Exile: Uprising – Chapter 15

The dichotomy of the motionless blackness outside the ship and the constant sense of falling did nothing to dampen the electricity Tathek felt coursing through his nerves. This was it. In mere minutes, his race would be free from the Vekara. Even if there were more of the titanic beings out there, he was armed with weapons capable of destroying them. Soon the Teksar would have their passions restored, and, with their augmented lifespans, it would be their time to exert their will upon the undiscovered reaches.

As for the virus… it was still viable. He was certain of it. It had to be. There was no chance the Vekara could have countered it so quickly.

They approached the end of the channel. Tathek found Sarath’s hand and gave it a hard squeeze, then grasped the controls. He half-expected to feel static shocks as he tapped in a sequence of commands. A few seconds more, and this would all be over.

The gravity channel closed, and the ship vibrated as it returned to normal space. Tathek took in the image of Teksaroth’s orange surface turning peacefully beneath them, then gunned the engines. The ship staggered in response but quickly ramped up to speed. A faint light on the sensor panel indicated their approach to the monitor satellite. At any moment, he expected to hear the warning chimes that heralded incoming drones. The ship lurched as a vibration in the engine shook the hull.

Hold together for us just a little longer. See us through this last task…

The proximity warnings remained silent, even as they drew closer to the monitor. Sarath checked the readouts herself, then checked them again. In his peripheral vision, Tathek saw her frown. “Where are they?” she muttered.

Every light on the monitor’s multi-pronged surface was dark, and nothing accosted them. Tathek maneuvered into range to transmit the virus and engaged the ship’s computer, but after several seconds a tone he had never heard before blipped at him. “What does that mean?” he asked Sarath.

“The computer can’t establish a connection to the monitor,” she replied. “It’s… it’s dead.”

Tathek shared her look of astonishment. “Could the virus have spread all the way to here?”

“It’s theoretically possible.” Sarath gazed out at the still frame of the monitor satellite, the beginnings of a wild hope lighting her eyes like twin suns. “If the Vekara controlling Vanna was also controlling Teksaroth, then winning the battle there means that we also freed our world.”

The presence of X-Zero shifted into the forefront of his thoughts. He felt the connection cable press against the skin of his arm, poking through to plug into the ship’s console. Monitor power disabled. All connections to internal network suspended.

It sounded almost confused. So, it’s dead then.

Negative. A new sensation, something akin to an emotion, permeated Tathek’s connection to X-Zero. It was checking its own readings again, faster and yet more thoroughly, and the edge of its awareness was tinged with something that Tathek felt was the digital equivalent of suspicion.

What’s going on, X-Zero?

Power source detected within monitor.

I thought you said it was disabled.

For the first time since their joining, Tathek felt it struggle to describe a concept. Faint. Buried. Unconnected to primary network. Unable to compute tactical value of design. Extreme caution advised.

Tathek growled. He told Sarath what X-Zero had reported, a suspicion growing in his own mind. Perhaps the Vekaran still held more loyalty to its own kind than it had admitted. This could be a deception, and if it was, there was little he could do to counter it short of ripping the implant from his skull.

Whatever was going on, if they couldn’t establish a connection to the monitor, the virus was of little use at present. There wasn’t any point in lingering. “I’m taking us down to the surface,” he said to Sarath. “Let’s find out what’s happening down there.”

Reentry was a jarring affair, but true to his promise to Sarath he kept them from crashing as he guided the ship back toward the Facility. Even before he touched down, he saw crowds of Teksar wandering about the grounds. At this time of day, the Facility should have largely been empty, with labor units hard at work in the mines. Many Teksar pointed as the Vanneth vessel drifted to the ground, and a small crowd gathered when at last it came to a hovering stop.

Tathek and Sarath exited the ship. A general murmur of surprise rippled through the milling masses, but the dull lifelessness on every Teksar face was an almost painful shock for Tathek.

A familiar face showed at the edge of the crowd. “Xekan!” Tathek called out with a wave. A decade ago, Xekan had been the lead designer for the craft he had tested, a red-eyed, tall and powerfully-built Teksar with a personality to match his size. Now, he blinked docilely when Tathek addressed him and approached with a sluggish gait. “Xekan, what’s going on? Why is everyone here?”

Xekan peered around Tathek to stare at the gold-skinned ship. “Where did you get that?”

Tathek grabbed him by his massive shoulders. “That is a ship built by the Vanneth, a race from another world. They are our allies.”

“You aren’t making sense, Tathek,” Xekan said, shaking his head in puzzlement. He caught sight of Sarath. “Where have you two been? No one has seen you in the tunnels for days.”

Despite the tension in his own body and mind, Tathek chuckled. “Oh, my friend. It would take hours to describe exactly where we have been. Sarath and I have seen more than anyone in the history of our people. We’ve heard and experienced and done things no Teksar could ever dream of.”

His words only seemed to stir up more confusion from the gathered crowd. “We have been fighting the Vekara to free our people!” Tathek exclaimed.

Xekan’s shoulders seemed to slump a little more. “Now you’re just talking nonsense,” he rumbled. “There is no fighting the Vekara.”

“You couldn’t be more wrong. That’s why we’re here now, to save our world—”

“Tathek…” Sarath’s nervous voice broke in. He turned to find her looking around. “There are no PODs. Not one.”

“She’s right,” Xekan said. “They all disappeared yesterday.”

Tathek frowned at him. “Yesterday? How? Why?”

Xekan shrugged.

Sarath stepped closer and put her hand against Tathek’s arm. “It coincides with our battle at Vanna.”

“That’s impossible,” Tathek argued. “We only left Vanna a couple hours ago.”

She shook her head. “Tathek, the force of the gravitational channel distorts time when we travel in Shuldin’s ship. What seems like only a short time to us is several times longer outside of the channel.”

Tathek wasn’t in the mood to wrap his mind around scientific concepts. Instead, he grappled with the implications of what Xekan had said. The PODs were gone from Teksaroth. The monitor was dead. X-Zero’s ominous warning about a strange power signal seemed more and more like some sort of ruse. No… the attack on Vanna had brought the Vekara low.

“Has anything happened since the PODs disappeared?” he asked Xekan, excitement suffusing his voice.

“Not much. We came back here from the mines. Tried to figure out what to do now.” Xekan’s eyes grew downcast. “We were thinking of heading to the deep scan complex to see if anyone was still alive there.”

Tathek’s felt a drop in the pit of his stomach. “Why?”

“Shortly before they… left, the PODs rounded up a large group of workers and sent them to be deep scanned. No explanation.”

Sarath tugged hard on one of Tathek’s arms. “Something feels very wrong about this. I… I think X-Zero may be right. The Vekara aren’t dead. It’s like… it’s like they’re waiting.”

He shook off her hold. “Even if that’s so, it doesn’t matter. We can’t abandon our people, no matter where they’ve been taken. They are still alive. We have to save them.”

“Tathek—”

“Sarath, this is what we came to do!” he snapped at her. “It doesn’t matter what odds we face. We are going to free our world today. I thought you were with me?”

Sarath’s lips twitched, and her eyes made visible the war between fear and fire within her. At last, she nodded stiffly. “I am with you.”

They wasted no more time. Returning to Shuldin’s vessel, Tathek brought it online, and they soared up and over the rich earth and bending treetops toward the deep scan complex. Tathek spotted the wreckage of the transport Sarath and Shuldin had rescued him from, days and a seeming lifetime ago. They had beaten the Vekara then. There were no doubts in his mind that they would do so now.

X-Zero remained conspicuously quiet, but Tathek could feel it inside, watching everything as he set the vessel down near the nondescript gray building… watching as he and Sarath exited the ship and began crossing the lawn of golden grass… just watching, not in anticipation, but almost with wariness.

The entrance to the facility was open, and a yawning blackness loomed within. Tathek hesitated and exchanged a glance with Sarath. He could see how frightened she was, and for the first time since they’d taken Shuldin’s ship, he felt a prickling between his shoulders, a foreboding sense that something indeed was wrong…

Beams of blue light rained down all around them, cutting them off from the building and the ship. In an instant, they were ringed by armed PODs. Any hope of victory or retreat would be through their lines. Tathek lifted his right hand and began charging his hidden weapon.

Another flash lit the field before him, so bright that Tathek had to shield his eyes. When he opened them, another POD crouched in the grass. It unfolded its limbs and rose to its full height, towering higher than any POD he’d ever seen.

Deep within his thoughts, Tathek felt X-Zero recoil.

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It could have been Tathek’s own surges of emotion blending with the signal from the implant, but he thought that X-Zero seemed almost afraid.