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.