Sunday, 20 December 2009

The Old Guard - 2: Death Clock

The last few weeks had been hellish. Soaring temperatures and sunlight so keen, exposed flesh was raw in moments. Anything and anyone with any sense stayed hidden, either underground or undercover. Only the mad and the foolish went out after mid-morning. The parched moon-like landscape would surprise every once in a while, with the bleached bones and the tattered scraps of flesh hung on the rare bodies of animals unable to survive.

Maiken staggered under the weight of exhaustion. One hand was bent around a shovel, the other - luckily gloved - held a mask of rags to her face. One of the connection boxes had failed, cutting her off just when she needed the link the most. Weeks had slipped by since her first attempt and now, when the ball was well and truly rolling onwards, the solar unit had burned itself out.

When she'd found the box, the insides where too hot to hold. The stink of hot plastic hung around the gully and feeling the wrath of climate change against her back, she wasn't surprised. Really, the cobbled together unit had done well to last this long. She worked in the sun because she needed the light. Sunlight to recharge the unit and also to see by. Her only lamp had burned itself out in her second to last all night data run.

Three hours later, she finished and had started to make her way back. As she crested the gravelly hill, the shack could be seen through the wobbling bars of heat that scoured the land. To hell with conserving water, she would sit herself in the bucket and drink what was left.

She stopped and lowered herself to the ground. There was something waiting by the shack, a six wheel drive off-roader. High and mighty with a nasty looking front and UNPS logo across the hood. The windows were dark - almost black - to cut out most of the glare and she could hear the soft whine of its air-con pumps against her own.

Maiken swallowed, her dry tongue gluing itself to the roof of her mouth. She had been so careful! Her eyes became damp with liquid she could ill afford to lose. UNPS, the United Nations Prosecution Service. They were UN through and through, by the book and to the letter. A good bunch to have on your side, but the opposite rang true too. You did not cross the 'you-nips', not twice anyway.

As she hunkered down in the dirt, Maiken realised how exposed she was. Any decent ground-sat would spot her laid out here. Dirty grey clothing against the sandy soil. Hell, you could probably spot her with a decent set of bio-optics. She jumped as there was a clunk and a hiss as the doors opened. Two men got out and shut the vehicle's doors quickly. They had on pressed beige fatigues and dark baggy jackets that covered their faces and arms. As one of them turned to admire the rocky view, she caught sight of a heat exchange pack on the rear of his left hip, a large calibre handgun on the other.

Sweat ran into her eyes and she found herself holding her breath. The men moved around the building inspecting it. One climbed on top of the truck and studied the shack's roof. He held up a black item and pointed at each of the devices strapped or glued on there. It was likely he was taking a picture, you didn't need the hold a scanner up to find out what those systems were doing. She wasn't doing anything illegal - at least, not to her knowledge.

The other man moved around the make-shift building after a pause. As he approached the back door, he stopped to examine the moisture farm before going to knock on the plank-built entrance. What? No HEP round to the hinges and a boot to open it? The man knocked more loudly this time and then tried the handle. It was locked, Maiken had the key around her neck on a piece of string.

The second man joined him. They seemed to be having a conversation, but it was too far to hear what they were saying. No doubt throat mics would be involved, the UNIPs loved their tech. She smiled beneath the sweat soaked mask, perhaps they loved their equipment a little too much: it was their only weakness.

Maiken wiped her gloved hand on her shirt and then wiped her eyes. When she looked back, the men had glued a plastic envelope to the door and where now getting back into the truck. At this range, it was impossible to know what it was. Damn them.

She lay in the baking sun as they drove off. A cloud of dust floated behind them like a brown cloud. They took a long winding route out between the hills and along the floor of the valley. She give it another ten minutes after she lost sight of them and then took a wide route back to the shack.

Her legs ached almost as much as her head did, but she sneaked around to the side of the building and pushed a set of loose boards away from the sand. Hopefully, there wouldn't be a rattler waiting underneath. That would just about top her day off nicely. She took the small fragment of mirror she'd got from the truck stop and tried to look underneath. There were no marks in the sand and she crawled underneath.

After a comfort break and a long drink of water, Maiken slithered out from the trapdoor and used what tech she had to study what was on the door. There were no RF signals, no traces of power and the sniffer she'd knocked together didn't pick anything up other than ink and paper. Annoyed at her paranoia, she put the units away and walked up to the plastic envelope. Inside was a letter, nothing more than that.

Scanning down it, Maiken's face split into a wide smile. She'd been reported dead. Her faked emails from a coroner for a Jane Doe had finally paid off. They wouldn't come looking for her. The letter offered a reward for anyone who could confirm additional information on her. UNPS wanted to tie up any lose ends, that was how they operated. This was a generic letter, a reward that they'd be posting at coffee houses, truck stops and dope holes along the interstate and in the mountain communities.

The smile flatlined and she re-read the notice. "I'm dead," she whispered hoarsely. "They'll issue a termination warrant on the crab. Shit. Shit. Shit!" How could she have miscalculated this? She looked up to the signal blockers. They had done their work, done it in spades. She'd been safe from the Network too long. Not a peep nor a PING had escaped from the demon strapped around her brain. The tech lived on nutrients from her blood stream, when she died, so did the tech. No wonder some runners called them spider-vamps.

Issuing the kill command would be easy, just a quick release into the communications networks and the crab would pick it up. After all, she was dead, what harm could there be in issuing it? Some of the exiled had tried to use chill tanks to escape the exile. Cooling themselves down to suspended animation and lying low for a dozen years. Despite the heat, Maiken shuddered, recalling that when they were revived, they were brain dead. Or at least, they were five minutes after waking up.

Shit squared. What now? She put the letter back in the envelope, went inside and fired up the make-shift terminal. The death-clock ticked loudly in her head.

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