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Sep 15, 2019 1:56 PM
Ellie in Worm
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The first rays of the sun are just threatening to peek over the horizon as Ellie pulls into the parking lot. The sign at the gate says "Open dawn to dusk" so she's a little early, but no one stops her. Not that they could, if they tried. She turns the engine off and grabs the backpack from the passenger seat before getting out of the car.

It contains some travel essentials: change of clothes, meal bars, water bottle and purification tabs, first aid kit. Jeanne always did emphasize preparedness, she's had a similar bag sitting next to the door of every house they lived in for as long as she can remember. The battered copies of the Iliad and Odyssey are not part of the standard. A last-minute concession to sentiment. Ellie liked those stories, of gods and heroes and monsters. It provided a relief from the present world, where the monsters far outnumber the heroes, and the gods are indifferent and uncaring. But she's one of them now. No more escaping it.

She sets off into the woods of the national park. Her destination is on the far side, a town called Eagleton, nestled up in the Appalachians. A long hike, but doable. And she shouldn't come across any patrols from this side.

It's a long day of walking before she gets close.

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The defenses are thick, but they aren't mostly meant to keep anything out. She'll see a wide area just empty, no cover with no real way to know whether any particular stretch is being watched. In the center is a skyscraper-tall wall of flat stone. Parahuman-made, probably. Inside, who knows.

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She's here to test, isn't she. Only one thing for it.

Still behind the treeline, she summons up one of her images. Or ghosts. Still not quite sure what exactly to call them. But they obey her, that's enough for now. A hulkingly indistinct figure leads her as she crosses the open space at a run. When it reaches the wall it slams both fists into it, and a gaping black door way appears.

Ellie enters without hesitation, it's not the first time she's used a tunnel like this. It is the first time it's been created at her command. She emerges on the other side of the wall.

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If she didn't know better it wouldn't be obvious that this place used to be Eagleton, Tennessee. There's another broad swath of a few football fields' worth of nothing; no patrols in sight at the moment but no guarantee it'd stay that way. Beyond that there's a town, but most structures anywhere near the perimeter are collapsed. Inhabitants—not for a long time, she knew that much coming in.

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Part of what makes this a good testing ground. As crosses, she summons her other- shade might be a good word for them. The one that used to be Jeanne. The stylized lightning motif she favored as highlights on her costume has become part of her skin in death, the jagged bolts forming raised ridges across her body.

Ellie heads for the closest intact structure, to get her bearings while she looks for signs of the mechanical denizens.

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The first sign is a glint of light reflecting through a window from across the street. It's not attached to a machine soldier, but it means she's been spotted.

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She makes her way to a higher floor. At a thought, her shade raises its hand to point at the glinting window. With a crack and a crash, the glass is shattered by an electrical impact. The shade continues pointing, and bolts of lightning continue to crack through the air, getting louder and more violent.

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It's no longer an issue of "spotted."

The camera's gone, but it's done its job. The expected robots start to swarm, or more like march, toward her position. They're coming from every direction (except outward, naturally). They move perfectly in step: the left leg of the bipedal machine to her left hits the ground at exactly the same time as legs one, three, and five of the insectoid ones in front of her, and an enormous wheel farther off rolls toward her with one revolution in an amount of time exactly divisible by that length...

The former site of a window only gives so much of a view. But there's plenty of hardware in every direction she can see.

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Many targets, easily predictable. Just the sort of thing she wanted. She has her lightning shade fire with both hands into the ranks of approaching machines. She had never seen Jeanne sustain a barrage longer than ten or fifteen seconds at a time. She complained of tiredness afterwards, but there was not much left of the vault door. Fatigue should no longer be an issue.

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Extremely predictable. They go down, but only when hit. Not all targets are equally visible, and there are plenty to fill the gaps in the ranks. They keep advancing mechanically.

The fallen robots get removed for either repairs or spare parts or just to get them out of the way.

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She continues the assault. The lightning bolts are now so fast as to be almost continuous, their thunder an endless drumroll across the sky. Some of those buildings are blocking the view, one of the shade's arms shifts to demolish them while the other continues sweeping methodically across the robotic ranks.

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They're an army, not a horde. Heavy losses can convince them to slow.

...or maybe they aren't thinning out their numbers at all and this was just a question of creating enough of a distraction. The floor rocks with explosions, and the building she's in starts trembling.

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The tunneler reappears, creates an opening on the wall next to her. She darts through, hits the ground in a roll, and keeps moving to cover, not presenting a stationary target. Just like she was trained.

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Well, moving toward cover leaves a brief window where there's a clear shot. 

There are a few types of weapons coming at her. Electricity not entirely unlike her shade's blasts, explosives, bullets. She could probably match the appearance of different types of robots to their weaponry, if she weren't busy not dying.

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Yes, that does tend to occupy one's full attention. She pulls her lightning shade down to provide some covering fire. Which she should have done earlier than now. She doesn't personally direct it, just forms the vague intention of what she wants it to do, while she concentrates on moving.

Well. She's not dead yet. But goddamn does that hurt.

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Thanks in part to the covering fire, she can outrun the slowly advancing lines. The hard part is running to somewhere they aren't already occupying. This is very much enemy territory.

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She can at least go directly through walls and buildings rather than going around or finding a door. Or if there's a long wall with a cross-section wider than she is, she can order a tunnel down its length and skip that distance.

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The first bit doesn't throw them off. They predict her position flawlessly. The second does; any time she doesn't happen to come out in view of a camera she gains a wall-length on where they think she is. It only lasts until she's spotted again, but she can reliably earn a brief moment out of the spotlight.

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She needs a way to disable the cameras, or to predict where they are. It's no good blasting them after she's been spotted.

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Now that she's well past the perimeter, sentry cameras are fairly rare. When she gets observed it's more often by a mobile drone. Even harder to predict in advance.

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All right. New strategy. Her shade is strongest when it's allowed to stand still and focus fire, but staying still is going to get her killed, there's just too many of them. She needs to pick her fights, find places that limit possible approaches and allow quick getaways and do as much damage as possible before she gets in danger of being overrun, and keep moving in other cases.

She moves slightly wrong and grits her teeth at the pain. She'll have to see about finding a moment to wrap that up as best she can, too.

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Those criteria tend toward leading her inward. Quick getaways and few approaches mean more intact walls, especially thick ones, and the closer to the center she gets the less damage there is from skirmishes with the Protectorate.

The downside is that, while she was already surrounded, now she's more surrounded. The army of robots is pursuing from behind, but mostly it's converging toward her from every direction. The fact that they go around walls that she could go through only means that the ones approaching the front line get zapped from the side early, not that the other side of walls are safely clear.

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Why's there have to be so many of the damn things? Where are they coming from?

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Everywhere except up. From most sources the numbers actually do thin out, though; it's only holding steady from one direction. Those ones are coming from near but not at the center of the former town.

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Well. Let's see if she can't do something about that. Cut them off at the source. She starts moving in that direction.

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It's against resistance, of course. But they're predictable; if she times it right and resists the temptation to just blast everything she can avoid letting the machines get off a shot.

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