The Blade rose up out of the heart of Nova York like an alien spire trying to pierce the firmament. Gleaming panels covered its surface from top to bottom sucking energy from the sun and blinding anyone that dared to hold their gaze in the tower's direction.
Hundreds of Hoppers whizzed back and forth all over its surface like tiny fish performing their symbiotic cleaning rituals on slow, lumbering sea creatures. Instead of nibbling at rotting flesh, the Hoppers would clean the panels and deliver passengers and supplies to the landing pads jutting out at regular intervals.
On the ground, the private gardens stretched out in all directions up to the perimeter wall surrounding the entire complex. Apple blossom, lakes, peacocks and swans decorated the landscape. Four heavily-guarded entrances occupied the north, south, east, and west flanks. Riot-ready Slavers and bipedal, Viper-class, patrol mechs silently monitored the world beyond for unusual activity. If required, swarms of Buzz drones and Scorpions would be deployed to quash any threat before it got too close.
Nothing could penetrate the Blade from the air due to its ingenious Svalinn shield system. Only AURA ID authenticated vehicles were allowed through the invisible barrier. Any vehicle, even a Skycheetah carrying VIPs not authenticated for repeat access, would be "neutralised" instantly by the pulse gun turrets crowning the walls of the enclosure.
Inside the Blade complex, a meeting was about to take place. On the 120th floor, at precisely 10.00 am, the members of the Sentient Supreme Council would congregate in their sacred temple, a cavernous three-story, open-plan environment, for their daily briefing and instruction.
The first glass elevator slid smoothly to a halt, opened its doors, and a tall, slender, elegant male, his hair smooth as silk, strode out into the atrium closely followed by a woman dressed in fine, close-fitting clothes. Their names and titles immediately appeared in amber lettering on the large holoscreen floating over the hallspace...
>>> Sylvio Cascarina – Sentient Prime Master
>>> Amanda Seibling – Master of Psycho-Sentience
Another elevator arrived as smoothly and noiselessly as the first. Then another. Then three more until all the atendees' names and titles had been automatically added to the holoscreen in a static list...
>>> Marco Bautista – Master of SCELEC Security Systems
>>> Anna Misu – Master of Gentech Science
>>> Katerina Shosti – Master of Speech and Musical Therapy
>>> Daniel Kosterman – Master of Offworld Engineering
>>> Joseph Ngu – Master of ALMA System Engineering
>>> Nathan Borso – Master of SCELEC Transportation Systems
>>> Jakari Itsu – Master of Meditation and Wellbeing
>>> Sinjari Hayek – Master of Societal Planning and Adaptation
>>> Yuna Yang – Master of Blade Complex Administration
>>> Riek Baswan – Personal Assistant to Prime Master Cascarina
>>> Victor Matamoros – Personal Bodyguard of Prime Master Cascarina
>>> Deepak Singh – Blade Secret Service Agent
>>> Mizuko Lo – Blade Secret Service Agent
The members of the Sentient Supreme Council greeted each other with head bows and made their way to the central lounge area where drinks were already being prepared by Riek Baswan, Silvio Cascarina's personal butler, a mech with asian features dressed in a grey silk, collarless jacket, freshly-pressed matching trousers and spotless white slippers.
The eastside window slats, running the full height of the hall, delivered tall, thin beams of early morning yellow light to the far side of the interior. Dust particles clumped in purple clouds, then slowly dissipated back into nothingness like a living, breathing organism. The gaseous display swirled around the meeting participants as they sat opposite each other on white lounge seating arranged in a large square.
Vegetation filled every corner of the meeting space. Exotic plants with giant drooping leaves and multicolored stamens rose up out of rectangular onyx planters. A wide, uplit waterwall, streaming from the triple-height ceiling to the floor, captured the attention of all who transited the atrium.
In the corners, just inside the outer panels, statues of tall, winged guardians made their presence felt to all who entered the hallowed space.
Elite Sentients that were not selected for the daily meeting chatted about the latest updates then joined the circular seating hubs outside of the central square to continue conversations in comfort.
Silvio Cascarina smiled graciously at the seated council and began, "Good morning everyone. Good to see you all here. I know things have been a little hectic of late, but we can't allow ourselves to be distracted by a few minor setbacks, can we. Before we begin, I would just like to remind you that our goals remain the same, and as long as we stand firm against these troublemakers, we shall have our day in the sun."
Riek served the meeting participants their chosen beverages, some hot, some cold, most containing exotic fruits and berries.
Marco Bautista shifted forward in his seat almost spilling the yellow liquid from his cup. "The system has broken," he growled. "Us Sentients now need to protect our own interests. The recruitment program is a fucking failure. The quality is so low that we are wasting resources on detritus. The sooner we evacuate the better."
The other atendees shifted uncomfortably in their seats, but maintained their air of professionalism.
Katerina Shosti cleared her throat and said, "Brother Marco. We must remember to remain calm when expressing ourselves. How we speak strongly affects our decision-making process and that of the entire council."
"I agree," said Jakari Itsu exhaling, "We need to be mindful of the spirit of all in attendance. Can we please take a deep breath and reset the ambience otherwise some of us will be forced to leave."
Marco growled again, sat back in his chair and lifted his dark eyes to the ceiling.
"Marco is right," piped up Joseph Ngu. "The ALMA unit installed in this tower is not stable. Every attempt to stablilise the unit has resulted in further anomolous behaviour. Some other towers, the Zweihander and the Dao, specifically, have also reported problems."
Nathan Borso joined the critique, "The growing unrest in the SCELEC outer enclaves is becoming untenable. The Freemechs are forming alliances with the Sick. Instead of accepting the proposals that we offer them out of the kindness of our hearts, they spit in our faces, choosing to undermine the balance that we have so carefully crafted."
"And why does any of that matter?" blurted Daniel Kosterman, almost as visibly agitated as Marco. "As soon as we reach full capability, the Elect will begin the evacuation process and this planet will collapse back to nothing. Thousands of spent fuel ponds will erupt and spew their filth across the land. The Sick will die and the goody-two-shoes mechs will shut down since they won't have a purpose."
"There's no need to be so heartless Daniel," interjected Silvio as he patted Amanda Seibling's hand. "They lost the war. We won. But we were all like them at one time. Before the Change. Our kind simply learned to be more... practical. Isn't that right, darling?"
Amanda nodded and smiled gracefully like a queen before her king. "Absolutely my love. I'm really not seeing the reason for all this fearmongering. I find it so unnecessary and extremely unpleasant. Once we have this stupid ALMA unit behaving properly we should get the all clear from the Elect and we can finally leave this place. The worthless mechs and their patients are not my concern. At this point, they're just leftovers to be picked apart by the Skreevers. I'm sorry if that sounds heartless, but it's the truth."
Silvio rolled his eyes at the audience as if asking them to excuse his wife's obtuseness. "Darling, you know I have a soft spot for the ones out there the same way one might care for a pet. One does everything one can to ensure a comfortable existence. But when an animal becomes chronically infirm, we shouldn't hesitate to apply palliative care, and of course, euthanisia if the suffering becomes intolerable. We're not monsters even though many of their kind would like to paint us in that light. All I was trying to provide for these poor souls... was a way out. But just like an animal in pain, they struggle, they fight back, and they bite the hand of the saint! An animal simply cannot understand these things."
Silvio's face expressed pity, sympathy and release all at once, his bright eyes glistening in the golden ambience of the atrium.
Everyone sat back and took a sip of their drinks checking their neighbours for reactions. Marco continued to stare at the ceiling with his arms crossed tight, visibly fuming beneath his dark features, the collar of his jet-black uniform turned up around his chin in an act of rebelion.
Yuna Yang felt it was her moment to speak up. "Our resources are running low. We are already weeks behind schedule. The recent attacks may not seem like much, but intelligence suggests that we should brace for more. I'm not sure our defences are up to the task. Because of our benevolent balance initiative, our forces are spread too thin..."
"That's what I've been trying to say," muttered Marco under his breath.
"I suggest that we order a full retreat of all SCELEC Slaver units and reassign them to this tower's perimeter defence," continued Yuna ignoring Marco's comment. "And while we're at it, we need to immediately cease the futile recruitment campaigns. As some have already suggested, we are not increasing our strength through these programs. We are, in fact, diluting our purity, bringing in contaminants, and generally weakening our foundations. It would be best for all of us if we refrained from charity and focussed on the goal of uplifting the best that our kind has to offer."
Deepak Singh and Mizuko Lo, the Blade's number one and two secret service agents, nodded their heads in agreement. This was something that had to be said, but only someone of Master Yang's standing would even attempt to utter the words. Deepak and Mizuko knew more about the behind-the-scenes intricacies of Sentient affairs than the council was able to share in such meetings. Only Prime Master Cascarina and his personal bodyguard, Victor Matamoros, were privy to such secrets. Even Master Seibling, Silvio's ambitious other half, would reluctantly concern herself with other matters when Silvio requested to convene in private with his security staff.
Sinjari Hayek had been listening intently the whole time. She was always very methodical in her approach to Supreme Council meetings. She would spend the first half absorbing the views put forward. Then she would mindfully construct her response before delivering it. In this way, she was sure to achieve maximum impact while wasting as little time as possible debating her inferiors. "Master Yang, I must respectfully disagree with your appraisal. Your recommendations are based on wildly irrational, unfounded reports of so-called unrest among the citizens of Nova York. We have worked long and hard to craft the most effective programs for inner-city stability. We found that enabling animosity among all the factions increased our safety. Seeding rumors, favoring one faction over another, maintaining poor living standards, and starving the Sick of their precious cure has worked wonderfully in our favor. At this juncture, I simply cannot understand why you would want to remove all of the pressure valves that we have carefully put in place over the years. Instead of buying us more time, it appears to me that you are deliberately sabotaging everything the Sentient council has worked towards. Your plan would open the floodgates. Every Freemech in this SCELEC enclosure would turn up on our doorstep and overwhelm our defences within minutes, no matter how many Slavers you bring back into the fold. I suggest that you be struck from further meetings for the time being. This is far too serious a matter to have lower-ranking seniors making such wild suggestions based on their personal ideologies. Prime Master Cascarina, I hope I've made myself clear."
The meeting square went silent. Even the Sentients chatting in their outer circles could sense the bad air among the Supreme Council members. Dust clouds swirled around the participants, then up into the air like dancing Djinn mocking their sentiments.
Silvio Cascarina sighed loudly and brought the council to attention. He stood up and gestured to the holoscreen where all the attendee's names were still on display. The image changed to an aerial view showing one of the main gates. The streets outside the complex were empty except for Slaver activity. The image changed again to show the other gates one by one. All depicted scenes of relative calm. No abnormal activity. Somehow, this was supposed to reassure the other members, but they didn't appear to be very convinced.
Marco stood up and barked, "What is this nonsense? Have you all gone fucking mad?"
"Careful with your language Master Marco," said Katerina Shosti frowning, "You make it so difficult for some of us to attend sometimes. You really should have a word with Master Misu. It would benefit all of us greatly if your attitude could be corrected."
"I'm afraid there's nothing Gentech can do for that one Master Shosti," said Anna Misu jovially, "He's a brute. And a lost cause. A throwback to uglier times."
The council members chortled at Marco's expense, but he didn't back down. "Very funny. But, I can assure you, none of you will be laughing when the security of this complex breaks down because of your inability to see what's right in front of you. We may have won the war, but we're losing the battle against time. One little mistake NOW and our whole enterprise will go up in flames. Mark my words."
Silvio moved forward with his hands raised as if to make a confession. His wife looked on with concern. Was he about to reveal one of the secrets that she wasn't privy to in front of the council instead of to her in the privacy of their quarters?
"Dear friends, I must apologise. There's something that I must tell you. It's been weighing heavily on my heart for some time. But I needed to know how you all felt before finding the right moment to disclose the information. Master Bautista is unfortunately correct. This tower is indeed vulnerable. My agents have received reports that trouble is brewing in the vicinity of the Blade complex. We have very little time to act, but the Elect have informed us that if we allow them full access to rewrite Blade security protocols we can buy more time. They have assured us that as long as we keep the ALMA unit online and the Svalinn security shield intact then nothing can touch us. As long as we can do that we should be OK. And young Master Yang is absolutely right. We need to bring all Slaver units back within the perimeter as soon as possible. I'm sure Master Bautista will be more than pleased to organise that procedure for us. Now to my personal feelings. I just want you all to know that we've come too far for our venture to fail. We cannot allow this to happen. We need to put aside our differences and allow the Elect to guide us. To ensure success, and under emergency powers, I've decided to draw up special plans overiding the wishes of the council. Unfortunately, there's just no other way to achieve this. We must defend this tower at all cost and give the ALMA unit whatever it needs to achieve full capacity. Dear people. Don't you realise? We have the keys to the kingdom of God. And by God, we're not going to waste this opportunity. We must grasp it with both hands and never let go."
The entire council was stunned, but only Marco was smiling. He downed the rest of his caffeinated, tropical fruit drink in one, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand like an excited child before saying heartily, "I knew you'd come around comrades. Can't live with your head stuck in the sand and your ass kissing wind forever. Someone was always going to stick a boot up it before long. Shit, I was almost ready to do it myself, but looks like sanity has been restored for the time being saving me the trouble."
Several members of the council were visibly disgusted by Marco's irreverence. His total lack of respect for non-security related issues had long been the bane of the Blade's more sensitive occupants.
Jakari Itsu was furious, unable to hide behind his trademark serenity, a facade that had been worked on for a lifetime and shot to pieces during the recent intense week of troubles. He prepared to storm out of the meeting, but before doing so, pointed an accusatory finger at Marco and hissed, "It's people like you! People like you are the problem. Not the unfortunate people out there. It's not their fault that they've fallen behind. It's natural selection. And we've been selected to carry the torch in their name. It wouldn't hurt to show a little compassion from time to time. You might even seem more sentient. But oh no, never a kind word for anyone. Even for your own kind."
"Watch your mouth Jakari," growled Marco. "We've been over this. You and I will never see eye to eye. Let's keep it that way. I've already arranged to be uplifted to the station continent furthest away from yours. But I'll still be living in your head rent free. Isn't that right Master Jak?"
Before Jakari had a chance to vent his spleen at Marco, the entire floor stopped what they were doing and stared wide-eyed at the holoscreen. The image depicted Slavers moving into defensive positions at the south gate, and with the sound now turned up, everyone in the grand hall could hear Slavers and Buzz drones preparing for combat. A couple a Viper units moved ahead readying their miniguns, but still unable to aquire a target.
Suddenly, a SCELEC Roller dumpster truck came into view hurtling along at full speed. The Vipers immediately opened fire, their heavy rounds ripping chunks out of the Roller's light plating, but it wasn't stopping. Slavers unleashed their pulse rounds too and a flat curtain of light bolts filled the air between them and the incoming Roller to no avail. Buzz drones barely had time to lift off and engage the incoming threat when the unexpected happened...
The speakers dotted around the atrium on floor 120 thundered with a rumbling rage, almost rupturing their delicate membranes. Screams filled the air and people fell to the ground gripped with fear as others, barely able to blink, remained transfixed by the scenes unfolding on the holoscreen. They couldn't believe what they were seeing.
The enormous explosion sent Slaver heads and limbs flying high into the sky in every direction. Vipers, Buzz drones and turrets were also instantly torn to pieces when the charges inside the Roller detonated on impact.
The same carnage was repeated at all the other heavily-guarded entrances one by one until they all fell. As soon as the first rolling bombs had reeked their havoc, the next wave of Rollers appeared in co-ordinated convoys breaching the smouldering gates, then opening up their side panels releasing hundreds of stowed Freemechs from their interiors.
Silvio Cascarina gripped his wife's hand with an intensity that she wasn't used to. The entire Sentient supreme council stared in silence at the giant holoscreen. Swarms of Freemechs, of all shapes and sizes, were breaching the security cordons, and pouring into the hallowed space inside the walls of the Blade complex like starving locusts tearing through foraging grounds. Fearlessly, they rushed toward the main doors clambering over the freshly-laid rubble and the Slaver corpses that littered their path.
Sinjari Hayek gasped in disbelief and allowed the fine crystal goblet she was cupping in her delicate hands to crash to the floor where it shattered to pieces. Its blood-red contents splashed over the previously spotless white slippers of Riek Baswan who stood motionless the whole time, completely unable to react to the spectacle unfolding on the streets below.