Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The Great Derbyshire Dam

A cold wind blew across Milton's face and threatened to blow away his tall hat. It whipped at his fine jacket and the engineer's waistcoat did little to keep out the draft. A strong gust pulled again at his whiskers, threatening to undo the fine job the gentleman barber had made of his moustache. The engineer lent on the unwelcoming steel guard rail and surveyed the company's creation. To his sides, stone work flowed outwards to either bank of the high hills, a marvel of ingenuity and craft holding back many tonnes of brackish hill water. Dully, the water glimmered in the winter's sun, its dark depths hiding storage tanks of the finest steel. Now hidden, the vessels would not see the light of day again. Stalks of stone and metal sprang from the depths, to break the dim water's surface. Birth ports for the Lighter Than Air crafts that would dock here.

Smiling, Milton straightened and retrieved his pocket watch. Popping the mechanism's ornate casing, he reviewed the time and countdown. The elegant piece was synchronised with the master-cogwork of the dam. If all was well, the speck on the Derbyshire horizon would grow. Grow to form the first transport dirigible, a sky ship that, if his calculations were correct, would enable the rapid and track free distribution of goods and people through the Empire.

Turning his back to the water, the man enjoyed the glorious view. Beyond the lip of the observation tower and the wide lip of the dam, a sheer drop like a smooth cliff fell away into the valley. It was as if the Creator himself had placed a slice of broken china between the mountains. Far below, a controlled tumble of water poured from pipes and flows. It's power harnished by turbines, waterwheels and the fine science of chemystry. Deep within the stone, engines burned the gases liberated from water, feeding pumps and forges deep within the patchwork of farms and light industry below. The Corporation had tasked the board with freeing themselves from the shackle of rail & coal and they had delivered - in spades. Slumbering under the dark water, huge tanks rested buoyant with elemental gases. The fuel of the future. Taken from water by water and compressed to a miraculous fuel. Milton was pleased. Very pleased.

From the edge of the causeway, there was a clunk. Milton looked down from his crow's nest. The wide shoulders of an Oggy - an Orge dock hand - straightened and the cheeky blighter saluted him. "Your fings, Mr Milton, sir. Where'd you want 'em?"

Milton cleared his throat and made his way down the stairs. To shout down to the man - nay, Ogre - would be unseemly. His boot connected with the last step and he was glad of the shelter of the low wall. "Shiller?" he asked the Oggy's craggy face. The dock hand nodded once. "If you could take it to the primary tower. The golden one half a mile thus." He gestured at the glass tower that sprang from the centre of the causeway.

"As you wants," the dock hand answered and he scooped up the travel chest as if it weighed no more than a broadsheet paper. "Good day, Mr Milton, sir."

Milton watched the heavy framed Ogre wander off, his plans and belongings held carefully within the wood and iron box. At the edge of his hearing he could hear a faint buzzing. A heavy drone of air-fans and he scampered up the observation tower as giddy as a schoolboy. Slowly, the giant craft - a behemoth of canvas, steel and glass lumbered into view. Fans span and landing ropes dropped into the water. He turned to watch the sky ship twist with grace until it was positioned over the refuelling birth. The engineer could not contain himself and he pulled his stove hat from his head, waving it with abandon at the fore bubble of the ship. Twin lights flashed in acknowledgement.

Beneath it, couplers rose and clamped the craft to the tower. With a hiss of steam and hydraulics, the ship rolled out walk ways and ramps to the stone concourse surrounding the flower-like tower. Replacing his hat, Milton watched as guests arrived and horse drawn carriages rolled along the causeway to collect them. He checked his watch again as workers and guests exited the ship. It was a fine work. He retrieved a small note book from his pocket and sketched out a draft for automatic walkways. Surely where was a quicker way of getting people out of the cold and into the warmth?

Monday, 1 November 2010

Beast

At the edge of a forest, a man sat on a damp picnic table. The cold leached into his bones but it was unfelt. His eyes were locked on the dark depths of the high trees. The tips of them swayed in the silent breeze. No birds sang or traffic rushed by. This was truly the wilds. His ears twitched occasionally, picking up the murderous run of creatures lost to its shadows. His fist bunched and he got up. The call was so very strong, but he had to be stronger. To lose himself to this would not allow him to remain. Turning his back, he walked back to the car. His back a stack of tension, his heart cold.

The interior of the car was silent: a pod of disconnection. The man gripped the steering wheel, his hand stuck - almost immobile - on the ignition switch beneath. Frozen, his eyes moved along the sway of branches. He licked dry lips and for a moment, the beast within slammed against the inner bars of the mental prison. How it howled and raged, slathered and spat. The man did not move, locked in place as he weathered the storm-like tantrum. He shut his eyes and rallied himself as he had beaten it back many times. The force drifted and temporary peace returned. The man's heart thudded and he lay back against the headrest. There was a cost to the charade and as he gathered his wits, he wondered when the prison would crack. When would he give up fighting and just accept. The thought terrified him.

Within, the beast slunk and prowled. He felt it had infinite patience and then he smiled at the bitter irony. It was nothing but patient. It wanted out. It wanted to run free. To dart through thick branches, to feel the hot joy of the kill as teeth clamped shut. "No," he said out loud. "I will not." He had known others who had gone that path. Sometimes he would see them, running their predator games. Sometimes as beasts, sometimes as men. Some clung to humanity, others embraced and shifted. The Lost Ones.

He balled a fist and looked down at the skin. It was fleshy, thin and weak. Fine hairs patterned the back of the hand. It was wrong. On certain nights, he would be right. Bones would crack, fur would flourish and flesh would run in beautiful harmonic song. That one night, he would be himself. Cold and bitter tears pricked at his eyes and he wiped them away angrily chastising himself for the weakness. After the shift, then the pain would come. The soreness of limbs, the guilt. Always the guilt at what he had done, what he might have killed or who he might have hurt. But perhaps more accurately, the pain of falling to stay normal.

Later he stood in the park, pushing against the swing to propel his son, who responded with shouts of glee at every thrust. For a moment, the joyous bursts took him away and he was content. The time was pure and human warmth folded over him like a cloak. The man gripped it, clung to it, for the call to the darkness was never too far away. As they left, a tiny hand in his own larger, rougher one; the barks of dogs at play tugged at the beast within. The man looked away and picking up the toddler at his feet, hugged him to him. Reminders were there. A constant goad to the animal within.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Necroville

In the cold street below, hazy light spilled out from ornate gas lamps. The hydrocarbon fuel was long gone, now bioluminescent chemicals swam in the cold white candles. A sea of people strolled through the fake heritage: Neo-viks, Metalheads, Necs - or Necros - and Breed plus a few wannabe's down from the corporate zones. Far above them, the father of the Nec movement watched from his office window. He stood holding a bone white china cup filled with fragrant tea. The vessel of similar colour to his own modded complexion. Aldrich - another untruth fixed to the man - looked down and pondered his next line. Behind, there was the gentle scratch of a stylus against a data panel. The reporter could have videoed the conversation, but there was something delightfully old school about his approach. It was that, that had piqued the old surgeon's interest. Aldrich rarely gave interviews these days. "It startles me that people choose still to read," and sipped his tea. Aldrich turned and looked along the corner of his office to view the junction of 1st and Morrison. "I thought it was a dying art."

The reporter stopped writing. Aldrich's ears picked up the clink of teeth against the pen. "We have a strong readership. Sure, lots of people prefer vids and stuff like that, but you'd be surprised. I hope."

"How's the tea?" Aldrich asked changing the subject. He found himself nervous. Odd considering his sparring with property corporations, Security Services and the Old Man's chief whip, Kellerton. A lift craft fixed with much Victoriana rose from a roof top garden and drifted high into the half light. Necroville was never brightly lit, the architecture and population seemed to prefer it that way. It was also much cooler than other parts of the giant city. You could spot a Stack resident as they'd be wearing a hat and glove.

Aldrich's gaze settled on the lift craft again. Its smart glass roof hardened into shape after flowing from the fancy wood and brass surrounds of the air carriage. He wondered if some of the Neo-Viks were starting to overdo things. His eyes tracked it upwards until they met his own reflection. A man in his 40s with the traditional dark hair and pale face that marked him out as Nec. He had kept some of his Arabic features, the hair was much like his fathers. Nec, or necroform, to use an older word. Not many did these days: Nec was short, blunt and common parlance. Aldrich studied the well cut suit he wore and wondered if he should have opted for something less formal. Still, there were fashions even within Nec society and the Victorian look was on another loop. Still, a break from last season's leather road warrior and tough luxe. He left such decisions to Miss Crew, she knew far better than him in that regard.

He shifted his gaze to the reporter sat in a chair behind him. Harsher elements of Nec society would describe him as a kenbie, while the ancient core, a muggle. Both words fascinated Aldrich. Despite his and Miss Crew's work to try and bring Necroville into mainstream acceptance, they - like the denizens of the Breed zone - remained at arm's length. Perhaps they would never merge and this was a hopeless dream.

"The tea's fine, thank you," came the answer. The reporter leant back in the leather chair which creaked slightly. He was dressed casually and would have stuck out on the street like a war bot at the crucifixion. "Why don't we start with some of the history?" the reporter asked. "The beginnings of this hab-zone, the start of the movement and of course, you and Miss Crew."

Aldrich finished his drink and placed the cup and saucer on the large desk that dominated one side of the office. "Really, the movement and the zone - as you call it - are tied together. One influenced the other."

"When did you start?"

"Shortly after Magdalene became a city state," the doctor answered. "I blew in from the wreckage of London." The reporter nodded, hoping to coax more out of him. "I didn't have much with me. Most refugees didn't. At least I had my health: psychical, mental and spiritual."

"You believe in spiritual health?"

Aldrich thought about it, looking up at the plain white ceiling. A brass fan hung motionless above the reporter. "Don't you?"

"I can't say I'd thought about it," came the answer. "As a man of medicine, do you find a level of spirituality surprising?"

"Some people have faith in religion, some in each other and many only in themselves," he found himself replying. "What I mean by spirit is... belief. Some would call it drive, but to me, there's more a creative side to it than a desire. Spirit is what calls people to Necroville. There often something - missing - from their life outside and they come here looking for it."

"Don't some come to die?"

"You mean the euth-tanks?" Aldrich replied and the reporter's head bobbed. "They are not to help people kill themselves, at least, not in the way you might think. They do let you die, that is true, but they bring you back. As a society, we can beat death. The post-humans in Maple could probably tell you more than I could."

"So why do it?"

"To see the other side perhaps?" Aldrich shrugged. "I did it twice: once to see what the fuss was about and second to be sure that there's no great mystery awaiting us."

"You truly think that? That there's nothing after this? Doesn't that play into the hands of those who say Necs are all about doom and gloom?"

A smile hit Aldrich's face. "I thought you may say that. I did not hear or see a corridor of light - although some have - I did not experience anything. Only a sense of peace. Perhaps I did not die long enough to witness the Other Side as it were. But I will tell you this, it is all about what you can do now in this existence."

"Do feel you've done that?"

"In a small way..."

"You built a hab-zone, you're a world renown bod-modder - tailor as we say now - and the figurehead of Necroville. Wouldn't you say they are big achievements?" The reporter stopped and held the stylus near his lips. Aldrich wondered what work the young man had had on his face. Chin and nose perhaps?

"The zone was already here," he answered. "Sector 17 was part of the Rescued Buildings Project. Older buildings that survived the war and the town style ones were imported as part of a living museum. Certainly a grand idea. Sadly, a lack of planning with this being in the wrong part of Magdalene didn't help. This place is cold, colder than the central parts and people did not - if you pardon the pun - warm to it. The Consortium tried to redo the properties and sell them on, but there was little interest. A vicious feedback of no investment, so no facilities. No doubt the lack of a good sun tube feed made the place darker than usual. To the Nec Movement, it was perfect."

"How did you fund it?"

"Favours, loans, promises and the movement. Necroforms - or necs as you call us now - we'd been around as long as people have been able to modify our bodies - "

"Is that were you made your fortune?"

"Yes, Aldrich said. "My trip from London. I set up business here as a tailor: not clothing in the traditional sense of the word, but as someone who could remake a person. My gift was bioware and biosculpting. I say with no falsehood that I did well out of it. Certainly that helped fund large sections of the community you stand in now."

"It has been said that you are against cybernetics? Is that true?"

Aldrich shook his head gently. "Not strictly. From an artistic point of view, I prefer to work in the medium of flesh. I find that infinitely trickier to work with and yet so capable as a material. The Chrome Age, if you could call it that, was an age of identikit replacement. There was no soul to it. So, yes, the artist in me is against them, but the realist says some people need them to survive." He folded his hands slowly. "Who am I to say what is right? Is a plastic handle better on a brush or a wooden one?"

The reporter scribbled away and pursed his lips as he thought. Aldrich looked very carefully and his vision zoomed in like a hawk's. Yes, he nodded, definitely face work. Very good though. The youth seemed to stealing himself to ask a question. "May I ask you about your partner, Anita Smith?"

Ah, Aldrich thought, I was wondering when this would come out. "What about her?"

"Well," the reporter seemed to struggle to get the question out.

Aldrich's gaze wasn't helping, although inwardly the old Nec was on the verge of laughing. Miss Crew would no doubt chastise him for such social cruelty.

Finally, the young man gathered his wits: "You came from London and I believe you met a year later, is that correct?"

"That is right, yes. We met at an art exhibition. A mutual friend had created a series of pieces called The Human Network. The one that sticks in my mind was the over scaled blood and nerve system hung about a large room. A large heart was in the centre - underneath the seating - which pumped blood through it and kept it alive. Very clever, Anita told me. She'd helped him and we got talking. She was a fascinating woman."

"I'm sorry, you talk about her in the passed tense, yet she is still alive." The pen tapped out time against perfect teeth.

Aldrich let out a sigh and turned to look out of the window. His gaze became unfocused as the memory played back to him. "I'm afraid that is not strictly true. Anita did die that fateful night. We had been to a party when we were attacked. My assistance, Kalis was fatally injured, but it was Anita who took the brunt of their fire."

The reporter put down the stylus and lent forward. "What happened?"

"There was a group of them: two men, two women. I am not sure, even to this day, which meme they represented, but they had decided to kill us. They said we had committed crimes against the natural order. Whatever that meant and we could not be allowed to live.... as that would let the corruption continue." Aldrich's lips had become dry and he looked at his empty cup longingly. "Kalis moved to stand between us and our assailants. I remember activating my panic button and trying to get Anita into the porch. Our town house was heavily protected, but it was not to be. I was shot in the leg and the back. My darling? She took many hits. Automated security arrived very quickly, but it was too late for her. I saw the life go out from her. That look will always be with me."

The reporter fidgeted in his chair. "I-I'm sorry. Would you like me to remove that from the transcript?"

"No. Leave it in. It is history." Aldrich took in a deep breath and turned to face his interviewer. "Besides, there is a happy ending - of sorts."

"I know you brought her back."

"Again," Aldrich answered cooly. "Almost. It is as if much of our history has... become enhanced into legend. I did bring her back from the dead, yes. But it was not Anita who came back to me, but Miss Crew."

"What is she like? How is she different to Anita?"

A tiny smile bounced Aldrich's lips. "Why don't you ask her?" The reporter frowned and then almost squeaked in alarm as he found a tall, elegant blonde woman stood by his side. "Miss Crew says you dropped your pen," Aldrich continued. Previously his wife's hair had been long and a neon red. He never managed to keep up. Miss Crew smiled politely and then walked over to stand at her husband's side. Her dark leather dress made no noise, there was only the soft clock-clock-clock of boot heels against the fine wood flooring around the desk. "How are you, my dear?" he asked and waited. "That is excellent. We have a visitor, Lucian Grenham from Tower House Publishing."

Crew slow blinked and put her arms behind her back. "My wife says it is nice to meet you and..." Aldrich stopped to smile. "She hoped that I have not been too cruel to you."

"I was going to ask - how are you different? What happened to Anita?" the reporter asked.

Remaining silent, Crew shifted her weight to another foot. Aldrich answered for her: "My wife says that it was like coming out of sleep. That before... she had been dreaming and is now fully awake. She says Anita died that day. There is nothing left of her."

"Do you mourn her?" The question rang out like a shot.

Aldrich put his hand to the small of Miss Crew's back. "Each day I am thankful that Miss Crew is with me."

"But is she Anita?"

"My wife tells me to see her previous answer: Anita is dead."

The reporter nodded and made some more notes on the data pad. "Why does she not speak?" His cheeks flushed in embarrassment. "I-I'm sorry. I was told I had to ask the question."

"If I may answer that?" Aldrich asked Miss Crew and then added: "Miss Crew says she cannot speak until those who did this to her have been brought to justice." Aldrich lent back in his chair and Miss Crew moved to the other side of the room. She opened a wall cabinet and took out Aldrich's coat.

"I'm sorry if I've caused you offence - " the young man began.

"When you've been shot for being who you are, questions such as yours," Aldrich actually grinned at the reporter. It wasn't an altogether pleasant experience. "Let us say that I've had worse. Please Mr Grenham. I have another appointment and our time is now up."

The reporter pushed the stylus into his pad and the plastic reabsorbed it. He offered a hand to the Father of Necroville. Aldrich shook it firmly. "Miss Crew will see you to my assistant and they will see you out. Same time next week?" The reporter visibly relaxed when he heard the offer of a further interview. The two made their way out, leaving Aldrich to stand by his desk.

Left alone, Aldrich walked over to the wall and picked up his coat. Draping it over a high backed leather chair nearby, he pressed on a panel of dark wood. It slid back revealing a distinctly ancient chemistry set. He picked up a dropper and squeezed two drops of liquid on to his tongue. Aldrich gave a short shiver and then stretched his back like an old cat. "Much better." He heard the door shut behind him. "All done?" he asked.

Miss Crew padded across the floor and stopped by his side. He was a very bold young man, she sent to Aldrich. Her voice sounded only in his ears. Anita's soft country tones would never grow old, never wither. They were the only constant of life in his world.

"Why do they always ask about the talking?"

I could not say, but you always did like the sound of your own voice. Mirth danced in her pale eyes. Today they were lilac. Yesterday they had been the colour of blood.

"Thank you, dear," Aldrich chuckled. "Talking of which. How are our guests?"

The same as ever. Miss Crew slid the chemistry set aside to view a small tank. Inside four partial human brains floated in a tank of nano-gel. In abject pain, but very much alive. Tubes and wires ran from inside them to the sides of the tank. They didn't need to pulse malevolently, but Aldrich enjoyed the comic touch. "Where are they?" he asked.

Running through Programme Six, Miss Crew returned. The iron forest. Her crimson lips remained closed and perfect. Shall we?

"Just five minutes," Aldrich said pulling up a chair. Above the grand fireplace a holoscreen flickered into life. Dark woods filled with sharp metal trees filled the landscape. Four people - two men, two women - woke up naked. They looked confused and then one screamed. A hand burst from the forest floor and grabbed the nearest ankle. The hand became an arm and then a shattered head erupted from the dirt. The bullet ruined face of Anita Smith pulled itself free. Snarling and snapping, the creature chewed into the woman's leg. The others fled, abandoning their conspirator to a slow and savage death.

Aldrich picked up a book and flicked through it. See how they run, his dead wife sang to the holo footage. One of them ran into a tree, the branches sawing through skin and pinning him in its murderous grip.

"A thousand creds that Christopher makes it to the waterfall this time," Aldrich wagered.

You are tight. Tell you what. If he does, you can pick the restaurant tonight. How about that?

"Done," Aldrich smiled and looked up from the book. A Breed version of Anita was now stalking the remaining two: Christopher and Sarah-Anne. This one seemed like an unholy trinity of wolf, bear and crocodile. The undead Anita was still busy chewing on the still living remains of the other woman. This Breed body had been real enough, Miss Crew had worked on an unanimated clone of herself as a pet project.

Sometimes the players would fight each other to make one fall and today, Sarah-Anne didn't disappoint. Today she got the upper hand. She caught Christopher in the throat and he slipped, gashing his leg as he fell in a riot of metal brambles. As the screams rang out, Miss Crew smiled wickedly. You lose, honey. I feel like a visit to Solar Arc tonight. You can book. I shall be downstairs working.

"Enjoy, petal." Aldrich waved his hand at the display and it reset. The four killers returned to the boot point of the game. Unmolested, uninjured. Now, the game would run again, and again until the four learned to be human and to help each other. Part of him hoped they never would. He muted it and returned to his book.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Hope

A shadow hung to the man as he worked. A numb cold that drained, pulling at his core swallowing delight and interest. The tendrils of this encompassing malaise had weaved their dark magic with the patience of a glacier. A slow, creeping touch of gentle despair. Like the loss or sight or the increase in weight, the softly-softly progress had been beyond human perception. Only now, with the spectre a virtual constant, was it felt.

Like his movements, memory was slow. Words failed to arrive, sometimes concepts drifted away, untouchable as smoke. How had this happened? the man wondered. How did it get like this? Was it work? Was it family? Was it him? The shadow did not answer - that was not its purpose. Instead, it hovered at the back of his sight, unseen by others, felt only by him. A personal vampire.

Some days, busy days or randomly, the shade would slip away and the warmth of true emotion would shine through in a glorious summer memory. Colours were bright, voices happy and people welcome. A return to the real world. The balance would tip and that sweet gap would close; the colours would dim, the sound dull and the connection would be lost. From outside, all would appear as before. Inside, the only movement was breath and that of the eyes: roving slowly from screen, to face, to hands. Markers of the silent tick of time.

At night, thoughts surged, worries and ideas pushing against the much sought cloak of sleep. The brain over-active as if it it could not rest until the hopper was empty. The body would breath, rest, but the mind could not - would not - switch off until exhaustion took hold as the sun poked curiously at the thick blinds.

Robotic, the man worked through as he could. Clutching at the good, shunning the bad and all the while, searching. Searching for the answer, the kernel that would unlock the puzzle and free him of the shade. Did chemistry hold the key? Those small white dots birthed from the crackle of plastic every morning. Downed with a sip of water and a dose of hope.

Hope. So long as there was hope, the beast would be beaten. Wouldn't it?

Monday, 21 June 2010

The Old Guard - 6 : Recall

Words. Sounds. Images. Words. Sounds. Images. The loop thundered on as Maiken floundered, tumbling through waves of what was and what might have been. She was lost in a fever of memories and her hands clawed at facts or faces, trying to slow down the barrage of recall. Hotel rooms, stakeouts, data runs, sex, friends, food, children.

In the memory dream, she opened her eyes to find herself strapped in a hard plastic chair. The room was slightly too cool and smelt of antiseptic. Grey tiles lined the walls and the floor was a blur of blended plastic. By the door, there was a drain set in the flooring: a chrome mouth greedy for fluids. Thick binds held her arms, hands bent palm up and open. There was something around her knee, but she could not move her head. A firm collar held her neck in position. Behind her, there was a buzzing noise. Her eyes flicked around, trying to pin point the sound, but she could not. Someone placed a cool gloved hand against her neck and then the buzzing increased. Maiken saw clumps of her hair fall to the floor. The hand continued to push her around and the trimmer did its work.

The technician clicked off the trimmer and for a moment the room was silent. Another man moved from behind her and removed a gown from her by pulling the hem hard with his hand. He tipped her locks to the once clean floor and Maiken realised she was naked. She wanted to cover herself, but the binds would not move. With her head locked into a new position, Maiken made out the shape on her leg. It was a speed-cast, a fat bandage of medichines and healing drugs. They had repaired her, at least, in a basic way. A gasp escaped her lips: one foot was wrong. The skin was pink and chubby like that of a new born. Her eyes tracked up the shin, to the knee and to where the bandage was. Further up the skin had cured along its length. Corpse white, a half leg pulled from the vat. But it was distended and... just wrong. It was not hers! It seemed alien, a freakish thing that was both right and horribly wrong at the same time.

The view was pulled from her as the masked technicians turned her head to the ceiling. One of them pressed a cold object against her scalp, Maiken felt the pass of air as he swept his sleeve over her head. There was a high pitched whine and then the world seemed dimmer, quieter too. Her implants, the ones said to be EMP resistant, went off-line. "No," she whispered. She had not meant to talk, but the protest had slipped out. She had hoped to take this punishment and ride it out. There had been worse violence, but the threat of banishment. That was proving to be too much. She bit her lip and tried to focus on the simple nature of the pain.

To her side, the man put something down on the metal tray. It clinked against other objects and then he fixed something to her bald head. Maiken pushed against the collar, but it would not move. "Not long now," the man said. His tone was like that of a doctor soothing a child. In front, the second technician wheeled a long mirror in front. His green scrubs swept back like a curtain, revealing a women with blackened eyes and many bruises. Small tufts of dark hair stuck to the frightened woman's head. No, there was something else. A fine crown of black metal. A tear threatening to leak out of one eye and as it hit her leg, Maiken realised the reflection was her. "You may experience a short loss of consciousness," one of the men said to her.

Maiken could not speak. Something had frozen her face. Only her eyes where her own. The man look something from the tray and fixed it at certain points to the crown. There was a flash of laser and the stench of burnt pork. The dark shape at the front of the crown stared to empty. Something pushed at her scalp like a thousand mad ants. The technology crept and burrowed into her.

The mirror was gone and one of the technicians had left too. Now, two men in black Security armour stood against the chipped grey tiles. They held carbines that absorbed the light. Neither of them looked at her. "You are free to go," the senior technician said. Maiken felt her neck and realised the collar and the hand bindings had gone. There were no bumps or scars on her head. Just the odd tuft of hair or smooth patch of skin. She had read about the process, in a published diary of a New York dissident. His unit had been fitted through his hair. Apparently the process had been amended to upgrade the degradation. Maiken turned one hand over. There were specks of blood against her wrist and pale globs of skin-putty where her data plugs had been. She was disconnected. There was nothing in her. No systems answered to her commands. Parts of her were dead. "The officers will escort you outside of the building," the man added. "You may collect a new set of clothes from the office and a ticket to the border of the city. In three hours, you exclusion unit will activate. If you are not outside of the communications network by that time, it will begin to stimulate your pain centres. Gradually at first, but each sensation will increase. We will give you time to get out of the city. We are not monsters." Maiken stood on her bad leg and walked over to the UN guards.

Hours and streets passed by as she made her way out of the city. The terminus of the final robo-transport dropped her in a dead industrial park outside the Safe Zone. Rusted machinery and broken buildings had fought against the burning desert sands and had lost. Maiken checked her watch. A cheap plastic thing from a road-side vendor. The face showed north, but it also showed the final bar of the Network. A mile or so and she would be out of the city and her exile would begin. Shouldering her bag, she set off west towards the mountains. The walk would be harder, but on the other side, they'd shelter her from any signal backwash. She was on the cusp of what felt like a migraine, but if that was the brain-crab or the stress, she couldn't say. Foot followed foot as she walked down broken roads and as the land rose, along thin tracks in the hard pan. Her new leg was sore and she was spent. Pausing to take a drink of water, she checked the watch. Still one bar of signal. Maiken cursed and the watch peeped. No, it wasn't the watch. The beep sounded in her ear and then the exclusion unit made itself known to her. A spike of pain arced her back and she almost dropped the water. Gathering her things, she tried to pick up the pace towards the ridge up ahead. She cleared more ground and then it hit her again. It was like a metronome of punishment, stabbing her ever onwards.

Eventually she made it over the ridge and she tumbled over the lip to land in gritty sand and small rocks. Panting, but still alive, Maiken checked the watch one more time. No bars. In front of her, empty desert stretched away from her. The mountains ran north and south. Far in the distance, she could make out a small township. Really, not much more than a couple of buildings that clung to the black road that circled through the seared valley. Walking carefully through the steep drops, Maiken made her way towards it. She hoped the hamlet would be free from the communications. The irony wasn't wasted on her, all of her life had revolved around being on-line and now? Now she craved digital solitude, less the claws of the brain-crab would tighten their grip. Somehow she would beat this. There must be a way, she thought. All systems can be broken. Water, her throat, begged. Sleep next, her body added.

The memory ended and darkness took her away again. She lay, her bad leg twisted under her in the red sand, her body shaded by a large sandstone boulder. A way away, the wrecked lift-craft burned hot and a drone circled on the thermals. Maiken did not stir, not even when footsteps crunched or whispered in the sand.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

The Old Guard - 5 : Tick Tock

A heavy rattling shook Maiken from her sleep. She'd dropped off - again. Was this a side effect of the treatment? She gripped the arms of the chair, her hands were greasy with sweat. In front of her, the security door was open and a series of lights blinked red through the holographic fog of the cockpit.

"Back with us?" Anna's voice was hurried. Her hands twitched and leapt as she clutched at virtual ghosts. The craft lurched violently to the right and then dipped. Maiken felt her insides flip. "Hostiles locked on. A ground crew and a rapid response drone." The wind was now roaring around the craft's stubby wings.

"What?" Maiken yelled. The spectre of sleep threatened to pull her back from the world. "Where are we?"

"The wrong side of the NORCALA mountains. Scavengers probably. They - " The pilot stopped talking and the craft twisted on its axis, making them both slam against the restraints. "There's a bag under the seat. Don't decorate my ship!" Maiken nodded and pulled it. She told herself she'd had worse, but her brain was struggling to put any details to that hope. The ship's warning systems let out a series of cries like pierced pigs and Anna cursed in Russian. Two white hot stars leapt from the side of the craft and span off in different directions like drunken fireworks. There was more rattling, then a very loud bang behind them and the craft dipped forwards in a sickly motion. Anna cursed again and resolved the drop.

"Was that the drone?" Maiken called forward.

"No, no luck on that. That's still with us and closing." The craft rattled again and a few objects that hadn't been strapped down fully, shook lose. A water bottle rolled by Maiken's foot and she snared it between her feet. "Got reverse lock... c'mon database... Oh jeez."

Maiken twisted in her webbing, trying to get a look at the hazy shape held in the cockpit's overlay display. "What is that?"

"Not scav - sorry - not scavenger class. That's military." Anna's steely gaze burned from the tiny mirror stuck to one of the screen struts. Maiken didn't like being on the end of it. "Anything you want to tell me?"

"Not that will make a difference," the old hacker replied. "They radioed you yet?" The pilot shook her head. "Figures. I wonder who ratted? Not that it matters now."

"I got a sensor ping as we left the liftport," Anna replied. She waved her hands through shapes and dials, the craft pushed itself forward on silent engines. "I put it down to Customs... Shit!" Another bright star shot from the side of the liftcraft and Anna pitched the vehicle hard right. Maiken just hung on and shut her eyes as sensors squealed. Time drew out on adrenalin and she waited for the explosion - it didn't disappoint. Hard light burrowed through squeezed eyelids and everything went quiet.

Sound returned as if the volume level had been cranked back up. "Anti-noise," Anna called over her shoulder. Maiken's eye settled on an old holo panel that even she recognised: a comms unit. The system was processing and as she looked round at Anna, she could see the pilot sub-vocalising.

Knowing she was about to be traded, Maiken popped her seat harness and studied the pilot's reaction. Nothing. She seemed locked in the debate with their attackers. Sliding from her chair, Maiken crawled and stumbled towards the back of the craft. There were no obvious weapons: no brace of carbines webbed into position, or giant wrenches ready to be grabbed. She spied Anna's kit bag and rummaged through it, hopeful she'd find a gun or even a non-lethal.

There was a tension in the air. The craft's position had steadied. "Looking for something?" The pilot's voice purred with anger and Maiken looked up. Anna stood about a metre from her, a snub nosed pistol in her hand. The bright yellow casing was chipped and scared, but the lightning bolts on front of its emitter plate looked nasty enough. "Hands up slowly. We're going to trade. All they want is you."

Lifting herself slowly, Maiken stood. She still had one of Anna's t-shirts in her hand and she let that drop to the floor. The pilot's eyes flicked to it and Maiken took her chance. She twisted on her side and slammed her fist into the water bottle. Stale liquid jetted over Anna, soaking her face and spraying the weapon. Anna raised the weapon to fire, but it was too late as the safety system had rendered it useless. Maiken's elbow slammed into the pilot's stomach and she got Anna into a headlock. "There'll be no trade, not today. They'll bomb you out of existence as soon as you slow down. Put the gun down."

Anna shuddered with rage and said nothing. Maiken increased her grip on the woman's neck. "Do it or I'll choke you."

"You can't fly this ship without me," the pilot hissed. She threw the arc pistol on to a nearby canvas chair.

"Says who?" Maiken saw the drone overtake them through one of the port side windows. "I thought you were good."

"I am, but I'm not stupid. Give it up, there's nowhere to go from here."

"Yes there is. We over the mountains yet?"

"Just. The LZ is a mile behind," Anna's voice had a notch of panic in it.

"We'll never make it, they just want us off civilian airspace checks. Speed up."

"No." Maiken pushed the pilot into the superstructure and twisted her arm up behind her back. "N-no w-way. I'm not going to die with you," she spat.

This one wasn't going to crack easily, Maiken thought. Some folk were like that. She carried on pushing the pilot's arm upwards until she shouted obscenities and the craft sped up a little. The old hacker's eyes fell on the emergency pods. "Get up front and say you're arranging a new landing zone."

Pushing the pilot forward, Maiken scooped up the pistol and pulled an emergency pod off the wall. Anna rubbed her sore arm and stumbled forward, Maiken saw her face reflected in a window - it was set in hatred. She wasn't surprised, the woman had been threatened, assaulted and was under the impression she was going to die. "Get back in the seat and I'll direct. No funny business. I want the comms on speaker."

Anna slid into the chair and reached for her straps. Maiken poked her in the shoulder with the arc gun. "Uh-uh, just in case you were thinking of spinning the ship. No webbing for you." Anna's hands danced through the haze of light in the cabin.

"They're not replying."

"Hail them again," Maiken ordered. She reached up and knocked the mirror from the strut. Anna just scowled. "Radio them that you're going to put down 2 miles north from here."

"There's noth-"

"Don't ask," Maiken hissed and she took a pace back. Ensuring Anna was busy with the comms work, she took a moment to read the instructions on the emergency pod. It had its own mini-lift engine. Not enough to let you fly, but enough to serious slow your fall.

Without warning, the craft lurched hard to the right and Maiken struggled to hang on. She saw Anna with a manic look on her face and one arm in the crash webbing. The other arm raised upwards and she flipped Maiken the finger. She made a slicing motion with her other hand and the craft tipped upwards until it was almost vertical. There wasn't much to hang on to, Maiken slipped and grabbed for the nearest seat. Her arms screamed in pain as she jolted the sockets. Behind her, the void of the craft span in sun lit disco beams as the vehicle twisted in the sky. "Down you go!" Anna shouted over her shoulder and made the craft dance.

Maiken slid down the floor that was now a wall. She bumped into cargo, chair posts and clawed at webbing. She slowed down but she wasn't going to stop easily. She kicked a leg out - her bad one - and her foot caught in the crook of one of the cargo net rings. She was thrown around and the pain almost had her pass out. The craft bucked and her head banged against the floor. She spat blood and pulled her foot free - the back of the craft was metres away and she let herself fall to it. "Transport to HG-786a," crackled Anna's voice over the speakers. "Situation under control. Returning to designated LZ. Over."

There was a mess of junk covering the back of the vehicle. Used cups, water bottles, magazines, a jumble of Anna's clothes and - yes! - the emergency pod. Maiken seized the device and struggled into the straps. Her right arm complained but she got it on. Anna started to straighten the vehicle up again. Maiken's gaze slid up the wall towards the hatch button. Reaching up, she slammed her hand into it and a warning klaxon fired. "What the hell are you doing?!" Anna screamed over the speakers.

There was no time to answer, debris and Maiken where thrown from the back of the liftcraft as the emergency systems blew the back cargo doors away. Sky earth sky earth sky earth went the terrain until Maiken managed to hit the pod's central dial. She felt the nausea kick in as the tiny lift engine surged into life. Straps dug into her body as they self tightened and the unit fought to stabilise and slow her down.

She was passed the mountains and she could see houses and the odd road through the desert scrub. Anna's craft was far in the distance and she saw it bank hard. It spat out more hot chaff as the drone chased it down. Maiken took her eye off it as she risked another look down. "Oh dear Lord," she whispered as the situation sank in. If it was lack of oxygen or the damned implant, Maiken felt herself begin to nod. Terror kept the sleep at bay for a few minutes and she felt herself slowing more and more. She could see dead palm trees, a sandbanked road and - further away - the fringes of NORCALA: the Northern Californian Alliance. "Time," she whispered to herself and then darkness claimed her.

Friday, 8 January 2010

The Old Guard - 4 : Exports

The blacktech's van rolled along the broken highway. Mountains and the desert giving way to the flat, dead scrub that had been bio-oil plantations, ranches or solar farms. Nature had fought back, made savage by a petro-chemical kicking and was winning clawed hands down. Maiken would look out of the small window from time to time. Dead gas stops and gutted strip malls hung to the spine of the road like so many broken ribs. Fossils of a former civilisation. The wilderness was truly that: wild and untamed. The journey dragged on and despite her worries, a fitful sleep claimed her.

A knocking noise startled her. "Hey. Wake up Smith." Jonas's voice pulled her from rest and she came too. Damn these old bones, she thought and nodded to his summons.

"Where are we?" Maiken tried to blink the sleep from her gaze. It was like pulling her way from under a thick throw.

"The edges of Fresno," Jonas answered. She could see regular buildings through the heavy glass. Fear grabbed her heart and she gripped the seat. "S'okay," Jonas whispered. "You're cool for another day or so yet. The unit next to your seat, it's checking that brain crab for activity. It's sleeping." He looker her straight in the eye. "You're safe."

Maiken swallowed and reached for the remainder of the water. Unscrewing the cap, she drank what was left. It was unlike anything she could remember: it was tasteless, just wet. There was no grit, no tang of rust to it. She swilled it around her mouth carefully, enjoying the simple pleasure. Swallowing, she asked: "Fresno's changed a bit."

Jonas looked out of the front window. "Sure has. They've got sand crawlers pushing the stuff back. Stops the outlanders coming in over the city walls." He tapped a featureless black box that had been wedged in place of a stereo system. "Today we're Truck 15 from U-Ship-It. No stops for us. Straight to the airport with our parcel." He turned and grinned. "That'll be you. Cash on delivery."

Maiken almost laughed out loud. She'd not had company for so long. "Don't worry, I won't forget. Just get me to the LZ - " Jonas gave her a confused look " - the landing zone and we'll be straight. I just need your cell." The beefcake chuckled. "I say something funny?"

"Nobody calls them that. Not for years," he rumbled. Maiken couldn't see his face, but the tone was pleasant. "Mobies now. Just like the Euros call them."

He meant well, but the point was driven home: she'd been away for so long. Not just away from friends, but from the world. Jonas broke the silence. "We're coming up to the lift-port. There's a Nancy - sorry, NC5 class - lift craft that'll take you wherever you're booked."

The van slowed down for a check point and the box in the dash whistled as it powered up. A moment later they were snaking through some buildings. Big ones by the look of it as they cast a shadow over the vehicle. "Here," grunted the big guard. "Out now." Both him and Jonas climbed out, the doors pulling themselves shut with a slight hiss. Glare leapt into the back as someone opened the door. Maiken screwed her eyes shut and groped for her goggles. A big hand took hers and thrust a set of glasses into them. "These," he said pulling her onwards. "The others no good."

Stumbling into the light, she was helped down to stand on the swept concrete. Slipping the glasses on, she found herself stood at the back of the van under a canopy of treated smart-canvas. It rippled slowly in the light wind like a lazy wave. No doubt it was generating power, they'd had that tech before she was exiled. "Thanks," she managed. Her manners were taking a while to come back.

Jonas reached to the side of her and pulled out a plastic bag with something in it. "Here, it - it's for the trip. Included in the price." She held clean clothes in her hand. Something that hadn't been rinsed in water that'd been recycled more times than spacer's piss. I must stink, she thought. It was something you got used to.

Again, Maiken forgot her manners. "Sorry... Thanks."

The big man spoke. "The craft. This way." She followed him as Jonas shut the van up. He took big strides and she struggled to keep up with him, her bad leg twinging with each loping stride. There was a scuttle of trainers against dry concrete as Jonas caught up with them. He kept his distance to the side, an old street gesture: don't spook the customer.

Tucked under the canvas was something that looked like a converted helicopter. The rotors where gone and four egg shaped pods had been strung out in a diamond shaped rig that slid from the fuselage. Two pods hung out from the sides and a fat round one hung under the cock-pit like a yellow plastic boil. "NC5 cargo unit," the beef muttered. "Pilot will be along soon. Our task ends when you get on."

A door on the side opened as they drew nearer. A lithe figure - a woman? yes, a woman - with blonde dreadlocks waved a hello. She climbed down and stood by her craft. A data socket with a shiny chrome button was stuck at the side of her temple. There's not even any wires anymore, Maiken thought as she waved back.

Jonas removed his cell - no, mobie - from his pocket and offered it to Maiken. "This is as far as we go," he said. "You can call from inside the craft if you want." He raised a hand to cut some of the sun from his eyes. The shadow of the bodyguard slipped away as he moved back towards the van.

"It's cool," Maiken said and smiled to him. She held the unit width ways in her left hand as the other danced over the holographic keyboard. Jonas looked surprised. "Ex-typist," she joked and he grinned.

"Whatever, lady. I don't want to know." As she handed the unit back to him, it let out a bleep. "Nice doing business with you. The funds will be cleared after you take." He bowed from the waist - a very formal oriental gesture -and put the mobie away. "Have a nice life. Just remember: 41 hours and 15 minutes." Concern showed in his eyes. Word would get out if he'd botched the timing. Stuff like that always did. Maiken nodded and she walked away.

Paranoia painted a laser target on her back as she walked up to the craft. She'd read about them on the Network, but never seen one. They'd been built long after her time away. Seems everything was wireless now: people and transport. There were warning decals stuck on the lift pods and as she walked by one, felt a queasy sensation in the pit of her tummy. A small notice stated: "Caution: Strong Field: Do not approach when operational."

"Hi," muttered the pilot. "Just you is there?" Maiken nodded. "That your carry on?" She gestured to the wrapped up overall and the half full bottle of water.

"Yeah," she drawled back picking up on the woman's Norcala accent. "Not much to bring with me."

"Anna," the pilot replied and pushed out a fist slowly. They touched knuckles. Maiken wondered why people still did that as Anna twisted to allow her up the small ramp.

"Maiken," she replied and climbed in. The inside was cool and was packed with crates held down with webbing. A cluster of four flight chairs with four point harnesses had been fitted to the craft and the security door of the pilot's bubble was open. "Nice craft," she said smiling.

"Had this old girl for a while," Anna replied and patted one of the bulkheads affectionately. "SouthAm export and refitted during the Alaska Uprising. Ice and rotors ain't a good mix. Spin engines are the way to go. Slot on, slot off. They rock."

Unable to understand the conversation, Maiken nodded and made her way to the chair and sat herself down. Anna pulled the door shut and made her way to the cock pit at the front. She made a gesture with her hands and the craft seemed to stretch into position like a cat waking up. "Terminal 54, Longport, Norcala, right?"

"That's right. Just by the docks."

"P.O.D too," Anna continued as she turned her back and prodded a few switches. "Just get yourself comfortable and don't worry about a thing. We like Payment on Delivery, no messing with cash. Traceless stuff." She grinned showing a collection white smile peppered with stone and gold teeth. "Don't know where you came from and I don't know where you're headed. Cargo's cargo - no offence."

"None taken," Maiken replied and got the harness on. She fidgeted a bit and then got the headrest just so.

"Gonna taxi out," Anna called over her shoulder as she hauled herself into the flight chair. "Just sit tight and I'll flick on the comm if you want to talk. Just give me until the green light goes on when we're up, okay?"

Maiken nodded and was surprised when the craft glided forward. There was no grunt of engines or growl of fuel: no wonder the military had gone batsh** for these things. Her old quad bike had made more noise. She listened carefully and there was a very delicate humming coming from the right hand engine. In front of her, the security door flowed shut sealing Anna in her pilot's bubble.

Maiken looked out of the window as they slipped across the concrete along a painted line of bright orange. The line curved around and she noticed that Jonas had gone. She wondered what he might spend the money on. Another soul she'd bumped into and chances are, would never see again. Random encounters, an ex would say. The line curved around into the open area of the lift port. A few craft hung high in the bright blue-white sky, they didn't circle, just wait like children's toys hung from a ceiling or bunk.

They followed the line until they reached a circle of orange and white stripes. Static hissed in a hidden speaker: "We're clear," Anna's voice whispered from everywhere. Before she could say anything, the craft lifted diagonally upwards, its nose dipping only slightly. Maiken felt her stomach drop and her head was suddenly very heavy. The ground dropped away in virtual silence, there was no roar of engines or rumble of wheels, just the growing whistle of the wind. She put her head back and closed her eyes. She didn't like flying, why had she let the midman talk her into taking a lift-craft? Ahh, time. Time was the old enemy.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

The Old Guard - 3: Electronic Head Punch

Sand hissed against the pitted form of the old diner, swirling against scuffed glass and blasted plastic. Fine grains would dance and swirl across the retro tiles glued and pealing on the uneven floor. The desert seemed to wash everything out to a hideous beige.

A figure sat hunched in the shade of the fallen roof, while a white sun seared the fallen row of stools by the bar. No-one came here any more. There was no solar, no juice and thanks to an old biker's rifle, the network link was dead too. Maiken sat fanning herself in nomad rags. A make-shift battery pack and signal jammer rested by her boot. A sawn-off shotgun hung from a rope by her arm, the double barrel filled with the one cartridge and she didn't fancy her chances on that.

The woman looked up and listened. Yes. Someone was coming. She unscrewed the cap from her water bottle and took a swig. The contents were unpleasantly tepid, but at least it wet her throat. A truck's engine sang in the distance and she moved to get a better look: just a peak from behind the bar.

The vehicle slipped from the sand covered road and bumped onto the hardpan, circling the old building twice before stopping. Two men got out: a short guy with what looked like a mechanic's toolbox by his side and a walking slab of beef. Both wore sunglasses to try and stop the glare, but only the hired muscle had got them right, the short guy's glasses looked cool, but his face was so screwed up, Maiken wondered if he could see.

The two stepped apart and a long barrelled pistol dropped into the hand of the beefcake. "Smith?" called the short guy. "Tullen sent us." He raised the toolbox and put his other arm to cover his eyes. Maiken had planned well and they'd parked up looking straight into the glare. She hoped she didn't need that advantage.

"We know you're in there," the short guy called out. There was humour in his voice, but no cruelty. "Tullen said to say that the rose garden visit is off."

"I'm in here," Maiken called to him. At least Tullen had sent them. He loved those odd-ball phrases of his. She couldn't resist a smirk at the memory of her last job from him. Code words and phrases like something from an old movie.

The short guy lowered the box and craned his neck. "You mind if coming out, or you want us in?" He looked to his accomplice, who shook his head. "Nix that, you better come out."

Maiken checked the jammer and moved to the door. She made a show of lumbering by the windows so they'd get a good view of her. The scratched plexiglass had offered a little shade, no wonder shortie was squinting so much. "You got it?" she asked.

"Right here," the techie replied. "I'm Jonah. This is - " He looked to his bodyguard, but he just shrugged. " - a friend. Just in case, y'know? You got the money?"

"No," Maiken said flatly. "Tullen's got the remaining half. I blurt him from civilisation and you get the rest. Just like we agreed."

Jonah nodded. "S'right. You want to do it in there, or you want to catch some A/C in the van?"

Maiken wasn't sure. Either way they'd be tapping her brain, or rather tapping that cybernetic vampire in her head. There was no point pissing about. Time was not on her side, a blurt to a dummy social networking site tipped her off about the UNPS plans for the monthly death signals. Anyone with a brain crab who picked up one of those signals was gone. A brain pulping thrash of a ride than only ended up one way: death. She'd managed to stall a dozen of them, hoping that hers wouldn't stand out amongst the other exiles.

The beef spoke, his dark skin almost as thick as his accent. "Come inside," he rumbled. "Look. I will put my gun away. You, you do the same." He holstered the hand cannon that hung from his arm. He raised both hands. Maiken had no doubt he had other stuff tucked away, but no was not the time for power games.

"Okay," she nodded and undid her headscarf. She held up an arm and very slowly, let the sawn-off be lowered to the floor. Bending - and wincing at the pain in her leg - she picked it up barrel first and opened the breach.

"Trouble?" Jonas asked pointing at her leg. "You should have said. I got a stack of medi-tabs in the back. Good price and a good date on them."

"Maybe later," Maiken answered and walked slowly towards them.

Jonas nodded at the battery pack and jammer. "What's that?"

"Protection from the network," Maiken answered. Jonas nodded and moved back towards the truck. He and his guard opened the back doors slowly, letting Maiken see inside. It was all a trust game. If they stiffed her over, their reputation wouldn't be worth a damn. Of course, reputations come and go and they're no consolation to a dead guy.

Once inside, the guard closed the doors and Jonas turned up the air-con. It was sweet bliss, a welcome as a cool summer's night in the valley. "You want a drink?" he asked. "No charge. I got water."

Maiken nodded as she took in the packed shelves with unknown components and masses of cables or tools. There was a small fridge somewhere in there and Jonas handed her an unopened bottle of Artic H2O - 'no rads or your money back!' sang the label. Pulling open a packet of baby's wet wipes, Jonas pulled out a long bench from the side of the packed van and patted it. "Please. Lay down here and we'll begin. When did you get this fitted?"

"I - I can't remember," she said as he wiped the muck from her forehead.

"No biggie," he said looking over her. "The scanner - " He tapped something out on a flat plate of black glass. " - it'll pick it up. Yeah. It's a 3-0-A series. Nasty as there's a bit of plastique in there too. I can't removed that here, but I can make it sleep. You got your tickets booked?"

Maiken nodded as he applied some 'trodes to her forehead. "Tullen's sorting me out. Some friend of his in Norcala."

"I don't want to know," Jonas smiled and tapped on the plate again. "If it's Jess, say hi from me. She's solid." He tapped a few more times. "Okay." The last word drew out. Jonas put two small blocks of electronics either side of Maiken's head. "Put the water down and... and if you feel any pain. Raise a hand or say something. J-just don't yell or you'll upset the big guy."

There was a small high pitched whine as the electronics charged up. "You ready? On three. One. Two. Three."

Maiken's body tensed up - every muscle in her body went rigid. Her breath caught in her throat. "Nearly there," Jonas muttered.

Static danced in her vision, the roof of the van flickering as if a million ants danced upon it. A roaring surf of white noise began to build up, threatening to consume. An acrid taste flowed into her mouth and a freezing fire plucked at her fingers. The pain began to build, but she could not move. "Uhhh," she moaned.

Everything stopped. There was just the sound of her breathing. "Done," Jonas said and he packed up the equipment. "You're good for 48 hours and then... well, you're solid for 48. Make sure you get that thing zapped." He banged a hand on the partition wall behind him and the engine coughed into life.

Gesturing to a fold-out seat, Jonas pulled open a small hatch. "Better make yourself comfortable. We've got quite a ride. The Interstate isn't what it used to be."

Leaving her with the water and silence in her head, Jonas pulled the little door shut and the hulking mobile lab rolled onwards. Maiken pulled herself into the chair and strapped the buckles closed. I am on my way, she thought. Dampness pooled around her eyes and left tracks in the dirt on her face. Reaching into the bin, she picked up one of the wipes and cleaned herself up as best she could.

Fresno Lift-Port was a long ride away, but the journey had begun. A chance to finally shake herself lose from this digital shackle.