The noise grew deafening in Nicholas’ ears as he climbed to the fifth level. From the deep metallic groans, he guessed that the swarm had finished with the surface and started cutting into the tower’s main support beams. It would take them time to get through those, but Nicholas had no desire to find out how much.
He continued to climb up the stairs, his newly forged weapon clutched tight in both hands. Though weapon was a generous descriptor for the broom he’d started this whole adventure with. He’d modified it into a rudimentary tesla lance, duct taping wires and metal plates along its length, all fed from a battery strapped to the middle. A crude but effective weapon. He hoped.
Arriving at the final ascent, Nicholas glanced down to check the camera feeds on his tablet. Details were hard to make out through the smoke and sparks, but it looked like the swarm was still hard at work disassembling the tower.
“I still don’t see why we can’t just wait for Orry to come back,” Zephyr said.
“Because we don’t know when he’ll be back. Could be hours yet.”
“I could go get him.”
“Same problem. Swarm might bring down the whole tower before you reach him.”
The superstructure creaked ominously as Nicholas spoke, reinforcing the point. Pressing a button, Nicholas triggered the spell he’d preloaded into the compiler. It drained half the battery at a stroke, but it worked, the broom humming to life as it primed. It also didn’t explode, which Nicholas felt was a good start. Taking a deep, calming breath, Nicholas turned to look at Zephyr.
“Ready for what?” the little sprite asked. “I can’t help.”
Sighing the calm right back out again, Nicholas began the final climb up to the landing. The door was gone, long ago removed by the swarm, along with most of the wall surrounding it. Peering through the opening, Nicholas got his first look at the carnage with his own eyes.
The air smelled horrible, thick with the stench of melted plastic and burning metal. With the paneling gone, the tower infrastructure was being worked on, removed whole where possible, sliced into more manageable pieces everywhere else. All of it went straight out the window, or the hole that had once been the window, since widened so the larger chunks could fit through it.
The bots crawled over everything, perfectly balanced on their long, spindly legs. They’d done more work on themselves than just the chainsaws, somehow managing to mount longer limbs and heavier plating. Tools to make themselves more efficient at their task. Apparently force elementals could be quite industrious and creative when no one was stepping in to stop them. Nicholas would have been impressed if it wasn’t about to be the literal death of him.
Another groan sounded from the tower, reminding him of the short timeframe he was on. The swarm might not be able to get through the supports entirely, but they could weaken them enough for the several thousand tonnes of metal sitting on top to finish the job. Whatever he was going to do, he needed to do it rapidly.
Scanning the room, Nicholas quickly located Cleaner Prime. The bot was working with two other Kaori’s to heft a section of pipe out of the floor. It came free with a clank and the two helper bots began to haul it away, leaving Prime to begin work on the next section. Firing up its three saws with a deafening roar, the imposing bot turned it back on the stairs as it began to cut. Deaf and blind, almost going so far as to present a target. The perfect chance to strike.
Hefting the broom turned weapon, Nicholas pulled himself up over the edge and began to creep towards Prime. He moved as quickly as he dared, hopping over the more solid looking bits of floor, hoping that the sound of cutting would drown out his footsteps. The distance closed rapidly, halfway, three quarters, close enough that Nicholas could see Prime’s internal circuitry glowing cherry red beneath its casing. Nicholas was within kicking distance, just beginning to think this might work, when his luck finally ran out.
And it ran out hard. The kind of impossible confluence of events that could never happen twice in a million years. Without any intentional coordination, every single bot in the swarm stopped cutting at once, plunging the room into a stunningly eerie stillness. In the same instant, Nicholas’ foot came down on something that produced a hollow, gong-like clang. In the surrounding silence, it may as well have been a cannon blast.
Every single set of eyes in the room turned to look at the young Techne. He might have been able to play innocent, were it not for the electrified broom handle he held, poised to strike at Prime like a spear. For a handful of heartbeats, all intelligences just stared at one another, waiting to see what would happen next.
Then Prime somehow gave a piercing screech and everything started happening at once.
Every bot in the room immediately made a beeline for Nicholas, chainsaws roaring with vicious intent. Prime itself leapt like a cat, all three of its saws raised in a trifecta of impending unpleasantness. Unable to block the strike, Nicholas threw himself to one side, stumbling like a drunk ballerina as he worked to keep upright on the uneven ground.
Another bot leapt at him and Nicholas lashed out with the point of his broom, hitting it straight into its eye lens. Electricity arched between across the contact, crashing into the delicate circuitry beyond like a ghostly hammer. With a fizz and a crack of static the bot died, soon after blasting itself apart as the elemental explosively departed.
One down but there was no time to celebrate. Cleaner Prime was already turning to prepare for another strike. Nicholas was ready this time, bringing his broom around to stab at the pouncing Kaori, aiming once again for the eyes. Before the strike could connect, Prime moved one of its saws to cover the weak point, leaving the electricity to discharge harmlessly onto the metal surface. Nicholas was left caught out in the open, a distressingly large robot flying towards him.
Pushing back with the broom, Nicholas just managed to push Prime far enough off course to miss him, sending the Kaori clattering to the ground nearby. Undeterred, it quickly regained its legs, revving its saws back to life to wind up for a third attack. Nicholas dropped low, gripping the broom tight as he prepared another defense.
Whipping around at the sound of Zephyr’s voice, Nicholas realized how screwed he was. While he’d been focused on Prime, the rest of the swarm had moved into striking range at his back. Three were already committed to attacks, intentionally working in tandem with Prime to trap Nicholas in the middle. He could dodge some of them, but at least one was almost guaranteed to find its mark.
Thoughts rushed through the young Techne’s mind like a flood. Most of them were realizations that he was probably about to die with varying amounts of swearing attached, but a few were useful. He focused on the latter, finding them an impressive selection of useless, dangerous, or stupid. A few were all three at once.
Then one thought pushed its way to the forefront. Perhaps the stupidest and most useless of them all. It was certainly the most dangerous but compared to the rest, it was the only one that Nicholas could see working out for him in the long term. Assuming his assumptions were correct of course. And that all involved parties thought like he did. And that his bad luck quota for the next decade had already been filled.
Other than that, it was a great idea.
Ignoring the three Kaori’s behind him, Nicholas kept his full attention on Prime. He went for an underhand stab this time, bringing the point up between its legs where he knew the plating was thinner. Though they had no way of emoting, Nicholas liked to imagine he could see surprise in Prime’s eyes as he struck. That or disbelief at the apprentice’s suicidal actions.
The point struck home, electricity finding ample purchase on the metal surface as it lanced through the delicate internals. Nicholas swung through, flipping the bot overhead and spinning around to pin Prime to the ground. The other three bots remained on course, their whirring cutting tools ready to put a swift and bloody end to Nicholas.
Fortunately, it seemed Nicholas’ bad luck had indeed run its course. A familiar vibrating whine broke out and, quick as the wind, a blue light streaked into view. Zephyr moved between all three Kaori’s like a hurricane, combat mode slicing away until they were nothing but scrap. Exactly as Nicholas had hoped he would do.
He was just beginning to enjoy not being dead when a rather glaring flaw in Nicholas’ plan made itself known. While he no longer had to worry about killer robots flying at him, he did have to worry about a bunch of burning shrapnel doing much the same. Shrapnel which, Nichoals recalled, was seconds away from exploding.
Drawing on the instinctual panic of all those useless, sweary thoughts, Nicholas dropped the broom and hurled himself to the ground. Ignoring the bolt of pain that shot through his side, Nicholas instead covered his neck and braced.
It was a truly spectacular blast, the combined force enough to send a shudder through Nicholas’ bones. Debris showered down all around, a patter of metallic clangs and dull hisses as they bled off their heat into the floor. In an instant everything fell still but Nicholas chose to remain on the floor a moment longer, just to make doubly certain everything was settled. His ears were still ringing when he raised his head to survey the damage.
A pall of smoke hung in the air over a brand-new hole in what was left of the floor. To one side, he spotted the splintered remains of his broom, along with a good deal of scrapped Kaori. Which Kaori it had been to Nicholas couldn’t even tell, but the large amount of it was a good sign. Pushing himself up off the floor, Nicholas moved over to the edge of the pit, nursing his burning side as he walked.
“Did you get it?” Zephyr asked.
“Can’t tell,” Nicholas called back, peering down the camera feeds on his tablet. “Can you see if the rest have-”
He never got a chance to finish the sentence. A glance at Prime’s camera feed showed an image of Nicholas himself, live and looking up from above. He didn’t even fully process the meaning of the sight before stepping back. It was the only thing that saved him from the chainsaw that swung up from below, the whirring blade missing him by inches.
Nicholas stumbled back as Prime crawled out from between the floors. The bot was much worse for wear, one arm saw smashed beyond repair, the other missing entirely. Large, jagged gashes ran up the length of its casting with edges scorched by electrical burns. Its eye lens was cracked but they nevertheless remained fixed on Nicholas, its imagined expression upgraded from annoyance to seething hated. A sentiment backed up by the revving of its surviving tail saw.
Without words, the rest of the swarm emerged from the smoke, still numbering in the double digits and all turned towards Nicholas.
The little sprite needed no prompting from him and zipped off towards the stairs. Nicholas followed far more slowly, stumbling his way across the uneven ground, disoriented by pain and panic. He made it impressively far before he finally tripped over his own feet, going down hard in the process.
However, rather than the floor Nicholas had been expecting to hit, he instead received a face-full of black synthetic leather. That confused him enough to almost override the panic, leaving him to look up to find the face of Master Orlin looking back at him. The man stood tall over Nicholas’ prone form, raising a curious eyebrow before turning to look at the swarm. They hissed and chittered at this new threat, apparently more than happy to add him to their list of impediments, saws revving in anticipation.
Master Orlin said nothing, instead raising an arm to press a button on his bracer. Instantly, an electrified pulse rushed through the room, leaving the sharp tang of ozone in its wake. The pulse passed through each bot, each of them instantly erupting in a shower of sparks before falling to the ground dead. Cleaner Prime put up more of a fight, circuits glowing angrily as it fought to remain, but even it could not resist Master Orlin for long. With a final shriek, the elemental was driven out and the swarm was finally put down for good.
Silence descended on the scene, broken only by the creaking of the weakened superstructure. Nicholas breathed a sigh of relief, taking a moment to enjoy the fact he’d survived before remembering how he’d done so. He looked back up at his “savior”, the older man’s eyebrow still raised, silently asking the obvious question.
“Uh…I can explain?”
Nicholas could not, in fact, explain.
At best he could describe just how deep a hole he’d managed to dig for himself. Strangely, Master Orlin didn’t get angry, didn’t even raise his voice as he calmly listened to every word, occasionally asking for clarification from Zephyr. When Nicholas had finally finished writing his own death warrant, Master Orlin’s only response had been to chuckle. That had been more terrifying that any chastising ever could have been.
Without a word, Master Orlin had set his own bots to work repairing the tower. Properly programmed, they did as they were told, building what had been destroyed and putting back what hadn’t. In minutes, it was right back to the way it had been in the first place. Including the dust, somehow.
Nicholas had been momentarily confused by that until Master Orlin had handed him a brand-new broom. With a smile, he had assured Nicholas dinner would be waiting for him when he was done. Then he had left, leaving Nicholas right back where he’d started.
“Do you exist just to make my life difficult?”
“On my good days,” Zephyr said.
Nicholas sighed, biting back his no doubt brilliant retort. The little sprite had earned a little leeway, given the whole saving him from ‘imminent danger’ thing. Besides, Nicholas didn’t want to spend the effort.
He had a good deal more cleaning to do.
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