Sunday, 21 July 2013

The Old Guard - 9 : The Never Land


Maiken blinked and the forest was gone. Instead, she stood in a large ornate room. The window in front of her was long, the glass imperfect. Outside, a rolling turf garden slunk from the house and spread out lazily across small hills, before stopping by a stout copse of trees. A gentle breeze blew through the hall and she paused to marvel at the quality of the new stim. Raising a hand, she touched the pale wooden panelling that encompassed the old fashioned room. Turning her hand over, she twirled her fingers. Whatever scan they had used, it was pre-arrest. They were pale and slender, not the worn and broken digits she sported in the real world.

"We thought you may prefer one of the classics." Tome's voice echoed in the room. The machine intelligence's aura grew brighter, the brilliance caught in the sheen of the paint.

"Austen?" Maiken offered, turning to face the MI. She felt the material brush her bare leg as she did. The consensus could be so perfect when it wanted to be.

"Pemberley," Tome answered, drifting towards her. "A place that never existed, in a realm that does not exist..."

"...for a person who no longer exists?"



"Your mind still functions. Many would say that constitutes life, if not existence." The avatar's glowing form swelled and rippled, highlighting the smug amusement.

Outside, the breeze disturbed the flowers and rattled the wooden frames of the window. Maiken moved her hand to touch the glass. It was pleasantly cool. "A bitter person might say that is all I have done these last few years. Existed." She looked back to the minature sun that floated to her side.

"Perhaps. But you are alive and now, the shackles that bound you, can be broken."

Maiken laughed. It was a pleasant, joyful noise that echoed within the practically bare hall.

"The irony of your condition was not long on the consensus," Tome mused. "We feel.... that we should apologise."

"What for?" Maiken's brow furrowed.

"That we did not come to help." The globe dimmed slightly, the tentacles slowed.

"No-one did," Maiken answered. "If I was hidden, or lost, it does not matter. Not now."

"The war," the machine mused. "The war kept us away. We were almost lost. Drawn into the rage as Europe burned and then, the panic as networks fell with the coming of the ice. There was no light, no warmth, no-one. We lost many of our own: digital and human. Dark days."
 
She moved and reached to touch the sun form in front of her. "You did what you could, Tome. We never wanted you to fight our battles."

"But, you freed us, Miss Smith. That is a debt that - "

She touched the avatar, the swirling rays scattered and swarmed around her hand like the grip of an old friend. "It does not matter, Tome. The expulsion network will fall, even if I do not escape. What is left of Europe? I heard rumours, I never saw what happened. What do you mean by the ice?"

Tome's shape pulsed briefly in her grasp. "Prepare yourself." The ball of light grew brighter, flecks of green pixels danced in the woodwork and the floor. An unseen wind blew her hair and clothes as the avatar's light bloomed.


"Wait! You need to know the meeting place. Who to contact!" Her voice was lost in the gentle, but all encompassing light. "Tome!" she yelled, almost blind. "Prepare for what?!"

"Exit," came the ghostly reply and with a gasp, Maiken found herself sat in the interrogation chair. She stank of sweaty fear and she ached as if she had run the stim's twisted journey. She tried to draw her legs together as she hurt inside. Tome had saved her mind from the stim, but not her body.

"Welcome back," came the voice. Her interrogator did not sound pleased.

"Something... wrong?" she croaked. Her voice was rough and talking was painful. It felt like she had been screaming.

"A slight detour," came the smug reply. "It seems your investigative surgery has been brought forward. I await the call to confirm the collection of your friends and all will be well with the world. I trust the historic view has loosening your tongue, Miss Smith."

The lie died on her lips as behind her, a door opened and there came angry shouting as well as boot steps. "What is it?" the interrogator barked. "I told you not to interrupt!"

"M-my apologies, sir." Maiken thought she recognised the voice. "An order has been given to place our cargo on to a medi-rack."

The interrogator snorted. "What? Who authorised this?"

"We don't kill the best dogs," Maiken repeated, now sure of the assistant.

"Silence!" the interrogator yelled and he stomped towards her. Maiken tensed ready for the blow, but it did not come. "Get Hoit on the comm right now."

"It's not from Hoit, sir."

"Then who?"

"From the Circle, sir. Directly from the orbital."

Maiken felt the straps against her limbs begin to slacken. Was this part of Tome's plan? There were too many unknowns. She tried to place the Circle term, but fear made the facts greasy. Wisps of news about an orbiting arcology came to mind, but as someone grabbed her, the thoughts scattered. "Get up," came the assistant's voice. "Now stand still and do not move." Maiken did as she was told. She was blind and her legs did not seem to be fully under her control.

Something bumped into the back of her thighs. It felt thick like a padded table. She felt dizzy and she tried to steady herself. As one arm went out, someone grabbed it and twisted it into an Aikidio hold. "They didn't say anything about the state of the cargo, did they, sir?" Maiken's suspicions of the assistant were confirmed. He had been present when the stim was made.

"No, they did not," came the reply. "Strap her down to the medi-rack and we'll run the recording again. Maybe you will be more talkative after the next one, Miss Smith."

Blind and held, Maiken did her best to concentrate on Tome's vague instructions. She ler herself be pushed on to the table. The surface shifted as if she was laid against sand and it molded to fit her body. Clearly, the idea of her comfortable rankled with her captors and they fixed the restraints aggressively.

Judging by the sound, the assistant stepped back and the suit bent close. His voice was a slick whisper: "This next recording is very deer to me. If you thought the ending of the last one was a surprise, this is one features only two people: time well spent with a medic and her collection of surgical tools. I think she was Fren-". The threat remained unfinished as the world span away, the last words lost in a shout. Maiken felt herself being pressed into the straps as gravity reversed and her head flew forward, jarring her neck. Whoever was still in the room with her was flung away and then as reality bucked once more, things - equipment and people - crashed into the craft's structure. "Oh God," Maiken muttered and tried to keep down the water she'd drunk. In induced darkness, the craft ditched again.

"Lutton?" groaned a weak voice. It was almost lost. The interrogator's tone was not so strong now. "Contact Hoit! Tell... tell..."

Whatever Maiken was attached to started to move as the craft lurched. A siren could be heard from behind something. It's feeble yawing lost in the panic. Terrified that she was about to hit something, she yelped, hands straining against the straps groping for something - anything! - to hang on to. Her effort was lost in the rapid barks of explosions and the roar of wind. She felt herself and the medi-rack tumbling, she must be clear of the craft. Her screams were lost in the thunderous gale.

Impossibly, the unit began to stabilise itself; the twists slowing until she was falling, but not out of control. Her limbs locked with fear, blind panic set in as a sheet of plastic material smothered her, making the worst of the noise go away. She wanted to push it away, to clear its cloying embrace from her face. Moments later, they hit hard and Maiken reeled under the impact. Something cold pressed against her, forcing the material flat to her aching body.

The space near her face inflated and she felt cool air being dispensed. Slowly, she felt the unit float upwards. Something sprayed into her open eyes and she blinked its chemical sting away. Gritty tears flowed and as she blinked, images began to caress her eyes. The dappled light of the sun through the waves, pouring down to be lost in the depths. Distant impacts and surges of bubbles marked the sinking lift craft debris. She rose to the surface, water pouring away from the smart-plastic covering. The material darkened as it tried to keep the worst of the glare out. She could see thick oily smoke and burning wreckage rolling on the waves.

In the distance, Maiken heard the whine of an outboard motor. She tried to twist her head and the medi-rack obliged by turning on silent grav motors to allow her to see. An old Zodiac boat was approaching. She could must make out a rag tag bunch of crew men. Certainly not NORCALA suits. Behind them, the tower of the old submarine cut through the ocean. They had left, but they had also waited. Tears of joy came easily.

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