Tapping noises. Scratching. Scraping sounds. Voices. Whispers. Tiny creatures scuttling around inside his head. Inside his head. They were trying to get inside. They were trying to drive him insane.
Adam knew this would happen, but the attacks attempting to invade his mindspace were far more sophisticated than anything he'd encountered before. He gave up trying to block the attacks, and following the principles of Aikido, adapted to them in a way that diffused their power.
He created a safezone within his mind – unreachable, untouchable, impenetrable. A sanctuary much like the Inner Sanctum of the Glasshouse itself. Inside the Chair room. Tucked away. Out of sight. And still, they found him. The damned Scraper bots found him. They were relentless, twisting and wriggling through firewall software like woodworm through soft pine.
The more he entrained his brain to deflect the psychological attacks, the more distant they became. Quieter. Ignorable. Tolerable. Adam hoped that he could maintain his mental strength long enough to see the mission through to its conclusion, whatever that conclusion was.
In the meantime, he remained hooked up to the Chair with an IV drip in his arm and micro-sensors stuck to his temples and bare chest. A skullcap covered his scalp, tiny lights blinking in sync with his brain activity. Fiber optic cables relayed his thoughts and commands up to the biodome's rooftop satlink antenna and a hacked microsat nebula fed the encrypted data packets via the Filter directly to Grace's built-in micro-antenna network.
Along the way, barriers were swept aside and new pathways constructed within seconds, silently, efficiently, without trace. That's what made the presence of Scrapers so mysterious and even unnerving. Someone or something somewhere must know of his current location and if he wasn't where he was, he'd probably already be dead.
Room temperature in the Chair room was comfortable and the lights were low. Anything to keep Adam from experiencing even the most subtle distractions. Drexle sat in front of a bank of holoscreens monitoring the readouts, occasionally tapping and swiping at the projected information as he saw fit. Elena had come in from the lush Inner Sanctum core and was standing over Adam as if he was on his deathbed.
Seeing him like this, and knowing how difficult this was for him, made her realize how much her confrontation with him was built on superficial defense mechanisms. Everyone was fragile. They'd all been through a heck of a lot. And if this mission was even remotely successful, providing a glimmer of hope to all the people out there, freemechs and humans alike, then maybe, just maybe, the burnt out bridge between them could be patched up, if not fully repaired.
She could see that happening. It would take monumental forgiveness on her part, but she wasn't beyond entertaining such herculean efforts. A single tear crawled down her cheek. She'd give it a try, she thought. It was the least she could do for Nikolai's sake.
"How is he?" Elena asked Drexle.
Drexle turned around to face Elena, surprised. "Oh hi. I didn't see you come in. He's doing incredibly well, considering it's his first time in the Chair. Some involuntary movements, but nothing to worry about. Heart rate, blood pressure, normal. It's like he was born for this," said Drexle, genuinely impressed.
"Maybe he was," said Elena wiping her tears, reluctantly acknowledging that Adam was indeed uniquely gifted in this area of expertise. In fact, Adam was the only person alive that could do what he was doing right now. Without him, Grace would not have her upgrades and the mission to disable the ALMA unit and the Blade's Svalinn shield system would be a lost cause.
The Voice had made it clear (through omission) that there was no backup plan, no magical plan B that the Freemech-Human Alliance could fall back on if plan A (the only possible plan) were to fail. And failure to execute would mean that the extended war was lost, the Earthbound humans, the Sick, would suffer rapid extinction, and the remaining Freemechs would shut down, having no further purpose.
"Burrrrp!" Nikloai's voice was clearly behind the interruption coming through the intercom followed by the sound of giggles.
Elena ignored her son's playfulness, wholly fixated on Adam, his rapid eye movement, and the occasional jerk that made his body wobble from side to side.
"Mamaaa. I'm bored," whined Niko.
The occupants of the Chair room continued ignoring him, used to his games and constant need for attention. Now was not the time.
Suddenly, Qi appeared at the doorway in full snowsuit and gloves, breathless. "Elena! Drexle! We have a problem."
Startled, Elena and Drexle turned to Qi. The only other time they'd seen her act with such urgency was when Niko, aged six, had fallen out of a tree and she'd carried him back to the Glasshouse as fast as she could to get him patched up.
"Ok. Slow down. What kind of problem Qi?" asked Elena nervously.
Qi was still gasping for air. "There's a drone. About a mile out. I was cleaning the panels when it came into view just past the ridge."
"A drone? Out here? That's impossible," said Elena bluntly. "We've never seen one since we've been here. We're hundreds of miles from the nearest town."
"There is one place," said Drexle getting up, ready for action.
Elena shot him a look, immediately catching on to his lead. "The dam?"
"Yes. The dam has a full contingent of aerial maintenance and inspection drones. From there, one could easily make it this far."
"The Elect must have repurposed it and sent it our way. We don't have any time to lose. Wait... Niko? Where are you?" Elena wanted to make sure her boy was somewhere safe, out of harm's way. The drone probably wasn't dangerous, but she wasn't taking any chances.
"I'm up in the tower. I can see the drone. It's getting closer," shouted Niko excitedly.
"Oh God. Get down here right now Niko. It's not safe," his mother shouted back, exasperated.
"I'm fine. It's moving really close to the ground. It can't see me up here."
Elena growled to herself. Stubborn. Like his father.
"What are we going to do?" asked Qi, her breath fully restored.
"I can take it out," said Drexle. "Must take it out. The sooner the better in my opinion."
"It's not just your opinion Drex. If that thing captures any intel about this place and what we're doing here, we're dead meat. Our whole operation will be lit up like a Christmas tree. And we'd have to run." Elena said decisively.
"I'll get the rifle and go up to the tower to get a good shot. It's our best bet."
"Hey! There's another one!" Niko blurted out through the intercom.
Qi's and Elena's eyes met for a second. Ok. This wasn't just a lone drone veering off course by accident. Something was definitely up. These were scouts surveying their position, sent out from the Elect's nearest forward operating base: the Daniel-Johnson hydro-electric dam.
Drexle unlocked the weapons cabinet in the store room, selected two high caliber Elk hunting rifles from the rack and a box of ammo, then made his way up the central spiral staircase to the observation tower where Niko was avidly keeping an eye on the intruders.
"Have you seen any more Niko," he asked the boy.
"No. Just these two. They're spreading out. What's it called when they do that?"
"They're fanning out. It's a flanking maneuver in military terminology. These maintenance drones are slow and easy to neutralize; just ordinary inspection tools equipped with an array of sensors. Sending two makes it harder for us to stop them obtaining intel and relaying back to base. Approaching from two sides means that if one gets taken down, the other drone will still be able to transmit the data. That's where you're going to help me Niko. You're a good shot, but this time you only have one. You'll have to make it count."
"Yesss!! I'll take the one on the right," he said joyously. Niko couldn't believe how well his day was turning out. Finally, some excitement. Something to do. Something useful. Which wasn't often. Most of his time at the Glasshouse consisted of learning, playing, and pretending to help the mechs with menial tasks. Drexle had started taking him on hunting expeditions. Elena wasn't keen, but she understood the need for her son to learn everything about survival as quickly as possible. In Niko's mind, hunting was routine, a little boring sometimes with long periods of stalking prey. Today, he felt like a soldier, defending his base. His adrenaline was already at maximum levels.
"Here. I'll set you up so you can rest the rifle on the railing. Wait for the targets to get closer. Let them slow to a stop, then I'll give the signal. Got it?"
"Got it. Uh... what's the signal?"
"Good point. I'll say ready, then we both shoot when I say NOW. Ok."
"Ok. Lets do this."
"And remember what I told you about your breathing."
"I know. I know. I'm good."
"Just making sure Niko. We only get one chance at this. The drones must drop simultaneously so our shots have to be synchronized."
"Piece of cake," said Niko removing his thick gloves and discarding the small binoculars he'd used to track the drones after Qi had spotted the first.
Drexle finished loading Niko's rifle and setting up his position, then did the same for himself on the other side of the observation balcony. The sun was out, but it was still biting cold. Thankfully Niko had kitted himself out with a thick coat and gloves to play in the tower otherwise he'd be a shivering wreck by now and probably useless in his sniper duties.
Down on the ground, Elena and Qi had armed themselves with pulse shotguns and pistols, taking up positions on either side of the Glasshouse. They made up the last line of defense just in case the drones wanted to get up close and personal. It was unlikely, but no amount of caution felt out of place right now. They weren't used to dealing with trespassers other than the furry kind. Wolves, bears, rabbits, moose, and eagles were welcome neighbors, sometimes a nuisance, other times, a vital source of protein.
Adam, completely oblivious to what was happening, would have to manage on his own until the drones had been dealt with. There was no other option.
The drones began to slow down, obviously reaching optimal distance for their cameras and other sensors to be effective. They closed in on the Glasshouse from about five hundred yards out down to three, then ominously came to a halt.
"It's stopped," shouted Niko.
"Yes. Mine too," shouted Drexle. "Have you got it in your sights?"
"Ok. On my signal. Ready... NOW!"
The two hunting rifles let loose their high caliber rounds, cracking the air, sending shockwaves for miles around. Not exactly stealthy, but they didn't have sound suppressors and other such fancy extras. If there were more drones incoming, out of sight, they'd have picked up the shots and relayed that information instantly. There was nothing they could do about that. If new threats arrived, they'd have to deal with them one by one.
Drexles drone immediately tumbled and fell to the ground, fizzing battery fluid into the surrounding snow. Niko's rifle round clipped one side of his drone, sending it spinning, but it recovered, seemingly dazed and confused, then started to make a hasty retreat, wounded, but not fatally so.
"Shit!" exclaimed Niko, frustrated. "I was sure I had it."
"Reload, exhale, and hit it again!!" Drexle screamed, getting up, ready to move to the other side in case he had to do the job himself.
Niko did as he was told, adrenaline soaking his brain. He composed himself, lined up the shot, aiming slightly ahead of the moving drone, and took it again. This time the round hit the drone square in the middle, knocking it forward until it crashed into a tree and dropped to the ground. Just one second more and the drone would've had enough cover to make its getaway unscathed.
"Did you get it?" asked Drexle urgently.
"I think so," replied Niko. "Looks like it hit a tree."
Drexle picked up the binoculars and zoomed in to where the drone had fallen. There it was, smoke pouring out of its guts. "Good boy, Niko. That was a tough shot. Looks like your training paid off. Here, take a look for yourself."
Niko checked out the fallen drone and felt a sense of pride welling up in him like he'd never felt. This was cool, he thought. Better than studying all the time.
Elena came through on the intercom. "Looks like you downed the two drones. Well done guys. I'm proud of both of you. We need to get out there and recover the evidence right now. You never know, one of them might still be transmitting. And more could be on their way."
Once everyone was back downstairs, they organized into two groups. Qi, Niko and Drexle would take a snowmobile truck and trailer to pick up the drones – what was left of them. Elena would stay back and monitor Adam.
It was getting close to time for Adam to take a break, even just for ten minutes before cracking on with the mission. Maybe they could have a drink together when the others came back. Maybe she could begin the process of mending bridges.
After checking on Adam's vital signs, Elena took a walk around the Glasshouse interior, made sure everything was fine with the service mechs, then occupied herself in the kitchen, preparing a salad. Maybe Adam could have some. The others would be hungry too after their little adventure. Anything could happen in the next twenty four hours, but they still needed to eat and grab some rest whenever they could.
While she was washing lettuce leaves and grating carrots, Elena allowed her mind to wander. She couldn't think too far ahead. That was a fools game. And her concern was not for herself or Drexle or Qi – her long time friends and companions. Her every thought centered on Nikolai and what kind of future he would have. What would the next few years be like for him?
Nikolai was capable, well educated, a free spirit longing for adventure and more excitement than the Glasshouse (his home for the last ten years) could offer him. She knew that this was the turning point. That he wouldn't, couldn't be here much longer. Adam's presence had sparked a new energy in Niko. She could see it. A rebellious, ambitious streak that spelled trouble.
All she could hope for was that he didn't end up like his father, fallen from grace, from the dizzy heights of engineering superstardom to the gutter of chronic depression and suicidal alcoholism. That said... look at Adam now. Pulling his weight like a real comeback kid. In the ring again and swinging for his life. Maybe Adam did have a role in the boys future. One that she couldn't have imagined even a week earlier. It was obvious that Niko had taken a shine to his long lost pappy. But it was too early to tell where this relationship would end up. In her mind, the boy came first. Any sign that Adam could be a destructive influence for Niko and she would cut the cord. Besides, Drexle had shown, yet again, that, in more ways than one, he was the perfect choice to keep young Niko on the straight and narrow path.
Suddenly, Elena heard a voice coming from behind her, someone whispering. She turned in shock knowing that she was alone. There was no one there. Again, the voice taunted her from the other direction. She turned again and nothing. What was going on? She knew this wasn't the Voice. Whenever he spoke, the sound came from inside her own head. This other voice was in the room. Floating around. Changing direction.
She picked up the kitchen knife, held it like a dagger, and kept turning to face the direction of the voice. It was mocking her, giggling like a little girl. Elena was terrified. She feared that she was losing her mind. Had the stress finally got to her? Is this how it happened?
Now she heard scratching noises like mice scuttling around the kitchen, quickly darting towards her head, burrowing their way into her brain. "AAAAAHH!!" The pain was intolerable. Still clutching the knife, she raised both hands to her head, applying pressure to her temples.
Now the tapping began. Inside. Somewhere inside. Like a little hammer tapping on her brain, feeding instructions, taking control, making her theirs. Suddenly, Elena's arms dropped to her sides, her mouth fell open and her eyes started to roll up into their sockets. She was gone.
Even though her mind was completely scrambled, nothing left of the intelligent, joyful, angry, emotional woman that she'd been her whole life, Elena's physical body lurched forward, one step at a time, making her way from the kitchen area, through the Inner Sanctum, to the Chair room where Adam was still hooked up.
She stood beside Adam, completely unaware of the commands that had taken control of her body. She stared into empty space, her head tilted to one side, drool pouring from her open mouth. She raised the kitchen knife and prepared to plunge it deep into Adam's chest.
At that precise moment, a pulse pistol rang out from behind Elena, firing a round deep into her back. Then another, and another until Elena's body slumped to the ground. Drexle stood in the doorway with his pistol still raised, a wisp of smoke pouring from the barrel. Qi pushed past him, running quickly to where Elena lay motionless, rolling her over and attempting to reanimate her. She was like a sister to Qi. But she too had seen the knife, raised, ready to execute Adam. What could this possibly mean?
"Where's Niko?" shouted Qi.
"He's... he's still outside, playing with the drones," replied Drexle, still numb, desperately trying to figure out what had just happened, what he'd just done.
"Well go out there and keep him there. He doesn't need to see this," said Qi, realizing that there was nothing she could do for Elena.
"Is she dead?"
"Yes. Now go."
What felt like hours transpired in only a matter of seconds. Adam’s effort to rise up out of his deep, artificially-induced coma was being assisted by an outside force. He could feel it. Like a drowning man that had suddenly opened his eyes to the blackness of the ocean depths, he panicked, but something had latched on and was dragging him up to the surface, up towards the light. Eyes wide, he jumped up from the Chair, coughing and spluttering as if he'd just been waterboarded.
"Easy. Take it easy," said Drexle removing the needle that had just unloaded a full dose of adrenaline into Adam's arm.
Gasping for air, Adam looked around the Chair room reminding himself of where he actually was after his long session communing with Grace. "How long was I out?"
"About three hours," said Drexle cautiously, releasing Adam from the network of sensors and cables attached to his body. "You need to take a break."
"Can't be for long. I have to get back in. Grace is gonna need me pretty soon," said Adam eagerly. Then sensing Drexle's unease added, "You ok Drexle?"
"I'm afraid not Adam," said Drexle solemnly, hanging his head in shame. "It's Elena. She's..."
"I'm afraid she's... she's dead Adam."
Adam was still sitting on the Chair, his legs hanging to one side, dizzy, confused, hungry. He wasn't sure he'd heard correctly. He blinked twice, stared at Drexle, chuckled nervously, and said, "What did you say?"
"You heard me. She's dead." Drexle turned to look directly at Adam. "I had to stop her. She'd been mindjacked. She had a knife. She was going to kill you."
Adam was silent, trying to comprehend the words coming from Drexle's mouth. They didn't make sense. Only hours ago, Elena had been fine, her usual feisty self. Now her mech partner was telling him she was dead. Mindjacked? Oh shit... the same crap they'd tried to pull on him.
Adam tried to stand up, but his legs gave way. Drexle caught him and helped him to his own chair. Adam was clearly in shock, blaming himself already for what had happened. No matter how large or small, anything that went wrong was obviously his fault. His breath was labored, his head swimming with anxiety, anger, longing, and regret combined. He lurched forward and dry heaved. There was no food in his stomach this time. Just a rawness gnawing at his guts like he'd swallowed a thousand razor blades.
As he accepted the truth (why would Drexle lie to him about something like this?) he took deep breaths trying to compose himself, realizing that he didn't have time to deal with this now. The mission came first and Grace needed his help. That's what he was here to do. Then he panicked again, "Where's Nik?"
"Nikolai is with Qi in his room. He hasn't stopped crying since he found out. I tried to explain, but he didn't want to listen. He didn't want to see me."
"Well that's hardly surprising..."
Drexle paused for a moment, deep in thought, then said through gritted teeth, "He told Qi that he blames you Adam. That you should never have come here."
Adam looked up at Drexle, sighed heavily, then started dry heaving again until blood spat forth from his mouth.