The Girl Who Dared to Fight – Bella Forrest

Before the Tower, humanity trusted much of its power to individuals. Most people let others make decisions on their behalf and believed their leaders would keep everyone’s best interests in mind. They tried to be careful about who they gave their power to, but often chose badly. It took time and experience for them to learn whom they could and could not trust, and even then, it didn’t always work. So humanity adapted, creating laws that people hoped would protect them from those who would take advantage, or who sought power over and above anything else. But systems could be dismantled. The people who were given power could be corrupted by it. And more often than not, those who sought power and had only their own self-interests at heart rose to the top. After the move to the Tower, humanity expected that to change. When the very survival of our race required us to put aside the petty disagreements of the past and work together, we assumed that the corruption would fade—that our leaders would work with our collective survival in mind. Hell, we even created an AI, which was supposed to remain impartial and intervene in cases where our leaders weren’t acting within the best interests of the Tower. How silly it was for us to expect that the never-ending need to consume and control would be put to rest with the ashes of our past mistakes. How arrogant to assume that Scipio would protect us forever. And how stupid I was, for thinking I had actually succeeded in uncovering and stopping those corrupted individuals. I stared at Marcus Sage for what felt like an eternity, memorizing the weathered lines of his elderly face and trying to figure out how I could’ve missed the fact that the head of the Medica was involved in a plot to control Scipio.

Because I didn’t think there had been a single shred of evidence to indicate that the ancient man was involved. Not in the files we had stolen, nor in the DNA evidence we’d collected. Everything had pointed to CEO Sadie Monroe and a retired Knight named Jathem Dreyfuss being the heads of an intergenerational organization—members of which were called legacies—who were hellbent on controlling Scipio. As head of the Core, which housed Scipio, Sadie had access to Scipio’s code—which we knew she’d been manipulating, following the examples of her predecessors. And her files revealed that she had planted members of their group in other departments, to help with her plans. As for Dreyfuss, DNA evidence showed that he was the father of many (if not all) members of their small army. He’d kidnapped women from the Tower over the years, impregnated them over and over until their bodies failed them, and then tossed them aside to start the process all over again. Their children had been indoctrinated into the legacy ideology. The most recent batch of mothers hadn’t been with any of the legacies we’d taken. And now that Lacey had killed Dreyfuss, I wondered whether we would ever find them at all.

But it was all irrelevant now, because even though all the evidence had pointed to them, and them alone, I had clearly missed something important. Despite the fact that we had managed to round up every single legacy and put them in cells where they belonged, one had managed to escape our grasp. Even with all the time and effort we had put into capturing them without tipping our hand, we had failed. A strange sort of madness gripped me as it sank in that I was trapped in the Council Room with Marcus Sage, the man who had fooled me, the man who currently had a gun pointed at me. I knew I was in danger—knew he could shoot me at any time, like he had Praetor Strum and Engineer Lacey Green, the heads of the Water Treatment and the Mechanics Departments. But he hadn’t yet. His mistake. I didn’t quite know how I was going to get out of this, but if Sage was the last legacy standing, then I had no intention of letting him out of here alive. But that meant having a plan. I began cataloguing everything in the room, trying to figure out what I had available to me, to try to turn the tables on him.

Strum was definitely dead, given the hole in his head and the brain matter on the wall behind him, but Lacey might not be. Still, she was somewhere behind her desk; I couldn’t just get over to her, check her condition, and see what she had by way of an escape plan. The woman was downright paranoid, and was bound to have something. I had my gun, but it was in my pocket, and I couldn’t get to it without Sage and Scipio noticing. I had already uploaded Jasper, one of the fragment AIs that had made up a part of Scipio’s decision-making process, into the terminal, to testify against Sadie and Plancett. I knew he would help me if he could, but a quick glance at the dais where the holograms had been standing showed the ghostly image of Jasper being physically restrained by Scipio. The great AI effortlessly held him by the throat, in spite of Jasper’s struggles. Scipio looked empty, his expression devoid of almost any emotion, and he was watching Sage intently, as if awaiting the next order. My stomach churned at seeing the AI so vacant of anything resembling life, and I turned back to Sage, swallowing. Jasper couldn’t help me right now, but maybe someone else could.

I had brought another fragment AI with me—Rose. She’d been extensively damaged by the torture she’d been subjugated to over the years, but her erratic emotional state might be enough to overwhelm Scipio, if I could just figure out how to plug her in. Her hard drive was on the table next to the terminal, only a few feet away. If I could only get close enough to it to plug it in… A dry chuckle dragged my attention back to Sage. “I can see those plans of escape racing a mile a minute through your head, Champion Castell. Don’t worry, I don’t plan to kill you yet, and we have a little time. In fact, as you’re one of the first people to get this close to me in almost three hundred years, I have some questions, and I am certain you do as well! Let it not be said I don’t play fair. I’ll answer yours, if you’ll answer mine.” Fear raced through me at how calm and seemingly in control he was. Granted, he had a gun.

But so did I. Mine, unfortunately, was still in the pocket of my uniform. And with Sage’s and Scipio’s eyes on me, I couldn’t go for it. But that didn’t explain all of his confidence. He was still trapped with me, and I with him. Sure, he had control of Scipio, but why had he sealed us inside this room together? He couldn’t call anyone for help, could he? We’d collected all of his people—there was no one left for that. Yes, he could kill me, but Dylan and my friends would figure out what had happened and go after him. What was he planning? I suddenly wished I could net my friends right now. Maddox, Quess, Tian, Zoe, Eric, and Leo/Grey, my human and AI boyfriends, were all in the Citadel, some eighty stories up, overseeing the final transfer of the legacy prisoners they had collected only a few minutes ago. If they could somehow hack into the Council Room… I put it out of my mind; they couldn’t help me, so I had to help myself, and Rose was the best option.

She might be emotionally damaged, but she was the only thing within reach that could distract Scipio so I could maybe get the drop on Sage. Sage had moved while I was thinking and was now standing at the top of the stairs leading down from his desk, overlooking the dais. He seemed unfazed by the fact that I hadn’t asked a question yet, and for a second, I couldn’t come up with one. My mind was too fixated on the little cable hanging from the terminal, nearly a foot away from the port on Rose’s hard drive. Then something hit me. He had said… three hundred years. Granted, he was known for being over a hundred years old, and surprisingly lucid, but that wasn’t what he had said. And he had used Ezekial Pine’s code when he ordered Scipio to seal the room— something that should’ve been impossible, considering Pine was one of the creators of the Tower, and should have been long dead. Could he be… Was it possible? I looked at his face, trying to find any resemblance to the man whose visage I knew from watching the video of him murdering Lionel Scipio, and trying to kill Leo, the backup version of Scipio. But I found nothing.

I hesitated, and then decided to take a gamble. “You can’t honestly think I’ll believe that you’re Ezekial Pine. You don’t look anything like him.” Sage barked out a sharp laugh. “Come now,” he replied, taking a step down. “You came to me with the journal you took from my children’s home. The one on plastic surgery. You expect me to believe you haven’t come to the right conclusion already? Or are you just slower than I’m giving you credit for?” I grimaced at the condescension in his voice, his barb hitting home. But only a little bit. He was right in that I had forgotten about the legacies using an antiquated pre-End medical procedure called plastic surgery, through which people could change their faces.

The legacies had used it to keep their people from being discovered, as it overcame the facial recognition software we used with our cameras. But that didn’t mean I believed him about anything else. Sage might be over a hundred years old, but there was no way he was three hundred. Our medical procedures were quite advanced, but nobody in the history of the Tower had ever lived for that long. This had to be a ploy of some kind. Either that, or he was crazy. For all I knew, he simply had Pine’s original legacy net, and old age had somehow corrupted him into believing he was the former founder. “Yeah, I’m going to say that’s not possible. What, did you get Pine’s legacy net in the lottery a century ago?” He merely smiled. “No, nothing like that.

My net remains my own; it hasn’t left my head since it was put there. And I don’t mind telling you, but forgive me if it sounds like something out of a bad movie. I invented a serum made of stem cells that prevents my own cells from breaking down. That has kept my body going. Kurt, however, is responsible for keeping me sane.” “Kurt?” I echoed. Up until yesterday, I had believed that Lacey had Kurt. She had given me one of her legacy nets, which contained significant memories from her forbearers, one of which included stealing Kurt to prevent the enemy legacies from getting him. But she and Strum had both confirmed that the brother and sister team that stole him had been murdered minutes afterward, and that Kurt had been taken. Instead, Lacey had revealed that she had Tony, one of the two AI fragments that had been unaccounted for.

The AI fragments were remnants of neural scans taken of the Founders of the Tower. Scipio belonged to Lionel Scipio and had been selected as the base for the main AI program, the one that would run the Tower. The others—Kurt, Rose, Jasper, Tony, and Alice—were there to augment his abilities, and represented different aspects of the human psyche. Kurt was a defender, while Rose made up Scipio’s emotional core. Jasper was logic or common sense, while Alice was fear, and Tony was his creativity. And they’d all been ripped out. Leaving Scipio crippled. “Yes. Kurt. My neural clone, placed right in my net, some…” He blew out a breath and cocked an eyebrow.

“Two hundred and eighty-nine years ago. You see, the nets, coupled with an AI, could keep a human mind healthy for eternity but couldn’t do much about the natural cell degradation that accompanies old age. The serum, however, could, and by pairing them together, I managed to achieve a measure of longevity that eluded humans in the past.” I scoffed. I couldn’t help myself—it seemed far-fetched. Sage stopped smiling, his eyebrows rising to his hairline, and he took another step down. “You don’t believe me?” I laughed, and then seized the opportunity to make a move, turning away from him toward Scipio and walking a few precious steps away from the terminal, as if I were thinking. I already had my question for him—a question only the real Ezekial Pine could answer—but I wanted him to think I was struggling, trying to find a way to disprove his claim. “I will if you prove it,” I finally said, when I felt I had used as much time as he was going to give me. I whirled around to see his face reflecting surprise, and then took several careful steps forward, angling myself toward the table, and stopping a few feet away from the cable and Rose only when he raised the gun a fraction of an inch.

I held his gaze, notching my chin up with more courage than I felt, and snarled, “How did Lionel Scipio really die?” Sage blinked a pair of wide blue eyes at me from behind his spectacles, and then scratched his chin. “I killed him,” he said after a moment. When I didn’t respond, he added, “I used a plastic bag, placed it over his head, and let him suffocate. Are you satisfied?” “Not really,” I snapped back, reacting in anger as an icy fear hit me. He wasn’t lying. He was Ezekial Pine. Only he would know how he’d killed Lionel Scipio. “You killed a great man. Why?” It was his turn to scoff, and he ran a hand through his white hair, shaking his head ruefully. “Because I knew that he had figured out that I was the founder of Prometheus and was planning to reveal it to the council.

The man was a blind and arrogant fool. He assumed that we would all be pleased with his little project, and how it was constructed, but he was wrong. He never listened to those of us who questioned him, and ignored our ideas and concerns outright! All to protect Scipio, a creature he had unleashed on us in some blind attempt to change our nature! I’ve spent six lifetimes trying to cleanse the Tower of the taint that is Scipio, and yes, it started with the death of Lionel Scipio. I couldn’t let him stop me.” “But why?” I asked, unable to stop myself. I was shocked to learn that whatever his plan was, it involved killing Scipio. I had always assumed the legacies wanted to control him, and through him, keep the human population in line using fear. But killing him was insane; he was responsible for keeping us alive, and without him, departments would be incapable of transmitting power, water, or electricity, growing food, or continuing to circulate oxygen. “If you kill Scipio, we all die.” Sage snorted and waved a dismissive hand.

“I assure you, my dear, I have been taking precautions against that, ever since my last failed attempt.” “Last failed attempt?” I echoed, cutting into whatever he was going to say. “What do you mean?” Sage smiled and said, “Requiem Day, my dear. It remains an important part of the process. And as for the why, do you really have to ask yourself that question? Look at what he’s done to us. You have no idea who you are or where you come from. That you are descendants of a once-great people who led the world in military strength and touted a shining democracy that no one could compete with! We were the inspiration for thousands of other people, showing them how to be, how to act, how to achieve. We had ambition and purpose—right up until the end. But instead of choosing to keep our history and culture intact, Lionel stripped it all away from us! Forced us to focus only on life inside the Tower, and not the sky and land beyond.” My skin had started to crawl when he mentioned Requiem Day, one of the darkest chapters in the Tower’s history, in which Scipio had gone offline for several long days and nights, casting the population into extensive darkness.

Everyone had been told it had been an accident, an unforeseen problem, but he was saying that he was responsible for it. And that it played into his plan of killing Scipio. But as he continued talking, the crawling sensation switched to a writhing one. His philosophy of keeping the past alive was something that I myself had wondered about. How many times had I questioned the decisions to keep the past hidden from us, or lamented how much humanity had sacrificed in moving to the Tower? But what he was talking about was madness. Destroying Scipio would only destroy the Tower. And more than that, he was the reason I didn’t have a true view of what the Tower should be like to begin with. My perceptions of Scipio and his control had been manipulated by the changes Sage had made to the Tower over the centuries. He’d stripped people of their legacy nets, as they recorded the memories of each generation, and then modified the ranking system, changing it from a way to monitor citizens’ happiness to a way to punish them. He’d transformed it into a system where the lower you were, the more you were stigmatized, until you either improved… or fell low enough that you were executed.

Leo had told me Lionel’s dream had been nobler than that, and he had been appalled at the changes that had been made over the centuries. And Sage was behind them. I couldn’t agree with his ideology, because he’d already corrupted the system before I was born. Instead, I was angered by it. He was just some old man who was clinging blindly to a past ideology, getting people killed in the process. “You’re insane,” I said. “And if not insane, then just selfish. People are dying because of what you’ve done to Scipio and the ranking systems—all because you didn’t agree with Lionel’s ideals and dreams for the future?” His face hardened and he looked away for a moment before taking another step down the stairs, shaking his head, and I slid a few more inches forward, keeping my movements slow. I was within grabbing distance of the cable, but if I reached out now, it would be too obvious. Not to mention, the tension of the room had ratcheted up several degrees, given my last statement.

“Ideals?” He scoffed. “He tampered with his own thrice-damned experiment, for crying out loud! When he scanned me, Kurt’s full memory of me saving my team during the war involved me making a decision to never let situations like the one my team and I had almost died in happen again! He said my ambition was like a poison to the personality, and stripped it away from Kurt, without consulting any of us, before declaring his own neural clone’s program the winner of the selection process. He castrated Kurt so that his precious AI could win, because he didn’t have faith in anyone but himself leading the Tower forward! Our psyches weren’t pure enough for his little project. And when I protested, he accused me of only having my own interests at heart.” He snorted derisively and ran a hand through his hair, his gun still trained on me, right over the wooden rail running along the stairs. “And then to top it off, he made his little experiment inescapable! You don’t think he knew that even after the radiation storms had dissipated, the radioactive byproducts from the Tower’s operation would permeate the land around us, making it impossible to leave? He was keeping us from escaping, from exploring, from creating empires! All so he could prove that humans could live in peace together, as long as they were working for the so-called common good!” He snorted derisively, shuffling down another step. “Yet they still killed each other. They still stole and hurt each other. Requiem Day proved that.” I frowned as he continued making his way down the stairs, trying to make sense of what he was saying.

It was like he was talking in circles, blaming humans for their behavior inside the harsh system he had created, and then using that behavior to justify killing Scipio. Yes, he made some sense when he talked about the land around us being toxic. I had assumed it was an accident, but it seemed like a pretty big oversight by someone as smart as Lionel. But instead of letting us find a way to adapt, or using the Patrians to escape, he’d focused instead on killing Scipio and ending everything. All because he felt Lionel had robbed us of our ambition. “Your logic is a little warped,” I spat at him, unable to keep the ire out of my voice. “You made the changes to the system that make us desperate and afraid. You’ve conditioned us, more so than Lionel or Scipio could, and then you blame us for how we react in life-or-death situations, as some sort of justification for what you’re doing to Scipio! It’s madness!” He rolled his eyes. “Is it madness to want more for the Tower? Our ambition was stolen from us, neutered by Scipio’s very design. Yes, they made him capable of keeping us alive, and finding ingenious ways of doing it, but they didn’t give him the most important trait humanity has to offer.

The ability to grow! The desire to explore and understand the world around us! No curiosity, no drive—just heads down, plodding forward like sheep. Well, I say enough is enough! We deserve better than that!” “And what, you’re going to fix it by killing Scipio?” I shot back, taking a step toward him, placing my hands on the table—on either side of Rose’s hard drive—and leaning over it. My finger brushed against the cable, but I ignored it, holding his gaze and making my scorn shine through. “News flash: The systems are dependent on him being in the Core. Without him, our water, our air, our food, will stop! We will die, and it will all be your fault.”

.

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