Pariahs and Peacemakers

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Twenty Nine

Keeto moved light-footed through the maintenance halls of The Keep following in the footsteps of Director Al’Ku. He had taken it upon himself to play the hero which was slightly hypocritical in his role as he was acting without permission from the High Senate. Keeto was just thankful someone on the planet was willing to do what was necessary and take the initiative. The passageway opened up at the end and the unit soon realised that they were on the upper platform of the High Senate in The Keep’s main auditorium. Keeto was awestruck. He felt honoured to be walking across the hallowed ground of the galactic elite even if it was under such trying circumstances. Only the Forerunner had ever set foot here. He moved toward Arkan’s seat as the rest of his team fanned out. He studied its design, the elegance and exuberance of it was inspiring. He let his hand glide across the arm and studied the minute details that were lost on the eye. He knew more pressing matters beckoned but he realised that this may be his last chance to witness an important part of his race’s heritage. “Maybe one day Guardian,” regarded the Director who Keeto hadn’t realised was watching. He removed his hand slowly, embarrassed. To Keeto’s surprise the Director helped himself to a seat and brought up a holo-console, flicking through the screens in regimented fashion. If he hadn’t have been so shocked Keeto would have protested but he was done long before Keeto worked up the courage to. The floor began to vibrate as hidden gears and cogs cycled below their feet. The speaker’s podium moved backward and a huge tunnel opened up in the floor below them. Keeto went to peer off of the end of the High Senate’s platform but soon found himself moving toward the hole. The High Senate area displaced itself from the wall and began to descend into the blackness. The tunnel walls wrapped around them and suddenly the platform came to a crunching halt. The Director looked spooked as he began to hammer on the holo-console but no response came. Something was wrong. The platform began to creak and shudder. Keeto caught on quicker than his peers and yelled orders to get off the platform. He took a running jump off the platform and grabbed at the tunnel wall. A couple of his comrades close to the edge followed before their footing fell away rapidly. The Director never stood a chance from his seated position. A few stragglers jumped but lost momentum as the ground fell from them, causing them to fall short and claw empty space. The platform hit the ground with a shattering boom and the dust thrown up shielded Keeto from the sight. Minutes past before anyone clinging on dared to move as they watched the scene unfold. The realisation on how close they’d all come to death was a grim reminder at how dangerous their mission was. “We press on and check for survivors as we go,” said Keeto authoritatively more in optimism than expectation realising command had now fallen to him.

As the four survivors descended the inner face of the tunnel one hand hole at a time, Keeto’s mind ventured. He considered what had gone wrong and whether the alien AI was taking active steps to prevent them reaching it. After almost an hour they reached the bottom with a last ten foot drop. Keeto stumbled from both exhaustion and the uneven ground. He sat on the ground catching his breath as his team joined him and searched the rubble. As expected, no one stirred. As they sifted through friends and family underfoot they found the Director, contorted in unnatural angles that made Keeto’s stomach turn. To Keeto’s advantage the rubble had smashed through the blast door that had protected the AI core. A trap was likely contained inside but they had no other choice. If they didn’t end this now Engevaal would fall long before the Votheen arrived. He hoped the AI had expected to kill them all in one go and was still working on a plan for dealing with survivors but he knew that was wishful thinking. The last stragglers checked pulses but it was a frivolous. Not even a faint IFF pinged on the radar.

The room beyond was huge and all on one flat level. Rows of Pillars supported the room in rows on both flanks which was likely due to the stress of being under the entirety of The Keep. Every surface in the room was coated in glass and showed off the vast technologies underneath. Keeto presumed this room could be turned into anything it wanted, much like a VR training suite. In the centre of the room was a levitating orb between two antigravity generators. It pulsed with a green aura. This was their target, the AI core. An ear-piercing pop sounded as a projectile whizzed past Keeto’s head and caused a fist-sized hole in the back of one of the Sarcurians still making his way through the door. The round caused his body to burn and smoulder. “Ambush!” yelled Arkan as he slid behind a pillar, a salvo drenched where he had just been. As his two remaining soldiers fired back he chanced a glance at where they were being attacked from. His jaw swung low as he watched the wire frame of a Caliterrian fire pure energy from his hands. It was being manifested by the alien AI he knew but the fact it could turn the room against them was worrying. It was a clever security design but not so once it had been compromised by an enemy. “We’ve got a problem, Guardian,” yelled the elder Caliterrian two pillars behind Keeto’s own. He didn’t need telling in the least but when he braved another look he saw just how bad it was. Their rounds were going straight through the virtual image. How could they possibly beat an enemy they couldn’t fight? Another energy blast took out the Caliterrian that had issued the warning as his pillar crumbled along with most of his face. Keeto fired a few rounds off at the core assuming cutting off the head would cause the body to die. The emerald shield caused the projectiles to ping off harmlessly. “Can I count on you, Guardian?” The voice of the Director sent a chill down Keeto’s spine. He saw the wire frame grow detailing, the AI core was indeed toying with them now. The imitation Director released another shot toward the last Caliterrian support as he bolted from cover, vaporising him instantly in a cloud of smoke. As the Director charged up another blast, Keeto leapt out and ran through the image toward the AI core. The fake Director fired and the bolt shot straight through Keeto’s lower back and out the other side, straight through the AI core. As the apparition faded Keeto stumbled to his knees and coughed up blood as he smiled. It was short lived.

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