Exile: Uprising – Chapter 11

Tathek inspected the palm of his right hand. Pale gray, lined and calloused from years of heavy labor in the mines, it looked completely normal from his view. He prodded the skin with the fingers of his other hand. Then he stretched out his arm and aimed the palm at a bare section of the ice-flecked rock. At his unspoken order, the conduits running alongside the bones of his arm thrummed as a charge began to build. The palm tingled, then prickled, until the skin felt like it was close to igniting. With a mental command, he fired the charge through the air, a faint energy ripple that he could almost make out, and grinned with satisfaction. “It works,” he said to Sarath.

From her seated position at the open hatch of the ship, she shared in his smile. “Good. And without any visible signs of weaponry on you, the PODs will have no idea you are armed against them.”

“They will never take me prisoner again,” Tathek added, a soft but ardent vow. He came over to where Sarath lounged, leaned down and kissed her. His fingers snaked under the folds of her thin shirt to stroke the healing scar on her abdomen. “How does it feel today?”

“Still sore, but better,” she said, grasping at his arm to pull him down to the spot beside her. She turned and leaned back against his chest. “You did well.”

Tathek knew that he couldn’t take full credit for Sarath’s surgical repairs, as his hands had been guided by the added presence that now resided within his mind. In the three days since his brush with death, X-Zero had secured itself firmly within the implant. While it continued to make improvements to the underlying technology, it had also begun adding enhancements to his body. The energy pulse was merely the latest addition, a weapon capable of destroying a POD’s internal processing with only a glancing blow.

Without warning, something spasmed around Tathek’s lungs. He flinched, and the spasm became a flash of pain. Pressed so close together, Sarath noticed immediately. “Are you all right?”

“Fine,” he answered tightly. “It’s tinkering again.”

What are you doing now? he asked, projecting the thought at the shifting consciousness within his own mind.

Improving ability to process atmospheric gases. Current biological tolerances too narrow. Limits functioning across different environmental compositions.

Warn me next time. It hurts whenever you improve something.

X-Zero didn’t answer. It often struggled with the concept of pain, and Tathek lacked the words or mental images to bridge the understanding. So long as it continued to help him, he was willing to put up with physical discomfort. Nothing that it had done to him so far could compare with the agony of nearly dying.

“Tathek?” Shuldin called from within the ship’s interior. It was his own voice, not echoed by the universal device. Another alteration X-Zero had made to the implant. “Could you help me for a moment?”

Kissing Sarath again as he stood, he entered the Vanneth vessel. Shuldin had his squat head buried under the communications board. A collection of Vekara circuitry sprouted from under the console like silvered entrails. Tathek knelt down beneath the console and joined Shuldin. “What do you need?”

“I’m trying to improve my own recipe,” Shuldin chortled. “I believe I can boost the ship’s communication signal with this.” He held up the circuitry. “Would you ask our, um, friend if I’m mixing this new component in correctly?”

Like Sarath, Shuldin had been initially reluctant to accept the possibility of help from a Vekara. That had quickly changed when Shuldin had been discussing certain theoretical improvements to the ship based on the technology they were harvesting from X-Zero’s body. X-Zero, using Tathek to communicate, had directed them to the appropriate components, along with offering a short treatise on their most effective use. Since then, Shuldin sought X-Zero’s assistance whenever he tried something new, even if he was still unsure where the Vekara fit within the order of their little group.

Tathek carefully looked over the circuit boards, emptying his mind of needless thought to make X-Zero’s responses easier to understand. Then he pointed to three separate places on the board. “It says you’ll want to split the power between these three junctions. That’ll give you a… well, I could repeat the precise specs, but let’s just call it a massive boost to the signal strength.”

“Wonderful!” Shuldin said, and immediately set to work. “I think I’m starting to understand the fundamentals of Vekaran computing systems. Of course, it will take me years of study to fully cook the theory. More helpings of that exquisite dish Sarath made back on your homeworld would also help.”

Tathek laughed as he retreated out from under the console. “Which one? You called all of her food exquisite.”

“You know, the sweet, spiced fruit and meat one!” Shuldin made a sound that could only be described as a hungry slobber. “Such a savory crust to that.”

After several further poetic remarks, Shuldin closed up the panel and plopped into the pilot’s seat. The communication’s board lit beneath his touch. “Now perhaps I can get news of home,” he commented eagerly. The ship’s cabin filled with musical chiming as Shuldin directed the signal back toward his home planet. Tathek felt his own excitement growing at the thought of contacting other members of Shuldin’s race. He was dimly aware that X-Zero was observing the happenings of the outside world as well, perhaps drawn by Tathek’s psychological responses.

The communications board trilled. Shuldin barked with happiness and opened the channel. “Kindly greetings to those who pursue the quarry of true knowledge,” he intoned.

“May your quarry lead you on a long and fulfilling chase,” a deep, resonant voice replied. “Shuldin! We had despaired of ever hearing your voice again.”

“I am very much alive, Ravanel, and my journey has been productive beyond our wildest hopes.” He cast a broad smile back up at Tathek. “Not only have I found the weapon we sought, but true and faithful allies to help us wield it. I have met another race that the Vekara have enslaved—”

“Then help them as much as you are able,” the voice of Ravanel interrupted, “for the resistance of Vanna will soon meet its end.”

The smile on Shuldin’s face suffered an instant eclipse. “What do you mean, my friend? Has something happened?”

“The Vekara captured Dela when she attempted to subdue a POD for our testing. She was taken to their facilities last night and is even now being subjected to implantation and mind harvesting.”

“No,” Shuldin moaned. “Oh no…” He buried his face in his hands and his shoulders slumped. Tathek felt an arm slip around his waist. Sarath had joined them.

“She is strong, but none can keep knowledge from a mind harvest indefinitely. Return to your allies, Shuldin. Vanna’s resistance is lost,” Ravanel concluded.

Tathek heard the despair in Ravanel’s voice. He recognized its crushing grip. At a moment that should have been a swell of hope for them, Shuldin’s compatriots were about to give up. A surge of pity swept through him, followed by a flood of anger against the Vekara. He stepped forward and put a hand on Shuldin’s drooping shoulder. “Ravanel of Vanna,” he said, his modified vocal chords vibrating with the intricacies of the Vanneth language. “I am Tathek of Teksaroth, one of Shuldin’s allies. Hold fast. The resistance of Vanna will not fall. We are returning to you now.”

“You sound brave and bold, Tathek of Teksaroth, but there is no time,” Ravanel argued. “We will be uncovered before you can return.”

“You underestimate our power. We can leave immediately, and we will arrive in time.”

He spoke with absolute certainty, reinforced by the assessment X-Zero provided in the back of his mind. Shuldin gazed up at him, fear and hope swirling in his dark eyes. Tathek glanced to Sarath, silently requesting her approval, and she replied with a quick nod and a ferocious smile.

Within the space of an hour, they had recovered all the components X-Zero had recommended, blasted back through the tunnel left by the crash, and launched themselves through a gravity channel toward Vanna.

The first improvement Shuldin had made to his ship, with X-Zero’s assistance, had been to increase the gravitational strength of the channel-drive, in the belief that it would be possible to return directly to Vanna from the desolate planet. Tathek reflected on how important that choice had turned out to be. A rush of adrenaline pumped through his veins at the idea of fate guiding them toward this outcome. His gaze flickered between the dark tunnel ahead and the panel indicating their imminent arrival. With a lurch, space returned to its normal view, with the planet of Vanna sitting majestically before them.

It was a blue and lavender world, crested by the light of a single orange star, but the image was marred by the ship’s warning tones. The scanning panel highlighted the presence of the inexorable orbital monitors.

“The blockade,” Shuldin said fearfully. “I have not yet found a way to trick their sensors. I don’t know how we’re going to escape their notice.”

In the background of Tathek’s mind, X-Zero had been studying the functionality of Shuldin’s camouflage system. It directed Tathek to alter the flow of energy within the system and adjust it to the scanning frequency of the satellites.

“Don’t worry, Shuldin,” Tathek crowed as his excitement grew near to overflowing. “I’ve got a brilliant solution for this.”

Brilliant in theory only. Untested hypothesis, based on previous iterations of Vekaran technology. Standards may have updated, safeguards may have—

“Now watch this,” Tathek bragged as he sent a surge of energy into one of the control panels.

He adjusted their course and speed to pass close by one of the monitors. At their current pace and visibility, they should be mistaken as nothing more than a drifting chunk of rock. A new warning tone from the ship cautioned that they were being scanned. Tathek turned to grin at Sarath—

A shrill alert sounded, followed by proximity warnings from the scanning console. Tathek glanced outside and his jaw fell as hundreds of metallic objects launched from the distant satellite, hurtling directly toward them.