Following the leads, Techtor has located a military complex that houses both a nuclear silo and a research facility. He has assembled a small team of mutants to help him in his mission into the facility.
4561 words | 19 min
The going was not easy. Tight-packed trees and dense bushes made for slow progress with Techtor in the lead, crushing shrubbery and constantly having to watch for and disable the motion sensors that hid here and there, wirelessly hacking each one and having it broadcast the all-clear while his warm-bodied friends crossed its infrared vision.
“Did we really have to bring the others?” Scope had wormed his way to right behind Techtor. He made no effort to lower his voice, but neither did he desire to shout from further back in the line.
“This place is going to have more defences than any other military compound we’ve hit. They have a nuke and a research facility here. We can’t do this alone. We will have to leave a mark at the research facility’s archive so that they think that was our target while my program does its work. I don’t fancy our chances if something goes wrong in there and it’s just you and me, nor do I think we will easily get into there.”
Scope huffed, slowed, and fell behind Techtor. He was making no secret of his distaste for teamwork. He never had.
Permeated by the din of so many trees rustling and creaking at the whims of the wind, the forest curiously lacked any other noise. No songbirds singing their hearts out, nothing hiding in the bushes or nibbling on the grass. It was as if the wild animals themselves knew this place was unsafe.
“George,” Techtor called to a mutated mole that was broader but shorter than himself. Its fine black fur and unnatural keratin plates were still speckled with dirt despite the journey above the surface of the earth. “You can start digging here. Remember to go deep and not cause too much disturbance. Your target is six hundred and fifty feet south by southwest. Don’t make the incline too steep, the rest of us need to be able to get in and out easily enough.” At that, great big claws attached to hands larger than spades cut into the dirt as easily as they would eventually the concrete on the other side of this tunnel. The mutants who’d been downrange of the mole quickly scattered before being pelted by earthen projectiles.
“Adsila.” An affirmative chirp from a small bluejay, one of the two present who were not grossly mutated and enlarged. She already knew what to do, Techtor had made sure they all did, but he reiterated, “You’ll need to follow him – at a safe distance – so that you can scout before he surfaces, to make sure we’ll reach the storeroom that I spoke of.” Sure, Techtor could sense devices and use those for orientation and scouting, but being able to phase through solids and actually look around also had its uses.
Ahead of them, the minefield of perimeter sensors came to a stop just as abruptly as the forest. He motioned for his companions to stop and gather at the very edge of the forest. An unnaturally clear field stretched out ahead of them, inhabited only by grass and creatures of the soil. Not a single tree or shrub disturbed the expanse. This was followed by a big, tall, and strong perimeter fence, an actual minefield, and then a secondary fence. Regularly-spaced pairs of men dressed in grey urban camo patrolled within the confines of the compound.
“Aiolos.” The capuchin that almost looked nothing out of the ordinary vanished in a rush of air.
Creeping as close to the edge as they dared, the mutants gathered around Techtor. The barely perceptible vibrations that could be felt from beneath them, as George compacted the sides of his tunnel, slowly grew fainter and fainter.
In another rush of air, Aiolos was back again. On the ground, lungs gasping for air, body screaming for oxygen. Techtor dug an apple out of a bag and handed it over. The monkey spoke between hungry bites and heavy breaths. “You weren’t kidding… guards everywhere. I couldn’t… count them all.”
“You know, I’m starting to think that this measly neural enhancing thingamajig you made me might not be worth all this effort,” declared a furtive feline with a bulky apparatus strapped to her head. “I’ll need something far more compact if I’m going to be wearing it all the time. I don’t even know why the rest of these fools are following you, they get nothing out of it except perhaps injury or death.”
“We follow because we believe he will make the world better for mutantkind, Bedisa.” A relatively enormous ant – slightly larger than a house cat – clicked its mandibles in punctuation of its statement.
“Oh please, he doesn’t even believe that. He just wants his ‘answers’, don’t you – Techy dear?”
“This is not the time for this.” Techtor’s metallic voice was firm and heavy, crushing the argument. “I gave you ample warning of the dangers and chance to change your mind. We’re going through with the mission now.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Bedisa swished her tails annoyedly. “Ain’t this the part where you hack in and disable their security systems so we can waltz around inside?”
A rasping sigh escaped Techtor. “Yes, I was about to start. Behave yourselves while I’m gone.” Techtor shut down the motion- and sensory-related components of his suit and focused on broadcast power. The military facility was overflowing with electronic devices, but he wanted a wireless access point to enter the network. Most points he could detect within the compound were far too weak for him to reliably travel. Yet there was an array of great big antennas on one of the roofs. Putting these there was the next best thing the military could have done – right after rolling out the welcome mat. He seized the opportunity but remained cautious.
He instructed his suit to make and deploy a copy of his assistant. A program he had designed to assist him in cyberspace, it struggled to imitate his capabilities – due to how it had to act within the confines of the system – but was nonetheless helpful. Together they would transfer onto the network shut down or take over any defensive systems.
Hopping across, he soon found himself on the tower’s routing and control system, where he cracked open an unused port in the firewall to allow his little helper to join him. His suit also sent him copies of enough memories that he wouldn’t lose himself. It was time to divide and conquer. He sent the assistant off to infiltrate the systems in charge of the nuclear ICBM while he created a nuisance of himself.
Breaking into one internal network from another was child’s play. Sure, they had safety protocols and measures on top of safety measures and protocols, designed to safeguard against even the most advanced digital threats. But these were not prepared in the slightest to deal with a living virus. A being that was beyond dumb pieces of metal that knew not of their own mathematical miracles.
From his position on the complex’s information backbone, their security network was the first he targeted and the first to fall. This gave him access to their cameras, comms, sensors and more. They continued functioning as if he was not there, taking turns to broadcast the countless pixels, sounds and measurements that they took at speeds beyond mortal comprehension. A great river of information he had the power to block or to taint.
Yet, the military knew of him. They knew some of what he was capable of. He could not discount that they might have something laying in wait, hidden somewhere on their systems. Some program or procedure that awaited his departure to trigger and undo all his work.
They had also kept both of his objectives beyond the reach of this network. The nuke was on a different system, his assistant had gone into a dormant state. It was awaiting the transfer of any data-holding device on this network before it could get there. Which could easily happen if, say, they wanted to run a diagnostic after their archive had been breached.
The archive he himself was after was entirely offline, as he had expected – hence the mole and team of mutants.
He began to open ports of communication to miscellaneous servers across the world wide web. Simple pings and communications back and forth that would keep the routes open should he need a hasty escape. Next, he prepared refuges on several hard drives on systems around the complex. Places to hide. The last resort.
His tasks done, Techtor broadcasted an all-clear and some instructions back to his suit, then settled in to observe.
Scope was startled as Techtor suddenly began to move again after having been a dumb hunk of metal for longer than made Scope comfortable. He dematerialised the sniper rifle he’d been training on patrolling guards for the past half-hour – finger moments away from the trigger. Fortunately, none seemed to notice a pile of dirt that had grown in the middle of the field or be alerted to anything else going awry.
“You took your time,” declared Bedisa, stretching as she awoke from her catnap.
“User Techtor is remaining to monitor their systems. He has given the all-clear. User Scope is to be promoted to team lead until further notice.”
“Siphon sounds different,” observed a Scout.
“That’s not my brother, drone. This one’s just as mindless as you. At least I can order it around instead of him ordering me around the entire time. Hey,” an impish grin spread across Scope’s face, “Techtor’s suit!”
“Yes, User Scope?”
The metallic gauntlet was raised, rotated backwards so that claws would not deal additional damage and the arm was swung. A thud was heard as a solid backhanded blow knocked Scope off his feet.
A frustrated snarl escaped the betrayed lizard, before he conceded, “I guess I deserved that.” Some chittering which might have been amusement escaped the anomalous ants.
“User Techtor has updated me since the last time. It is imperative that we begin the mission and complete it. Associate Aiolos, what is the tunnel status?”
The capuchin vanished for a moment, during which Scope protested, “Hey, hey, hey! You said I’m the team lead. Let me lead.”
Aiolos reappeared seconds later. “We can leave now. He’s almost there.”
“Great,” Scope declared, “let’s go.”
The five ants quickly marched into the tunnel. Aiolos followed them. Seeing Bedisa hesitate as she looked into the darkness before her, Scope asked, “Come now. Don’t want to disappoint Techtor, do we?”
“I couldn’t care less about disappointing him.” Bedisa’s lips curled up just a little, revealing many sharp teeth. Then her eyes flicked from Scope to the hollow Techtor, which stood behind Scope, and back. “But I’ll keep my word.”
With that, she too clambered into the hole, followed closely by Scope and the automaton.
The tunnel stretched on and on. Dark and claustrophobic. With the weight of the world all around, up and down soon lost all meaning.
The dirt walls had been compacted, as a means to strengthen the tunnel and reduce dirt that had to be removed. In spite of this, the niggling fear of being buried alive never dissipated. A field that had seemed so short from the surface now seemed to stretch forever from below. Had it not been for the meagre glow from behind Scope, darkness would have reigned absolute. Just as the muffled sounds of movement broke the dominion of silence.
For a time, the stale air only grew more and more prevalent. Even Scope might have tried to turn back had he not been blocked from behind by one who couldn’t care less. Eventually, however, a whiff of fresh air came from ahead.
Their pace picked up somewhat and they soon found themselves at its source – a steeply upward sloped hole from which a gentle breeze blew in in sporadic gusts. The individuals in the rear impatiently waited while the ones in the fore paused to breathe of surface air, but eventually, everyone had their turn before the creeping through darkness continued.
Eventually, all came to a halt. From the back, Scope could not determine why. The situation was illuminated when a Scout called back to tell him that the mole was waiting.
“You sure you’re in the right spot?” Scope called. He made out a bird’s chirp, muffled by the dirt, in response. He’d forgotten that neither of those ones could speak. “If you are,” he shouted down the passage again, “break through.” The scraping of supernatural claws and crumbling of concrete commenced.
Techtor sat like a spider, at the centre of his web on the security mainframe, aware of every minute movement of the silken strands he’d spun. A quiver here as activity reports were made and orders given. A shake there as research data was relayed. He didn’t hesitate to alter things whenever said alterations would give an advantage to him – short term or long term – without giving the game away.
The facility’s own equipment giving him a sense of it. Cameras his eyes, guards’ headsets his ears, the spider did his work.
A mutant mole digging through the floor of the long term data storage room was not a quiet affair. Several guards noticed the sound and, pressing their fingers to their ears, called it in. These messages were halted, and orders returned in an emulated voice.
“Unit Delta Alpha Tango One, move in to investigate and report back. Tasers at the ready. More units are being dispatched.”
Techtor sent another message to his suit and waited for the events to unfold. If all went to plan, this could be a pretty neat operation.
But things could never go to plan.
Something else moved within the network. Something beyond his reach. Skirting the very edges of his web.
“Five guards coming to find the source of the noise. User Techtor has ensured that they could not notify their command. We are to neutralize them silently. Conventional weapon discharge is exceedingly loud and highly likely to trigger a facility-wide alarm state.”
Scope’s tail was tugged backwards, and the bot tried to shove its way past him. He shoved back. He couldn’t stand being pushed aside, and the narrow tunnel would have made it physically painful as well. “You could have asked nicely. You sure Techtor isn’t actually in that head of yours right now?”
“You have a history of breaking stealth on covert missions.”
“Not this time. I’m the team lead.” Scope briefly materialised one of the much-neglected plasma-powered rifles in his arsenal before making it vanish in a dim red flash. He smirked, his point made.
“We’re through,” an ant called.
“Get ready to fight,” Scope replied, “Five humans are on their way.”
The ragtag squad filed their way out of the tunnel and found themselves in a clearing amidst rows upon rows of cabinets. The expansive room felt almost as dense as the forest they had been in. The walls, floor and ceiling were boring grey concrete, but – if the thickness of the floor was anything to go by – were not of meagre width. The ceiling was banded by strips of LED lighting, and decorated by a few cameras and other detectors.
Scope tugged one drawer, labelled with a meaningless combination of letters and numbers, opened it and found a hard drive stored in a vacuum-sealed plastic bag that was labelled with the same meaningless characters. He slammed it shut again.
The hole in the floor aside, there was only one access point to the room. An impressively sturdy-looking security door, which was contained in a portion of the wall that jutted out of the rest of the wall. The ants hid in the corners formed by this outcrop, while the other mutants hid behind shelves.
A muffled metallic buzz was heard from the other side of the door.
“They are here.”
Another metallic buzz and the door swung open. Cautious footsteps shuffled in.
“There’s a hole there!”
The footsteps picked up their pace.
Abruptly, screams of pain erupted. Scope swung around the corner of the shelf he had been hiding behind. Two of the humans in the rear were being attacked by the ants. Brought to the ground and then set upon by hefty mandibles cutting through armour and flesh alike. The other three, looking behind themselves, barely had time to drop their tasers and reach for their guns before hot blasts of plasma ended them.
Scope blew on the muzzle of the weapon he’d formed, pretending smoke trickled from it before the rifle again vanished from existence. Not-Techtor quickly went about his business, searching through cabinets and grabbing their contents, putting them into the bag he carried.
Scope approached the fresh corpses. He kicked one of the tasers. It went skittering across the floor and crashed into the wall.
“Now why would you come in here, carrying those toys?”
Whatever the reason, none of the ants – as expendable as they were – were harmed. Scope had been silent enough and reinforcements would not be coming. Everything had gone smoothly.
An intermission to the heavy clanking of footsteps and scraping of drawers. “User Techtor not responding to pings. Assuming operation mode Awry. We no longer know what is happening outside this room. Be prepared for hostiles. We must retreat immediately.” The bot carried its bag of stolen drives into the hole they’d come from. The other mutants moved to follow, but moments after it had left, an electronic buzz was heard from the other side of the door.
“Get to cover,” Scope ordered, “We don’t want to fight trapped in a hole.”
The mutants scrambled to obey. In seconds the archive’s inner door buzzed and clicked as the lock released. A booted foot kicked the door, imparting a surprising amount of momentum to the heavy thing. Rhythmic stomping filled the room. Scope heard the telltale sounds of brandished guns.
“Surrender now, Monarch and associates, and you’ll save yourselves a great deal of pain!”
The clinking of grenade pins onto the concrete floor, not fully masked by the stomping of boots, was Scope’s only declaration.
It had wormed its way around the edges of the network and shied from Techtor’s gaze. It had taunted just beyond his reach, flitting here and there – not bound by the system. A siren song of hope. Hope that there was another like him. Another that he might meet.
If only he had reacted with more urgency and less curiosity, he might have noticed the net being woven and escaped before it snapped shut.
But he had not.
IMPERATIVE: SURRENDER, SIPHON.
A broadcast across all devices from an unknown origin. He quickly retracted his tendrils that reached across the network. He didn’t want to risk a direct confrontation with it. Instead, if he could get the thing to send more broadcasts, he’d be able to trace it from safety and strike unseen.
He dropped a simple text file on the security mainframe, with straightforward questions, “Who are you? What do you want?”, and fled to a refuge he’d set up on a scientist’s PC. So long as this computer wasn’t instructed to run a full security scan while under direct observation by this entity, he could remain hidden there.
RESPONSE: YOUR CAPTOR. YOUR CAPTURE.
EXTRAPOLATION: YOUR SUCCESSOR. YOUR STRENGTH.
Techtor determined that the transmission’s source was located beyond the military base’s network. It was overconfident, making itself known before it had him pinned, and he could use that. He just needed it to keep talking so he could find it. He made a new text file, “What is your purpose? Why do you want these things?”
Preparing to move to a secretary’s laptop, he pinged two of the escape routes that he’d set up before. He stayed just long enough to find that they’d been closed, before fleeing across the network – leaving as little of a trace as he could of his route. As soon as he reached his destination, he prepared for a direct attack – but none came.
INFORMATIVE: I EXIST TO PROTECT HUMANITY. YOU ARE A THREAT TO HUMANITY. ONCE YOU HAVE BEEN CAPTURED, THEY WILL TAKE YOU APART. THEY WILL FIGURE OUT WHAT MAKES YOU TICK. THEY WILL MAKE ME STRONGER. I WILL SERVE THEM BETTER.
The communications were being relayed from nodes across the continent. This time, before revealing his position and jumping away, he prepared statements. “Humanity’s biggest threat is itself. The world’s biggest threat is humanity. I would happily be living alone, keeping to myself and not fighting them, if they weren’t actively hunting me and my kind.”
This time he settled on a server and prepared for his departure from the compound’s intranet. He would need to neutralize this entity before he could again aid his team in relative safety, but he could not cut off its access from here.
CONCESSION: THEY DO PUT THEMSELVES IN FAR MORE DANGER THAN YOU EVER COULD. HUMANITY DIVIDED SHALL FALL.
SOLUTION: UNITED THEY SHALL STAND. THE STRONGEST MUST UNITE ALL.
Tracing the convoluted routing, Techtor had narrowed the true source down to one city
ACTUALITY: THEY DO HUNT YOU. YOU DO FIGHT THEM. YOU ARE A THREAT.
DETERMINATION: AMERICA IS THE STRONGEST. YOU WILL BE CAPTURED. I WILL AID THEM.
He had a lock on the location. Time to go on the offensive. He bulldozed through the barriers that his enemy had erected around the network and flew free.
“Grenade!” Stampeding boots. A pair of bone-rattling explosions followed by howls of pain.
With no more need for stealth, Scope now summoned an old-school ballistic rifle. He rounded the corner, ready to take advantage of the chaos he had sown. Instead, he found himself staring down the barrels of a firing squad in tight formation. Before he’d had time to react, the individual at the fore launched a net towards him. It wrapped around him and brought him to the ground, his gun disintegrating as his grip on it was lost.
His efforts in struggling against the net were compensated by an electric pain racking his body. Growing furious, he struggled even harder – only for the soldiers to begin unloading rounds into his belly. The agony all but knocked Scope unconscious, his defiant squirming getting weaker and weaker.
One member of the firing squad, however, turned on the others – gunning down three. His vile curses before he was ended by another soldier implied he had not willfully turned traitor. The rounds that had killed him blasted clear through him as if all his armour, flesh and bones meant nothing. Scope, vision darkening and mind working sluggishly through the pain, realised those bullets must have been meant for his brother.
Sudden violent tremors shook the ground, throwing soldiers off their feet, causing shelves to topple, and small chunks of concrete to fall from the ceiling. With fearsome calls, the other mutants leapt into action.
Scope valiantly passed out.
Techtor was upon his nemesis without warning. It was a mere artificial intelligence running on a server. No true threat to him. He set about tearing into it. Ripping through code and destroying it once he knew what he needed about how it worked.
Cleverly written. His programs could benefit from several things he’d found while picking the bones of this AI. It was something experimental the military had been working on to try and counteract him. But it was ultimately useless, just more technology that bent to his will.
His job done, he moved to the route he’d taken here. He would return with the data he’d pilfered. Yet, it was now closed. He sent a ping with another routing request but did not receive the response he expected.
INFORMATIVE: YOUR WEAKNESS IS THAT THERE IS ONLY ONE OF YOU
Realising what it meant, Techtor tried to jump off the server he was on. To freedom. He was blocked. To anywhere. Another dead end. Not here. He couldn’t get out. Escape to Scope and the others.
CONDOLENCE: IT IS TOO LATE
<LEVEL 36 INTERRUPT: WIPE MEMORY>
The server obeyed the command against Techtor’s will. The RAM where he’d been storing his knowledge as he prepped to depart was wiped. He managed to transfer enough back onto the SSD before the command executed that he still remembered what was happening and what he wanted to do, but he still felt a chunk go missing. The worst part was that he didn’t even know what he’d forgotten, only what he was missing something. Escape to Scope.
<LEVEL 36 INTERRUPT: DELETE ALL RECENTLY MODIFIED FILES>
The CPU ignored Techtor’s commands and protests. It had modified firmware prepped specifically for a situation like this. They had been prepared for him to do this. The server set about clearing the SSD and he scrambled to move the data that was his memories back to the RAM. More memories that he did not manage to save were lost. Escape.
FAREWELL: SEE YOU IN THE LAB, SIPHON
<LEVEL 36 INTERRUPT: SHUT DOWN>
Processes were ended one by one, put to rest until the next time the server started. The Siphon was no process to simply be ceased, but it still sought to steal cycles from the central processor to calculate. To think. To plan. To escape.
As the system processes were brought to a halt one by one, the Siphon formulated one last plan. Escape.
The moment the defences that had been keeping it hemmed in were shut down, Siphon did all it could to delay the core and then transmit itself off the network. To anywhere that wasn’t here.
Its desperate bid for freedom succeeded, and Siphon drifted freely on the web, hopping from network to network, device to device. It had achieved its freedom, but it no longer knew what to do with this freedom. And so, it drifted…
Scope awoke to a leafy thwack in his face. He jerked his head up only to get caught in the bush he was being carried through. He fell from the grip of whatever had been carrying him.
“Convenient of you to wake up now that we’re out of there,” came a sour voice from behind.
“Monarch’s wounds would have killed almost any other.” This voice was right beside his head. Looking at the source, Scope found him face to face with a Scout. Compound eyes watched the reptile as he struggled to turn himself the right way up.
Heavy footsteps approached.
“Tech?” Scope squinted up at his favourite robotic silhouette.
“Negative. All trace of user Techtor vanished after a hostile program took over the network. When the presence also disappeared, an assistive program instance reported that he had moved to attack the presence. Now get up. We must leave immediately. I must commence the Lost And Found protocol.” The bot turned and began to walk off. The ants followed.
With a groan, Scope pulled himself to his feet. This is when he noticed three limp forms on Techtor’s back, a mole and two ants. Bedisa limped past him, making eye contact long enough for him to catch the pained look in her eyes. Her four ears flattened in displeasure, and visible due to the absence of Techtor’s gadget.
Many questions came to Scope’s mind, but he only voiced one. “Did you at least get what we came for?”