Exile: Uprising – Chapter 25

Tathek reeled, both physically, as L-Two’s massive body shut down around them, and mentally, as X-Zero’s news sunk in. The entirety of the Vekaran race was on their way to his home, bent on its eradication. He relayed the news to Shuldin. It was too dark to clearly see his friend’s face, but the despair in his sigh was near total. “That’s it, then,” Shuldin murmured. “Even if we still had upload capacity, I don’t know how we would stop a fleet of these moon-sized ships. I… I think we’re cooked, my friend.”

“Maybe that’s true, Shuldin,” Tathek answered. As he sorted through the tumult of his emotions, he felt his core harden into an iron resolve and the fires of his will igniting. “But I’m not going to lay down and die for these bastards. We’ve come this far, riding the edge of destruction. No matter what they throw at us, no matter how many of them come, they’ll have to kill me before I ever stop fighting.”

The chamber rocked harder than ever, throwing them both off their feet. “How can we though?” Shuldin yelled to be heard above the din. “It would take us months to walk out of this place on foot!”

Any thoughts on that subject?

Calculating. Possible to outpace viral corruption. Utilize digital projection network to escape Overlord vessel destruction.

Sounds like a plan to me.

“Follow closely, Shuldin. We’ve got to move.”

They clambered over the lifeless PODs and made their way out of the sentience core. Tremors endlessly rolled through L-Two’s gargantuan body, and sounds like metallic thunder echoed all around them. “The planet’s gravity is tearing the ship apart!” Shuldin howled. “We can’t escape before the Vekara collapses around us.”

Tathek yanked him out of the path of a POD tumbling across the tilting floor. “We don’t have to run all the way to the outer hull,” he argued. “If the projection nodes haven’t shut down yet, X-Zero can use them to transport us back to the planet.”

They raced back the way they had come. Much of the route was swamped in darkness, but they passed by large sectors where light still showed far down the corridors. While many of the patrolling bots had collapsed, others wandered aimlessly through the chambers, ignoring Tathek and Shuldin’s presence. The controlling intelligence was absent, but the virus hadn’t reached them yet and destroyed them from within.

Tathek and Shuldin passed the threshold between darkness and light, and both kept a firm grip on the other’s shoulder, bracing against the shuddering ruin around them.

The projection node they’d used to arrive within L-Two still displayed power, but the lights within the chamber strobed alarmingly and Shuldin’s ship had slid down the incline to crash against the far wall.

Viral infection near complete in this region. High level of risk in accessing network. Approach node. Beginning attempt.

Tathek pulled Shuldin forward to the node and anchored his claws in the floor to help keep their footing. Gravity’s pull fell away as the world condensed to a point of light.

Though Tathek doubted he would ever grow used to entering the stream of digital data, something felt wrong as his consciousness fragmented and shifted. Instead of a single path forward, a powerful force wrenched from the side and buffeted his awareness like a crashing wave. When he once again possessed a body capable of doing so, he fell to his knees as vertigo flowed over his mind. Dimly he heard Shuldin trilling in pain.

What… what just happened? Did you change our path?

Point of origin infected by virus. Transmission abandoned to avoid destruction. Alternate route required.

It’s spreading faster than I would have guessed. What happens if we get caught by the infection during projection?

Instantaneous termination.

I figured. This is bad. We’re running blind, and if we blunder into something in front of us, we’re all dead. You, me, Shuldin… and then my entire planet.

Be calm, unit Tathek. Continue to alternate projection node. Touch the walls when indicated.

You’re going to do something dangerous again, aren’t you? I can tell.

Dangerous action required for survival.

Tathek led the way, still clinging to Shuldin’s shoulder. The tremors rocking the corridors increased in strength, and a few of the curving walls showed cracks and stress lines. At periodic points, X-Zero forced him to halt and bury his claws in the silver traceries lining the walls. Every time, he felt his awareness pulled in two directions: one firmly rooted in place, while the other raced through L-Two’s decaying corpse. The viral corruption sped like wildfire, devouring all traces of life from the Vekaran systems, sometimes passing so close to X-Zero’s awareness that Tathek couldn’t help but wince with concern for his compatriot.

Route to next available node free of viral agent. Hurry!

Spurred on by the urgency, Tathek utilized his augmented strength and picked Shuldin up to race across the chamber. The next projection node came into view before them, but the moment he dropped Shuldin back to the floor and stretched out his claws toward the junction, the entire room twisted around them. He felt a blistering wave of heat sear him as his fingers made contact with the node and everything shifted.

He left his fear temporarily behind, but it quickly caught up to him as his body reformed. “That seemed like a reactor meltdown,” Shuldin gulped, his terror-filled eyes echoing Tathek’s own feelings, and he rubbed his hands together rapidly.

“We’re almost free,” Tathek said, more for his own reassurance than for Shuldin’s.

As more of L-Two’s body died, their path forward became increasingly unstable. X-Zero continued to scout ahead and relayed instructions to them, warning them of structural integrity issues or blocked routes. Tathek’s consciousness travelled with X-Zero as it danced ahead of the sweeping virus with a dexterity of a Singh-Rak master. Tathek marveled that it almost seemed to draw strength from evading the lethal danger, but he worried about their slowing pace. Every time X-Zero projected outward, Tathek needed to stop entirely, and the thunderous echoes reverberating through L-Two’s structure seemed to be growing louder and closer every moment.

They traversed a final connection node and arrived at a projection chamber along the outer hull. X-Zero detected no signs of contamination and immediately took command of the constructors. The arms swung into place, though less smoothly than before, and drew lines in the air that flared into solid material. Shuldin seemed to momentarily forget his fear as he watched their escape vessel take form with awestruck fascination. “Such advanced understanding of the fundamental laws of the universe,” he whispered. “Oh, if only the Vekara had come as teachers and mentors. How much we could have learned from each other—”

“The Vekara don’t want to learn from anyone,” Tathek growled. “They already think they know everything of value.”

A sound like a giant’s footstep reverberated above their heads. The chamber shuddered and groaned, and the mechanical arms seized as if in panic. Tathek thought he heard X-Zero swear as they lurched back into formation and resumed their construction.

A minute. Only a minute more, and it would be finished.

The floor bucked like a wild animal, knocking Tathek to his hands and knees. Another violent lurch, and his head cracked against the hard metal as it rose sharply again. Pressed flat against the floor, he felt a deep vibration begin within the bulkhead and rise to rattle his bones. The whine of an engine engaging filled the small chamber, and Tathek looked up to see the ship surge to life, the cockpit open to receive them.

Shuldin climbed inside first, and Tathek followed him, sliding into the captain’s seat. The ship hovered above the floor, and he maneuvered it to a launch port that led to the safety of space.

The chamber shuddered deeply around them, and fragments of the chamber’s roof plummeted down to block the opening. Tathek swore and opened the cockpit again. “Stay here,” he ordered Shuldin as he leapt from the ship. The pile of wreckage was loose but upon testing, many of the individual pieces were too heavy for him to lift. He let a charge build in his pulse weapon as he fought to keep his feet, stepping back to the far edge of the room to avoid getting hit by any further debris. He twisted the modulation to disintegrate the hulking scrap.

The discharge dissolved the pile, melting the wreckage in a flash and leaving the exit clear. Another tremendous quake knocked Tathek flat on his stomach. To his right, the agonized tearing of metal sent a nervous chill down his spine. An awful force seized him in its grip, picked him up and hurled him away, but instead of feeling the impact of the wall, a deadly silence enveloped him.

The cold…

It had found him again…

Inexorable… relentless… all-encompassing…

As the blackness of space bled the warmth from his body, he caught a glimpse of L-Two’s massive shape… from the outside… and X-Zero’s ship growing steadily smaller…