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A short story by

Matt Burns

A pale light shines through the slits in the ventilation grate in front of Pandora. Before dead-ending at the vent, she had crawled through the facility’s serpentine air ducts from the bathroom for fifteen minutes, repeatedly tapping the controls on her remote console until she came in range of the micro-spies and recalled them.

She should have risked the security check. Too late now, Pandora thinks. She recalls schematics and vids of the facility to find another way out and remembers a massive doorway at the back of the complex. A toxic-material dump.

Through the dead guard’s comm unit, she listens to security chatter. No word of the missing guard yet. It will take them time to find the body locked in the bathroom stall. Enough time to escape.

Pandora removes the grating in front of her and drops down into a cavernous room illuminated by dozens of dim ceiling lights. The floor is coated with a thin layer of dirt. The air is thick with the sulfurous odor of explosives, a smell that reminds her of the safe house on Anselm. From the enormous size, she guesses the room must be the central dome of the complex, which means the waste area is somewhere in a connected building on the other side.

As Pandora surveys the room, she makes out what look like the hulls of siege tanks, vultures, and four-wheeled, flame-throwing hellions. Some of them are ripped and torn and scorched; others, only partially damaged.

A booming loudspeaker sounds. “Project Odin targeting systems test A-37, beginning in 3… 2… 1.”

Pandora whirls, searching. The sounds of vehicles starting up echo across the room. A vulture careens around a nearby siege tank, nearly crashing into Pandora. As the wayward hoverbike passes, she notices that there is no driver.

The unmanned vulture zooms to the other side of the room, to her left, and Pandora sees the faint outline of something in the distance. A massive mech silhouette standing on two legs. A monster that Pandora can now put a name to: the Odin.

A tiny cockpit nestled in the machine’s upper torso glints in the faint light like an eye. One arm extends from either side of the bulky body, each limb equipped with a double-barreled cannon. Even from this distance, the thing is impossibly large. A crumpled hellion next to the Odin’s legs rises no higher than a third of the way up its neosteel foot.

The Odin trains its cannons on the approaching vulture, and the room turns white. Explosions blast the vehicle, and the hoverbike erupts in a shower of shrapnel. Pandora scrambles for cover behind an overturned siege tank. All around her now, other vehicles zigzag from one side of the room to the other.

The Odin steps forward with ground-shaking footfalls and rotates to face Pandora. In the weak light, she sees slow, steady movement. From the Odin’s back, four giant guns that look like weapons stripped from a battlecruiser descend over the mech’s shoulders.

Pandora darts away from the siege tank and locates a slow-moving vulture. The front of the long, slender hoverbike is charred and mangled, but the rest of it looks intact. She leaps on and fumbles with the controls until she finds a small receiver jacked into the ignition switch that she figures is being used to control the vehicle remotely. Pandora rips the device out and guns the vulture to the other side of the room just as the massive cannons on the Odin’s back ignite.

An inferno erupts around the overturned siege tank where Pandora had taken cover. The shockwave from the barrage flips a nearby hellion and presses Pandora forward. She skirts the edge of the room to the Odin’s left and sees the faint outline of a blast door behind the machine.

The Odin tracks Pandora with its arm cannons. An explosion behind her lifts the back of the vulture into the air momentarily. She throttles the hoverbike, weaving in between slow-moving siege tanks and hellions, each obstacle subsequently blasted to pieces as the Odin’s volleys get closer and closer to hitting her.

Pandora cuts hard toward the Odin, circles at the base of its feet, and then speeds toward the blast door. It won’t turn in time, Pandora tells herself. It won’t. It –

A hellion explodes to her left in a fiery flash of white and orange. Shrapnel tears through her face. She feels herself fly back and land hard on her shoulder. When she regains her vision, the Odin is towering over her a meter away like a small building. Pain stabs every nerve in her body. She holds her hand to her cheek and feels wet ribbons of flesh and the shredded remnants of the psiweave dangling between her fingers.

With her last bit of energy, Pandora cries out for help with her mind, hoping that someone is inside the tiny cockpit of the machine. The Odin’s arm cannons readjust their aim, but they don’t fire. Pandora pushes her psionic thoughts harder.

The machine suddenly lurches forward. Its massive legs bend, and its torso tips down until the glinting cockpit almost touches the ground. The canopy opens in a cloud of pressurized air, and a woman in a sleeveless pilot suit comes out with a medkit at her side.

“Oh, fekk. What… what the hell are you doing in here?”

Pandora opens her mouth, but she can’t muster any words through the pain.

“Just hold on.” The woman digs a pressurized syringe out of the medkit and shoots it into Pandora’s neck. The burning pain subsides.

Pandora expects the woman to be filled with rage, an extension of the death machine that she pilots, but she’s not. Concerned and guilty thoughts swirl in the pilot’s mind.

“You’re gonna be alright,” the pilot says as she pulls a bottle out of the medkit and moves it across Pandora’s face. An acrid-smelling liquid pours out of the bottle, and Pandora recognizes it as plastiscab. After a few seconds, she feels heat on her face as the liquid hardens into a layer of plastic over her shredded flesh.

“This stuff wasn’t made for deep wounds, though it’ll stop the bleeding until I get a medical team out here,” the pilot says and then turns and thumbs a control on her belt.

The room’s massive neosteel door creaks open, and Pandora pulls the C-7 tucked inside her uniform and aims it at the other woman’s head. She hesitates long enough for the pilot to turn from the door and face Pandora. Long enough for the woman’s eyes to widen in terror and etch their gaze in Pandora’s memory.

She squeezes the trigger in anger, furious at herself for holding back. The C-7 blows an 8mm spike through the pilot’s head, painting a swath of blood and brain across the Odin’s foot.

Just an obstacle, Pandora says to herself as the woman’s body slumps to the ground, the terror-stricken look frozen on her face. An obstacle just like Colton Miersma, Rebecca Schafer, and the guard.

Just like Sage.

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