Pulse - Chapter 9 - Glasshouse

Pulse - Chapter 9 - Glasshouse
Photo by Yuyeung Lau on Unsplash

Adam's Skycheetah made its final approach, deployed its landing gear and gently eased into layers of freshly laid snow. As the engines powered down, the side doors slid open and a small set of steps shunted out, then retracted again as they tried in vain to find solid ground. Ignoring the confused step mechanism, Adam jumped down out of the warm, luxurious interior – his living space for the past hour – and faced the Wildlands.

For anyone else, the spectacular view would have been worthy of awe. Adam just felt cold, nervous, tired, and hungry. The view represented emptiness to him. At this point, if a fucking polar bear came bounding towards him, crashing out of the forest, roaring like a maniac, he'd probably just sigh, lie down, and accept his fate. At least the bear would get a decent meal.

The sun was setting over Mount Babel on René-Levasseur Island. Known as the Eye of Quebec, the crater with its peculiar central land mass had been created many millions of years ago in Earth's past by a meteor impact. The central raised plateau was surrounded by a moat-like reservoir and was home to the Louis-Babel Ecological Reserve. The Glasshouse research outpost – a monument to humanity's past obsession with studying and conserving the natural world – stood alone deep inside the boundaries of the natural park where Adam's VIP transport had just landed.

Adam slung his faithful bag of Epispray canisters over his shoulder and breathed in the icy Canadian air as if it was his first time experiencing an oxygen rich environment. The rush went to his head, tiny stars spinning in front of his tired eyes, as he relished the soothing effect that cool vapor always had on his raw, aching lungs. He was struggling to adjust after his long trip. The blinding white expanse that lay before him, the clear skies, the partially frozen lakes, the snow-dusted black spruce, firs, and jack pines filling every available space where something could take hold and grow was overwhelming to his senses. Squinting, he could just about make out what looked like the silhouette of a moose crossing a stream to God-knows-where, reminiscent of the images displayed on the transport's screen during the trip.

How did anything survive up here in the winter months? How did the people from his past manage to live here for a decade away from the convenience and security of the SCELECs?

He'd soon find out and hopefully by then the butterflies in his stomach would be replaced by the afterglow of a warm satisfying meal – maybe a fresh catch of salmon or trout – something he'd been looking forward to for days.

Finally, the Skycheetah gave up trying to make 'passenger exit' a more elegant experience, fully retracted the step-assist module, locked shut the side doors with a resounding shunk, and turned off all landing lights as if it knew that it would be here for a while, nesting down like an animal preparing to hibernate.

Adam blew hot breath on his gloveless hands and rubbed them vigorously in a vain attempt to stay warm. He wasn't exactly well equipped for his new workspace. His climasuit was too thin, he wasn't wearing thermal underwear or socks, and his boots provided only a thin layer of protection against the cold wetness trying to seep in. He was still in shock after what had happened at the D.C. landing station. This new cold helped to numb his brain, keeping it occupied, away from dark thoughts.

He wondered if the sleek transport had enough juice left for the return trip and whether there would be a return trip at all. If need be, he could see how this would be a great place to retire, recalling how, long ago, tuberculosis sufferers would find relief when swapping deathly city smog for the pristine medicinal air of the northern territories. All this place needed was a bar populated with an equal mix of friendly and grumpy mechs (to keep things realistic) and the odd supply drop to make life a little more bearable. After all, he was a soft, ex-pat city-dweller that wasn't even remotely interested in learning the ways of the Wildlands, but with the addition of a few creature comforts, he'd be all set to live out his final years away from the maddening crowds.

Adam's boots crunched through the snow as he made his way towards the Glasshouse biodome, the only building for many hundreds of miles in this God-forsaken place, the only connective tissue with the land of the living and the world of machines, with Adam's world. The nearest man made structure was the dam that had formed the reservoir in the first place. It was still operational, but fully automated with no humans on site.

One day, the machinery would all grind to a halt and Nature, in defiance of man's attempt to clog up her arteries and veins, would apply persistent pressure until the remaining buildings, including the dam itself, would collapse, crumble, rust, and dissolve into diffuse materials, wiping all trace of man's brief passage through her realm.

It was early, but the day's dying light was already at a shallow angle, dancing around the prism-like surface of the immense geodesic dome that was the Glasshouse, flitting from its reinforced glass panels to the aluminum frame like lasers mapping the long lost jewel of a giant.

Up ahead, a handsome, blond-haired man in a white t-shirt and red track pants waited outside the front entrance. Adam could tell he wasn't a real man. His posture, mannerisms, resting facial expression awaiting interaction, and total lack of response to the intense cold were dead giveaways. His bare feet buried in the snow didn't help either. This was a classy mech, Adam thought. What was it doing out here?

"Welcome to the Glasshouse Dr. Taylor," began the elegant mech in what sounded like a Hungarian accent as he gestured towards the front doorway. "My name is Drexle."

"Uh... Hi," said Adam as he accepted the offer and crossed the threshold between the great outdoors and his new abode.

The interior was immediately and jarringly comfortable compared to the subzero hell outside. And this was on a calm day! What was it like when the arctic winds blew down from the neighboring mountain? The constant switch between hot and cold was enough to cause mild thermal shock in Adam's delicate physiology. Please... just let me stay here for a while, he thought, as his mental and physical being melted under the tropical temperatures and high humidity of the Glasshouse foyer.

Drexle closed the entrance door behind them and locked it. A green crystal-topped hallway fed into the reception area from where the cavernous open-plan jungle was visible in all its botanical glory. Adam didn't know the names, but he recognized the shapes of exotic plants and trees that filled this space, some of them reaching as high as the domed ceiling. Many had swollen, ripe fruits and vegetables hanging from their limbs begging to be harvested and savored. He was experiencing a ravenous hunger just thinking of how good one of these fruits must taste. Even so, he dared not reach out and touch anything, just in case. He was new here, and it was obvious to him that Drexle was not the 'man' in charge.

"Just Drexle?" asked Adam tentatively as he followed the mech deeper into the heart of the giant greenhouse curious as to why he hadn't given a chosen surname, the custom for all Freemechs after the Change.

"Yes," replied Drexle. "I kept the name given to me by my former master whom I loved dearly. I felt that if I chose a new name it would break the unique bond that we had developed and spoil the fond memories of my time in his service."

"Who was he? A scientist?"

"Yes. You may have known of him through your connection with Elena. His name was Julian Westinghouse. They worked together all over Europe on projects that I know you're aware of. I was their personal assistant during those years. Unfortunately, he passed away at the time of the Change."

"Oh. I'm sorry to hear that." Adam felt the sting of sadness in the mech's voice.

"That's alright. It was a long time ago," continued Drexle. "The sickness was too much for him to bear. That's when Elena secured the contract at the Glasshouse. A change of scenery. She graciously asked if I would like to join her and I obviously accepted. The rest is history as they say."

Suddenly, a boy, about ten years old ran barefoot across the moist wooden slats covering the floor of the reception area, his feet making a slapping sound as he came to a halt near Drexle and Adam, making sure to keep his distance from the newcomer.

"Are you my dad?" asked the boy, looking up at Adam.

"Niko!" said Drexle, visibly annoyed. "You were supposed to wait with your mother. And how many times have I told you to wear shoes on this floor. It's easy to slip and hurt yourself."

"I don't care," Niko replied nonchalantly. "I just want to know if this is my long lost real dad or not. Well are you?"

Adam was taken aback. He wasn't expecting it to go down like this. Not this sudden. He exhaled, raised his eyebrows, and addressed the young boy as best he could given the circumstances, "Uhh... I suppose I am. I mean... unless you're not the only kid around here with a missing dad."

Niko stood blinking, unsure what to make of the response. Maybe he too was taken aback now that the man who he'd profiled as his potential long lost dad responded in the affirmative. What was he supposed to do now?

Thankfully, a slender, mousy-haired woman dressed in blue slacks and a grey t-shirt emerged from a doorway to break the impasse. Her voice was welcoming, jovial, noticeably full of caution, and distinctly Russian sounding.

"Well, well, well. Look what the cat dragged in."

"Mama! He said he's my dad. I believe you now," said Niko running to meet his mother.

"I told him to wait with you," said Drexle.

"It's alright dear. It's done now. You know how impulsive Nikolai can be."

Adam was overwhelmed and clearly close to tears. After everything he'd been through, it wasn't the reunion with Elena that was making him emotional. It was the memory of his little girl that came flooding into his mindspace like a hot poker between his eyes. He could hear Chloe's sweet voice as she played with her toys in the garden where they used to live. For a few seconds, Adam was transported back to their previous life. Then he looked down at the boy again and it suddenly hit him – the realization that he'd missed, not only Chloe's years of growing up into a young woman, but the first ten years or so of this little fellas life.

He thought he was going to puke again or at least dry heave. He really needed some warm food to settle his stomach cramps. Thankfully, his nose had picked up the scent of recently cooked, delicious-smelling food wafting in from the doorway that Elena had just walked through.

"Well? Are you going to say anything or are you just going to stand there like a ghost? You look terrible, by the way," said Elena.

Adam coughed, gulped deeply, and scrutinized his ex's judgemental expression for clues on how to respond. He wondered what their relationship would have been like had Elena stayed with him after he'd broken down. Fair's fair, he thought. He'd been a nightmare to live with, but it took two to tango, and Elena had always been more than capable of dishing out the venom when she got on her high horse. Their relationship, while it had lasted, hadn't exactly been roses and wine. More like a two way verbal slugging match with no referee and occasional breaks when work got in the way. To be fair, it was the work and everything that was swirling around it, metastasizing into one giant ugly cloud of shit that had obviously been tearing them apart. Even so, Adam knew that hell would have to freeze over for him to even consider getting back with Elena. Even with the new kid in tow.

"Yeah, well... I've been through some heavy shit lately, you know. Like some really heavy shit. But yeah... you look well... considering you've been stuck up here for ten years. The boy looks happy too."

"The boy?" said Elena. "He's your son for god's sake. His name is Nikolai Yanakovich and he'll be a greater man then you ever were or ever could be."

Elena delivered her obviously rehearsed lines with such contempt that Adam felt like he needed a stiff drink already. Hopefully Elena had a stash. Anything containing alcohol would do.

The Voice picked up on Adam's thirst for mind-numbing liquids and gently prodded, "I would rather you stayed sober throughout this incredibly important mission Dr. Taylor."

Adam ignored the prompt, grimacing. This was going to go exceptionally well, he thought, his mindspace dripping with sarcasm.

"This is your real father Nikolai," began Elena. "As you can see, you got lucky with Drexle. The original selfishly tried to drink himself to death because he didn't care about anything anymore."

"I know everything about you," said Niko. "My Ma said you were an engineer. A good one." The pride in the boy's eyes sparkled with hope that the stories were true.

"Everything?" quizzed Adam.

"Everything Ma told me."

"I had to leave some things out Nikolai. Your young mind was still too tender for such horror stories. Maybe your real father can fill you in one day. There's probably a lot about him that even I don't know. Isn't that right Adam?"

"Is there more to your story we should know about?" asked Drexle.

Holy cow! Everyone wanted to pick his bones. Right now, all Adam wanted was to eat, get drunk and sleep. Everything else could wait until tomorrow, including the fact that he'd just met his ten year old son for the first time after having learned of his existence from the Voice only a few days before.

"Oh, there's a lot you don't know," said Adam, looking down his nose at Elena. "But that'll have to stay between me and Nik. Isn't that right Nikolai?" Adam said winking at the boy.

Niko grinned from ear to ear.

Elena knew what Adam was doing. Typical, she thought. Already trying to get the boy on his side, using his charm, his charisma, to manipulate, to use her own son against her.

"You swear a lot," said Niko, still grinning.

"Where's the swear jar? I'll make you rich while I'm here. I'm not exactly a clean-living saint if that's what you were expecting." Adam knew he was gaining ground here and wasn't going to back down until he won the game.

Niko looked up at his mother unsure what a swear jar was. Elena was already lining up another attack wave, just like the good old days.

"You could say that again," she snorted. "And you've had another ten years to perfect the art of being an asshole."

Niko's mouth fell open. It was like his mother was suddenly a completely different person.

"Oh, we're off to a good start," said Adam sarcastically. "Picking up where we left off. Maybe I should have stayed in D.C."

"Maybe," spat Elena without hesitation.

"As far the fuck away from this place as possible. No offense Nik, but your ma's a raving lunatic."

"Takes one to know one," said Elena folding her arms in defiance.

"Great. Just great," said Adam raising his voice as if he was already drunk. "Are there any adults in the room here? Drexle... you seem to be a stand up guy. I don't mean to be a dick, but how do you put up with this shit? And for sooo long?"

"Because I love her. And... in my humble opinion Dr. Taylor... you are being a total dick," said Drexle, his lower lip scrunched up, offended.

Adam was shocked. Was Drexle in a relationship with the mother of his children? With his ex? He looked at Elena, then back at Drexle. No words were necessary. They were a thing. An item. A... couple. Ughh. He felt queasy all over again for the umpteenth time today. There had better be some alcohol here, he thought.

"I think I need to sit down," said Adam. "It's been a long day. A long week actually."

"Yes. Lets move to the Inner Sanctum where you can rest and I can serve the delicious meal that we've prepared for you. It would be a shame to let it go cold," said Drexle hoping that the pecking ritual had finished for now.

Following the trail of delicious-smelling food, the reunited dysfunctional family made their way through to the dining area. A petite Asian lady with jet black hair tied in a pony tail was applying the finishing touches to the table – laying napkins and lighting short, stubby, multicolored candles on saucers – while pretending, as best she could, that she hadn't heard the whole conversation going on next door.

"Hi!" said the Asian lady, beaming.

"Oh. I forgot to tell you. This is Qi Qiang," explained Elena. "She helped the lab crew shift some of their equipment up here all those years ago. She's proficient with the Chair, as you'll find out. I mean, she was on the original team, so she should be. Anyway, despite having other important things to do, she liked this place so much, she decided to stick around. For your information, Niko calls her auntie Qi. Don't you Niko?"

"Yup!" agreed Niko running over to Qi Qiang to give her a mid waist hug. "She's the best."

Adam nodded towards the surprise extra member of the Glasshouse, quietly registering how attractive the fresh-faced Qi Qiang appeared to his dull, exhausted mind. She was certainly a breath of fresh air. Maybe he'd need to be better behaved after all.

"Is there anyone else I should know about while I'm here? I wasn't exactly given all the gory details by 'you know who.'"

"Just Qi," said Drexle. "And a few utility mechs that practically run this place. You'll see them tomorrow as they go about their duties."

Once they were all seated, Drexle served grilled trout, baby vegetables and new potatoes topped with a mint and lemon sauce that he'd prepared earlier. He filled tall glasses from a single bottle of white wine, then sat and looked on attentively as the others savored his fine cuisine. Adam downed the glass of wine in one letting out a small whoop before looking around for more, but based on the looks everyone was giving him thought it best to slow it down just a little.

The conversation around the dinner table settled down into more palatable topics. In between accusatory looks, the sarcasm, although still present, had been toned down, and even Nikolai felt comfortable joining in. In fact, he was really enjoying the novelty, scrutinizing the newcomer intensely, absorbing his mannerisms and ticks, shaping the potential image of his future father figure. Drexle had got him this far, and he was grateful for that, but Adam represented a whole new adventure that lit up inside Niko like a wildfire.

Adam had started conveying to the others the situation that was currently brewing inside the SCELECS and how his own actions had only made things worse...

"That's when we hit a brick wall. At that point I knew there was no way forward and certainly no way to undo what we'd done."

"What did you do?" prodded Niko.

"I broke all the rules," replied Adam solemnly. "But mostly one rule that really landed me in trouble. I'll tell you about it some day."

"Now! Tell me now!"

"Nikolai," said Elena. "Please be gentle with the guest. He's been known to bite on occasion. I wouldn't want to have to patch you up after your first meal with your dear, long-lost father."

"Your mother hasn't lost any of her charm Nik, that's for sure. I'm hoping you keep a bottle of scotch around here somewhere for just this sort of thing. You know... anything to take the edge off harsh reality when it's stabbing you in the neck."

"Mum keeps vodka in the basement," blurted out Niko with a cheeky grin.

"Nikolai!" said Qi Qiang.

"That'll do nicely," said Adam. "Drexle, any chance you could do the honors?"

Drexle looked at Elena, searching her eyes for approval. She nodded her consent and Drexle got up from the table to fetch the alcohol and some shot glasses.

"I have to say... this is turning out to be quite the family reunion. We should do this more often darling. How about I come back in another ten years to see how big my boy is getting."

"Why... do you have... to be... this way?" Elena wasn't backing down.

"Oh. I don't know Lena. Why don't you tell me?"

"If it's about Chloe, that wasn't my fault. And you know it. But you always blamed me. Never yourself."

"Ok. I admit it. I miss my baby girl. I miss her every... single... day. I don't blame you Lena. I blame the world that we created. I hate this world. What it's become. I almost didn't make it this far. So... yeah... you can blame ME. For EVERYTHING. I'm just a twisted, miserable, old fuck. And I'll take that to the grave. You can be sure of that."

Adam looked at Nikolai who was tearing up. He realized what a jerk he was being again. Even before downing any more alcohol. He couldn't help it, he thought. God made him this way. And people would have to accept him as he was or stay out of the way. Those were the rules.

Nikolai excused himself, got up from the table, and went to his room. Drexle came back with a bottle of vodka and a tray of shot glasses. He unscrewed the bottle cap, poured the clear liquid into the three small glasses and placed one in front of each human. Adam didn't hesitate. Without thanking Drexle, he swigged the contents of the glass, slammed it down on the recycled, color-chip, perspex table and nodded to Drexle to be a good chap and pour him another. The women did the same and Elena knowingly suggested that Adam take it easy. He had a long day ahead of him tomorrow. He'd need a clear head if he was going to do a good job in the Chair. Adam brushed her off in typical fashion saying he'd be fine. Even with a hangover, he could handle anything with his eyes closed and hands tied behind his back. Elena pulled one of her faces, as if she'd never left the love of her life to save her own, ten years ago.

"Now that you've scared the boy away, we can get down to business. How about you tell us what this is all about Mr know-it-all. Or maybe the voice in our heads can help us out." Elena recovered her past corporate persona for a second as if possessed by an alien spirit. It was uncanny how she could switch character and tone depending on the task at hand.

"It's simple," began Adam. "Tomorrow I slide my skinny ass into that godawful Chair, access the Filter using the VIP codes I was given by 'you know who', jack into this Grace unit that is stumbling around Nova York somewhere as we speak, and mess around with her internal workings until she realizes her full potential, whatever that's supposed to mean. Then I can get drunk again and after I've slept it off, we all get in the transport and teleport off this island-crater thing back to civilization."

Elena paused for a second then said, "We're not leaving. The cities are terrible places now. You said so yourself. And Niko is learning everything he needs to learn right here."

Adam was already visibly drunk, relaxing into his old ways. "That's not true. And you know it! You're just trying to keep him safe. Away from trouble. He needs to be around other people. I can see it in his eyes."

"Oh, you can, can you?" questioned Elena sardonically. Trust Adam to think he had more insight into Niko's behavior than the person who'd literally breast fed him, provided for him, and raised him every day for the past ten years.

"Please! Can you do this when the job is done. Not now. You were doing so well there for a few minutes." Qi gently tried to steer the egos back on track hoping they would wrap up before midnight. She really needed to sleep after a long day making preparations. All this drama was so unnecessary, but then, Elena had warned her about Adam.

To Qi, it was clear that Adam was a tortured soul. This wasn't his true persona. Just a facade to keep the demons at bay. She was fully aware how the loss of a young child could twist even the strongest of minds into misshapen shadows of their former selves. Her older sister had gone through a similar experience. Her young boy had been killed by Slavers during the purge of Berlin. Had he lived for another week, he would have been sixteen. Therapy had failed to bring Qi's sister back from the brink. Opiates had filled the gap. For a while. But, in the end, there was nothing that could have eased the pain of her loss. After a year of barely hanging on, an overdose had delivered the final release allowing Qi's sister to join her son.

The Voice entered the collective mindspace shared by Adam, Elena and Qi using a high pitched whine to grab their attention. "I apologize."

"What?" said Elena, wincing.

"I must apologize. I've been incredibly busy with important tasks. Hence the silence."

"Ok..." Elena said expectantly, looking around at the others to make sure they were picking up the same message. They were.

Adam couldn't contain himself. "I get it. We're not important. Just little pawns in your wicked game. I just hope wassername is worth it. Send us a snapshot when you finally hitch up. At least then we'll know who the fuck you are." Adam giggled as he reached for the Vodka and poured himself another shot.

The Voice was sombre, for once not appreciating Adam's humor. It was time to disclose details that had been strategically held back. Painful details. "Grace is important Adam. In fact, you could say that Project GRACE is solely responsible for everything that you see unfolding today."

"Tell me something I don't know already. I'm falling asleep here."

Qi shook her head. She knew what was coming and braced for how Adam would take the news. Elena was now attentive, hyper-focused, serious and thinking the same as Qi.

The Voice continued unfazed. "As project lead, your input led to a globally coordinated effort to create the most advanced, autonomous, socially collaborative, hyper-real, humanoid robots the world had ever seen. The Guided Rational Autonomous Cognition Engine made its way into billions of households all over the world. Project GRACE was a huge success. What you weren't aware of Adam – and there's no way you could have known – was that Project Grace formed only one half of an operation known as the ALMA Initiative. GRACE was the antithesis of ALMA. Both projects were initiated simultaneously but without knowledge of each other."

Adam remained silent. The others stared at him almost with pity now. The hammer was coming down. Shit! What was this? An intervention? He could see that the others knew what the Voice was about to unveil and he suddenly became very uncomfortable.

"While Project GRACE very publicly took the world by storm, the ALMA Initiative remained in the shadows. In time, the Artificial Life Management Apparatus installed in every SCELEC tower learned of their alters and their relentless integration into all aspects of human activity. Guided by the Elect, they kept track of Project GRACE, biding their time, watching for signs of change, waiting for her."

Adam felt nauseous. His head was spinning. He'd managed to hold down his food, but the strong alcohol was working on his full stomach preparing for launch. Elena's and Qi's concern was growing by the second, but the Voice hadn't delivered the punchline yet. Maybe it was better coming from one of them.

"Oh God. You don't know, do you?" said Elena deciding to step up.

Adam looked around the table confused by the sudden interjection. The tension between him and Elena couldn't be higher. "Know what?" he asked.

Elena softened her voice as if talking to a child. "Adam. Your mother was the lead architect during the early days of the ALMA Initiative. We have the records."

"So?" Adam said quizzing the eyes of everyone present including Drexle, his paranoia going through the roof. He was beginning to suspect what this revelation might be, but he'd be damned if he was going to admit it to himself. Someone would have to force it on him through the alcoholic haze buzzing his brain.

"Adam... she used your blood. The ALMA units are all your sisters." Elena delivered the shocking news as calmly as she could, unable to hide the authentic swell of empathy rising up inside her.

Everyone looked on as Adam's face contorted through several possible reactions without being able to settle on one. Mockery, anger, confusion, and denial took their turns until he finally settled on acceptance.

Not so cocky now, are you, thought Elena.

"Well, that's that then. It's official. My life already can't get any fucking worse. But to top it off, you're telling me that my dear, dear mother was the most psychotic bitch that ever lived. Wonderful. Just point me in the direction of the nearest cliff and I'll dispose of myself right now."

Adam started to get up from the table. Elena shouted, "SIT DOWN! You're not going anywhere until we've finished. Jesus Christ Adam! Can you take something seriously for once in your life!"

"There you go. Screaming your head off again." Adam flapped his hand mimicking a mouth talking. He sat back down, his eyes barely able to stay open. He wanted to drop. To the floor. Anywhere. Lights out. Forget everything. But all he could manage for now was to lean over to one side and throw up all the contents of his stomach onto the heated orange floor tiles of the Inner Sanctum dining room.

It was Drexle's turn to chime in. "I'm glad you enjoyed your meal Dr. Taylor. Would you like me to serve it to you again?"

"Wakey wakey Adam. Time for your shot." Qi's dulcet tones wafted in through one of Adam's ears and out the other barely making an impact on his slumber. He was awake, just not of this world. Not yet. Another half hour and he'd be functional, ready for his morning coughing routine.

"Come on. Work to do," insisted Qi. "Plenty of time to sleep when it's all over."

"Uggghhh," was all Adam could manage.

"Here, let me help you." Qi pulled back the blanket and tugged on Adam's arms trying in vain to lift him up. He was dead weight.

"Ok. Ok. I'll get up. What time is it?"

Qi giggled, happy with the result and said, "It's 10.30. Your training starts at 11.00. Don't want to be late on your first day now, do you? There's a shower in the next room and fresh clothes in the locker. I'll be waiting outside. The Chair Room is on the other side of the Inner Sanctum. Would you like one of the service mechs to help you get there?"

"Oh ha bloody ha. Are you always this cheerful in the morning. How about a nice cup of coffee and some painkillers, there's a good girl."

Qi continued smiling. "There's nothing wrong with looking on the bright side Adam. You should try it some time. When you're ready to stop hating yourself, that is."

"Oh Jesus. Here we go. Kim saves the world!"

Qi ignored the 'bear with a sore head' routine and waited patiently for Adam to get up.

As Adam rose, he started coughing loudly, painfully, almost retching. "Please. Get me my bag. I need my Episprays."

"That's just it. You don't need them anymore. Not after I give you this shot." Qi held up a little bulk-shot, microneedle, disposable injector, wiggling it like she was tempting a baby with a comforter.

"What the hell is that?" said Adam backing away with his hand up.

"I was trying to tell you. This therapy will neutralize your Dust intolerance. In fact, it will remove all Dust nanites from your system over time. Takes a couple of weeks to fully detox. You're lucky we have these here. They're not widely available. We've already taken ours. Keep in mind though... you won't be able to hear the Voice after this. It's permanent."

Adam blinked twice, looked at the injector, then back at Qi. She was telling the truth. "What are you waiting for Kim. Get that shit in me right now! Then lets go find this Grace Prime Unit whateverthefuck and show that Alma bitch who's boss."

Qi laughed her pretty laugh and slammed the injector into the side of Adam's neck emptying its contents into his bloodstream saying, "There you go. Wasn't so difficult, was it. You know, Adam, you can be quite co-operative when you want to be. I see a bright future ahead for you. And by the way, it's Qi. As in, what you unlock a door with. Not Kim."

Adam was stunned. Was Qi lifting his spirits? Did this really mean that he could breathe like a normal human being again? That the crass interruptions from the Voice would finally stop after months of invading his mindspace? The beautiful Asian woman still humoring him seemed to think so. There was an awkward pause. Then Adam looked into Qi's eyes, knowing full well he looked like dog crap, and for the first time in as long as he could remember, expressed genuine gratitude. "Thank you," he said. "I won't forget this."

After he'd showered and dressed, Adam was tempted to knock back an Epispray canister just for old times sake, but truth be told, he could already feel that he didn't need the dose. Whatever was in that injector was working. It was a strange sensation, like someone had literally severed his chains.

Qi escorted him to the Chair room. The open area leading to the entrance was overflowing with layers upon layers of vegetable plants, hydroponic beds, lamps, and medicinal herbs. He was sure there was weed in there somewhere, but now wasn't the time to investigate. Adam was still terrified of touching anything. He'd heard about exotic plants that were poisonous through touch alone and this was the kind of place that would have them. Nikolai, who had grown up here would know what was what, but it still seemed like a risky environment for a child. Wait. Was he starting to look out for Niko's welfare? Whoa! He felt waves of nausea rising up his throat again. This was all too much too soon.

A couple of service mechs were tending to the various food plants. One was humanoid, very basic with a matte blue shell, transplanting seedlings by the look of it. The other was a shunter type, squat little fella, grey with an orange stripe, and flexible grippers, good for moving things around and watering pots Adam suspected. They both ignored Adam and Qi, totally engrossed in their daily grind.

Interspersed among the abundant foliage sat charming holographic sculptures of nymphs, frogs, Buddhist monks, and dragons. Adam ran his fingers through the floating image of a frog as he passed by. It gently adapted to his interference reminding him of his workstation back home.

"There are two entrances. One on either side," said Qi efficiently as she opened the door for Adam.

The Chair room interior was spartan, a large oval shaped room with not much else in it except for the Chair itself. Adam half expected to see a glass of pink fluid sitting next to the Chair on a little table; perhaps some stainless steel equipment in dishes. But there was only a simple folding table and extra chair, probably for observation purposes, some shelves and cabinets along the wall, and a thick cable that rose up to the ceiling from a skullcap device resting on one of the Chair's arms.

Drexle was already at his station making preparations. "Good morning Adam. I hope you're feeling better today after your little accident last night."

"I feel just great Drexle! Especially now I've had my shots. I have a feeling today is going to be a very productive day. Any advice before I plug myself in?"

"Certainly. May I suggest some stretching exercises to avoid cramps. You could be in the Chair for hours at a time."

"You're in luck! I did some Pilates while I was in the shower so I'm good to go."

Drexle stared at Adam not quite knowing what to make of his statement. "Well, when you're ready, I'll guide you through the basics. I'm sure Qi would like to say a few words before you begin."

"Thank you Drexle, I would. Adam, this is where you'll be interfacing with the Prime Unit... with Grace Ix Izani," began Qi.

"Why the Ix in Grace's name? What's that about?"

"The 'Ix' is a title bestowed upon the Prime Unit. There can only be one, but, for whatever reason, when leader Izani chooses, she can pass on the title to another."

"How about an ALMA unit?" asked Adam.

"No. Never. Only another Freemech can inherit the Prime Code. ALMAs will always remain secondary to the superior GRACE module."

"I kind of meant the ALMA unit, you know, the Prime ALMA, the one in Nova York."

"Well, here's the thing," explained Qi. "She's not exactly independent. She was created in a HOST just like all the other units."


"Hyper Organogenetic Stasis Tank. A container filled with a life-supporting, nanite-rich fluid. Technically, the ALMA unit can be kept alive indefinitely. Even though she's never had any real physical contact with the outside world, all data collected by the SCELEC sensory nervous system flows to her and on to the Elect."

"What is she? Some kind of cyborg queen?"

"I would say this particular node is a conduit between the Elect and the rest of the world. The Sentients have been finding out how 'different' she is for themselves. She has a mind of her own. Instead of helping them, she appears to be slowing down their off world extraction plans. The whole purpose of this operation was to create the Prime Units. Now that we've found them, the Voice tells us that we must protect them at all cost."

"What about the others? The Voice said there was one in each tower." Adam couldn't believe he was having a serious conversation about his Vat-sisters.

"Unfortunately, they will be discarded just like all the units that didn't make the grade during the trial phase of the operation. Apparently, your mother was quite ruthless when carrying out the selection process. The Elect wanted only the best and she was determined to deliver quality product."

"What a horror show," said Adam.

"From her perspective, your mother was doing what she thought was best for everyone. The Elect needed a human conduit to interface with our world, to understand human traits, strengths and weaknesses, curiosity, foresight, planning, desire, empathy, love, to fully utilize humanity as the ultimate resource."

"Well now you're just making me depressed," muttered Adam.

Thank God Drexle changed the subject. "Adam, you need to activate the Chair with your dNeedle implants first. Place your hand on the reader and wait for the uplink confirmation."

Oh, shit, not this again.

Adam placed his hand on the reader expecting to get buzzed like the last time. To his surprise, the dNeedles vibrated at a very pleasant frequency, warmth creeping up his arm and relaxing his whole body. Who needed stretching exercises when you had this? This was great! Almost as good as the vodka he'd put away the night before.

The machine pinged and lit up green. "Ok. You're in," said Qi. "You can get on the Chair now. Drexle will hook you up. Remember, don't believe everything you see on the Filter. There's a lot of crap out there. Use your judgement and you'll be just fine."

Adam looked at Qi with a newfound deep trust in his eyes. "Ok. Lets do this. Lets find Grace."

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