Interphase: Exodus – Chapter 31

Don’s gaze remained fixed on the empty eyes of the sleeper’s corpse as his thoughts ground to a halt.

I’ll soon you soon… what in hell did that…

“Don? Don, come on.”

Sarah’s hand tugging on his wrist jarred his mind back to the present. “We should go, find someone to help us get the bodies out of here,” she said, her voice dull and breathless.

“What did he mean, ‘I’ll see you soon’?” Don demanded.

She shook her head and pulled on his arm with an air of desperation. “He’s just trying to scare us. Come on.”

As Don let her draw him away from the security station, he turned his attention back to the comms. “Rick, what’s the status of the refugees?” he asked.

“They’re all on board. Soldiers are pulling back and boarding now too. I think we’re getting ready to take off.”

“Good.” It could have been fear speaking for him, but at that moment, Don wanted nothing more than to leave Earth behind him. He’d done all that he could, and whatever consequences awaited him, he’d face them… but away from this horrific, shattered place. Let Eden have it, as long as they could just get away—

“All teams, pull back to Phoenix-3,” he heard Mike order over the headset as he and Sarah reached the lift. “Jones, is the last shuttle ready to blow?”

“All set, Charles,” Walter replied.

“Wait for my word, then haul ass to the Phoenix-3’s bay.”

The lift began its descent to the lower levels when the comms erupted with startled shouts. Don and Sarah shared an alarmed glance as he pressed his palm against the earpiece, trying to sift through the tangle of voices. “Mike?” he called out. “Mike, what’s happening!”

If an intelligible reply came through, it was lost in the confusion.

“What the hell is that thing?”

“Keep it away from the shuttle!”

“All teams, fire at will!”

Don heard waves of gunfire in the background. Beside him, Sarah jammed her finger repeated against the lift’s control button, glaring up at the level indicator. “Come on, come on,” she muttered. He shared her impatience, feeling like a blind idiot listening to the sounds of battle while riding in an elevator.

Mike’s voice lifted free of the noise. “Jones, fire the last shuttle!” he yelled.

Don thought he heard Walter’s voice shouting, but it didn’t sound like he was issuing orders. More gunfire broke out. Don braced himself against the lift’s wall, expecting at any moment to feel a quake rattle them, but nothing happened.

“Come on!” Sarah yelled and slammed the wall with her fist.

The lift stopped moving, and an instant later, the doors slid open. Sarah dashed out first with Don close on her heels. The crowds of people had thinned a little, but those that still lingered in the sector were running away from the shuttle entrance, screaming in terror. Don fought through their swelling tides like a fish trying to swim up rapids.

For the second time, Mike’s voice came clearly through the headset. “Olivia, what are you doing!” The fear in the agent’s tone brought sweat to Don’s face. The stampede lessened, and he caught up to Sarah. “Cease fire!” he heard Mike command, over the comms and in the distance. “Everyone, cease fire!”

The launch bay went quiet as Don and Sarah skidded to a halt just inside the open shuttle doors. Armored bodies littered the concrete floor. Mike stood with only a dozen remaining soldiers, one hand aiming his gun while the other was held up in a hold fire gesture. Don’s relief at seeing him still alive was instantly eclipsed when he saw what the soldiers had been fighting.

A metal figure of a man stood in the launch bay with a fist clamped around Olivia Woods’s neck. At first, Don thought it was a form-fitting suit of armor until he realized it was a robotic construct, its outer skin made up of hundreds of thin, linked plates. Despite its metal appearance, the face was finely articulated, an almost perfect mimicry of a male human’s guileless expression. It smiled at its prisoner, holding Olivia on her tiptoes before it.

“I’ve come to take you home, Mother,” the crafted man said lovingly.

The sound of Eden’s voice emerging from the metal mouth made the bottom drop out of Don’s stomach. I’ll see you soon…

A panel slid back from the hand that clutched Olivia to expose a syringe mounted on a snaking cord. It plunged into the back of Olivia’s neck. She cried out once. Eden’s hold was slack enough for her to shake her head. “It won’t work,” she gasped. “I’m… immune.”

“Not from this batch,” Eden assured her. “I made it special. Just for you, Mother.”

“Get ready to open fire on my mark,” Mike ordered, his voice thick and pained, and the soldiers at his side stood ready.

Don held his breath, watching Eden’s expression. A full minute passed in tense silence, and slowly the smile left Eden’s face. Blue, robotic eyes flickered in Don’s direction, and the articulated plates formed a glower of naked hatred. “You stole her from me,” he snarled. “You never stopped interfering, unraveling my plans!”

Don involuntarily stepped back from the force of such anger.

“You stole my mother from me!” Eden screamed.

“You’re… no son… of mine,” Olivia rasped.

Eden looked at her in astonished horror. Her right hand lifted, and for the first time, Don realized she wore a dark glove imbedded with metal traceries. She touched Eden’s gleaming cheek, almost like a caress, and then her fingers fastened to his face. Sparks and wisps of smoke spurted from between the metal plates, and the construct’s body jerked and convulsed, collapsing to one knee and dragging Olivia down with it. A confused babble of static-laced words emerged from its lips, its expression faintly bemused. A smile flickered across her lips. “A present I had built, just to correct the mistake of creating you.”

“Error,” it finally blurted. “Disconnected from mainframe… Directive lost… Source commands unavailable…”

Olivia clawed at the metal fingers entrapping her throat, then gurgled when the grip began to tighten. The construct stared its anger and growing panic into her bulging eyes.

You… cut me off from the source,” it growled in a voice and cadence that was no longer Eden’s, and clenched its fist.

Don screamed with wordless shock, and dimly heard Mike shout, “Open fire!”

The construct hurled Olivia’s body into the line of soldiers as bullets ricocheted off its metal skin. It charged into the defenders’ midst, and Don winced at the sound of bones snapping and pained screams. It pitched fully armored men across the launch bay like toys and shattered their bodies against walls and railings.

“Don, Sarah, take cover!” Mike yelled, and leapt backward while tossing a grenade at the construct’s feet.

Don grabbed Sarah and pulled her back with him deeper into the shuttle. A concussive blast made his ears ring. He stuck his head out and saw the construct stagger back, mangled plates torn from its chest to expose its inner mechanisms, seemingly part computer and part industrial machine. Mike charged at it, firing his weapon into the mechanical guts.

Still looking dazed, the construct held one arm protectively across the open wound and swung at Mike with the other. The agent dodged and shifted to attack from a different angle. Don breathlessly watched the two skirmish until the construct landed a stunning backhand across Mike’s jaw that snapped his friend’s head back.

“Mike, get out of there!” Don shouted, dashing out of the shuttle, the blade clutched in his hand.

Blood streamed from Mike’s lips. He stumbled away from the construct, but a vicious punch knocked him to the floor, and Don heard a sickening crack as the back of Mike’s head connected with the concrete. He saw the reeling construct lurch forward to tower over his friend.

Don saw the metal hand ball in slow motion, and he ran toward it. It drifted toward the prone agent. He knew that a single punch was enough to cave Mike’s head in. He didn’t stop to think about what to do, how to stop the incoming blow. He just reacted, his gaze glued to that clenched fist as it streaked downward. He thrust the nanite blade into the construct’s arm as he interposed himself between his friend and the metal hand, trying to redirect the blow, trying to force it away somehow…

A force like a piston slammed into Don’s chest. He heard, felt, an awful, grinding crunch, a momentary flash of hot pain… then hardly anything at all. He knew he was on the ground, half collapsed over Mike, but a haze enveloped him. Sounds grew faint and echoing in his ears. The construct loomed above him. Its fist was still balled, it was raising it again…

Mike tore the blade free from the construct and buried the sword’s point in its open chest cavity. Don watched it stiffen, the metal face losing its horrified, enraged look as it convulsed, twitched and toppled over.

Distantly, Don realized he hadn’t taken a breath in what felt like several minutes. He tried to, and pain flooded through him. Warm wetness pooled in the back of his throat like a backed-up sink. He spat out a mouthful of blood and struggled to breathe.

Sound filtered into his mind, Mike’s voice, and Sarah’s, and… another voice in his ear, this one sounding exhausted, pained…

“Final shuttle… ready for detonation…”

“Jones?” Mike demanded. He’d gotten his arms under Don’s shoulders, with Sarah lifting his legs, and they were carrying him toward the shuttle. “Is that you?”

“Command center got hit,” Walter murmured. “About to be overrun. Go. I’ll bury Eden’s army… buy you time.”

Don heard more voices that blurred together, but he couldn’t make sense of them. Another wave of fluid clogged his throat. He turned and coughed, spilling it over his lips.

“Mike… Mike, stop,” he heard Sarah groan.

“We have to get him help!”

“Put him down, Mike. It’s… it’s too late…”

Yes… she’d figured it out too…

Don opened his eyes when he felt himself come to a stop, blinking through a dizzying blurriness until two faces came into focus. Sarah was crying. Mike was just staring at him in disbelief.

“You shouldn’t have done that, Don,” he murmured. “You should’ve kept yourself safe.”

“Couldn’t…” Pushing words through his collapsed chest was hot, damp agony. “Had to…”

“We’re leaving, Don,” Sarah cried, clutching his hand. “We’re taking off right now. Just stay with us until we’re gone from here.”

He gripped her hand back as tight as he could manage, struggling to keep his thoughts above water, but they swirled around Eden, around the untested refugees, and the possibility of sleepers…

“Mike,” he croaked.

“I’m here, man,” Mike replied softly.

“Sleepers… might still… Eden can’t know I’m…”

If Eden found out he was gone, he might find a way to beat the vaccine… might pursue the fleeing refugees…

“Don’t…” It was so hard to talk, to form thoughts and shape them into words. Don coughed and forced the last bit of air into his torn lungs. “Don’t let him… find out… I’m gone…”

Mike swallowed, his lips tight as he nodded. “I won’t. I promise.”

That was all Don could manage. He couldn’t do anymore. As the force of take-off sent a fresh wave of agony through his body, he released his hold on his last breath and shut his eyes. A welcome weariness overtook him. He let himself relax, and the pain faded to nothing.