COOKIE HIT THE PAVEMENT, clutching at his ribs. Despite the pain through most of his body, he felt as if he’d just dodged a bullet. He needed to contact Boss as soon as possible — partially to warn him and partially to find out what the hell was going on. His brisk walk became a jog as he made his way home. He knew the police would have bugged it by now, so he emptied his squirrelled-away emergency kit into a backpack, grabbed a few circuit boards, and left the building. He screwed an aerial to the top of the pile of seemingly useless electrical chips, then tapped two contacts together in a coded sequence. If he made the device correctly, the sequence would have fired off to the nearest submersallite, where it would be redirected through DJ T’s radio show and find its way to Boss.

Cookie set his watch to 00:00 and continued towards the main street. Boss would have an hour to contact him now that the code was sent, which meant that Cookie had just under an hour to get an untraceable phone. Shouldn’t be too hard, though it would mean a trip to China-Ville, his least favourite place on earth — of all of the two places he’d ever been.

Cookie made to hail the passing cab but thought better of it as he observed the tinted eyes of the driver. If the police were watching him right now, it wouldn’t have been a stretch for them to organise undercover cab drivers to circle the area. He lowered his arm and the cab continued by, unhindered. He wanted to move in a way that the cops wouldn’t keep up with, so instead, he broke into a run. He darted around arm-locked children, wheelchairs, and slow walkers. The occasional glance down at his watch showed that he still had plenty of time remaining. Rubber burned ahead as an infuriated businessman pulled out of the traffic jam and risked a long-distance over-take in the fast-bus lane, giving Cookie an idea. He headed for the fast-bus post and readied a jump as a monstrous vehicle dropped a little speed and swung in close to the post. He launched himself at the fast-bus and grabbed the edge of the back platform. A barrier folded from beneath, holding him aboard while it accelerated once more.

“One for China-Ville, please.”

A robotic face on the side of the fast-bus ticket machine asked for payment. Its mouth lit up, suggesting that Cookie should insert a note. After he did, the machine regurgitated a ticket and bid Cookie a nice day. Cookie stood there, waiting for the barrier to let him into the seating area, but it didn’t lift.

“You gonna let me in?”

The screech of unoiled metal came from beneath the robotic face, and a small compartment door slid open. The ticket machine’s face lowered its speaker volume as it spoke to Cookie.

“Psst. Need any supplies for China-Ville? Three per cent discount for fast-bus customers.”

The open metal chest contained various items, all very suspicious, most very illegal. Unbranded holographic stickers hung at the top, ready for any face photo to be inserted. They were convincing enough to fit most ID cards almost perfectly. There were also various electrical chips that, when in the right hands, could surely wield a destructive power. A couple of them Cookie recognised, though he was only a dabbler in electronics himself. On the bottom hooks were seductive business cards and various packets of jellified goods. Cookie glanced around him, but the fast-bus had reached top speeds now, and the people they passed were nothing more than blurs. He quickly snatched a silver ring from one of the hooks and fastened it onto his finger. With a twist, it glowed blue, showing that it had a charge. He poked a note into the ticket machine’s mouth.

“Thank you!”

Cookie stood there, waiting for it to regurgitate change in the same way it had done with the ticket. Nothing happened. He prompted the machine. “No way is this thing five hundred bucks.”

“If you were expecting a receipt, you’ve shopped at the wrong place.”

Cookie felt his face boil and he raised the fist that bore the ring, aiming it at the ticket machine. In response, the machine lifted the barrier and Cookie was flung inside as the fast-bus collided with a car in front. The angled scoop at the front of the fast-bus tossed the car aside whilst still accelerating. Cookie fell into a passenger as another car was shunted out of the way, but the passenger’s insults were lost on him as he focused on climbing into a vacant seat. He managed to clip himself in, just in time to be squashed hard against the harness as the bus threw a hard right turn. It took a while before he felt his stomach contents settle, and only then did he look up from the ground. The woman opposite him was still staring at him with deathly intent while mumbling something to her seemingly hearing-impaired husband.

Cookie flashed a smile. “It’s called the fast-bus, lady. You pay for speed, not comfort.”

The woman scrunched her mouth into her nose, looking at Cookie with pure hatred. She made to deliver another belt of insults but was cut short by another collision. All she managed was “oof!” as her false teeth flung from her mouth, a last strand of drool hanging on for dear life. In complete surprise, Cookie exploded with laughter. The toothless woman spat something or other in his direction, but he couldn’t hear a word of it over his own cough-laugh and the rattling of her teeth bouncing their way along the fast-bus floor.

Another hard lurch and the fast-bus had arrived. It slowed a little but never fully stopped. The ticket machine yelled from the back, swivelling its face towards Cookie. “China-Ville, get off the bus!” Cookie unstrapped and headed for the exit.

“Too slow, let’s go!” the rusty voice rattled.

Cookie leapt from the back of the bus. He landed awkwardly, but it was still one of his more graceful exits. He turned and saw that no one else had left the bus at this stop, which he hoped meant no police tail. Perfect.

He twisted the ring slightly on his finger, deactivating it. The glow faded quickly and returned to looking just like any other ring. He wouldn’t need it for now, at least. He had a while before anyone could regain the ground that he had just covered, and he should be long integrated with the chaos and crowds of China-Ville by then.

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Jonathon Best is a science-fiction / fantasy poet and writer, from the burning wastes of Western Australia. Find his books at jbestbooks.com

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Jonathon best

Jonathon best

Jonathon Best is a science-fiction / fantasy poet and writer, from the burning wastes of Western Australia. Find his books at jbestbooks.com

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