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.