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A short story by

Michael O'Reilly and Robert Brooks

Before he could brag, Gabriel pointed past him. "More of 'em!" Sure enough, an entire pack of the things was rushing down toward them. Gabriel shoved the battered remnants of the robotic cat away, and the doors shut tight. There was a crash against the other side, swiftly followed by the sound of metal scraping through metal. A cacophony of roars reminiscent of every beast imaginable came muffled through the doors.

"What now?" asked the Lisk.

Gabriel looked across the armory at the reaper suits, the pistols, the D-8s, even a set of specialized stimpack delivery systems.

"What now? We'll do what we must."

* * *

Kejora glanced over the figures the techs were relaying. Four trainees dead within the first minute. Twelve dead by the end of the first ten. There had been worse starts.

The spiked food had done its work. He had suspected Gabriel Feltz would be an early casualty, and was surprised to see the other survivors so readily accepting him as a leader. The data from this exam would be interesting.

Kejora steepled his fingers and watched the monitors. Dozens of recruits fought for their lives all over the Icehouse, while the staff hid away inside secret safe rooms. The door to the Hub was open to the main corridor, but that had been locked down long in advance of this exercise, inaccessible to both the recruits and the machines.

The inmates were beginning to emerge from the armories. Now lay the start of the real test, delivered by scores of predators with nothing to do but attack anything with a pulse.

A monitor chimed as the recruits fanned out through the corridors. Feltz showed up inside suit RP17. That made forty men armed and ready to fight. A third of them wandered solo; they wouldn't last long after the next wave of robots. There were nastier things than mechanical cats to come.

* * *

"Ain't no zerg here!"

Another machine creature, shaped like a hydralisk, reared up and flailed two scythe-like limbs. The Lisk fired at it, screaming like a child. He didn't stop even when the thing toppled over and clattered to pieces.

"No zerg! No zerg here!"

The others shrugged and carried on firing. No time to calm the Lisk down. Too many damn fake zerg to kill.

The initial breakout of the armory had gone well, but the machines had readily replaced their losses. No choice but to run, jump, dive, and shoot, blasting away at anything that twitched. Gabriel and his team left a trail of casings and scrapped parts behind them.

The robots were too slow, too clumsy, too amateur to stop them. Though his body ached and his lungs protested, Gabriel loved it all. Kejora hadn't been kidding about the challenge. Tough, but doable. Gabriel was going to make it through.

But there was something to do first. He started shooting at the ceiling.

* * *

Kejora stared at the suddenly dead screens. "What just happened?"

"Sensors went out all along a corridor. We're blind across section L4."

The warden swore. That was where Feltz was.

"Sir, a group of suits has gone black."

Kejora looked at the information. One of the suits was RP17. "Dead?"

"Null info. No data at all."

"Well then, Ensign," Kejora said with deliberate patience, "can you tell me what the data said before the suits went dark?"

"Elevated heart rate and blood pressure, substantial agitation… nothing unusual."

For this exercise, anyway. Kejora shook his head.

"Any abnormalities in suit RP17 just before the outage?"

"No, sir, not really."

Kejora took a deep breath. "Not really? Care to elaborate?"

The ensign swallowed hard, sweat beading on his brow.

"Y-yes, sir. He reloaded his weapons prior to the outage, and his heart rate slowed slightly," the technician said. "He was calm. I don't think they were ambushed—"

"Shh!" Kejora slashed the air with his hand. The technician went blessedly silent, and Kejora stood up, listening intently. He could have sworn he'd heard a hiss outside the entrance to the Hub, a hiss that sounded like—

—a stimpack.

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