Exile: Uprising – Chapter 13

X-Zero refused to budge. Despite Tathek’s multiple attempts to convince it that a direct connection to the computer storing the virus was safe, no words would overcome the almost biological aversion it displayed. Eventually, the Vanneth were forced to improvise a physical storage device for X-Zero to transfer the code to. The rush of data that flowed through the cabling was akin to standing beside a roaring river hidden by trees: Tathek could almost hear the stream in his mind, but an invisible barrier kept him from stumbling into it and being swept away. Once the key signatures, as X-Zero called them, were downloaded, Shuldin and Ravanel brought up the specs of their virus. Tathek stayed with them to act as the communication line between the Vanneth and X-Zero.

Unable to assist with the virus, Sarath set to work helping the rest of the resistance prepare defenses for the bunker. She skirted the edge of Tathek’s awareness, rummaging through supplies, snapping orders and hauling equipment. While propulsion had been her scientific specialty, she was quickly improvising destructive ways to harness the power of thermal and kinetic force. Tathek gave a sinister grin as he imagined the surprise that awaited the Vekaran forces, but the knowledge that the defenses were no more than a delaying tactic sobered him. Even if they had days to prepare instead of hours, they couldn’t withstand the Vekara indefinitely. With their location known, an endless army of PODs would keep coming until they were all dead.

“Tathek, are you certain about this sequence?” Shuldin asked fretfully. “To my eyes, it would seem to conflict with the previous one.”

Tathek strained to make sense of X-Zero’s complicated response. “I think that’s the idea. It’s supposed to create an infinite loop that’ll lock the monitor’s processors up.”

“Shuldin, is this wise?” Ravanel asked, worry deepening the lines within his flabby face. “We are relying upon the advice of our most hated enemy to piece this together.”

“It’s a hastily prepared meal, Ravanel, I know,” Shuldin replied. “But what choice do we have? Either we take this chance, or we sit and wait for death to come marching up those canyons.”

Tathek smiled proudly at his friend and leaned in closer to the console. “Let’s go over the sequence again,” he suggested. “We’ll make certain we’ve got it right.”

By now, the weight of time pressing down on them had grown into a familiar sensation for Tathek. He let it hone him, using its force to fuel his drive. As he began to understand the basics of what Shuldin and his people had been developing, he found the theory of it to be fascinating. It would turn a Vekara’s own computational power against itself. The fact that X-Zero was nervous about getting too close to the code told him that they had crafted what was needed.

Finally, the virus was finished, as the middle perimeter warnings began to sound. No one knew for certain if it would actually work, but they were out of time. Tathek and Shuldin shared a silent nod, then split up, the Vanneth preparing the ship for launch, and Tathek searching for Sarath. In his heart, he didn’t believe this would be their final goodbye, but he wasn’t willing to take the chance that he was wrong.

***

The lavender sky had already darkened to a deep purple that reminded Sarath of Tathek’s eyes. She heard engines fire behind her and refused to look back as Shuldin’s ship soared into space. To look back would have felt like admitting defeat, and there was still a battle to be fought. Instead, she watched the shadows that ringed the valley for the tell-tale flashes of the PODs’ scans and let the roar of the vessel fade behind her.

Sarath didn’t have to wait long. The PODs had already been spotted within the mountain passes. Now, Vanneth voices trilled with panic as the first lights appeared on the floor of the valley. They marched inexorably, an endless column stretching back into the canyons beyond. She hunkered down beside the crude mortar they had assembled together, clutched the firing mechanism in her hand, and waited.

The PODs of Vanna were similar to those of Teksaroth, constructed as enlarged versions of the enslaved populace. The Vanneth were less physically imposing than the Teksar, so the PODs built in their image had a slower pace than the sleeker forms found on Teksaroth. Sarath knew better than to underestimate them, however. Their bodies were still comprised of a light and strong alloy, and the weapons they carried were no less lethal.

When the Vekara reached the first of the defenses, Sarath squeezed a button on her detonator. Buried emitters released a burst of high-frequency sound waves, inaudible to defender and attacker alike, but devastating to the hastily rigged crystal mines buried at the valley’s entry points. They exploded into glittering, razor-sharp fragments beneath the feet of the PODs. Sarath smiled as the twisted wreckage remained smoldering on the ground where it landed. The Vanneth had explained to her how the monitor satellites could convert energy to matter and back within the range of their orbital position. The fact that the fallen PODs weren’t being reclaimed meant that the monitor above hadn’t yet recovered. Tathek still had a chance.

When the mines depleted, she and the Vanneth began launching further crystal clusters from improvised mortars. The same minerals used in Shuldin’s channel-drive were available in abundant quantities just under the surface of Vanna. As Sarath had discovered by accident when they were repairing the ship, if exposed to the wrong frequency, the crystals reacted violently. When several dozen crystal formations had landed among the advancing throng, Sarath pressed the second trigger. A blast of sonic energy fired from surface emitters placed along the valley walls, and a tearing thunder echoed outward as the crystals expanded and shattered. Metallic limbs soon littered the valley beneath the mineshafts. The Vanneth launched wave after wave of makeshift bombs, then quickly covered their delicate ears as Sarath fired the sonic detonators.

While their defenses tore sizeable gaps in the line of approaching PODs, the Vekaran advance remained relentless. As they drew into range, they lifted their weapons and fired a volley of energy bolts into the fortifications. The Vanneth that didn’t duck in time were blown back several feet, incinerated by the superheated blasts.

Sarath growled curses and helped the Vanneth load more bombs. Fury flooded her system, no longer blocked by the restraining hand of her implant, and she reveled in it with every explosion that shook the field. Even if the Vekara swarmed over her, laid her low with their blue fire and trampled her remains underfoot, she would die as a true Teksar, with the full force of her passion coursing through her veins.

***

Tathek roared as he slammed the accelerator forward, and the vessel leapt ahead, temporarily widening the gap between him and their pursuers. He cursed the Vekara at large and their seemingly endless waves of drones. Beside him, Shuldin loaded the completed virus into the ship’s memory banks, ready to begin transmitting as soon as they were in range.

Through the swarming clouds of drones, they could just make out the shape of the monitor satellite. From a rounded, central node, thick columns protruded along the primary axes. Tathek’s heart sank as he watched several dozen more drones launch from their docking ports along the satellite’s arms. He gritted his teeth and spun away from another flanking attack. There were just so many.

“How much time do you need to finish the upload?” he asked Shuldin.

“Uncertain,” Shuldin answered, “but potentially a couple of minutes. You must stay within close range of the monitor for the connection to hold.”

Swearing, Tathek banked hard to dodge another incoming burst of fire, then immediately swung around to avoid clipping the wave swerving toward him from the other direction. They gained ground by handfuls, and the closer they drew to the monitor, the more the drones swarmed. The Vekara thought they were a threat. That meant there was a chance—

An azure bolt glanced off the side of the ship. Breathing hard, Tathek sent them into a sharp, drifting curve around the outer edge of the monitor. Remembering the pull of gravity on his limbs, he imagined a sphere of force surrounding the satellite and threw the ship into it. In tight loops he raced across the skin of that sphere, altering his route by tiny adjustments so that the drones could not get an exact lock on his path. It was dizzying, but it was the only thing keeping them alive.

“Just a minute more!” Shuldin howled.

Tathek couldn’t spare the focus to watch the progress of their transmission. He guided the ship around the satellite and between the columns on pure instinct, using everything he had to ensure they stayed within the needed range, and trying to keep them from being blasted apart. “How much longer?” he demanded.

“Just a little more…”

Tathek’s heart leapt as another wave of drones launched only a second in front of them. He had nowhere to go but up, away from the satellite and the transmission which was their only hope. Even if it meant his end, he had to stay the course. He fired the thrusters and tried to weave his way directly through the rising swarm.

“Almost there… done!”

The wing of a launching drone clipped the edge of the ship, and they spun away from the monitor into a volley of energy blasts. The console flared and sprayed hot sparks into his face. They flipped end over end as every light within the vessel went dark.