Exile: Uprising – Chapter 12

Firing off a steady string of curses, Tathek swung the ship away from the incoming horde of drones. Their formation spread in response, stretching like a net to trap the larger vessel. A barrage of blue energy rained down on them, but despite Tathek’s frustration and embarrassment, his piloting skill remained unimpaired. He wove the ship through the cascading fire, then turned into it and slipped through a seam in the oncoming horde. The drones poured outward as they turned after him, avoiding any of the collisions that Tathek had hoped for.

A tearing pain through Tathek’s arm heralded a protruding cable. For an instant, he lost concentration and nearly collided with a bolt-spitting drone on his left. The drone veered into a clutch of its fellows, sending the whole group up in a plume of orange sparks. The cable extended until it reached an interface port on the communication console. A faint buzz filled Tathek’s ears as a signal transmitted outward from the implant through the ship.

Was that you? he demanded angrily.

Affirmative. Monitor satellite temporarily disabled. Unable to track Vanneth vessel until reboot.

Warn me, I said! I almost crashed the ship.

Even with the monitor satellite down, the swarm of drones continued their relentless pursuit. “Shuldin, can the drones function in atmosphere?” he asked tensely.

A burst of nearby weapons fire rocked the ship. Shuldin wailed, “I don’t know. Until my journey, none of my people had ever survived an encounter with them!”

“We’ll find out, then,” Tathek said through gritted teeth as he banked his way past a fresh wave of flanking drones. He sent the ship streaking into the atmosphere.

Down they plunged, the prey and the hunters. Tathek fought with the control grip as the pull of gravity and shifting air currents buffeted the decidedly un-aerodynamic vessel. The profile of the nearest drone never left the periphery of his vision. It seemed unaffected by the forces contending with Tathek’s ship.

Scan of Vekara drone complete. Vacuum shielding protects body from atmospheric friction and heat.

“Where are we headed?” Tathek shouted over the suddenly loud explosions outside.

“We cannot travel to the resistance in this state! It would give away their location and doom us all,” Shuldin moaned.

Tathek snarled with frustration. Get shot down, or doom the resistance. There had to be another option. Is my energy pulse strong enough to disrupt the shielding?

Calculating… stand by…

A stray air current slammed into the ship and sent it careening off-course. The drones launched a full volley, trying to take advantage of the disruption, but Tathek regained enough control that the bolts slipped past and detonated in the air. There wasn’t time to let X-Zero to finish its calculations. “Shuldin, take control!” he yelled as he engaged the auto-pilot.

Shuldin squeezed into the seat and scrabbled at the controls, causing the ship to lurch from side to side. Tathek shuffled over to where the universal device was stored, struggling to keep his balance as the ship bucked around him. “We’re going to need an atmospheric pocket inside the cabin. How do I do that?”

“Whatever for?” Shuldin asked, then squealed as another volley flashed all around them.

Sarath unbuckled her restraints and joined Tathek. She pressed a sequence of buttons on the device’s surface, and he felt the pressure rising within the ship. Tathek grabbed her and kissed her hard, hoping fervently that this wasn’t their last moment together.

“What are you doing?” Shuldin demanded.

“Fixing my mistake,” Tathek answered.

“How?”

He slammed the hatch control, and the door slid back. The wind outside the cabin screamed in response, but the projected atmosphere kept the air pressure intact within. Tathek braced himself and dove out of the vessel.

Calculations complete. Preparing targeting algorithms.

The air was frigid and thin, and Tathek gave silent thanks for X-Zero’s earlier lung augmentations. Gravity’s inexorable grip reached out to pull him downward, while he drew one hard breath after another, fighting the currents as he aimed his right arm. The charge built up slowly, and a cry caught in his throat as he thought his limb would burst. He aimed his weapon at the closest drone, exhaled and fired.

He couldn’t see an impact with the shield, but the drone’s frame rocked visibly. Sparks and thin trails of smoke spilled from its seams as it spiraled out of control before exploding in a bright ball of blue flame.

Target tracking and aiming markers overlaid Tathek’s sight as X-Zero routed the data into his optic nerves. They tracked the incoming drones as Tathek recharged the weapon. He fired, and another drone died. Again and again, he attacked. Soon the sky around him was filled with smoking, metallic remnants tumbling to the surface of Vanna.

Just like him.

Biological displays impractical lack of calculation before action. Adaptation required. Warning: adaptation will result in high degree of discomfort.

Very good, X-Zero. You’re learning.

Freefalling through Vanna’s atmosphere, Tathek took in his first sight of the alien world. The sky was a soft shade of the same blue-violet he had seen from space, and the surface stretched out below him in a dizzying mixture of blacks, browns, greens and yellows. He looked straight down. His optical overlay highlighted Shuldin’s ship, but it was beyond his visible sight. The algorithm tracked its path toward an impressive range of mountains.

His observations were interrupted by streaks of searing pain lancing up both legs. Tathek screamed, but his voice was smothered by the rushing wind. Fuming energy erupted from his feet, sending him plunging toward the ground even faster.

Realizing what X-Zero had done, Tathek fought through the pain to twist his body in an approximation of an upright state. The energy fired again, and he felt his descent slow.

If he thought too much about the absurdity of it, he would go mad. Better to get on the ground first, then he could think about it.

In stages, the hastily constructed propulsion system within his own legs blazed. Tathek screamed every time the system fired, as his flesh scorched around the blasts and bones ached from the counter-force. He was so wracked with pain that he barely realized when he was back on the ground.

Something cool doused his burning limbs. He dimly became aware of a pair of strong arms around him, and the air filled with the sound of shouting.

“Of all the insane, ill-conceived, brash, foolhardy, demented—” Shuldin ranted.

“Shuldin, enough. It worked. We’re alive,” came Sarath’s forceful reply.

Tathek opened his eyes. They were in a field of soft, brown grass not far from the line of mountains he had seen from above. Sarath held him in her arms, and Shuldin was stamping about in obvious exasperation. When he noticed Tathek looking at him, he waved his fingers about. “You, my friend, are trying to get yourself killed!”

“Not the closest I’ve been to it this week,” Tathek replied. “Besides, that whole mess was my fault.”

Shuldin had a few more choice things to say about his methods of protection, but Tathek was no longer listening. The glowing smile Sarath shone down on him made the pain worthwhile.

A small group of Vanneth approached from a thin line of trees. X-Zero was already repairing Tathek’s injuries, but he was still in too much pain to stand as they drew near and greeted Shuldin warily. One was a little taller than Shuldin, with brown skin and black eyes. “These are your allies, my friend?” he said dubiously. “Only two of them. I had expected many more.”

Shuldin, calmed from his fit of pique, smiled back at the other Vanneth. “I know, Ravanel, but believe me, two Teksar outmatch any number of Vanneth in ferocity.”

“Perhaps. What matters, though, is the weapon. Do you have what we need?”

“Yes, my friend. We have it.”

Ravanel led the rest of them deeper into the mountain range. Tathek leaned hard on Sarath to begin with, but by the time they reached their destination X-Zero had restored his mobility to normal. Shuldin talked animatedly with the other Vanneth, asking questions about what had transpired while he was gone and answering their questions about all that he had seen. When they passed into a wide tunnel that ran directly into the mountainside itself, Tathek realized with dismay that the Vanneth resistance had hid themselves in an old mineshaft.

“Naturally!” Ravanel responded when Tathek commented on it. “It is secluded and undetectable by the monitors. A perfect location to house an underground resistance.”

Tathek grunted as they trudged deeper into the rocky gloom. “I travelled across the galaxy to end up back under the ground.”

However, the tunnels soon grew bright with artificial lighting, and the rough-hewn passages gave way to comfortable living spaces and storage areas for advanced computer systems. The resistance had transformed the mines into an underground haven.

Tathek and Sarath, two aliens amidst at least thirty other Vanneth, caused a considerable stir. Awed speculations and whispered wonderings followed in their wake as Ravanel led them toward an upper level.

“We have no time. We must finish the weapon,” he said as he led them into a heavily reinforced room occupied by banks of computers. He turned and looked speculatively at Shuldin, who nodded at Tathek.

“It is within him, my friend,” Shuldin explained to Ravanel.

“What is?” Tathek asked.

“X-Zero is the weapon we sought. I apologize for the deception, but we had been tracking a Vekaran signal from the beginning. Searching for the last key that we need to complete the hope of our people.” He turned to the nearest monitor and typed in a series of commands. The rush of text scrolling by meant little to Tathek, but Sarath leaned in closer.

“This is a computer virus,” she said.

“Exactly,” Shuldin replied. “A virus that, theoretically, will kill the Vekara. We are close to completing it, but have needed a sample of their technology to complete the final code. X-Zero can provide that.”

The presence of X-Zero shifted within Tathek’s thoughts. A faint sense of revulsion echoed in the depths of his mind.

Calculations indicate high likelihood of overcorrection. Analysis of current galactic state and behavior patterns indicate Vekara seek only to perform function set down by creators. Stabilization of inter-species relationships through stewardship and necessary intervention.

Tathek’s lips curled in anger. Necessary intervention? You mean enslavement. Control. That’s what the Vekara have done to my people and Shuldin’s. We did nothing to the Vekara, yet they came and conquered us.

Vekara assess potential threats to galactic stability. Neutralization of threat through control; effective means of fulfilling directive. Alternative is extinction, devastation on galactic scale.

The memory of the great war from X-Zero’s past was forcefully injected into Tathek’s mind. Around the room, the others stared at him as his face twisted into an open snarl. Your kind stole our futures! We want our lives back. We want our destinies back.

Irrational concepts. Experience demonstrates failed results.

Tathek narrowed his eyes. That is our choice to make, not yours, and not the Vekara’s. You will help Shuldin complete the virus.

Negative. Completing virus would result in violation of creators’ directive.

Tathek took a step closer to the computer, and his gaze hardened. “Shuldin, X-Zero has volunteered to be a test subject to determine the effectiveness of the virus. I want you to use it on me.”

Desist, biological. Would result in destruction of X0E27IS505. Biological termination imminent result.

A smile flitted across Tathek’s face. Never challenge someone with nothing to lose. You have one option that does not result in your destruction. Complete the virus.

A pregnant moment passed, and Tathek could practically feel the weight of the calculations behind X-Zero’s decision.

Accession. Virus lacks key signatures for final effect. Request storage medium for code transfer.

Tathek gave a short nod to Shuldin. “Hold off on that request. It took a little convincing, but X-Zero agrees to help.”

A breathless Vanneth trundled into the room and plodded up to Ravanel. “The outer perimeter has detected PODs! Armies of them! They’ve ringed the range and are closing in.”

“How soon until they arrive at our location?” Ravanel demanded.

“Several hours still,” the Vanneth replied, “but their numbers are beyond counting. They know where we are. They are coming.”