Chapter 6.4: Ghost in the Machine

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He rushed to the back of the booth, to a door that had rusted in place, leaving a small gap to squeeze through. He sucked in as much of himself as he could and began to push himself through. He was half way in when he was tapped on the shoulder.

"Just stop that," Astral splutter. "It's embarrassing." He sagged. He couldn't even turn to look her in the eye. He tried to push himself out. He needed to keep her safe. "Don't bother, I hit pause." He felt like a child who had deeply disappointed his parents.

Astral pulled on his arm, attempting to pull him out of the small opening. He sighed and wiggled out, returning to the booth. He couldn't muster the energy to glare at her. He fell back against the rusted door and slid to the ground, his legs refusing to support him a second longer. "Is that all you've got?" Astral sneered.

He had never encountered anything quite like the swarm she had pulled from the program. "Easy for you to say," he growled. "You're here. Safe."

"I had the same amount of time you did to get here." Her tone was harsh, reminding him of a firm teacher who wouldn't accept any self-fed excuse.

"You used me a decoy!" He found his rage.

Astral's lips curled into a menacing scowl. "I did nothing of the sort."

"How do you explain that!" He gestured to the metal barricade that separated them from the swarm.

"That," she pointed toward the direction of the swarm, "Is not going to do anything. Were you not paying any attention to your surroundings?"

He was ashamed to admit that he was not. He was so fixated on getting to the security booth that he ignored everything else. "You missed two opportunities to takeout that swarm. Both would have given you plenty of time to make it here more or less unscathed." She shrugged, "But there's no accounting for skill there."

"Hey!" That hurt, right to the core. Who did she think she was to lecture him? What gave her the right to criticize his skills against an enemy he had no idea existed? She gestured to him. He glanced down. His coat and pants were soiled and torn. His clothes were wet from blood and sweat. He felt the sting of his injuries, not all of which could be attributed to the swarm.

"How was I supposed to deal with something like that without a weapon?" He hissed.

"Do you sleep with a gun?" She asked honestly. "Do you shower with a gun? Do you dine with a gun at your hip?" She shook her head. "Little good it would do you. You plan on shooting every last one of those insects? Do you know how much ammo that would cost you? Besides, running is your best option until you see an opportunity to take out as many of them as you can."

"You just gave me crap for running!" Seth shouted.

"No. I gave you crap for missing two opportunities to take out the swarm."

"Go on then, genius," he sneered. "When did I have the chance to take them out?"

"You could have set the vehicle on fire as soon as the swarm manifested." She raised her index finger. "You heard them scratching, right? There's a strong scent of gasoline, a weird anomaly in the program I assume; it should have been enough to do the job. Those little bastards were probably made of gasoline by this point."

"Light them up with what?"

"You just need one spark," Astral replied.

He fumed. It was a valid approach, and it could have dealt with most of the threat to an almost manageable level. "Fine, what else?"

Astral raised her middle finger. "The pillars. It didn't stop to consume the pillars because it wanted you. It's also very thick but had you stuck around; it would have tried to go through the pillar out of frustration. Forcing it to eat it-"

"Would have caused the floor above to collapse. It would have killed me," Seth challenged.

"Especially since you. Don't. Pay. Attention," she assaulted his chest with her index finger. "Result, it would have crushed the swarm, granting you access to the upper level, which in theory would have better lighting conditions or better, sunlight. Though they have consumed a great deal of metal... In theory, their metal skin may have been enough to make that irrelevant."

He narrowed his eyes, glaring at nothing as his mind processed the snippets of information Astral had been feeding him over the course of this disaster. She had to be so much more than a survivor. Was it possible that she was a Hunter? At fourteen? Was that even possible?

"Now you're in a real pickle," she continued to instruct. "If you would have made it inside that room, sure you'd have had a gun, but you'd be cornered. You'd have about as much time as it takes for the swarm to eat the door. After that, you're bug food. Assuming you don't go for the guns, you're still screwed because now the insects have ingested even more resources."

"What do I do?" Seth felt like his pride had been torn apart, shredded by some little girl who wouldn't have to step foot onto the killing fields. How could she? He felt insulted. He felt angry at her for saying such cruel things. He felt angry at himself for his incompetence. He was the pride of the school, and he wouldn't have survived ten minutes in a real battle against demon spawn.

"You, do nothing. Let me handle this," she told him, tossing him her hand tablet. She unlocked the door and stepped out of the booth. "Program resume."

The insects bore their way through the thick metal shielding. It wouldn't be long before they tumbled out of the holes they created. Astral didn't waste any time. She leaped from the wall to the booth, catching the metal divide, separating the lower part of the frame from the windows. She soared backward, striking the cement brick wall behind her, giving her enough momentum to reach the exposed pipes and wiring above. With all of her weight, she dove to ground level. The bundle of wires in her hands broke apart, sparking excitedly at their new found freedom. Just as the first of the insects burrowed free, Astral lunged toward the barricade, connecting the live wires to the metal divide. The lights flickered as the energy surged to electrocute the metal reinforced swarm beyond.

Same old same old! Like this chapter? Please fave it.  I love to hear your thoughts (even though I may get a bit argumentative - tis in my nature I'm afraid)  leave a comment below. I've recieved such wonderful feedback from my readers on here and various other platform, giving me different ways to look at my approach to this story.

Also for your viewing pleasure, I've included a piece I've commission of Seth. Thoughts on that would be great too! (though I don't know where it'll show up in this new layout)

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