First

DustCover_FINAL_v1_tinyRez

Chapter 1: A very rude awakening

A brief electric whir broke the silence. I grumbled, popped open my left eye and aimed it in the direction of the sound. I saw the window of my hotel room, the blind was down but I could still see the hint of sunlight at its edges. A second electric whir announced that the solar panel outside adjusted itself to catch the sunlight.

I grumbled again and opened the other eye.

I called the time display in my neural processor and the numbers appeared in the corner of my vision. 0938, roughly the same time the panel had woken me yesterday.
My hotel room looked like the sleeping compartment on a long-distance train if you applied that concept to an airliner. Clean white plastic covered every solid surface, broken up only by gaudy-coloured carpets and bed sheets, both of which shared the same ‘modern art’ obsession with geometric shapes and primary colours.

I sat up and summoned the room’s menu from my Neupro. The shower was warmed up and ready for me. I crossed the whole step from my bed to the shower and ran it with a thought.
The water-saving shower head narrowed the stream into a concentrated torrent that stripped the dead skin and cold sweat off my body like a sand-blaster. On the plus side it made keeping my head dry much easier.

Feeling a lot better I used my Neupro to get the kettle going while I towelled off. I tried to avoid catching my reflection in the mirror. I still had another week to wait for my appointment with the plastic surgeon.
I stepped out of the shower, crossed the room to the kitchen and made myself a cup of tea.
With another thought I commanded the blind to open, flooding the room with stinging morning light. I had to shield my eyes with my forearm. When the sting subsided I looked outside.

Sydney had woken up hours ago. In the clear and cheerful brightness of the day I could see the highway lined with silent electric cars. Helical wind turbines spun on every rooftop, were built into every light pole and on every sky facing surface I could see the shine of solar panels, most of whom had quieter servo motors than the one shading my window.

I summoned a weather report from my neural processor and an icon of a bright blazing sun appeared in the corner of my vision. A top daily temperature of 28°c appeared beneath it.
I took a deep breath of the warm, clear air and let it out slowly. Alright. I thought to myself. Time to wake it up.

‘It’ sat in the corner of the room underneath the monitor. It looked like a normal biopod for a cyber prosthetic body, on the outside at least. I’d hooked a tablet up to it, one that I’d been up all night hacking a custom wireless card for.

With my cup in hand I walked over to the corner table it sat on and switched on the tablet.
“Ohayo gozemas.” I said.

The image of a small, dark blue stick figure, the kind that normally tells you which of the toilets is the gents appeared on the tablet’s screen. These days a tablet’s screen is basically an afterthought, almost everyone uses the augmented reality functions exclusively. Some people never bother replacing the screens if they break them. I wasn’t using the AR because I didn’t want ‘it’ accessing my Neupro.
The default avatar looked around cautiously. “Who are you?” It asked in English. The voice coming out of the tablet’s tiny speakers was timid, childlike.

“You can call me Dust.” I said.
“That’s an unusual name.”
“That’s because it’s not my name, it’s my handle, the name I choose for myself rather than the one my parents doled out to me. What about you? I never found a name for you in my research. But the boffins putting you together must have called you something?”
A cautious silence followed. Finally it said “My name is Atom.”
“Adam?” I rolled my eyes. “Well I wasn’t expecting anything too original but they could have at least…”
“No, no no no. My name is not ‘Adam’ it’s ‘Atom’. Prof Sakazato named me after ‘Mighty Atom’ the animated TV show that inspired her father to study robotics. She told me I was the fulfilment of her father’s life work.”

I paused for several seconds in disbelief. “You’re named after ‘Astro boy’?”
“Well, yes.”
I shook my head “Bloody Japanese”.
The avatar turned away from me sulkily. “What’s wrong with my name?”
I smirked. “Don’t worry mate. I’m not judging you. I’m just a little worried they named you after the single most popular robot in anime history. Sure it’s better than the heavy-handed symbolism of naming you Adam. But I was kind of expecting…” Then realisation dawned on me. “…actually this doesn’t surprise me at all. That’s why it’s disappointing.”

Atom looked up at me and tilted it’s head to one side. “May I ask another question?”
“Go ahead.”
“What happened to your face?”
A smirked tugged at the side of my cheek. It hurt.
“You were watching. I thought you’d know.”
It was the best job I’ve ever pulled.
I turned a corner at the water cooler and peeked into a maintenance cupboard. The walls were skinned with the same wall design we’d used for the main corridor and the offices were basic and nondescript. Hell, this far off the preferred path I hadn’t even rendered the doors.
I had a window in my HUD displaying my bio-rhythms. They were as far down the scale as I could get them without going to sleep.

A vidwindow appeared in the space in front of me. Displaying the face of a young Asian man in a white shirt and severe black tie.
I paused for a second and starred at the picture. “Shit.”
A red ‘X’ flashed over the picture.
I tried to get the cogs in my head to turn a little faster. Then I snapped my finger at the picture.
“Ah. Toyotomi Kenji: Administrator – Up for his twelve years long-service award next month.”
A green tick covered the picture and it disappeared.

I glanced into another office and failed to see any maintenance access panels or windows that could be unlatched. Another picture appeared in front of me as I checked around.
I glanced at the screen. “Dr. Kobayashi Taro: Research Scientist.” I said automatically. “Replaced Arasaka Shin as Professor Sakazato’s assistant.”
I gave up on the offices and approached the security door at the end of the corridor. As I went another picture appeared before me.

I smiled. “Oooh, Sakuraba Takuma: Head of Security.”
The green tick flashed over the screen. “Hope he’s invested his money, he won’t even get a job cleaning toilets when we’re done with this gig.”
I walked up to the security door and pressed the icon on the wall next to it. A control panel appeared where the icon had been and the system cycled through a dozen different models before finally settling on one it liked.

I raised my hand, but hesitated before pointing at it. “Uhhh….”
I brought my head down to my hand and rubbed my temples. “Damn it.”
Then it came to me in a flash. I stabbed my hand at the panel. “Sinologic Security Type 109: Dual tamper switches. Requires bluetooth access. Passwords discovered have not proven reliable. Avoid all doors with this system if at all possible.”

The green tick appeared again and the door parted to let me through.
“If only it was that simple.” I muttered as I stepped through.
On the other side of the door was a corridor identical to the one I’d just left. The layout itself changed, but we’d never seen this wing with our hidden cameras so we had no idea what textures to skin the walls with. So midway up the walls you could see where the top of our known skins ended and repeated above them.

A warning beep in my head told me that someone had opened the lid on my box in the real world. I summoned a vid-window in front of me, displaying the feed from the hidden camera inside my box.
Back in the real world my body lay dormant inside a coffin-sized Pelican case. I watched through the camera as a pair of uniformed security guards looked over my body.

I froze. My disguise in the real world had been to make my flesh and blood body look like an empty cyber prosthetic. That was why my bio-rhythms were at their minimum, all the make-up and shaving wouldn’t mean jack if a random muscle-spasm, noticeable breathing or bodily function gave me away.
After a brief eternity, the guard glanced down, smirked and closed my lid.

Relief washed over me. The misery awaiting me at the wake up was now officially justified.
“Alright.” I said to no-one in particular. “I could do some escape scenarios.”
I summoned my minimap and a scale model of the whole archology appeared in my hand. I zoomed in on the top of the pyramid. “Floor 399: Residential Suites. Room 225.”
The world around me faded to black as it began to load the new environment.
Then I changed my mind, banished the scale model from my palm and opened a vid-window with a game of Tetris in it. “Scratch that. Let’s take a break.”

I awoke into agony. Painful, full-body stiffness greeted me with open arms. Forcing my body to not so much as twitch for six hours had built up a back catalog of aches and soreness. A second later my pain editor cut in, I was grateful the agony was gone but I still couldn’t wait a second longer than necessary for my muscle relaxant. I pulled my hands out of the shaped padding I’d been packed into, turned off the magnetic locks and prayed whoever brought me in had paid attention to the words ‘fragile’ and ‘do not stack’ in English, Japanese and Korean stamped on my box.

Thankfully the lid swung open and I tasted non-compressed air for the first time that day. I clawed my way out of the box and dropped down to the cold floor of the mail room. Tachi and I had smuggled ourselves past security by pretending to be a delivery of cyber-prosthetic bodies for one of the researchers, a snivelling little deviant named Satou Giro. On one of our earlier probes into the company we’d sent in a silicone life-doll with built in cameras and a burst-transmitter. The box itself concealed a dozen cameras, allowing us to observe the layout of the mail room and the corridors leading to Satou’s quarters.

The footage we got from the night after that guaranteed us Satou’s unquestioning cooperation.
My arms ached and my legs trembled wildly as I tried to remain standing. Right when I thought I’d reached my full height my joints suddenly slipped out from under me before I could right myself again. With what little strength I could muster I tore out the lining from my box and got out my muscle relaxant. The pills tasted revolting, I gulped down the protein shake I’d had ready to take with it. To paraphrase King Arthur ‘I never realised how empty my stomach was, until it was filled’.

[Eurgh!] A sarcastic (and very British) voice said through my Cype. [There’s a sight to wake up to.]
Did I mention I was stark naked? I think I did imply it already.
I looked over my shoulder and saw Tachi’s smug (and very Japanese) face smile at my expense. [How’s the morning sickness old chap?]
I replied in the same fashion. [Leave it alone Tachi. It’s work-time.]

I heard Tachi snort his smirk with my flesh ears. Like a lot of the elite in Japan, Tachi had transferred his brain and other essential organs to a biopod and had it installed into a cyber-prosthetic body. So when he wanted his body to lie absolutely still, he just turned it off. He hadn’t needed to starve himself like a teenage girl in the lead up to the operation either. Meanwhile I was still licking the inside of the protein bottle in the hope I’d missed a drop.

Smart-arse.
While I may have some basic augs the army gave me when I passed infantry specialisation, I’m a long way from a full-borg like Tachi. Personally I prefer to stay au naturale.

I threw the bottle back into the box and gently lowered myself to the ground. The muscle relaxant would take a few minutes to kick in. I needed time for other biological functions to sort themselves out. The bouncer in my belly was trying to decide if it liked the shoes the protein shake was wearing.
Tachi, also completely naked, strolled back to his box and got out his mission bag. I opened a cype channel to call Noodles. A small AR screen appeared in the air in front of me displaying a shot of Noodles sitting at his workstation from the workstation’s perspective. Only it wasn’t actually Noodles, it was his Shinjuku street urchin avatar. He looked like a Tokyo tween on his way to school with his little green backpack and baseball cap. Or some kind of tamer of adorable fighting animals. One or the other.

[Noodles. We’re in.]
[Finally!] Noodles replied, his avatar made a show of wiping sweat off its brow. [The timer went out minutes ago. What kept you?]
[I needed my morning coffee. How’s the activity out there?]
Noodles was our team’s hacker. Physically he was safely back in our quarters on the 299th floor of the arcology. Surrounded by boxes of Pocky, bottles of Mountain Dew and a computer deck he’d built component by component. In the digital world he was staring down the business end of the best intrusion countermeasures a major multinational corporation can program.

Thanks to Satou we had a password into the system and from there Noodles had infiltrated their CCTV network, giving him eyes all over the facility. Getting that had taken a month’s work on its own.
Normally hackers and their smart-arse antics shit me to tears, but Noodles had really managed to impress me on this gig.
Noodles’ avatar glanced at a screen. [No immediate activity outside the mail room, but if I scan around I can see some salary slaves in the areas around you.]

[Roger that. Keep us posted.] I reached out with my hand to where the floating screen would be if it existed in real space and not just in my Neupro. With a wave of my fingers I squashed it down from tablet size to a thumbnail and flicked it into the corner of my vision.
Tachi finished putting on his fatigues and started checking over our weapons. My body was a lot less sore now, thanks to the pills and my pain editor. I pulled my pack out of the box and started getting dressed.

[How are you feeling?] Tachi asked when he saw me pull the hood over my face.
[Nothing that a little activity can’t fix.] We’d rehearsed the postage coffin routine a few times. I knew what to expect.
[Glad you’ll never have to do that again?]
[I assure you Tachi, inside I’m doing hip-hip-hooray backflips.]
Tachi smirked again. [Be a lot easier if you upgraded.]
[So you’ve said.] I snapped. [You got the thermate?]
Tachi held up two chem grenades.

We stuffed as much flammable material as we could into our boxes, pulled the pins and got the hell out of there. Because they’re not meant to be thrown, thermate grenades only have a 2-second fuse so we didn’t have a lot of time to put as much distance between ourselves and the mail room as we could before the fire alarm went off.
Anywhere else but Japan, when a fire alarm sounds everyone keeps their heads down and waits for it to go away. It’s only when its been running for a few minutes that people start looking around and asking ‘is this a real emergency?’
The Japanese, being accustomed to earthquake drills, immediately stop what they’re doing and line up in their sections. It’d bring a tear to a drill sergeant’s eyes to watch these droll salary slaves perform a parade perfect falling out into the corridors and down the fire stairs.

Tachi and I stayed out of sight and made our way up the stairs. Noodles had whipped up some amazing augmented reality gimmicks for us. He’d digitally painted a line on the floor leading us directly to our objective (which we didn’t really need, having been over the map again and again, but it was still good to have). The software he’d added to the cameras could also identify every person in the complex and anyone who was anywhere near us but just outside our line of sight appeared as a green silhouette in our vision. Twice Tachi and I were about to step out into a corridor when we noticed a march of green salary slaves just about to come around the corner.

Finally we came to the security doors. This was our bridge between the common areas where the admin staff, civilian security and general public mingled freely and the secure world where all the interesting stuff was.
Unfortunately Satou was currently where he was supposed to be, assisting Prof Sakazato with her research, so using his access to get beyond this point was out of the question. I opened my heavily abbreviated tool kit (the pockets on my sleeves) and approached the lock panel.
[Secom S3210] I muttered. [Tamper switch on the right side.]
[Corridors around you are all clear.] Noodles announced. [Just in case you need it, here’s a schematic.]
Noodles’ thumbnail image became a floating 3D graphic of the security panel. I enlarged it and zoomed in on the circuit boards. Once I was familiar with the layout I got to work.

I slipped my monofilament scalpel out of its place on my sleeve and gently cut the screws holding the panel to the wall. A strip of gaffa tape kept the right side of the panel together and my mono-scalpel let me cut the rear of the panel open and get access to the system’s guts.
Tachi tapped me on the shoulder and pointed at the security door. I could see another march of green salary slaves escorted by a pair of blue security ops behind the door. They were almost on top of us.

I grabbed another piece of gaffa tape and affixed the panel back onto the wall. Tachi got behind an office plant and crouched down. I had just enough time to duck under an orientation touch-screen and hope the commercials would draw attention away from me. In addition to the massive advance our employers had provided they’d also given us access to some of the best equipment available.
On mental command my fatigues, including my hood and webbing changed colour to match the environment around me. It wasn’t a perfect match and if we moved we’d be spotted immediately.
So I sucked in a breath and tried to hold still.

The security door chimed and slid open, emitting a single-file march of employees into the corridor. Even without the colour-coding it wasn’t hard to pick the security ops. Beyond those locked doors uniformed civilian security ended and Yoriki Security Concerns began. Scary corporate bodyguards with shoot-to-kill authorisation within their respective zones.
And yes, they wore sunglasses, indoors, at night. When you’ve got augmented vision you can look as cool as you like.

I slowly sucked in a breath and held it. The muscle relaxant had done its job, but I still felt the hint of protest from my muscles as I tensed them up again, I had to force myself to relax or I would move too slowly. My pistol stirred nervously on my thigh.
If anyone drew attention to me or Tachi I was ready to roll. I hadn’t attached the sound suppressor yet so if this went down it was going to be a rush job from here on in. I had my head turned down so the reflection of my tech specs wouldn’t give me away, but I never took my eyes off the salary slaves as they passed me. One young woman glanced in my direction. I locked my gaze onto her
and prepared to pounce.

But she turned away and kept going.
When they were all gone, I released the breath. Barely five seconds had passed.
[Sorry Dust.] Noodles’ avatar gulped. [I didn’t see them].
[Stay on top of it Noodles. There’s a lot to go yet.]
I got back to work on the panel. Once it was off the wall again it was just a matter of using my soldering pen to connect one point on the circuit board to another. The wire I spliced in also had a tiny powder charge on a timer. I’d taken the parts from an electric cigarette lighter and a ridiculously small jewellery watch I found in Akihabara. The one-minute timer ensured I could comfortably fix the panel back into place with silicon bonder and get through the door with Tachi before the wire burst and everything appeared to go back to normal.

[Yoriki are getting the principals ready for evacuation.] Noodles said. [Professor Sakazato, our friend Sato and the boy genius Kobayoshi are just packing up the A.I. now].
I looked at Noodle’s live stream. Sakazato’s face was the definition of composure, but she was gripping the backpack containing the A.I.’s biopod like Geppetto holding Pinocchio. Yoriki had two of their ops at the front door and another two inside.
Yoriki’s SOP stated that unless the threat posed by an emergency was immediately applicable to the principal, their evacuation would be delayed until an appropriate security cordon could be set up.
Trouble was the two guards outside the front door were on the other end of a ten-metre corridor with their eyes fixed in our direction. Funky fatigues or not we were far from invisible.

I cast my eyes towards Tachi and we thumbed the fire selectors on our handguns from semi-auto to three-round-burst.
[Noodles old chap.] Tachi called over the cype. [We need a distraction in the laboratory corridor.]
The live feed flashed to Noodles’ avatar giving us a sly grin. [Your wish is my command.]
Noodles input a virus into the system that sought out the exact touch screen in the corridor next to our two security ops and switched it off in front of them.
The suddenness of the screen turning black caused both ops to turn towards it at the same time.
Tachi and I popped out of our hiding places and trained our pistols on centre-mass. The smartgun system on my pistol gave me a targeting reticle on the exact position my shot would land. Shot placement updated twenty times a second, causing the reticle to expand and contract like the beating
of a green neon heart.

I tapped the trigger three times, putting nine deliberate shots within a two-inch grouping at the ops’ solar plexus. Unlike a human body, a cybernetic prosthetic houses the bipod (containing the brain) in the centre of the torso where it can be better protected. I got enough rounds hitting close together that at least one got through and pierced my target’s brain before he could cype off a message.
On Tachi’s side I saw his target drop at the same time. Before their bodies even hit the ground Tachi and I were sprinting towards the lab. We grabbed the bodies and moved them out of the way of the doors.
I dumped my magazine and cycled the action to remove the chambered round before reaching for the magazine I’d marked with the green tape.
Tachi reached for something else on his tactical vest. [Noodles. Did anyone notice our two victims flatline?]
[It was a close one.] Noodles’ said off-handedly [But I caught the signal before it reached the security desk. They still think those guys are alive.]
[Understood.] Tachi held up the smoke grenade for me to see. [Plan Charlie?]
I nodded.
Tachi pulled the pin.

I brought the stream of the lab’s interior back into view. After a few seconds Kobayoshi noticed the smoke leaking under the door. The security ops conferred for a moment, then one of them popped open his briefcase and readied his machine pistol. He approached the door.
When he opened it up he stepped straight through the smoke like he didn’t even notice. Confirming Tachi’s theory that their cyberoptics boasted thermographic vision.
“<What’s going on?>” The op said in Japanese to the two humanoid heat signatures in front of him.
Tachi and I moved at the same instant. Tachi grabbed the ops’ gun hand, shoved his pistol into the man’s belly and unloaded a burst at point blank range.

I steeled myself, switched the colour of my fatigues to all black and stepped into the lab.
I burst through the smoke with my pistol outstretched, pulling the trigger the moment I saw the blacks of his shades. The gel round I’d swapped ammo for hit the op square in the face, shattered his sunglasses and threw his head back like a right-cross from a heavyweight.
Satou and Kobayashi froze, their eyes thrown wide in panic. Prof Sakazato got down behind the bench.
My next shot caught Kobayoshi in the gut. The expanding high-impact gel flatted to an eight-inch blot on impact. Dispersing the force of the round over a wide area made the shot less than lethal but it would still have stung like a stone bitch.

Satou took my next round. I wanted to go easy on the guy considering the stress we’d already put him through so I did my best to hit him in the soft tissue.
The security op recovered from the hit to face faster than any human being could. He tore the gel away from his eyes and raised his machine pistol at me. Just in time to catch the next burst from Tachi’s pistol.
Tachi tapped the trigger again, this burst got through. The security op collapsed back onto the table behind him, squeezing his finger down on the trigger as he fell. The machine-pistol rattled out its song, emptying its magazine all over the room.
Tachi and I went to ground as soon as we heard the first shot. No telling where those rounds would land.

A second later the shooting stopped. Tachi rolled onto his back, speed loaded a fresh magazine and hopped back to his feet. I got up at a more measured pace, looking around for where the good professor had hidden herself.
[We need some damage control in here Noodles.]
[Best I can do is hide the feed from your zone. But the security programmers are going to be onto that.]
[We’ve already lost subtlety. Take them out if you can. If anyone Elite turns up, hold them off as long as possible then disengage.]
[Yeah I remember the briefing Dust, thank you.]
“Just don’t get cocky.” I muttered under my breath.
“Sakazato Kyoukan” I called out in her native tongue. “”
I trained my pistol on the green silhouette crouching behind the desk in front of me. Partially because it wasn’t nursing an injury or curled up in the foetal position, but mostly because it looked like it was holding a bag. Professor Sakazato stood up before I had to fire a round in her direction for emphasis. She was clutching the bag even tighter than before.

Even with Noodles in the system Yoriki would have an army of security ops descending on us like ninjas in a B grade action movie. I broke my word to the Professor and put a gel round in her elbow.
Professor Sakazato flinched. I was mighty impressed, either she was hard as nails or she had better pain editing cyberware than I did. I reached for the bag, putting a second round into her opposite shoulder. This got an agonised groan out of the poor woman. As I got closer I saw that she had bitten down on her lip on the first shot, she’d bit so hard blood trailed down her chin.
It ate at me inside. But I wanted the contents of that bag and I had an easier way than wrestling her for it.
I grabbed at the closest of the bag’s straps.
“<NO!>” Professor Sakazato screamed the word so loudly, I flinched. My mind flashed back to that time my kindergarten teacher found me with the cricket ball and the broken window.
“” Sadly the Japanese word for ‘fuck’ isn’t nearly as versatile as it is in English. I made do.
“.” She screamed again. Tears flowed down her cheeks and the slightest glint of wet mucus glistened under her nose. I’ve done a handful of things in my life that I hate myself for. This was just one more.
I flicked my gaze Tachi’s way. [Little help.]

Tachi levelled his pistol at the back of the good professor’s head. She felt the warm metal press against her skull and froze.
That’s when I put a gel round at point-blank range into her ribs and yanked the bag out of her hands.
I turned away so I didn’t have to look at her any more. She screamed. It wasn’t a high-pitched gasp of fear or a wail of agony. That guttural roar of impotent rage came right from the bottom of her core. She would claw my eyes from their sockets if she could.
While that noise hammered at my ears as I opened the bag to confirm the contents.
It was definitely the A.I. inside. They’d slipped some thumb drives in there as well. I hoped they were what I thought they were.
There wasn’t time to check, so I zipped up the bag and got the hell out.