Part 25 - The Fractured ShieldMature

Moments earlier, while the Vidar witnessed the last voyage of humanity's interstellar fleet, another battle unfolded within. The plague's ambitious aim to turn its foes into one of its own left the vessel in disarray. The hive mind's subterfuge was soon overcome, however, but at a price.

Unit 03 caught the turning soldier, began to draw him by the shoulders.

Her armored fingers would've dug into his flesh were it not for the hardened shoulder plates and the combat suit he wore. Only his lonely pleas sounded down the hallway, and as his transformation into an Acolyte spun ever closer, became filled with terrifying rage.

The only trace of humanity left in him were his eyes, which looked like those of a mad man. He now shrieked the howls of a beast, spittle flying from his lips.

His captor, heedless, continued to draw his shoulders asunder.

Unit 03 could not hear him, could not think. Self-preservation protocols. She was lost in a deep trance of artificially induced bloodlust.

A sudden crack blasted across the fallen soldier’s chest plate, and the rippling muscle spanning his chest cavity struggled to hold together.

He came apart in a spilling crimson tide—from the junction of his collarbones down to the groin. She came to her senses when his spilling entrails met the deck with a wet, pulpy smack. A spell of dizziness brought her upon her knees. In the spilt mound of his remains, a single eyeball stared back at her.

Her face remained vacant beneath the visor. She'd grown numb against the self-preservation measure's savagery years ago. It was the manifestation of the most basic human instincts, refined and guided by an independent AI.

The closer she came to unconsciousness, the stronger it became until it completely took over. Right now, she was on the verge of unconsciousness.

Her body fought a terrible illness, and her vision swam in a dull haze. The high fever would've soaked her in perspiration were it not for her seared sweat glands.

A splitting headache throbbed. Ailing as she was, the self-preservation measure still pressed her and vied for control over her body. She couldn't let it win. Captain Wilkes trusted her more than that thing.

Her fight to suppress the self-preservation measure began with recognizing the cause of her fear. First, these new Acolytes had near the strength of Cyclopes, but lacked the stone hide to withstand their own blows.

Second, they were faster than the original Acolytes. In her armor, she could withstand a few glancing blows, but one good hit would break bones and disable her. So long she was cautious, she was in no immediate danger.

The measure's presence slowly faded, but remained as a lingering malicious intent. It left her to her own power, and she returned to full consciousness.

Unit 03 blinked away the red dots in her vision and slowly rose to her feet. She sighted down the long hallway, pleased to see that she had less than a kilometer to reach the end, and continued down the narrow passage.

This hallway spanned across the Vidar's lower decks, from the rear sleeping quarters and the medical bay to the forward missile silos and the bridge.

As she sprinted down the hallway, a gradual tilt listed the deck slightly. The Vidar was quickly turning around. Unit 03 stopped near an intersection from the elevator doors and struggled to maintain her footing.

The angular acceleration then faded, and she heard the hull rumble as the vessel propelled forward. Something didn't feel right. Were they abandoning the Second Battle of Earth? If they were retreating from this critical battle, that meant things had gotten from bad to worse.

Unit 03 picked up her speed. She had to reach Captain Wilkes on the bridge and find out what was going on. Ten meters farther down the passage, a pair of fallen soldiers rounded a corner.

These ones were smarter, too. They still carried their guns and opened fire at range instead of charging out of despair or rage.

Unit 03 slammed to a halt, force shields sparking, and retreated to the last intersection. They now had her considering desperate tactics.

She had no firearms, and ten meters was a woefully short distance to wait for them to get near. These faster Acolytes could easily close that range, and only one of them had to land a good hit to strike her down.

Unit 03 leapt back into the corridor, legs coiled for a springing lunge. She set the ground she'd been on ablaze with sparks as she flew forward.

The crack of gunfire split the air a second later. The fallen soldiers were precise, cut down her force shields in mid-flight.

She crashed into the Acolyte on the left, and together they flew a distance before they skid the deck at range. The smaller creature, pressed between her three hundred kilos and the deck, did not rise again.

Unit 03 caught glimpse of the second. It gave chase while she flew with the first. She watched it. She could've beaten it to the punch, killed it while at it, but could not move momentarily.

The illness still had her, and she remained on the ground.

Her breath came in fleeting gasps. Her abdomen violently clenched and threatened to spill vomit into her helmet.

The fallen soldier’s sweeping arm caught her at the left ribs, scooped all three hundred kilos of her from the deck.

She smashed through the elevator doors and crashed to the ground. Her left lung quit in an instant. She tried to rise but fell to a knee, her breath a dragging wheeze.

Down range, the Acolyte came at a furious pace, missing its shooting arm.

The infection was beginning to manifest in her, and she had no strength to fight. The self-preservation measure came again, a rising dark tide in her mind. Her limbs shook, but she resisted the urge to lash out.

Victory didn't always mean you have to kill everything. Captain Wilkes reminded her of that lesson during her first encounter with a Cyclops.

Unit 03 kicked away the elevator's broken doors and reached for the UP button, but the punctured lung shot a lance of pain into her side. She gritted her teeth against the pain, tears brimming in her left eye. A jolt of upward acceleration hit and she stole away up the elevator, out of reach.

The dizzying pain didn't stop.

She remained on the floor, one hand futilely folded over the broken ribs, spellbound in a haze of confusion and vertigo. The mutagenic gas fought to turn her into an Acolyte, but her engineered genetics were stronger. Her body manufactured a cure against the infection, but victory was not without a price.

The broken ribs also caused internal bleeding. Her blood pressure plummeted and she went into shock. In the recesses of her mind, the self-preservation measure preyed on her fading consciousness.

A dark fog clouded her mind. Worldly sensations began to leave her, but she closed her eyes and fought to stay conscious. Captain Wilkes would be so proud to see her instead of that thing.

Unit 03 dragged herself from the elevator and staggered toward the bridge. The shadows were a little darker than before, the white fluorescent lights a little harsher.

She didn't understand that the situation was out of her control. She didn't understand that you weren't supposed to be standing while your innards were bleeding and traumatized, after your skin was torched so quickly, so strongly that it wrinkled to a crackling-dry crisp.

By the time she reached the bridge, she could no longer tell who she was. There was a lingering dull ache at her left side. In her own eyes, she saw empty targeting vectors and the progress bar of a software intrusion package.

The bridge's security door hissed open. There were thirteen uniformed officers. She couldn't recognize Captain Wilkes among them. To her, they were merely objects now. Infection carriers. Threats.

She then fell to the deck ...unmoving.

The End

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