Dust: Chapter 17 Part 6

Across from me Crocman hit the ground, rolled with the momentum and ended up in a low crouch.

Our gazes locked, cybervisor to tech specs.

I reached down to the small of my back and pulled my only remaining weapon. My survival knife.

Crocman bared his teeth at me and spread his fingers, officially the only time ‘jazz hands’ has looked threatening.

Then we rushed each other.

Crocman threw a backhanded wire at my head and I ducked under it (like I’d done every time) and tried to grab Crocman by the waist. But Crocman hadn’t used his wires this time, it’d just been a feint while he threw a left cross where my head had been. Soon as he realised I was up to my old tricks Crocman ripped back the punch and slammed his elbow into the back of my head.

Despite my pain editor, everything went a little hazy for a second while Crocman grabbed my shoulders and threw me into the wall before following up with a side-kick.

I bounced hard of the wall and got my head together enough to take one step to the left and avoid getting snapped in half by his foot, which cracked a dent in the wall panel the size of a dinner plate.

I grabbed Crocman around the torso and moved to get my hip under him, but the haze in my brain slowed me down and Crocman brought his kicking leg back down, shifted his weight and thrust me back-first into the nearest server tower.

I got a second to breathe and Crocman put his reinforced knuckles into my solar-plexus, forcing the air from my lungs. A right-cross from Crocman sent one of my teeth flying off into the wide blue yonder. It felt like I’d taken a glancing hit from a baseball bat. I peed a little.

Then Crocman brought that same hand back the other way, letting fly with his monowhip to finish me off.

But that last punch to the face hit me harder than we both realised and I found my right foot slipping out from under me, I dropped down onto one knee and slumped against the server tower and Crocman’s hand passed overhead.

Except it didn’t completely pass. It got caught halfway through. Later on I discovered that the cord had sliced into the corner on the server tower but the fingertip had bounced off the side so the wire got caught. Turns out there are downsides to a razor sharp cutting wire too thin to see with the naked eye. Crocman yanked at the line and the wire cut into another random part of the tower, trapping the finger even more.

A gasp escaped me. Someone up there obviously forgave me for the porn channel. I planted my other foot, shot up inside Crocman’s guard and buried my knife into his armpit. At the same time I threw my shoulder into his solar-plexus (or at least where it would be had he not had a chest like a wall safe) and pushed against him.

As I forced Crocman back and the monofilament wire extended out behind me my knife found what it was looking for, the ball hinge in his shoulder joint. My blade slipped into the gap, locking his arm in the outstretched position. Then I rammed him into the wall.

Crocman laughed and pushed back. I put my full weight into him, trying to force him back onto the wall, but he pushed right through me and went for another step.

So I helped him. Before he could work out what I was doing I stopped pushing and started pulling.

I grabbed his collar, put my foot on his chest and rolled onto my back.

The loose, outstretched wire coiled around the arm Crocman couldn’t move and as gravity took its due and pulled the line taunt it cut clean through the wrist: Realskin, plastic casing, steel skeleton, fibre-optics and all.

Crocman didn’t notice at first, he landed upside down and quickly rolled over to get back up.

I stayed back and tried to catch my breath. Crocman went back into his fighting stance and finally noticed his missing hand. He hesitated, shoot a look at the server tower and saw that his hand had decided to stay behind.

I wanted to say something witty like “I can take away your toys too.” but with my jaw all smashed up it came out more like. “Muh dahn taak…” And I stopped before I embarrassed myself further.

Crocman screamed at me, tore my knife out of his shoulder socket and ran at me with it.

My mind raced. ‘How the hell do you disarm a knife when you’ve only got one arm?’

My brain didn’t come up with an answer in time. He thrust the knife out at my stomach. My hand move of its own volition, catching Crocman at the wrist and directing the knife towards the space beside me. The rest of my body caught on to what my hand was trying to do and put my back into his chest and kept pulling on the knife hand. Throwing him over my hip and putting him on the ground yet again.

Crocman immediately moved to sit up and I stomped on his face to keep him down, twisting the knife out of his hand before stepping away from him.

Crocman swore in his native tongue (literally imploring me to die shitting) and shot back up to his feet.

I waved at him with the knife hand.

Crocman froze. His eye-line seemed to alternate between looking at my face and my knife.

Then without the slightest hint that it was coming, he ran away.

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Dust: Chapter 17 Part 5

I was actually grateful when the Machine-Gunner straightened up out of his pain and unloaded a burst into PR’s chest. PR hit the dirt like a sack of crap.

A simple ‘No’ woulda been enough.” The Machine-Gunner tilted his weapon back to rest on his shoulder. “You think they would’na briefed me on what that unit was capable off?”

I shook off the hot buzz in my head and looked around for Kitty. She had, wisely, dashed off when Atom turned on the static-burst.

Fuck” I whispered to myself. Cautiously I turned my wireless back on. [Tachi we’ve got a problem.]

[I’m almost with you. What’s the bother?]

[Kitty’s run off with Atom. I don’t know where she is.]

Tachi was quiet for a moment. [I think I see her.]

[Don’t give her any chances.] I warned. [The only reason I don’t have Atom is because I let her get away with too much.]

[A gentleman does not shoot an unarmed woman in the back.] Tachi replied tersely and hung up.

I caught a sigh before it could pass my teeth. I peeked around a sever tower with my Smartgun in case the Machine-gunner heard.

He hadn’t. But something did manage to catch his eye. In a flash he spun around and put a burst towards the doorway.

Then I noticed Kiru kneeling in the doorway, just under the line the Gunner’s burst cut through.

She held her hands up above her head but didn’t look at all worried.

Peace.” She said, her voice modulated through translation software. “No need to shoot. We are on the same side.”

The Machine-Gunner corrected his aim. “Like Hell.” He spat at her. “Y’all got pulled off this assignment. Ya ain’t got no business here.”

Kiru lowered her hands and slowly rose to standing. Behind her, Crocman and the Hair Guy melted into the room. “We are not here for the unit.” Kiru explained, deliberately keeping her shoulders loose and her knees slightly bent. “We are here for an old associate of ours, the one who stole the unit in the first place.”

The Machine-Gunner just snorted at her. “Bullshit.”

Then he opened fire.

Kiru launched herself into the air. Crocman dived behind the nearest cover. Hair guy didn’t react in time and took the full brunt of the Machine-Gunner’s burst to the torso, the armour-piercing rounds punching straight through his chassis.

Kiru flipped over most of the room, covering the distance between her and the Machine-Gunner so she could bring her foot down and axe-kick him in the face.

The hit forced the big Texan back a step, but by the time the Machine-Gunner had completed his one-step retreat Kiru sprang up from the ground like a jungle cat and lashed out with her wires.

By instinct he raised his machine-gun to block the attack and watched as the lines coiled around it. With a muttered curse he threw the gun at Kiru, sacrificing it to gain another step away from her as Kiru pulled her strings and tore the big gun into a thousand metal shards.

I was so absorbed in watching the pretty fight in front of me that I completely forgot about Crocman until he barged into my side. I slammed into the server tower next to where I’d been hiding. I recovered and looked up at him, taking his confused look to mean barrelling into me had been as much a surprise to him too.

Crocman composed himself and put up his guard, scanning me cautiously with his visor and keeping his distance. If he was taking me this seriously he probably hadn’t recognised me yet.

Unfortunately a careful Crocman stood a decent chance of killing me. I needed to rectify that.

I pushed off from the server tower and let my empty sleeve reveal itself, then I made it blatantly obvious. “Crocman? Kiru hasn’t killed you yet? Mate, you must be fantastic in bed.”

I gave him a second for his translation software to work it out for him. I used that second to snap my PD-9 to hip height and squeeze off a long burst into his gut.

Crocman lunged through the hail of steel-cored armour-piercers and swung his own monofilament whip at my neck, just like every other time he’d ever tried to kill me.

I dived into the clear spot beside the wall, away from the lethal wire, catching myself in a roll at the other end. I quickly spun around and let my momentum carrying me onto my back so I could put a second burst into Crocman.

Crocman flourished his monowire in front of him and for a fleeting microsecond I thought I saw him slice one of my bullets in mid-air. Then he came at me. Crocman stomped at my legs and I pulled my knees up to my chin to make myself a smaller target. Then I rolled away from him, tried to get around quickly to shoot him again but he was already on me.

His left hand shot out and caught me in around the throat. I brought up my gun for a point-blank shot, but he snatched the barrel before I could jam it in his gut and pulled it out of the way as I hit the trigger. He pulled back and yanked it right out of my hand.

Crocman put his shoulder into it and raised me an inch off the ground before throwing me onto my back. I tried to break my fall but failed. I hit the ground hard and felt the wind rush out of my lungs.

I sucked in a new breath and looked up at Crocman. And for the first time, ever, I saw him smile.

Yeah, that’s not good.

Crocman threw my PD-9 up in the air and waved his hand through it, causing it to separate into two pieces on the diagonal.

<Do you see?>” He growled at me. “<You are nothing. Everything you have, I can take away from you. Until the only thing left is a weak, simpering, mortal.>”

I’d managed to catch my breath in all this time so I held up my hand at him. “<Thanks, but I’ve had enough speeches for one day.>”

And like I’d found the switch I got him back on ‘Angry mode’, which was good. I know what he’s going to do when he’s angry.

He slashed at my arm and I got it the hell out of the way. When that didn’t work Crocman dived onto me, trying again for a ground and pound.

I got both legs up toot-sweet and kick-threw him off me, then threw my legs back up over my shoulder and rolled up onto my feet again.
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Dust: Chapter 17 Part 4

Three-arms recoiled in shock and Goldenrod bent the arm back, putting the hand where it was easier to steal the knife out of it. From there he fell across Two-arms’ body and pinned the arm with the knife onto the floor. Two-arms struggled as best he could, but Goldenrod made short work of his upper left arm with the monoknife. From there it was over, One-arm tried to grab at Goldenrod but Goldenrod put the blade to One-arm’s belly and palmed it in.

One-arm lurched into a back-bridge as all that was left of his body tensed at once and then crashed back down. Never to move again.

Goldenrod stood back up and looked at his opponent. His gold finish was scratched and dented all over and flecks of paint stained his diamond knuckles.

He smirked. “Mess with the best. Die like the rest.”

Then Goldenrod gasped and looked down. The curved end of a monofilament machete poking out of his belly.

Aww please.” The machete-swinger peeked his head around Goldenrod’s shoulder. “Ah’ll bet y’all don’t even know where that’s from.”

A gentle push at the shoulder and Goldenrod toppled forward. I looked around for No Mouth and saw bits and pieces strewn here and there across the corridor. The majority of him lay slumped against the opposite wall.

The Machete-swinger bent down to pull Goldenrod’s body off One-Arm and assess the damage.

He swore to himself, slipped the machete back into the sheath on his leg and retrieved his machine-gun.

A swift kick from his prosthetic foot broke the door in half and tore the remains from their hinges, both halves fell to the floor and the Machine-Gunner strode inside.

I crept up behind him and waited for him to go further into the room. Inside my mind raced. If he took out PR and Kitty right now I’d need to wait until Tachi caught up with me to steal Atom back off him.

As if summoned by my thoughts I heard Tachi’s voice in the cype. [I’ve reached the main building, I’m on my way to you now.]

The Machine-Gunner slowed to a halt and looked around. PR and Kitty had chosen the school’s old server room to be their Alamo. The room was barely lit by some low fluros illuminating the floor between server towers. Not that it mattered. Odds on the Machine-Gunner had NVG built into his optics. I had them in mine.

Alright.” He called out as he walked into the middle of the room. “Fun az it’s been Ah think Ah’ve killed enough niggers for one day and Ah’d rather not have to go fucking-around to find the damn thing after Ah’ve iced y’all. So why don’tcha just hand it over now and I’ll leave you be? How’s that sound?”

From somewhere in the semi-darkness PR replied. “You want it? Come get it.”

The Machine-Gunner shrugged. “Alright.”

He swung his weapon to the left and hit the trigger, sweeping fire across the room. The armour-piercing rounds passed through row after row of server towers, easily compromising the thin metal and plastic casings and only coming to a stop when they reached solid wall at the far end.

The roar of a machine gun in such a confined space was murder to the ears. Even though my pain editor took care of the discomfort, I still clapped my hand over an ear and wished I could jam my finger down the hole.

His weapon empty, the Machine-Gunner reached down to the pack on his hip and pulled out a fresh belt to feed into it. I took this as my chance to duck inside behind him.

Ah didn’t think Ah needed to show y’all I wasn’t in a fuckin’ around kinda mood.” He said as he attached the chain-link to the gun’s feeder and cranked the first round into the chamber.

With this much noise catching all the attention Kitty obviously thought it was safe enough to sneak around the other side of the room. I saw her move behind a server tower right next to me, clutching her backpack.

I smiled and drew my PD9 from its holster.

Ah’m still gonna kill ya if you don’t give me what Ah came for. Ah just thought Ah’d take it easy on ya if y’all were willin’ to take it easy on me. Ah mean, what’s a buncha barely literate ghetto-trash need with a smart A.I. anyhow?”

There was a moment of silence.

Kitty kept her eye on him and crept aside behind another tower. She only stopped when the barrel of my weapon pressed against her cheek.

[Hello Kitty.]

Kitty gasped and pulled away from me.

[Don’t make a sound.] I warned her. [If you get his attention there isn’t anything I can do to save you.]

Then PR spoke again, in his orator voice.

When our barely-literate founding fathers settled in the new world they wanted three things: Individual Freedom, Economic Independence and a new way of life. They rebelled against the oppression of the entrenched powers of the British Empire. A regime that secreted power and the agency of society behind closed doors to serve nothing but their own business interests.”

Kitty stared at my masked face in disbelief. [Dust?]

[Give me the bag Kitty.]

[I, I can’t.]

I put the gun back into her face. [The only reason I didn’t just shoot you and take it is because of the last shred of professional courtesy I have for you. I will ask one more time and then I will kill you. Now give me the fucking bag.]

Up by the far wall, from behind the remains of the furthest server tower, PR stood up and stepped out of the shadows.

And now…” PR continued. Out of nowhere a burst of loud static exploded in my ears. Electric agony crawled through my brain on spider-legs. Forcing my way through the pain I activated my macro and shut down my wireless card. The pain receded instantly, leaving only a dull ache behind.

PR stepped forward and finished his sentence. Across from him, the Machine-Gunner clutched painfully at his chest and heaved.

“…three hundred years later America has become the very thing it rebelled against. Under the guise of libertarianism the powerful have torn liberty from the hands of the people. Like the very imperialist rulers our forefathers fought against they have entrenched their power bases so much they appear unassailable. But not anymore. Information is power and Atom will allows us to control the flow of information, putting the power back into the hands of the masses…”
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Dust: Chapter 17 Part 3

Instead of staying on No Mouth, the Machete-swinger took this chance to rush Helmet Head before he could shoulder the machine-gun. Machete swung his new namesake in an overhead arc, trying to cleave his opponent in two. Helmet Head raised the machine-gun high to parry the blade. Machete-swinger pulled the blade back to his chest and thrust out with it, catching Helmet Head underneath his parry and piercing deep into his sternum. Before Helmet Head could change tactics the Machete-swinger pushed down on the back of his blade and sliced all the way down to the crotch. Spilling cerebral fluid and silicone lubricant onto the floor.

Next moment No Mouth’s arms locked around the Machete-swinger’s waist. Moment after that, he’d lifted the heavier cyborg off the ground and bent over backwards, suplexing him into the ground head-first.

No Mouth kicked off from his back-bridge position and flipped over into mount on Machete-swinger’s back. Putting all of his weight on his hands he bunny-hopped up to Machete-swinger’s shoulders and dived down to steal the blade from him.

Machete-swinger got his hands under himself just in time and popped up as No Mouth’s weight left his back, pushing No Mouth further forward than he’d intended and throwing him off Machete’s back.

Meanwhile Four-arms and Goldenrod danced around each other. Despite his extra limbs Four-arms proved to be the worse boxer of the two. It didn’t help that his lower-arms were the standard cyborg size, while his upper arms were beefier from the larger Myomer muscles contained within. Every time he went to throw a lower-punch the upper shoulder had to move aside and this telegraphed the attack so much Goldenrod was constantly slipping under the punches and scoring torso hits.

Goldenrod and Duke clearly had the same idea when it came to knuckle jewellery. The thumb-sized industrial diamonds on his fists were carving out scrapes of armour with each hit.

Finally Four-arms gave up and got his two lower-shoulders to swivel around so they could be put to the task of reloading his remaining SMGs behind his back.

The two circled around one another some more, content to pick at each other little-by-little. Goldenrod waited for Four-arms to finish reloading the guns and then struck.

As soon as he saw the lower-shoulders swivel back around Goldenrod shot in with a long-distance jab at Four-arms’ face. Four-arms immediately brought up his upper-right arm to block this hit while his left swung out with a hook. Goldenrod ducked under the hook and caught four-arms returning lower-right arm, snaking his own arm around it and putting it into an arm-bar behind his back.

Before Four-arms could shake him off, Goldenrod tightened up his bicep and sharply turned his body away, there was a strained metallic snap and the entire lower-right arm tore off at the shoulder.

With a flourish Goldenrod whipped the arm around until he was holding the hand, still locked tight around the SMG’s pistol grip. Goldenrod jammed down the trigger finger and opened fire at Three-arms’ face.

Three-arms quickly brought his massive armoured hands up to protect his head. Then he rushed Goldenrod. The sudden charge caught Goldenrod by surprise and the larger cyborg plucked him off his feet and with a thunderous crash buried him into the wall.

Plaster dust and gyprock pieces sprinkled down on them, coating them both in a thin layer of off-white. Three-arms cocked back his remaining right arm and swung at Goldenrod’s face. But that left nothing holding Goldenrod on that side and he was able to slip out of Three-arms’ grasp and duck under the knuckled freight-train rushing at his face. While Three-arms punched a hole in the wall big enough to shoot a basketball through, Goldenrod got low, grabbed his opponent behind the ankles and reaped him off them.

Three-arms landed with his guard already up, ready to pull a counter-move for a ground-and-pound. But Goldenrod had other plans, he kept hold of the right leg and wrapped his own legs around Three-arm’s torso, twisting him into a leglock. Three-arms struggled back, trying to pry Goldenrod’s legs off him. Goldenrod amped up the pressure, the casing around the knee groaned as it deformed but the structure underneath was just too strong from him to break.

So Goldenrod made use of his assets. He snatched up the broken arm with the SMG, put the barrel up against Three-arm’s kneecap and jammed down the trigger.

Three-arms brought his own gun to bear on Goldenrod, forcing him to let go with his other arm. He caught Three-arms’ gun-hand at the wrist and pushed it back. Still burning ammo into the side of his opponent’s knee. When the gun finally clicked empty Goldenrod emptied both hands, regained his hold on Three-arm’s leg and broke the knee with a deft twist of his hips.

The sides of the knee-hinge twisted outwards, ruining its hold on the middle of the hinge and it popped out easily.

Three-arms brought his SMG back down. Spraying hot, steel-cored lead at Goldenrod’s face.

The bullets pelted into him, scratching at the paint, deforming the face-plate and destroying the left eye. Goldenrod brought both hands against the gun this time, turning the burning stream away before wrestling it free from the lower hand.

Finding himself disarmed in the more conventional sense, Three-arms quickly turned away, clawing at the ground to put some distance between him and Goldenrod. When he’d gotten a few paces away he turned onto his back again, reached for the sheaths on the collars of his webbing and pulled out two monoknives.

Just in time to see Goldenrod load a fresh drum into one of Faceless’ assault rifles and pull back the cocking handle.

Three arms’ crossed them over his stomach, putting as many barriers between the bullets and his biopod as possible. But unlike Faceless, who emptied both drums roughly in his opponent’s direction and hoped for the best, Goldenrod put a burst into the pauldron armour on Three-arms’ right shoulder.

He circled around to the left, putting more bursts into Three-arm’s right shoulder. Most rounds ricocheted off the curved surface, but they applied enough force to deform the metal little-by-little. After the fifth burst he suddenly threw the rifle aside and dropped down low beside him.

Three-arms reversed the grip on his knife and tried to stab Goldenrod in the neck. Goldenrod caught the hand just behind the knife and punched into the damaged shoulder with his diamond knuckles.

He followed up this punch with another at the elbow.

Three-arms lashed out with his other knife and tried to stab Goldenrod again. Goldenrod was smart enough to lift the right arm up into the left’s path and three arms sunk his blade into his own forearm. Goldenrod kept raising the arm and the blade sliced through until only a strip of metal kept it attached to his body.
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Dust: Chapter 17 Part 2

I hesitated for just a second in case he wasn’t dead and then legged it for the main building.

[No can do with the Gymnasium.] I told Tachi. [It’s guarded, there’s probably more inside.]

[Bugger all.] Tachi growled. [I’m still in transit to my next position. Can you hold a moment?]

I kept sprinting. [No.]

Tachi growled again. [I’ll move as quick as I can, try not to get shot.]

I smirked [Don’t you know I’m old enough to make my own decisions about getting shot?]

[Now?] Tachi asked. [Really?]

I bumped myself into the wall of the main school building and hid under a windowsill while my fatigues changed. I could see the devastation of the courtyard from my position. Bullet holes peppered the walls and doors everywhere, the crater from the LAW impact was still smoking and the remains of two Deadmen I didn’t recognise lay in pieces on the asphalt.

Carefully I raised my PD9 to peek over the windowsill and took a look inside with my Smartgun camera. The feed in the corner of my vision showed me the classroom was vacant. Unable to climb up with one hand I holstered my weapon, gave myself a run-up, then jumped, stepped up the wall and scrambled my way inside through the broken glass. Grateful again for the joint-padding and rip-proof polymer my fatigues were made off.

My landing inside was less than graceful and I hit the debris covered carpet in a clumsy shoulder-roll. I picked myself up off the ground and pulled my SMG from my hip. A quick sweep and I confirmed that no-one was inside. The sound of distant gunfire told me the action was elsewhere.

I jumped back on the cype [Tachi. I’m going to need backup. Can you catch up with me on the way to the office?]

[Not straight away.] Tachi replied. [I don’t have a covered approach to the main building from where I am. I’ll need to circle around.]

Damn it.” I muttered aloud. I hid behind a doorway just in case someone walked in on me.

I didn’t like the idea of wandering the halls without someone to watch my back, but Night Watch’s Rangers were tearing their way through PR’s defences. If I didn’t get over there lickedy-split, they might recover Atom before I could.

[I’m heading in.] I told Tachi.

[I’ll catch up with you when I can.]

I crept silently through the corridors, moving from cover to cover and pausing to let my fatigues change patterns, following the sounds of gunfire.

The louder the shots got the more the corridors were awash with blood and hot brass. The two cybergods had blasted their way through several barricaded corridors. Leaving only bullet-ridden desks and casualties in their wake.

I had to duck into adjoining classrooms to remain hidden from PR’s people as they brought their comrades out on stretchers. The clearly dead they left where they lay. But the yelling and crying living were hurried out. The closer I got to the shooting the louder the screaming became as well.

The shooting got to its loudest by the time I reached the utility corridor.

PR’s OK Corral was another barricade of teacher’s desks and lockers stuffed with debris. Four Deadmen: Goldenrod, Skullface, Helmet-head and No Mouth, lay face-down on the other side. Suggesting this obstacle has slowed Night Watch down as much as the half-dozen before it.

Four-Arms and the Machine-gunner strode brazenly out into roaring gunfire and shot back. The last of PR’s human defenders died when two bursts from Four-arms’ SMGs opened up his skull and splashed the contents on the floor.

Fall Back.” PR yelled, pushing Kitty behind Faceless, his last remaining Deadman and into one of the adjoining rooms. Faceless raised a drum-fed assault rifle in each hand and opened up with them at Four-Arms. Who casually took the incoming barrage, even as it shredded armour from his body, and pulled two grenades from behind his back.

The barrels of Faceless’ rifles glowed cherry red as they exhausted their ammunition and fell silent. Four-arms pegged the grenades at the open door PR has disappeared into.

However much PR was paying his Deadmen, it wasn’t nearly enough. Faceless anticipated the direction the grenades were being thrown and immediately spun to shut the door and dived onto them before they detonated.

Even safely behind a corner on the far side of the shattered barricade, the shock wave from the twin explosions under Faceless’ body made me shudder. Night Watch’s Rangers walked right over the barricade and started forming up on the closed door, stepping over the bodies of the other four Deadmen they’d vanquished.

Until I heard Goldenrod shout “Now!”

Goldenrod and the boys leapt up from the debris-strewn floor and reached out at the Rangers. Clever. If I’d been wearing a hat, I’d take it off to them.

Four-arms desperately brought his guns to bear as Skullface rushed him, he managed to score a torso hit with one burst before his opponent grabbed the SMG and tore the barrel and fore-end out of the action.

Four-arms responded by throwing the gun in the opposite hand at Skullface’s head, then when SF instinctively brought up both hands to defend himself, Four’s two empty hands grabbed his wrists and held them in place while he jammed his two lower arms into his victim’s waist and unloaded his SMGs.

That much ammo concentrated into the same two-inch space could dig a hole through a house brick.

A basic combat-chassis, modified with a few layers of spectra-fibre between the casing and the frame did just as well. The last rounds glided easily through the gap in the bodywork and into the biopod, shattering the pod and turning the contents into soup. Four-arms stepped away from his handiwork and Skullface toppled back like the loser in a game of ‘trust fall’.

On the other side the Machine-gunner had been grabbed both in front and back. No Mouth, the guy behind struggled to try and get his arms hooked under his opponent’s armpits, while Helmet Head tried to yank the machine-gun out of his grasp. The machine-gunner tried to smack Helmet Head in the face with the stock a few times before he gave up and push-kicked him back a step, abandoning his hold on the machine-gun so he could draw his monofilament blade and stick it into No Mouth’s rib-section.

No Mouth panicked when the blade slipped effortlessly into his chassis and abandoned his hold, the blade cleaving through his armour and casing as he pulled away.
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Dust: Chapter 17 Part 1

Chapter 17: Why you don’t mess with Texas


I got my crippled arse down to street level and legged it towards the fence. I was out of shape, nine days sitting around had taken their toll on my stamina. By the time I reached the chain-link I was breathing heavy. I whipped out my tin-snips and got to work on the wire, leaning in with my shoulder to hold them steady while I snipped with one hand.

I had a spot picked out where two car wrecks on the other side allowed me a tiny space to crawl through. In a few seconds I had a hole big enough to fit myself and crawled inside.

Which was a lot harder than I’d anticipated, somehow I’d forgotten that I’d be crawling through as a tripod without my right arm. I did the best that I could and came out the other end of the chassis in the carrot bed.

[God damn it.] PR barked over the cype. [They got a fucking tank out there, break out the LAWs.]

As I pulled myself out of my hole I saw a surplus Bradley infantry fighting vehicle roll in through the breach they’d blasted in the wall, followed by a couple of armoured pick-up trucks. A Bradley is hardly a tank and more an APC with a turret cannon, but in the heat of the moment I doubt it mattered to PR.

The Bradley rolled onto the grass, a squad of SS mercs taking shelter in the cover it provided.

The return fire from the school building fell silent for a moment while the Bradley turret swung in their direction and opened a hole in the wall with its main cannon.

The SS mercs inside the fence cheered.

Then the defenders in the school responded by launching a barrage of light anti-tank rockets. Too weak to even scratch the armour on a proper main battle-tank, but more than sufficient to crack open Security Solutions’ Bradley like a giant steel egg and spill the burning, molten yolk all over the sports field.

[That’s the end of them.] I cyped Tachi as I kept low through the vegetation.

[Just in time.] Tachi replied [They have bigger fish to fry now. Take a look.]

I waited at the edge of the vegetable garden while Tachi patched me into the live feed from his tech scope. The first cyborg was everything I expected: Tall, built like a pro-wrestler and swinging his custom M240 around like it was an airsoft gun. The second one was a freak show, it had a pair of lower shoulders under its main shoulders that extended out into a second pair of arms, each hand holding an SMG. It also had a cybervisor in the back of its head, giving it a 360° fire-arc.

Unlike the Silver Sentinels, (which I suspected was what these guys did as a day job), these two cybergods wore black battle dress uniforms over their armoured bodies. Even without them the sheer volume of weapons, ammo and webbing they wore would have concealed any hint of metallic nudity. I’d heard rumours when I was researching Night Watch that they had a black-ops team called the Rangers but until now that’s all I thought they were.

They, were, devastating PR’s regular troops. Back-to-back they circled around each other in the middle of the courtyard and engaged targets on all sides. Four-arms blasting away with his SMG’s and performing flawless tactical reloads and the Machine-gunner punching high-velocity, sabotted, armour-piercing ammo right through house-bricks and into targets behind.

Then one of PR’s boys brought a leftover LAW to bear against them and let it fly.

The pair detected it immediately and dived out of the way.

The rocket ripped out a giant fistful of asphalt and scattered the remains across the courtyard.

PR jumped back on the horn. [Everyone fall back. Fall back to the Head office.]

[Yeah.] I said when I decided I’d seen enough. [So I’m not going that way.]

[Try going through the gymnasium.] Tachi suggested. [It connects to the rest of the classrooms through the cafeteria. Right now PR’s people have more pressing matters than getting a bite to eat.]

I couldn’t imagine they were desperate to hit the court either. Tachi’s feed moved to a view of the vegetable garden.

[Ah yes. I forgot. Where are you again?]

[Can’t tell, keep your eyes on the gym in case anyone comes out.]

I kept to the edge of the garden and stayed low, hoping I just looked like a gust of wing brushing the bushes around.

Turns out I didn’t. When I’d almost reached the gym a bullet cracked passed my ear and I dived for the ground. When I pulled my head up out of the dirt I saw two of SS’ stragglers open fire in my direction. They must have been pinned down before the defender’s priorities changed.

When I went down amongst the tomato plants and out of sight one of the SS mercs started sweeping the field with his carbine on full-auto while his companion circled around to get a clear shot at me.

When the first guy’s magazine ran empty the second one stopped circling and kept up the spray while his mate reloaded.

Pity the guy hadn’t the brains to stay down. Tachi put a round just under the curve of his helmet and into the light Kevlar of his collar, blasting through the dense fabric and into the soft flesh of his throat inside. The second guy’s mag ran dry just at that moment and he froze.

Thanks to Tachi’s scope feed I popped up with my PD9 pointing right at him and pumped a burst through his visor. He joined his friend belly-up in the cabbage-patch.

I dropped back down into cover. [Any more?]

[Nothing I can see.] Tachi replied. [The path to the gymnasium is clear. I’ll take up a better position once you reach it.]

I got up and ran to it. I was sick of skulking around in the bushes.

I made it to the gym’s side door, reached up with my foot and pushed down on the slide-bar, while pointing with my PD-9.

The door swung open to reveal two of PR’s regulars, who saw me right away. One brought up his shotgun. I put my Smartgun’s cross-hairs on his face and pulled the trigger.

Just before the door swung shut I saw the rounds hit their mark, popping open his head like the cliché firecracker in a watermelon.

I got myself out from right in front of the door just in time for it to burst open with my victim’s friend. The guy levelled his assault rifle at shoulder height and caught sight of me to his flank. I squeezed off a burst and caught him in the arm of his support hand, giving me the half-second I needed to pump another two-bursts into his torso and drop him.
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Dust: Chapter 16 Part 4

After a lot of searching online and many painful hours trying to decipher the encrypted frequencies in the area I finally managed to hit pay dirt at around midnight. PR’s voice appeared in my head.

[He’s out! He’s heading for the fence! Someone hit the floods.]

I jumped on the cype. [Tachi is anything weird going on out there?]

[Funny you should mention that.] Tachi replied. [Take a look at this.]

Tachi streamed me his video feed.

I saw a cyborg I’d never seen before, one that looked like it had just been cobbled together from a bunch of separate prosthetic bodies but hadn’t been fully customised yet.

That cyborg was sprinting like a madman for the back fence.

[Stop him!] PR yelled in my ear. [Take him down before he gets away.]

Two Deadmen emerged from the gymnasium and took off after this cyborg.

[The hell is going on?] I asked.

[Would not have the foggiest idea.]

The new cyborg saw the two Deadmen on its tail and tried to run faster. The Deadmen put their enhanced prosthetics to the task and immediately began gaining ground on him.

He was almost at the fence when one of the tower guards opened fire.

[Who’s shooting? Don’t shoot! Don’t Shoot! We need him alive.]

The tower guard ignored PR and fired again. They were loud, reverberating single-shots. Suggesting an anti-material rifle or similar.

The second shot hit home, shattering plastic casing and steel bodywork alike. The runaway reached out to catch itself as its right knee disintegrated just before it could settle its weight onto the joint.

[Superb shot.] Tachi remarked.

Tachi couldn’t see it but I nodded.

Then PR’s voice came back on the cype. It was a little annoying not having any other voices to work with, but we hadn’t yet isolated anyone else’s signal. [Alright, alright. Good work. Just get the little bastard out of there and get him back inside.]

The two Deadmen slowed down and approached the downed cyborg cautiously. It was clawing at the ground, trying to crawl away. When the closest of the Deadmen reached it, the runaway turned around and gestured at him.

A second later, PR began groaning in agony.

What the hell was going on out there?

The two Deadmen staggered back, reaching for their chests like the runaway had somehow cursed them with heart attacks.

[Stop it!] PR screamed [Turn him off, turn ‘im off, turn’imoff.]

All of the groaning and writhing came to an end when that same tower guard strode up to the downed cyborg and levelled his massive rifle at the broken cyborg’s chest. The runaway stopped gesturing and raised his hands.

[Eurgh. Get him out and take him back to the server. We’ll work out what to do with him in the morning.]

The two Deadmen turned the runaway onto his belly and opened up the chassis, removing the biopod before carrying the body away separately.

[What did we just see?]

[I think that was Atom.] Tachi said.

[Atom? What the hell?]

[Well either that or Patriot Rap also had a captive cyborg with psychic powers.]

Then PR’s voice came back onto the cype. [So fucking look after him this time. I don’t care what you have to do, you keep him in your backpack from now on.]

[That clinched it.] I said. [I guess we just saw that static-burst attack Sakazato spoke of.]

[I would say so. I believe we may want to establish a quick-disable for our own wireless networks.]

[First thing tomorrow.] I replied. [Unless PR and Kitty are smart enough to disable Atom’s wireless like Sakazato did.]

[Smart enough. No doubt.] Tachi said. [Wise enough? Perhaps not.]

It still didn’t sit well with me. [Why would Atom bolt like that?]

[Well it appears PR and Kitty gave him the prosthetic body he wanted. But PR has plans and uses for Atom that may have clashed with his own designs on personal freedom.]

[And he just legged it?]

[That would be my guess. But without further information who knows?]

I put my chin in my hand. Tachi’s explanation made sense. But how did everything between Atom and PR get this south in barely two weeks?

I had no way of knowing. All I could do was log out of the deck. I had to take over Tachi’s stag in six hours. I needed sleep.

Then, finally, after nine days of sitting around, it finally went down.

An explosion that rattled the windows on the building next door had me scrambling up the ladder to the OP.

Tachi was already lying prone with the AR10 in his hands. I dropped down on the foam matt next to him and grabbed the binocs. We had to confirm this was it before going in. Yesterday we got cock-teased when an engine backfired in the compound’s auto shop.

[What do you see?]

[By the vegetable garden. Side blue.] Tachi replied.

I got the binocs on Tachi’s location and took a gander. A white dust cloud the size of a house covered part of the fence. Gunfire erupted from the school building and faint flashes replied from the cloud.

I zoomed in and saw the first soldiers step out of the dust. They wore black body-armour with enclosed helmets, but the insignia on the torso looked like the Security Solutions logo.

SS were a bush-league outfit with a history of racial abuse accusations levelled against it. They strode out of the dust and falling ash with a carbine in one hand and a transparent polymer riot shield in the other.

Not that it mattered. PR’s snipers had anti-material rifles. The head of the first soldier through the cloud disappeared in a bloody mist. The second one raised his shield up to his face only for the next round to punch straight through like it was tissue paper.

I tracked the binocs around and saw Goldenrod empty machine gun ammo into another SS soldier’s shield, walking the rounds down until he was putting them into the guy’s shins and he dropped amongst the corn crop.

[Aren’t you going?]

[At this rate the whole thing’ll be over by the time I reach the fence.]

Then the blast of a jet engine roared above us. I pulled my eyes out of the binocs and saw a sleek, black Sikorski swing-wing helijet swoop down over the compound. Unlike the boys on the ground, the helijet had the Night Watch logo on its underbelly.

The swing-wing eased back on the throttles and swung its wings up, switching from straight-line speed to VTOL. I zoomed in as the side-doors opened up and saw the door-gunner in his enclosed armour with the breathing hose. He was standing behind a General-Electric M134E Minigun and already had the barrels spinning.

A red-hot line spewed forth from its six barrels like a more literal definition of ‘fire hose’ and washed back and forth across the main school building. All of PR’s people on the roof, snipers and cyborgs alike dropped down with their hands over their heads. No-one dared get that firestorm’s attention.

While the door gunner was blowing his load I saw two large figures jump out the other side on zip-lines.

They were Mr. Olympia-sized silhouettes and from the cracks they made in the pavement when they hit, it was obvious they were augmented.

[That explains the suicide charge at the fence.] Tachi said. [While they’re too busy grinding up the meat, the real troops go in the back.]

[Any sign of RCF yet?]

[No. But that’s to be expected.]

[Alright.] I said, putting down the binocs and turning on my fatigues. [I better get down there. I’m not going to get a better distraction than that].
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Dust: Chapter 16 Part 3

PR was a lot more punctual that I would have thought. He got back to me in less than five.

[What is it that you want Dust?]

The answer I wanted to gives was: ‘To punch you in your back-stabbing face.’

[I’m just giving you a heads up so you can look after your people.] I said. [Tachi and I have contacted Roxorgh and told them where they can find Atom, then we lied and told them you intend to sell Atom to Sinologic at around the time we were going to. I don’t know what level of response they intend to take. But I’m giving you the chance to get your civilians out before they hit. They may be following a two-faced hood with delusions of grandeur, but they still don’t deserve to die because you stole what I had rightfully taken.]

[You’re full of shit Dust.]

[Am I? Well I guess in a few weeks when Roxorgh’s cyborgs are tearing through your ‘slum-dwelling peasants’ to get their billion-nuyen toy back you can console yourself with the knowledge my threat lacked credibility at the time.]

PR was quiet on the line for a few beats. Then he asked. [Why? Why you fucking me like this?]

[Why’d you fuck me?] I shot back.

[Mutha… Is that all this is about? You just wanna spite me?]

[No. I just want to show you that Roxorgh and RCF breathing down my neck is something that can very easily be made into your problem. Have fun with that.]

[And you don’t mind that six hundred innocent people are going to be caught in the cross-fire?]

[They won’t be if you hurry up and get them out.]

PR fumed for a second. [You sonuva bitch].

[I suggest you and your friends put your heads together and work out what you can. My responsibility ended when I warned you they were coming. Have a nice day.]

[Yeah. Thanks. THANKS FOR NOTHING ASSHOLE.]

I like to think PR wished he’d been on a real phone so he could slam it down.

I grinned, I’d managed to lock down a sample of the frequency he’d been transmitting through, now all I had to do was crack the encryption.

I jacked out of the deck and passed the cord to Tachi so he could call Roxorgh.

Tachi’s silver tongue sweet-talked Roxorgh’s goons into believing every word he said. That fact that almost every word was the truth actually made less of a difference than you’d think.

First he got in contact with Kawada’s customer service operators, telling them he had information regarding the break-in they had a little while ago. Tachi got priority transferred to the security desk, where he explained about the thermate grenades in their mailroom and that he would like to speak to the head of security.

The head of security was produced astoundingly fast. Tachi explained that he was one of the thieves that had stolen the prototype A.I.

You could practically hear the trace being applied to the call. Naturally the head asked why we were calling them. Tachi explained our situation in the broadest strokes. We’d stolen the A.I., but then had it stolen from us by our supposed allies, if we couldn’t make money off the property we’d taken then Silicon Dreams may as well have it back. He then gave them PR’s location and let them know that last we knew PR was planning on selling the A.I. on in two weeks.

The security head stalled for time, asking Tachi to repeat himself and scrunched some paper, as if he were writing it down instead of recording the audio feed. Tachi humoured the guy, a trace to our current location would only back up our story.

I kept my eyes peeled for any army drones that might choose that moment to fly overhead.

Finally the security head let him go and we hung up.

The next day I joined Tachi up at the OP and borrowed the binoculars off him. Tachi took the chance to relax and gaze up at the sky while I checked the range on some of the land marks.

Hmmm.” I ‘Hmmmed.’ “How do you fancy your chances of making a thousand-metre shot with that thing?”

Tachi glanced at the AR-10 sitting on its bipod. “I don’t. Why? What is there at the kilometre mark?”

I passed the binocs back to him. “Only the head office and most of the classrooms.”

Those are all the way on the other side of the compound. By the time you get out there Patriot Rap’s people will have more to worry about than a face they might remember from a wanted poster.”

If Roxorgh joins the party.”

Without them, there is no party. Unless your heart is still set on the Butch and Sundance ending?”

I looked out across the streets of Flint with my naked eyes. “Cross that bridge when we get there.”

Speaking of the bridge we’re on, how’s the decryption coming?”

I’ve managed to isolate some sections of the code that I recognise, but when I run other parts through the same decryptor, it comes out as gibberish. I think they’ve made a frankenigma out of several different ciphers. I just need to find examples of the other ciphers online.”

Do you want me to look for them while you take a break?”

Getting tired of the scenery are you?”

There’s only so many times I can watch that golden cyborg do his little hip-roll dance and flex every time something with oestrogen walks passed.”

He does what? That’s hilarious.” I snapped up the binocs and looked out over the compound.

Tachi smirked “He’s by the Gymnasium, side red.”

I found him. Then I LOL’ed. As the retro-kids like to say.

I tried to ignore the stench as I felt another movement and squeezed it out. The worst thing about setting up a long-term observation post is the lack of facilities. This is it, ladies and gentlemen, this is the glamorous work that separates the muscle-merc posers from the real soldiers.

Spending days on end in a shattered one-room apartment with no running water, enduring mind-numbing boredom, eating cold rations and shitting into plastic bags. The highlight of the week so far was noticing one more airborne drone than normal passing over Jamestown. Whether this meant Roxorgh was getting ready to make a move or just that the Army had reorganised their resources we couldn’t tell.

We’d actually managed to get rid of the hobos downstairs. It hadn’t taken a lot of effort. I just tossed the bags down to the ground floor and after a few days they cleared out.
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Dust: Chapter 16 Part 2

Tachi and I made our way across Flint slowly and cautiously. The original plan had been to hole up in the vacant lot until nightfall and make our way on foot from there. By now enough people in that lot had seen us and could probably identify my missing arm. We didn’t know how far PR’s networks extended around here, but just the chance that word of our arrival might reach PR was trouble enough.

We fell back into the same wordless fire and manoeuvre drills we’d used at the clinic. Tachi took up a position at a corner and aimed his AR-10 around the side. I stayed low and made my way down the alley until I reached an overflowing garbage hopper and took my place while Tachi caught up with me.

After a while we found a disused back alley and sat ourselves down, we only had a few hours to wait until it would start to get dark.

Things got tense when a middle-aged man stumbled out of a side door and into our alley. Tachi immediately ducked down behind the garbage hopper while I flattened myself against the wall and turned on my camouflage.

The man looked blearily around, like he was trying to recognise the place. He had closely-cropped curly hair and a beard, both with a heavy salt and pepper colouring. He shuffled uneasily towards the hopper, thankfully to the opposite side to where Tachi was hiding and got his tool out to drain the lizard.

Then someone else shouted from the mouth of the alley. “Put ’em in de air mo’fucker!”

The middle-aged guy did as he was told, with no hand for guidance he began involuntarily pissing in his pants. The shouter was a youth with a black hoodie over his head and a red bandanna covering his mouth.

Move real slow old man.” The youth said, approaching him with a handgun outstretched. “Take out your wallet and throw it behind you.”

Shakily, the man reached down to his back pocket, trying not to further his humiliation by letting his open pants fall down. With some effort, he got the wallet out and tossed it lightly behind him.

The kid smirked, bent down slowly to retrieve the wallet and immediately turned his back and legged it for the exit.

The middle-aged guy made his move. Even with his pants down to his ankles, he spun around fast, his own pistol in his hands and lined up a shot.

He tapped the trigger three times, two at mid-height and one high performing a range perfect Presidente drill.

The rounds found their mark, the double-tap smacked right into the kid’s spine while the last punched through the back of the hoodie, exploding out the front in a splash of red.

The middle-aged guy, an ex-cop by his handiwork, pulled his pants back up and cursed. He glared at the kid, cursed again and bent down to take off his shoes.

From the corpse, he took back his wallet, confiscated the kid’s gun and then stole both his pants and his dignity. Sgt Salt-and-pepper probably figured the kid had no further use for either.

We moved on again barely an hour later. The darkness cut both ways, it may have made it harder for random people to notice the two of us carefully manoeuvring around, but it was also clearly the time when everyone decided it was okay to shoot up the place and steal shit.

The only explanation I’ve got for why we were able to cover the rest of the ground to our destination without having to shoot anyone or directly see anyone else get shot is sheer dumb luck.

But finally we made it to the rooftop we wanted.

I stopped to rest for a moment and looked out over the Flint skyline. I took in all the lights and small fires that peppered the darkness here and there. The further out you looked the harder it was to tell the two apart. The sound of distant gunfire was almost constant.

How does anyone sleep here?”

With one eye open and a gun under the pillow.” Tachi said.

We’d chosen this building because it was the tallest structure this far out from Jamestown. Ideally we wanted something with a commanding view of the sports oval.

It was closer than I would have liked and there were ridiculously large holes in the floor in places, forbidding us from making use of the top floor, but aside from some hobos (by which I mean the classic type, drunken and shouting incoherently, not just because they were as dirt poor as everyone else) down on the ground floor the place was deserted.

I got my shelter-half out of my pack and settled in for the night.

The next day I climbed back to the top of the building and got to work on the old antennae. Far as I could tell it hadn’t been used as a receiver since they stopped broadcasting analogue TV around here. So it hadn’t been too hard to wire it up for my purposes.

I was also lucky an old resident had satellite TV installed some decades ago and pilfered the dish for my own purposes. From the faded logo of a cable-TV company that went out of business ages ago, I knew no-one would miss it.

It brought back memories of my uncle. During the Austral-Indo war, when everyone was abandoning the top-end my uncle grabbed me, his ute and a pair of rifles and we headed up north. We travelled around to each town and city as it was being evacuated and set up radio jammers in the tallest structures we could get inside. Wiring them up to the building’s solar panels for power.

When we made it back to Brisbane, my uncle managed to convince some of the officials of what we’d done. So when the Indonesians were ready to attack Cairns, he hit them with one of the biggest communication blackouts in military history. From what I heard after, there wasn’t two Indo companies in the whole of Queensland who knew what each other were doing when we hit the switch.

To the antennae and the satellite dish I hooked up a wireless relay that retransmitted everything to a laptop back at the OP. The power of our antennae allowed me access to the net from here and I dialled up Kitty’s cype ID and opened an audio-only channel.

Kitty answered with a growl. [Who is this?]

[Tell PR I have a message for him. Tell him people may die, his people, if he doesn’t hear it, then give him the call ID for this unit. I’m expecting a response in the next 20 minutes.]

Then I killed the connection.
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Dust Chapter 16 Part 1

Chapter 16: Waiting and watching

I closed Sakazato’s journal and lay back in my chair for a second. “That little bastard.”

Tachi remained reclining on the couch, moving only his eyelids up at my outburst. “Find something interesting?”

Atom’s not the scarred little kid we think he is.”

No.” Tachi said. “It’s not even an A.I.”

He’s professor Sakazato’s father.”

Really?” Tachi sat up. “She said the same in her journal? She wasn’t doing a good job of keeping that a secret.”

I filled Tachi in on some of the highlights of Atom’s development history.

He was willing to hold the entire project hostage?” Tachi asked.

Pretty much.”

Tachi thought about things for a moment. “The way he manipulated Sakazato’s assistants… sounds a lot like the way he behaves around Kitty and the other hackers.”

So ‘it’ is a ‘he’ now?”

Turns out ‘it’ always was.” Tachi said, ignoring the bait.

How long do you think it will be before he’s the real power behind PR’s throne?”

After PR’s little speech, I believe he already is.” Tachi said. “Patriot Rap wants to build an empire on Atom’s shoulders. After that, if his patriotism is more than just a controversial name, it’s likely he’ll hold elections. It would come as a surprise to no-one if PR also made himself a candidate.”

I looked Tachi in the eye. “That arsehole is not becoming president. Not after we gave him the means to do so. If anyone’s going to make money off that little shit, it’s going to be us.”

Tachi smirked at me. “Let’s start planning.”

My favourite part of this plan was the bit where I had to spend 8 hours in a box again. On the upside we didn’t need to pass as empty prosthetic bodies, so we got to spend the entire trip fully clothed, I didn’t need to starve myself and if I ever needed to I could just piss into a colostomy bag.

The next best thing was that these boxes were a lot larger than the ones we’d used for Kawada. So there was space in here for my new Heckler & Koch PD-9 with all the trimmings, a backpack containing two week’s rations, a thousand rounds of ammo, survival knife, bedding, cooking utensils and enough tools and equipment to establish a small comms tower.

My only complaint was that I couldn’t use the matrix while in the box. The wireless transmissions would have been something the army could track which would have given the hovercraft’s position away. So I played games in my own head and tried to reread Sakazato’s notes to pass the time.

When the roar of the jet engine behind us finally died down, I knew we’d reached Flint.

Tachi seemed to know it too, he blue-toothed a chat request my way.

[Hey mate.] I answered when his vidwinow popped up. [Looks like we’re here.]

[So it would appear. Unless our host is lying low to avoid detection. It might be for the best if we stay off the net a little longer, just to be sure.]

[Glad you said that mate, I was just about to check my emails.]

[Yes, well.] Tachi said. [I’m sure you’ll survive without reading about new and interesting ways you can enlarge your manhood for a few hours longer.]

I grinned at him. [I’ve been a bad influence on you, haven’t I?]

Tachi ‘Hmphed’ at me (as he does).

Then the sound of the hovercraft engines died down completely and we heard the cargo hatch being opened. The muffled sound of workmen yelling and joking at each other played out around us for a while before I felt my box being lifted off the hovercraft’s deck and moved around. From the slow yet steady way I was swung about I guessed these boys had access to one of the old wheeled forklifts rather than a humanoid loading frame.

The beeping sound of it reversing clinched it for me.

Then we were loaded onto a truck and driven around for a bit. I tried to get my body to relax and did some stretches, grateful again that I didn’t have to be packed away in foam padding.

Even so I was still sore all along my back, especially my arse, which was flat as a pancake now.

After a while the truck brought us out to the vacant lot we’d elected as our destination and set us down. Just to be sure we’d made up a stencil and painted ‘Do not stack’ on these boxes as well.

When the sound of the truck’s engine grew so distant we couldn’t tell it from the other sounds of traffic, Tachi and I opened our lids and took a peek outside.

We hadn’t been delivered to a vacant lot. We were at the threshold of Shantytown, population: two dozen families.

Even after everything I’d seen I could scarcely believe we were in the middle of what still proclaimed itself to be the greatest super-power on earth. These people didn’t even have shipping containers to live out of.

Homes were cardboard boxes and sheets of corrugated iron, rags hung from extension cords stretched between two posts to afford the inhabitants some privacy. The grass had grown up thick and was then trampled down when this lot moved in. I could smell their toilet from here and was grateful I couldn’t see anything.

The inhabitants themselves I couldn’t tell you about. They scattered the moment they saw two uniformed men emerge from a pair of mysterious packages dropped at their feet.

My instincts argued with each other. Some wanted me to sling my weapon to appear less threatening, the others refused to take my fingers off the pistol-grip.

There goes the neighbourhood.” Tachi said flatly.

Let’s just get our stuff and get out of here.” I loudly replied.

Agreed.”

Then as I cautiously reached down for my backpack Tachi yelled. “Sniper.”

Next thing I knew I heard a shot and something pushed me from the side, knocking me right out of my box and into the muddy grass of the vacant lot. My pain editor wasn’t reporting anything worth worrying about, so I knew I hadn’t been hit.

Gunshots rang out around me, I rolled onto my back and turned my PD9 in their direction.

Just in time to see Tachi catch the young shooter square in the face with his next shot.

I rose to one knee and scanned around for new targets. The shooter had been a shabbily-dressed youth with an AK. Without a better look it was impossible to tell if he was one of the Slum Lords’ minions or just someone who lived here.

Some curious faces poked out of their boxes to see if the coast was clear and just as quickly shrank back.

Let’s just get out of here.”
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