Friday, 18 December 2009

The Old Guard - 1: Plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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