Chapter 9.2: Hunter Games

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"Begin Husk sequence," she ordered the program, each word carefully enunciated.

He felt the change in the program immediately. The digital world weight down on him like a thick, heavy blanket. He breathed in thick, putrid air, forced to suck in the toxic fumes of a fire that hadn't quite reached them. He coughed uncontrollably, buckling at the knees. His stomach lurched, expelling bile while his mind tore into him for making a scene. He felt pathetic. Worse than pathetic. When Astral tore into him, he felt small, but now, he felt small, useless, and a liability. Panic set in and tears welled up in his eyes, blurring his vision. What use was he going to be on the killing fields at this rate?

His hands found the smooth leather surface of Astral's boots. His fingers wound their way up her feet, anchoring at her ankles. Her presence helped. Knowing that she hadn't abandoned him to his foolish desires made him feel safe. He clung to her ankles as she knelt down. He felt like a child trying to find reassurance from an elder.

In his blurred vision, his world distorted. Astral stared down at him from behind an ebony mask, revealing her full pink lips. Her hair was wild and untamed, pulling in every direction as though it had a mind of its own. "Are you sure you want this?" the grown up version of Astral echoed from the depth of a forgotten memory.

He could taste blood in his mouth. He could hear the distant rumbling of a storm. "Please," he choked.

She reached down. He felt her hand stroking the length of his back as her free hand placed a thin damp cloth over his mouth. The dampness of the cloth pulled him from the memory that wasn't quite his own. "Breath in," she urged, her lips brushing against his ear to stay as quiet as she could. Did she expect such a violent reaction? He sucked in, finding that the air was breathable through the cloth at his mouth.

He held it in place, suspecting that weapon training was not going to be a part of his lesson if ever. Whimpering drew his attention. He listened to the frighten sobbing of what he guessed was a woman coming from the floor below. "Is someone there?" a male voice demanded. The man cursed at his companion. "Shut your hole already!" He seethed.

Astral pushed Seth down, preventing him from rising to his feet. He glared at her through blurry eyes.

Her approach to this lesson didn't feel at all the same as their first series of trials. He wondered if she was play-acting the seriousness of the setting or was there something legitimately off. Were they in real danger? 'Of course we're in real danger,' Seth cursed himself. The program had proven to be able to simulate combat scenarios with real-world consequences. But she could pause the program at any time, right? He was beginning to wonder just how much control his teenage companion had over the ghost in the machine.

He mimicked her, listening to the sounds below. "It's nothing! You! Try those doors!"

"Can't," came a third voice as he pushed on the doors. "The magnetic locks are still active."

"Find something to smash the windows then!" the man roared.

Astral sighed and buried her face in her palm. The captain worried; the A.I. may be out to kill them with their stupidity The lights in the room dimmed, signaling a power surge. The rumble of a distant storm announced its approach as the woman continued to whimper.

Seth couldn't decide which of the A.I.'s was more deadly. The woman's fear was intense, he could easily hear her barely stifle her sobbing from his hiding place. The raging man was also reacting out of fear. The loss of control over his environment, his efforts in controlling his companions by maintaining a false alpha position, and the inefficiency of the poorly executed orders only added to his frustration. In Seth's opinion, the angry man was the biggest threat to the group. He couldn't get a read on the quiet man, whose presence shifted like a shadow and who only spoke when spoken to. All he did was follow orders. He didn't make a move without his false alpha's command, he didn't make suggestions, he didn't argue, and he quietly took the verbal abuse.

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