Reality pushed its way into Maiken's thoughts. Cool air, her damp clothing stuck to her skin and the soft vibration of a lift engine. Was she airborne again? She tried to move, but she was held fast in an upright position. She opened her eyes, but there was nothing but darkness.
"I see you are awake," came a male voice. It had the tone of command, the sound of a person used to giving orders and having them obeyed. How far away was he? Not too far and clearly in front.
"Where am I? What happened? I can't see. My eyes - "
"I will ask the questions now, Miss Smith," came the reply.
Maiken said nothing. Her throat was dry and despite the constant micro-sleeps, she was exhausted. She decided to try her luck. "May I have a drink?"
"Sir?" A new male voice this time. One behind her. There was a pause and then a straw was put against her cracked lips. She drew on the liquid hungrily and as she stopped for breath, it was snatched away.
"I want to know how you did it," the first man asked.
"How did you break the exclusion device, Miss Smith."
"I don't know what you're talking about," she lied. "I thought my sentence was up when I approached the phone box by Truck Stop 22 in - "
"Stop," the first voice interrupted. "Do not waste my time with your lies. You were exiled, thrown out of the society you abused. It was a life sentence, Miss Smith. It did not expire!"
"Maybe it died and I'm just lucky." There was a rush of footsteps, Maiken tensed but it was not enough to prepare her. A fist rammed into her stomach and she sagged against the restraints holding her. Patterns swam in her dead vision. "So you're not.... from the... UN then," she wheezed. "Suit.. boys?"
Although she could not see him, the man was directly in front of her. He must be blocking some of the light, because her skin felt cool. "It does not matter who we are, what matters if you tell me what I need to know. The less you tell me, the harder it will be for you."
"And... and when I've told you everything, what then? A shallow grave some place or a dip in the nanite vats to dispose of the evidence?"
A hand gripped her face and pushed it back against the headrest with a bang. "You, Miss Smith, were an exile. You have no rights and according to our records, you are officially dead. That means I can do whatever I want."
Maiken struggled to move, but she could not. Her face scrunched by the man's hand, she felt his hot breath against her skin, the scent of his aftershave. It smelled expensive: city security then, not the UN. As he released his grip, she spat. She had been expecting a blow for her trouble, but heard the rustle of cloth instead. "Your aim is off," came the smug reply and then he hit her. Warm blood ran in her mouth; she hadn't broken a tooth, so maybe she'd bitten herself. A heartbeat late, the pain flooded in. The footsteps marked the man's movement, but it was not a retreat: he now stood to her left. "Where were you going?"
"Out of the desert. Anywhere."
"I doubt that. A known felon like you? You were one of the first wave of exiles, Miss Smith. Your face, at least, your younger, less leathery version is well known. The cameras would have seen you and we both know you are not stupid. No, you were not just leaving the desert."
Maiken said nothing and thought about the time. How long had she got left? She was against two deadlines: the brain-crab and her transport. If she missed her exit plan, she would not have long and having probed the exile unit's system, she did not think it would be so easily fooled again. "If you refuse to cooperate, there are other methods open to us."
"I'll talk to a judge."
The man snorted in derision. "No, I don't think you will. How can the dead testify?" The voice came towards her shoulder. "These are the facts. You are under our control. You cannot see as we have disabled your eyes. You have nothing with which to bargain. There are a few simple choices." The voice stopped and Maiken heard the distant whisper of electronics. Could the man be wearing an ear bead? How many others were watching or listening to this interrogation?
"I wanted to go north. Canada is almost empty since the plague. It would be like home - "
"No, I doubt that somehow. Where was I? Yes, choices. Tell me how you defeated the device and where were you planning on going. If you do not tell me, the following options remain: firstly, we have interrogation experience stims to run you through. If after that you are unwilling, or even, unable to talk, we will return you to our lab. There our technicians will find how you cheated the system and they will fix it."
"If I cooperate?"
"The device will be repaired and you will be returned to the desert."
"Gone. All taken away. I'm sure we could find a wilderness for you. Yellowknife Pass? London Underground?"
Both were barren, Maiken remembered. One a mass grave from the war, the second a dead zone: a land scoured clean by rogue nano-medicines and then by government bombardment. At least neither were deserts. "I will tell you where I was going, but I would like to make a telephone call."
"To confirm the location. My contact won't wait. If I just tell you the bar and what he looks like, you'll never find him. I can make him come to you. I can't see you letting me out in down town NORCALA to lure him for you."
"I said no deals."
Maiken shrugged, it hurt. "Then we're at an impasse. All you've have is me, not the people behind this."
"When I said my implant stopped working, why didn't you believe me? You say my home is gone. What did you find there? State of the art tech to hack a brain-crab?" Maiken's tone drifted into sarcasm. "I managed that on my own, yeah? From a shack in the desert? You're dumber than I thought." She expected a blow, but none came.
The pause let her mind spin on and the idea of a story was coming to her. If she could make contact, there was a favour she could call on. "You're being played, suit boy. It's not about ex-cons like me. We're not even yesterday's news. Think bigger. Who benefits from the exile contract and what happens if the tech fails?" Fear, uncertainty, doubt: the dark trinity of distrust. The silence drew out. Either the man was thinking this over, or playing the old game of wanting her to say more. There was that whisper again, the gentle hiss of electronics.
"I want a guarantee," Maiken pushed.
"I want to go to South Am. Chile maybe. Somewhere in the depths of the mountains. I want to be safe from the signal." She paused and sighed as if broken. "I need to hide from the sky. I know what's coming, everywhere will be connected when the satellites link up and I want my sight back."
"Don't you need this to be signed off by someone?"
"There isn't anyone above me," he gloated. "What I say goes. Now, the number?"
Maiken rattled off a series of digits of an old automated voice-over-web box and after a pause, the man chuckled. "Is this some type of joke, Miss Smith? Our records say this is the number for a downtown sex club."
"It's a front."
The man stepped forward and Maiken felt something being held against her head, a mobile handset. After a moment, there was a pop of static and then a ringing tone sounded. She flinched on reflex, only hours before the same noise would have meant she was about to have her pain centres activated. Cheesy music that was too retro to be ironic played in the background. "This is Chico's. Our opening hours are 8pm until 6am. Leave a message after the climax."
"This is a message for Gustav," Maiken whispered. "There's a change of plan. I'm injured. I need to meet you at a new location. I will leave the instructions in the drop box with the code phrase. I'll up the money, please don't leave without me."
She looked up with blind eyes and pulled her head away from the telephone. The line went dead. "What drop box?"
"An email account," Maiken answered truthfully. "I leave an unsent email in there with the necessary details and the deal is set."
"What are the details?"
"You need to say 'Aunty Mary is late for the wedding' and then you put the place you want them to go to."
"The main maglev station," Maiken offered. "I did plenty of deals there. Nice and busy. I hope the platforms haven't changed since I was last there."
"You," the man barked. "Go send it and bring the box back with you."
"Yes, sir!" Boots scuffed against the floor and there was a rush of noise as a door was opened.
"How long until we get to the lab?" Maiken asked.
"Two hours which is plenty of time."
"I'd like to see again, please."
"No. Not until we have what we want." The answer was flat and firm. It had been worth a try. "Tell me what your contact looks like."
Maiken closed her eyes and tried to remember her first boyfriend, Chas Li. "They told me he'd be half-Latino and he'd wear a red beanie hat with an old L.A. Hulks jacket. His name is Chas." There was no chance of a match via camera. Chas had been dead four years before her exile. He was one of the first to go during the roundups. Snatch squads looking for machine intelligence sympathisers.
There was a soft buzzing sound and the man took two paces away. "Yes? No, not right now. I'm in a meeting at the moment. Yes, her. Can it wait?" A pause. "I see. Send me the details and I will get back to you." He hung up. "Nothing to worry about, Miss Smith."
The door behind her opened and someone walked in wearing heavy boots. "Ah, thank you," her interrogator said and he moved closer. "Now, Miss Smith. You have been good enough to provide us with a scrap of intel. For that I am grateful." There was an unpleasant glee in the man's voice. Maiken tried her best to look weak. She felt his breath wash over her cheek. It had that tang of mint to it, a bacerial hack.
"While you were away there was the most awful civil war in Europe, but that is by the by." He placed something on her head and Maiken felt the gentle bite of electrodes. "During the conflict, an enterprising merc team decided to make some money on the side: black stims. They would attach stim-sense recorders to both the perpetrators and the victims of the interrogation. The ones who resisted would be put through the stim again and then the process repeated. Now, as I don't trust a word you've said to me, you are going to witness these atrocities first hand." Maiken's ears crackled with static as the stim hardware took hold of her senses. Stars danced in her vision and she could smell pine trees and urine. "After this episode, I will repeat our questions."
"Please," Maiken begged. "Please don't. I've told you everything. I gave you his name..." Her words died in her throat as the stim started up. A body that was not hers lay on a damp bed. Daylight fell in beams through the gaps in the roof. The white brick walls were pock marked with bullets and the room stank of human waste. Someone barked an order outside and the only door to the room was hauled open. A large man in smart-cammo stormed in. His face was a hidden behind goggles and a rebreather. "Get up," he snarled and grabbed the recordee's arm. He twisted her around and checked the recording device was fixed properly behind the ear. "This one's ready," he yelled over his shoulder and he shoved Maiken into the cold, bright sun. Maiken had run stims before and no matter how much you told yourself they were not real, the well crafted ones made your body think it was. A gun was fired and she felt herself run into the woods. Behind her, a group of men howled with savage delight. Branches whipped her face and body. She almost lost a running shoe in the peaty bog by a large fir tree. Stumbling, she skidded on pine needles and the scent pricked at her own memories.