Exile: Uprising – Chapter 10

Tathek’s rending screams had been the most terrifying thing Sarath had ever heard in her life, until a minute passed and a dreadful quiet had replaced them. The sounds of his moist, labored breathing grew weaker, and she clung to his body so hard she trembled. Shuldin scanned Tathek fervently with his universal device, but without any knowledge of Teksar biology he was at a terrible loss of how to help. That Tathek had suffered some grave injury had been obvious, but whether it was from the crash-landing or touching the mysterious orb, she couldn’t be sure.

“Tathek… Tathek!” she shouted.

The only response was Tathek’s eyes rolling back and closing, as the remaining strength seemed to drain from his body. At the same moment, every light within the chamber died away. Shuldin gazed around them fearfully, and the translator mirrored his forlorn croak, “Is… is he…”

Sarath pressed her palm over Tathek’s heart, hoping for a pulse beyond the pounding of her own. Suddenly, his body lurched and drew a ragged breath. His eyes snapped open, staring without focus in the gloom of the chamber.

“Tathek?” Sarath murmured.

“Negative. Listen now, biological. This host body is dying. Repairs are being attempted. Your assistance will increase the likelihood of success.”

The voice was Tathek’s, but the awareness behind it was not him. It spoke through him, as though using his mouth as a conduit, and every word seemed stilted and strained by something within his body. A thousand questions flooded Sarath’s mind, but she swallowed them and focused on the only thing that truly mattered right then. The consciousness within Tathek, whatever it was, could save him, and it needed help.

“Tell me what to do,” Sarath said.

“This body possesses implanted technology. Modifications to this implant will enable structural repair. The host body may indicate distress. Do not interfere. Your raw materials may be required.”

“Can…” Shuldin’s graceful finger’s gripped Tathek’s arm gently as he tried to draw the attention of the other awareness. “Can I be of assistance somehow?”

“Your biological material is incompatible. However, additional power will be required.” A faint squelch sounded at the back of Tathek’s neck, and a metal connector, slick with blood, pushed through the skin. “Access the base of the sentience core, withdraw the energy link that fits this socket. Cease contact with this host body once the connection is secure.”

Sarath lowered Tathek to the floor and inched back as Shuldin followed the stilted directive. With the connection complete, Tathek’s eyes roved as if the other awareness were concentrating. A faint warmth filled the chamber and his body gave a shudder. A smell began to drift off him, like meat cooking, and a thin layer of sweat broke out on Tathek’s face.

Minutes stretched on, and Sarath watched with sick fascination. She couldn’t see what was being done within Tathek’s body, but every so often there was a faint sound, like tearing or snapping. Other times a surge of heat would precede the burning smell growing stronger. Tathek would gasp or cry out, but as much as it pained Sarath to hear it, she could tell it was his voice, and that meant he was still alive.

“Extend your grasping appendage, biological,” the awareness commanded. The voice it spoke in seemed noticeably less labored. Sarath did as instructed, holding her arm close to Tathek.

She nearly screamed when a thin tendril, coated with blood, breached the skin of Tathek’s arm. She realized it was made of metal, segmented, with a sharp needlelike tip at the end. With a thrust, it pierced the skin of her arm. “Remain still,” the voice warned her as she tried to pull away. “Additional biological material will increase the likelihood of success.” Shuldin slipped his fingers into her free hand and gripped it tightly, and Sarath drew comfort from the contact.

At last, the metal tendril withdrew, pulling back into Tathek’s arm. A small wisp of smoke rose as something cauterized the tear from within. Tathek’s eyes closed, and the voice inside him remained silent. Sarath and Shuldin waited by his side, unwilling to say anything that could break the concentration of the awareness.

Tathek let out a long groan. His hand drifted to his chest and pressed as if it ached. Sarath and Shuldin both drew closer. “Tathek?” she whispered.

He opened his eyes, blinked rapidly until they focused, then stared up at her. “Sarath?”

She laughed even as her eyes flooded with tears. With Shuldin’s assistance, she helped Tathek sit up. The air in the chamber had grown chill when the lights had turned off, and the enclosure of warmth from Shuldin’s device seemed more valuable than ever.

“My friend, what happened to you?” Shuldin asked. “One moment you seemed fine, and the next you collapsed like my first attempts at cooking. And what was the voice that spoke to us, the one that healed you from within?”

Tathek shook his head gently. “I wasn’t fine. The crash shattered the bones of my chest. For a Teksar, it is a fatal but lingering injury. Wait… someone… spoke to you?”

“It told us you were dying,” Sarath said quietly. Her feelings of relief that Tathek was alright warred with a sudden flash of anger at him for keeping such an injury secret. “It said that it could save you.”

Tathek’s gaze drifted away from them. He stared out at nothing, the fingers of one hand slowly flexing and clenching, as if he tested their mobility. At last, he gave a small chuckle as he stared down at his own fist. “It made its choice.”

“What did?” Sarath asked.

“This won’t make sense unless I start at the beginning. Brace yourselves, my friends. You may not want to believe what you are about to hear.”

***

Over the next hour, Tathek shared his experiences, starting from the crash, right up until the moment that his awareness finally failed. He had spoken truly. Sarath didn’t want to believe it, but gazing about at the vast, frigid chamber and remembering the way the voice had spoken through Tathek’s lips, she realized she had no evidence with which to doubt.

Shuldin’s hands shook as he wrung his fingers together. “We are inside a Vekara. A body that houses their true sentience. Not a projected drone or an orbital satellite… but this construct!” He threw his arms open, encompassing the chamber in which they crouched together.

“That… thing… is now a permanent resident of your very thoughts?” Sarath added with a shudder, casting a sidelong glance at Tathek. “How can we trust such a creature as this X0E… whatever it is.”

A smile tugged at Tathek’s lips as he pulled his hand into a fist again. “For simplicity’s sake, I’ve named it X-Zero. And we can trust it because it relies on me to continue living.” He swept his hands around the chamber. “Its awareness was the signal that Shuldin’s people have been tracking. It can become the weapon we sought.”

“It won’t help us,” Sarath insisted.

“It already has.” Before she could stop him, Tathek grabbed her hand and pressed it against his own chest. His heart beat steadily beneath her fingers, in contrast to the fitful stuttering she had felt not long ago. “It healed me, Sarath. A wound that should have been fatal is now gone. X-Zero’s old body is truly dead now, but there is much we can learn from it. Technology we can use. We can repair the ship, improve it, use it to free both our worlds.”

Sarath tugged her fingers out of Tathek’s grasp and brushed them across the plane of his crest. “It won’t try to assimilate you again?”

“No. It couldn’t do it when I was at my absolute weakest. Now that I’m healed, there’s no way for it to take control. It will remain stored in the implant, but I sense that it is not dissatisfied with the current arrangement.”

Shuldin was already gazing about the dim chamber, his eyes hungry at the possibility of harvesting knowledge and new technology. “So where do we begin?”

They spent the next several hours roving over every inch of the chamber—the sentience core, X-Zero said it was called. They pulled open wall panels and examined the inner workings of a Vekara, and it was beyond the most advanced computer system Sarath could have imagined. Shuldin, who understood more about computing than she did, exclaimed every minute over a new discovery, and she suspected they had advanced the technological understanding of the Vanneth by centuries in a single afternoon.

Tathek, or rather X-Zero, guided their every step. Sarath remained watchful, trying not to be overtly suspicious of the new, thoughtful tone in Tathek’s voice. Whatever else had changed, it still seemed like her Tathek. The warmth and energy was uniquely his, and in fact, his passions seemed further renewed by the fact that his life had not ended that day.

Sarath still wasn’t convinced, however. An idea dawned on her, though it would require finding an excuse to get Shuldin’s ship all to themselves…

***

Shuldin had successfully repaired the vessel’s atmospheric processors by the time evening fell, and Sarath convinced him to return to the core to continue his examination of the computational cluster. She felt a little guilty for using Shuldin’s ship as a makeshift love nest, but being stranded on an alien planet left her few options.

Whatever doubts she held about the state of Tathek’s mind vanished in the face of his passions. No computer could match the raw emotions of a Teksar in heat. When she regained the capacity for rational thought, she finally let the last of her guard down.

“That type of injury has always been fatal,” she murmured thoughtfully, as she traced a gentle claw over Tathek’s chest. “Yet it healed you completely in less than an hour’s time.”

Tathek’s fingers tickled against her scalp. “It didn’t just heal me, Sarath. It… changed me.”

“What do you mean?”

He sat up a little and propped himself against the gentle curve of one wall. “X-Zero explained to me what the Vekara did to us to extend our lives. What the purpose of the implant was. As a species, our natures have always been incredibly volatile. If we didn’t die because of our wild pursuits, the very chemistry of our own bodies burned us out. That is the reason that none of us had ever lived past eighteen years. The Vekaran implants regulate those hormones.”

Sarath drew alongside him. “So, it extended our lives, but at the cost of our drive… our passions.”

Tathek nodded. “X-Zero analyzed the regulators in the implant and explained why they are so restrictive. The implants were designed not just to increase longevity, but to subdue us, to make us more docile. But that function can be rebalanced. X-Zero did that for me. I have my passions back, Sarath, but no longer at the cost of my life!”

A possibility suddenly occurred to her, carried by an emotion so strong and intense that it left her breathless. “Would… would it be possible that X-Zero could repair… someone else?”

“Someone else? You mean, another Teksar? Most likely.”

Hardly daring to believe it could be true, she smiled.

Tathek turned to look at her, and his hand cupped her cheek tenderly. “You mean you.”

She took his hand in a mirroring of his earlier gesture and placed it against her belly. “It is an old injury, but I too wish to be healed… completely. I want to be able to bear children, Tathek. Your children.”

“You always told me being barren didn’t matter to you,” he replied.

“I lied.” Her eyes filled with thick, hot tears. “When you believe all your life that something can never be fixed, you try not to let it matter. But it does. Tathek, it matters to me!” Her claws had extended and dug into his hand. Tathek winced, and Sarath retracted them again, but didn’t let go. “Please. Ask X-Zero if it can heal me.”

He captured her hand again and lifted it to his lips. “It can. And it will.”