeable between Tachi and I.

Even with both arms I wouldn’t give two nuyen for my chances against the lot of them, I’d want Tachi to be whole to at least make a go of it.

I turned to look out the back of the truck so as not to provoke the Raskols any further. What always surprises me about many developing nations is how much they look a lot like a rural community from a developed country back in the 1970’s. Roads are more likely to be dirt, cars are more likely to be rusty in places and clothes are more worn out (and garish).

According to my Neupro’s GPS we started up north in the suburb of Gerehu, we passed ageing suburban homes with corrugated iron roofs. Despite being 3 in the arvo on a Wednesday almost every house we passed had a bloke sitting out the front in the shade, he was either chewing betel-nut or sucking down a cold one. Most of them were on their own, though a few of the younger ones had their mates over for a chat. Presumably the womenfolk were out the back, doing all the actual work.
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