Today's Reading

A blast of rocky debris shot from the ceiling fissure.

Three more Trooper-class Mechan dropped into the cavern. They landed in a haze of dust, just behind the violet wall of light. Their limbs straightened with stilted rigidity as they rose to their full height.

Harlan and McGowan let loose a flurry of fire, but their bullets melted into the surface of the shield, disappearing in a blaze of flashing electricity.

Adriene let out a sharp sigh, heart thudding hard in her chest. "Shit. That makes seven. Mac, call in an evac."

A few seconds later, McGowan's rushed voice replied, "No-go, sir; scrappers are jamming it." Adriene ground her teeth, silently cursing whatever blighted species invented these manufactured fucks, then had the sensible idea to make them self-aware before letting their murderous, hive-minded junkbots loose on the galaxy. It was at least satisfying to know they'd in all likelihood been wiped out by their own terrible choices.

"All right," Adriene sighed. "We'll have to put some distance between us, then. Harl, Mac..." She took a deep breath and pulled a grenade from the supply compartment at her calf, then readied the charge. "Chaff incoming. Then let's give Book some covering fire."

Harlan and McGowan voiced their acknowledgment, and Adriene tossed the grenade over the outcropping. It exploded into a shower of glittering metallic light, raining down tiny shards of lightweight radar-jamming material that drifted lazily toward the ground like feathers.

The Mechan onslaught paused as their auto-targeting protocols were briefly disoriented. Adriene set her rifle aside and grabbed her sidearm. She leaned out to pelt the edge of the shield construct with a barrage of fire. Harlan and McGowan broke from cover as well, the muzzles of their ballistics rifles flashing as they lit up the rusted metal barricade in front of Booker's position.

Booker rolled backward out of cover, then sprang to his feet, sprinting toward the ramp through the drifting bits of chaff. He made it almost ten meters before the Mechan fire resumed, pinging into swirls of dust in the gravel at his feet.

He slid behind a large stone slab near the foot of the ramp. McGowan and Harlan's rifles went silent as they ducked back into cover.

Booker panted, "That's s'far as I can get for now."

"Okay, hole up," Adriene said. "We got a good line of sight up here; don't risk drawing their attention."

"Yes, sir."

"Harl, Mac, focus-fire that shield construct. If we can force them to pull back a ways, it'll give Book time to get up the ramp."

"Shit, Valero," Harlan said, a hard warning in his tone. "We got a Shade incoming." Adriene's pulse spiked. She holstered her sidearm and took hold of her rifle again. "Bearing?"

"Dunno, it disappeared—overwatch is fucked. It's this bloody basalt fortress. Who picked this site, anyhow?"

Booker grunted. "Some brain in Intel who's never stepped foot on terra in their life."

"Shut up and focus," Adriene barked.

With a break in the fire, Booker leaned out with his pistol and let loose a volley of bullets. "I can shoot and bitch at the same time."

"Dammit, Book, I just told you not to draw—"

"Got our Shade back, boss!" Harlan called out. "Cloaked, bearing one-zero-five, thirty meters.

Headed straight for Book."

Adriene retrained her aim, hunting for the target. She defocused her gaze enough to catch a hazy shimmer against the stone wall.

With a smooth squeeze of her trigger, the conductive projectile pummeled the vaguely humanoid metal carapace into the wall, revealing the Shade's svelte body as its stealth deactivated. Its limbs screeched as it crumpled into a mangled heap on the cave floor.

Harlan scoffed a laugh. "Mira's end—nice shot, Valero."

Adriene shook out her tingling hand, the aftermath of the intense kickback on the coilgun. She readjusted her grip on the firearm and primed it again. "Harl, watch incoming that direction," she ordered. "And keep an eye on that fucking skylight too—let's light 'em up before they hit the ground."

"Copy that, boss."

"Mac, what can we do about the interference on overwatch? Can you narrow the range?"

"That could work, sir," McGowan replied, "but it will fully cut us off from Command until we can get sight line on satellite again."

"Do it."

This excerpt ends on page 11 of the paperback edition.

Monday, June 12th, we begin the book Antimatter Blues by Edward Ashton.

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