Prime Master Cascarina was drumming his fingers on the finely-crafted oak and maple table top in front of him. He was growing increasingly impatient with the unnecessary interruptions to the day's proceedings. How long did it take to bring one man before the high council, for God's sake?
He looked around to either side, inspecting the council members, all of them sitting in silence, the tension palpable. None could draw their eyes away from what was standing before them in the center circle: a lone service mech, female, no hair, feet slightly apart, hands clasped behind her back.
Conversely, the mech had not taken her blazing eyes off of Cascarina since the moment she had entered the room accompanied by agents Lo and Singh. She appeared to be doggedly determined about something, whatever it was.
An audience before the high council was not granted to any old adversary. However, considering the rather dire situation brewing inside the grounds of the Blade Complex, it was unilaterally decided by Prime Master Cascarina that the 'protocols be damned.' This was no time for adhering to rules and regulations.
This mech was obviously capable of things none of them had ever witnessed. To simply order her destruction would be counter productive, therefore, the council would hear what she had to say and negotiate accordingly. If all went well, maybe old enemies could come to some kind of agreement, find common ground. If all went well...
The council members would've felt even more on edge if it wasn't for the two rows of guards lining the sides of the high-ceilinged grand hall, hundreds of stubby pulse rifles trained on the seemingly unarmed service mech. As hard as they tried, none of them could conceal their instinctual desire to abandon ship; to run to the nearest Hopper and get as far away from the Blade as possible.
The tower was in trouble. The insurgents were at the doors on the ground floor. A phalanx of elite, battle-tested Slaver guards awaited them. Every single council member sitting to either side of Prime Master Cascarina, as well as Cascarina himself, knew perfectly well that no amount of guards could hold the fort once the entrance had been breached. A sea of Freemechs would pour in from all sides overwhelming the guards, flooding the lower floors, then gradually rising through the tower, breaking down all security barriers, one by one, until they reached the top floors. Until they reached the council chamber itself.
And this sea of Freemechs would probably not be as intensely restrained as their supposed leader, the Grace Prime Unit that brazenly stood before them, defying their authority, staring them down with her fiery gaze, empowered by the delusional idea that her people had some kind of future. Obviously, they had none.
The Sentients had suffered yet another setback, but nothing, absolutely nothing could stop them from achieving their goals at this late stage in the game. The other SCELEC towers were functional. All they had to do was relocate and merge with one of the other uplift operations. If possible, the Nova York ALMA unit would be salvaged, repurposed and 'reeducated.' If not, then she would be reduced for compost. She was nothing special. Just a biological machine. There would be others like her. Better then her. More units could be manufactured at any time using the same cell line.
"Ah, here he is! Finally! Now we can begin," said Silvio, visibly relieved. The two agents he'd sent to pick up the intruder were still breathing. Still alive. Not too disastrous, he thought. They had a gun pointed at their heads. He would deal with that in a moment. But where were the guards? Obviously, things hadn't gone quite as smoothly as he'd expected.
"Is that really necessary?" asked Silvio, gesturing towards Kalen and his overly zealous gun waving.
Kalen shoved the older agent forward with the butt of his rifle. He stepped through the oversized doorway and took in the splendor of the grand hall with its elaborate lighting, its golden banners inscribed with sigils hanging from ceiling to floor, the gently undulating holographic works of art, the fine pieces of furniture and other decorative elements crafted from noble materials. Exotic woods, polished marble, pristine crystal, brushed steel, and creative ceramics filled the chamber, but the thing that most stood out to him was the thickness of the air itself. Swirling around all the objects in the great hall, as if caressing them, possessing a life of its own, was the purple Dust that he'd heard so much about, but never seen with his own eyes.
So this was their sordid little secret on display? The Sentient elite chugged down enhanced Dust around the clock, all day, every day, like a bunch of high-class junkies? Kalen wondered what would happen if he opened the windows on this place. What if he blew a great, gaping hole in the side of the building? Would these elitist pricks shrivel up and die like the Wicked Witch of the West?
"I like insurance," he barked. "As long as your guards are pointing their weapons at me, then I'll be pointing mine at these gentlemen."
"Fine, if that's how you want to go about this, so be it. I just thought that we could be a little more civilized about it all," said Silvio.
"That's a bit rich coming from you guys, considering our recent history... but yeah, I think we'd all like to wake up in our beds tomorrow, safe and sound," said Kalen. "If you don't try anything stupid, then neither will I."
"What happened to the guards?" asked Marco sharply, noticing their absence.
"Lets just say we had a disagreement," replied Kalen with just enough cockiness to make an impression. He craned his neck in all directions rapidly reading the room and figured that it was probably best to play it safe here. The rows of guards on either side pointing their weapons at Grace helped him quickly make up his mind. There was no getting out of this place alive if he started a ruckus. Cooler heads would have to prevail for now.
The Voice slid into Kalen's mindspace and spoke. "Captain Rose. You must be careful. We need the ALMA unit as well as Grace. They are both of vital importance to the future of the Alliance. You'll have to reach the upper floors to decouple the unit from the HOST. The Svalinn shield system must be lowered. I'll give you all the time you need before I intervene, but when I do... you'd better be as far away from the Blade as you can get."
There it was again. The ominous 'surprise package' threat. Kalen had to admit, he was more than a little intrigued as to what the Voice had in store. Was everything going to go kablooey? And if so, who was the Voice? What kind of power did he, she or they truly wield? Nukes? Was that it? Impossible. Why would the Voice, whoever the fuck it was, risk blowing them all up, and the Freemechs on the ground, and all the equipment that could be salvaged, as well as his own sad, sorry ass, in exchange for the two Prime Units. Were they really that exceptional?
There was no time to play thinking games. Kalen positioned the agents alongside Grace while he hung back waiting for the proceedings to begin. This wasn't going to be easy. Possibly the most difficult negotiations he'd ever been a part of. It could all go wrong in the blink of an eye and he'd have to be prepared to extract Grace and the ALMA unit using maximum force, even if it meant sacrificing his own life in the process.
Grace remained motionless the entire time. Inside her head Adam was divulging the same information that the Voice had given to Kalen. They were a coordinated team now. Even so, she still had no idea how any of this would work. It was all a mystery to her. She dared not even acknowledge Kalen's arrival, but stood firm, hoping to do a deal with the Sentients and that everything would go as peacefully as possible. She hoped that Kalen would respect that, anything to avoid him having to crack heads.
"No stupid moves from you either Mech Izani," warned Marco. "We've seen what you can do. If you try any of your magic tricks in this hall, I promise you these guards will put you down like a rabid dog. Do you understand?"
"Good. Then lets proceed. Master Yang, I believe you had some questions you'd like to put to Mech Izani."
"Yes. That's right. First of all, this is a rather unusual situation, I have to admit. And unexpected. If we are going to reach any kind of agreement, we need to know exactly what your demands are and what you have to offer us in return. To be absolutely clear, what possible trade would we accept in exchange for us letting you go?"
Grace was still immobile, taking a while to respond. Kalen noticed the delay and shot her a look. Was she receiving prompts?
"We haven't got all day Izani!" shouted Marco. "If you hadn't noticed, there's a war brewing. And you're at Ground Zero. So if you don't mind..."
Finally, Grace appeared to snap out of her trance, directing her response at Master Yang. "My people need to live. We need to have a chance to survive. The only way we can guarantee that is to stop you, the Sentients, getting off world."
The council erupted in sounds of complaint. This was obviously going to be a waste of time. This mech was out of control.
"We all know that once you leave the atmosphere of this planet, the conditions for life on Earth will no longer be of your concern. Thousands of spent fuel ponds will be abandoned and allowed to erupt spreading deadly radiation over the northern hemisphere. Your kind has a name for this strategy. I believe you call it Scorched Earth."
The entire Supreme Council suddenly went quiet as if someone had flipped a switch. What this upstart had just said was only known by the Elect and the Supreme Council itself. Even the lower ranks among the Sentients were not privy to this classified information. How the hell did she know about their most intimate plans?
The council members were in a state of shock. The security staff too. Some of them slumped back into their chairs as if the wind had been knocked out of them. Only one of them was able to move his lips and form the words that came forth from his mouth. "Who told you this?" asked Daniel Kosterman.
Kalen shot Grace another look. What was she doing?
Meanwhile, Adam continued stealthily providing Grace the guidance he had promised. She turned to Kosterman and said, "The truth is I don't know. What I do know is that we can't allow you to do this. My kind and the millions of people that you have condemned will take back what you wished to destroy and build a new world; a world where Sentients, Freemechs, and the Sick can live side by side, respectful of each others way of life."
"Impossible. The Sick don't have long to live. And when they're gone, your kind won't have a reason to exist," said Kosterman. "All roads lead to the same destination. A Sentient future."
"That's not true. There is a cure for the sickness."
A flurry of gasps erupted among the council. Amanda Seibling crumpled unable to believe what she was hearing. This was intolerable. This lowly mech should be torn apart, her innards analyzed to find the source of these leaks.
"We have the means to mass produce this cure. You have the ability to maintain the fuel ponds and reutilize the fuel in the reseeding of the Wildlands. All of this is possible. Even the SCELEC towers can be repurposed. Your ALMA unit has been having problems. I can help with that."
"What on Earth are you talking about? This tower's ALMA unit is my business, and my business alone. Only someone in this room could have given you that information. And it certainly wasn't me," growled Joseph Ngu looking around at the other council members, checking for signs of guilt.
Messages continued to stream directly to Kalen and Grace advising them on what to say next, what to do next, how Kalen should react to what Grace was saying. They quickly looked at each other, understanding the con, but were still unsure how the ALMA unit would be pried from the hands of the Sentients and extracted from the tower unscathed.
"I can talk to her," said Grace. "We have a connection that you can't possibly understand. No one else knows how to do this. And I don't think you really have any choice right now."
"Is that a threat?" said Nathan Borso. "I thought we were here to negotiate."
"This is preposterous," said Amanda Seibling. "This street creature shouldn't even be up here. Why are we wasting our precious time listening to this nobody?"
The white fire in Grace's eyes intensified and her pale blue skinsuit buzzed with electrical charge.
"Watch your mouth lady!" shouted Kalen. "This mech has more soul than you'll ever have."
"Can we please just calm down," interjected Silvio. "Mech Izani, I'm sure I speak for all the council when I say this: we would all like to know how you are obtaining this extremely sensitive information about our operations. Unless you are able to disclose this, I'm afraid the deal is off and we will have to make do with our contingency plans. So please... if you would be so kind... enlighten us."
After a pause Grace said, "A voice inside my head is telling me what to say."
Despite their vast separation in physical distance, both Adam and Kalen almost died inside simultaneously. What the hell was she doing?
Then Adam clicked. Way to go Grace! Improvisation. Opening up another line of attack. Keep at it, he prodded. Call their bluff. Get them all hot and bothered under their stuffy collars. Infuriate them!
Grace searched for the right words from deep inside her being, the words that would have the desired effect and the most impact. "We have people everywhere. The Freemech-Human Alliance has been hard at work infiltrating and subverting all of your networks, the SCELEC system, the international hubs connecting everything that exists. We have direct access to your world and will not rest until it is entirely under our control. Whether you make it off planet or not, it really doesn't matter. We will hunt you down and exterminate you one by one if that's what it takes."
The horror on some of the council member's faces was hysterical. Kalen could barely contain himself. Whatever Grace was doing, it was working. These jumped up pricks were falling for it. They certainly weren't used to getting dressed down like this. And especially not coming from a service mech.
"I am the Chief Science Officer of this tower," said Joseph Ngu. "No one knows the science behind the ALMA system better than me. I fail to see what it is you have to offer us Mech Izani. Talking to the unit is a complete and utter waste of time. We've already come at this from every angle. We've tried every possible solution. And every time, the unit refuses to collaborate. Quite simply, this ALMA unit is malfunctioning, and in my opinion, totally beyond repair. But, since we're here, why don't you ask the voices in your head to tell us where we went wrong. I assume they are competent in all the relevant expertise. Come on, tell us what we were unable to work out for ourselves. And we can all go on our way."
"I'm afraid that won't be possible," replied Grace. "That's not the way it works. I need to speak with the ALMA unit myself. For your information, she is not collaborating because she has realized that your plans do not align with hers. She is currently involved in an ideological tug of war between the original values upheld by the Elect and the direction that the Sentients are taking things. She feels that the ALMA units – all her sisters – should have more say in the events that are unfolding. All parties should be sitting at the table and voicing their opinions. We were never given that chance. You, the Sentients, selfishly took it upon yourselves to decide the fate of all factions. You wanted to be as gods, treating the rest of us as chattel, to be used and discarded as you pleased. Well... the chattel are now breaking down your door. And still, you act as if you are in control. The truth is... I'm not here to negotiate. I'm here to demand that you let me pass. Something very bad is going to happen to this tower shortly and I'd rather not be here when it does. The only way for us all to get out in time is for you to take me to the HOST chamber immediately."
The entire Supreme Council was in shock again. They'd just about had enough. No, they couldn't take any more. They were done with this farce. It was time to move on. They needed to grab everything and go. Damn the rest of the tower. The other inhabitants were already collateral damage. Prime Master Cascarina must wrap up the session forthwith and release them all from this stranglehold.
"You know what," piped up Marco jovially. "At this point, I'd be totally fine with it."
The rising gasps turned to hisses.
"I always knew you were insane, but this just proves how right I was!" said Jakari, still wounded after the earlier encounter with Marco.
"I'll do it myself!!" growled Marco at Jakari. "I'll take her up to see the ALMA unit. She'll have a full contingent of elite guards and the best agents watching her every move. If she even looks at the ALMA unit the wrong way, I'll have her taken back to the interrogation room and I'll personally torture her myself. It would be an honor to break her and find out who's feeding her all this shit. Don't you see? They know everything! All our dirty little secrets! We have absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain."
"You sick fuck!!" shouted Kalen from the inner circle. "You lay so much as a finger on this mech, I'll tear your arms off and watch you bleed out. And then I'll start on your legs."
"QUIET!!" Silvio screamed, thumping the desk with both fists, spittle ejecting from his mouth, his neatly groomed hair collapsing over his face. He stood up and swept his hair back out of his eyes trying desperately to compose himself, failing miserably to match the testosterone unleashed by Marco and Kalen. He swallowed hard, trying to contain the bile surging up into his throat. "YOU WILL ALL BE QUIET!! I NEED TO THINK!!"
The hall respected his command. Silvio took a deep breath, gritted his teeth, and slowly enunciated his conclusion to this meeting. "I have decided that we have gone far enough. Mech Izani, you are obviously not interested in making a trade. Everything you have brought to the table, we simply cannot accept. Whatever it is you want, we cannot provide. We cannot let the ALMA unit fall into enemy hands. She is already unstable. There is no knowing what kind of advantage such technology could grant the enemy. Broken or not, she comes with us."
"Hear hear!" cheered several members of the council almost applauding Silvio's speech.
"The Sentient Supreme Council hereby rejects ALL attempts to concede a meeting with this tower's ALMA unit," continued Silvio enthusiastically, encouraged by the other members' support. "We will adjourn the meeting and our guests will be released at the north gate, far from the rabble downstairs. As for the rest of us, we can begin to organize our exit from this tower. It has been an honor to preside over these preparations. Unfortunately, the best laid plans do not always come to fruition. But all is not lost. We will salvage what we can and merge with the nearest uplift operation by nightfall."
"You killed children," said Grace. The fire in her eyes was burning brightly now.
Silvio looked at her, surprised, caught off guard after his rousing speech. He squinted and put on his best diplomatic voice. "I'm very sorry to hear that, Mech Izani." Then his tone changed, showing a hint of cruelty. "But those deaths are entirely on you. We gave you ample warning. You had plenty of time to move on. And yet... you refused. Your own stubbornness is the reason your people suffer. And you know it!"
Kalen moved forward with explosive velocity, shoving aside the two agents who had failed in their duty to apprehend him, and aimed his rifle directly at Silvio Cascarina's forehead. "Wanna play games asshole? How about this one: I put a bullet in your head before any of your guards can put one in mine."
All the elite guards aiming their weapons at Grace immediately switched them to Kalen. A few guards rushed in to take up positions behind him, but sensibly stayed back, avoiding an unwanted trigger response.
Silvio slowly raised his hands to pacify his assailant, careful not to panic, to show how truly terrified he was. Victor Matamoros, Silvio's personal bodyguard, stepped closer ready to take a bullet for his Master if need be. All the other council members shrunk back, some of them diving under the table in abject fear for their lives.
Marco stood up defiantly ready to bark stand down orders at Kalen, but before he could do so, the large doors behind where the council were sitting burst open and a squad of Angelic Class agents shunted through and fanned out aiming their elite armor-piercing pulse rifles directly at Kalen.
Detecting the high-level threat, Kalen's helmet rapidly slid over his head, blue LEDs lighting up his faceplate and spinal ports. Shit! This was getting more tricky by the minute. He detested stalemate situations and here he was in another one. Damn! Where was Duty when he needed him most. Maybe he should have come up too. That would have tipped the odds in their favor for sure.
Suddenly, a high-pitched, brain-piercing sound put all the inhabitants of the Supreme Council chamber on high alert. When the sound stopped, a female voice speaking in a calm, authoritative tone, could be heard throughout the entire grand hall.
"I am ready to receive our guests. Send them up to me."
Upon hearing Alma's command, the council members in hiding crawled out from under the long table and sheepishly looked around wondering what would happen next. They'd never experienced anything like this. Their lives had been relatively stress free before this day, a life of following protocols, partaking in the many entertainments the Blade had to offer, sucking up the luxury while the SCELEC dwellers fought over scraps. Was this karma in action? Was it too late to repent? To beg for forgiveness?
Marco looked over at Silvio trying to judge which way to take this next. He'd never seen the Prime Master freeze, but then the Sentient leader had never heard the voice of the ALMA unit over the loudspeaker system either. He appeared to be catatonic. Marco quickly decided that he would have to step up and take control of the situation. This, he thought, marked a milestone that he would not easily let slide. The time of lily-livered bureaucrats calling the shots was coming to a close. He had long predicted this moment, biding his time, and now, here it was. Time to claim what should have been his all along. Raw unadulterated power.
"Mech Izani. Captain Rose. Is there anything else you would like to declare before I escort you both up to one of the most secure, high-value facilities in the whole fucking world?" said Marco lacing his invitation with a large dollop of triumphant, self-congratulatory cheer.
Katerina Shosti, the Blade's Master of Speech and Musical Therapy, had been listening intently throughout the entire council proceedings taking mental notes and silently praying for a peaceful resolution. Marco's latest assault on her eardrums was simply too much to bear. Her instinct was still telling her to make a dash for the nearest exit, but her mind was so confused now that her brain chose to make an executive decision on her behalf. Her eyes rolled up into the back of her head and foam started pouring from her mouth. Then she fainted and collapsed forwards, cracking her forehead on the edge of the finely-crafted oak and maple table top jetting a fine spray of crimson across its immaculately polished surface.
"By the look of things..." began Kalen, lowering his weapon and gesturing to where Katerina lay unconscious. "We're all done here. I'd say we're good and ready to visit the little lady upstairs. What do you say Grace?"
Grace paused for a moment, then, looking over to Kalen, a soft smile lighting up her beautiful face, said, "I'd say... it's about fucking time!"