Dust Chapter 14 Part 1

Chapter 14: Quiet on the home front

I don’t know what Flint, Michigan was like back in its heyday, if in fact it had a heyday once. But I took one look at it and was convinced I’d be safer back in Port Moresby.

PR’s people met us at the Hoverport, which like the one at Dalhart was a couple of derelict warehouses on the outskirts of an abandoned town that had been converted into hangars. Which just went to show how organised the underground smuggling and transport network was. If you wanted to get anywhere or move anything within the martial law states and you didn’t want the military in on it, you went by hovercraft.

My wounds were light enough that Tachi hadn’t had any real trouble stabilising me. A quick application of spray-skin and a tightly wrapped bandage kept me from bleeding out. But I had still lost a lot of blood. Fortunately the Bag-o-Doctor also contained some plasma pills. I remembered when those things were first introduced half-way through the Austral-Indo war. You know you’re living in the future when the stop-gap measure for massive blood loss is to pop two pills and wait for them to stimulate your bones into producing a rapid increase in fresh blood (that and keep drinking your orange juice kid).

In the meantime I was still feeling very woozy. A visit to a real doctor was still in the cards.

PR’s personal Humvee was a little something else. It would have looked less out of place in an RnB music video or as the ride of an African despot. This thing had been stretched out to include a pimped-out shag-upholstered interior and the exterior was all metallic stars and stripes with the presidential seal on the hood.

The roads here were worse than Port Moresby. Maintenance had obviously ended with civilian justice in this state. The highest burned-out vehicle per square mile ratio (some of which were still on fire) wasn’t doing them any favours either. But on top of both of those was the amount of debris on the road. Not just old newspapers and tin cans, but fucking house-bricks in some places. We saw more than one shanty-town made of corrugated steel and cardboard built amongst the ruins of what had been shop-fronts and office buildings, back when they had all four walls and a complete roof over the top.

And then there was…

Oh my God.” Kitty said. “That child is defecating on the side of the street, ohmygodthat’sdisgustingwhereareherparentsI’mgoing tothrowup.

Yeah. There was that. That happened.

[Why is that child doing that?] Atom asked. [Why does it upset Kitty so much?]

[Probably because she’s going in the gutter on the side of a busy street.]

Atom thought about this for a second. [That sounds sensible enough, it should get washed away next time it rains. Why does she object to it?]

[Probably because two states ago we were walking the halls of a top-flight medical clinic and within the same country we have a little girl who doesn’t even have access to a working toilet.]

We encountered an armed patrol on our way. They may have painted the Humvees blue and slapped the word ‘POLICE’ on the side, but the armed soldiers in fully-enclosed armour weren’t fooling anyone.

As one every visored face turned to glare at PR’s motorcade. Whichever force this was hadn’t learned that when you’re conducting peacekeeping ops friendly faces and a human appearance are more important than air conditioned comfort and gas protection. The gunner on the remote turret up top swung the heavy barrels of a pair of .50-cal machine guns in our direction. PR gestured to one of his Deadmen, a cyborg with a grotesque skull mask for a face. Skullface opened up a panel in the back revealing an M72 light rocket launcher.

But nothing happened. PR’s motorcade sat tight and the patrol rolled past. PR glanced at Skullface and the rocket launcher was stowed away again.

I looked at PR. “What the fuck are they up against that your cops need all that gear?

Me.” PR smirked. “Me and the other slum lords. And they ain’t cops, they US Army. Under all that armour they’re still flesh. That’s why they didn’t go rock ‘n roll on us. They know better.”

Really?” I asked. “Because those twin .50’s looked ready to go.”

Oh they’d rip us a new asshole. No doubt.” PR said. “But then the whole street would know it was on. Word travels fast when you’re unemployed and your kids got no school to be at. Soon everyone with a gun and a grudge against The Man would be popping off shots at them and running away. They’ve got the weapons, but they don’t got a bullet for every man, woman and child in the ‘hood.”

“That.” PR went on. “And the army boys and girls have wised up. They know that whenever they tangle with the ghetto, it always gains something. Guns, ammo, food, these Humvees, even my Deadmen, all that shit gets picked up by some kid or somebody with a tow-truck and sold onto someone who can use it. The Army knows that now, so they try and keep their action to a minimum, lest we be strutting around with their gear next time they see us.”

That was interesting, obviously the policy of ‘denying the enemy’ by burning everything down with thermate wasn’t working that well out here.

Tachi looked over from where he’d been sitting. “But the PMC’s are another matter?”

The smile retreated from PR’s face. “Yeah. They are.”

That was something else I hadn’t heard of. South-East Asia is my normal theatre of operations, so I’d managed to miss what was going on in this hemisphere.

Still, a counter-revolutionary war against their own citizens, prosecuted by private military forces with no independent oversight did not sound like it was going to end well and sure as shit didn’t sound like it was going to end soon.

Dust?” Tachi nudged me. “Are you okay?”

I realised I’d closed my eyes for a few seconds without meaning to. I snapped my eyes open and took a breath. “Yeah I’m fine.”

PR looked out the window, but didn’t seem to be focusing on anything. “The PMC’s move around by helicopter. They drop their teams right on top of their objective and just start shooting anything that moves. They mostly go after the other ‘Slum Lords’, that’s what they call people like me. People who are just trying to pull Flint up by its bootstraps.

The distant sound of an AK emptying its magazine at something interrupted him.

Course, the authorities ain’t the only problems out here.”

At least they’re still conducting proper patrols.” I said. “Good to see the US Army hasn’t completely forgotten its field craft.”

PR shook his head. “That weren’t no patrol. Only unmanned drones patrol these streets. They’re either bomb disposal or there’s someone they want a word with.”

How’d it get this bad?” Kitty asked.

Everyone’s got their theories. Right-wingers say the Daniels Administration was too soft on crime. Lefties point the finger at the dismantling of state welfare. Me? I say we were on this track when we first went libertarian. Things keep going this way and we’ll see a lot more of this all across the country.”

I didn’t know enough about the political situation around here to comment on that. But my mind flashed me an image on the back of my eyelids of the fortified border around Oregon. It felt good to close my eyes, so I decided to keep them that way.

I’m almost afraid to ask.” Tachi began, “But exactly how bad is it out here compared to other states?”

PR though about it for a second. “You got Michigan, Illinois, Tennessee and Mississippi. They all declared martial law over the past four years. And things have only gotten worse since. There’s no civilian government, no cops, no schools, no postal service, hospitals you can only visit if the army has a cot free and nobody doing anything about keeping the streets clean or…”

Man it felt good to have my eyes closed.
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Dust Chapter 13 Part 4

[Get the doors.] I told Tachi. [Sooner or later one of those rounds is going to find Kitty or PR.]

[Some already came close.] PR informed us. [We got us a holy-windshield now.]

[Well a second ago he was trying to make the van a convertible.]

Tachi waited for SS to change mags then dashed out and grabbed the doors. A couple of bursts got him square in the face before he got them closed. SS emptied ammo wildly into the back of the van after that. PR’s words were a bit late, the van was already pretty holy.

We gained a lot more ground on SS before we reached the Marina. I could still see him in the distance, once we brought the van to a halt that distance would shrink rapidly.

The thunder of a massive engine told us the hovercraft was on its way. Kitty darted her eyes around. [Where’s the hov…]

Then our pilot screamed in from the river, mounted the ramp and spun the craft right around so that the wide side door opened up in front of us.

PR jammed on the breaks. [Everybody out.]

[Don’t forget anything important.] I said, holstering my PD9 and grabbing the 240.

Kitty grabbed Atom from the cabin, threw open the passenger door and legged it for the craft. PR followed her.

Tachi grabbed Rembrandt and guided him to stand.

[I got him.] I said [You keep Seriously-pissed-off Sentinel off our backs.]

Tachi opened the back door and stepped outside. Sliding both swords out of their sheaths as he touched pavement.

[Can you hear me Rembrandt?] I asked.

[I hear you. You been shaking me around a lot, what’s going on?]

[I need you to stand and follow me out, stay low-though, you’re still in the van.]

Guiding Rembrandt out of the van was annoyingly awkward. I had to lead him by feel.

[Who’s that?] Rembrandt suddenly asked when his foot slipped on Duke’s shin.

[Just keep going. Company’s on the way.]

I kept alternating my view from Tachi, to the entrance to the Marina and to the hovercraft. My mind told me that at the first sign of SS to just let Rembrandt go and leg it for the exit.

Then I saw Psycho Sentinel jump down from the roof of the boathouse and land a few metres from Tachi. Tachi dashed towards him.

[Shit, he’s here.] I exclaimed, and put my arm around Rembrandt’s back and pushed him. [Move it mate. We gotta go.]

SS snapped up a pistol at Tachi and pulled the trigger.

Tachi was already slicing the gun in half, separating the slide from everything beneath it.

SS responded by palming Tachi in the face with the hand holding the pistol before Tachi could take his next swing.

Tachi was forced back a step while SS followed up with a gut-punch. Then he opened his fist, dropped the broken pistol and grabbed a handful of Tachi’s fatigues before firing his in-built taser on its overcharge setting.

The crackling burst of electricity fried every circuit in Tachi’s fatigues. They were already full of holes form the rounds he’d taken, but the overcharge shot off-lined the entire unit, his fatigues returned to their native black, the section SS had been holding gaining a glassy tint from the excessive heat.

Tachi himself suffered third degree burns in various places on his Realskin. It added a hint of fried chicken smell to the air.

Tachi dropped to one knee, a sword dropping from his grasp.

I froze mid-stride, while Rembrandt heedlessly ran on.

Tachi!”

Silver Sentinel looked up at me, the retractable mouth-shield he’d raised to protect his ‘community policing’ face had been damaged somewhere along the way, allowing me to see the grin he flashed when he saw me.

I dropped the empty 240 and reached for my PD9

SS snapped up his pistol and squeezed a burst into me.

I hadn’t even gotten the gun out of its harness.

At first I’d thought he’d missed, then my pain editor blanked out all feeling entirely, leaving me completely numb. I felt my shoulder sag involuntarily and my legs became weak.

I gasped. And tasted blood. I must have bit my tongue.

Then Tachi put his head up, grabbed the Sentinel’s ankle with his free hand and sliced his shin in half with his sword.

The smile disappeared from the cyborg’s face.

A quarter-ton of cyborg hit the ground before I did.

Tachi stood up and planted his heel on SS’ gun wrist, before it too was sliced off. Then he turned back towards the hovercraft and saw me. He baulked.

Dust?” Tachi exclaimed. Ending the longest round of Marco-Polo we’ve ever played.

He dashed over to me, completely forgetting about his other sword, grabbed hold of my rescue strap (what the hell did we have to do before they added them to fatigues?) and snatched me off the ground. He sheathed his sword and transferred me to a proper cradle position.

No.” I mumbled. Completely disregarding the very real chance I might bleed to death. “This isn’t homo-erotic at all.”

Fortunately, internal monologues are exactly that. Tachi got me inside the hovercraft and laid me down on the space between the chairs. PR hit the button for the doors to close behind him.

[Strap yourself in.] PR told Tachi. Outside the pilot was already taxiing us out of the marina and into the open water. Inside it was far too loud for ordinary conversation. [We need to hit the jets and get out of here.]

[He needs medical attention.]

The pilot jumped into the cype. [There’s a Bag-o-Doctor in the back by the bunk. If you can wait until we’re over state lines you can treat him then. If you can’t then when we’re all arrested maybe Night Watch can drop him back at the same hospital you ripped off.]

[But he’d get medical attention?] Tachi asked.

[That was supposed to be sarcastic. I thought you could tell.]

[Don’t be an idiot Tachi.] I said [Just strap me in so we can get out of here.]

Tachi growled under his breath and did as I asked, before he strapped himself into the furthest chair and looked away.

[Alright.] The pilot began [Now that the seat belts are fastened and the tray tables are up we will proceed to our destination at something approaching the speed of sound. Sit down, shut up and hang on.]

Then she hit the after burner.

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Dust Chapter 13 Part 3

I stuck my head out the window and saw. High above us, hanging from a zip line was our Scratch-and-dent Sentinel. He wasn’t in a hurry to go home tonight.

Air One moved over the highway and came in low, following right behind us, but also dangling Night Watch’s toy cyborg in Templar Protection’s face.

A smirk tugged at my lips. I pulled my head back in.

[How’s the eye Duke?]

[Gone.] He replied, attaching another belt to the one already loaded. [But the other one works just fine.]

[Good. I need you to have another go at shooting down that helicopter.]

By the time Duke got the back door open and hung himself out the side, Templar Protection had added another couple of squad cars to our tail.

Tachi grabbed hold of the bench seat with one hand and the webbing crossed over Duke’s back with the other, steadying the big borg as he did his best to aim.

Duke’s tactic for compensating for his lack of depth perception was to deliberately aim off to the side of Air One and sweep his fire across target.

Air One banked away as the tracer crept closer, swinging around the sentinel underneath.

Duke noticed a better target as he did so and unloaded the rest of the belt at and around the tail-rotor.

A couple of rounds must have done the job as Air One swung violently back the other way and eased off the throttle after that. Seen-better-days Sentinel snapped his head up and gestured angrily at the pilot for a few seconds, when it became clear the pilot was going to bring her down, SS let go.

Even over the roaring sirens the sound of 250 kilos of armour and cyborg hitting the pavement still made Kitty stick her head out the window.

What the hell was that?”
I already had a clear view out the back door. “We’re about to see his top sprinting speed.”

What does it think that’s going to achieve?” Tachi asked. “If it had the speed to catch us it would have done so in the suburbs.”

SS didn’t seem to care, he dropped down into a sprinter’s crouch and took off after us. Behind him Templar Protection gunned their engines again. They’d backed off a little when Duke opened up on the helicopter, now that both of their objectives were on the ground in front of them they manned up.

SS’s thighs opened and he had his pistols out and blazing an instant later.

I crouched down tight behind Rembrandt again, who was still sitting perfectly upright, cradling his head in his hands. God only knows what he thought was happening this whole time.

Tachi turned to one side and covered his chest with his arms as the barrage tore through the van.

Duke ignored it and went back to reloading the 240.

Then one round punched through a crack in Duke’s armour and pierced his biopod. The belt dropped from his fingers as his body immediately stilled. His eye locked forward, staring at the exact point he’d been looking at the moment the bullet went through.

It was only when the vibrations from the engine caused his body to topple forward like a statue that any of us became aware he’d died.

Tachi reached out for him and managed to catch hold of the rescue strap on his left shoulder as he fell out. Tachi had to drop down to his knees to catch him and Duke’s body still hit the road. Tachi reattached the carbine in his other hand to the magnet on Duke’s back and got his other arm around Duke’s waist.

The rubber on Duke’s boots had already begun to grind away as Tachi heaved with all his strength to lift him back into the van.

Out on the road, SS had speed-loaded both pistols and had resumed his barrage. Tachi stood Duke up again and held him up as a shield. Snatching the carbine off his back to return fire.

I did the same with my PD-9 behind Rembrandt.

SS rushed through our fire undaunted. The high-velocity 9mm and armour-piercing 5.56mm bouncing off harmlessly. It wouldn’t have been out of place for him to puff his chest out and smile.

Then Atom’s voice appeared in my head.

[Why don’t you shoot at the cars behind him?]

I hesitated, my finger hovering over the trigger. [Good idea mate. Tachi, shoot at the cars behind him.]

Tachi loaded another magazine from the stash hanging off his shield and did just that. I turned my SMG out to the massive wave of squad cars and squeezed off a long burst. We swept our fire back and forth, until the rounds caused one of Templar Protection’s people to freak out and swerve right into the squad car beside them. Spreading out only three ranks wide and several ranks deep now worked against them. As the front row were forced to a sudden stop the next rows slammed on the brakes.

Night Watch would later get in the ear of one of their news affiliates and ran a report claiming over a dozen cars rammed up the back of each other, bringing the entire pursuit to a standstill.

All except their Somewhat beaten-up Sentinel, who continued to lose ground to our van’s roaring engine.

PR took us down the last off-ramp and towards the marina. I breathed a sigh of relief. We out-paced SS on the highway and used that to gain a lot of ground. If he’d been chasing us in the twisting streets of upper-class suburbia he could cut across spaces we couldn’t and move directly towards us while we had to follow the roads.

I leaned back in my seat and glanced out the window looking up at the highway.

And saw a tall, dark figure vault off the side of the wall and plummet down into the gap between the highway and the not-so affordable housing.

[He’s still on us.]

[It.] Tachi and Atom corrected in unison.

[Oh for the love of… Do you really think now is the time?]

The resounding NO answer came in the form of a loud metallic ‘THUMP’ and the entire van swaying to the right suddenly.

[Oh Shit!] PR yelled. [He’s on our back.]

Tachi looked in the direction of the thump and saw it. A set of chromed metallic fingers had punched through the van’s soft bodywork and dug in for grip.

Tachi pushed Duke’s body into the seat behind him and drew his swords. He stabbed both of them back through the body of the van and with a quick circle separated the one piece SS was holding onto from the rest of the van.

SS came away from us and fell to the road, bouncing and rolling as he forcibly decelerated. Miraculously he corrected his roll, stood back up out of it and resumed sprinting after us.

[This may be redundant, but he’s, still, after us.] I told PR and Kitty.

I holstered my SMG and picked Duke back up. Tachi joined me as Smashed-up Sentinel got his guns out and started peppering the van with ammo again.
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Dust Chapter 13 Part 2

Kitty’s vidwindow appeared next to my head. [Templar Protection are closing in.]

[How far off are they?] I asked.

[They just turned down our street.]

Duke let rip on Silver Sentinel. At the same time SS snapped up both his pistols and returned fire.

The first burst tore a chunk out of Duke’s head, destroying his right eye. Tachi had already ducked back inside the van to reload.

Duke kept pouring on the lead, but it was barely making a dent. When SS closed to ten metres he put his pistols back in his thighs. Duke tossed Tachi the 240 aside and got down into a low wrestling stance.

[Oh you’ve got to be kidding me. Duke get in the fucking…]

I didn’t even get to finish the sentence when the two cyborgs collided. Everyone in the street heard that crash. With a grin on his face a kay wide Duke hurled himself at SS at the last moment. For a fraction of the second they remained in my line of sight I couldn’t help but wonder if they were reliving their high school football days.

Regardless, Silver Sentinel just had too much weight (and run up) on Duke and took him down.

Tachi drew his monofilament swords and jumped out.

I yelled after him [For fuck’s sake we’re trying to get away.]

The blaring sirens outside told me Templar Protection had arrived before Kitty could update me.

[You want I should just hit the gas and get us outta here?] PR asked.

[Don’t tempt a tired man.]

Kitty was less happy. [Templar Protection are almost on top of us. Get moving.]

Silver Sentinel must have had the same rear-mounted cybereyes Kiru had. He interrupted his ground and pound on Duke as soon as Tachi got anywhere near him. Pushed down on Duke’s chest to free his legs from the mount and half-cartwheel away. He landed in a low stance, ready to shoot for a tackle.

Tachi sized him up, keeping his swords loose and ready to move.

Then one of Templar Protection’s heavily armoured squad cars rammed straight into Silver Sentinel.

Atom’s voice came over the cype. [I told Templar Protection that one of Night Watch’s sentinels went rogue and there’s a bounty on him.]

[You did what?] I blinked. [Good work son].

Tachi wasted a precious second blinking as it registered that his second biggest problem just took care of his first. Then he sheathed his swords, hooked his arms under Duke’s armpits and dragged the borg back into the van.

I yelled at PR “Punch it!”

[Too late.] Kitty said. [They’ve cordoned off the area, they’re deploying road spikes…]

[Don’t worry. I see a short cut.]

PR stepped on the pedal and the poor, slave-driven van roared in protest as it got moving. PR aimed her away from Templar Protection’s cordon, away from the road entirely, mounted the curb and took us out over the soccer field.

Out the back door I saw Silver Sentinel pull himself out from under the squad car, grab hold of it by its bumper and flip the whole thing like a tractor tire at a cross-fit gym.

Which was good, because it drew all of Templar Protection’s small-arms fire away from us. SS ignored them and stared out at our retreating form for a moment before breaking into a sprint after us.

Close that door.” I shouted.

Duke grabbed the handle and yanked the door down. The rounds Templar Protection missed SS with punched into the back of our van. I got down behind Rembrandt and curled into a ball, trying to make myself as small as possible.

A stray round slipped through and pelted into my arm anyway. My pain editor told me to just ignore it.

[Almost there] PR said [I need someone to shoot out the emergency barrier.]

Tachi stuck his head out the window. He saw the low, red emergency barrier padlocked shut. He levelled the carbine and fired. When that round missed he tried two more times.

[Stop if you have to PR.] Kitty screamed down the cype. [Don’t you dare try and ram it.]

[One moment please.] Tachi said like he was checking his watch.

Tachi fired his last shot, paused to admire his work and pulled himself back inside.

A second later I heard the skirts of the van scrape the curb as we re-joined the world of asphalt roads.

Scratch-finish Sentinel had gained a little distance on us. Now that we were back on a surface the van was built to handle the tires found purchase and rolled the machine back up to 90.

[So now what?] PR asked.

[Get us back on the highway, head straight for the Lakeway Marina. Let your pilot know we’re on our way and we’re expecting guests.]

Kitty added her two yen. [Silver Sentinel’s recalling Air One. He’s still on us.]

[And we’ve still got Tachi and Duke.] I said. [Let’s handle one problem at a time.]

[It might not be enough.] Kitty replied. [Night Watch’s formally offering their assistance.]

Templar Protection lacked a lot of the resources that Night Watch boasted. Air units and Robocops being key examples, they also lacked sufficient patrol units on the ground to respond to situations like this. For normal everyday policing I’m sure they were fine. But as soon as a major emergency like us propped up the cracks began to appear. They had to pull a lot of units off their regular patrols to deal with us. We were a problem that required a widespread police response. A municipal police force can call on units from other precincts to take over regular patrols while they pour everything they have into an emergency.

We got an idea exactly how large this response was when we got onto the highway. More Templar Protection squad cars joined our pursuit at every on-ramp we passed.

[It’s like something out of a three-stooges sketch.] PR said, glancing at the number of flashing lights in his mirror.

[They’ve told Night Watch where they can stick it.] Kitty said.

[Maybe we’ll get lucky and they’ll recall the Sentinel.] I said, expressing an optimism I didn’t feel. [If Templar Protection’s puffing their chest out, it’s in Night Watch’s best interest if they fail.]

Kitty pointed to the sky. [Tell that to him.]
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Dust Chapter 13 Part 1

Chapter 13: Last exit from Dodge for 40 Miles

Our night was far from over.

The van was barely out the gates when a Night Watch patrol sighted us and turned on the flashing lights. PR put the pedal to the metal, the engine roared, the revs climbed and we still struggled to push past 90 kph.

I lay exhausted on the back seat, Tachi infrequently glancing a concerned look my way. Duke guided Rembrandt’s head into his hands and closed his fingers around it. Then he pulled out his carbine and made his way to the back of the van.

Tachi grabbed Duke’s wrist.

Don’t.”

Man why bring me if y’all don’t want me to shoot nobody?”

Because it’s just one car.” Tachi said. “As soon as you open fire they’ll call more.”

Chill Duke.” PR ordered from the front cabin. “We’re almost there.”

PR swung us around a tight corner and everything in the back listed to the right, Duke juggled the carbine between his hands and grabbed the seat to steady himself.

What’s Kitty doing?” I rasped.

Cype her yourself. I gotta keep my eyes on the road.”

Atom answered before I needed to repeat myself. [We’ve just finished off Night Watch’s first responders in the Clinic’s system. We’re about to take Patriot Rap’s back door into Night Watch itself.]

[Get into the dispatch network and start throwing out disinformation. Don’t dick around fighting their IC.]

There it is.” PR cried gleefully.

In case Night Watch caught up with us our escape route cut right through West Austin, where Templar Protection were contracted to uphold the law. A history of undercutting each other’s contracts and the pain of the Sunset Valley siege still fresh in everyone’s mind made the two private agencies undeniably hostile to each other. It also helped that one of the night shift nurses lived in West Austin. We’d stolen her plate-tag to give us the authorisation we needed to enter.

PR floored the pedal and got the van up to 120 as we passed through the checkpoint. Leaving Night Watch barking impotently at the gates.

YES!” PR let go of the wheel and pumped his fists in the air.

Slow down.” Kitty said, her eyes still focused on the digital world inside her head. “They’re redirecting Air One your way. Try not to stick out.”

Yeah good luck. Our beaten up, shit-brown delivery van was now cruising the highway over Westlake Hills. Amongst this many Mercs and Beamers we may as well have tried pulling a woolly blanket over the van and pretending we were a giant sheep.

The original plan was to skip over to West Austin and change vans for a rental we’d parked outside a school. Using the time Night Watch would have to waste contacting Templar Protection and letting them know a bounty matching our description had escaped into their territory. I had no doubt Night Watch would be quick to send that information to Templar. I was equally certain Templar Protection would drag their feet in answering it. As soon as they knew the stakes they’d pull their finger out, but until they read the contents, it was just a message from someone they didn’t like.

Air One violating Templar Protection’s airspace to provide them with up-to-the minute location info was a move we had not anticipated. It made our attempts to cry wolf and throw NW off the scent meaningless.

Tachi.” I groaned, trying to be heard over the rotor blades overhead. “Duke. Get that thing out of my sky.” I was tired and kept trying to speak instead of cype.

Tachi extended a hand towards Duke. “I think it best if I take the carbine while you get the 240 ready to go.”

Duke nodded, the corners of his mouth turning up.

We’re coming up on the school.” PR announced.”

Skip the school.” I tried to yell. “They already know it’s us, it won’t help.”

But PR was already pulling into the car park.

From overhead Air One’s pilot hit the speaker button. “YOU IN THE VAN. TEMPLAR PROTECTION ARE ON THEIR WAY. STEP OUT OF THE VEHICLE WITH YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR. TRY ANYTHING CUTE AND I’LL GET THE REAL COPS ON YOUR ASS!”

I wised up and switched to cype. [Alright Duke, could you go and politely tell that helicopter to piss off?]

Duke shot me a look over his shoulder and nodded at me. He picked up the M240 from beside Rembrandt, loaded in a 50-round belt and attached another to the end of the first. When PR pulled the van up to a stop Tachi opened the back door for him and trained a carbine up at Air One.

This is gonna be fun.” Duke said as he stepped out.

OH SHIT!” The pilot said, forgetting the speaker was on. He banked away violently as Duke pointed his machinegun at the sky and threw lightning back up to the gods. The drop in light levels outside told me he at least took out the searchlight on the ‘copter’s underside.

Then, because apparently this pilot was smart enough to fly an aircraft, but not enough to button off the loudspeaker we heard him say. “DEPLOYING SILVER SENTINEL.”

De… What?” I said.

The Silver Sentinels were Night Watch’s Cybersquad. A division of six-foot, armour-plated, arrest machines. At Night Watch the joke went ‘One Riot, One Robocop.’ Parodying the unofficial Texas Rangers’ motto. Keeping one on their air units meant they’d upgraded their mission parameters to include ‘instant crisis response’.

The Silver Sentinel threw out a zip line and jumped clear of the helicopter, slowing his decent by clamping his hand loosely around the rope as it slipped through his grasp. Meanwhile he drew his sidearm from the compartment in his thigh and opened fire on our van as he dropped.

The high-impact gel rounds hammered into the side of the van, forcing me to flinch and Kitty and PR to duck down with their arms over their heads. “Holy shit, what the hell is that?” Kitty screamed.

Duke opened the breech and gestured to Tachi for another belt, who passed him one and opened fire with the carbine while Duke reloaded the 240.

Silver Sentinel hit the asphalt, speed-loaded his sidearm from a clip dispenser in his hip, drew his second sidearm and charged. Running headlong into Tachi’s assault rifle ammo which pinged harmless off his polished metallic exterior.

Duke raked back the action and chambered his first round.
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Dust Chapter 12 Part 7

The next instant she’d gained mount. I fought to put my back to the ground. When I was sunning side up again Kiru reached down and tore the hood from my face, clearing away the remains of my tech specs. I forgot myself and opened my eyes to see her straddling me. She cast aside my hood and smiled. Her fingers spread wide.

A flash of titanium later and I saw that hand drop down towards me, free from its owner from below the shoulder down.

I pulled my head aside as Kiru’s arm hit the floor. Accidentally putting it right where Kiru was placing her other arm to support herself for her retaliation. Kiru planted her weight on my face, reared up a leg and piston-kicked Tachi away.

As Kiru pulled her hand away from my face to finish me off I saw the lab doors slide open and Rembrandt and Duke strode in.

Rock and roll muthafucka.” Rembrandt yelled as he shouldered the general purpose machine gun and opened up at Kiru.

The big 7.62mm NATO rounds thumped out of the two-forty like hits from a pro-boxer on the speed bag. Kiru rolled off me and behind an operating bed while the rounds cracked passed my face.

Rembrandt walked the fire towards Kiru’s bed, giving me the safety I needed to crawl the fuck away. I stayed low because I saw Duke flanking to the right, barking shots out of his twin carbines as he circled around.

Then I heard the familiar ‘Hisss’ of a piston, only it was louder and it came from behind Rembrandt.

Rembrandt’s body pitched forward, while his head got pulled back a second later and I saw the two separate from each other.

Hairguy jumped around Rembrandt’s body while he reloaded his arm, Crocman grabbed Rembrandt’s body before he could fall over completely.

Duke split his attention, his right gun staying on Kiru’s operating bed, while his left took aim at Crocman.

Crocman lifted Rembrandt’s body under his armpits and charged straight at Duke. Kiru broke cover and joined him.

Duke sized up his two targets and opened up on Kiru, unable to bring himself to shoot Rembrandt’s torso. Hairguy locked his arm in position and heard the gas recharge, just in time for Tachi to swing down and take the arm off his body. Hairguy looked up at Tachi in shock, before Tachi added his head to the scattered limbs rolling on the floor.

Kiru dropped down beneath Duke’s fire and fired both piston-heels, launching herself at Duke’s knees.

Duke dived out of the way of her wires and onto a hospital trolley. The rubber wheels screeched as the trolley pitched away. Duke turned over to his back and the whole thing shook as it tried to make up its mind to tip over or not. Duke opened fire with both carbines, catching Crocman in the flank before he could swing Rembrandt’s body around to shield himself.

Kiru moved behind Crocman, reaching out with her remaining arm to vault over him and kick one of Duke’s carbines out of his hands.

Then Tachi appeared behind Crocman, who suddenly didn’t have any legs. Crocman dropped like a lamppost hit by a drunk driver, Rembrandt’s significant weight crashing down on top of him.

Duke pulled his remaining gun back to keep it out of Kiru’s kicking range, only to see it bisected on the diagonal by a wave of her hand.

Before she could follow it up Tachi came at her with the monosword again.

Kiru saw Tachi coming and fired her heels, leaping into an elongated back-flip to gain distance.

Duke threw himself off the trolley to retrieve his other carbine.

Kiru landed like an autumn leaf on wet grass and quickly took in the situation. Duke snatched up his weapon and began speed-loading a fresh mag into it.

Tachi formed up against her, flourishing his twin swords.

Kiru grit her teeth, gave me one last cold stare, then turned and ran for the window.

Duke chambered his first round and opened fire.

Tachi reached out a hand towards him “Wait.”

Kiru neither heard, nor cared. She dived into a roll as Duke’s fire passed overhead and smashed into the tempered glass. When she rolled up onto her feet she took to the air again and amidst the last of his ammo she fired both pistons into the glass. The impact threw her away from the window before the final rounds made it shatter. She flipped back onto her feet and dived through the debris into the night beyond.

We were on the third floor.

Iie!” Tachi yelled. Running towards the hole, he dropped his swords and they stuck into the floor.

Tachi reached the window and looked out.

Duke reloaded his carbine and reached for Rembrandt’s body, helping him to his feet. He looked at Tachi. “The hell is wrong with you?”

Tachi turned back to him and growled. “She’s my sister, you half-wit.”

That made about as much sense to Duke as could be expected. “The Fuck?”

Duke shrugged it off and guided Rembrandt towards his head.

I wasn’t really in the mood for standing anymore, but doubted anyone was going to stretcher me out of here. I looked around for my arm and gave myself a great view for what a clumsily-dissected human brain looks like.

I looked up at the screen, still displaying Noodles’ avatar with that glazed look in its eyes. Like he was high as a kite.

At least you look peaceful.” I croaked.

Dust!” Tachi saw me and ran over. “Are you all right?”

No.” I said. Then the sound of distant sirens reached our ears and I found new energy. “Definitely no. Everyone grab everything you brought in, we’re leaving.”

Duke put Rembrandt’s head in his hands and helped him out. Tachi policed up his swords, I made the decision to take my PD9 over my own arm and we staggered out.

We’d made it all the way to the van before I realised we’d left Crocman and Hairguy still alive in the lab.
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Dust Chapter 12 Part 6

When they automatically retracted, one of the lines was pulled taunt for a second before pulling a slice of brain loose from the rest.

Then the entire biopod and its contents fell into a pile of neatly diced pieces.

I watched in horror as Noodles died. His avatar went rigid and I saw the intelligence drain away from his eyes, leaving an unblinking model where an animate person once stood.

Kiru slowly turned towards me, her whole body shook with building fury, like at any moment the coat on her shoulders would burst into flames.

Then without warning she violently yanked her head backwards as the tip of Tachi’s left sword shot out at her temple. Tachi pushed the blade passed her face and pulled it back, trying to take her head off on the reverse.

Kiru bobbed under the blade and Tachi swung around with his second sword. Kiru pulled back this time and the tip of his blade missed her throat by an inch.

Kiru pranced towards him and waved with her cutting fingers again. When Tachi blocked them with his sword, she jumped away, recoiling her fingers as they wrapped around his blade.

Quickly Tachi twirled the sword with the strings so they couldn’t catch and rip it from his hand.

The lines retracted and Kiru danced around Tachi some more before jumping forward and shooting out her strings again. Tachi came in with both swords, brushing aside the strings with one while swinging at her neck with the other.

Kiru ducked under the blade, grabbed Tachi’s collar, dropped so low she got her shoulder under his groin and threw him over her.

Tachi spread his fingers out around the handles and caught himself before he hit the ground, kicking his legs over to flip around to his feet again. He threw a back kick at her which Kiru parried on her way up. Tachi brought the foot back down and pivoted on it to bring his sword around.

Kiru threw her strings out at him, then as Tachi caught the wires, she shot out a spinning back-kick into his solar-plexus. She fired her heel just as she made contact.

The impact knocked Tachi off his feet and sent one of his mono blades clattering off towards the door. The force of the blast affected Kiru as much as Tachi, but she’d obviously tried this move before as she directed the force into a rotation and pirouetted on the spot.

Tachi pulled himself back up by the aid of a metal hospital trolley before hoisting it off the ground and hurling it at her. Using it as a distraction while he went to retrieve his other sword.

Kiru dive-rolled under the trolley and closed with her brother, not even slowing down.

Without the time to pick it up, Tachi stomped his foot on the monosword’s handle and slid it back behind him, the blade rotating around the grip at just below ankle-height. Kiru leapt to avoid the spinning blade taking off her feet and turned the leap into a flying kick at Tachi’s chest.

Until Tachi grabbed her ankle while she was still airborne, yanked her right out of her flight path, caught her again at the chin and slammed her head into the floor.

Kiru took the impact and was moving again in a second. She grabbed the arm holding her with both hands and did a break-dancing spin on the cracked ceramic floor. Putting her at tops and tails with her brother. From there she fired the piston on her first heel, smashing that foot into Tachi’s face like a sledgehammer. Her other foot caught up with the first and fired its heel into Tachi’s face.

Tachi rocked back and stumbled until he fell flat on his arse. The realskinn over half his chin was missing, torn away from the hit. He held the same amount of Kiru’s coat in his hand.

Kiru stood back up and shrugged off the rest of the coat. It fell to the floor revealing the black satin corset underneath and the garter I’d seen earlier. I found Noodles’ story a lot harder to doubt.

<Well.>” Kiru said to Tachi, her voice softening. “<Looks like we’re even now. You’ve killed my lover and I’ve killed yours.>”

Tachi locked his eyes tight onto his sister’s face. “<So it would seem.>”

Kiru sighed. “<Father still wants you to come back. With… him gone you don’t really have anything keeping you away any more.>”

<Self-preservation is reason enough for me.>” Tachi said. “<It would be suicide to betray my employers.>”

Kiru snorted quietly. “<So now you understand what loyalty is. If you had learned that before you met ‘him’, you wouldn’t have thrown your life away.>”

Tachi chuckled and picked himself up off the ground. Discarding the torn piece of Kiru’s coat as he did so. “<Leaving, dear sister, didn’t ruin my life. It started it.>”

Kiru grit her teeth. “<Tell me why?>” She growled. <Why are you so ready to die for this ‘contract’, when you couldn’t stick by your own family?>”

<You do not attain victory by dying for the job.>” Tachi smiled and raised his sword again. “<You get it by making the other guy die for theirs.>”

<Well said mate.>” I grinned.

Kiru whipped her head around to see me, seething rage pumping back into her face. While Tachi kept her talking, she hadn’t noticed me sneak behind her to retrieve Tachi’s other sword.

<Why won’t you just DIE?”>

<I dunno.>” I smirked and raised the sword at her. “<Maybe you’re not trying hard enough?>”

Kiru bared her teeth at me, set her heel in the ground and launched off it. Tachi sprinted after her.

I hefted the ultralight weapon over my head and hurled it at Kiru.

Kiru dropped down to her knees and arched her head back, limbo-sliding under the blade, which stabbed into the floor behind her until Tachi plucked it out on his way through.

Kiru popped up again from her slide, putting her face right into the path of my boot. Kiru paid me back by shooting out her long, sleek legs and trapping my ankle between them. With a flick of her hips, she pulled me sideways and slammed my face into the ground. My tech specs shattered and I jammed my eyes shut to keep shards from getting in.
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Dust Chapter 12 Part 5

Tachi snapped up his pistol and hammered away at the trigger, while I grabbed my SMG and swept it towards her in a wide arc, spitting out a line of hot, steel-cored armour piercers that reached from one side of the lab doors to the other.

Kiru took the first two rounds from Tachi in the left shoulder, ducked under my fire and dived for Tachi. A loud compressed-air ‘Hisss’ sounded and she cleared the two metres from the door to her target in one jump.

She collided with his hips, folding Tachi in half and took him to the ground behind one of the operating benches. She kicked her legs over, cartwheeling over his body as he hit the ground.

I caught the faintest hint of a garter on her leg before she too disappeared behind the bench.

[Atom, jam her wireless transmissions before she gets a message to RCF. PR, we need your boys up here NOW!]

[Yes Dust!] Atom said.

[They on their way.] PR added.

I barely heard PR’s reply when a piece of Tachi’s pistol flew out from behind the workbench and sailed passed my ear. Instinctively I covered my face with my arm and the gun when I saw a second piece of pistol head my way.

When it bounced off my elbow I snapped the arm down quick to put another burst over the bench.

But as my arm came down I found myself staring into Kiru no Yubi‘s cybereyes.

My entire body seized up in panic. I could see nothing but the escher-esque image of my mirrored lenses reflected in her own, repeated and reduced infinitely in each other. Then something heavy and metallic hit my foot, followed by something limp and wet.

Oh My God!” Noodles yelled.

My pain editor flashed red and I realised it was my right arm.

Dear God

I know you don’t like what I do with that arm, BUT WILL YOU LEAVE IT THE FUCK ALONE!

-Dust

It came as much a surprise to me as it did to Kiru, but the next thing I felt was pain in my knuckles as they impacted with her prosthetic face.

Kiru rode the impact, twisted her body around to put her hips below mine and Judo threw me into the puddle I’d created on the ground. I felt my foot clip something hard on one of the benches and some computer gear got knocked over.

Kiru raised her thick piston-heel above my face and was a heartbeat away from turning my skull into a roadkill pizza. Then Tachi’s foot smashed into her chest and took her off her feet.

Tachi flicked a glance down at me and his mouth dropped open. I turned to look at my right shoulder and saw a torrent of blood emptying out of me like a special effect in an ‘ironic’ indie horror movie.

It was bizarre, I couldn’t feel the pain, but I could basically count my pulse-rate by the gushes of blood spewing out of me.

Tachi tensed for a second, then looked back up at his sister and jumped out of the way. That tell-tale

Hisss’ sounding as she cleared the length of the room in a single bound.

Absently, I decided I should probably do something about this shoulder before I bled to death. The swirling soup that was my mind at this point brought up something about once the femoral artery is severed the patient has only three minutes before they bleed out. I remember scolding my foolish mind, the femoral artery is in the upper leg, having an entire arm severed part-way through the collar bone would give me significantly less time than that.

Oh Shit!

I reached across to my right hip where I’d unhelpfully mounted the first-aid kit on my webbing and tore it off the Velcro. This also disconnected it from the fatigues and the pouch reverted to its default black.

I wormed my fingers inside the pouch and spread them wide to open it, before closing them around the largest object it contained: My can of spray skin.

As the darkness began forming at the edges of my vision I popped off the lid with my thumb and liberally applied the hot, white foam to the fountain erupting from my shoulder.

The foam engulfed the shoulder quickly and then began to set, sealing the wound right away.

With that done, I lacked the energy even to hold back the sigh of relief. The spray-skin can fell from my grasp and I slumped into the pool of my own blood.

DUST!” Noodles screamed. “Dust are you okay?”

I looked up at the monitor, I could barely make out Noodles’ avatar and my head felt like it was wrapped in shag carpet.

Noodles?” I managed to groan.

Oh thank god you’re alive.” I couldn’t tell if his avatar was hyperventilating or just wobbling in my vision. “Dust you’ve got to get me out of here, I’m stuck in this case.”

That’s right! My mind exclaimed. Suddenly I felt the worlds outside and inside my head snap into focus again.

Noodles’ monitor towered above me, he looked even more like a scared kid than usual. I pulled myself up off the floor and found the console Noodles was hooked up to lying at an angle, a heel-sized dent in the side of its case.

No idea when that happened. The biopod, thankfully, landed sunny-side up, reducing any chance Noodles’ exposed brain had been damaged by contact with foreign organisms. Of course the bolts I needed to screw back in were now all over the floor.

Noodles’ avatar screamed and pointed. “Dust! LOOK OUT!”

I didn’t even wait for the second exclamation point. Nor did I care that I was diving on the side that no-longer had an arm to break my fall.

Kiru no Yubi landed right behind where I’d been kneeling and brought her wires down in a wide slash. So wide it went beyond where I’d been kneeling and extended over the desk.

I saw the detached fingertips bounce off the table before Kiru realised what she’d done. Her face fell as the monofilament wires rose back up and sliced effortlessly through Noodles’ exposed brain for the second time.
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Dust Chapter 12 Part 4

You remember the wire in my head? I told Kitty, I don’t know if…”

She did.”

Well it’s hooked up to a proximity sensor. The moment you take me out of this room it’ll activate.”

[Oh no.] Moe-Moe said.

Tachi put a hand on my shoulder and invited me to a private chat.

[That doesn’t leave us with a lot of options.] He said gravely.

[What do you mean?]

[Well either we leave him with Chrome Fist and he keeps playing against us until the end of the job, or we remove him from play now.]

[You mean kill him?]

[It’s cold Dust, but it seems to be our only option.]

[Tachi.] I began, reaching for the multi-head screwdriver and soldering pen in my chest pocket. [I’m an electronics specialist. I’ll fix it.]

[What are we going to do?] Kitty asked when I came out of the private chat.

[What the government used to pay me sixty-thousand nuyen a year to do.] I said. [Tachi, get the lights. I need to see what I’m doing.]

Tachi obliged. While I changed the settings in my tech specs I got Moe-Moe to turn off the LGM so I didn’t have little red dots in my vision from the inhabitants on the floors below.

[Alright.] I said, giving the biopod a good look-over. [I’ve got a Jarvic Series 9A Braincase. I need a schematic, preferably 3D. I also need everyone’s best guess for how one would go about modifying that case to do what Noodles says they’ve done. Also if possible, I need the likely places where one would put a tamper-switch.]

[Schematic found!] Atom announced. [And from what I can see, if they have installed a tamper switch it would be on the opposite end to the hinge joint.]

I slotted the correct size Phillips head into my screwdriver and got to work unbolting the brain case. Turns out there was no tamper-switch. RCF must have been confident we’d never get our hands on the pod.

A download request icon appeared in the corner of my eye. I accepted.

[Based on the available room within the case and the location of its regular functions, I’ve adjusted the schematic to show the most likely way they’ve modified it to kill Noodles in the manner he described.]

[Colour-coded too. Good work Atom.]

[Thanks Dust.]

Noodles’ naked brain took up the majority of the space inside. But towards the back of the case was where most of the interface hardware was located. It also included the only component with any Japanese characters on it, which just screamed ‘after market’. The bare copper wire emerging from that component and feeding into the brain from the top (rather than the cerebral cortex, where the rest of the interface hardware was connected), betrayed its purpose.

Okie-dokie.” I mumbled, mostly to myself. “I’ve got two options, either I can sever that wire entirely, if I can get to the other end underneath the brain, assuming there is another end. Or I can bypass the part of the circuit that actually leads to the heating element.”

I nibbled at my lip, reached into my pocket again and pulled out my monoscalpel. “Let’s go option B and remove all doubt”.

Be quick about it.” Tachi warned. “We have less than an hour before the next patrol.”

I ran my tongue along my bottom teeth. “This won’t take long.”

The key element in defeating the hotwire in Noodles’ brain was cutting off its connection to the power supply. Once the correct wires had been identified, I trusted to my scalpel’s triple-insulated grip and sliced the connecting wires.

That should be about it.” I said.

[That’s it?] Kitty asked, sounding relieved and a little disappointed.

[Well no.] I said, thinking better of it. [That’s just the critical part done. I believe I may have defanged Noodles’ hot wire. But, just in case it’s wired up to any other nasties, let’s see if we can disable that proximity sensor as well.]

Atom jumped on the cype again. [Let me see if I can find proximity hardware small enough to fit inside that case.]

[You’re really gunning for the MVP trophy aren’t you Atom?]

Atom smirked modestly. [Of course. See if you can find something that looks like this.]

Another download request appeared in the corner of my vision. I brought it up. Atom had sent me a couple of photos of some micro sensors. Cursory inspection of the components before me found one of those pieces towards the top.

A quick check of the way the component was wired up suggested that the sensor was continuously switched to ‘on’ while within proximity range, presumably once the biopod was taken out of range, this turned the switch ‘off’ and then unleashed the hot wire and anything else they might have in store for Noodles.

I cut a short length of wire from the spool in my chest pocket and bit off the plastic on the ends.

I focused on the exact point I would need to apply solder to and hit the magnification option in my tech specs. That tiny, barely 1 millimetre point blew up to be bigger than my thumbnail. With the lightest pressure I coaxed the tiniest blob of molten solder out of my pen and inserted one end of the wire into it. I released the breath I’d been holding, took another one and repeated the process on the other end. Successfully bypassing the circuit and making ‘on’ the only signal the biopod received from the sensor.

How do you feel Noodles?”

I looked up at the screen and saw Noodles’ avatar peering down at the braincase in front of me. “That’s my brain huh? I kinda figured it’d be… bigger.”

[Eugh. Men.] Kitty and Moe-Moe said in stereo.

A loud hiss sounded behind me. I turned to look over my shoulder to see what it was.

Kiru no Yubi hesitated just inside the sliding doors. She wore a black coat that came down halfway through her thighs. She’d replaced her legs after Kitty hit her with the car. Now they looked like a pair of black silk thigh high stockings rather than the shiny PVC she’d worn in Melbourne.

Note to self: Stop ogling the enemy.
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Dust Chapter 12 Part 3

His eyes glazed over and Tachi slapped a strip of gaffa tap over his mouth while I bound his ankles. That’d keep him quiet and out of our hair ’til the next patrol showed up. Unless Night Watch’s management were complete arse-holes he should keep his job.

[All clear.] PR announced when we’d finished trussing him up. [He tried to sound the alarm but I dismissed it at this end. Don’t look like anybody noticed.]

[Good work.] I said, watching as the colour returned to his face and he woke up. He took one look at us and unleashed a string of outraged murmurs while he tried to wriggle free.

Tachi put his pistol up to the guard’s face. “Still.” He commanded. “We’re going to get what we came for and be gone before the next patrol gets here. You sit tight and be quiet and you get to live.”

For good measure we cable tied his hands to the base of his chair and his feet to the leg of his desk, just to keep him from getting up.

[Guard has been neutralised.]

Moe-Moe replied. [Taking over radio transmissions].

An additional security protocol was that the security guard answered a radio check every half an hour. Secreted within the system, Atom had been recording the guard’s transmissions and would replay them as needed.

I looked around for the silhouette of the night shift nurse. She was still sitting at her station, from her posture it looked like she was using her own Neupro. If anything had in any way jostled her, it didn’t show.

[All right Atom.] Tachi said. [Please direct us to Noodles’ suite.]

Another painted line materialised on the floor and like dutiful little drones we followed it.

Noodles’ suite was on the third floor of the cybersurgery labs. A wide strip of tempered glass cut a line through the middle of the far wall, letting in the moonlight. Through the shades of green and black I made out a large LED monitor above a computer console. Crowned on top with a biopod, webcam and microphone.

Tachi turned to cover the front door while I woke up the computer. The screen above it glowed into life, I turned off my night vision so I could make out the colours. Noodles’ Shinjuku street urchin avatar appeared on screen, he looked up from his feet with a mischievous grin. “Have I been a bad boy again mistress?” Noodles and I froze and stared at each other at the exact same moment. Noodles’ face was a frame of horror, mine of incredulity.

Tachi turned away from the door and smirked. “I don’t know lad. Have you?”

Tachi?” Noodles asked, the faintest slither of hope creeping into his terrified voice.

Explain yourself.” I growled.

Noodles looked back to me. “Dust? What are you guys doing here?”

Having second thoughts about rescuing you.” I said. “Now explain yourself.”

You don’t understand Dust, you don’t know what they’ve been doing.”

Which would be why I asked. Now stop pussyfooting around and answer the fucking question.”

Alright, alright.” Noodles said, his hands up as if I were about to punch the screen.

I was thinking about it.

Tachi’s old crew, Righteous Chrome Fist caught up with me in Syria…”

Thank you Noodles, but I saw the last episode, fast forward to the bit where you answer the phone with ‘Yes Mistress?”

It’s Kiru no Yubi, she’s been in control of my treatment since they caught me. I told you already about the wire in my brain didn’t I? Weren’t you with Kitty?”

I was.”

Well, she’s… At first she was just interrogating me. She wanted details on the two of you, info her hacker could use to track you down. I could gauge how well you were doing by how much frustration she took out on me when she came back for another session. I’m sorry to say it Dust, but I’ve never wanted you to fail so much in my life.”

Yeah, it’s been a picnic for me too.” I pulled back the sleeve on my fatigues to show him the external splint. Underneath the sleeve it had looked like I was packing one of those parkour cops’ taser gauntlets. “She snapped my arm IN HALF.”

You think that’s bad?” Noodles shot back at me. “That’s nothing compared to what she’s put me through. Did you know you CAN feel pain in the matrix? If you install the right kind of software you can feel damn near anything.”

Noodles was on the verge of tears, he clenched his hands by his side and sniffed.

You know that intense cold burn you get when you bump your elbow real hard. She made me feel that all over my body. She would put me in that state for what felt like hours. And when she wasn’t doing that they’d take everything away from me completely. They stripped out my OS, leaving me in a flat, featureless plain with only the clock and scientific calculator. I’d stay alone in there for days if they didn’t need me. When they gave me the chance to fight Kitty, I took it. Anything was better than crippling agony or endless void. Then, the night I told Kiru you were heading to Seattle.” Noodles took a sharp breath. “She… she came onto me. Our roles didn’t change much, just our interaction.”

[Hot.] Kitty said.

The two of you have similar tastes, actually Kitty. Your avatar’s Catwoman, hers is a human-panther.”

[She’s a furry?] Moe-Moe exclaimed. [Ewww.]

[Different strokes dear.] Kitty said.

[Ladies. We’re at work now.] I said. Then I stabbed a finger at Noodles’ avatar. [And you! Playtime with the enemy is over, we’re getting you out.]

No! Dust. Wait!”

Tachi pricked his ears up. “Now this had better be good.”
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