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.