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.

Friday, 18 December 2009

The Old Guard - 1: Plan

Hot wind blew dust against the dry boards of the shack. Plastic foam had been sprayed between the gaps making the small building look like a giant black fungus was bulging from within. In the limited shade, an ancient air-con unit wheezed and whined in the heat, its solar powered batteries fully charged by the searing sun. Above the burbling machine, a stack of roof bound black panels tracked the daytime glare like obedient flowers, collectors raised in trade of worship for power.

The heat shimmered cruelly and under an improvised lean-too, an electric quad bike sweated in the heat. It plastic seat almost liquid soft from the sun's bombardment. It squatted, beached and gripped by the desert sand that had built up around its tyres like a slacker sandstorm.

Towards the back of the shack, a high fence hung between high wooden poles. The grey plastic was at odds with the sun bleached wood than had been hammered into the iron pan dirt garden. There was no wind to flap the sails of this arc of fine mesh. The moisture farm stood bone dry in the heat, the precious vapour sucked by nanofilaments from a sky during less Hellish times. A polished barrel lay half buried, the precious cargo encased in vacuum coolness.

Upwards, something whined in the heat. The hiss of electricity came from the baking roof: a few pods of electronics chatting to each other in lazy consultation. Their sensors reached out, tasting the radio spectrum and blocking the weak signal of the network. Inside, the single occupant worked hunched over a broken comms unit. The temperature was on the wrong side of warm, the unpleasant sticky level. Sweat dripped from her forehead and she wiped her face with a dirty towel. Her dark hair was pulled back and bundled into a tight bun. This, coupled with the odd wisps of grey, made her look rather severe. Ridges of scar tissue could be seen around the back of her ears at at the nape of her neck. Reminders of the brutal work done to drive home her punishment.

She stopped and arched her back, her arms pressing in to her sides to help shift the ball of tension that had settled there. There were more scars on her wrists: places where they'd ripped the data dots from her. The tiny plastic disks had been crushed under heavy pilers as one part of her sentence had been carried out. The other part, the more insidious one, was nestled within her skull; its icy talons reaching down into her cortex to spike motor or pain sensors. A whisper from global network was all it took.

Her crime? Frankly: a long list, but chief among them was that of hacking. Hacking the systems of big companies who should know better, but the law - corrupt as it was, was still the law. The woman put down the third hand microtool and picked up a glass of water. It was warm, but at least it was wet. It would be another six hours before the portable batteries where charged enough to take the quad bike and the jammer towards the fuel station.

The punishment wasn't just disconnection: no, that would be far too lenient. This was banishment. If she came within range of any network traffic, the brain crab - as some had come to call it - would pick up on it. The nano-filaments would squawk with alarm, the ribbon tentacles sending tiny pulses to create a crescendo of agony. She's risked it once and where it not for a helpful biker, would no doubt have fitted herself to death. Such was her drive - and arrogance - in the early days.

With luck, her years of planning would pay off shortly. The signal blockers where her first small victory. They halted the ever forward march of connectivity, she was now an island of zero presence. The data flow ebbed against this barrier of denial and she knew that it could not last. She had seen a worn fax-paper news story. The earth was gearing up for a global spanning network: not just the cities and arcologies, but a true all-net. There would be data when and where you wanted it - for a price no doubt - but for people like her, there would be few places to hide. A deep mine or industrial dead zone if she was lucky. Ironic really, the one thing she had craved as a decker - a true planet wide network - now threatened to consume her.

In the early days she had wanted them to pay: to be able to lash out at those who had pulled her from her kingdom. That fire was now cold, replaced with the drive to subvert the system and simply escape. In all her time here, she had never had a visit. They knew where she was and she hoped that their confidence would also be their undoing. Pride comes before a fall, at least that's what a fortune cookie had said.

She unwrapped the towel and wiped her neck. It came away gritty: even with the ship-foam, tiny fines would make there way in. The desert was ever present: in her eyes, her clothes and in her meagre food. She harked back to a time when all it took was a swipe of a card to arrange any luxury. She smiled at the memory. So many cards, so many names and faces: Maiken Smith, Maddie Roberts, Sarah Lopez, Marie Gibson. The only one throughout had been her avatar and handle: a black winged bird, a raven.

Now her face was weathered and lined, the once fashionably pale skin beaten to a ruddy glow by the elements. One long but broken vamp tooth remained, the other - which had contained a poison injector - had been pulled out. At least they had replaced her lost leg. It was just about the right length, but it was a cheap O-type part: a military cast off. One meant to last until you got to civilisation, not one to suffer the stresses she'd put it under. In time, she told herself, in time all will be right once again.

Maiken picked up the microtool once again and began working her way through the faulty components. She had dug and buried the multi-core fibre herself. Pulled rocks and broken fingers in her effort to hide the loop. Now the end lay open on her table. She had only to fix this bridge unit and a hard-line would be hers.

On the table behind her, a mess of begged, borrowed and stolen components were wedged or glued into a dust proof plastic box. A single holo plate - which was dusty with sand - lay on top. It's electronic heart pulsed slowly on power-save, the network socket awaited connection.

Putting the water aside, Maiken coaxed and teased the connection into life. The computer terminal hummed into life, the face of a search engine displayed in grainy holographic glory. The kill switch hung from the wall and a length of twine connected it to her wrist. A harsh pull - that from a fall or a fit - and the link would be dead.

She moved carefully and with shaking hands, tapped out a search to the web. Maiken closed her eyes and smiled. She was connected. Callused hands stabbed at the keyboard like blind mad cranes - the fingers jabbing at keys. The work was manual and hard. Maiken persisted, the old skill slowly coming back to her, until hours into the task, she didn't have to look any more. The screen repeated the tap-tap-taps converting what was in her head to something on the screen.

The temptation to short-cut was immense. There would be bank accounts that were still loaded, no doubt fat with the interest gleaned over the years of her exile. Oh, the things she needed - food, painkillers, 'ware. Maiken shook her head. No, to run now would be foolish. She had to be patient. Time would be her guardian. She must pick at the knot that bound her, not cut through the ropes to leave fraying trails.

She shied away from old stomping grounds, instead legacy systems where her target. A government system fell first, a weak password letting her through and from there, her hands reached out to slip inside the undefended hulks of long abandoned systems. As the moon rose high into the sky, she hid her trail in a nightmarish mix of paths, cross-paths and switchbacks. A stepping stone from one system to another, until she was sure there was enough to keep the electronic wolves from the door.

As the morning sun peaked at the mountains, her work was just about done. Maiken's eyes hurt and she rubbed at the grey circle under one, wincing as her knuckle came away gritty. She checked and re-checked the bait. The document's headers where correct, someone had been sloppy in keeping their security keys on-line. That was always the weak point: people. Computers would do as they were told, but people did not and God bless them for it. Life would be far duller if we were machines.

She snorted a laugh out as her hand hovered over the enter key. In the old days, how much of her body had she lost to enhanced replacements? An arm, then the other. Her eyes too had been replaced. The soft real by squishy fake synthetics. Eyes that were never tired or blinded by darkness or glare. Carelessness had cost her a leg and from then on, she had always carried a gun. Maiken shook her head, at her recklessness. Had that really been 30 years ago? She had walked many lines in her life: blurred that between what it was to be human and biological machine. She had fallen low in the dark times, almost slipped into the embrace of arrogant rage. 'I am better' the replacements had whispered. A shot in the chest meant nothing - it was just a dint to the crocskin, not a wound.

Maiken found herself chewing her lip and staring at the flashing prompt of the holo panel. Where had it changed? Yes, the tipping point had been that time in the Glasgow. Drellen had pulled her out of the river. Her legs were chewed up and one arm was just about working. Blacktech painblockers and blood shunts had stopped the worst, but for all the ware loaded into her body, the assassin had almost succeeded. That had been far too close. Where was Drellen now? she thought. Where were any of them? Perhaps the old SHARC - construct? He was human stock. At least genetically - had got his wish. A dose of the retrovirals to make him and his partner able to have kids. Wasn't that what they were fighting for.

Batting aside nostalgia, Maiken concentrated on the task ahead. The information was ready, the electronic signature correct. A clink of light now fell into her prison. In time, she would pry and poke at this gap. The bars would twist and the walls fall. In time. She his transmit and disconnected.

Tired and joyful, she pulled off her clothes and crashed out on the sleeping mat. She reached over and put the lid of the waste bucket, the water processor would have to wait until tomorrow. Maybe the fog collector would be generous and she could afford a wash. Her eyelids drooped and sleep came. Behind them, she dreamed of the people long gone. The dead and the lost. Her mind saw webs of light pulsing and fat with data like dew on a spider's web. They would take the bait, those sort always did... and when they did, the balance would tip. Wheels would turn slowly and she would leave this place.