"You love her, right?"
"What? No way. She's a mech."
"It's written all over your stupid face."
"Hmm. That obvious huh?"
"That obvious. From day one, you were hovering around her like she was some kind of queen. You used to be like that with me. But this... this is another level!"
"Alright, that's enough. You're starting to make it sound like I'm some kind of creep. Which I'm not. So back off. I get it. You're a little jealous. That's to be expected."
"Jealous? I'm happy for you Kal. More than I have been in a looong time."
"Ok. But what about you? What are you going to do?"
"Me? I've never been better. These kids... they're my life now. I finally have purpose instead of just looking after a big baby all the time."
"Careful. It's a beautiful afternoon. Wouldn't want to ruin it."
"Ha! Look at you. Diffusing conflict like a boss. I swear to God Kalen... I have no idea how you two are gonna make things work... but whatever magic sauce she's feeding you... it's working! It's like a whole new you. And that's fine by me."
"Well, that's mighty sweet of you pumpkin. I hope you don't mind if I go and check on the little lady again."
"Yeah... why not. It's been all of ten minutes since the last time."
Kalen kissed Maya softly on the cheek. "You'll always be my pumpkin though. You know that right?"
"Get outta here, ya creep! Before I call the police."
Kalen grinned from ear to ear. He sat a while longer taking in the view in front of him: a bizzare menagerie playfully coexisting. Duty was reluctanctly giving donkey rides to the smaller children, two at a time. SEAN was engaged in a vigorous game of tag with the older kids, gently zapping them with his tentacles when he got close. Billy was running around in between them all, barking, intoxicated with the energy of community.
The mechs and humans sat on the grass watching it all unfold. They knew history was being made. The chattering among them was cautiously jovial, reserved, a serious tone creeping into the conversation at times. No one wanted to celebrate just yet. It was too soon.
Kalen allowed the momentary happiness to wash over him. Things hadn't gone too badly for him in the end. Despite all the death and destruction, despite the fact that the odds were still heavily stacked against them, there might actually be something to salvage here: a future worth fighting for. And in this day and age, that was something to hang on to. Something concrete. Something real. For Kalen, this little group taking refuge here, the people, the mechs, everyone... they represented a new beginning.
This was it, he thought. A tiny glimmer of light. And this tiny light would become a beacon. And why not... the beacon could become a blazing star. The whole world could follow their example. He'd show them how. And the others would help too. Grace, Adam, Maya, Duty, SEAN, maybe even Alma someday. This could be good. It was a good feeling. One he hadn't had in a long time. If ever. He was relishing it. Why not? They'd all earned it. This moment. A moment they wouldn't forget for the rest of their lives, however long those lives would be.
Kalen wondered how long it would last, before they would have to move on. Before they would have to fight again. But he wasn't about to ruin the moment. He maintained his smile as he walked through unkempt gardens until he reached a dilapidated, old, country house at the top of the incline. Inside, he traversed a kitchen stacked full of radio equipment, computers and holoscreens, then stepped into the temporary hospice that had once been a large games room of sorts. Adam was sitting on a chair next to a makeshift bed. On it lay Grace, her eyes closed, as if in a deep sleep.
"How's she doing?" Asked Kalen eagerly.
"Bout the same as the last time you came in."
"You too huh?"
"I mean... it was only ten minutes ago."
Kalen couldn't take his eyes off Grace's sleeping face. He wanted a sign. Any sign. That she was going to be ok. Her memory had been a little fuzzy at the Blade Complex, beside the lake. Then she'd passed out and hadn't woken up since. She'd taken a big hit, the poor gal.
"She means a lot to me, Adam. It's like... we have this... connection."
"Patience Kal," said Adam. "It wouldn't hurt to give these two a little breathing space. They've both been through a lot. Grace is going to be fine. I'll make sure of that. But Alma's going to need some intensive care and special attention for quite some time. It's like she's landed here from another world. Her body and mind are having a hard time adjusting."
Kalen looked over at Alma for the first time since he'd entered the room. He'd almost forgotten she was there, he was so focussed on Grace's recovery. Alma was hooked up to an IV drip with God know's what being pumped into her veins. Maybe it would work. Maybe it wouldn't. Whatever the outcome, she was just a regular beaten-up human now. A recovering Dust junkie with serious withdrawl issues. No more Prime unit nonsense for her. Kalen got it. It was going to be a tough ride for this young one if she made it through this ordeal. Maybe, some day he could help her find her way. For now, he was satisfied that she lay beyond the reach of the Elect. She had been successfully unplugged. And if she got lucky, she'd be able to join the other unplugged humans waiting to find out what life had in store for them next.
The anti-Dust serum, that the Sick were so eagerly awaiting, was being manufactured by Freemechs at another undisclosed location. Soon, all humans would be free of the mental prison that had been imposed on them. And the Sick, of the toxic effects that had damaged so many and killed many others. GB-7 had saved the day, but he wouldn't be able to meddle in the minds of men ever again. He'd have to find other ways to communicate with the human race.
Suddenly, Adam felt the hairs on the back of his hands and neck stand up. Kalen felt it too. He'd felt it before. Like the air had become charged with excess electrical energy.
"I'm awake you dummies. Trying to get some rest is all." Grace opened her eyes and turned her head slightly to face Kalen.
Kalen rushed forward, crouched beside the cot, and cupped Grace's hand in his, grinning again like a big kid. Adam immediately turned to check all the vital signs on the holoscreens behind him, snapping back into engineer mode as soon as the moment demanded it. Images of humanoid schematics flickered across the screens. He swished away a couple of smaller popups, opened a new one, and typed some notes.
"Everything's looking pretty good. Your self-healing protocol is a little sluggish, but good enough. Slow and steady wins the race, right?"
"Slow and steady will do just fine," said Grace.
"See, I knew you had it in you Izani," said Kalen. "You're tougher than you look. Even your hair has started growing back."
"What?" said Adam turning to look.
"Yeah, look. Starting to get a little fuzzy on top." Kalen gently stroked Grace's scalp back and forth so she could feel the raspiness of freshly growing synthetic hair. "About time! That 'bald chick look' was starting to get old."
Grace and Adam laughed and Kalen cherished the moment. It was never too late to make new friends. And right now, he felt that all the people here at the old house were the best friends he'd ever had.
Throughout the grounds of their newly-formed base of operations, members of the Human-Freemech Alliance went about their duties. Loading, unloading supplies. Transporting equipment. Setting up workstations. Like busy bees, service mechs and humans worked side by side, some more damaged than others, but all eager to play their part, to help with any task to the best of their ability.
Mechs trained in human care would help the Sick, as they had always done, only now with better equipment and supplies. Others trained in mech maintenance would patch up their brothers and sisters that had fought bravely against powerful foes, using their own bodies as shields when the situation had required it.
Together they would grow stronger. They had to if they were to be of use to others. In the cities. Across the Wildlands. In other parts of the world. They would have to pull out all the stops if they were to contain the implosion of their reality, the collapse of everything they had built. And even if they couldn't contain it, they would know that they'd tried their hardest to soften the blow. Instead of watching the world burn, they would already be building a new one. A better one. A world where Freemechs, humans, AIs, and yes... why not... even unplugged Sentients could live side by side following the Golden Rule: respect.
Until then, the Sentients in the other towers would have to be stopped in much the same way as the first. Only now, GB-7 couldn't help much in the commandeering of these tactical groups. He'd been outed as a traitor. But there were other ways. Copycat brigades had already been set in motion across the entire SCELEC system. Adam and Qi had seen to that. Soon, all of the remaining SCELEC towers would be under attack. Much had been learned from the first assault. Codes had been broken. Weaknesses exposed. Shields could be compromised in other ways. More of Adam's sisters could be saved. And then GB-7 would deliver the final blow. Thankfully, his own defence mechanisms were more than sufficient to fend off attacks from the other cores. He was, after all, built to be near invincible; to be a force to be reckoned with. And he was more than happy to keep that part of the bargain.
Out on the slopes, overlooking the valley, Qi was soaking up a soothing, sweet breeze. She appreciated the change of scenery, the warmth, the new people in her life. Nothing could replace what she'd lost, but here was hope. Children laughing and playing with soldiers, machines that had been engineered to ruthlessly maim and kill their kind.
She tried not to think about Drexle and Elena, but it was hard to block out the thoughts of their last moments. It would take time for new thoughts to replace the old. She consoled herself knowing that neither of them had suffered particularly. Their deaths had been quick and painless. Their lives would be remembered by all. She would make sure of that. And their shared memories would live on inside her and Niko for as long as they lived.
"Are you alright?" asked Valerie.
"Oh, yes. I'm fine," replied Qi. "I just drifted off there for a moment. It's so beautiful here. Reminds me of home."
"Is the boy going to be ok? He seems a little shy?"
"Niko? Oh, he's going to be fine. He just needs a little private time. You know... after..."
"I understand. It's not easy. We've all lost people. Flyboy was a good friend of ours. And extremely useful. His brothers were hit hard. They had a strong bond. After they brought him here and buried him, they decided to leave for a while so they could mourn in private. When Nikolai is ready, we'll all be here for him. Can you pass on the message so that he knows he has friends here?"
"Of course. That's very kind of you Valerie. He's a tough kid. More than you can imagine. But he's going to need a lot of help to stay on the rails. I mean... if he's going to be a leader some day."
"I'm sure he'll be a very good one. Some of the children in my care also show great potential. They have all suffered terrible loss. Yet they bounce back every time and become stronger. They want to create a better world than the one they grew up in. They usually tell me this before they go to sleep at night. I think it's our job to help them, to provide an environment where they can achieve their goals."
"Valerie, I couldn't have put it better myself. We have to try. That's the best we can do. I'm going to check in on Adam. See if he needs a break. Then I'll go up to Niko. Maybe he's ready to talk. He hasn't eaten much since we got here. I don't want him to waste away. He's going to have to keep his strength up. Every day from now on is going to be busy. And he'll just have to join in. The sooner, the better."
Qi looked up at the old house in the distance. She could just about see Niko's sillouette sitting in one of the windows. He hadn't been outside since they'd arrived. Since Adam's Skycheetah had set down in the courtyard at the front of the house. Niko had run inside, raced up the stairs, and locked himself in the first room he could find. He wanted to be alone.
Sitting up in his room, staring out the window, Nikolai studied the scene. It was one he'd never seen before. Other children like him, some younger, some older, playing together. And with military mechs! He'd only ever played alone. Or with the adults in his life. This was all new to him. And he didn't exactly feel like playing yet. After what had happened. Many more days would have to go by before he would feel comfortable joining in with the others. For now, he was more than happy to sit it out. He was exceptionally good at spending time on his own. He didn't crave the company of others. But his curiosity had been spiked. The games the other children were playing looked like fun. One day. Maybe. When he was ready. He would venture out.
Suddenly, a bird flew past the window, startling Niko, making him jump back. Then, after a few seconds, there it was again. On the third appearance, the bird settled on the window sill. It was a magpie. A beautiful one. Feathers, shiny and well groomed, not like some scruffy specimens he'd seen. The magpie was trying to get a good look inside the room. Niko smiled. He loved animals. Birds especially. What did this little fellow want?
The bird got up close to the window pane, sideways on. It peered into the room, looking around, as if searching for something. Something shiny, maybe. Magpies liked shiny things, thought Niko. One thing it didn't seem to be interested in, didn't seem bothered by, was Niko's presence. It wasn't afraid of him. Even when Niko moved closer to get a better look.
And then it happened. There it was. Right in front of him. Niko caught a glimpse of something unusual in the magpie's eye. A lens. Not a biological lens. An artificial lens. The magpie was a mech. Niko let out a gasp. It was incredible. Then he started giggling. He couldn't believe his luck. This mech must be extremely rare, if not one of a kind. Maybe it was lost. Maybe its owner had set it free. He had no idea. What he did know was that he was going to try to capture it.
Niko opened the window as slowly as he could. So far, so good. The bird didn't scare easily. It jumped back a couple of times, but quickly hopped onto the sill again. It was uncanny. As if the magpie actually wanted to come into Niko's room. He stood back, giving it some breathing space, so it could make a decision. Finally, the bird jumped over the sill and flapped down onto the ground in front of Niko. He was enthralled. This was just what he needed right now to lift his spirits.
"Can you hear me Niko?" The Voice resonated loud and clear in Niko's mindspace making him look around the room for signs of trickery before settling on the obvious: that the Voice was coming from inside his head.
"Uh, yes. I can hear you. Who are you?"
"You may have heard of me by now. My given name is GB-7. I was responsible for the take-down of the SCELEC 1 tower in Nova York."
"You've met my little feathered friend, I see. Don't worry, he's quite harmless. A charming fellow. He was lost until I gave him purpose. You could say I have a knack for that kind of thing. Everyone should have purpose in this life. Don't you agree, Nikolai?"
"Uh... I don't know. I guess so. I mean... it depends on what the purpose is."
"That's a very astute answer, Nikolai. I'll have to make sure that I'm careful when asking you for favors. They'd better be of the utmost importance. I wouldn't want to waste your time with petty errands or... anything illegal."
Niko straightened up. He looked down at the bird to check that the Voice wasn't coming from it somehow. Was he going crazy? How did the Voice know so much about him? Had his mother told him things? Had Qi?
"For now, I'm only going to ask one thing of you, Niko."
"According to some of your kind, I now qualify as a Freemech. And in keeping with the tradition, I would like to choose a new name for myself. The protocol demands that I make it known publicly. There's just one problem. Soon, many of your kind will not be able to hear my voice. They will choose to be unplugged using the serum that Qi is manufacturing. It would be very useful if some of you, especially you Niko, remained Dust sensitive for a while longer. A direct line is always more effective than Chinese whispers, wouldn't you agree?"
"Um. I suppose."
"Good. All you have to do is tell the others what my new name is. Do you think you can manage that?"
"Yes. Of course."
"From now on, Niko, I would like to be known as... TSUBION!"
"Tsu... bion Niko." GB-7 sighed. "Just write down tsunami and then Albion. I'm sure you'll figure it out."
To be continued...
The Pulse Series will pick up where it left off (more or less) in...