Chapter 9.1: Hunter Games

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The elevator doors slid open revealing a massive, red two painted on the left wall of a deceptively clean office building. The hall stretched out to the left and right, granting access to a winding staircase leading to the ground floor. The crisp lettering of bygone years formed the signage directly ahead, dutifully informing the onlookers of which floor certain offices were found.

Seth noted that it was eerily quiet, not unlike the false silence of the parking garage he had subjected Astral to, less than a week ago. In the early morning hours, Astral brought Seth down to the lower levels where she would run him through the swarm simulation, over and over again until his body couldn't take any more abuse. Day by day, the program was getting harder to outrun. Yet, every time he chose to stand his ground, she had to come to his rescue. She'd berate him for his bold foolishness, pointing the other possibilities that he had available. He felt stupid for staring up at the fourteen-year-old as he struggled to pull himself to his feet and find the words to brush off each scathing verbal blow she dealt him. He marveled at the amount of information she could pull from a session. In his humility, he felt honored that she felt that his life was worth his many failures.

"Let's go again," he'd tell her, noting her hesitance. He saw the silent pleading in her crystalline gaze, begging him to back down. He wouldn't give up. It was cruel of him to torture her in this way. He wouldn't let these festering wounds of hers go to waste. If he could take her place...

If he could champion her nightmares...

...She could lead a normal, peaceful life while he fought on. It was usually about the same time logic kicked in, casually pointing out that she could have intentionally increased the difficulty level to get him to back down. If she intended to make him quit, he'd make her quit first. At least, he'd know for sure what her real plan was. Over their short time together, he was growing to appreciate how widely she used her environment for all sorts of situations. Her level of environment manipulation in the average person's hands would be disastrous, used no doubt for personal gain. Maybe he was being stupid, but he felt a strong 'do no harm' vibe from her tactics. Getting him to quit, while she was present and ready to defend him when things got harry, did fall in line with that method. He appreciated the challenge; it was like a game of mental chess, and he needed to anticipate what she would do to achieve her objective. The real question was: was he right about her goals?

"Level Two, already huh," he forced a grin, pulling his thoughts to the present. He didn't think he'd ever see the end of the parking garage.

"You seem to think that this is a game," her voice was cold and hard as though presenting irrefutable facts. "All you've managed to accomplish is proving that you're capable of following orders. A new setting means you'll have to think for yourself."

His confidence ebbed. Memories of his first encounter with Astral at the helm of the program surfaced. Was she going to force him to run until he backed himself into a corner? She pointed to the hall that represented his challenge, her crystalline gaze fixed on him. He sighed in resignation and stepped out of the elevator, reminding himself that she was only doing what he had asked.

He never expected his stunt to take him this far. All he wanted to do that day was corner her into admitting that there was a reason for her survival beyond blind luck. After seeing her in action, he knew that her core had been a cheap excuse to get him to run away. Admitting what he suspected to be true would have her exiled. The longer he held off in telling the authorities, the more severe the consequences he was going to face. He heard that some people got as much as having to serve three consecutive tours for failing to report an unsanctioned Hunter. His desperate measures might paint his character as being above the society's rules. Not reporting a possible unsanctioned Hunter was bad enough, but extorting training to defend himself...

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