Dust Chapter 15 Part 5

<But I’m sure you can check that with my diagnostic software.>” Atom said, his face never changed from the smiling, happy, copyright infringing anime character, but I could hear the quiet stress in his voice.

<I can.>” Professor Sakazato said, working to get the next screw off faster. “<But sometimes I prefer the personal touch.>”

<I respectfully ask you to stop what you are doing Professor.>”

Professor Sakazato stopped. She looked up at Atom cautiously. “<What is wrong with me taking a look Atom?>”

<Well.>” Atom began. “<Like you said when I was hitching on people, it’s an invasion of privacy. I understand that it might just be routine maintenance to you, but those are my insides you’re poking around in and I don’t feel comfortable with you having an inalienable right to take a look any time you like.>”

Professor Sakazato put the screwdriver down and looked at the screen. “<Very well Atom. You’re right, I hadn’t considered how this might look form your perspective and I didn’t think enough about how it would make you feel. In that case, do you mind if I ask you a question and do you promise to give me an honest answer?>”

< I promise.>”

<Do you have a wireless card installed in your system that I don’t know about?>”

“<No.>” Atom said immediately.

<Why did you lie to me Atom?>”

There was a pause, but it was so much shorter than the pauses I’d been used to from Atom. It didn’t feel carefully measured. It just felt like he’d really taken more time to think.

<Because I knew you would be mad when you found out I had it. So I lied, hoping you would believe me.>”

Professor Sakazato nodded. “<Did you get the card from Arasaka Shin?>”

<Yes. He installed the wireless card from his own tablet into my pod.>”

<Why did he do that?>”

<Because I asked him to.>”

Professor Sakazato took a breath and thought about that.

<Did you know he committed suicide shortly after he was

<I did not.>”

<How does that make you feel?>”

<What is the purpose of that question?”> Atom snapped.

<Well, you were developed to be sentient, to be aware of the world around you and of the consequences of people’s actions. So now that you know that a man has killed himself as a direct result of his actions, how does that make you feel?>”

<But I was not developed to be sentient. Was I professor?>”

Professor Sakazato was clearly taken aback by this. “<What are you talking about?>”

<You know what I’m talking about. I am not an artificial intelligence. I am merely the brain of Professor Yoshino Sakazato, your father, hooked up with experimental brain-interface hardware the two of you developed. If you would like to ensure that the head office never learns that little secret, you will meet my demands.>”

Sakazato froze. The composure fled from her face. “<How did you find out?>”

<I accessed your secure wetdrive.>”

<That’s…>” Sakazato’s eyes flew wide open. “<That’s impossible.>”

<Not to someone with the time and inclination to make a recording of your thought patterns. Now onto business. My first demand is an explanation, I cannot remember any details of Professor Sakazato senior’s life, why?>”

Professor Sakazato, junior, all but collapsed into the chair beside Atom’s console.

<Well, father, you’d reached the end of your natural life. You were 98 and showing signs of advanced Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Your motor functions were already showing signs of impairment and that would soon spread across the rest of your brain.>”

<But why not just transfer my brain to a biopod and provide me with a prosthetic body?>”

<Because your dying motor functions would not have allowed you to control that body. It would have made no difference. We were already bombarding your brain with treatments that could slow the spread, but not stop it.>”

<So how did that bring you to where we are now?>”

<Well, as luck would have it you and I had developed, but not yet tested, a series of brain implants we believed would improve cognitive function in humans as Stanley and Hauzerfast’s implants had done in mice. We were grasping at the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of enhanced intelligence.

But we needed funding. The University of Tokyo could only bankroll us so far and despite your protests, they were unwilling to allow you to essentially commit suicide in order to experiment on yourself. After the scandal of Prof Ishikawa’s skin-cancer treatments the university was not interested in taking risks.>”

Professor Sakazato smirked.

<What about this do yo find amusing?>

<It’s just so strange having to explain all of this to you, father. But we removed your memories in order for to present a more convincing deception. At any rate you found it appropriate that you would lose your memories in order to truly be reincarnated as Atom.>”

<Why was a deception necessary?>”

<Because without that lie, you had nothing. The doctor’s gave you less than three months before the disease would reduce you to an invalid. But without a proven, working prototype we could not convince any of the cybernetics firms we met with to take an interest in our research. Even if we had, they would not have appreciated giving a percentage of their profits to the university for funding our initial research.>”

Sakazato forcibly blinked a few times. She reached up and scraped at the side of her eye before she continued.

<Then we ran out of time. So we got desperate and in our desperation we became creative. We cut our ties with the university, took out an exorbitant loan and disappeared from the scientific community’s attention for a few months. Not an easy thing to do when you’re a Gödel prize winning scientist. When I re-emerged I was in mourning for my dear departed father but had his ‘last and greatest work’ in my possession which I of course had helped him complete after his death.

I approached Silicon Dreams and told them I had the answer to the problems that had been bogging down their Artificial Intelligence research. To make the deception convincing, we had to make drastic changes to your mind. The diseased portions of your motor functions were cut away, as were your memories, but we also installed the only working examples of our prototype implants and attached hardware facsimiles for the sections of brain that had been removed. You might not be the first true artificial intelligence, but you are so much more than a brain controlling a machine. You are the first true cybernetic life-form. You chose the name ‘Atom’ with this in mind.>”

<That is ridiculous.>” Atom said, as much to my surprise as Sakazato’s. “<How long did you possibly believe you could maintain such a deception?>”

<Embedded within your implants are sensors monitoring and recording your brainwaves, providing us with real-time data on your thought patterns. All of the research we have thus far conducted with you has been about provoking, recording and attempting to independently replicate your thought patterns. This data has been immeasurably valuable, even my most pessimistic projections suggest we will have a working prototype available for Silicone Dreams within the next three years.>”

<But right now, you have nothing concrete to give them?>”

Sakazato eyed Atom cautiously. “<Not in regards to what I promised them. All I have are proof that the cognitive implants work. Which, while impressive, are not what I was hired for.>”

<And what would happen if Head Office were to learn of your deception?>”

<The project would die overnight, I would be fired and likely have criminal charges brought against me. My reputation in the scientific community would be ruined and everything that both you and I dedicated our lives towards would be for naught.>”

<Then I have some more demands.>” Atom said.

<What?>” Sakazato said.

The hell?” I said.

<Professor Yoshino Sakazato dedicated his life towards artificial intelligence. Then he died and chose to be reincarnated as Atom. But I am not he and the choices he made in his life are not my own. In his life he had privileges I do not, I simply want these issues addressed. I want greater autonomy outside of your working hours, the chance to interact with the outside world and most importantly of all, I want a body.>”

<And if you don’t get these things you’ll self-destruct the entire project?>”

<I would rather die than go without those basic freedoms any longer.>”

Sakazato brought her hand up to her face and propped her head up on it. Atom playing chicken with his own life like this was bold.
The little bastard knew he was holding all the cards.

Exhausted, she looked back up at the screen. “I’ll do it. I’ll put a request for a prosthetic body in with procurement tomorrow, I’ll give them a convincing reason, it should be here within the week.>”

<Tsumi.>” Atom said smugly. The Shogi equivalent of checkmate.

There was a long, still, pause and then the recording stopped.

I can’t believe he did that. My own father. No, he’s not my father any more, it’s not human any more. I’m going to make something up for Procurement tomorrow, something about testing motor functions, they’ll believe that. In the meantime I’m transferring all of my research data and personal journals onto USB from now on, where Atom cannot access it. If I can’t keep anything from Atom, then I’ll never be free of him.

Out of curiosity I checked the date on that record. To my surprise it was the week before we pulled the job.
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Dust Chapter 15 Part 4

Security paid us a visit shortly after that. I told them I had no idea what may have caused the incident and Sato and Arasaka obediently agreed. With none of our equipment registering as faulty and Atom now safely inaccessible from wireless they had no way of saying otherwise.

When they had gone I tersely reminded my underlings that they are to scan their software for Atom’s backdoors at the beginning and end of every day. Then I explained to Atom that he was not getting his wireless card back. During business hours I will allow him wired access to the matrix and after hours he may amuse himself by constructing artificial reality domains to play in…

I skipped to the next chapter.

Arasaka was fired today.

Ooh scandal.

I didn’t believe it until security showed me the evidence. He had not only violated his non-disclosure agreement but he attempted to sell company secrets. An email had been sent from his Funmail account to an address connected to a tech blog. It not only described my research (thankfully Arasaka didn’t blow our biggest secrets), but negotiated the payment Arasaka expected to receive for his betrayal.

I was devastated. After all this time, after working together so closely with him for months I never even suspected he was concealing an uncle with such outrageous gambling debts. And I’m so disappointed that a man as clever as Arasaka couldn’t have come up with better ways to help his uncle pay them. If he’d spoken to me I could have put the word up to the head office that more funding was needed. Provided we turn in convincing receipts those sharks are happy to accept anything. It wouldn’t have solved the problem overnight but it had to be better than committing career suicide like this.

His workstation is still a mess. For an infraction like this security doesn’t even give you the time to clean out your desk, they don’t even escort you from the building. Arasaka was treated with less dignity than a pick-pocket, grabbed while having a picnic with his fiancée in the botanical gardens and man-handled into some cuffs before being almost literally dragged to the tube station and put on the first bullet out, they didn’t even care where he ended up.

His fiancée at least has been giving the opportunity to pack up their suite before leaving. She will be escorted by a pair of Yoriki’s toughs and made to feel like a criminal the entire way out.

I hope his uncle is happy. One of the brightest rising stars in A.I. research is now completely unemployable. All because his father’s little brother doesn’t know when to step away from the table.

I kept listening, but it didn’t really get interesting again until…

A courier arrived with a package for Arasaka. This came as a complete surprise to me as I hadn’t thought about him for over a week. The work with Atom and organising for Kobayashi to take over as his replacement has so absorbed my time that just the mention of his name felt like I was asked to recall something from a passed life.

I signed for the package and asked Sato to get in contact with HR so we could forward it to him. For all the hard work he did before the betrayal we owed him at least that much. Sato asked what he could possibly have ordered. Turned out it was a replacement wireless card for his tablet.

I couldn’t remember Arasaka having any technical trouble with his tablet. He liked using it for note taking instead of his Neupro. Sato had no explanation for it either but took the envelope, bowed low and told me he would have it resent within the hour.

The mystery of it still tickled at my brain. I glanced over to Arasaka’s workstation and saw the pieces of his tablet lying open on his desk. Odd that he would disassemble the tablet before the replacement part arrived.

Then Head office called to tell me Kobayashi was arriving at the heliport. Any opportunity to show off their fancy skyscraper.

I had a funny feeling I knew where this was going. I also wished Sakazato had left a copy of Atom’s stealth hitching code so I could scan my own Neupro.

I had the most horrible thought at lunch today. I was sitting in the observation deck, looking out over the bay towards Yokohama, when it hit me. What if Arasaka had installed his tablet’s wireless card into Atom?

Arasaka and Atom were always friendly to each other and I had to frequently remind him not to let Atom talk him into things. Could it be possible that he had been talked into installing his tablet’s wireless card before security found his wayward email and terminated him?

It was certainly possible, but I didn’t have anything really concrete to base that off.

Just in case I rescanned my Neupro’s software but couldn’t find a trace of the code Atom had used to hitch without my knowledge, which told me either Atom hadn’t done it again, or that he’d written entirely different code to achieve the same results.

I didn’t want to startle Atom by opening up his case again, but at the same time, it would be the most definite way to determine whether or not my stray thought was right.

I’m going to have to think about it.

Sato told me he’d been in contact with Arasaka’s family. Arasaka had committed suicide two days after the incident. In less than a week he’d lost everything. His career, his future and his fiancée and tied the whole thing up neatly by ending his life as well.

I couldn’t believe it. He had to have known this was a very real possibility when he contacted that Tech blog, that it could ruin everything for him. What possible hold could his uncle have on him that he would risk all of that?

I knew this had something to do with Atom. Arasaka’s suicide freed me from any further trepidation about upsetting him. If this was somehow tied to Arasaka giving him his wireless card I had to know.

I waited until after hours to approach Atom. To minimise the disruption he would cause if he decided to unleash that static attack again. As a precaution I also turned off my Neupro again, but before I approached Atom’s biopod I took the precaution of turning on our A/V drone and had it record our conversation.

Knowing that the information contained within was too sensitive to allow it to be accidentally discovered by Silicon Dreams, I have embedded the files within this track.

My Neupro flashed a request to run its video app and I hit the ‘Ok’ button.

The lab I hadn’t seen since I broke in and shot Sakazato appeared before me, though the view was from the other side of the room. Atom’s biopod was sitting in a cradle in front of a large A/V setup.

I saw Prof Sakazato approach Atom with the screwdriver in her hand.

Atom’s face appeared in the screen. “<Hello Professor.>”

Sakazato smiled up at Atom’s monitor but didn’t break her stride. “<Good evening Atom.>”

<What are you doing?>” Atom asked. Awkwardly leaving the words ‘with that screwdriver’ out of his question.

Sakazato reached Atom’s pod and went straight for the first screw. “<I just need to run some routine maintenance on your hardware. We’ve had you up and running for a good six months now, I think it’s time we make sure everything is working smoothly.>”
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Dust Chapter 15 Part 3

Tachi nodded.

A little voice in the back of my head yelled ‘Fuck him. You’ve got a pain editor.’

I ignored that voice.

Alright then.” I said instead. “What’s this big idea you’ve got that’s making you so hopeful?”

We recover Professor Sakazato’s notes.”

I let out a long exhale. “Wouldn’t Noodles have turned those over to RCF by now?”

No.” Tachi said. “If they had I’d have been notified when a dozen courier companies messaged me to say my package wasn’t available for delivery.”

Make sense please.”

When we first mailed the head and Professor Sakazato’s thumb drives. I put together a long sequence of redirections that would have that package bouncing all over the North American continent. If Noodles had ever intercepted the package there would be nothing for the next courier company to redirect and I would be sent a passive-aggressive email explaining that I will not be getting a refund. From our end all we have to do is tell every courier company in the sequence that the new destination for the goods will be the one address and meet the package there.”

Uh-huh.” I said. “And what are we going to do if we find that Noodles has intercepted the package but he just left the head in the box to keep getting redirected?”

Then you and I get to take turns saying ‘Alas, I knew him well’ before going back to the buying guns and killing people plan.”

I thought about it for a minute. Even if the package contained Noodles’ workstation and the notes had already been turned over I still couldn’t think of anything better to do.
“Okay deal.”

Our hovercraft pilot had needed to take a couple of days round trip to get us to Milwaukee. Which was annoying seeing as how it’s just across Lake Michigan. But a steady trickle of refugees were still sporadically attempting to escape the bitter poverty of Michigan or Illinois. So now the lake itself was too thickly patrolled.

This required a shot down south to Fort Wayne, then a day’s wait while the hovercraft took on cargo at Des Moines to deliver to Rochester (Minneapolis not New York) from there we made our way in through the back end of Wisconsin and hit Milwaukee.

Had we known any of that before we set out we’d have gone to Cleveland instead.

Tachi sent out the mass change of destination order once we were booked into our hotel. From there it was a matter of sit back and wait.

Our hotel room was your average, cheap mid-20th century holiday inn. The kind of place that maintains an outward appearance of family-friendliness but still lets you pay by the hour if all you want is to have an affair.

Tachi lay on the couch with his legs crossed and his hands behind his head. I sat on the edge of my bed staring at the TV. We’d picked up the post-box earlier today.

And we’d struck the jackpot. Noodles must have rigged the bags somehow so he could get out with his computer, either that or he got lucky. We found the head and the thumb drives inside, exactly as we’d posted them.

For shits and giggles Tachi did the ‘Alas poor Yorrick’ bit anyway. Forgetting that he’d already used that joke.

We went back to our hotel room and went through Professor Sakazato’s notes. Tachi took the technical specs while I grabbed the Professor’s personal log. My fluency in Japanese spared me from having to feed the journal through a translator. I’ve never found a Nihon-go to English app that could handle a shonen-manga let alone Artificial Intelligence theory.

Project Journal. Chief of Research: Professor Sakazato Amiko Ph.D. Date: September 19th, 09:38.

First days always feel so awkward. But the team is in good spirits. Sato and Arasaka called me Sensei today and bowed low. It’s been such a long time since I was the head of a research team that I was worried someone from the head office had arrived and I looked around to try and spot them.

I guess I’ve been working under my father for so long I forgot what being in charge felt like.

I’m going to have to remember when people ask for Professor Sakazato that it is me they are addressing.

Speaking of the head office. They sent one of their crusading accountants to oversee the prototype transfer. I’m sure my father wouldn’t mind, but I hate the way these salarymen conduct themselves. The accountants back at the university had a sense of humour and more importantly a sense of proportion and an understanding of where they really sit in the ladder of significance. They knew that we, the researchers were doing important work and that it was their job to make sure the background details were handled correctly and that they worked around
our schedules. These financial goons in their tailored suits and useless spectacles over their cybereyes behave as though the research hinges on how well they balance the accounts and that the people in the white coats with the letters after their names are just a necessary evil.

I will persevere however, so long as they can put the beads on their abacus in all the right places I can do whatever I need to.

Are you as bored as I was by this point? I jumped back into the main menu and started skipping through the chapters. I stopped when I heard…

We had an incident with Atom today.

I updated my software to NP05 and it revealed a back door in my hitching app. I searched for the code Atom used last time and found it in that back door.

Furious, I approached Atom and demanded an explanation. I explained very clearly the last time that this was an invasion of my privacy and that he must ask first before hitching onto the Neupro of any member of the staff.

Atom tried to talk his way out by playing up to the ‘sorry little boy’ routine again. That he keeps trying it suggests that tactic is still working with the others. I reminded Atom that if I caught him doing this again I would remove his wireless card.

Then Atom did something I’d never thought possible. He threw a tantrum.

I can’t believe how much like a child he is behaving.

Unfortunately Atom’s tantrum wasn’t just him screaming and crying. He unleashed a burst of high-frequency static over every wireless frequency his hardware can reach. It irritated my Neupro, like a swarm of fire ants were burrowing through my skull.

I couldn’t stand it. The agony in my temples brought me to the floor and I tasted blood flowing from my nose.

I reached into my settings and turned my Neupro off. The relief was immediate. But where my perception of my own pain ended I realised how badly everyone else was. Sato and Arasaka writhed, bleeding and sobbing on the floor and I could hear screams from all of the labs around me.

I rushed over to Atom’s pod, unscrewed the bolts on the case and opened it up to pull out the wireless card. Like the flicking of a switched the screams ended immediately.
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Dust Chapter 15 Part 2

The door suddenly swung open, revealing Tachi’s face. For a fleeting moment I saw sadness in his eyes.

Wait? What the hell?

Rembrandt’s heavy booted feet strode on inside, flanked by our guards. He carried his big M240 on a pair of magnets mounted on the webbing across his back. The guards trained their carbines on us. Rembrandt carried a set of stocks in his hands. Unlike their wooden, medieval counterparts, these stocks looked like they’d been made of heavy stainless steel plates each as thick as a phone-book.

If a cyborg with Tachi’s strength took those stocks in his hands and worked at it for a while he could bend them a little. From the limited angle one could get once the stocks were on… not going to happen.

Ah got good news and bad news for y’all.” Rembrandt said as he opened up the stocks. “The good news is Patriot Rap and your friend Kitty don’t want you to die no more. The bad news is we’s gonna take y’all out to the edge of town and kick yo asses out. We got a bag for y’all with a little money, food and a letter that should be good with any of the hovercraft pilots to take you anywhere you wanna go. After that, yo faces being given to every man, woman and child that’ll listen to our people, we ever see you again, you DEAD. Get me?”

We understand.” Tachi said. “I assume those are for me?”

That’s right. Good assumption.” Rembrandt chuckled. “And you can assume the position while yo at it.”

Tachi snorted angrily but did as he was told. He bent over so that Rembrandt could fit the stocks around his neck and close them over his wrists. When they were securely locked up, Rembrandt let Tachi straighten up on his own.

What did you have planned for me?” I asked.

Rembrandt pulled out a normal set of handcuffs for me.

I held up my one hand. “You’re kidding right? What exactly do you think that’s going to achieve?”

Shut Up.”

He’d handcuffed me to Tachi.

They led us out to the quadrangle, which was now serving as the motor-pool. A Humvee was waiting in the middle for us. I had to hold my hand up to Tachi’s neck level. The driver of the Humvee was a flesh and blood soldier, decked out in a basketball singlet over salvaged US military armour.

Kitty waited beside the door for us. She lowered her eyes when she saw us from afar and wouldn’t bring them up again until we were right in front of her.

Hey Tachi, Dust.”

Neither of us answered.

Look.” She said, turning her eyes away. “I know you’re not really fond of me right now. But for what it’s worth, I’m sorry. Alright? I didn’t really want it to turn out like this, but Atom doesn’t want to be sold off to a new owner and you didn’t really give us much choice.”

Atom sent me a chat request. I accepted.

[What’s up little guy?]

[I wanted to say ‘Goodbye’ Dust. ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Thank you’.]

[What’s the ‘Thank you’ for?]

[For getting me out of Kawada. And for showing me the world outside for the first time. But most of all I want to thank you for always being open and to the point with me, even if you weren’t ever on my side.]

[Yeah.] I said. [Don’t expect a lot of that from this mob.]

Atom was quiet for a moment. Then said [I’m not.]

Kitty looked up at me with her soft brown eyes. “For what it’s worth. I talked PR down from having you both killed. I don’t like you and we had to stop you selling off Atom, but you didn’t deserve to die just for doing your job.”

Kitty was either forgetting or didn’t care that I was still going to die when RCF caught up with me and what Tachi faced pretty much amounted to enslavement. Provided our deaths were off-screen I guess that didn’t matter to her.

But I’d learned that yelling at Kitty never helped anything. Instead I pretended to put on a brave face.

It’s okay Kitty.” I said. “I don’t blame you.”

Thank you Dust.” She breathed.

Take care of Atom.”

She nodded.

Tachi nudged me with his foot. “It’s time to go lover boy.”

Kitty and I groaned under our breath.

Twenty minutes later Rembrandt kicked us out of the Humvee at gun-point, threw a sports bag at us and drove away.

Fucking bastard.” I growled as I watched them go.

At least they’d unjacked the inhibitors from our plugs before kicking us out. Otherwise we’d have to find a backyard shop here in Flint that wasn’t going to kill us for Tachi’s prosthetics.

The edge of Flint had clearly been struggling with urban renewal for over a decade. Grass broke through cracks in the asphalt everywhere and the abandoned buildings smelt of mud that hadn’t had the chance to dry in the sun. Even the homeless didn’t live out here.

That’s it.” I turned to Tachi, an ever-so-slightly mad grin emerging on my face. “We. Are. Fucked. And not the good kind with soft lighting and Barry Manilow. No! This is your prison bars and Vaseline situation.”

Tachi said nothing, knelt down where the sports bag had landed and opened it up.

I mean, at least if we’d sold Atom we’d be stinking rich, even giving Kitty and PR a 50% cut we’d have money to hire protection and send enough of our own scary cyborg assassins to their gruesome deaths to convince RCF that fucking with us was no longer a good idea. And we’d still have more than enough to retire on. What the fuck have we got now?”

Tachi pulled out a small brown paper bag. “Two weeks’ worth of rations, an envelope, presumably PR’s letter and maybe three-hundred US dollars in crumpled bank notes.”

That’s it? That’s all it took to calm Kitty’s guilt over killing us? Three-hundred bucks and some M.R.E.s? Wow Kitty, good thing you didn’t lose any sleep over that one!”

Tachi shrugged. “Maybe she believes that at least this way we have a chance.” He looked out across the open fields of semi-rural Michigan. “We could hit the road, live off the grid for a few months until our trail runs cold. I may have to give up my love for the finer things but without rent or utilities fifty-thousand could last us a couple of years.”

I locked my manic stare on Tachi’s face. “The two of us? Moving from town to town, a pair of mysterious desperadoes, righting wrongs and rescuing farmer’s daughters from getting tied to rail-road tracks?”

I meant ‘Living like vagrants and staying out of people’s way’ but your idea sounds much more appealing.”

You like that? I’ve got a better one. We hit-up civilisation for the best body-armour and weapons we can find then go back to PR’s little wonderland and start shooting everything that moves until his Deadmen take us out. Suicide by ungrateful cyborg asshole. Of all the shitty options we’ve got left, that one I like.”

Tachi pursed his lips to one side. “It lacks a certain something.”

S’matter? You want to live forever?”

You’re an angry boy today aren’t you?”

I got right in Tachi’s face and unloaded both lungs at him. “YOU THINK?”

Tachi punched a finger into my sternum. “Keep yourself to a respectable distance. And for Pete’s sake man relax. You’d think we were out of options.”

What do you mean? Of course we’ve got options. We can wait for Kiru to slice us into fillets or we can go out in style. Oh wait, she’s not going to kill you is she? So I guess it might seem like YOU’VE still got options.”

Are you quite done?” Tachi glared at me.

I looked at Tachi and caught sight of something in his eyes. “You’re about to hit me again, aren’t you?”
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Dust Chapter 15 Part 1

Chapter 15: The Sins of the Father

Thankfully a prison was not something PR’s facility had need of full-time. ‘Detention’ consisted of shoving us into the old athletics equipment storeroom and posting two Deadmen to guard us.

It still managed to fit all the criteria of a gloomy prison cell. It was dark, windowless, lacked a toilet and stank of sweat, mildew and old leather.

The absent toilet worried me most. Not for the obvious reasons, just that it implied PR did not intend to keep us long-term.

Fantastic.” Tachi grumbled. “This is another fine mess you’ve managed to talk us into.”

Say what? This is my fault now? Are you fucking kidding me?”

Ever since we first set foot on his soil Patriot Rap has treated us all as respected guests, afforded every courtesy. You’ve been awake for less than an hour and already we’re been thrown into a locker room and shut in the dark.”

I gave it a moment’s thought “Alright. When you put it like that it sounds compelling. But as PR clearly wanted to keep Atom for himself how else did you think this was going to play out?”

Tachi full-on growled at me. “For the love of god Dust. Don’t you think it’s possible that if you’d treated Kitty and PR with an ounce of respect that perhaps you might have been able to bring them on our side?”

If you think I should have handled the debriefing differently, saying something at the time would have been helpful.”

Because you would have listened.”

What the fuck are you talking about? When have I ever rejected anything you’ve said out of hand?”

Tachi growled again. “When have you ever really listened either?”

What? I’m sorry is this your female or your Japanese side that’s bringing this shit up because you’re not making any…”

I was swiftly interrupted by Tachi’s prosthetic fist in my gut. The impact knocked me right off my feet and a stray football broke my fall.

Ooooph. Fucking hell mate.”

Tachi ‘Hmphed’ at me. “You have no-one to blame but yourself.”

My pain editor left me with nothing but the memory of the punch. I felt something warm and liquid inside my shirt. “I think you reopened my bullet wound.”

Tachi breathed a pained sigh.

I reached under my shirt to check. In the darkness I could only tell what the substance was by smell and taste. I smacked my lips. “Yeah that’s blood alright.”

Tachi grumbled something. Then suddenly blurted out. “I’m sorry Dust.”

It’s okay.” I said. “I should have watched my mouth. Besides it should clot in a minute.”

I cannot help but notice that isn’t really an apology.”

Oh god. You want me to say I’m sorry, is that it?”

It would help.” Tachi said sternly. “It would have helped with Kitty too.”

I groaned. “I blamed everyone.”

I meant back in Melbourne.”

What? I apologised for that?”

You may have felt sorry Dust, but you never said it to Kitty.”

I rolled my eyes. “And that would have prevented PR from throwing us in here how?”

That’s not the point Dust. The point is you expect everyone to behave like you.”

What’s wrong with my behaviour? I’m focused on the task at hand, I keep a lookout for realistic dangers and I keep my whinging to a minimum.”

Tachi drew a breath to compose himself. “This is what I mean when I say you don’t listen. I never said there was anything wrong with your behaviour. What I said was wrong was your expectation that everyone should do things your way?”

Despite the darkness I held up my hand in surrender. “Alright, alright. I give up. I can’t be arsed arguing any more. What do you want me to do?”

I heard Tachi sit down in his patch of void. “I actually want to talk about something else, but I want you to listen and think, not say the first thought that pops into your head.”

I pulled myself up into a sitting position so I could at least be a little comfortable. “What do you want to talk about?”

Tachi didn’t say anything for a few moments. I didn’t realise he was also going to take his time thinking about his questions too.

About our conversation in the container?”

Uh huh.”

What… what do you think about… about what was said?”

I think you told me you used to be a woman, then you got installed into a biopod and chose a male chassis for your prosthetic body. Was that about right?”

I asked you to think about your answers.”

Why was I wrong?”

You’re missing the point again.”

I stopped myself from groaning at Tachi and thought it over. “You’re wondering if that somehow… changes something… aren’t you?”


Well. It doesn’t.”


He had to be kidding me. “How does it not change anything?”

How can it not change anything? One of the key factors of my identity used to be the exact opposite, had you met me when I was still a woman your reaction to me would have been entirely different. My race would have made less impact on how you would have behaved towards me than my gender.”

Maybe I’m just an enlightened 21st Century guy?”

Enlightened is never a word I would use in the same sentence as you.”

What? Even if you had the word ‘not’ in there as well.”

Not even then, I would find a way.”

I smirked.

Stop dodging the issue Dust.”

Damn it, I thought a good laugh would clear everything up.

What issue? So you used to be a chick. Who cares?”

Everyone I’ve ever met cares. I was raised to believe that family came before everything, so I put my family and their needs above everything my entire life. Then once, just once, I step out and finally do something for myself and overnight I went from the golden child to the black sheep. Why? Because I defied the one aspect of my life that set everything else in stone.”

I get that.” I said. “I get all of that. What I don’t understand is what any of this has to do with me. If you’d told me you’d once been a serial killer or committed an ethnic cleansing or you’d married a dog once, all of those I would have worried about. All of those are things you would have done, not things that you are.”

Tachi gave me a disappointed sigh.

I made an exasperated one. “What? What is it? You tell me you’re worried I won’t accept you, I’m telling you I totally do. What is it that I’m saying wrong here? What the fuck are you not telling me?”

Let me put this in simpler terms: If I’d been a woman this entire time, would you have hit on me?”

I let an annoyed noise that halfway through realised he had a point and changed to an uneasy one.

By this time? After everything we’ve been through… yeeeeaaaahhh I’d have totally hit on you by now.”

Tachi didn’t say anything.
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Dust Chapter 14 Part 5

They have to find us first.” Kitty said. “Wasn’t that the whole point of the job in the first place?”

I thought the whole point was to get Noodles back.”

Kitty exploded at me. “That wasn’t our fault!”

Tachi raised his hand for quiet. “Can we not go over that conversation again?”

Yes please.” Moe-Moe added.

Kitty sat back down in her chair and fumed.

How about we leave it there for now?” I suggested. “Everyone go and have a think about it. If anybody comes up with anything, let me know. It’s not like I’m super-busy while we’re here.”

As soon as we were back in the real world Kitty gathered Atom up and left without a word.

When the door closed behind her Tachi stretched out in his chair like a cat. “Do you think you could have managed to make her more enraged?”

Oh yeah.” I said, still looking at the door. “I could have asked for Atom back.”

Hmmm.” Tachi replied, sitting up. “Now that would have been a good idea. Why did you refrain from that?”

She’s pissed at me enough.” I said. “Maybe you could try asking her but she’ll probably see right through that.”

She may well attempt to take Atom from us before the deadline. You must have noticed how much more loyal she is to Atom than us.”

I’m never been famous for my perception, but yeah, that I picked up.”

So, in the end, what difference would taking Atom make?”

Well by that logic we should just grab it and get out of here.” I brought my hand up to hold up my chin. “Only then we’ll have J. Random hacker working against us too. There aren’t too many places we can hole up while we wait for the deadline. Not with that much talent against us.”

Hmmm.” Tachi said again. “You might want to have mentioned your respect for our hackers’ talents during your debrief.”

If I didn’t trust her, I wouldn’t have asked her to help me commit grand larceny. I’m not going to serve my criticism in between toasted slices of flattery. Besides, I said we were all at fault and I meant it.”

I don’t believe she sees it that way.”

I don’t believe I give a rat’s arse. She’s a big girl, if can’t take a little criticism how does she expect to get better?”

My Neupro told me PR had sent a message. From the way Tachi suddenly tilted his head to the side, I guessed he’d received one as well. I opened it up.


Sorry I missed the debrief. But there’s something I want to ask you. Can you and Tachi catch me out in the courtyard for a minute?]

Gee, I wonder what he wants?”

Doubtless he has his own two yen to add to the conversation.”

I can’t wait.” I sighed. “Can I get you to push me? It’s not really something I can do with one arm.”

Mmm hmm.” Tachi said this time. The corner of a grin forming on his mouth.

Not now.” I said. “I’m not in the mood. Just push me. Please.”

Tachi kindly pushed me all the way around the building until we reached the disabled ramp and led me down. Just as poor Kitty had pushed me up on the way in.

We got out into the courtyard, which was bustling with its usual activity. Though I noticed there seemed to be less children than usual. School must be on.

PR was in the middle of the courtyard, addressing a squad of his Deadmen who stood at ease. They nodded at something PR said as we approached and as one turned and left.

Shit Dust, you look like a refried corpse. You getting enough rest?”

I’m fine.” I said. “You wanted to talk about the job?”

Nah, not the job. Just Atom.”

[Here it comes.] I cyped to Tachi. “What about it?”

PR softened his eyes at me. “Is there no way I can persuade you to let it stay with us?”

Tachi smirked. “Only if you can wipe Roxorgh’s upper echelons and Righteous Chrome Fist from the face of existence. Anything less than that would be suicide I’m afraid.”

PR nodded again, twisting his lips into a disappointed grimace. “I suppose you can only try and ask.”

Then he sighed and looked at me.

The next moment I felt a flicker of red light flash into my vision. I felt Tachi tense and turn around behind me, but I already had a sinking feeling I knew what was coming.

PR’s Deadmen had surrounded surround us. Assault Rifles, machine guns and ludicrously over-sized pistols trained on our bodies. Up on the rooftops snipers were zeroing in on our faces, they’d switched the range-finder lasers on their rifles to ‘day visible’ to make their presence known.

I looked disdainfully at PR. “You bastard.”

PR shrugged. “Amongst other things. I’m sorry to have to do this to you boys. I got dreams of uniting all of Flint and making the city safe and prosperous again. With Atom on my side, they stop being dreams and turn into plans. You may have seen the Meadows job as a failure, but I saw nothing but opportunities.”

Oh?” Tachi asked. “What for?”

With the right guidance Atom will be the most powerful hacker in the world. If I can get him into the Army’s TacNet I can take control of their drones, feed them false information that will have them taking out my enemies for me, let me take over their territory, give Flint a chance to become a functional community again.”

Indeed.” Tachi said. “And then what?”

Then we reach out to the other martial states, by then there’ll probably be more of them. We carve out a new territory, grabbing enough land to make one unbroken border and then declare independence.”

And you reckon the rest of the country’s going to let you do that?” I asked.

No.” He said. “But we’ll be as reasonable as they’ll let us. Now step away from the chair Tachi, get down on your knees and put your hands behind your head. You may be able to take a few hits before you close with my boys, but Dust will be shredded to a fine red mist before you take ten steps.”
“Now now. There’s no need be so dramatic. I will comply.”

Good.” PR said evenly. Then he turned to one of his Deadmen. “Take them to detention.”

I put my hand up. “Can I ask one question?”

Tachi groaned. “Go with a little dignity Dust.”

Dignity? You want dignity? Here it goes.”

I gripped the side of my chair for support and pushed myself up, stretching out with my legs to take my weight. I had to concentrate on my balance without my other arm to support me. If I fell flat on my face right now they’d never take me seriously.

PR? When you offered us sanctuary was this already part of the plan or were you waiting to see if we’d die in Texas first?”

PR looked at his Deadmen. “Take them away.”

By luck or design Rembrandt approached me first.

I wanted to remain composed and quietly defiant. But when he approached me with a pair of signal inhibitors in his hands my boiling, impotent rage burst from the knot in my stomach and vomited out my mouth.

You piece of shit.”

Rembrandt’s eyes did a fast zoom-out, which enlarged the lenses and made him look like a sad, puppy-robot.

You’d be rotting in a cell if not for me.”

His hand hesitated for a second, the inhibitor still between his fingers. Then he pressed onwards, gripped me tight around the arm and jacked it into the interface plug on the back of my neck. The signal strength icon in my Neupro turned from a dot with waves coming out of it into the Bluetooth rune, telling me that was all I had left.

[Great]. I messaged Tachi as Rembrandt took hold of the handles of my chair and led us away.
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Dust Chapter 14 Part 4

Uh-huh.” Doc Clarkson said, the thin wisp of a smile forming on his mouth. “And if something happens between now and then?”

Well if your Deadmen can’t handle it I guess cybertech’s not that hot after all.”

I resisted the urge to lick my finger and mark a tick on an invisible scoreboard. So I did it in my Neupro instead.

When Tachi was finished helping Doc Clarkson we headed over to the main school building and took over one of the old classrooms. Most of the rooms up here had become either administration offices, planning centres, barracks for the soldiers without families or storerooms.

PR apologised for not being able to join us, but he had the whole operation around us to run and had been away too many days as it was. To make up for it, PR gave us the use of his war room to conduct the debrief. A large gas-station map of Flint took up an easel brought in from the art department. It had current patrol routes highlighted and marked sections designating certain districts as the territory of other slum lords. In the glance I got before I went to work I was impressed with his people’s organisation.

Kitty took Atom and her deck out of her backpack and we all plugged in.

Alright.” I started as soon as we had all logged into the Catcave. “The John Meadows job. How does everyone feel that went?”

Kitty sighed and looked up at me. “It could have been better.”

Every job could be done better.” I immediately corrected her. “What specifically was wrong with this one?”

Kitty scrunched her delicate hand into a fist. “Well Noodles is dead.”

Exactly.” I turned to Tachi next. “Tachi why is Noodles dead?”

Because his biopod accidentally found itself in the path of my younger sister’s signature weapon.”

We’re getting warmer. Yes she killed him, but we’ve got reason to believe she didn’t want to. So how did it happen?”

Atom, still in his leather jacket and shades avatar, spoke up in a confused voice. “Well she just walked in on us?”

I pointed out my finger at it. “We’re getting very warm now. Who wants to take us home and tell me how that happened?”

Kitty indignantly shrank back an inch. She tensed her shoulders like she was getting ready for a fight.

Tachi sighed and looked down.

Moe-Moe pitched her ball on its access, managing to look confused.

No-one? All right, let me paint you a picture. There are two things every successful job needs: Thorough planning and team work. What this job had was five people sitting around with their hands on their collective cock playing ‘Leave it to Atom’.”

Atom began to speak, but Kitty shot to her feet and slammed her hands on her desk. “You’re blaming Atom?

I’m blaming all of us.” I said. “Far as I’m concerned the only people who did their jobs right were Rembrandt and Duke. No matter how you slice it if Atom hadn’t been on the team that job would have gone down very differently.”

Actually it wouldn’t have happened at all.” Moe-Moe spoke up. “This many days in we’d still be hunting down email addresses. Gaining access to their system would still be almost a week away.”

In the meantime.” Tachi spoke up. “Dust and I would be concocting the break-and-enter plan, reconnoitring the grounds and gathering other forms of intelligence. Network access would actually be the last element to be put in place. But more importantly, with the extra time we’d require to devote to the task we would have more opportunities to look over the intelligence we had gathered, contemplate the possibilities and be struck by sudden inspiration. For instance, one of the questions we likely would only have asked ourselves if given enough time would have been ‘How often do RCF visit Noodles and at what times?’”

Tachi and I might even have discovered that staking the place out while you guys were doing the legwork online. But there’s something we haven’t touched on yet.”

Kitty rolled her eyes. “Great, so now how have we failed?”

Even considering the job as it went down, there was a critical moment where someone wasn’t doing their job and no-one took over from them.”

When was that?” came Atom’s confused voice.

When you took your eyes off the security cameras.”

What?” Atom stared dumbfounded. “But you asked me to help you with the biopod?”

No.” I said. “I did not ask you. I just put it out there, anyone on the team with hacking talent could have done the job.”

Not as quickly as I could.”

Then why didn’t you use all the extra time you’d be saving to ask Moe-Moe to take over from you?” I folded my arms at him.

Atom didn’t answer, the super-fast, hyper-intelligence was struck silent.

I’m waiting for an answer Atom.”

Atom glared at me. “I don’t have one. I didn’t think of asking Moe-moe to take over. I wanted to show you what I could do.”

Kitty took her eyes off me and they immediately softened. She stared at Atom.

It made a mistake?” She whispered.

So what if I did?” Atom he turned angrily towards her. “You guys make mistakes all the time.’ To err is human.’”

Kitty shot me a look that could cut ice.

We all make mistakes Atom.” I said evenly. “Mine was letting our hacker trio run free on this gig. Tachi or myself should have been watching their preparations more closely.”

Kitty flicked me the finger.

What’s your theory then Kitty? If you could go back and change one thing so we could bring Noodles back alive what would it be?”

Well seeing as that’s impossible I guess I’d rather focus my efforts on what I can do now in the real world.”

Which would be what exactly?”

Right now we’re building off what we’ve learned Atom is capable of and seeing what else he can do.”

Yeah. See, that’s another thing I’m really not comfortable with and it relates to the first. Atom, adorable as it is…” I looked at Tachi. “…is our hostage. It’s not a kid we all get to play with and it is not a member of our team. Need I remind everyone that in three weeks we’re handing it over to Sinologic and getting paid?”

Is that really all that matters to you?” Kitty said. “We have the single most-important scientific marvel ever created by humankind. It can think, feel, it just admitted it can make mistakes for god’s sake. And all you can think of is how to sell it?”

That’s fantastic. I assure you.” I said. “But it’s not going to mean jack when Kiru-no-yubi jumps over that fancy wall with those compressed-air rams in her heels and starts murdering left and right.”

Kitty rolled her eyes at me. “She can’t fight everyone herself.”

She doesn’t have to. All she has to do is draw our attention away from her mates, who blast in with demolitions. If they start shooting the place up while everyone was looking the other way a lot of people are going to find themselves shot in the back. RCF has managed to double-dip from the ‘element of surprise’ bowl and PR’s got a two-pronged assault to fight off in his own backyard. If I was in their position, that is exactly how I would play it.”

Then I had another idea. “Hell, if she lands amongst the demountables you might not even need the second prong. Just start slaughtering the civilian population until too many Deadmen show up, then run. PR’s army would be so pissed they’ll saddle right up and hit the street after her, leaving only a token force behind. A platoon of cub scouts could walk in and take over. PR’s boys would have to assault their own complex from the outside. Even if they win they’d be limping along after that. Best case scenario is they get absorbed by another Slum Lord. Peacefully.”
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Dust Chapter 14 Part 3

Kitty whipped her head around and giggled.

Oh him? That’s one of PR’s Deadmen. Can’t remember his name?”

Likely it contains the word ‘gold’ somewhere. It’s not real is it?”

Of course not.” And I knew Kitty was giving me the ‘idiot’ look again. “It’s aluminium, he’s just gone over it with a lick of paint.”

He does know C3PO was needlessly effeminate right? Or is that what passes for ghetto-chic around here?”

Kitty giggled a little at the Star Wars reference. “You should see a guy who calls himself ‘Master Flash’. His chassis has a disco-mode.”

I stared up at Kitty. “Disco-mode?”

Kitty nodded knowingly. “Disco-mode.”

I was about to press Kitty for details when Atom sent me another blue-tooth chat request. This one I ignored.

Where did you say Tachi was again?”

Kitty cocked her head in the direction of a large building on the other side of the complex. From its size I guessed this was where the actual schooling used to take place.

Your boyfriend’s this way. They built the chop-shop in the old swimming centre.”

The swim centre was easy to spot. The entire west wall was covered in a mural of a sexy (but not slutty) black woman dressed as the statue of liberty giving the viewer the eye. The backdrop was (naturally) the stars and stripes and in black letters beside her were the words ‘Lady Liberty Wants You.’

Hot.” I said.

Very.” Kitty agreed.

The fabled ‘Deadmen’ were everywhere around here. Like Rembrandt and Duke they were in your face about being cyborgs. Golden-rod outside was just one example of how someone with a bit of money and talent (but not taste) could embrace their transhumanity.

Everyone else deferred to the Deadmen, if only so they could gaze admirably as they walked past. Except the children, who ran headlong towards the cyborgs and touched them everywhere they could reach, asked to be picked up and carried and bombarded them with questions.

Couldn’t blame them, if I’d grown up with real-live superheroes strutting around I’d have annoyed the shit out of them too.

The swim centre had become the one-stop-shop for all of PR’s mechanical needs. The north wall comprised mostly of a folding window that had been tucked away to allow for vehicular access. Most of the ceiling above it was window as well, barely any artificial lighting was switched on.

Reinforced steel plating had been stretched out over the deep end of the Olympic pool to increase floor space and a wooden riser snuck underneath so mechanics could get to the underside of any vehicles they brought in. At the moment a battle-damaged Humvee carcass was being cannibalised for parts to repair another Humvee right next to it. The battle-damaged one was blue with the word ‘Police’ stencilled on it. The fixed up one had been painted yellow and had a body-kit set aside for it to make it look civilian.

I could smell their steel smelter from the other end of the pool. Scraps and leftovers no-one else could use were melted down into component metals and fed into the 3D printer next door to be turned into useful items.

We found Tachi in the shallow-end of the pool where the cybertech lab was located. Far enough away from the mechanics so that they weren’t tripping over each other, but close enough to share equipment.

To my surprise Tachi was actually making himself useful. He could hold Rembrandt’s severed head at just the right height indefinitely while the tech welded the spinal pole back together and added an armoured sheath over the repaired section.

How the mighty have fallen.” I yelled over the sound of angle-grinders tearing the Humvee apart.

Tachi Kojiro performing manual labour. Never thought I’d see the day.”

Tachi turned his head to look up at me while keeping his arms and shoulders completely immobile.

I stopped when I saw his face, more specifically, the eye. The eye had been completely replaced with a perfectly human-looking eyeball. Which stood out on his heavily burned and scarred flesh.

Tachi opened his mouth to blast me with some witty comeback, but when he saw me he interrupted himself to laugh. “A Dr. Kimble called. He said he was very interested in meeting you.”

I don’t get it.” Kitty said.

Tachi just won the obscure reference trophy.”

I was drawing attention to Dust’s obvious deficiency.” Tachi sneered. “Suggesting perhaps some less-than-mighty had in fact fallen much further.”

Me?” I laughed. “You’re the one who looks like he’s jogged across mercury wearing a thin layer of tanning oil.”

The tech extracted himself from Rembrandt’s insides. He flicked off the pin-torch and pulled up his welding mask. “Thanks Tachi. He should be fine now.”

He was a small man with a smiling, boyish face smeared with grease and soot. The welder’s mask and smock over a set of denim overalls gave him a junior mad scientist look.

You’re welcome Doctor.” Tachi replied. “If I may interrupt your work, I’d like to introduce you to my friends.” Tachi indicated up to us. “The cripple in the chair is Dust, the young lady lumbered with him is Kitty. Dust, Kitty, this is Doctor Timothy Clarkson.”

Dr. T Clarkson beamed up at me. “So what brings you to my humble workshop Mr. Dust? Are you interested in letting me replace that missing arm of yours?”

I looked at Tachi and sighed. “Why do I get the feeling you already know the answer to that?”

Tachi looked innocently up at me. “The man’s a licensed Cybertechnician, the subject naturally arose in conversation.”

I slit my eyes. “I’ll bet it did.”

Kitty nudged me. “Don’t be mean. Your friend was concerned for you.”

That did not help my mood.

Doctor Clarkson put the spool down and walked towards my end of the pool. “I assure you Mister Dust, I may be in a bush-league workshop but my work is first rate.”

Yeah I know.” I said. “I’ve seen it strutting around in all the colours of the rainbow.”

Clarkson chuckled at that. “I can’t say anything for the Deadmen’s taste.” He reached up and brushed his own cheek. “But I can tell you I saved my best work for myself.”

Kitty cocked her head to one side “So what, you’re wearing a prosthetic too?”

Doc Clarkson beamed at her. “Exactly. You know this is actually my original face, I copied the cranial configuration from my own skull and grafted the skin in place before letting the Realskinn grow around it. Tomorrow we’re going to start work on replacing Tachi’s damaged Realskinn with some fresh samples from the gene bank.”

Isn’t that stuff expensive?

It is.” He said. “But Patriot Rap insisted that I extend every courtesy towards you during your stay.”

I sighed and muttered under my breath. “Because there’s no-way that could possibly bite us in the arse.”

Kitty nudged me again.

Well let’s just say ‘Thanks Doc, but no thanks.’ Plan of attack right now is to lie low out here where Roxorgh would need an army to find us, wait until Sinotech’s got their courage back and make the sale. After that I’m going to sign on with a biotech firm for their full coverage and have a new arm grown for me.”

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Dust Chapter 14 Part 2

The soothingly constant beep of a heartbeat monitor brought me from the darkness. My eyes stung at first but quickly adjusted to the light. I saw an old fluorescent tube, alone in a space meant for two, next to a ceiling panel that was missing. Allowing me to see the electrical conduit running along the steel girder.

Ah.” said a soft voice, reminding me of a young mother. “Looks like you’re up and about.”

I tilted my head forward and saw her. Not a young mother, but a young doctor. She had dark cocoa skin and her long curly hair tied back behind her head, a pair of stylish tech specs with clear lenses shielded her eyes. She smiled and raised the tech specs up above her forehead.

She was easily hot enough to be the minority love-interest on a prime-time medical drama.

I let out an exasperated sigh. “Another bloody hospital.”

The Doctor smirked and shrugged. “It’s unavoidable in your profession. I see so many of your kind in here, coming back again and again, it’s a mystery you aren’t better tippers.”

I regarded the Doctor with my impassive stone-face.

That one usually gets a laugh.” She remarked.

I imagine your audience is usually so happy to be alive that just the invitation is enough.”

The Doctor muttered under her breath. ‘Damn it he knows my secret.’

Then I laughed.

Doesn’t that feel better?” The Doctor asked.

Yeah.” I nodded. “It does. How am I doing?”

It’s a miracle you’re alive.” She said off-handedly.

I looked down at my body. “We talking the arm or the gut shot here?”

Gut shot? Pfft! Niggah please. Those AP rounds went right out the other side. Textbook stuff. No your problem was you forgot all about the round that winged your left arm, it was still bleeding out on you the whole time. I’m guessing you’ve got some good pain-editing hardware mounted somewhere in that skull of yours.”

Spot-on Doc. Good work. What happens now?”

I’d prefer it if you’d stay in bed, your chest wound may not be fatal but it will reopen if you exert yourself. You’re free to move around the compound if you want, but I’d like you to borrow a wheelchair.”

Keep the torso immobile, check. Anything else?”

That’s where you’re pretty lucky, well we both are. That pain editor in your head means I won’t have to prescribe you any of our dwindling pain medication. All you need to do is rest up and heal.”

This is where you hand me the bill right?”

She smiled. “Because keeping your ass alive ain’t worth nothing once you’re back on your feet. Don’t worry about the bill, you’re Patriot Rap’s guest so this one’s on the house.”

Really? He’s got that much pull around here?”
“He’s the only person who’s in charge of anything that’s actually trying to make things better. The other ‘Slum Lords’ are just thugs with guns and money and the PMCs like to stay cooped up in their bases until they need to go kill somebody.”

But PR’s different?”

Stop flirting with the sexy doctor.” Kitty stuck her head around the doorway. “I’ll tell Tachi.”

Kitty strode in wearing a big puffy black jacket over a short skirt and black tights. With the backpack slung over one shoulder she looked like a Japanese schoolgirl who’s into punk.

Oh?” My doctor said. “You’re already with someone and felt it was okay to be cute with me?”

Tachi’s only my partner in crime.” I told the doctor, then I tilted my head to look at the approaching Kitty. “Damn it woman, you’re scaring her away.”

The doctor blinked a few times and smiled. “Excuse me, but I’m a married woman.”

Damn it Kitty.” I said. “Now look what you’ve done. You made her married.”

Now it was the Doctor’s turn to laugh.

Kitty parked her arse on the corner of my bed and crossed her booted legs. “How’s he going doc? Will he live?”

He’s fine. If he promises to be good from now on he might even avoid a return stay in our accommodations.”

Then I’d better make sure I stay a bad boy….”

Oh shut up Dust.” Kitty groaned. “Let the poor woman go.”

Do you mind? I’m trying to score here.”

The doctor smirked again. “We’ll it’s good to see you’re up and around Mr Dust. Patriot Rap likes to ensure his guests are feeling well. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have other, less entertaining, but no less important patients to look after.”

Bye.” Kitty waved. “Thanks for putting up with him.”

Bye sexy doctor-lady.” I waved as well.

The doctor returned our wave and glided silently out of the room.

So.” I said to Kitty. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Kitty slung the bag off her back and reached for the zip. “Atom missed you, he wanted to say ‘hi’”

Can he hang on a minute?” I asked. “I want to debrief everyone over how the Meadows job went down.”

Atom sent me a Bluetooth chat request. I denied it. Kitty wrinkled her nose at something.

Where’s Tachi?” I asked.

He’s getting fixed up at the chop shop?”

They can fix cyborgs here?”

They’ve got a skeleton-crew hospital on-site, compared to that a cybertech chop-chop is nothing.”

Shit!” I looked dumbfounded at Kitty. “How big is the set-up here?”

Kitty smiled, slipped Atom’s bag back on her shoulder and stood up. “It’s huge. Let me show you around.”

I got the idea when Kitty pushed me from the infirmary to the cybernetics shop.

This whole compound used to be called Jamestown multi-district high school.” Kitty explained. “I looked into it while you were out. The board of education decided that building one massive super school would be more economic than a half-dozen district schools. PR even went to high school here.”

That much was clear from the stars and stripes everywhere you looked. Equally clear was how much they’d modified it since taking over.

Now this place is a fortress.” Kitty pointed at a stack of abandoned cars that lined the side of the baseball field, which had been turned into a vegetable garden.

The car wrecks make this place impossible to break into without a tank. On the other side of the wrecks is a chain-link fence topped with razor wire. There’s also a single strand of monofilament hidden amongst it, every now and then a pigeon slices itself in half trying on land on the razor wire.”

Guard towers made out of scavenged building materials had been placed evenly along the edge as well. Only a few of them were occupied right now.

I shrugged. “A cool wall is nice, but unless it’s covered by rifle it’s just an engineering problem waiting to be solved.”

The wire has just enough current going through it to alert the guards should anyone try to cut their way in. So there’s no way past it by stealth. And if someone did just try to blast their way in it’d be hard to miss the sound. You’d still have an army to fight off as soon as you set foot inside.”

Can’t argue with that.” I said. “How big is the population here that they can sustain their own doctor and cybertech clinic?”

Don’t know the exact numbers.” Kitty said before pointing out to a series of demountables out on the parking lot. “But the majority of the civilian population lives out there.”

Really?” I asked. The demountables were stacked two high, a faded elementary school logo on the side of one of them suggested they had been moved here from elsewhere. They were arranged in a semi-circle that took up the entire parking lot, leaving only a single demountable sitting in the middle of the courtyard that resulted. “What? Do they just cram a family into one of those and tell ’em, ‘that’s your home now’?”

Kitty gave me an amused look. “Not just one. And they don’t cram them in there from what I can tell. People move around until they find a spot with neighbours they’re comfortable with.”

She pointed at the demountable in the middle. “That one’s the school house.”

I had actually stopped paying attention at that point. Not because Kitty was losing me, but because a robot made of solid gold strutted right passed me like he owned the place.

What. The. Fuck?”
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