Exile: Uprising – Chapter 28

“Transmit the virus now, Shuldin!” Tathek shouted. He turned his head, trying to see the edges of the ship, but it stretched beyond his vision. The alarms within his ship shrieked as a dot of color flared on the surface of the Overlord and transformed into a spear of blazing energy that streaked right for them.

X-Zero’s awareness shifted in his mind. The lights on the overseer station grew painfully bright, and before he could shield his eyes, reality became silent and blank. It lasted no more than an instant, and he blinked twice when he beheld an unnervingly familiar sight.

Shuldin shrank back, the data cell and his universal device clutched in his hands. “Oh no. Not this again,” he moaned.

Every detail within the projection node chamber was the same. The sloping, brilliant white walls. The silvery characters traced on their surface. L-Two was dead, as was X-Zero’s original body. This could only be…

“M-Seven?” he asked aloud.

Energy weapon destroyed Vanna overseer station, along with constructed craft. Overlord infiltration only viable option for survival.

Tathek drew a deep breath and let it out slowly, steadying himself against the flood of disappointment with losing their upload point. They were still alive, and more importantly, they still possessed the virus. That meant that hope remained to save Teksaroth and free the galaxy of Vekaran tyranny. “Shuldin, can you reprogram the virus for a single jump?” he asked calmly. “We’re going to have to improvise again.”

With a hard sigh, Shuldin straightened and nodded. “I will do what I must, but I must admit, my friend. The Vekara are beginning to vex me most terribly!”

Tathek laughed as he took up a position near an entrance to the chamber. “You didn’t actually believe they would just roll over and die, did you?” He could already hear hundreds of mechanical claws drawing closer.

Shuldin didn’t reply, but immediately began tapping at his universal device. Tathek engaged his energy shield as the first wave swept into the corridor. These bots had been modified with a pair of large claws with shimmering edges. They sliced through the shield’s surface, lacerating his arm, but the rest of their bodies couldn’t break through. Tathek growled and held firm, building up a charge in his pulse weapon. When it tore through the chamber, he watched with satisfaction as they clattered lifelessly to the floor.

M-Seven adapting defenses to counter our presence. Expect further iterations in design.

The gashes in Tathek’s arm were already healing, but he heard more bots approaching from the other corridors. They needed to buy Shuldin as much time as possible to finish reprogramming the virus. He backpedaled to the projection node.

Move us to a new location. We’ll try and stay ahead of M-Seven’s notice.

Activating node.

“Shuldin, brace yourself. We’re moving now.”

They emerged from the digital stream in an identical chamber. Shuldin didn’t bother moving from his spot and resumed typing on his universal device. He exposed his wide teeth in a grimace of frustration. “This is not the right utensil for a dish this delicate!” he growled.

“Make do with what you can,” Tathek replied. So far, he heard nothing approaching, but he didn’t expect their presence to remain undetected for long.

Surface scan of M-Seven’s internal systems complete. Obstacle detected.

What kind of obstacle?

Overlord vessel shows evidence of exposure to previous iteration of Vanneth virus. Inoculation programs detected.

No! We can’t use M-Seven to upload the virus to the Core if it’s protected. Is there any way to get around the defenses?

Adaptations required for existing viral strain. Possible to breach inoculations.

Tathek turned around. “Shuldin, we have another problem.” Before he could explain, several POD-sized bots charged down a connecting corridor and spat searing bolts of light into the chamber. Tathek raised the energy shield to ward them off, but they passed right through, missing his body by a hair’s breadth. With a curse, he fired off a quick pulse from his weapon and dashed back to the projection node.

X-Zero did not need to be told. It initialized another jump which deposited them in yet another identical room. “The Vekara have inoculated themselves against the virus,” Tathek said before they could be interrupted again. “You’ll have to recode it.”

“With only this?” Shuldin demanded, holding up his device.

Without warning, the projection node poured light over them. Two jumps in rapid succession let Tathek feeling lightheaded.

Was that a malfunction?

Negative. M-Seven attempted to flood previous segment of vessel with lethal levels of radiation. Rapid transition required.

“Tathek,” Shuldin moaned as he clutched the side of his head. “I-I don’t know if I can do this. Trying to modify the jump commands was one thing, but reprogramming the virus to break through countermeasures…” His words trailed off with a trill of fear.

“We’ll be pushed to our limit, but we have no choice,” Tathek replied. “The survival of my entire world depends on it, and yours as well. When the Vekara are finished with Teksaroth, what’s to stop them from turning their sights on Vanna for its part in this rebellion?”

The trill became a miserable warbling. Tathek laid a hand on his friend’s arm. “You can do this, Shuldin. X-Zero says it will help.”

Another wave of small bots flooded down a corridor. Tathek didn’t bother with the shield. He charged the pulse weapon right away and fired as quickly as possible. The first blast did nothing more than slow them down, and several drones swarmed over him with raking claws.

“Tathek!” Shuldin yelled.

A second blast of energy rippled through the chamber. The bots froze in place and crashed to the floor, littering it with a twitching, metal carpet. “X-Zero says,” he panted, wiping a trail of blood from a cut on his midsection, “begin with the tertiary code in the looping layer and increase the frequency to eighty instead of fifty.”

With an almost helpless headshake, Shuldin bent back over his universal device.

Another incoming flood of radiation forced them to jump. At every new location, the attack bots or drones showed further adaptations. M-Seven was learning very quickly and seemed more focused on efficiently eliminating them than making them suffer like L-Two had. Increasingly larger sectors became irradiated, but luckily it seemed to be the one defense system M-Seven couldn’t accelerate.

Tathek modified the energy of his pulse weapon to try to match each new adaptation, keeping X-Zero free to focus on helping Shuldin and scanning for incoming radiation. He successfully managed to strengthen the shield projectors and held off several waves of attackers, buying Shuldin precious minutes to work undisturbed. He relayed X-Zero’s suggestions for the virus adjustments in between jumps. For a while, he tried to keep count of how many they had taken since arriving, but he gave up in the mid-sixties. The constant fragmenting and reordering of their bodies made Tathek and Shuldin dizzy and sluggish, and even X-Zero’s multitasking ability showed signs of strain.

“Wait, Tathek,” Shuldin gasped, staring at his device in consternation. “Give me that last equation again.”

Blinking his eyes to clear them, Tathek struggled to remember the last thing he had said. “V over I, minus two.” He hunkered down near the entrance of the latest projection node and waited for the inevitable attack to come.

“I… I think…” Shuldin tapped at his control board. “I think that may be it. The virus… it’s ready!”

Where do we need to go to transmit the virus to the Core?

Direct connection only available in sentience core chamber.

Can you jump us directly there?

Affirmative. Activating node.

Tathek and Shuldin waited for several seconds, but the room remained the same. “Um, Tathek? Why isn’t anything happening?”

Internal stream network locked down. Attempting to bypass M-Seven’s security controls.

Hurry, X-Zero! We can’t stay in one place too long. The radiation—

Incoming! Warning, unit Tathek: radiation flood imminent!