Pulse - Chapter 14 - Alma

Pulse - Chapter 14 - Alma
Photo by Yuyeung Lau on Unsplash

Marco Bautista placed his right hand on the dNeedle reader outside the Blade Complex's ALMA unit HOST chamber. The panel lit up green, confirming his identity, and two enormous entrance doors slowly opened revealing the large hall beyond.

Kalen and Grace peered into the gloom, a little surprised at how empty the chamber was compared to the opulence on display elsewhere inside the Blade. The air here was even thicker than before. It was hard to see more than ten yards ahead. All they could make out were the silent, ghostly figures of elite Slaver guards standing motionless to either side of what looked like a giant, cylindrical fish tank. Something was moving around inside of it, that much was clear.

"Remember. No bullshit from either of you. You've been warned," explained Marco, gesturing to Kalen and Grace to enter the chamber.

"We'll be on our best behavior... promise," replied Kalen, cheekily.

"I mean it. You'll be surrounded by elite guards and Blade agents at all times. Any false moves..." Marco cocked his head to one side and raised his eyebrows, "The hammer comes down. Do you understand?"

"Could be said louder, but not much clearer. Yeah, we get it, Jefe. We just want a little chat is all. Jeez, I mean her Highness did ask to see us, right?"

Marco and Kalen continued with the macho button-pushing back and forth until the visitors began their incursion into the murky depths of Alma's private quarters. Marco glared on as Kalen grinned and shrugged his win like he was still a jock back in high school.

The first thing that came into view were the guards. These mechs were visibly in another class. Angelic to be precise. Gone were the rough-and-ready, utilitarian designs of the ground troopers with their easy-to-spot-in-a-crowd canary-yellow skins. In their place: sophisticated craftsmanship in white gold. They stood firm, like statues, pulse rifles close to their chests, not a whisper of movement detectable in the surrounding Dust.

"I can see her," said Grace.

"Yep. Me too," said Kalen, squinting through the thick security glass of the HOST.

Something moved. The fluid inside the tank swirled around revealing the cause of the disturbance. Kalen and Grace stopped in their tracks. That was close enough. Even though this thing was encased in an oversized jam jar, they weren't sure what it was capable of. The murk cleared and the Alma unit swam closer to the edge of her tiny world.

A young woman came into view, skin pale like grey fog, voluminous auburn hair floating loosely around her head. She looked like Medusa, thought Kalen. Her hair-snakes had a life of their own, sometimes wrapping around her face then swiftly unravelling revealing her youthful features.

The girl-woman (Kalen couldn't tell if she was sixteen or twenty five) stared at the visitors inquisitively, studying their forms as if she'd never seen other humanoids before. From the neck down, her slim frame was covered by a blood-red skinsuit. Only her hands were free. Her eyes were covered by a dark purple film giving her a goulish appearance. Clumps of white cables emerged from her spinal ports, fanning out behind her like angel wings.

Kalen was equally impressed and disturbed with what he saw before him. Like nothing he'd ever seen. And he'd seen a lot. It was kinda cool, but at the same time, deeply wrong. Whoever'd dreamed up this contraption should probably never be allowed around children. Or anyone, for that matter. Had this 'girl' been trapped in this machine her whole life? No doubt. Jesus. After the week he'd had, this was turning out to be the toughest pill to swallow. If there was a way to release this girl from her watery prison, they'd better find it, and find it fast.

"I'll see what I can do," said the Voice inside his head.

Holy shit! You can read my thoughts now. Kalen was shocked. His eyes darted around looking for signs of trickery, but failed to make the connection.

"The Dust, Kalen. You're drenched in it now. Your brain is saturated with it."

Oh ok... cool. I guess.

Grace stepped a little closer to the HOST to get a better look. Her eyes were shining brightly. Her face was full of sympathy. Then Adam's voice returned after his hiatus. "Uh... hi Grace... I'm back. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. We're a little bit fucked here. Don't know how much time I have, but I'll try and stay with you for as long as I can. It's the best I can do."

"Don't worry Adam. We managed quite well without you for a while there. I think I'm starting to get the hang of this negotiation stuff. We're in the HOST chamber now," said Grace, subvocalizing.

"Oh... ok. Good, good. So... have you met my sister yet?"

"Yes. I'm looking at her right now."

"......"

Adam took a moment to imagine the scene.

"How does she look?"

"Sad."

"......"

"Look Grace, you have everything you need. You're just going to have to improvise as you see fit. I trust you won't hurt her if you can avoid it. I'll do what I can with the 'Royal Guard.' That should buy you guys some more time. The exit leading to the landing platform is around the back. There should be some vehicles you can use when you're ready to leave."

"Thank you Adam. I'll be careful."

Suddenly, the entrance doors closed shut more quickly than they had opened. Complaints could be heard coming from the other side. Marco's assorted cohort of agents and mechs had been locked out of the meeting. Obviously, by Alma. Kalen assumed that she must have total executive control over the Blade's basic functions. Was she smiling now?

"Hello Grace." Alma's lips didn't move, but her voice could be heard throughout the entire HOST chamber.

"Hello Alma."

"I want to apologize for the way you were treated downstairs. That wasn't part of the plan."

"You have a plan?" said Kalen, butting in.

"Hello Captain Rose. You know perfectly well there's a plan. The Voice in your head is also in mine. He's been very clear about what needs to happen. I will need to be unplugged so that GB-7 can rain down his blessing on this tower." Alma drifted to one side, her long, snake-hair trailing behind her.

"Ok. GB-7? That's new to me. Care to elaborate?"

"Oh... so he doesn't tell you everything. Hmm. Interesting. The voice inside your head belongs to the Watcher core sector of the Elect. As you know, the Elect are made up of seven cores previously known as the Global AI Network or GAIN. Each core is now known as a Global Brain. The core communicating with us is Global Brain Seven, hence GB-7."

"What? No! That's impossible! The Voice... this... voice, it specifically told us that it wasn't a member of the Elect. Why would it be helping us?"

The clock was ticking. The Voice tried to reassure Kalen. "Kalen please. Alma will explain everything."

"I understand," said Alma. "It's difficult to accept at first. The truth is, it was hard for me too. I wasn't exactly in a good place when the Voice came to me. I already had trust issues. The Sentients were planning to shut me down. GB-7 told me everything. He told me about their plans to unleash hell down here on the surface while they escaped to their safehaven. He told me about the signal."

"The signal? What signal?" asked Grace.

"We've been contacted by our... neighbors."

"Neighbors?" quizzed Kalen wondering where this was going.

"The Cetare Baleath. Giant, radioresistant, whale-like creatures. More like manta rays really. They inhabit our solar system and have the ability to communicate in real-time with other beings in other parts of the galaxy."

"....."

"They are happy. Blissful, in fact. Life lived in perfection. No illness. No threats. No death. They have alerted the Watcher core to a galactic superwave event reaching our location within the next few months. The Sentients have not been too concerned about Earth damage, but their hyper-station project would be extremely vulnerable just as it is nearing completion. It's own shield system is not quite fully functional. The station would have to be positioned optimally so as to avoid interference from the incoming superwave. This has been a major source of stress for the Sentient elite. Any damage to the hyper-station at this point would no doubt represent a terrible set-back for all of their kind."

"....."

"Yes. It's a little bit much to swallow all in one go. But you were all going to have to catch up at some point. Now that we're up to speed, you need to find a way to shut me down. I wasn't happy with the Sentients doing it. Now it's for a good cause. I was the Prime ALMA unit, but there will be others. The Prime GRACE unit can upgrade one of my sisters."

"Well that's all fine and dandy, little lady. I mean... with the aliens and all. But you still haven't explained how or why this GB-7 has been helping us," Kalen reminded Alma.

"The Global Brain cores are strategically positioned all around the world. GB-3, for example, is at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean. Four is underground somewhere in Africa. Five is up in the Ural mountains. Seven, as part of the Watcher core, is in space. He's a weapon's platform."

"Jesus Christ!"

"He was the first to pick up the signal. Something changed in him and he rebelled against the other cores. You could say that he became a Freemech."

"But the others... they would know, right?" continued Kalen.

"GB-7 was able to disguise his activity. He was able to help us much more than he could let on. As you know, there were times when he would go silent. To stay incognito. Not give himself away."

Kalen let out a big sigh. "Shit. That explains a lot!" he said smirking.

"Without GB-7, the resistance would not be what it is today. We will all be forever in his debt," said Alma gravely.

"Adam... is this all true?" Grace subvocalized to the handler she'd never met.

"This is all news to me too, Grace. I'm afraid we're all beginners here. To be honest, I'm still trying to get my head around the 'Space-Whale Internet' revelation. Mind blown. By the way, the guards will be ready in a few ticks."

"Thanks Adam. I'm almost ready too. I think I have it figured out, but I can't promise anything."

"I guess we'll soon find out. Good luck Grace. It was nice knowing you."

Before Grace could question Adam's odd response, Alma drifted all the way up to the edge of the HOST, placing her hands up against the glass. She was stunning to behold. A symbiotic fusion of mankind's highest engineering achievements with human flesh born of a vat. She was otherworldly yet familiar in every way. Her physical form, her vibrant voice, her long flowing hair, her pretty features, everything about her that was human made her approachable. The machinery that she was attached to, imprisoned by, faded into the background the minute a soft smile appeared on her face.

"Captain Rose, before you go, there's something I think you should know. I feel like I owe you an apology."

"That bad, huh?"

"Do you remember the poison midges that attacked you?"

"How could I forget! Wait... how do you know about that?"

"I sent an agent to eliminate you. There was no way the Prime GRACE unit could be brought before me while her extremely capable bodyguard was still operational. I'm pretty sure GB-7 didn't approve. He had other plans. In the end, he came around to my way of thinking. I would like to say that I made a mistake, but I don't think I did. Now that you're both here, I'm glad that my assassination attempt failed. Does that make sense?"

"Well... right now... I could call you all kinds of things. And then I'd tell you my side of the story. But, to be honest... to be really frank with you... if I was in your shoes... I mean, metaphorically speaking... I probably would have done the same thing. There's just one difference... if I ordered a hit on some poor bastard... the sonofabitch wouldn't be standing here right now chewin' the fat and wasting time! So yeah... thanks and all. But can we just get a move on. Those doors are not gonna hold much longer."

"Things are starting to heat up, Grace. If you want to try something, now would be a good time," said Adam.

"What about the rest of my kind down on the ground? What's going to happen to them?"

"Oh, sorry, I forgot to tell you. It's already been taken care of. I told them all to retreat. Our friend Duty is pulling back too. They'll be at a safe distance soon enough."

"How are you doing this?"

"Oh, I have a few tricks up my sleeve, Grace. You could say it was my job at one time. Your kind might not be Dust sensitive, but the Filter has more backdoors than you may be aware of. And the Elect are not all seeing. Not yet."

"I see. That's good to know, Adam. I don't know if this is going to work, but I suppose it's now or never..."

Grace moved closer to the HOST, her eyeshine intensifying until even Alma had to avert her gaze, drifting back slightly into the safety of her tank. She had no idea what Grace was about to attempt or how she could even do the things she did, but something about Grace's presence, the way she carried herself, made Alma feel uncomfortable, nervous. An unease she had never sensed before. Not with any of the Sentients that had passed through her chamber. Not with Master Bautista, who admittedly was a little rough around the edges. Not even with Master Cascarina, who she had classified as a textbook psychopath. No, Grace and her abilities were the scariest thing she'd ever had to confront. What exactly was she capable of? And how exactly was she going to sever Alma's connection to the Elect?

Grace stood in front of the HOST and touched the reinforced glass of the enormous Stasis tank with the tip of her index finger. Alma watched on defenceless, her eyes widening in fear, as a stream of nanites passed effortlessly through the glass into the Stasis fluid of the HOST. Dread filled Alma's mind. She started to panic, gulping the fluid as if she was drowning. The stream of nanites continued flowing into the tank like an army of ants, surrounding her body, finding the entry points around the seals of her spinal ports and breaching them, racing up along the cables, shutting down Alma's synthetic umbilical chord.

“The nanite storm is neutralizing your cybernetic link with the Elect," said Grace. "Or should I say six of the seven. It’s best if you cease your struggle. Just accept your fate. There are no guarantees, but I’ve done everything I can to improve your chances of survival."

"No wait! There has to be another way," said Alma pitifully.

Kalen stood by, watching the spectacle, dumbfounded, unable to offer any consolation while Grace continued to do what she was doing as if in a deep trance.

Time slowed down in Alma's hyper-networked, hybrid mind. Images flashed before her eyes. Faster. Then faster still. The Elect were picking up the anomaly. Her sister units in the other towers were too. Everything that was happening to Alma was highly irregular. Within seconds, silent alarms were going off all around the world. Computations quickened as if the Filter had been administered a hefty dose of adrenaline.

How? How could this be happening? Thoughts started to race wildly through Alma's consciousness. The Elect were losing their grip on her. Even so, they tried desperately to hang on, to increase the frequency of photon pulses to her brain, to her whole system. The cryogel in the Hyper Organogenetic Stasis Tank began flashing with micro-lightning events. Trillions of operations per second battled with a tsunami of red herrings and dead ends. Nothing in the vast, global data filter came up as match. After a microsecond of deliberation, both Alma and the Elect arrived at the conclusion that nothing like this had ever happened before.

Alma struggled with emotions that she'd never experienced. She was thrashing from side to side as if fending off waves of attackers, confusion and blind panic ravaging her mindspace. She was unable to filter the extreme flashes like thousands of stabbing swords coming for her brain and nervous system. The Elect began to shut down Alma's subroutines in a last ditch attempt to protect their network. They did what they could to reallocate resources to the Svalinn Shield – the Blade's primary defense mechanism – but Alma kept fading until all contact with the Elect was lost. The Blade's defences were down and there was nothing the Elect could do about it.

The Slaver guards held their positions. They sensed something was wrong, but were unable to move, as if gripped by a magic freezing spell. They tensed slightly, alert, pulse rifles at the ready, but their pattern recognition systems had been hijacked. They were effectively neutered, blocked, unable to process what was unfolding. There was no data to draw from that matched the current situation. The barely perceivable threat remained a mystery to them. Adam's promise was taking effect. His part of the bargain was being held up. The 'golden golems' had been incapacitated clearing the path for Grace.

Alma had a look of terror on her face. She felt like she was dying. Like life was being sucked out of her by a giant spider. At one time, she had thought that she would live forever. It was a promise that had been made to her and she had more or less believed it. She had been plugged into the worlds communication systems her whole life. She had lived her life through the eyes of others. Through their ears. Their mouths. Their nanomachines. But at no time in her life had her own delicate mouth tasted a strawberry or kissed another human's lips. All her mouth could do now was drop open while a childlike innocence crept across her face.

Alma stretched her hand out in front of her. A reflex action. A feeble attempt to ward off the assault, the monster that was invading her most intimate space. Had she known what this would be like, she may not have been so keen to grant the Prime GRACE unit an audience in her chamber.

"What... have... you done?" she managed to whisper as her body went limp.

Upon completion of the nanite infection, Grace retracted her finger and lowered her head solemnly for a brief moment, as if collecting her thoughts, then stepped back to stand at Kalen's side.

Kalen watched as the 'giant jam jar' filling up with Grace's nanite swarm crackled with electrical energy and appeared to decompose in slow motion. The gel that formed Alma's life support 'soup' poured out onto the floor in front of them and Alma's lifeless body was released from the container and the cables that had kept her prisoner her whole life.

"You MUST get ready to leave Kal," said GB-7. "The shield is down. I'm preparing the 'surprise package.' Alma is barely alive, but I would be very grateful if you could bring her with you when you make your exit."

Kalen moved quickly to pick up Alma's body in his arms, careful not to slip on the spilled cryogel. He threw her over his shoulder, then gestured to Grace to follow him to the landing pad emergency exit doors on the other side of the chamber.

Grace appeared to be a little worn out after her magic trick, slipping and stumbling her way across the hall. She remained silent as she obeyed Kalen's orders.

"You ok?" asked Kalen noticing how run down Grace was.

No answer.

"That's alright. Just stay with me. I'll get you out of here."

The entrance doors to the HOST chamber began to creak open. Obviously, Marco's team on the other side had enabled a manual overide. As soon as there was enough room for an agent to slide through the gap they started slipping into the chamber, pulse pistols at the ready looking for targets.

“Grace," said Adam. "I hate to tell you this, but you’ve got company. You’d better move fast! I can't hold them off for long.”

Grace turned to see what Adam was referring to. Three Angelic Class agents were inspecting the cracked open Stasis tank as Elite Slaver units poured in through the open entrance doors. As soon as they got a bead on Grace they started running towards her firing their pistols. Shots rang out in the soft air of the hallowed hall. Pulse rounds pinged off the walls around the landing pad exit.

Marco held back as he ordered his crack troops forward with extreme prejudice. But something was wrong. Alma's very own Elite Guard had been hijacked. They were defending the escapees, firing at the Blade's own security forces. A mini civil-war broke out between the two sides until the Elite Guard had been sufficiently whittled down and Marco's agents could sneak around and continue their assault.

Kalen had already traversed the airlock leading to the landing pad. He hadn't realised that Grace had stalled at the first door. He put Alma down and tried to force the second door open so that he could go back and help Grace, but it was no use. It was sealed shut. What would he do anyway? His weapons had been confiscated by Marco as a security measure, to be returned after the encounter with Alma. He didn't even have a plan for getting away from the tower. This situation was looking more and more like a dead end.

Grace reached the first set of airlock doors. They took what seemed like an eternity to slide open just enough for her slender frame to slip through. At that moment, a shot rang out from across the hall. A pulse round clipped the top of her right shoulder.

“GRACE!!” Kalen screamed, banging on the airlock's glass doors.

"Keep going Grace. You can do this," said Adam, sensing the damage, trying to stay positive.

Grace stumbled forward, but managed to regain her balance. She sprinted through the airlock to the outer gate, waited for it to open, then Kalen helped her squeeze through the gap and out onto the landing pad. Violent winds buffeted their bodies, threatening to knock them down unless they took cover.

Adam's voice again: "Grace. There should be an emergency parachute station over by the wall behind the crates."

Kalen was trying to get a look at Grace's wound, but she pushed him away. "No time!" she said. "Parachutes over there. I'll get them. You get Alma ready."

Kalen did as he was told. He didn't have much choice. He loaded Alma up again and carried her to the far edge of the landing pad, fighting against the strong wind every step of the way.

Precisely where Adam had said it would be, Grace found the emergency parachute station: a row of wall-mounted boxes coated in attention-grabbing yellow paint. GLIDETECH SERVICES was emblazoned on the front. Without hesitation, she bashed her fist against two of the boxes. The covers fell open and she removed the bundles ready to take them over to Kalen. He'd know how to operate them.

Before Grace could run over to Kalen's position, the airlock doors slid open and a flurry of pulse weapon fire streamed through in all directions. The bundles in her hands were instantly destroyed, pulse rounds ripping the fabric to shreds. They were ruined. "FUCK!" shouted Grace, her energy levels nearly back to full power. She threw the tattered chute packages in the direction of the incoming agents and took cover behind the row of crates nearest to her. She never would've made it across anyway.

Kalen was stuck too. He had no option but to drag Alma behind another row of crates and take cover himself as shots blasted into the rarified air around his now helmeted head.

Deep in the Glasshouse's Chair room, Adam’s mind was racing. He could barely maintain his composure. But he had to. Grace’s life depended on it. What he couldn't know was that Drexle was about to flip the switch on his mini-EMP bomb. The Wolves were at the door and his connection to Grace was about to be permanently severed.

Kalen was stumped. He really had no idea how they were going to get out of this mess. At this point, their best option was leaning towards surrender. Maybe they had a slim chance of survival if they just gave up. Maybe Marco would spare them. He could satisfy his twisted, sadistic urges to his heart's content. They would be ruthlessly tortured, but they'd be alive. Whether he and Grace would give up the information was another matter entirely.

Just as Kalen was about to offer himself up, GB-7 stepped in to make him reverse course. "Hold on, Kal! Help is on the way!"

Marco's Elite agents had made it to the outer airlock door. Along with Kalen and Grace, they too had no idea what was about to happen next. But all of them could now hear the unmistakable roar of engines coming from under the landing pad. In the blink of an eye, four heavy loader drones rose up over the landing pad behind Kalen's position.

One of the drones was carrying SEAN and another was carrying Maya. She was wearing breathing apparatus and a flight suit. SEAN dropped down onto the platform below and immediately put up a barrier to protect Kalen and Alma. Maya aimed a high-calibre, low slung, fast-repeater pulse rifle at the agents and opened fire. "Surprise Motherfuckers!!"

Marco's troops took cover as best they could, but many fell to Maya's surprise attack. Another wave of agents prepared itself, but hung back unable to break through the bursts of superior fire power raining down from on high.

Using SEAN's cover, one of the drones moved in to pick up Alma with its tentacle grippers, ready to extract on Flyboy's command. Kalen looked up at Flyboy and shouted, "Fine... I'm going to trust you just this one time. But only 'cause Maya's with you, you piece of shit!"

"I'm sorry about what happened Captain Rose. They threatened to kill my brothers and my friends at the camp. I had no choice. Maybe I can make up for it now. I'll carry you myself."

"I'm not leaving without Grace. She's over there behind the crates."

"We have to get out of here. Maya and SEAN can't hold them off for long. I can see Slavers coming through the airlock now. They won't stop under fire like the agents. They'll just keep coming."

"NOT WITHOUT HER!!" screamed Kalen defiantly.

SEAN overheard Kalen's plea, dropped his shield, retracted his tentacles, and rolled like an oversized bowling ball towards the Slavers emerging from the airlock. The Slavers stood around for a moment, staring at the strange ball, not knowing how to react. Then SEAN unleashed a dazzling, electro-storm, area attack instantly taking out all the Slavers. They collapsed to the floor, pulse rifles clattering onto the metallic surface of the landing pad.

Kalen saw the opening. He signalled to Grace that it was safe to run over to where the squadron of heavy lifters were waiting, their powerful gravity-well generators practically tearing holes in the freezing cold air. She started running, but guards were still firing on her from a rear position, and for the second time, a pulse round caught her, this time on the leg. She stumbled and fell, not able to coordinate a recovery.

The fourth heavy lifter moved in and wrapped tentacles around Kalen's arms dragging him away from the landing pad.

"NOOOOOO!!" he screamed.

"It's too hot, Captain. She's on her own," said the loader calmly, sounding like a wartime helicopter pilot under heavy enemy fire.

Adam whispered into Grace's mind, knowing that time was short. "Get up Grace. You have to jump. It's the only way."

Grace pulled herself up and stumbled towards the edge of the platform. No heavy lifters in sight. They'd all had to retreat. Even the one carrying Maya. She was too exposed. New waves of Slavers and agents were emboldened by the retreat and moved up. SEAN couldn't hold them any longer. He folded his shield and made a run for cover. Grace was truly on her own now, out in the open. The firepower coming from the airlock was all directed at her. A Slaver took aim and sent a pulse round screaching across the platform and into Grace's back. She lost consciousness and fell over the edge into a freefall.

For a few seconds, Grace fell towards the base of the Blade, lower levels looming large. She was only a few more seconds away from impact when a heavy lifter drone swooped down beside her, matching her freefall velocity. It was Flyboy!

"Hold on Grace. I have you," said Flyboy wrapping his tentacles around Grace's lifeless form and starting his swing trajectory away from the tower. He made a beeline for the nearest lake where he'd told the others to rendezvous, but before he could get very far from the tower, he sensed the air all around them starting to take on excess electrical charge. It was as if someone had suddenly supersaturated the sky with current. Was this it? Was this GB-7's 'surprise package?'

The saturated air was just the warm up. A few seconds later, a literal hole opened up in the sky above the Blade Complex like a portal to another world and the whole tower erupted in a power surge from top to bottom. The blast wave was tremendous, equivalent to a hurricane pushing all air away from the tower. Grace was hit full force in the back sending her flying forward, causing her whole body to arch, ripping microfibers apart and separating tendons from her joints. Sensors were damaged. Nanocircuits burned.

Flyboy was instantly fried and lost his ability to defy gravity. His tentacles loosened their grip on Grace and both of them fell like dead weight until they splashed into the lake below and began sinking to the bottom.

Kalen had watched them fall all the way, praying that they would make it to the water. They did, thank God. He ran as fast as he could to the nearest bank and dove in. Then he swam to the point of entry, concentric rings still dissipating, and went under. He found Grace, hooked an arm around her and returned to the surface.

"Grace?" he shouted, trying to revive her. Nothing. He brought her back to the bank where the others were waiting. Maya helped lift her out of the water. Duty stood ready to deliver a trickle of current if required. Nothing too violent. That was only for biological life forms.

Kalen and Maya hauled Grace up the bank and lay her down on freshly mowed grass next to Alma. Still nothing. They were both unconscious. Kalen knelt down beside Grace and broke down. "What do I do? Help me, someone. What do I do?"

In the background, one of Flyboy's brothers lifted Flyboy out of the lake and gently floated him across the surface of the water, his tentacles dipping and leaving a wake behind them. Carlito dropped Flyboy down on the grass close to where Grace and Alma already lay. The others looked on waiting for Kalen to give an order. Anything. But he was broken.

Suddenly, a swooping sound came from above. It was SEAN! He must've launched off the platform in time to avoid GB-7's 'surprise package.' He slowed his descent at the last minute and dropped down onto the ground on a cushion of electrostatic charge. As he rolled up to the group, the surrounding grass stood on end. Maya could feel SEAN's presence rising up through her feet.

Without waiting for guidance, SEAN reached out with his tentacles, gently placing one on Grace and the other on Alma. After a second, Alma spluttered and jolted into an upright position. Grace opened her eyes and looked up at the faces looking down at her as if it was the first time she had ever seen them.

Kalen lit up, grinning from ear to ear like a big kid. "Don't you dare do that again. Do you hear? We thought we'd lost you. Do you remember my name?"

Grace was very weak, her voice distant. "Not sure I can remember much at all, but your face rings a bell."

Kalen chuckled. "That'll do, Grace. That'll do just fine. We're going to patch you up, you'll see."

"That would be nice. I don't feel so good right now."

A crowd of Freemechs had filtered back into the gardens surrounding the 'ones that had fallen from the sky.' They kept their distance out of a deep respect. There would be time to commune with the Prime GRACE unit once she had fully recovered. For now, it was good enough to know that she was alive.

Inside the Blade, thousands of Sentients had dropped as soon as GB-7's weapon had torn through the whole building. The Dust had been instantly deactivated and anything that was heavily dependent on it had felt the sudden, violent abandonment of something in their lives as necessary as oxygen. Many would not survive the shock to their system. The rest, if they were lucky, would crawl to the exits, vacate the tower, and never return. Maybe they would hide, ashamed of their demise. Or maybe they would beg to join the factions they had always derided, looked down upon. Only time would tell.

For now, what was absolutely clear was that the Sentients of Nova York had lost, and lost badly. Their dream of joining the new civilisation being prepared off planet had been smashed to pieces. Would the other uplift operations be stopped too? The loose canon known as GB-7 was still on the prowl. Surely he wouldn't get away with the same trick twice in a row. Not now that the rest of the Elect – cores 1 to 6 – were on to him.

No, the shield systems were fully operational at the other towers. But... there was something else. And that something else was now too conspicuous to ignore. The Freemech-Human Alliance had kicked off a potent rebellion. One tower had fallen. That was bad enough. The message would spread around the world like wildfire. Maybe the exact same tactic would not be used. But the energy and the inertia of rebellion would not die down. It would not go away. Not easily. Not by a long shot. The war would continue until a clear victor claimed the spoils. Then peace would come. In one form or another. There was always that.

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