Monday, 12 May 2008

Countdown to Extinction (Extract)

The Awakening

The hibernation booth was cold, desolate and lonely. Bright lights flickered in an instant, as the day-night cycle passed by with no sense of time to its occupant. The days stretched to weeks, and then to months. Physical scars healed and disappeared, but deep down and suppressed from the banks of monitoring computers, and legions of technicians, the emotional wounds simmered, held back and repressed for now, but forever to haunt the sub-conscious of the machine. Secret, and away from the true beliefs of those who perceived themselves to be the masters in the comfortable world they had built for themselves on the shifting sands.

* * * *

First technician Drew looked up from his white computer console as the footsteps echoed closer down the hall. In a half-moment of calm that precedes the storm, he had time to size up the approaching man, and take in the sublime of his detail. In the brilliant white clinicalness of the facility, his dark clothes made him stand out all the more. But there was something deep and hidden, beyond the protective emotional screen of those dark glasses he wore that worried the technician. For this was a man approaching who had already said all that needed to be said in the time taken to approach his desk, and in less than any words.

The Stranger came to a halt in front of the laminated wood, reaching up slowly to remove those glasses, and reveal the chilling coldness of the eyes hidden beyond.

Drew shivered, despite the warmth of the corridor. There was something threatening in that stare, though he fought the urge to look away.

"I've come for the girl," said the Stranger flatly, folding the glasses and slipping them into a pocket without shifting his gaze.

Another shudder ran down his spine. Routine forced a response.

"I'll need to see some ID."

A Palmtop appeared instantly on the desk, projected its blue-tinged transparent information for the benefit of the Technician. Drew scanned the lines of shimmering text, then glanced back up at the man.

"And a retina scan," he added.

He gestured to the console set into the wall behind.

"Just put your forehead to the plate, it won't take long."

Drew half expected those eyes to flash like lasers at such a request, but the Stranger fixed him in his gaze barely a second longer, before turning as directed.

He typed quickly on the quirky old-fashioned seven-key pad on his desk, relieved that he had momentarily escaped the gaze. On the other side of the corridor, the retina scan flashed complete, and the stranger turned back to wait the few seconds the results would take.

Drew scanned the holo display. Several more reams flashed through in hazy succession. The man was clean.

"Okay, you got a clearance code and authorisation. Follow me."

He slipped a keycard from under the desk, and led the stranger a few yards down the corridor where a heavy duty blast-proof door blocked the way. Trying to ignore the stranger's watching eye, he slipped the keycard to the slot, and pressed his left hand to the palm scanner. A light flashed momentarily before pinging to green, and the blast door slid soundlessly away from them.

Without a word, he led the Stranger through into the icy cold of the room beyond. Around their feet swirled an almost transparent mist of water vapour, condensing out from the air of the corridor they had left.

Less than a dozen small clinical white booths lined one wall, each no more than phone booth sized, and dangling with arrays of electrodes and monitoring panels. All but one were empty, waiting for the time an occupant might come.

The last was different. Instead of its panels being silent, with no power, this one held a steady Christmas tree of blinking lights and a lone occupant, still and silent, eyes closed in the monotony of hibernation.

"Here's the girl."

He tapped up a set of vital signs on the adjacent read out.

"Everything normal, signs show A1 and within all acceptable parameters. No problems in storage, and the healing is complete and full as far as all tests will show."

"Time will tell."

Drew shuddered, though not because of the cold. He typed again quickly at the panel, the tree of lights blinking to green all the way down. A computer terminal across the room buzzed into life, and he turned to it without pause, tapping information to the touch screen.

"Re-animation will take a few moments to complete. She's been out of it for a while; we got told to put her through a complete shut down when she came in. It wasn't usual but the orders came on down with full authorisation from the top."

The Stranger turned back to look the girl up and down. Considering her thin top and regulation issue trousers, he could not perceive any signs that the cold was affecting her.

"When the orders come down from above, it is wise not to question, but to do," he said flatly. He turned back to Drew who continued keying.

"Did she have any interaction with personnel when she came?"

The technician looked up, uncomfortable.

"No. The technical crew that brought her processed everything. None of the regular tecnicals were involved."

"Good."

Another icy silence. Drew felt the need to say something, anything, just to ease the tension.

"She's an Assassin, isn't she?."

Instantly he regretted saying what he had said, as the Stranger's words became even colder.

"You are not paid to think, you are paid to do. It is unwise in the line of work you have chosen to do anything further. Assassin or no Assassin, those that ask no questions are told no lies, and those that don't heed that advice may find themselves wishing they had kept their thoughts to themselves.

Her story has no concern to you or any other. Do I make myself clear?"

Sweat trickle down the hapless man's back.

"Perfectly clear."

"Excellent. There are ways of dealing with employees who get too inquisitive. Just pray you do not become of that select and unlucky band."

He left the threat hanging in the air, as he turned his attention back to the girl.

Drew continued typing, a new sense of urgency impressed upon his mind.

"Just a few more moments, and the computer will complete the process."

He turned to watch.

"How much longer?" inquired the Stranger.

"She's been in full hibernation for several months. It takes at least half an hour for the full process. I'll need to bring the medical team in for the last stages of revival."

He reached for a Comm link, but the Stranger stopped him.

"That will not be necessary."

"But…?"

The eyes flashed their warning. There was no sense in arguing.

The girls hands, limp and by her side until now began to twitch. A flicker behind her eyelids indicated a return of higher conscious levels.

Drew eyed the readouts critically.

"She needs medical attention," he pleaded, "I can't be held responsible if she dies as a result of your insistence to keep this quiet."

Another icy stare.

"First Technician, I trust you were paying attention to what I have already told you. As you said yourself, she is an Assassin. If you do not do as you are instructed, then I will see to it that you will be reassigned to a job rôle within the company that will bring you closer than you would ever wish to their kind."

A frantic nod of reply. Sweat trickled on Drew's back.

"Good."

The Stranger returned his attention to the girl. Slowly her eyes flickered open, and her probing newly awoken gaze surveyed the room in front of her and the two men.

A curl of vapour appeared and disappeared from her nostrils, and her chest began rising and falling in rhythm. Reaching up slowly, she brushed aside electrode pads from her arms, and stepped with a moment of uncertainty from the booth.

The Stranger gave her a look up and down.
"Welcome back to the land of the living, Lily."

She nodded a curt silent reply, and the Stranger turned back to the Technician.

"Show us the way out."

* * * *

The blast door gently swung shut behind them, closing off the view to the room that had been her unknown home for too long. Passing Drew's desk, the Stranger stopped only to retrieve his Palmtop, before he and the girl continued to the end of the corridor, and were gone.

At last Drew breathed a sigh of relief and settled back into his chair. Trying to banish the thoughts of what he had witnessed, he attempted to get back to the lobotomy that was his work.

One thing still bothered him - no medical attention. The girl had just opened her eyes, took a breath, and stepped out. Assassins weren't quite human, and thoroughly illegal, but that act still defied logic.

The Stranger's harsh warning continued ringing in his mind. He was paid to work, not think. It was one experience that would not, could not be shared.

Three, my Lucky Number

The Martian sub-tunnels stretched out at right angles to each other, straight and level as far as the eye could see. Lining their sides, from the stark concrete roadway to the steady gentle curve of the top of the arch, rose the columns of gaudy flashing neon lights, advertising the wares and fayres of the cafés and club-bars. Like snaking serpents of multi-coloured skin, the sidewalks bustled with a billion people of a million cultures rolled into one in the ultimate transgressing urban society.

The newcomers mingled through the crowd, silent to the jovial masses. Lily, the girl, followed in the Stranger's footsteps.

"Connolly, I'm hungry," she said at last, having to lean over to his ear to catch his attention over the thousand sounds of the crowd.

He stopped and looked at her, unsure. Finally his uncertainty vanished, sense working to his mind - of course she had been asleep for many months. Didn't animals on Earth come out of hibernation looking for food too?

He sighed, looking around for a convenient fast-food bar to grab a bite. "Okay, but let's not make it too long."

The girl nodded, and he sensed a look of thankful relief cross her face. Then she turned and was gone into the pulsating crowd, leaving him desperately to push his way after her.

Suddenly the crowd melted away, and he found himself at the bar of a Thai eatery. The smell of hot oil and frying vegetables washed over him as he squeezed onto a bar stool at the counter next to Lily, who was already ordering dishes from the gnarled waiter behind.

"I hope you've got credit to pay with?" she said with a smile.

Connolly pulled out his wallet, flicking through the cards.

"Enough," he smiled, for the first time.

"You wanna food meesta?" inquired the waiter brandishing his oily pad.

He glanced over the dog-eared menu on the bar, figuring it would beat watching the girl eating like some hanger on. He couldn't understand a word of the archaic text and flicked it along the bar top.

"Chicken? You do chicken?"

The Waiter nodded furiously.

"Yesa meesta. Lovely sauce, lotta lovely sauce."

"No, just Chicken. No Sauce."

"Okay meesta, you no a-worry."

Connolly got the impression the gnarled man didn't fully understand English as he watched him disappear into the kitchens behind. Through the swinging door he caught sight of the Chef, cigarette in mouth in the filthiest yellowed grease-soaked clothes imaginable hacking at raw meat with a cleaver.

For a moment the thought struck him that eating here might not have been such a good idea.

"How long have I been frozen?" Lily asked, pouring a glass of water from a jug and sipping.

Frozen was the off-world slang for long-term hibernation.

"Several months," he replied in a tone that hinted further discussion was not wanted.

She ignored the implication and continued, "A lot happened since I went in?"

"Stuff."

"What stuff?"

"Julius still has his aspirations. Off world, the company's been building up its legitimate assets. Refineries, heavy metals. The usual."

"Oh."

She poured water from the jug into a second glass, sliding it in front of him.

"I feel like there's something you're avoiding telling me. Perhaps a little drink will help you loosen up."

He pushed it back, avoiding the look from her eyes.

"It'll take more than water to do that."

She signalled for a waiter.

"We've got time for a Beer. I may be an Assassin, but I'm not as stupid as a regular computer. Whilst I've been out here frozen, there's been some heavy debate over whether or not you should have ever thawed me out of hibernation I'll bet."

Connolly remained silent as the waiter arrived, and Lily broke off to order two Beers. Unwittingly she had hit closer to the truth than could be imagined.

* * * *

As the waiter brought the bottles and their food, conversation resumed, slowly.

"Julius had a change of heart. Nothing Dreyka or I could say would change his mind," he began, picking at the Chicken which predictably had arrived covered in a coconut and ginger sauce,

"You've guessed I don't like your kind, but until Julius can be persuaded otherwise, we've got to work together. But you already know all that from the mainframe. That's something else that is wrong - computers shouldn't band together like that. Sooner or later it will be the end of us real people."

He flicked a spoonful of sauce to the floor.

"Homo Sapiens has been out evolved," she snapped, stirring rice, "Homo Superior is the result, and I represent that stage of the circle."

"Not as long as we can help it. Dreyka will monitor your performance. He has the means to remote shut you down the moment you try anything that isn't in the script."

She raised an eyebrow.

"Interesting."

"Don't play dumb. That's something else I dislike about you. You know everything in advance. Between you and your remote link up to the mainframe, there isn't anything you don't know about the Syndicate."

"Perhaps," she purred sweetly, "But perhaps not."

He took another slug of Beer.

"Beats me why you bother talking like this. Did they do something to you whilst you were in hibernation? I've never known you to talk this much."

"Just being friendly, that's all."

"You! Friendly! Never heard that one before, "he snorted, reaching for his bottle again.

"Also there's the little matter that this time I don't know quite everything I would like."

A pause. The bottle hung motionless at his lips, a sixth sense bristling - there was something not right, something she knew that he didn't - or was it so?

"Go on."

"It's only worth talking to find out information you don't already know. There's a lock on certain areas of the mainframe that some-one's put in to stop me from remote accessing a whole bunch of files to do with me. Whoever put the codes in was good - I can't break them remotely, so I thought I'd get the information out of you."

She raised a bottle to her lips, smiling.

"Thankyou. It's been most informative in its own little way."

A pang of fear. Knowledge that the machine had had an agenda, and had won.

"You really didn't know?" he ventured, hope fast fading.

"No."

Another moment to worry in as he watched her eat. Questions formed in his mind, unsure of whether to be said.

"So, how much did I tell you that you didn't know?"

Frantically he tried to recall the wording of the conversation.

"Enough."

Another slug of Beer. The thought crossed his mind that maybe she was bluffing. But for what reason he did not know. He hated the machines.

"Nothing else to say?"

"No."

She stopped chewing for a moment, as if thinking perhaps he deserved at least some explanation, however minor.

"There is nothing left that I wish to find out. Therefore I feel little need to say more. You said yourself you do not like me or any of my kind, and frankly I understand why. If I had been given the choice, I would never have wished to have become one. But that choice was never offered, and it is not possible to regress back to the way I was before. So I must continue. Be assured the feeling you have towards me is reciprocated by me about you."

With that she returned to the remnants of her meal, the conversation at an implied end.

He chose not to pursue matters further, returning to the food, though it had lost all appeal and he found himself merely picking at the food, the power of the organic machine that sat alongside making him feel uneasy.

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