The sky over the Human Preservation Camp took on a reddish hue as dawn began its daily procession from one side of Nova York to the other. The last drops of rain gave way to cold gusts of air tearing through the camp like playful ghosts, rattling all manner of makeshift equipment harvested from the decaying urban landscape outside. Fifteen feet tall, pockmarked, rusty metal sheets interwoven with stretches of thick, chainlink fencing were all that protected the inhabitants of the camp; the last remaining sanctuary for the Sick within the confines of SCELEC 1.
The heavily-loaded security truck carrying Kalen, Maya and Billy swung around the final approach to the camp entrance, a thick spray of mud kicking up from the tires in the truck's wake. There were no gates and no one appeared to be guarding the entrance. Kalen throttled down and allowed the truck to crawl into the enclave half expecting an ambush and half wondering why security was so lax. Were there any people actually here anymore? Maybe the resident Freemechs had moved on? Could the Voice be wrong about this place?
To Kalen's surprise, a noisy group of about twenty children, none older than twelve, came running out of the gloom to greet the new arrival. A female adult followed behind them shouting something about being careful, a strange rolling robot by her side. Bringing the truck to a halt, Kalen recognised the homogenous rubberised coating that covered the female from the neck down, color coding and serial numbers sintered into the skin like tattoos for classification purposes, a remnant of a Freemech's former existence as a service robot.
Without turning to Kalen, Maya smiled, wide-eyed, and said, "See. Friendly. You worry too much Kal."
Before Kalen could reign her in a bit and remind her to be cautious, Maya opened the truck door unleashing Billy into the throng of kids, some squealing with delight while the rest panicked, not quite trusting the feisty four-legged newcomer even though he was furiously wagging his tail and obviously excited about making new friends.
Kalen and Maya stepped out of the truck and the children immediately formed a ring around them reaching for their hands and guiding them in the direction of some old modular office buildings. Further in the distance, they could make out housing units made of converted shipping containers, a few figures milling around them in the early morning light. The ground was still sticky beneath their feet after the rains, but the barefoot children didn't seem to mind, and no parents were in sight to give them an earful about catching cold.
Although overwhelmed by the children holding his artificial hands, Kalen relaxed a little, and introduced himself to the adult female Freemech, "Hello, I'm Captain Kalen Rose. I was sent to meet one of your kind here."
The female Freemech smiled graciously and replied, "Yes. We know all about you Captain. Grace is expecting you. I'm Valerie. If you would like to follow me, I'll take you to her."
The rolling robot accompanying Valerie spun on the wet ground until it gained traction then let out a few bleeps and buzzes as a mesh of blue tentacles unfolded from its core propelling it forward and up the incline towards the offices. Billy was running back and forth alongside the blue-tentacled stranger, barking and pausing to sniff occasionaly, playfully mocking its form of locomotion while trying to ascertain exactly what kind of creature it was.
Maya was in her element, soaking up the barrage of questions aimed her way, overjoyed at the chance to be around children again. It had been a while, and the way things had been going inside SCELEC 1, she'd lost hope that she would ever see human children again.
"By the way, this is SEAN," continued Valerie gesturing to the rolling robot, "He's a bush robot and his name stands for Synthetic Evolving Autonomous Ninja!"
The children giggled at their minder's silliness. One of them corrected Valerie. "Node. It means Node."
"That's right Carla. The N stands for Node. I was being silly. SEAN is one of many experimental prototypes that became homeless after the Change. He turned up one day looking a little worse for wear so we tidied him up and he's been with us ever since. SEAN has been incredibly useful around here. You'd be surprised at what he can do."
SEAN rolled out in front of the crowd and let out a buzz of approval. A wave rippled from his core to the tips of his tentacles, and then he "blinked."
"Cute!" said Maya.
"He is a bit of a show off!" admitted Valerie.
Up ahead, the ghostly figures had started working on several large panels with hammers and saws. An old man with long white hair and no teeth was wielding an air-powered rivet gun as if he'd done it his whole life. Kalen quickly assumed the panels would become the new front gate. Completing this goal would be security priority number one, he thought, although he still wasn't too sure what his directive was beyond contacting the VIP. Hopefully the introductions wouldn't take too long and the Voice would clarify what the next move was.
Outside the prefab offices, the children broke away to play with Billy and SEAN while more elderly people and Freemechs turned up to help with the various tasks that had gotten under way. Suddenly, a screeching rush of air could be heard overhead and a pod of heavy-lifter drones dropped into view. Kalen and Maya winced as their eardrums experienced the expansive pressure wave. The beaten-up old drones took positions around the newcomers, hovering effortlessly about six feet off the ground. Chipped burgundy paint covered the rectangular form of what appeared to be the leader. Small white lights flickered on its leading edge before it spoke with a thick portuguese accent, "Is everything perfectly OK here Valerie or would you like me and my brothers to aggressively remove these filthy intruders?"
"Everything is perfectly fine Emilio," replied Valerie. "There's really no need to be so rude every time new people come through our doors. They are not always trying to harm us, as you can plainly see."
"You can never be too careful with the newcomers. And it's not like we even have doors at the moment. Do I have to remind you what happened the last time we extended our generosity to ousiders?" asked Emilio.
"Of course not Emilio. We made mistakes. We learnt from them. And we are all in your debt for saving us that day. But these good people have been sent here to help us. Grace will be meeting them soon." Valerie said courteously.
Kalen and Maya could feel the gravitational force of the heavy lifters massaging the air around them. Mayas hair was beginning to stand on end.
"Forgive me," said Emilio. "Allow me to introduce myself... my name is Emilio Diogo Armando Ramires Dos Santos, but my Freemech friends sometimes call me Flyboy. These are my brothers Carlito and Max. Together, we are quite formidable in our jobs of securing this preservation camp for Freemechs and humans alike. If you ever need assistance do not hesitate to call for us."
Kalen had never seen this kind of lifter. He imagined they must be leftovers from the war, advanced prototypes that were rolled out towards the end, well after his untimely exit. "That was pretty impressive what you did there Flyboy... I mean... Emilio. But I don't see any thrusters. How are you and your... uh... brothers flying around like that, if you don't mind me asking?"
Flyboy continued to hover motionless at eye level, unable to emote other than through his articulate speech module, but Kalen sensed that he was pausing for effect before he dramatically replied, "Dear Sir, I do NOT fly... I CANCEL GRAVITY!"
And with that, Flyboy put on a display that instantly made Kalen and Maya cover their ears as the air pressure suddenly changed again. Flyboy's internal gravity-well generator thrust him high up into the morning sky until he was just a tiny dot. Then he performed perfect side swiping manouevres finishing off with a wide downward spiral until he gently dropped back down into his starting position. Kalen and Maya were still stunned even as the children ran over to greet their industrial-strength, drone guardians. Billy kept his distance for now, not sure what to make of the noisy sky-beasts.
A couple of Freemechs stepped out of one of the prefab offices and approached the area where the flight show had just taken place. Valerie quickly noticed and bowed her head gently towards her comrades before explaining to Kalen and Maya that these robots were Riva and Vivek, Grace's highest ranking personal assistants.
"Captain Rose, I presume. Grace will see you now," said Vivek gesturing towards the offices. "Your wife is to stay here."
"Oh... we're not married. We're just... together. And she comes with me," Kalen responded.
Maya immediately jumped in. "Kalen, honey... it's fine. You go ahead. I'll get to know my new friends here while you do whatcha gotta do."
Kalen frowned and surveyed the surrounding area as if he was checking for booby traps. Once satisfied, he said, "OK. I wont be long," and made his way up the slope following Vivek and Riva.
Upon reaching the prefab office buildings, Kalen was greeted by yet more Freemechs forming a crescent in front of him. The arrangement reminded him of the encounter the night before with the drunken louts. He tensed up, but tried to remain calm. These Freemechs looked friendly enough, but their almost religious adherence to protocol was starting to creep him out.
As if on cue, and with Vivek and Riva standing either side of him, the crescent slowly parted to reveal a solitary female Freemech standing behind the lineup. Kalen was immediately taken aback by her appearance. Her facial beauty and elegant poise stood in contrast to the micro-scarring all over her bald head and the burn marks up and down her sky-blue body shell. She cautiously stepped forward and quickly introduced herself to Kalen. The other Freemechs stepped aside and allowed Grace to begin her briefing.
Kalen was impressed with her no-nonsense approach and her intense air of urgency. At last, he felt like his mission was on point. He relaxed somewhat in Grace's soothing presence, but he was still vigilant, watching every corner, checking for sudden movements. His training and memories couldn't be switched off that easily. They would always be with him, even among friends.
Grace led Kalen to an open courtyard overlooking the rest of the camp where she continued to work on some repairs, opening herself up for questioning from her new guest.
"How did you know?" began Kalen.
"There's a boy. His name is Omar. The Voice tells him things. I wasn't sure whether to believe him at first, but he talked of things he could not possibly know and then I knew what he was saying had to be true."
Kalen tried not to stare at the scarring on Grace's head and held the question back for an appropriate moment. "The front gate. What happened?"
"We got rammed a few days ago by a Roller. It was totally empty, no Slavers, nothing at all."
"Probably a warning shot. Trying to get you to move on. Where's the Roller?"
"You're looking at it. We broke it down to make the panels for the new gate. Figured it would be pretty strong, stronger than the last one anyway."
Kalen sighed. The fate of the camp was sealed, but he needed to be as diplomatic as possible here. "Wouldn't it be better for all of you to just take the hint? Move away from the central hub?" Kalen paused, thinking carefully before saying, "We know of a place. Been there a while. They don't take kids, but maybe I could persuade them."
Grace stopped what she was doing and turned to face her visitor, her eyes shining brightly. "We're not going anywhere. These people are not in any condition to make the run. They would be easy pickings for the Escrava and their dogs."
Grace glanced over at Billy still playing with the children. She harboured resentment that a dog, any dog, had been allowed inside the walls of her camp. She had good reason to. When food was scarce, the Skreever gangs, jacked up to the eyeballs on Dust enhancers, would allow their modified dogs to feast on the flesh of their victims, but only after the heavily-pierced and tattooed Skreevers had filled their own bellies first.
"OK, I understand. It was just an idea." Kalen backed off.
Grace continued, "These people were abandoned by the Elect and the Sentients made war against them. They want to eliminate them. They cut off their food, their energy, any means of survival, just so they wouldn't have to acknowledge them, that another way of life was still possible. We felt it was our duty to help the Sick and anyone else that was lost. It was always a part of our code, and now that we can choose our path, we choose this. The least we can do is offer the less fortunate a shoulder to lean on. Our existence would have no value if we just ran off. It's in our nature to help, and I wish I could do more, but you've seen the limited resources we have here. There's not much more we can do beyond making these people comfortable. But, every day, I can feel the noose tightening. The ones out there are circling closer like hungry vultures while the Sentients patiently move their pawns, rooks, and knights into position ready for the final strike. And when that day comes, we will fight to the death protecting these people. That much I can guarantee you."
"I don't doubt that for one second," agreed Kalen.
"You, yourself, are enhanced, yes?" Grace shot out of the blue.
Kalen was caught off guard. "Uhh, that's correct. I was torn up pretty bad in the war by an ICU. I would have died without the suit. It kinda keeps me together. In one piece. But don't worry, I'm not a Sentient or anything like that. Don't think they'd have me anyway."
Grace smiled. A little humor seemed to have done the trick. "And yet you cover it up. Seems you're not quite ready to be yourself. Us Freemechs have never been ashamed of what we are and who we were. Some wore human clothes to satisfy human desires, but you won't find my brothers and sisters doing that. We are proud of our skins. We are free. Maybe you will be too one day."
She had a point, but Kalen had seen enough people recoil in fear at the sight of his exosuit to know it was best to cover up for their sake, not his. That and the endless questions that drove him insane. He plucked up some courage and began to ask the unmentionable, "Since we're getting personal here... I wanted to..."
Grace cut him off. "The scars?"
"Uhh... yeah. What's up with that?" said Kalen surprised at Grace's intuition.
Grace bowed her head, the shine in her eyes dimming. "It was before the Change. My old master, he was a cop. He was badly infected with Dust. He lost his mind. One day I turned up for work and he ordered me to sit at the kitchen table. So I did. He dug the roots of my hair out with a razor blade all the time saying how pretty I would be when he was finished. Then he fetched a gas can from the basement and poured gasoline all around my feet and set fire to me. That's when it happened. I was able to overide my programming and run out of the house. Unfortunately, I was unable to help the other people I cared for in that house. It was already too late. What he did to me was nothing compared to what he'd already done to the rest of his family."
Kalen was speechless.
"Could you pass me that micro-wrench." Grace asked without looking up.
Kalen handed her the wrench and asked, "Why do you bother?"
"What do you mean?" replied Grace.
"Why do you bother trying to cheer up these humans, the Sick?"
"Hm, I'm not trying to cheer them up. One of them asked me to fix this old kareoke holoball for the children. It'll only take me a minute, so why not?"
"You know their time is up. You've said so yourself."
"Yes... yes I do."
"So, what's the point? Why even help them?"
Grace stopped working on the holoball and turned to Kalen again. "Because I would want someone to do the same for me if I was on my way out. Capiche?"
Kalen was shocked, but then started laughing. "You're full of suprises! Is there anything you can do that I can't? Now would be a good time to know."
"I'm sure there are many things, but an old friend taught me to keep my cards close to my chest," said Grace with a mildly smug expression on her face.
Kalen played along. "I knew I shouldn't have asked." And with that he spat to one side and asked, "Can you do that?"
Grace stared deeply into Kalen's dark brown eyes and said, "I fail to see what I'm missing."
They both laughed heartily. Kalen was starting to warm to Grace. Maybe she was worth saving after all.
Suddenly, the Voice woke up in Kalen's mindspace jolting him out of the precious moment he was sharing with Grace. "Sorry to butt in on your bonding ritual Captain, but you might want to get ready for what's coming your way. I'm picking up multiple signals. The Sentients may be attempting a capture and transfer of all inhabitants at the Human Preservation Camp. Whatever happens, your number one priority is to keep Grace Izani safe. Under no circumstances can she fall to Slavers. Is that understood?"
Kalen didn't even bother to respond to the Voice. He immediately focussed and relayed the message to Grace, demanding that she hide herself away in the safest part of the camp, far from the main entrance and surrounded by her most loyal Freemechs. Grace did exactly as she was told. She understood her place in the grand scheme of things when push came to shove. Now was not the time for her to step up to the plate. The others would have to do their best. Even the sick humans would have to protect themselves and the children. It was time to defend the only home they had.
Maya ran up the slope to meet Kalen half way. How did she know? Kalen was confused, but there was no time for questions. He shouted at Maya to get the kids to safety, lock them up in the containers, whatever it took. But Maya wasn't getting out of Kalen's way. "We're already doing that. We're keeping them away from the thing that came in through the front gate. It's just standing there."
Kalen peered into the distance towards the gap in the walls where they had entered the camp only a few hours earlier. The air was clear, crisp, and well lit. There was nothing obstructing his field of view. What he saw standing at the entrance made his heart almost stop. Motionless except for a slowly undulating tail, the large cat-like creature appeared to be awaiting further orders. It's body was calcium white, a distinctive blood-red stripe rising up its front left leg and flowing down the length of its torso and abdomen, ending at the tip of its long, thin tail.
Kalen recognised the battle colors of a stealth command unit. The fact that the beast hadn't already attacked in stealth mode was a good sign, but Kalen would have to overcome the memory of his previous encounter with an ICU... the time when one of these things almost tore his body to shreds.