Exile: Uprising – Chapter 24

After the detonation subsided, Tathek’s leg jets switched to a patterned sequence of bursts, returning him to the ground a safe distance from the explosion. He stared in horror at the wavering heat distortion in the air. Even at a distance, chunks had been torn from the earth, and the trees stood at a slant from the concussive force of the blast. During his descent, he’d searched the blackened ground for any glimpse of Xekan, but all he’d seen were small hunks of twisted metal and glowing fragments of the deep scan complex.

Forgive me, Xekan… I will add your memory to my vengeance as well.

The communication line inside his ear crackled. “Tathek, what’s happened?” Shuldin’s voice screeched. “The deep scan building just exploded! Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Tathek responded, forcing the words through a constricted throat and clenched jaws. “Some of the others made it out, but Xekan…” He shook himself roughly and looked around, trying to spot the direction where L-Two had fled. “How could you have seen the explosion?”

“I’m in a ship heading to your location. The viral modifications are complete.”

Tathek detected a flash of movement to his right and sprinted toward it. “Don’t come any closer, Shuldin!” he ordered. “L-Two is still out here. It knows what we were trying to do.” From out of the trees, bolts of blue energy streaked toward him and charred a tall tree as he ducked behind it. He returned fire with a rapid, staccato burst from his pulse weapon, but he couldn’t tell if he struck his target.

Completion of viral code presents opportunity for victory.

How? We don’t have a way to upload the virus anymore.

High degree of improvisation required. Timing and clear thinking crucial. Unit Tathek must exercise restraint, or final defeat likely result.

Tathek jerked back into cover as another volley blasted toward him. Guilt gnawed at him as the memory of his rage against L-Two flooded his mind. He drew a deep breath and released it slowly. I understand. What’s the plan?

While Tathek kept L-Two’s attention focused on exchanging fire, X-Zero presented its design. Tathek’s eyes widened as the Vekaran consciousness made several logical leaps that seemed more befitting a Teksar. If we somehow manage to pull this off, X-Zero, you don’t get to call me reckless ever again.

Reckless action required for victory.

“Shuldin, listen to me closely,” Tathek said crisply in between shots. “Track my position through the communicator. When I give the word, bring the ship down almost on top of me. Make certain you keep the virus safe.”

“It’s stored within a portable unit, but what are you doing to do?” Shuldin asked apprehensively.

We are going to finish this.”

Based on the direction of L-Two’s shots, Tathek had a good idea of his enemy’s position. For the plan to work, he needed to close to melee distance. He raised his shield and dashed from cover. Blue energy rebounded off the pulsing surface, and he charged around a large tree, dropping low to crash into L-Two’s legs. “Thought you could escape from me?” he growled as he clawed his opponent’s body, trying to open as many cuts as possible.

As Tathek’s claws tore into L-Two’s frame, he felt X-Zero applying new modifications, which sent needles of pain through his fingers.

L-Two’s missing arm had been replaced, and it swung around and knocked Tathek away. “Pathetic biological nuisance,” it rumbled. “I should have destroyed you along with your mate.”

Triumph surged through Tathek as he sprang back to his feet. He had finally forced L-Two to acknowledge him as an enemy. “Then try and fix your error, you mechanical mistake!” he crowed.

The heavy arm extended, reaching toward him with bladed claws of its own. He dodged and flipped backward as he stayed just out of L-Two’s grasp.

Adaptations nearly completed…

“Shuldin, get ready,” Tathek hissed, ducking another grab. His hands felt like they were on fire.

Done!

Purple threads of light ignited across the surface of Tathek’s claws.

“Now, Shuldin!”

Tathek heard the roar of a Vanneth engine overhead. Firing the haphazard propulsion system in his legs, he sped through the air and wrapped his arms around L-Two’s torso. He buried the glowing claws into a gash that hadn’t been sealed yet and felt a surge as a portion of X-Zero broke off and pushed itself into L-Two.

Establishing connection to projection stream control…

Beneath Tathek’s grip, L-Two’s form went rigid.

The roar of the engines was deafening now as the ship hovered a mere foot above their heads.

Tathek unhooked one hand and thrust it upward, burying his claws in the outer hull of the ship. Go.

Initializing!

In a burst of blue light, every molecule in his body fragmented. Like the first time he had ridden the Vekara data stream, awareness itself narrowed to an infinitesimal dot, blending into the reality that lay outside the physical senses, racing without moving across a distance so small that it couldn’t be measured. An unseen force reconstructed him piece by piece.

Tathek dove away from L-Two’s abandoned shell as the ship wobbled to the floor and crushed the lifeless POD form. The ship’s door slid open, and Shuldin emerged with a whimper. Tathek gazed around at the white, curving walls and silver tracery. At least they’d arrived in one piece. “We don’t have much time,” he told Shuldin. “L-Two knows we’re here.”

Where is here?” Shuldin demanded. A small object overlaid with metallic circuitry was clutched in his hand, and he waved it about in frustration. “What just happened to us?”

Before Tathek could answer, he heard the skittering of claws against the metal floor in front of them, and swarms of L-Two’s attack bots flooded the chamber. Tathek engaged his shield and held them at bay as he charged his weapon. The wave burst swept through the corridor and sent every bot twitching to the floor. “We have to get to the sentience core,” he said, already running toward the far corridor. “Stay close behind me and guard that virus with your life.”

“We’re inside the Vekara’s body, aren’t we?” Shuldin moaned as he shuffled after Tathek. “Like a bite of food waiting to be digested. This will never work, my friend!”

“It can,” Tathek answered grimly. “It has to.”

“But how will we upload the virus to the sentience core?”

“X-Zero’s already working on that. Just keep the virus protected. I can’t risk touching it and getting my systems infected.”

Injected awareness combatting L-Two’s control systems. Given its minimal partition, assistance will be ineffective.

They raced through the hallways, and soon another host of robots blocked their path forward. Tathek quickly realized that their attacks were aimed at Shuldin. He pushed his friend behind him as he built a fresh charge. Unable to dodge for fear of leaving Shuldin unprotected, he held them at bay with the energy shield. Another burst fired through the corridor and rendered most of the bots into sparking piles of scrap, but several more fought to get around his defenses, and the energy shield flickered fitfully, its temporary charge expended. “L-Two is adapting its own defenses,” he grunted, and finished off the last of them with rending strikes from his claws.

Small explosions sounded from behind as they ran. Tathek looked back to see corridor-spanning energy beams detonating the twitching remains of the last wave of attackers. Charred metal fragments whizzed past them as the lethal streams surged forward. Seizing Shuldin’s hand, Tathek poured everything he had into his speed and practically dragged his friend into the next chamber before the beams could slice through them.

“I think I recognize this place,” Shuldin panted. “The sentience core should be just—”

A mechanical arm speared through the floor and tried to grab Shuldin. He ducked, but the bladed fingers opened deep lacerations along one chubby arm. Tathek dodged another grasping appendage and raked his claws through its circuitry, then pulled Shuldin with him into a corner. “Are you all right?” he asked, wincing at the blood dripping down his friend’s arm.

“Don’t worry about it,” Shuldin urged. “We’re almost to the sentience core. Just through there.”

They sprinted together across the chamber, sidestepping more clutching appendages, and dashed around the corner where Shuldin pointed. The sentience core opened before them like a silver geode, and in the center stood the gleaming, crystalline sphere that served as the seat of L-Two’s consciousness.

Tathek positioned himself at the entrance to act as a guard while Shuldin shuffled closer to the orb, leaving a spotted trail of blood on the pristine floor. He looked at the storage device in his hand with misgiving and sighed. “I thought so. Tathek, there’s no interface to upload the virus from its current housing. I need something that can connect with the core.”

“Um…” Tathek blinked several times as X-Zero presented an idea to him. “Hang on. I might be able to help with that…”

Are you sure you can actually do that?

Requisite systems already seeded within unit Tathek. Be advised, construction likely to cause high degree of… disruption.

Disruption. Great.

The modifications within his body shifted and writhed as though his muscles were full of worms. His veins flared hot and cold by turn, and his stomach churned as he tried to think of anything other than what was happening inside him. A sharp blade broke the skin of his right arm and opened a long incision. He suppressed a scream and closed his eyes as something pushed through the opening from inside his flesh.

Construction complete.

Tathek forced himself to look. A metal adaptive interface with a bladed tip jutted from his torn flesh. He pulled it out with a wince and handed it quickly over to Shuldin, who waved it through the air to shake the blood off. “X-Zero says,” he began, then had to stop as his stomach heaved.

“It’s alright, my friend,” Shuldin said, hooking the storage device into the instrument. “I think I know what to do.” He waddled back to the pedestal and raised the device over his head.

Farewell, L-Two, X-Zero intoned.

A shimmer surged over the orb as a thick layer of a crystalline substance built on the surface of the core. Shuldin stabbed the blade at the orb, but it bounced away harmlessly. He looked back at Tathek as fear and confusion consumed his features.

The sound of heavy metal footfalls echoed through the corridors leading into the chamber, and Tathek risked a glance down the hall to see columns of PODs, identical to L-Two’s augmented form, rushing toward their position.

“Tathek, I can’t get the interface in. It’s armored somehow,” Shuldin wailed.

With only seconds before they were overrun, Tathek cast a single thought at X-Zero, nodding as a quiet affirmation echoed back.

Risk everything, or die with nothing…

“Shuldin, throw me the virus!” Tathek shouted, firing a burst of energy down the hall to slow the incoming attack. Shuldin squeaked as he lobbed the slick adapter into the air. The world around Tathek slowed down as he felt X-Zero augmenting the muscles in his right arm. As bolts of energy slowly surged toward them from the far corridors, and the adapter gently drifted his direction, Tathek thought back to the moment L-Two had first appeared during his test flight a decade ago. Everything his people had suffered. The deaths on Vanna. The murder of his mate, his child, and his former mentor. The memories condensed into a burning rage within. As the world slipped back into normal time, Tathek grasped the weapon the Vanneth had created, the bane of the Vekara, and channeled all his rage into one final throw.

For Sarath…

The blade streaked across the intervening distance, and the faint crack of a sonic boom filled the chamber. With a pulse, the front edge tore through the crystal plating and the silvery light within the orb turned a diseased green. A shriek of pain and rage erupted through Tathek’s awareness, and he smiled even as the floor bucked beneath his feet and knocked him flat. The approaching PODs fell to the ground as the lights within the sentience core died, plunging them into darkness.

“Did we do it?” Shuldin murmured. “Is it dead?”

“At long last,” Tathek replied.

Unit Tathek, touch the communication array. Segmented awareness trapped within Vekara network array after defeat, must recover before viral agent eliminates transmission systems.

Tathek obeyed, fighting to keep himself upright through L-Two’s death throes. His fingertips tingled where they contacted the indicated wall, and after a moment he felt X-Zero recoil.

Network alert detected! Core transmission incoming to all Vekara… all entities en route to Teksaroth… mission parameters: destruction of planet!