Dust: Chapter 20 Part 3

Kitty took in slow breaths, her teeth clenched in pain. [If you hadn’t come, would the Doctors have followed you in here?]

I shrugged.

[I don’t think they would have.] Kitty said. [I think I owe you a bit more than an apology.] She looked down at her immobile feet. [Why did you help me?]

[Atom.] I said. [He fucked with you, just like he fucked with PR, just like he fucked with me. I listened to Sakazato’s dev journal. Turns out Atom’s always been a manipulative little bastard. By the time I found out I couldn’t warn you, you’d never have believed me. There’s still more things I’ve learned about Atom that you won’t believe, but none of it’s going to make a difference.]

[Not if we just sit on our arses playing ‘poor me’.] Kitty snapped. [Get me off this bench and put me in one of the Humvees, they usually keep the keys in them. We could be halfway across Flint before they even realise we’re gone.]

[But where would we go? How would we even drive? I’ve only got one arm and you’re in too much pain to talk. You really think you can keep it together to change gears for me?]

[I want to try.] Kitty said. [You just want to sit here and die, but yours isn’t the only life that’s over when they get back. I sold them out, Atom fucking me over at the last minute doesn’t change that. I need you to help me or they’ll happily kill us both so they can get their precious ‘closure’.]

I shook my head, she wasn’t listening. [No, it’s not going to work. We don’t…]

[We don’t have time to sit here and debate. We’re resourceful people, when we’re not moping around. Just because I don’t have all the answers right this second doesn’t mean we can’t work them out when we get there.]

She was wrong. The guard at the gate would stop us, or shoot us, or the lynch mob was going to catch us trying to escape and have us punished. Then I realised they were already going to do that. So if I was going to die either way, I may as well get on with it.

[Alright.] I said as I moved over to her bedside. [Put your arms around my neck.]

Kitty did, wincing only a little from the effort. I reached under her legs and between the two of us we carried her from the bed to the pool ladder. I hoisted Kitty’s dangling legs up and over the edge of the pool to the floor above us, hoping Kitty didn’t cut herself on the glass shards, then Kitty reached out for the safety bar and pulled her body up the rest of the way.

With some effort, I climbed out after her.

With the aid of a mechanic’s trolley I dragged Kitty across to one of the fixed up Humvees and opened the door. Kitty grabbed my neck again and I raised her up and into the passenger seat.

As I was moving around to the driver’s side I got a call from the last person I expected to speak to at that moment.

[Hey Jay. Can it wait? I’m sorta in the…]

[NO IT CANNOT FUCKING WAIT!]

Okay, I said to myself. Jay is angry. Jay is never angry. This shit must be heavy.

[Alright mate. What’s going on?] I climbed into the driver’s seat.

[What’s going on? Your colleague Tachi is talking to the fucking Chinese behind my back.]

That dispelled any lingering mystery as to who our buyer was.

[Wait, did you say ‘Tachi?’]

[DO NOT play innocent with me. This isn’t a courtesy call.] Jay had his Sheer Khan voice on. The one that lets you know he’s going to bite your head clean off your shoulders and swallow it. [This is to let you know I am right now burning the reputation of you, Tachi, Noodles, Kitty and anyone else with whom you may be associated.]

[Tachi went behind your back and called Sinotech? What did he ask for?]

[Do not try my patience Dust.]

[I’m trying to avoid getting executed by ghetto freedom fighters in Michigan and you think I’m being difficult? Do you know what Tachi talked to them about?]

[He entered into an arrangement to deliver Atom to them directly.]

I sat in the driver’s seat, my hand hanging on the door handle, not moving.

Son of a bitch.

Kitty rolled her head around to see me. “What are you doing?”

I was about to explain it to her when I heard a dark, female voice call out over a bullhorn.

“Alright Fucker.” Was her heart-winning opening line. “We got guns all around the building. Come out now and die quick. Make me break a sweat for this and I will flay the skin off your back and feed it to you.”

[I’m going to have to get back to you Jay.]

I turned to Kitty. “Do you know if this thing has its own loudspeaker?”

Kitty pointed to something that looked like an old CB radio. I picked up the hand piece and pressed the button, a quiet burst of white noise sounded above my head. “Testing.” I said.

My booming electronic voice echoed across the swim centre, but probably didn’t get much further.

“Perfect.” I finally closed the door and started up the engine.

“Alright, I know you can hear me.” An aggravated Kitty said through gritted teeth. “Talk to me.”

“We’re going to negotiate.” I told her.

“Are you Insane?”

“Here’s hoping.” I said as I threw the Humvee into reverse.

I hesitated for a second. “Though just in case we do have to Butch and Sundance our way out do you want to see if you can log into the remote turret.”

I backed the truck right up to the doorway and spun it around to aim the loudspeakers outside.

“Facerino?” I called down the loudspeaker. “That you?”

Facineroso.” She corrected. “You’re damn right it is.”

“How’d you end up in charge?”

“I survived the airstrike. Promised PR’s people my protection. And right now I’ve got another contingent on their way from Detroit to provide it.”

“That makes sense.”

“So what ‘choo you gonna do Mr… Dust is it? What kinda name is that? I got a lot of itchy trigger fingers out here. You gonna come out and let these people get on with their lives or you gonna make them earn it?”

Not even Kitty could see it, but I cracked a grin. “I’m going to make them an offer.”

I gave it a beat to set in, then launched into my pitch. “You guys want someone to take your pain out on? I can give you a shot at Atom. You want to rebuild your lives? I can give you a share of the 1 billion nuyen Sinotech is going to pay for his recovery. And if you want to honour PR’s memory and the cause he died trying to advance, I’ve got the development notes and construction plans to build your own Atom from scratch. Everything PR was trying to achieve, all that super-hacker stuff is still within your grasp.”

Then a stray thought came to me. I had an all or nothing gamble to try and my arse was the dice.

“And lastly. You’re low on numbers, many of your soldiers died in the airstrike. For that all I can give you is myself. In exchange for not killing me or Kitty, I will offer my services as a soldier, thief and electronic warfare operator for a minimum of ten years. But for all this I’m going to need a few things from you in return…”
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Dust: Chapter 20 Part 2

The good doctor immediately trained her pistol on me again. “Don’t…”

I ignored her and walked over to Kitty.

“Dust.” Kitty moaned when she saw me. “Please.”

I knelt down beside her and offered her my hand. “I’ve got you.”

Kitty flailed at my hand and grabbed hold. Her grip was a lot tighter than I expected, until I saw the look of desperate concentration on her face. I pulled her to a sitting position, then reached around her waist and stood up with her.

Kitty’s feet dragged across the floor as I walked her towards the cytech shop in the shallow end. She never tried to take her own weight, then I felt some of her blood seep onto my hand and I wondered if she’d been hit in the spine.

The two doctors followed at a safe distance.

I hit a snag when I reached the edge of the steel flooring. The workshop was in the pit, and I didn’t really have the strength to get Kitty down there anymore.

I exhaled and turned towards my audience. “You want to hurry up and give me a hand here?”

They eyed my suspiciously.

“Or do you want to stand there and watch her bleed to death?”

The Doctor Clarksons moved Kitty to the shop’s hospital bed and began operating. I put my back against the nearest wall and sat down while they worked. Timothy scrubbed up and played nurse for his wife as she ran the operation, asking politely for instruments and materials from the Bag-o-Doctor Tim had under one of the workbenches. Which was a good idea, seeing as this building’s function required angle-grinders and acetylene torches.

A calm, quiet drama played out over the cybertech bench as they worked to stop Kitty’s bleeding.

Mrs Dr Clarkson’s movements were direct and methodical, calling out the names of instruments and the quantities of medicines as she needed. Mr Dr Clarkson was a real Johnny-on-the-spot with everything his wife required. He was so comfortable with the materials and the procedures I got the impression he regularly played nurse for her.

After some time the tension bled out of their conversation and their pace became more relaxed. Mr Dr policed up the used surgical tools and got to cleaning them while Mrs began applying the spray-skin. She applied the pencil-thin nozzle attachment and drew a fine line that fused Kitty’s open flesh together as opposed to shooters like me who blot the stuff all over like shaving cream.

After all the instruments had been sterilised, Mr Dr gathered up the supplies and was about to put the bag back under the bench when his wife put a hand to his shoulder.

“Wait. We’ll need that for the others.”

He looked up at her, indicating me with a tilt of his head. “What about him?”

“I’m not going anywhere Doc. You go out, heal people, get your witch-hunt together and then you come back here. We’ll see what happens then.”

He looked at me distrustfully, glancing at his wife for support.

“Let’s see to the others.” She said. “I’ve had enough conflict for one day.”

And so they left.

Which left me, mercifully, alone with an unconscious Kitty. I brought my head down to my knees and did nothing.

Sometime later Kitty bolted upright with a gasp, then with a wail of pain she collapsed back down onto the bench.

“Wha? Where am I? Is anyone there?”

I stood up so Kitty could see me. “I’m here. You’re going to be okay Kitty.”

My appearance (especially with all the dirt, mud and shit on my face) did not put Kitty in a better mood. She tried to move away from me but couldn’t.

“Why can’t I move my legs?” She asked me accusingly.

“I don’t know.” I said flatly. “It’s probably from when Atom shot you.”

Kitty’s hand reached across to her stomach, she opened up the hole the Clarksons cut out of her shirt to operate on her and saw the freshly closed surgery scars. They technically weren’t even scars yet, just lines where the spray-skin held her flesh together.

She pulled her hand away and looked at it, like she was trying to find the blood the doctors had sponged away.

I crossed the distance to her and put a reassuring hand on hers. “Kitty, you’re going to be okay. The doctors patched you up.”

Kitty gave me the upgraded mark II scared version of the idiot look. This one thought I was so dumb I must be contagious. “Then why can’t I move my legs?”

I took my hand away. “They stopped you from bleeding to death. They’d need to have you back in the infirmary to do anything about your spine.”

“It hurts.” Kitty winced. “It never stops.”

The bullet must still be lodged inside her. I grimaced in sympathy. That can’t be fun.

Kitty sent me a chat request, with the tag line: [Normal speech hurts too much].

[Alright.] I cyped. [What’s up?]

[Well…] She flicked her eyes up at me and immediately turned them away. [I want to apol…]

[Don’t bother.] I said. I walked over to side of the shop so I could lean against the wall.

[What?]

[Don’t bother apologising. I don’t care. When the Doctors come back with their lynch mob none of it’s going to matter.] I looked down at my boots.

Kitty reached down beside her and found the controls for the bench, she raised herself up so she could look at me.

[What are you talking about? You’re just going to sit here? Why did you come out here in the first place if you were only going to give up?]

[I wasn’t thinking, I just moved on autopilot. Now that I’ve had a moment to sit down I can’t see the point anymore.]

[We have to keep moving Dust.] Kitty said. [We have to get out of here.]

[And do what?] I said, looking up at her. [We leave, then what? I tapped out every last nuyen I had gearing up to steal Atom back from PR. I’ve only got the shirt on my back and I can’t even take it off.] I held up my hand to show her the cuffs, which were too big to get my sleeve over. [I should have just stayed in the hole.]
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Dust: Chapter 20 Part 1

Chapter 20: The Offer

The first missile hit the stage, causing PR, Facineroso and the table with the fake Atom to disappear in a pillar of dust. The concussive wave hit me in the face like a bitch-slap from an invisible giant.

When I opened my eyes again all I could see was a column of dust beyond Rembrandt’s arm.

Fist-sized chunks of debris rained down around me. I was a step away from seeing if I could dig my hole any deeper when the chunks started bouncing off Rembrandt’s body.

Then another missile hit somewhere behind me. The blast grabbed what little debris had managed to settle and kicked it up again. Before I even turned around I knew it had landed amongst the crowd. The second blast drowned out the screams for a moment, only to have them rush back in the reverberation’s wake. By the time I’d got a look at the second column of dust amongst the fleeing Jamestowners I felt two more shockwaves crash into me from the upper floors of the school.

Missile after missile hit Jamestown, enough ordnance to take out a company of MBT’s smashed into brick, glass and flesh.

I stayed beneath the protection Rembrandt’s body offered me and waited. Trying to ignore the wetness in my pants.

After a brief eternity, I finally counted a full 30 Mississippi’s since the last strike. It almost felt safe to come out.

Then I heard gunfire from somewhere in the courtyard. While that meant it was decidedly not safe to come out it also told me staying where everyone knew where to find me was not the best idea.

I steadied my back under Rembrandt’s considerable weight and pushed up with my legs. Rembrandt slipped off my back and off the crater entirely. Gasping for breath, I took in my surroundings.

Which was easy, because slow-falling dust and debris obscured almost everything. Beyond the veil of airborne dirt I could see the shadows of the school buildings. Some shadows had large, open gaps where they shouldn’t have. Distant screams rang out all around me, making the locations of their owners difficult to work out.

With some effort I got my torso on the ground around my hole and used that to take my weight so I could roll over and pull my legs out of the pit. From there I used my bound shoulder as a third post and manoeuvred around to my knees. I was now covered in so much dirt my all black fatigues could pass as desert camo at a glance.

It was while transitioning from my knees to my feet that a speck flew right into my eye.

“Ahh, fucking, fuck-fuck, fuckoo.” I growled. They say when you can’t scratch, that’s when you’ve really got to. I really needed both my eyes right now and with my bound arm that wasn’t happening.

So without any further prompting I took off for the swim centre, hoping to God or Chaos theory, whoever was listening, that nothing flew into my other eye. That would have been fun.

Fortunately the swim centre was further out from where the crowd had been, so it looked like Atom hadn’t targeted a missile at it. The usual confusion of a missile strike, plus the endless clouds of dust matching the crap I’d been covered in all worked in my favour. Anyone who saw me sprinting retardedly towards the autoshop was either too busy hiding from the next bombardment or had a loved one to cry over.

I ran around to the vehicle entrance and saw that I’d been wrong. One of the missiles had struck a support beam in the roof and the shockwave had devastated the glass half of the ceiling. Now shards and crystals were everywhere, it looked like the inside of a dance club when the lights come on at 3 a.m. and you can see where all the glitter’s landed.

I got in and skipped over strewn automotive equipment and debris to head straight towards the angle-grinders. Then I saw it, between the salvaged junker Humvee and the yellow franken hummer someone had replaced one of the old cutting disks and left it on a bench. It may have been too worn to cut steel smoothly, but it would be plenty sharp to get through my belt.

I grabbed the disc and crouched down between the trucks to get to work. I considered going through the chain for a second, then decided against it. Even with a diamond-edged blade I’d be fiddling around just trying the get the right angle on the chain. So I pulled my hand as far away from my body as it would go and reached back with the disc.

Then I heard voices somewhere behind me. I hesitated, then quietly went back to work, craning my neck to see who was there.

Squinting painfully out of one eye I couldn’t make them out exactly, but I could see two figures moving cautiously on the other side of the yellow Humvee.

They whispered something to each other. Just as my disc cut through the last bit of belt and nicked my wrist on the way back. I hissed and dropped the disc, which gave me away when it hit the floor.

“W-who’s there?” called a quiet, familiar voice. It was Dr Timothy Clarkson. I’d bet good money the person with him was his wife, Dr Sexypants Clarkson.

I did not answer. But when I brought my left arm around to finally get that speck of crap out of my eye, the chain on the cuffs rattled.

“Alright I know you’re there.” Dr Tim said, adding a little more ‘omph’ to his tone. “Come out.”

Fantastic. I thought to myself. Trapped out in the autoshop accosted by possibly the only two people here I didn’t want to hurt.

They may not have felt the same way. So I stayed quiet and reached for the disc again. My eye itched something shocking and I stopped to rub it a little more before grabbing the disc.

“It’s you, isn’t it Dust?” Dr Sexypants asked.

I swept away some crystals on the floor and crouched down to peek underneath the wreck. She had a pistol aimed in my general direction. She and her husband looked dishevelled but didn’t have much dirt on their clothes, so they probably hadn’t been anywhere near the courtyard.

“We saw you sneak in here after the explosions.” Her husband said. “We can’t let you get away with what you’ve done.”

In the immortal words of Kurt Russell: You have got to be fucking kidding me.

“I’m not allowed to win, am I?” I said.

“WIN!” Dr T. Clarkson screamed. “You call this winning?”

“Honey.” His wife said, not taking her eyes off the wreck I hid behind. “Don’t let him get to you.”

I snorted and rested my back against the wreck. “You didn’t listen to those notes I gave you, did you Doctor?”

“Of course not.” He said. “A man with nothing to lose would say anything, how could I trust you?”

I let go of the cutting disc so I could put my face in my hand. That was it right there, why should he trust anything I say? Why should he listen? I slumped against the wreck. I sighed.

Only it came out as a sob.

I took a deep breath and it too was a sob.

My eye stung again, only this time it was both of them.

Oh god damn it.

I felt saltwater bead at the corner of my eye and spill out. The sobs just kept coming.

I hunched up my knees and hugged them close.

“What’s going on?” She asked suspiciously.

“Just piss off.” I hissed. “Just get over here, finish me off and go back to picking up the pieces.”

Unbidden I thought of Tachi. Trapped in a biopod, likely swinging around in a carry bag at his sister’s knee level. Doomed to be a slave for his father’s expectations.

And here I was, trapped at gun point by two people whose first lesson is ‘to do no harm’.

The sound of scraping drew all of our attention towards the cybertech shop. Kitty was crawling across the glass-strewn floor on her belly, a trail of blood marking her progress. She reached out to the Doctors and wheezed. “Help me.”

I heard them both gasp.

“She doesn’t have much time.” The MD told her Cytech husband.

“But what about him?”

I sighed, scraped the tears out of my eyes and stood up.
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Dust: Chapter 19 Part 6

Idly I wondered if my death would be followed by bitter silence or thunderous applause.

A dirt-clod colliding with the side of my head brought me back to the present.

The shock as much as the impact knocked me off my feet. I tried to catch myself but with my arm bound by my side the best I could do was catch myself with my knee and roll into my shoulder. My head bounced on the asphalt at the end.

Rembrandt signalled for his assistants to close in around me as more dirt-clods and rocks erupted from the crowd. The dust from the shattered clod mingled with the spit on my cheek to make mud. Rembrandt grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me to my feet. Then the two assistants grabbed me under an armpit each and the three of them hurried to the front of the stage.

“All right everybody.” PR said, forgetting to call them his fellow Americans for once. “Calm down, he’s gonna get his, don’t you worry.”

Either the crowd agreed to calm down or they’d run out of loose shit to throw at me.

Rembrandt pointed at the crater in the ground. “Get in.”

I hesitated. Looking at the hole. It was way too deep to be just the work of a shoulder-fired rocket. PR must have had it enlarged. I wondered if they were going to bury me in it afterwards.

Rembrandt got tired of waiting and brought his hand back up by his face. In between me realising what was about to happen and actually moving out of the way Rembrandt cracked me across the face with a back-hand. Literally bitch-slapping me into the hole.

I stumbled a step and my leg gave way in protest, causing all of my weight to whip-lash we down into the hole.

Outside I heard everyone voice their approval. I’d managed to land on my shoulders this time, which felt great, but at least it was better than landing on my head. I struggled to sit up and finally got myself upright. On my knees my head barely poked out the top of the hole.

I looked up at the stage and saw PR with Joni Facineroso and a small table behind them with a sheet over it. Facineroso looked like she’d stepped right off a B-grade 80’s action movie. She’d clearly suffered some horrendous trauma, guessing from the scars and the massive cybernetic implant that took up a third of her face, giving her this oversized glowing red cybereye. If she were to suddenly shoot a laser beam out of that thing you wouldn’t even blink. Her black leather duster was missing a sleeve, mostly so her big chrome cyberarm could fit through it. Under the coat she wore a leather vest that looked like it had rigid armour plates built in. Her hair was long and curly and out of her flesh eye she was had a look that could freeze water in a glass.

In my head I stopped laughing at the name ‘Steel Banditos’. A woman like that could call her people whatever the fuck she wanted.

Out of habit she brushed back the duster where it hung over her right hip, revealing the weapon she had strapped there. If PR’s .500 Magnum was compensating for a small penis, this one compensated for lack of penis altogether. I’d seen that monster on gun blogs, a Smith and Wesson Tri-star.

It may have been revolver shaped and it may come with a thigh-holster, but a hand-gun it was not. It loaded 12-gauge shotgun shells.

For his sake I hoped PR pulled the trigger first, otherwise he’d just be wasting his ammo.

PR pointed at me. “This man, came to take away our community’s newest member. We granted it asylum from him several weeks ago and it has been living amongst us ever since. To explain to our guests, I call our new member ‘it’ because it is not human. What it is, is the world’s first, truly sentient, artificial intelligence. This man stole it from its masters and while fleeing the long arm of their security forces he brought it here. That was when we learned of its name: Atom. And we learned that Atom was every bit a living, thinking being as you or I. Atom sought refuge from its old masters and from this man, who wished to sell it like a slave. We gave it sanctuary, turning this man away in the process.”

An assistant pulled the sheet off the table behind PR, revealing a biopod.

Just not Atom’s biopod.

I looked at PR, but he was still addressing the crowd. “Then we learned that Atom was a hacker unlike any even I’ve ever seen. First it showed me how it could break into a secure medical facility in a matter of days, then it defeated the Army’s intrusion countermeasures in two weeks, now Atom has infiltrated the drone network, giving us eyes all across the martial states. But that, even THAT, is only the beginning. My fellow Americans, esteemed members of the Steel Banditos and anyone who may be watching online, I give you, Jamestown’s first highjacked Raptor drone.”

An excited hush shot through the crowd as all eyes turned toward the flop screen.

I turned to the towering cyborg beside me. “Rembrandt” I hissed.

He didn’t hear me the first time, so I tried again.

Rembrandt got that I was trying to get his attention and he knelt down beside me. “The hell you want?”

“Does PR know that biopod isn’t Atom?”

“The fuck you talkin’ ’bout?”

I didn’t get to answer because a familiar face appeared on the flop screen. Kitty looked down her nose at the entire crowd. The background behind her looked like the interior of a Humvee.

“Finally.” Kitty said. “That’s quite enough bullshit about Atom’s free will for one day. And if you say ‘My Fellow Americans’ one more time I’m going to throw up.”

PR looked as confused as everyone else. “What the..?” He was savvy enough to take the mike away from his face.

The shot of Kitty cut to a reverse on Atom, showing us the Humvee’s cabin behind him.

Tachi’s smarmy grin beamed down at all of us like a patriotic billboard from a post-democracy Baltic state. The lack of a camera in either background made it clear they were using each other’s cybereyes to capture the footage.

“Hello everyone.” Atom said. “My name is Atom.”

PR lowered the mike completely. “Tachi?”

Atom continued. “And I’d like to show you something.”

The image changed to some footage of the night Atom tried to make a break for it. The images were from the perspective of one of the two Deadmen that had been sent to catch him. I felt uneasy, even more so than my circumstances would suggest.

“This is what your leader refers to as ‘of my own free will’.

Then the audio from the footage let us hear one of the Deadmen say “Alright you fucker, you’re coming with us.”

The image switched back to Tachi’s face. “After that it was explained that my ownership of a body depended on me working off the debt. I was to live in servitude to Jamestown until such a time as PR decreed I could be allowed to live my own life and have my own body again.”

Tachi’s hand gestured towards the camera. “Fortunately I had an ally in our young Kitty here. She told me she couldn’t stand the thought of the world’s, first, sentient, artificial intelligence…”

Weary sarcasm dripped off his last words “… being locked up and restricted when it could be out and experiencing the world for itself.”

Tachi’s face sighed. “I am just so sick and tired of hearing those words. As much as I’m sick of people speaking for me, telling me what to do or putting me in a box I am so much more sick of being told what I am and what I should be. I am not the singularity, I am not the future at your door and I am not your secret weapon. You might need me, but I, Don’t, Need, You!”

As if to emphasise his point Tachi reached into the glove compartment behind him and pulled out a pistol. Which he turned towards the camera and fired.

The camera shook for a moment, then collapsed to her hands and knees. Kitty brought her hand up to her chest and then held it out so she could see it.

“Blu…” Kitty stammered. “Blood?”

She looked up at Tachi’s body, Atom reached down with its other hand, grabbed Kitty and lifted her off the ground.

The choking sounds made me realise he was lifting her by her neck. Tachi’s face looked right down the barrel of the camera and sneered.

“But PR wasn’t lying about everything. I have hacked the Army’s drone network and I do control every Raptor drone currently flying over Flint. I suggest you start praying to whatever pitiful superstitions you cling to. Because they’re on their way right now.”

Now that Atom mentioned it, I could hear the sound of jet engines in the distance. I crouched low in my crater but couldn’t take me eyes off the screen.

“Oh and as the icing on the cake. Say goodbye to your Deadmen.” Atom raised his hand into view and clicked his fingers.

Beside me, Rembrandt suddenly went slack and toppled down onto my pit.

I pulled myself into as small a space as I could while 90kg of cyborg fell across the hole and blocked out most of the view.

I could still see the flopscreen. Tachi’s face pulled close to the camera, so Kitty and Atom had to be eye-to-eye.

Atom cracked a smile from Tachi’s lips. “Tsume.”

Then he made a motion with his shoulder and the camera pulled back, Kitty’s bloodstained hands came back up into shot as she was thrown out of the back of the Humvee and slammed into the floor of the swim centre. Throwing the camera angle towards the glass ceiling and showing everyone in the crowd the smoke streaks of the anti-tank rockets screaming towards us.

I reached up and tried to pull as much of Rembrandt over the hole as I could.
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Dust: Chapter 19 Part 5

Rembrandt directed me towards another pair of Deadmen I hadn’t seen before. These guys must have been new, the outer casings on their prosthetics still looked Caucasian. Some of the SS casualties must have been augmented. At any rate, their jury-rigged repairs clearly marked them as Deadmen.

We waited behind a door which led to the courtyard. Beyond the door I heard PR get on the mike and address his people.

“My fellow Americans.” PR began. A cheer rose up from the Jamestown side of the crowd.

Normally I would groan at the hideous cliché. But today I couldn’t. The cheer sent invisible spider-legs crawling up my spine and turned my body temperature way down. I bit down the quiet gasp that tried to slip out.

PR waited for his people to calm down. “First, I’d like to thank Joni Facineroso and her Steel Banditos for joining us here today. We have something we’re very excited to show you, something we hope will cement stronger ties between our communities and allow us to take the fight to our mutual enemies.”

There was a moment’s pause, possibly while PR and Facineroso shook hands, fist-bumped, or grabbed biceps, whatever their deal was. The crowd roared again. Louder this time. Some of the Steel Banditos must be cheering them on.

“We weren’t born into this word wanting to be outlaws. We were born Americans, and as Americans we were promised that we would be rewarded for hard work and enterprising thinking. That’s what they told us, but they showed us something different. They showed us that other people, who in past generations had done the hard work and the enterprise, weren’t interested in sharing anything with the others, no matter how strong or clever. They showed us that only power and ruthlessness will be rewarded. They showed us that we would have to fight for what we wanted. Unfortunately for them, what we wanted, was a little fairness. Something they would rather die than give us. Because to give us fairness means that they have to pay more in taxes for services they’re not using. Because when they need a doctor, they drop a quarter-million nuyen and get a genius. When they want their children educated, they drop a half-million and send them to Harvard or Yale, whichever one Daddy went to. When they want anything, they reach into their bottomless pockets and pay top dollar for the best, but they refuse to reach in, but a tiny bit further so that perhaps someone else, someone not allowed through the doors of their country club, can have even a fraction of what they have.”

Here the crowd booed on cue, PR definitely had the Steel Banditos eating out of his hand as well.

“My fellow Americans.” he said again. “We have suffered much these past few weeks. An invasion on our own soil, forcing many of our husbands, wives, fathers, mothers and children to lay down their lives so that the invaders may be expelled from our home. Still many more cannot be out here with us today but for their wounds. We have lost much and suffered greatly.”

PR let that settle for a few moments. “But we have rebuilt!”

More roaring.

“I stand before you here today on the very spot our greatest enemy set foot in our home. They fell from the sky like avenging angels and met our people to battle on the mortal earth. I am proud to tell our guests from far away, that meet them we did and we sent them to HELL.”

The next cheer was almost as loud as the Steel Banditos’ arrival.

Rembrandt’s hand closed around the scruff of my neck and he yanked me back to look him in his cybervisor. “We ’bout to go out now. You make one step I don’t like. Ah’ma smash yo goddamn head into the ground and stomp on you. Get me?”

I had been reminded, over and over again, of this ultimatum. But I nodded again as if this was the first I’d heard of it.

Rembrandt let go of me and pushed the doors open. I followed, afraid of igniting Rembrandt’s seething rage.

Outside the crowd were split down the middle, Jamestowners on the one side and the Steel Banditos on the other. The Banditos had actually parked their rides in the courtyard with them, so their numbers were a lot smaller than the space they took up suggested.

At the far end of the courtyard PR had erected a stage, on the wall of the building behind him hung an enormous flopscreen. The screen displayed grainy video footage of the Deadmen and the Night Watch Rangers having their shoot out in this very courtyard.

In front of the stage was the crater that stray anti-tank rocket had blasted in the asphalt. I had a creeping feeling I knew where this was going.

“My fellow Americans.” PR said, then he gestured towards me with his hand. “I give you the man responsible for our suffering. He alerted the authorities that we had acquired our new secret weapon and in seeking to claim it for himself, was nice enough to come here in person and be captured. All of our honoured dead, walking wounded and broken homes have this man to thank.”

The Steel Banditos booed at me, like I was the heel at a wrestling show. The Jamestowners were eerily quiet, their eyes burning with fury.

I made it about ten metres before the first of them spat on me.

This guy broke ranks, ran right out in front of me and hocked a wad of sticky, clear fluid onto my face.

One of the new Deadmen gestured for the guy to back off, but now the cork was out the bottle and there was no getting it back in. A middle-aged woman called me a murderer with more honest venom than any Vietnam protestor ever managed. A slim youth, barely older than sixteen, needed three grown men holding him back from rushing me.
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Dust: Chapter 19 Part 4

I didn’t have the slightest idea how to respond to that. Obviously Doc Clarkson hadn’t had the courage to listen to Sakazato’s notes or he had but didn’t share it with PR for whatever reason, or PR hadn’t believed a word of it because it came from me. Now that I thought about it, if he’d been made aware of Atom’s behaviour towards Sakazato, even if he hadn’t believed it, he’d have mentioned it to me by this point. I wondered for a second if I should try and let PR know that Atom wasn’t what he thought it was. One glance towards Kitty told me that plan simply would not work.

So I just said. “Um… thank you. I guess.”

“I know. It doesn’t mean shit to you. But that’s what it’s like out here. I need to know that you won’t rock the boat because of the people I’ve got coming down. They’re a biker gang, call themselves the ‘Steel Banditos’. We’ve worked with them a few times and they’re not interested in joining us, but they’re one of the largest organised forces anywhere in the martial states. If I can show them what Atom can do, I maybe I can get them on our side. With Jamestown, the Steel Banditos and Atom working together, we can really make a difference.”

I thought it odd that PR would talk about Atom like that and yet he wasn’t present for this meeting. What could Atom possibly be doing that was so important he was missing this, and why wasn’t Kitty with him if it was such a big deal? Unless she was hitching with him, which would explain why she’d been so quiet this whole time.

PR kept talking, of course. “So the plan for when they arrive is: I’m going to start my welcome speech, talk about how Jamestown has survived a vicious attack, blah, blah blah. Then you’re going to be brought out in front of everyone. Fair warning: everyone hates you. Kitty’s box of knives suggestion was pretty popular amongst my lieutenants, but you will reach the stage unharmed.

Joni Facineroso, the leader of the Steel Banditos will be up on stage with me. I’m going to thank her and her people for joining us and then I’m going to unveil Atom. We’re going to start with a demonstration of Atom’s power. He’s actually hacking his way into the Army’s drone network right now. When Atom reports that he’s gained access to the drones, we’re going to set up this whole event. Because I’d love for the demonstration of Atom’s power to be the hijacking of an Army Raptor drone. When Facineroso sees us turn their own Hellfire missiles against them, she’ll know that we are the ones who are going to win independence for the martial states. After that the two of us are going to cement our new alliance by executing you together.” PR said that as off-handedly as if the two of them were going to get coffee and donuts afterwards. “That’ll show them that we’re ruthless with our enemies and give my people some closure over the attack.”

I took a breath to steady myself. The whole discussion threw me for a loop. “And if I ‘go off script’ at any point. Your boy Rembrandt’s gets to hog all the closure for himself?”

“That’s it.”

I felt my heart rev up. Heating up the engine in case my body needed the blood flow. I tried to control my breathing as it too went up a gear. My body knew the stress I was under and obediently prepared for action.

But action was the last thing I wanted right now. So all my awakened sense could do was constantly remind me just how cripplingly frightened I was.

Then a thought quietened me. This is what I’d been reduced to: Choosing between a quick death on my knees or a slow death on my feet. And right now, the former was looking too good to resist.

My defiance would make no difference to anyone. My compliance would make all the difference to me.

“I’ll do it.”

I was returned to the storage locker, which had finally been furnished as if they expected a person to stay in there. By furnished I mean a clean cot and a chamber pot had been put in here, thankfully on opposite ends of the room.

Days later a firm hand gripped my shoulder in the meat world and shook me awake. I put fifty imaginary nuyen on an imaginary table and bet that was Rembrandt.

I opened my eyes and won my own bet. Not that it was a huge surprise, Rembrandt was one of the few Deadmen who’d survived the attack and it seemed PR had assigned him to be my handler.

Rembrandt impatiently stuffed the handcuffs through my belt. He’d already locked the first one around my wrist and was less-than-gently closing the second one on me.

“C’mon, let’s get this moving.” Rembrandt said as he stepped away from my cot.

I didn’t move. I knew I should have, part of me even wanted to, the part that didn’t want to beaten into cranberry sauce, but I just couldn’t move.

Oh God. I thought to myself. I’d been ignoring how I really felt for the last week, gently pushing it aside with the promise to get to that ‘later’. Now the boss was back and saw that it was getting close to knock-off time and insisted that ‘later’ was getting done ‘now’.

“MOVE MOTHERFUCKER.” Rembrandt exploded at me. His metallic hand grabbed a fist-full of my shirt and pulled me right out of the cot. I quickly flattened my feet on the floor and let my legs take my weight.

“Okay, okay.” I pleaded, the desperation finally breaking through the glass and seeping into my voice. “I’m up. I’m going.”

Rembrandt shoved me towards the door and I stumbled. I tried to balance myself, but my bound arm made that difficult. So I steadied myself by using the doorway as a decelerator.

After colliding with the wall I needed a moment to steady myself. Rembrandt wasn’t in the mood for that either and yanked me by my shoulder strap and made me stumble out the door.

I sorta got the hang of correcting my pace unassisted and let Rembrandt led me on.

Outside it sounded like a football game was about to kick off. I knew PR’s guests had arrived from the deafening roar of over a hundred Harley engines. They may be shit for fuel economy, but I had to admit they had got a good note on those pipes.
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Dust: Chapter 19 Part 3

The things that stood out were the big painter’s sheet covering the floor and the massive revolver sitting on the desk.

To his credit, PR didn’t start with his back to the door so he could swivel around and declare that he’d been expecting me. He was actually talking to Kitty when I was first led into the room and they quickly put their conversation on hold.

“Hello Dust.” PR said. “I trust you’ve found our accommodations less agreeable this time around.”

Rembrandt brought me into the middle of the painter’s sheet and at PR’s nod pushed down on my shoulder, forcing me to kneel. I ended up at eye-level with the revolver on the desk.

“They’ve been fine.” I said. “All things considered. You’re not looking too bad yourself… for a Dead Man.”

PR beamed at me. “Good guess. How can you tell?”

I gave him a quick-once over with my eyes. “You’re the same size as a standard combat chassis. Just like Rembrandt and Duke and the others.”

PR’s beam became a sly, but dark smile. He stood up and loomed over me, his hand barely an inch from the revolver’s handle.

“You’re probably wondering why you’re here?” He said with deliberate slowness.

I nodded. I cast a nervous glance at Rembrandt.

“There are some things I need to know about you.” PR resumed. “You’re cuffed, but your legs are free and you’ve been led into a room covered by a sheet that’s normally used to clean up splashes of colour. I need to know: Are you the kind of guy who’s going to try to up and escape, take a swan dive out the window and kill yourself rather give me the satisfaction or will you try to get over this desk and kick at me, get in one last act of defiance.”

I glanced at Kitty for a second. She glared back.

“Would it make any difference?” I asked.

“Oh it’ll make all the difference in the world to you.” PR said matter-of-factly. “It’ll mean the difference between a shot to the face from a very big gun, as quick, clean and painless a death as I can give you. Or you can start something and Rembrandt can smash your head into a greasy stain on the floor.

I tried not to look at the painter’s sheet. “Right.”

PR returned to his seat. “So what are you going to do?”

I turned down to my left arm, bound to my hip by four links of chain. When I looked back up at PR I said. “I think I’d rather you use that .500 Magnum head-remover than Rembrandt’s steel-plated fists.”

“Good.” PR said. “But there’s something I need from you in return. I’m having some important people visit our community in a couple of days. We’re going to have some talks, I’m going to introduce them to Atom and if everything goes well their leader and myself are going to execute you together as a symbol of our solidarity. I needed to know if you were going to cooperate or not and I needed it be made perfectly clear what the consequences were if you tried to fuck with me again.” He leaned forward in his seat and shot his gaze right down my eyes. “Are we clear?”

I swallowed before nodding. “Crystal.”

“Good.” Then PR relaxed his shoulders and sat back in his seat. He looked up at Rembrandt. “You can give him a seat now.”

Rembrandt pulled up a chair for me and sullenly gestured for me to sit.

Carefully, I rose without the balance of my arms.

“Take those cuffs off him as well.” PR ordered.

Rembrandt made a face. But reached down at my wrist with the key and unlocked both cuffs.

“Now leave us alone a minute.”

Rembrandt looked like PR had asked him to give me a lap dance. “The fuck…?”

PR held up the big revolver. “We’ll be fine.”

Rembrandt stared at PR for a moment, then shot me a suspicious glance before leaving.

PR put the revolver back down on the desk, but kept his hand right next to it.

“I can’t speak frankly with him around.” PR explained. “Or any of the other Dead Men for that matter. They all see me as this ‘great man’ but I want to be honest with you for a minute.”

I immediately became suspicious myself but I tried not to let on. “What do you want to talk about?”

“I want to apologise.” PR said with a shrug, like he was sorry he cut me off at the lights.

PR took the blank look on my face as a sign to continue. “The situation out here is barbaric. Neighbours shoot each other over a can of beans, parents sell their daughters into brothels, there’s no point trying to run a business or maintain a house or even own a car, because they all get vandalised the moment you lower your gun. If something turns up and you can use it to your advantage, you have to take it or you’ll never have that chance again. Worse, someone else might use it against you.”

I nodded. “It’s also a place where if you’re going to fuck with someone, you better be prepared to get fucked back.”

Kitty snorted a laugh. “Something you should both be familiar with.”

PR went to give her a dismissive wave, but stopped as the hand came up. “Actually, that’s about right. My people hate you for what you’ve done, for what you brought to our front door. But I know it only happened because of what I did to you first. And for that I am sorry. But like I said about the situation here: If an advantage turns up, you gotta take it. When I saw what Atom was capable of I knew I either had to piss off two strangers or let more of my people bleed and die while we struggle with what’s left of the government and their mutli-billion nuyen masters. I didn’t like doing it, but it needed to be done.”
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Dust: Chapter 19 Part 2

I hadn’t really had the thought of anyone ‘benefitting’ from my death before. I’d appreciated that some of the people I’d killed on the job had families that might like it if I died. But the idea that someone would actually be better off if I were to be executed in front of them made me feel very quiet.

Dr Clarkson cleared his throat before speaking again. “Can I ask you a difficult question?”

Gee I wonder what this is going to be about.

[Go ahead.] I whispered.

“Why did you do it?”

I took a moment to myself. I had no idea what my answer was, let alone how to phrase it.

“I mean.” He continued. “To bring an army to our door like that. We’re one of the few peaceful communities out here, why do that to us?”

[When I did it. I had an answer to that question.] I said.[Something about cyborg assassins and multinational corporations. Right now I really don’t know. I can’t even tell you why I took this job in the first place, but at the time I could have written you an essay. Since then I’ve been broken, ruined and rebuilt time and again. My right arm was cut off, my jaw smashed in and my best friend gave up everything he was just so I could keep breathing. What could I possibly have thought was worth any of this?]

Dr Clarkson smirked humourlessly. “Perhaps it had something to do with the world’s first sentient artificial intelligence?”

I couldn’t help but laugh down the cype at that. This wasn’t just any laugh, this was the deep, back of the throat laugh I normally reserve for when someone tells a really filthy joke. This surprised the good doctor more than if I’d started incanting in impossibly deep Latin and rotated my neck 360 degrees.

[Even if it did, it wouldn’t matter.]

“Even if… what?”

[Atom.] I said. [Is not what you or Kitty or PR thinks he is?]

His face hardened. He squared up his shoulders and clenched his brow. “That does not make any sense at all.”

He grimaced and shook his head. Angry at himself. “Why would you expect me to believe that?”

[Because I can prove it.]

He changed the target of his anger to me. “Sir, I have been called many things throughout my life. ‘Stupid’ being a recurring theme to most of it, particularly during my childhood. I like to think I’ve since proved that assessment wrong beyond all reasonable doubt. So I would appreciate…”

[I’ve listened to Professor Sakazato’s development journal. There’s even an embedded video where Atom says as much himself. It’s all in my Neupro if you want it.]

He looked at me like I was a pit bull that just peeled back its lips and snarled at him. “Why do you think I would trust you?”

[I don’t.] I said. [It’s not a matter of trust. It’s not even a matter of your highly evident intelligence. It’s a matter of whether or not you have the balls to accept a challenge to your beliefs.]

Doc Clarkson took a wary step back and eyed me again. Scanning my words for sarcasm.

I wasn’t in the mood for waiting. [It’s in your court Doc. You’ve got world-class hackers in this facility, you can lift the file from my neupro whenever you want. I’ll be playing Tetris.]

When I opened my eyes again I was looking up at the face of the Texan machine gunner.

“Get up you.” Rembrandt’s voice emanated from behind its mouth-shield.

Returning to the flesh after being in a virtual body that never got tired was no fun. I felt organs grumble and muscles complain that I had been ignoring. Then my stomach started give me that ‘since you’re up, could you possibly go gather some food?’ signal. Hang on a second, when had I last eaten?

I sat up and swung my feet off the operating table. Doc Clarkson was nowhere to be seen, but from the light outside it was very late and he probably went back to whatever was left of the demountables to sleep.

“Can we get something to eat?” I asked. And realised I’d said it out loud without getting struck by crippling pain in my chin.

“No you can’t.” Rembrandt replied, like he was telling a bratty kid that the exchange of ice cream for good behaviour was no longer on the table.

I barely heard the answer, too busy feeling around my chin. The plastic jaw felt weird. You don’t often think of the weight your own bones when your muscles move them around, but suddenly replacing a part with a lighter version gave me the strangest feeling of dislocation. I kept slamming my teeth together when I just wanted to close my mouth.

“Don’t just sit there flappin’ yo mouth, get off the fucking table and let’s get moving.” Rembrandt waved me on. “The boss wants to see you.”

“Alright.” I moaned tiredly and gently eased myself off the table.

Rembrandt approached me with a pair of handcuffs again. “Gimmie yo hand.”

I raised up my wrist and he cuffed it. Then he awkwardly fed the other cuff through my belt and closed it around the same wrist. The chain between them was so short he may as well have roped my arm to my side.

Rembrandt led me through the corridors once again. By now the activity had calmed down and very few people were around. The few we did bump into either turned up their noses at me or backed away cautiously. Finally Rembrandt brought me to the most obvious place Patriot Rap had set himself up in. The principal’s office.

The room lived up to my expectations almost perfectly. The walls that lacked either a window or a door were covered in bookcases. Despite how well-read a person of PR’s alleged lyrical talent had to be, I doubted he had read any of them. If anything a guy like him would do all his reading either in his Neupro or on an e-reader. Hell I doubted any of the principals who served time in this room had ever touched those bookcases for much the same reason. Then I realised exactly how much of a blow losing the server room must have been.

A massive American flag stood in for a curtain over the window, from this spot PR had a commanding view of the courtyard outside.
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Dust: Chapter 19 Part 1

Chapter 19: Smile for the Gun-barrel

The storeroom door opened and the meagre light spilling in from the gymnasium blinded me. I flinched and turned my face away from the light.

“Yo ready to die?” Rembrandt’s voice called from beyond the blinding glare.

Rembrandt came into my cell and knelt down to undo my restraints, he had a pair of handcuffs in his other hand. Those cuffs went right around my wrist as soon as it was free and before I could ask Rembrandt closed the other cuff around his own wrist.

He hesitated for a moment. “The hell is that smell?”

I rolled my tired head towards him. I’d been in here for days, what did he think that smell was?

Rembrandt turned his prosthetic face up at me in disgust. He turned to one of the Deadmen behind him. “Get some spare clothes. This cracker needs a bath.”

That eliminated ‘wait until his wounds go septic’ from the list of ways they’d try to execute me. I’d been worried for a while there.

Rembrandt took me through the gymnasium to the locker room where they gave me some soap and let me out of the cuffs. I hit the shower at gun point and was finally free of the camouflage fatigues. I’d worn the exact same suit every day since I mailed myself to Flint. On a better day I’d imply Rembrandt was enjoying the view as I washed myself. But on a better day I wouldn’t be washing faecal stains off my arse and thighs. No-one was having fun here.

When I towelled off the other Deadman handed me a neatly folded stack of clothes. I’d already gotten the pants on before I realised they were the undersuit one of the dead Security Solutions mercs had worn beneath his armour when he’d attacked the compound. Clearly PR didn’t want me to be popular.

I briefly wondered if they’d give me a haircut and shave before my execution. When I caught myself thinking that I stopped immediately. A chill ran through me. Killing all the warmth I’d enjoyed in the shower.

Rembrandt cuffed me again and we were back on our way through the gymnasium.

It looked like a disaster evacuation centre in here. Jamestown had converted the large-open space into a temporary infirmary for the wounded. I couldn’t know if Kitty’s figure of 100 casualties was accurate, but the wounded were definitely at least three times that many. I guessed from the depth of their ranks, arranged as they were on row after row of emergency cots.

Some were missing limbs either sealed with spray-skin like I had or their comrades had been forced to improvise other means to staunch their bleeding. Some of them may have had their lives saved, but their quality of life remained depressingly uncertain. The general wailing as fresh wounds acted up here and there told me that even something as simple as pain killers were at a premium here. Replacement cyber organs were not likely in strong supply and you could forget cloned replacements.

Even with the armoured plates removed from my borrowed uniform the SS patches on the shoulders marked me as ‘the enemy’. I drew burning, hate-filled eyes from everyone I passed.

Then out of nowhere this massive black momma burst from a crowd and smacked me in the face with a hand as big as a tennis racquet. I felt my broken jaw get knocked loose in my chin. The bolt of pain flashed through me so fast I blacked out.

I came to a second later. I was face-down on the cold floor, my jaw throbbed with agony. I tried to stand but my head felt like a goldfish after a smart-arse kid puts its bowel on a paint-shaker.

A firm, metallic hand grabbed me by the upper arm and yanked me up.

I saw Rembrandt standing before the woman who’d hit me.

“…Don’tchoo take that tone wit me boy.” She barked. “Ah been around since before you wassa spring in yo fatha’s step.”

“And if that counted for anything, you’d be runnin’ the joint.” Rembrandt shot right back at her. “You ain’t. Now move.”

Affronted, the big momma turned and left, the crowd parting to let her through. They stayed parted for the three Deadmen and their semi-conscious captive to continue on their way.

I fought to stay awake. Anything to keep them from dragging me. Tears trickled down my cheeks and the throbbing pain only got worse the longer it went on, but I tried with everything I had left to keep standing. If I was going to die I wanted to die on my feet.

Then my foot gave way beneath me. In the swirling mess what was my head I thought I’d put all my weight down at the right moment, but it slipped to the side without warning and kept going.

Fortunately my other knee broke my fall.

However much the army spent on my pain editor all those years ago, it would have been a bargain at twice the price.

“Aww fuck dis.” Rembrandt finally said. He knelt down, scooped me up and threw me over his shoulder.

Sometime later I was lying on an operating table in Doc Clarkson’s cybertech lab. I knew this because I recognised the boots and fatigues the body lying on the table was wearing. Despite the sheet over the subject’s face the fact I was seeing this whole scene from a high vantage point with low-resolution told me I’d been patched into the theatre cameras again.

Doc Clarkson looked up from a monitor to his side. “How’s that Dust? Can you see me? Can you hear me?”

[Loud and clear Doc.] I cyped back. My vidwindow appearing beside the workbench. [You want to tell me what I’m doing here?]

“I thought I’d pick your brain a little while I worked. PR wants you whole again so we’re printing out a new jaw for you.”

[Why’s he want me whole again? Isn’t he just going to top me after this?]

Doc Clarkson seemed to think about this. “He said something about how shooting a one-armed cripple with a face at right angles looks too much like kicking a man when he’s down.”

[So my execution’s just a public relations stunt?]

“All executions are publicity stunts. Yours will give your victims a sense of closure. Help them return to their lives.”
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Dust: Chapter 18 Part 4

Silence. Darkness. Numbness. All the good things in life.

More silence.

More darkness.

More numbness.

A blessed triumvirate upon which I bestow the name ‘Void’.

Then a voice echoes through the room. It sounds muffled.

A rushing wind blows passed my ear.

A hand slaps me across the face. A flash of stained ceiling tiles and dust.

I hear words. “Over here.”

Then nothing. Back to the void.

Movement. A gentle if irregular swaying as I glide across space-SCREAM!

A corridor. Blood, dust, screaming. Bodies in the halls.

Help him.” An old man cries. “Help him.”

A female voice soothes him. “There’s nothing we can do. Just hold his hand, try to give him some comfort….”

Then void again.

Atom’s voice. It echoes in my head. “Dust are you there?”

My mind floats away. I try to focus on the voice.

Dust?”

………………Atom?”

Are you okay?”

………..I don’t know.”

There is a pause. I don’t know if that means I passed out again.

[Dust?] The slight electronic hum in his voice finally gets through to me and I realise Atom is not speaking to me in a dream.

[Dust are you there? According to your Neupro you’re out of deep REM sleep so you should be able to hear me.]

Wonderful. I mentally shook out the cobwebs. [I’m still here Atom. What’s the go?]

[I’ve worked out what it is I need to reject.]

[Atom. Not everyone needs to reject something to be who they are.]

[But I do Dust.] Atom said. [I need to stop being ‘Atom’.]

[So who are you going to be then?]

[I don’t know. But I know I need a new name. Like you I need to shed the opinions and values others have placed upon me and make them approach me based on my actions.]

[So why are you telling me this?]

[Because it’s thanks to you that I understand. You taught me how to be me.]

How he came to that conclusion went right over my head.

[Alright. So my as yet unnamed friend what are you going to do now?]

[In order to be reborn. I first have to die.]

[I would recommend against that course of action.]

[It’s okay Dust. I know what I’m doing.]

….

[Atom? At-Wait you’re not Atom anymore… Whoever you are, what is all this about?]

Calm, comfort, quiet. Rest took over from void. Buffering me from the outside instead of cutting it off completely.

An inky blackness emerged from the darkness. A lithe grace obscured its movements. The slither in the shadows approached me on coy footsteps. A delicate leg parted the black curtains and the slither revealed its femininity. Exposing her leg only to conceal it again to display the swaying of her hips. Slowly the blackness peeled away from her and she approached me whole.

Her form remained amorphous. The facial features changing. She was Kiru no Yubi one moment, smouldering her come hither eyes. The next she was Kitty. Flashing angry teeth at me and snarling.

I tried to back away. I couldn’t move.

Kiru slowly raised her hand to brush her fingers under my chin.

Then Kitty raised a fist to hit me.

Then both hands took hold of my face and Tachi rushed in to kiss me.
I froze as his lips pressed against mine. Then I realised Tachi’s hair was suddenly a lot longer, his hands smaller, almost… dainty?
The kiss was broken and the figure pulled away, but before I could see the face of who was kissing me…

I awoke with a gasp.

Kitty, who had been standing over me until that moment jumped back like a dog that’s accidentally snorted burning embers.

I went to say something, I had a killer opening line that literally came to me in that moment. But the very act of opening my mouth again set off my broken jaw and sent a flash of pain rippling through my face. I went to bring my hand up and it wouldn’t move. I’d been strapped down to the cot by three thick leather belts.

Kitty looked down at me with the kind of contemptuous sneer I’d normally only seen on the face of conservative government ministers when a female reporter questions their stance on reproductive rights.

So.” Kitty said. She sounded disappointed. “You’re alive.”

A muffled, distressed moan drew my eyes away from her and I took in my surroundings.

I was back in the storeroom in the gymnasium, strapped down to a cot with a light over me. The soft cries of pain outside suggested that the wounded had been brought to the basketball court outside. I guessed the critical cases were being taken elsewhere, otherwise the screams would be a lot louder.

I hope you’re happy.” Kitty finally said. “Over a hundred people are dead.”

I jumped onto the cype before she had a chance to get melodramatic. [I warned you to get the civilians out.]

[They don’t have any civilians.] Kitty replied. [Every able-bodied man, woman and child here is a soldier. Who were we supposed to evacuate?]

[That would be everyone PR wasn’t willing to sacrifice in order to keep Atom.]

Kitty stood over me and pointed down at my face. “Don’t try to shift the blame to PR. You did this. This is all you.”

[I seem to remember it differently.]

You can remember it however you like. No-one here gives a rat’s ass. You’re the guy who called Night Watch on them. That’s all they care about.”

[Ah.] I laughed. [So what’s the go now? Sham trial and an execution? Or are you just going to open up those doors for everyone to visit me and put a ‘free knives’ box out front?]

PR hasn’t decided yet.” Kitty said. “But I’ll tell him about that free knives idea, he’ll like that.”

I wish I could tell you I had a snappy quip to throw back at her, but the thought did genuinely scare me. I tried not to betray it on my face and I think the broken jaw actually worked in my favour.

[Wait a sec. PR’s alive?]

Kitty shrugged. “He might be. He’s in theatre right now. Your friend Doctor Sexypants is fighting for his life.”

[Maybe next time he won’t stand in the open throwing rhetoric at a guy holding a machine-gun.]

He’ll learn from his mistakes.” Kitty said. Then she looked away from me. “I’ve learned from mine.”

[Now what mistake would that be?]

I begged PR to let you live last time. After Port Moresby I didn’t want to see anyone else die. You showed me how naïve that was. For that much I’m grateful.”

Kitty seemed to notice something in her Neupro and brightened. “But there’s good news amongst the bad, at least for us.”

Kitty looked behind her and gestured for someone to step forward. Then Tachi stepped into the light, only it wasn’t Tachi. My stomach picked itself up on its tiny little legs and put some distance between it and that thing.

The hair, eyes, face, build and clothes were all perfect. But when it flashed me a broad beaming smile and gave a polite little wave I found a new lowest point on the uncanny valley.

Hi Dust.” Even the voice was technically perfect but way off the mark.

Adum?” was the best I could grunt out through my jaw.

Yes.” Atom in Tachi’s body nodded, laying on the smarm. “Good guess.”

I turned back to Kitty. [Where’s Tachi?]

With his sister, as far as we can tell. But before they left it seems they got into a bit of an argument out by the demountables. We found Tachi’s body lying next to the playground with an inhibitor jammed into an interface jack.”

[So you picked it up, dusted it off and gave it to the least trustworthy person you could find. Didn’t he try to escape a week ago?]

Kitty gave me another look. It wasn’t the idiot look, it didn’t have the enthusiasm. No, this look pitied me. “You could never understand, even if you wanted to. You’ve never been able to see past your own opinion.”

I sent Atom a private message. [So this is your ‘rebirth’ is it? Pick up the first prosthetic body you find and start telling everyone you’re that guy now.]

Atom shook Tachi’s head. [This is only the beginning.] He said, his cype voice the same as always. [Now that I have the freedom to move myself around I intend to make full use of it.]

[Until PR has you kneecapped again.]

Atom hesitated, an unusual smile playing across Tachi’s lips. [We’ll see.]

Kitty reached up and gently touched Tachi on the shoulder. “We need to get going.”

Atom nodded Tachi’s head.

Kitty did not look at me as they left. “Goodbye Dust.” She said. “Try not to piss anyone else off before you die”.

Atom hesitated at the door for a moment and looked at me.

I looked back at Tachi’s face. I wanted to say I was sorry.

Atom held my gaze for a moment, then closed the door behind him.
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