Exile: Uprising – Chapter 14

The lifeless ship continued its tumble into the yawning depths of space, and Tathek wedged himself against the pilot’s seat as he held open the panel. Occasionally he’d catch a flash of violet light as the surface of Vanna floated past their view, but he quickly stopped looking when the sight inflicted a sense of nausea on him. Shuldin braced against the threshold of the console with one hand and tried to stabilize his tool in the other. He’d been making steady progress on the repairs for the past hour, but to Tathek’s mind, the pace was excessively slow.

Without the background hum of the ship’s engines and instruments, Tathek at last realized the depth and emptiness of space. While it didn’t possess the immediacy of the sound cancelling bubble Shuldin had created back on Teksaroth, it was the sense of the void surrounding the faint pocket of life, combined with the constant spinning, that brought him back to a nameless fear he’d last experienced as a child afraid of the night. As time wore on, he kept up a near-constant stream of chatter just fill the cabin and hold the deafening silence at bay.

“How long has it been since we crashed?” he asked. “Nothing’s out there, is it? The drones have to be disabled, don’t they? They would have shot us to pieces by now if they hadn’t. How long did you say it’s been?”

Shuldin sighed and cast a sympathetic glance back at him. “No more than an hour, my friend. Please try to calm yourself.”

Gripping his seat, Tathek squeezed his eyes shut as the planet’s visage rolled past them again. “I’m trying. The waiting, the spinning… I just don’t know how much more of it I can stand.”

Shuldin didn’t reply. He braced himself and continued to work.

Power surged under his fingers, and the console blinked back on. Tathek righted himself in the pilot’s chair and fired the stabilizing thrusters. The ship sputtered and coughed, then at last steadied itself, and Tathek experienced a wrenching sensation as his body attempted to adjust to the feeling of stability. He tried to raise a channel back to the planet, but the communications console remained dark.

“The hits we took completely overloaded the power system,” Shuldin explained, climbing back into his own seat. “It’s a miracle that I was able to restore this much. We’ll have to make do with what we have. Just be cautious, as we’ll be nearly blind on our way back to the planet.”

Anything to escape the waiting and silence…

Enough power remained in the computer for Tathek to lock onto the coordinates of the resistance base, but that was all. He strained to feel the faint brush of atmosphere as the ship drifted forward, and at the first grasp he lowered the vessel gently into its embrace. The reentry rocked the cabin, and at any moment he expected the friction to tear the wounded ship apart. They touched down on the surface with a gut-churning thud.

The smell of smoke smote Tathek in the face as he exited the ship. In the last rays of the dying sunlight, he could make out blackened craters and shards of crystal in the brown field. The entrance to the bunker wasn’t far, but he and Shuldin stumbled often along the charred and uneven ground, coughing from the haze in the air.

Tathek detected movement through the smoky pall ahead. He squinted, trying to make out shapes in the shadows, but he had a sneaking suspicion of who it was.

Sarath leapt into his arms, and he fell beneath the force of her embrace as she laughed and cried and swore at him. She caught Shuldin’s gaze and flashed him a relieved smile. “The PODs disappeared over an hour ago,” she said. “We’ve been trying to reach you ever since, but you never responded. What happened?”

As more of the surviving Vanneth clustered around them, Tathek relayed the details of their battle at the satellite and the damage that had delayed them for so long. As he was nearing the end of his explanation, he noticed that a pair of Vanneth females were regarding Shuldin with looks of awe, and he made sure to include a tale of his friend’s heroic exploits in restoring power and returning them to the surface. “The virus worked?” he asked when he had finished. “The PODs are gone?”

“Not only the POD army,” Ravanel told him, his voice swelling with excitement, “but every single trace of the Vekara on the planet. We have been sending the word out since we saw the attackers first disappear, and the response is the same across the world.”

“Then… you mean…” Shuldin choked.

“I do, my friend. Vanna is now free!”

***

They had done it. From across the galaxy and back with barely a pause for breath, they had freed the Vanneth from Vekaran tyranny. Tathek found he couldn’t relax. His nerves felt supercharged. They had rushed headlong into the teeth of their enemy, and they had won. As the Vanneth around him prepared celebrations and laid plans for the future, Tathek lingered in the hangar where Shuldin’s vessel was being repaired, his claws tapping out a nervous rhythm against the ship’s hull.

It was Teksaroth’s time now.

As the thoughts collided with one another in his mind, he felt X-Zero shift in what almost felt like disapproval. Biological again displays inimical lack of calculation. Recovery and deliberation prior to remaining engagement grants highest probability of success. Elimination of Vekaran unit assigned oversight of Vanna most likely scenario. Further Vekaran overlords remain.

That’s the problem. The rest of the worlds under Vekara control still suffer. I can’t sit here and rest. We have to go… now.

Illogical. Potential Vekaran countermeasures may mitigate viral effectiveness. Probability of required weapon adaptation, high.

Tathek hissed. He’d been worried about the possibility that the virus could only work once. Instead of calming his concerns, however, X-Zero’s words only stirred them.

Shuldin and Sarath worked side-by-side on a fresh set of repairs. Tathek made up his mind and approached them. “How soon will the ship by ready to fly?”

Shuldin paused in his work to look back at him with curiosity. “I couldn’t say for certain,” he answered, patting compassionately at the hull of his vessel. “It has seen considerable hard use these last several days.”

“We can’t afford to wait,” Tathek stressed. “We have to bring the virus to Teksaroth before the Vekara can counter it!”

Shuldin set down his tools and shuffled closer to rest his hands against Tathek’s forearms. “I understand your feelings, my friend, but it’s unsafe to rush the recipe now. We don’t know how many Vekara there are, or how many the virus killed. We must study the remains of the monitors, and the body of the Vekara itself if we can find it, to ensure that the weapon is at full strength when we travel to free Teksaroth. A month of gathering ingredients now may save us years of preparation later.”

“A month is too long to leave my people in captivity, Shuldin.” Tathek gestured around the hangar. “Yours are now free. You promised that you would help save mine once that happened.”

Beneath the soft layers of flesh, Shuldin’s expression stiffened, and he dropped his hands. “I have not forgotten my promise to you, Tathek. Please do not mistake my prudence as reneging on our agreement, but we must be wise about this. We have to plan—”

“Every time we have tried to make plans, the Vekara interfere!” Tathek yelled. His limbs trembled with barely restrained fury. “Did we plan to free your planet today? No! We did it because we had to. The Teksar don’t plan. We do.”

“And how many times has that attitude nearly killed you? What has it cost those nearest and dearest to you?” Shuldin demanded, his large eyes suddenly awash in moisture. He swallowed hard, staring up at Tathek with a mixture of worry and frustration, then turned and left the hangar.

Tathek watched him go, his pulse racing, until a familiar arm twined around his waist. “Shuldin is our friend,” Sarath murmured, “but he isn’t Teksar. I don’t think he could understand.”

Sighing, he turned in the circle of her arms and looked down at her. “And you?”

“It is as you say, Tathek.” Her orange eyes never wavered. They glowed with exhilaration, as confident as a mountain defying a storm. “Our people need us.”

“The virus is still loaded in the ship’s computer. Is it functional enough to get us home?”

“It’ll be dangerous.” A wicked grin tugged at the corner of her lips. “But if you can get us there without crashing again, we’ll make it.”

“Once Teksaroth is freed,” Tathek continued as they unhooked the vessel from various instruments, “we’ll gather our warriors and return.”

“If the Vekara show themselves to exact revenge on either world, we will crush them, side-by-side with our allies,” Sarath agreed.

“The Teksar will be free. And the Vanneth protected.”

There was nothing else to say. Though the beaten little vessel sputtered, it obeyed Tathek’s command. As he prepared to fire the thrusters and take to the sky, he caught a glimpse of Shuldin returning to the hangar. His friend’s eyes filled with a forlorn disappointment, but Tathek couldn’t let that stand in his way. As soon the roof of the hangar slipped open, he set the engines to full and thrust the ship toward the waiting embrace of the stars.