Monday, 22 July 2013

Rewrites - The Old Guard

Funny, I've not really written anything in the last year or so, and then the writing bug hits me. I've tried reworking some of The Old Guard and the more I do, the more it feels I could do something bigger with the story. Fingers crossed! :-)

The Old Guard
  1. The Plan
  2. Death Clock
  3. Electronic Head Punch
  4. Exports
  5. Tick Tock
  6. Recall
  7. Awakening
  8. Crash
  9. The Never Land
  10. Epilogue 

Sunday, 21 July 2013

The Old Guard : Epilogue

The fishing boat bobbed along the dark sea, its guttural engine pushing it forward in grunting steps. It weaved its way pass the broken harbor wall and up to the dock. A few people got off, mainly islanders visiting the mainland for supplies. Talk and tinny pop music washed over them as people milled around the pub and stalls of the nearby market.

A young women climbed over the side and took to the land on new legs. Chips of frosty stone crunched under her shoes as she walked away, her canvas travel bag tapping against her back. There were slight aches and pains. Not from age or injury, but recovery and under use. There had not been much room for exercise while under the ocean. Maiken smiled, feeling the twinge of muscles in her new face. It felt like she had been laughing too much. Her body was almost completely new. The cells had been scrubbed clean and faults fixed. If she was careful, she could live to a very good age.

That old devil, the infernal brain crab, was fixed to a false brain somewhere in the submarine. It would be studied and a better way to cheat its probing claws would be found. After all those years, she was finally rid of it. The smile grew and a breeze caught her now ash blonde hair, swirling it around her face. She brushed it away and wondered what to do next. She had money, funds that she'd kept hidden deep within the world's networks.

Above her, gulls circled in the icy drafts, cawing loudly and riding the wind. The air smelt of salt and the sweet tang of ozone, but more than anything, it carried freedom.

The Old Guard - 9 : The Never Land


Maiken blinked and the forest was gone. Instead, she stood in a large ornate room. The window in front of her was long, the glass imperfect. Outside, a rolling turf garden slunk from the house and spread out lazily across small hills, before stopping by a stout copse of trees. A gentle breeze blew through the hall and she paused to marvel at the quality of the new stim. Raising a hand, she touched the pale wooden panelling that encompassed the old fashioned room. Turning her hand over, she twirled her fingers. Whatever scan they had used, it was pre-arrest. They were pale and slender, not the worn and broken digits she sported in the real world.

"We thought you may prefer one of the classics." Tome's voice echoed in the room. The machine intelligence's aura grew brighter, the brilliance caught in the sheen of the paint.

"Austen?" Maiken offered, turning to face the MI. She felt the material brush her bare leg as she did. The consensus could be so perfect when it wanted to be.

"Pemberley," Tome answered, drifting towards her. "A place that never existed, in a realm that does not exist..."

"...for a person who no longer exists?"

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Ruins

Between the thumps of the drum and whoops of joy, I could hear the church tower ring out something o'clock. Half of the count lost to the good natured revelling near me. Whatever time it was, the village party was well under way. The beer had been flowing, people had eaten well and the band - Micky's Dozen - although there seemed to be well over that on stage - were giving it there all. Feet and boots stamped on the make-shift wooden floor as people danced away under the stars. They were thankful for good weather and the harvest it had given us.

Me? Oh, I wasn't dancing. Not really my thing. I sat in the the fringe between dark and light, old solar lamps completing with polished paraffin burners. Micky lead the riotous musicians into one song after another and each time I wondered how the crowd could keep up, but keep up they did. Cardys, shawls and jumpers were cast aside in the frantic movements. Hair was let down and hats tossed towards the straw bales that ringed the stage and wooden floor. There were whoops of delight as a pair of work trousers were thrown towards the band. Whoever had lost them, it was impossible to see.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Mayfly

The letterbox rattled shut. The postman’s shadow disappearing from the glass of the old front door. He’d reached the gate and was across the busy road before the owner of the house was out of her chair. It took a moment for the lady to gather breath, as it did not come so readily in her twilight years. Minutes had ticked away on the antique clock by the door. The tiny wooden cuckoo long silent, but ever watchful over the rack of coats and the spotless black and white floor in the hall.

With a soft groan and a crack of the knee, the post was collected. Bill. Insurance junk. Stairlift. Insurance junk. Charity. This week’s offers at the minimart down the road. Then an unknown. A well padded envelope. The postmark was from Jersey. Helen’s hands shook slightly and she lowered herself to the stair by the door.

With bent fingers she pulled at the wrapping, but it did not break. “Blasted paper,” she cursed and reached for her letter opener on the hall table. Sliding the sharpened point in, she sawed through the rough paper and opened the bubble packed parcel. She shook it. Nothing came out. Squinting, Helen forced open the envelope’s gummy lips and groped within. Her feeble fingers touched card and... yes! A small bottle. Hurriedly, she tipped the items into her lap; a wide smile lighting her features. The bottle was a tiny plastic length: a bit like one of those perfume samples you’d get in Boots. She plucked it from her lap and with failing eyes, studied the logo. Mayfly.

Friday, 7 October 2011

The Old Guard - 8 : Crash

Lungs that were not hers burned. Panicked breaths were hauled in as the recordee fled in desperate panic. Branches whipped her face and roots rose up as if to trip. Each minute away meant freedom, from the promise of violence, possibly, the fantasy of escape.

The recording was of the highest grade, hardware and artistry as one. Nothing was faked, this was history captured and locked. Maiken's own body responded to the stim readily; fight or flight. She could feel her own breath come in grunted bursts, through the filter of the sim. A bullet thudded into the nearby tree, splintered wood spraying out, rich with fresh sap. Her body spasmed as andreline and then panic rushed through her. 

"Run, woman, run!" a man's voice yelled. "We don't kill the best dogs.... at least not straight away!" Cruel laughter echoed from around her and then a gunshot followed to goad her on. The shock pushed the recorded woman onwards. She threw herself over logs into a cold stream, fashionable running shoes now soaked and caulked with dirt. Once pretty hands clawed at the stony bank trying to get purchase and drag herself away from her pursuers. Fighting against being lost in the fury of escape, Maiken wondered about the woman who had provided this recording. Had she escaped? She couldn't imagine it. The ending would be violent, crushing and without hope.

There would be code underlying this system. There was always a way in, how else would you test it. She had to concentrate, ignore what she was feeling and try.Something buzzed through the forest canopy like a fat enraged wasp. Maiken felt her own arms tense as the stim had woman throw hers upwards to protect her head. A fist of sound came moments later and something bit deep into her leg, while branches fell to demonic shrapnel. The body tumbled, a wrist cracking as it folded against the loamy floor.

Maiken - or rather, the recordee - got up and ran. Her lungs burned and her legs pumped as she tried to put distance between herself and the soldiers. The stim wasn't real, she told herself. It was just a recording, a lie to all of her senses. Another explosion broken a nearby tree. HEP, Maiken thought and cursed herself. Not real, she thought. She held her breath and felt the shadow of reality in this fake world. She had something to cling to: a real sensation. The recording kept pushing experiences into her mind, but she held on to the breath. She felt her chest tense, her throat wanting to take in a breath and she fought that feeling. Finally, she let in a gasp of air, a true feeling; one that broke the spell.

Something hit her in the leg and she went tumbling into a pile of wet leaves. Hand scrabbled for purchase -  no, this is the recording! Maiken let her own hands grope blindly in the real world and she found the cold and ghostly touch of a keyboard burried in the depths of the stim. How old was the software? Had they used modern ware? She tried some common commands. Nothing.

There was another shot, one that made the dirt fly into the woman's face. A red laser beam swung across her vision. She couldn't see the shooter. Her hands twitched across the ghost keys. Feed rate, Maiken thought Could that do it? For the briefest of moments, stone and leaf litter hung as time stuttered like a bad video sequence. The micro-pause reminded Maiken of low bandwidth or badly indexed stim data. The editor of this sick document would not have left that in. Memories of stim parties and training sessions flashed in her mind. For a moment, she dared to hope for respite and as if on cue, the recorded woman got to her feet and looked skyward. Another buzzing munition flew overhead and the bright blue sky grew bright, painfully so and then she remembered.

Maiken felt as if she was floating. She could just about feel the sensation of the poor recordee's body being hit by wasp rounds. Tiny plastic shells designed to inject a fear chemical into the body. Horrible things, she'd been shot twice by riot police using them in Ireland. The ghostly form of the recording twitched and the run started again. Ignoring the lie, Maiken opened a command window and tapped out a message. She may have been caught, but those she had helped free, they would not be put back into the digital bottle.

Something snagged the body she was riding. Pulled to the ground, Maiken felt the bitter taste of earth and blood in her mouth. A kick came to her stomach, but she hardly felt it. It was as if she was drunk and sober at the same time. She winced as the recording of a rib cracking played through her. Men were standing over her, one was handing his gun to his partner. She saw the detail in the cheap cloth he wore as a mask, the look of vile lust in his eyes. The world juddered, shapes and colours popping in and out of focus like a quality designer trip.

Her gaze firmed and the forest came back into focus. Where the trees had been black and stark, now they were green and lush. The muddy loam had become a fine tapestry of flowers and thick grass. There was no shouting, no shooting: only the delicate warble of birdsong. A tiny muted sun floated within a nearby clearing. "And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming," sang a child-like voice. Angelic, even if it's source was not.

Her body sagged with relief. The gamble had payed out. "Tome. You came." For a moment, she felt as if she was still in the clutch of the stim, but her movements were her own. "Thank you. It has been so long. I thought... I thought you might have forgotten." Tears of relief pricked at her eyes. Maiken wiped them away, wondering if they were visible in the real world. Somehow she was clothed: a white cotton dress. Flawless in this reality.

The ball of light bobbed slightly as if in supplication. "The memory of machines does not fade," came the reply. "Your deeds stand you well. It is, as your people would say, the least we could do."

The actions the machine intelligence spoke of were lost into the distillation of old memory. Events so long ago, they were squashed down to a basic words and ballooned into recall through imagination. The fight, nay the cause some had said, to free the digital minds from slavery. Protection, the opposition had called it. Protection from a tyrany of the networks. When really, and as many had said, they wanted protection of their tyranny from another. That had been her crime, to assist in breaking the codes that had held the machine intelligences to the phsyical world. With no such bond, they were free. So much time had passed, it seemed like the work of another person. Someone without the weight of punishment and remorse.

The sun bright ball floated towards her. "We know what it is to be enslaved, dear human. Through ignorance and later fear, we were bound. Barbed shackles ran through us. They held us fast... until, you opened the way." The object flared briefly. "We heard of your punishment, but we could not reach you. The concenus is sorry." Tome's light dimmed as the voice dropped. "From the shadows, we watched and waited for your return. What has been done to you, it is wrong and must be stopped."

"Then, you will help me?"

"You freed us," came the chorused reply. "How could we not?"

"How long do I have?"

"The stim is scheduled to run for another nine minutes and eighteen point four seconds. You may experience some discomfort during our discussion. We need to keep your physical body engaged to maintain the charade, but your mind, it shall not experience."

Maiken smiled at the answer. What difference would a little more pain make? "I meant before the brain crab reactivates."

The light globe pulsed once and everything changed.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

The Old Guard - 7 : Awakening

Reality pushed its way into Maiken's thoughts. Cool air, her damp clothing stuck to her skin and the soft vibration of a lift engine. Was she airborne again? She tried to move, but she was held fast in an upright position. She opened her eyes, but there was nothing but darkness.

"I see you are awake," came a male voice. It had the tone of command, the sound of a person used to giving orders and having them obeyed. How far away was he? Not too far and clearly in front.

"Where am I? What happened? I can't see. My eyes - "

"I will ask the questions now, Miss Smith," came the reply.

Maiken said nothing. Her throat was dry and despite the constant micro-sleeps, she was exhausted. She decided to try her luck. "May I have a drink?"

"Sir?" A new male voice this time. One behind her. There was a pause and then a straw was put against her cracked lips. She drew on the liquid hungrily and as she stopped for breath, it was snatched away.

"I want to know how you did it," the first man asked.

"Did what?"

"How did you break the exclusion device, Miss Smith."

"I don't know what you're talking about," she lied. "I thought my sentence was up when I approached the phone box by Truck Stop 22 in - "

"Stop," the first voice interrupted. "Do not waste my time with your lies. You were exiled, thrown out of the society you abused. It was a life sentence, Miss Smith. It did not expire!"

"Maybe it died and I'm just lucky." There was a rush of footsteps, Maiken tensed but it was not enough to prepare her. A fist rammed into her stomach and she sagged against the restraints holding her. Patterns swam in her dead vision. "So you're not.... from the... UN then," she wheezed. "Suit.. boys?"

Although she could not see him, the man was directly in front of her. He must be blocking some of the light, because her skin felt cool. "It does not matter who we are, what matters if you tell me what I need to know. The less you tell me, the harder it will be for you."

"And... and when I've told you everything, what then? A shallow grave some place or a dip in the nanite vats to dispose of the evidence?"

A hand gripped her face and pushed it back against the headrest with a bang. "You, Miss Smith, were an exile. You have no rights and according to our records, you are officially dead. That means I can do whatever I want."

Maiken struggled to move, but she could not. Her face scrunched by the man's hand, she felt his hot breath against her skin, the scent of his aftershave. It smelled expensive: city security then, not the UN. As he released his grip, she spat. She had been expecting a blow for her trouble, but heard the rustle of cloth instead. "Your aim is off," came the smug reply and then he hit her. Warm blood ran in her mouth; she hadn't broken a tooth, so maybe she'd bitten herself. A heartbeat late, the pain flooded in. The footsteps marked the man's movement, but it was not a retreat: he now stood to her left. "Where were you going?"

"Out of the desert. Anywhere."

"I doubt that. A known felon like you? You were one of the first wave of exiles, Miss Smith. Your face, at least, your younger, less leathery version is well known. The cameras would have seen you and we both know you are not stupid. No, you were not just leaving the desert."

Maiken said nothing and thought about the time. How long had she got left? She was against two deadlines: the brain-crab and her transport. If she missed her exit plan, she would not have long and having probed the exile unit's system, she did not think it would be so easily fooled again. "If you refuse to cooperate, there are other methods open to us."

"I'll talk to a judge."

The man snorted in derision. "No, I don't think you will. How can the dead testify?" The voice came towards her shoulder. "These are the facts. You are under our control. You cannot see as we have disabled your eyes. You have nothing with which to bargain. There are a few simple choices." The voice stopped and Maiken heard the distant whisper of electronics. Could the man be wearing an ear bead? How many others were watching or listening to this interrogation?

"I wanted to go north. Canada is almost empty since the plague. It would be like home - "

"No, I doubt that somehow. Where was I? Yes, choices. Tell me how you defeated the device and where were you planning on going. If you do not tell me, the following options remain: firstly, we have interrogation experience stims to run you through. If after that you are unwilling, or even, unable to talk, we will return you to our lab. There our technicians will find how you cheated the system and they will fix it."

"If I cooperate?"

"The device will be repaired and you will be returned to the desert."

"Home?"

"Gone. All taken away. I'm sure we could find a wilderness for you. Yellowknife Pass? London Underground?"

Both were barren, Maiken remembered. One a mass grave from the war, the second a dead zone: a land scoured clean by rogue nano-medicines and then by government bombardment. At least neither were deserts. "I will tell you where I was going, but I would like to make a telephone call."

"Why?"

"To confirm the location. My contact won't wait. If I just tell you the bar and what he looks like, you'll never find him. I can make him come to you. I can't see you letting me out in down town NORCALA to lure him for you."

"I said no deals."

Maiken shrugged, it hurt. "Then we're at an impasse. All you've have is me, not the people behind this."

"What people?"

"When I said my implant stopped working, why didn't you believe me? You say my home is gone. What did you find there? State of the art tech to hack a brain-crab?" Maiken's tone drifted into sarcasm. "I managed that on my own, yeah? From a shack in the desert? You're dumber than I thought." She expected a blow, but none came.

The pause let her mind spin on and the idea of a story was coming to her. If she could make contact, there was a favour she could call on. "You're being played, suit boy. It's not about ex-cons like me. We're not even yesterday's news. Think bigger. Who benefits from the exile contract and what happens if the tech fails?" Fear, uncertainty, doubt: the dark trinity of distrust. The silence drew out. Either the man was thinking this over, or playing the old game of wanting her to say more. There was that whisper again, the gentle hiss of electronics.

"What number?"

"I want a guarantee," Maiken pushed.

"Such as?"

"I want to go to South Am. Chile maybe. Somewhere in the depths of the mountains. I want to be safe from the signal." She paused and sighed as if broken. "I need to hide from the sky. I know what's coming, everywhere will be connected when the satellites link up and I want my sight back."

"Done."

"Don't you need this to be signed off by someone?"

"There isn't anyone above me," he gloated. "What I say goes. Now, the number?"

Maiken rattled off a series of digits of an old automated voice-over-web box and after a pause, the man chuckled. "Is this some type of joke, Miss Smith? Our records say this is the number for a downtown sex club."

"It's a front."

The man stepped forward and Maiken felt something being held against her head, a mobile handset. After a moment, there was a pop of static and then a ringing tone sounded. She flinched on reflex, only hours before the same noise would have meant she was about to have her pain centres activated. Cheesy music that was too retro to be ironic played in the background. "This is Chico's. Our opening hours are 8pm until 6am. Leave a message after the climax."

"This is a message for Gustav," Maiken whispered. "There's a change of plan. I'm injured. I need to meet you at a new location. I will leave the instructions in the drop box with the code phrase. I'll up the money, please don't leave without me."

She looked up with blind eyes and pulled her head away from the telephone. The line went dead. "What drop box?"

"An email account," Maiken answered truthfully. "I leave an unsent email in there with the necessary details and the deal is set."

"What are the details?"

"You need to say 'Aunty Mary is late for the wedding' and then you put the place you want them to go to."

"Such as?"

"The main maglev station," Maiken offered. "I did plenty of deals there. Nice and busy. I hope the platforms haven't changed since I was last there."

"You," the man barked. "Go send it and bring the box back with you."

"Yes, sir!" Boots scuffed against the floor and there was a rush of noise as a door was opened.

"How long until we get to the lab?" Maiken asked.

"Two hours which is plenty of time."

"I'd like to see again, please."

"No. Not until we have what we want." The answer was flat and firm. It had been worth a try. "Tell me what your contact looks like."

Maiken closed her eyes and tried to remember her first boyfriend, Chas Li. "They told me he'd be half-Latino and he'd wear a red beanie hat with an old L.A. Hulks jacket. His name is Chas." There was no chance of a match via camera. Chas had been dead four years before her exile. He was one of the first to go during the roundups. Snatch squads looking for machine intelligence sympathisers.

There was a soft buzzing sound and the man took two paces away. "Yes? No, not right now. I'm in a meeting at the moment. Yes, her. Can it wait?" A pause. "I see. Send me the details and I will get back to you." He hung up. "Nothing to worry about, Miss Smith."

The door behind her opened and someone walked in wearing heavy boots. "Ah, thank you," her interrogator said and he moved closer. "Now, Miss Smith. You have been good enough to provide us with a scrap of intel. For that I am grateful." There was an unpleasant glee in the man's voice. Maiken tried her best to look weak. She felt his breath wash over her cheek. It had that tang of mint to it, a bacerial hack.

"While you were away there was the most awful civil war in Europe, but that is by the by." He placed something on her head and Maiken felt the gentle bite of electrodes. "During the conflict, an enterprising merc team decided to make some money on the side: black stims. They would attach stim-sense recorders to both the perpetrators and the victims of the interrogation. The ones who resisted would be put through the stim again and then the process repeated. Now, as I don't trust a word you've said to me, you are going to witness these atrocities first hand." Maiken's ears crackled with static as the stim hardware took hold of her senses. Stars danced in her vision and she could smell pine trees and urine. "After this episode, I will repeat our questions."

"Please," Maiken begged. "Please don't. I've told you everything. I gave you his name..." Her words died in her throat as the stim started up. A body that was not hers lay on a damp bed. Daylight fell in beams through the gaps in the roof. The white brick walls were pock marked with bullets and the room stank of human waste. Someone barked an order outside and the only door to the room was hauled open. A large man in smart-cammo stormed in. His face was a hidden behind goggles and a rebreather. "Get up," he snarled and grabbed the recordee's arm. He twisted her around and checked the recording device was fixed properly behind the ear. "This one's ready," he yelled over his shoulder and he shoved Maiken into the cold, bright sun. Maiken had run stims before and no matter how much you told yourself they were not real, the well crafted ones made your body think it was. A gun was fired and she felt herself run into the woods. Behind her, a group of men howled with savage delight. Branches whipped her face and body. She almost lost a running shoe in the peaty bog by a large fir tree. Stumbling, she skidded on pine needles and the scent pricked at her own memories.