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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Firmament of Flame

The Universe After (Volume 3)

Drew Williams

Tor Books

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CHAPTER 1


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 onboard—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!”

“And if we all die here, I hope you take a great deal of solace in that fact! You should have woken me; you should have woken Marus, or the Preacher, or Sahluk! Hell, you should have woken Javi!”

“Wait, why am I last on the list?” Javier asked, from far enough away that his voice was coming through the comm rather than over the sound of fire and electricity and explosions that filled the cavernous reactor. Even through the patchy connection, though, I could still make out his incredulous tone.

“We are off the maps, Jane,” I said through gritted teeth—that wasn’t just my anger, it was also a side effect of me gathering up my teke; I let it loose in one big blast, the telekinetic force smashing into the wave of enemies charging up the catwalk at us. That sent them crashing backward into the ranks of the machines behind them, creating impacts that sent limbs clattering across the pipes and into the fire-filled exhaust ducts below. “We’re out of leads—this was the last system where we had any sort of vector for the cultists’ transport. I had to—”

“Ladies, perhaps save this conversation for once you’re off the death-obsessed space station,” Marus said calmly—of course, he could afford to be calm: he was still safe onboard Khaliphon, in orbit around the station, along with his own apprentice, a young Avail called Meridian. Granted, the two of them were still helping—along with the AIs of our networked ships, they’d been diverting energy to other parts of the station, the only reason the reactor core hadn’t already overheated—and granted, they’d still die if the entire thing went up in a ball of atomic fire, but at least Marus didn’t have dozens of reprogrammed maintenance machines trying to tear his head off his shoulders.

“No!” Jane replied, her voice still just as hot as Marus’s was cool. “She only ever listens to me when she’s—”

“Through!” the Preacher shouted, cutting off whatever remark Jane had been about to make and stepping back from the panel. With a sharp jerk, the Barious unplugged herself from the access port, the connections still trailing sparks. “Esa, Sho—you’re up!”

I fired Bitey dry—yet again—then turned, already running, the catwalk shivering under my boots as the entire station began to quake; we were close to a meltdown now, as evidenced not just by the shaking, but by the marked increase in fricking lightning singing over my head and flames belching out of exhaust ports around us. Time was … definitely of the essence.

As I passed Sho, he was already dropping to one knee—counting on Sahluk for cover, and the Mahren was doing just that, achieving said cover by bashing together two automatons until they came apart in his fists—and the Wulf’s eyes were sparking like thunderstorms at sea; he was channeling the electrical currents from the atmosphere into himself, filling his body up like a battery. Granted, that wouldn’t have been hard at the moment, given the sheer amount of electrical energy surrounding us, but it would still take him some time to draw it all into himself, and I still needed to be in place before he did.

I ran faster. The big blast doors at the end of the catwalk were sliding open, the Preacher’s hack giving us access; the AI core was visible now, hanging over the reactor furnace itself like a giant mechanical heart—you’d need a vertical leap of about twenty feet to get up there with the access ramp retracted, which, of course, it was. I didn’t have a vertical leap of twenty feet.

What I did have was telekinesis.

I passed Javier and the Preacher, both firing down at the automatons still trying to overwhelm our positions, and I pushed at the catwalk beneath me just as I reached the edge; pushed hard. Newton’s third law kicked in, and I went sailing upward, toward the AI core. I was going to make it. I was going to make it. If I didn’t make it, I was going to fall into atomic fire and vaporize, moments before the station itself did the same thing, taking my friends with it. I was going to make it.

I hoped I was going to make it. Propelling oneself across a deadly drop into atomic fire with a bone-rattling push of telekinetic power that came from being born soaked in radiation nobody understood wasn’t really an exact science.

I made it, barely; hit the edge of the core hard enough to bruise, then clung to the exposed piece of piping on the bottom with the tips of my fingers just before I slipped, fell, and got vaporized by the heart of the reactor. Gritting my teeth, I tightened my grip until I could free a knife with my other hand—all the time I spent arguing with Jane aside, I was always glad she’d drilled into me very early on to never go anywhere without a knife—and used the tip to jimmy open the access hatch on the side. With that done—still hanging over an atomic furnace—I plunged the blade in between two of the connections, at the precise spot Marus had told me to look for, the information gleaned from the schematics he’d been able to download before the station shut him out.

Golden Age AI tech, and we were going to do a hard reboot with a conductive knife and about a megajoule of direct current. There had to have been a better way to do this.


Copyright © 2020 by Drew Williams