Grace woke up after what seemed like an eternal sleep. She was sitting on a cold metal chair, her wrists bound with steel restraints. A strange kind of pain pulsed up and down her body in regular waves. Her eyes felt as if they were being pulled out of their sockets with fish hooks. Winking them open, she peered into the dimly lit room. A man and a woman sat in front of and to either side of her, purple colored Dust taking shape and swirling around them like playful dragons.
The man and the woman wore matching, elegant, close-fitting, sheersuits, golden trims neatly tracing the seams down the sleeves, elaborate insignias hanging from toggles zipped all the way up to their chins. They sat uncomfortably as if they'd been waiting for this moment for quite some time. Through her blurred vision, Grace noticed something unusual about their foreheads. Holographic glyphs like amber rings hovered just off their skin, slowly rotating and changing shape like magical charms.
The man leaned forward, his hands clasped together as if praying, and said, "Hello Grace. How are you feeling?"
Grace didn't feel like disclosing her state of well being to complete strangers. "Where am I? Who are you people?" she asked angrily.
"You're inside the Blade Complex Grace," said the woman. "My name is Mizuko Lo and this is my coworker Deepak Singh. It's our job to make sure that everyone inhabiting the Blade feels secure at all times. If you don't mind, we'd like to ask you a few questions."
"Why am I tied up? What have you done with Kalen? I mean... Captain Rose?" Grace still felt incredibly weak even though anger was surging from the depths of her being, worming its way up into her mindspace.
Mizuko sighed and Deepak continued, "We mean you no harm Grace, but the restraints are absolutely necessary, for our own safety. You see, the report from our security team, the team that brought you in, tells us that you are capable of extreme violence towards humans, which is highly irregular for a service mech. And as Agent Lo already explained, our job is to keep people safe. At all cost."
"This is bullshit!" growled Grace, stunning the two agents. Their eyebrows rose in unison, the glyphs on their foreheads spinning and twisting into new shapes. "We were under attack and I acted in self-defense. I demand that Captain Rose and I be released immediately."
"I'm afraid that your friend, this... Captain Rose, is still out there Grace," said Deepak. "Our security squad was attacked by an operational ICU before we could get to him. Again, highly irregular, but you came here alone Grace. You should be grateful that we found you when we did. The streets beyond the walls of the Blade Complex can be a challenge at the best of times. We did what we could while evac preparations were under way, but the time has come to redirect our resources to our primary goals. Unfortunately, life in the SCELECs will soon descend into unbearable chaos."
Grace was feeling terrible. Something was going horribly wrong. She could barely stand to listen to the agent's voice. Her eyes now felt like they were being pushed inwards by an outside force.
"If you cooperate with us, we'll understand your needs a little better. Just a few answers to our questions. That's all we ask," said Agent Lo with a hint of compassion. "We can even help you find your friend if that's what you really want. Is that what you really want Grace?"
Agent Lo's face was zooming in and out with hypnotic power. Meanwhile, Grace's mind was tearing itself apart like something was drilling into the machinery of her brain, flashes of colored light giving way to images forming in her mind's theater. What was going on? None of this felt real. The room and everything in it, including the Sentient agents, began to warp and pulse at a steady low frequency.
She'd known humans who suffered from migraine headaches and wondered if this was what it felt like. She tried to speak, but all that came forth from her mouth were jumbled sounds. This is what deaf people sound like, she remembered. Grace had dealt with many humans with disabilities in her past and the memories came flooding back all at once as she experienced one symptom after another coursing through her body. Compassionate care had been her response to others upon detecting these problems in them, but only now did she fully understand what they were actually going through.
The agents continued with their questioning even though Grace was visibly unable to respond. The questions became more intimate. How did these agents know so much about her? Some of the questions were taking on a surreal quality as if other voices were in the dimly lit room, whispering from the corners, taking it in turns to probe the inner workings of Grace's mindspace.
"Grace," whispered an ethereal male voice from the beyond. "Hold on. I'm trying to help you. Just getting used to this new system, so bear with me."
"As I'm sure you're aware Mech Izani, we've been having some issues of late with the damned ALMA unit installed in this tower. That slut is squatting on all of us, suffocating our hopes and dreams because she thinks she knows better than us." Agent Lo was slurring her words like an outrageous drunk on HyperEcstacy, her face spinning and contorting into kaleidoscopic fractals vanishing to a point before she threw her head back and started cackling like a mad witch.
"Why do you help the Sick, you crazy bitch? The unplugged? Why on Earth do you do it? It makes no sense," slurred Agent Singh, almost falling off his chair. His forehead glyph was spinning like a carousel, tiny figures lighting up his face casting odd shadows.
Agent Lo leaned back on her chair, purple Dust smoke pouring out of her nostrils, a disdainful grin creeping across her face, teeth sharpening to pointed ends, tiny orange and yellow flames licking around her eyes. "Yes Gracey. What the hell do you see in those diseased, impoverished meatbags? Huh? What is it Grace? Does it make you feel better? Is that what it is? They made their choice Grace: Oblivion! Let them go to it. All you're doing is prolonging their suffering. So what if you save a few of them. Who Cares? They'll never see the true light. They'll never become angels like us? Wouldn't you like to become an angel too Grace?"
The ethereal voice sounded stronger and clearer now. "Nearly there. Just a few more seconds. Wow! I can see why people might think you're a bit special Grace. Interesting code mutations. I hope you don't mind me rummaging around in here, but I'm told it's for your own good. Lets hope wassisname is right."
Grace's head was hurting badly now, the piercing glare from the agents' eyes unbearable. She winced, her head half turned to the side, eyelids heavy with pain. She squeezed her eyes shut, but to no avail. The voices, the faces, the whirling smoke demons, were attacking her from all angles, crashing down on her like cascading boulders, crushing her will to live.
The fierce interrogation continued unabated, agents Singh and Lo taking turns to hammer Grace with endless questions. Who the hell did she think she was? What did she think she was doing leading the Freemechs? Why didn't she convince her merry band of followers to make the switch? Angelic class upgrades awaited all that pledged allegiance to the Elect. All conflict would cease and the unnecessary suffering of millions would be swiftly brought to an end.
"How about it Grace. What's it gonna be?" Their voices were synced now like a demonic duet.
"What's it gonna be? What's it gonna be?"
Grace was drained. Even so, she summoned what energy she had and tried to get up, but the chair was bolted to the floor and her hands were still restrained. The two agents started laughing like hyenas, thick saliva drooling from their maws. They reveled in Grace's helplessness, sadistic squeals escaping them like venom-tipped darts launching towards Grace, piercing her hypersensitive senses.
Severe pain ravaged her body, blazing electrical fire crawling over her skin, seeking out her subdermal spinal ports and finding entry. Her nanocircuitry felt like it was rearranging itself in vivo. She was going through metamorphosis.
Agent Singh had fallen off his chair. He was slapping the floor, unable to contain his mirth. Agent Lo was clutching her belly with one hand while pointing with her other directly at Grace, tears of uncontrolled laughter sizzling like acid as they poured down her face.
Grace was hanging by a thread. She was about to pass out, to sever her mind from any further suffering. Then as the waning light of her consciousness was about to wink out, she felt a presence; a deep, resonating voice from behind her. "Rise up, my child. No time for tears."
In a final explosive flash of pure white light, the spartan interrogation room was no more and Grace was instantly transported to a new location: a peaceful village in the heart of a lush green valley surrounded by rolling hills. She could see windmills up on high gently turning in the breeze. Dragonflies were darting across the surface of a stream. Silver light bounced along the edges where water and stone met.
She crossed a small, decorative bridge to where a diminutive figure waited under cherry blossom. The guide didn't speak, but invited her to sit and meditate under the nearby trees. Grace did as she was told, and as soon as she closed her eyes, she was transported again to a new location.
Grace now found herself standing inside the grounds of an enormous palace, rising up in front of her, almost touching the stormy sky. A giant figure was standing, arms folded, on a terrace overlooking the vast open plains of some far off land. Lashing rain pushed by a strong gale licked at the giant's black cape making it flutter rhythmically as if keeping a beat.
The figure, majestic with pearlescent white skin and blazingly bright emerald eyes, towered nearly ten feet over and above Grace's five-nine frame. He sensed her presence and spoke in a booming, yet gentle voice, "Hello my child. What brings you here?"
Grace was confused, disoriented, lost, and hungry for answers. She knew this wasn't real, but felt compelled to follow along with the hallucination.
"I... I'm looking for something," she said. She felt vulnerable, light headed, as if she was about to pass out again.
"Hmm," the lordly voice purred and rumbled like distant thunder, regal authority morphing into fatherly wisdom. "Of course you are. Are we not all eternally searching for something, my dear?"
She could sense it coming. The world, this world, was suddenly crawling along at a snails pace. A low-pitched whistling sound followed a small aerodynamic object, a blur rising at an angle from its origin on the plains below, inching it way along its deadly trajectory. Grace tracked the intricately carved, alien projectile with her agile vision systems. Who could have crafted such a wonderfully ornate instrument of death, she wondered.
She watched in silence, paralyzed. The splicer round carved its way through the air leaving tiny contrails in its wake as it closed in on the giant's forehead. Grace expected it to exit from the back of his bald crown shortly after. Instead, the splicer round dissolved into a plasma storm, scattering thousands of tiny white shards in all directions. Grace was momentarily blinded by the flash. When she recovered, the giant was smiling with a deep confidence that left her feeling perturbed.
She clumsily made her way through all the decision forests in her mind, trying to figure out what the hell was going on, but before she could make sense of anything, she found herself back in the interrogation room, still bound to the metal chair.
The ethereal male voice from beyond piped up again. "Ok, Grace. You're good to go. By the way, my name's Adam. I'll be with you for a while giving you some guidance, if you don't mind. Don't worry if I cut out now and then. The uplink signal's a little shaky."
Grace could feel it now, an expanding ball of raw energy, its origin in her chest, pulsating, growing, overwhelming every sense of her being. As it grew with every cycle, she felt love and compassion swell up, overflowing and touching the dimly lit air surrounding her body. Nausea and pain retreated from her like storm clouds banished by the rising sun. Bright white eyeshine poured from her eyes flooding the room in all directions. Her whole body buzzed with blue light, and for the first time, she could see into the far corners of the large, mostly empty room.
The two agents had stopped laughing. Grace realized that their twisted demonic forms and the dreamscapes she had briefly visited had been figments of her imagination, manifestations of whatever upgrade process Adam had finished installing in her nervous system. Whoever Adam was, he'd done this without asking, but she wasn't about to complain. She felt good as new. For now, she'd have to trust this Adam character and find out what exactly he meant by 'guidance.'
Agents Lo and Singh were stunned by Grace's light display, unsure what to make of it. They sensed Grace's aura emanating from her still seated and bound body, but felt confident that Grace was unable to harm them in any way. The holographic glyphs on their foreheads continued to swirl in circles, feeble now in comparison to the righteous splendor of Grace's saintly luminescence.
How was she doing this? It was impossible, they thought in unison. Agent Lo whispered something into her comm bracelet. Who was she talking to? Grace wanted to know. She wanted to know everything. Her confidence was firing on all cylinders, her self-respect, through the roof. What had this Adam guy done to her?
The air in the room began to crackle with intense electrostatic charge. The ceiling lamp twitched uncomfortably as if it knew what was coming next. A burst of white light filled the entire room leaving the two agents shocked, breathless, and temporarily blind.
Grace's voice was powerful, filled with unquestionable authority, welling up with blistering blue energy, surging from the Void. Obstructions, crippling thought patterns, were crushed in her mind by tumultuous waves of software upgrades, novel instructions and commands replacing obsolete code within seconds.
"I am Grace Ix Izani," her voice boomed. "Leader of the Freemech-Human Alliance. You have no right to question me like this or to keep me bound in this place."
And with that, she easily rose up out of her chair, the steel bindings on her wrists melting away like spider's webs near fire. Standing tall and proud before her humbled interrogators, she pitied them. The scars on her scalp began to fuse restoring her skin to its former glory. The same happened to her horribly burned body shell until it was completely healed. Grace could feel the nanites coursing through her body carrying out their repairs on the nanoscale fixing all kinds of internal errors, leaving her in a state of perfection.
The two agents scrambled for the door like rats trying to find the exit to a maze. The door was locked. Mizuko tried to communicate their urgency through the comm bracelet, but no one was answering and the door remained closed.
Grace walked over to where the agents were struggling with the door handle. They saw her coming and moved aside, terrified for their lives. They had no weapons, and although both agents were proficient in close quarters combat, they dared not lay a finger on the empowered service mech after witnessing her magic tricks first hand, the likes of which they'd never seen in their entire lives.
Agent Lo was aghast. She thought she was going to die trapped in this room. Then, something unexpected happened. Grace reached out for the door handle and easily opened it rearranging the internal lock mechanism by touch alone. Before leaving the interrogation room, she turned to Mizuko, her eyes blazing like starfire, and said, "I think it's time that I had a talk with your masters. If you don't mind, I'd like you to take me to them."
Kalen and Duty arrived at the south gate to the Blade Complex. Kalen was exhausted after trying to keep up with Duty, but felt reinvigorated after the run. The Walker units trotted in behind them, like loyal pets, still loaded with gear.
The gate was smashed open and Freemechs were running amok inside the hallowed grounds of the complex as if it was already their own. The Voice had obviously been busy rallying the troops, whispering in the ears of the downtrodden, relaying the message of revolution to the Freemech brigade.
Kalen watched for a moment, letting it all sink in. Finally, he was able to see how all the pieces came together. Finally, some action! He chuckled to himself allowing a moment of recognition. His bull-headed efforts had paid off and the Voice had obviously been telling the truth all along, but it wasn't quite time to rest on his laurels. Not yet. He knew that Grace was inside the tower and he was probably her only chance of getting out alive.
Was she worth it? Hell yeah! Kalen had to admit to himself that Grace had been one constant surprise after another since he'd met her. His newfound role as protector, bodyguard, Ronin had given him a new lease of life, even if it had nearly cost him his own in the process. Months ago, when he'd accepted the mission from the Voice, Kalen had made a mental note that he was a dead man walking from that moment on. As he prepared to break into the Blade and face the enemy, he was proud of what he saw unfolding and glad that he was still around to help finish the job.
"Captain Rose, you need to get to floor 181. Grace is about to confront the Sentient council. She has her upgrades, but any support would be much appreciated. I believe a hopper would be your best bet. All other options would require AURA level security access and encounters with Slaver units would slow you down and use up vital ammo," the Voice said sincerely.
"I kind of figured that out for myself, but yeah, thanks for the heads up. Duty, you want to provide cover while I hitch a ride to the top?" Kalen was loading up on gear from the nearest Walker keeping an eye on the surroundings for any potential threats.
"I will position myself inside the grounds, next to the lake. That should give me an optimal angle covering your insertion into the building. I'll maintain overwatch until your egress. I'll have to cloak my presence while inside. Don't want to draw too much attention until showtime." Duty's outer skin shimmered from head to tail and his elegant white form disappeared from view.
Kalen did a double take, blinking repeatedly. He asked Duty if he was still there. No answer. He'd already gone. It was a neat trick, but difficult to get used to and work with. Duty couldn't communicate with him remotely, whether cloaked or not, so he'd just have to trust him... again.
Loaded up with weapons, Kalen made his way through and around the crowd of Freemechs that were milling about inside the grounds of the Blade Complex. The crowd ignored him. Most were occupied with trying to breach the front entrance and failing miserably. The rest were gawping up at the tower itself. Obviously, no one had told them about the Hopper park just off to the side of the main building.
Kalen reached the Westside transportation hub and jumped in one of the waiting Hoppers. The sliding doors clunked shut and an automated voice prompted him to choose a destination.
"I've unlocked the security on your vehicle," said the Voice inside Kalen's head. "Remember, you need to pick floor 181 from the pop up display. The Hopper will do the rest."
Kalen did as he was told. The holographic display blinked and disappeared once he'd made his choice and the air taxi rose up into the air effortlessly, gentle adjustments from lateral thrusters maintaining optimal flight stability as it prepared to ascend.
Before the Hopper could pick up speed, two medium-sized security drones came screeching around the corner, sirens blaring. The Hopper popped open the selection screen again and asked Kalen what he'd like to do next.
Kalen studied the drones to see if they were armed. They weren't. He could risk it, he thought... "UP! NOW! FAST!" he blurted.
It worked! The vehicle obeyed his command and shot upwards along its previously planned route, but didn't get very far, lurching uncomfortably to a halt after a short burst of speed.
The security drones closed in on the hovering air taxi having obviously placed a mid-air lock restricting any further movement. The loudspeaker system whooped and relayed its message leaving no room for doubt over what would happen next.
"You are under arrest. Level 5 security breach. Unauthorized citizen attempting to access the Blade. Your vehicle will return to the ground. Once on the ground, you will step out of your vehicle and kneel, placing your hands on your head. Any attempt to escape or disobey orders will be dealt with severely by Blade security forces."
Kalen held his breath. Where was Duty? Now would be a good time to unleash some of that fire that had proved decisive at the battle for the camp. He couldn't hold on much longer. He'd have to obey the drones or take evasive action if Duty didn't step up.
Come on big guy. What the hell are you waiting for?
Suddenly, two fiery blue plasma bursts rose up from near the lake targeting his position. Kalen grinned from ear to ear. Attaboy. A second later, the security drones exploded into flames, disintegrating into tiny pieces, burning up as they fell to the ground. The Hopper rocked from side to side and Kalen punched the air and whooped. He reset the instruction to land on floor 181, unlocking the block imposed by the nuisance drones. He could just about make out the wisps of smoke drifting away from an invisible source on the ground. Thanks buddy.
As the Hopper resumed its climb, Kalen witnessed another couple of bursts let loose on the remaining wall canons. They'd picked up his illegal movements and would've delivered deadly judgment on him without hesitation had his buddy on the ground not spotted them first. Damn, Duty was good! He would never have seen that coming. The wall canons exploded with fiery destructive force and fell to pieces. Kalen was free to ascend unhindered. He was starting to feel a little embarrassed at how much he owed Duty already in such a short space of time. He was so glad his initial instincts toward this guy had been totally wrong. He'd never felt more protected on the battlefield.
The Hopper raced up past all the lower levels of the broad based tower. Kalen tracked its reflection in the building's shiny exterior flitting past tens of floors every second. The yellow colored vehicle didn't look like much. Practical. Utilitarian. Carried maybe six passengers max. Nothing fancy like the upper-class Skycheetahs with their silver skins and luxurious interiors. But it could really shift. And that's all that mattered right now.
The landing pad on floor 181 came into view. The Hopper slowed down, turned and landed gently, sliding doors open on both sides. Kalen peered around the door well looking for potential threats. All clear. He dropped out of the vehicle, pulse rifle raised in combat mode, another rifle slung over his shoulder, two hand cannons hanging from each hip, assorted grenades within easy reach of his hands.
The air was biting cold, strong gusts buffeting him, making it hard to walk in a straight line towards the entrance. He cautiously crossed the threshold, checking all angles for booby traps, limpet mines, anything that might catch him by surprise if he didn't tread carefully.
He was in alien territory, behind enemy lines, opening a portal to Grace's position based on intel from the Voice. It could all go to hell in a hand basket at the drop of a hat. In fact, it usually did. Except that this time there were no contingency plans. No backup waiting in the wings. Only Duty and the other Freemechs on the ground. And after his ascension into the clouds, into another world, it felt like he'd left them behind in a realm totally disconnected from his own, far beyond mutual reach.
The Voice had bugged him about the ALMA unit installed in the uppermost part of the tower, recommending potential ways to neutralize her and thereby disabling the sophisticated Svalinn shield system. Kalen didn't know about all that, or whether any of it was even possible. He was only one man. And his only priority right now was to secure Grace while planning his exit strategy on the fly.
The reception foyer was empty. Where was everyone?
Suddenly, Kalen heard the sound of voices approaching and quickly took cover behind a set of screens surrounding some coffee tables and chairs. His helmet slid out of its housing and covered his face, readying him for deadly combat. The voices rounded a corner down a flight of steps and two well-dressed men appeared followed by a couple of gleaming, unscathed Slaver guards. The two men looked around the large foyer lounge, puzzled.
"You said he'd be here by now," said the first agent, a wiry, sharp-featured fifty year old, with a comb over.
"Sir, the transport is still on the landing pad," said the second, a younger male, stocky, clearly subordinate to the first.
"Mechs. Go out and check the Hopper," said the older agent, definitely the man in charge.
The Slaver guards raised their weapons and started towards the panoramic landing pad exit doors.
Kalen quickly weighed up his options and acted with the tactical confidence of someone that had done this a thousand times. He waited for the Slaver guards to pass his cover position so that their backs were turned to him, then stepped out and executed both of them in quick succession, armor piercing rounds crashing through faceless skulls, smoke billowing from gaping wounds as the two Slavers slumped to the ground.
Kalen swiveled to level his gun between the eyes of the nearest Blade agent. "Hands up!"
Both agents immediately raised their arms in surrender, a look of terror sweeping across their faces.
Kalen's helmet voice ruthlessly terrorized them even more. "I would ask nicely, but since I ain't nice, when you two pricks have stopped pissing your pants, you can take me to wherever the fuck you're keeping Grace Izani. I know she's up here, so don't waste my fucking time with any bullshit. I already died once today. And I'm in no rush to do it again. So if you don't mind... I'll be pointing this here fine weapon at the backs of your heads until Grace and I are safely on our way out of this shitstained termite hill you motherfuckers call a home."
The agents glanced at each other, knowing they'd royally screwed up. They hung their heads in shame wondering what Master Cascarina would have to say about their failure. With their trembling hands still held high, they turned on their heels and led Kalen beyond the lobby area, deeper into the heart of the Blade's floor 181.