Today's Reading

ACT ONE
CHAPTER ONE
Esa

This is not my fault!"

"This. Is. Entirely! Your! Fault!" Jane wasn't just shouting because she was angry with me—though she was, she was very angry with me—she was shouting to time her words between the cracks of her rifle shots, the echoes of the gunfire booming down through the great vaulted chamber we found ourselves suspended above.

Even shouting between the reports of her rifle, her words were almost drowned out by the crackling bolts of electricity that kept soaring over our heads, not to mention the roar of the belching flames jetting from the exhaust pipes below. Underneath all that chaos, there was also the tramp of dozens of steel boots, that particular sound coming from the automatons left behind to maintain this space station, automatons now trying to kill us instead. The service bots were clambering out of the piping that curled down the walls, boiling from vents and ductwork, emerging from every possible crevice like mechanical maggots bursting out of metallic internal organs, an image from some station mechanic's body-horror nightmare.

How many machines did you need to keep a space station running? A few hundred, apparently, and they were all very interested in killing us, even though we were trying to stop the station from self-destructing, which would have vaporized all the automatons right along with everything else onboard. "Self-preservation" didn't rank high on non-sentient automation's programming.

"It's not!" I protested to Jane, tracking the targets rushing toward us through The steam and flashes of chaotic light, though I was saving my rounds until they were closer. Meanwhile, I kept arguing, because...well, because that's what I did. "We're on an intelligence-gathering mission! I was gathering intelligence!" Now the machines were close enough to hurt, and I punctuated my sentence with a staccato burst of small-arms fire from Bitey, my submachine gun; timed it just as Jane stopped to reload. Even my lesser-caliber rounds punched right through the automatons, carving pathways through their steel exoskeletons; these things went down easily enough, but they just kept coming, more and more of them flooding from the crevices and cracks in the station's framework.

"We're on a very specific intelligence-gathering mission; that means gathering specific intelligence! It does not mean—Sahluk! Ammunition!" Jane shouted her interjection further back the reactor core, to where the big Mahren—seconded to us for our current wild goose chase—was holding the center span of the catwalk, along with Sho. The mismatched pair—the massive stone-skinned security officer and the only half-grown Wulf, his fur slick with sweat in the heat—were laying down fire as well, defending both our position forward as well as Javier and the Preacher, further back; Javier was covering the Barious as the synthetic tried to hack her way into the mainframe of the suicidal AI running the station, trying to get us access to its core.

The machine intelligence hadn't been suicidal when we'd first come on- board—it had been perfectly welcoming, then. It was only after Schaz tried to access some of its internal databanks—to track down who had been here before us, otherwise known as "the entire reason we were out here"—that the machine had gone, well...insane. It had been a trap, the AI wired to self-destruct as soon as someone came asking—that someone being us. Fortunately, it took time to overheat a station's fusion core, time that we could hopefully use to stop that incredibly catastrophic thing from happening—but the machine knew that was what we were trying to do. Hence the army of repurposed service bots.

Sahluk was a little busy to respond to Jane's request, given that he was trying to pull his big rock fist out of the center of one of the automatons, but Sho acted in his stead, pulling a magazine from the big bag o' bullets the Sahluk toted everywhere with him. Winding up like he was pitching in some sort of sport with a very odd-shaped ball, Sho hucked the magazine through the snapping connections of electricity with a surprisingly good arm. The young Wulf had spent several years paralyzed from the waist down; he was mostly better now, thanks to some exobraces wired directly into his nervous system, but he still had the upper-body strength he'd developed hauling himself around without the use of his legs.

I fired Bitey dry, trying to hold back the horde as Jane grabbed the thrown magazine and slapped it into her rifle; of course, even while she was doing that, she took time to berate me. "'Intelligence gathering' does not mean haring off to investigate every Golden Age relic we come across!"

"I had the watch," I responded hotly, beginning to back up toward the others even as I swapped out magazines myself—our position was going to be overrun; it was just a matter of time. "It was my call! We knew the cultists had been through this system, and it only made sense that they would have stopped here: plus, clearly—I was right!"
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