Exile: Uprising – Chapter 17

Awareness crept in at the edges, like liquid seeping through fine cracks. Vainly, Tathek clung to the darkness within, knowing intuitively that to face the world again would mean to confront more pain than he’d ever experienced before.

A jolt of electricity tore him from the comforting embrace of unconsciousness.

He was imprisoned within a translucent-walled tube rising from floor to ceiling, just wide enough for him to extend his arms fully without touching the sides. The floor was a metallic, silver grill, and he could feel waves of warm air rising through it. Outside the walls of his prison, he saw a white, rounded chamber with three separate hallways curving away from the room in different directions, such that he couldn’t see beyond the confines of the chamber. He pressed against the slick surface of the tube and squinted past his reflection at a delicate symbol traced in silver along a wall.

Vekaran. The construction was Vekaran. The dazzling whiteness, the sloping and arcing lines of the architecture, silver tracery… Tathek recognized it all from his time in X-Zero’s old corpse. This was a Vekaran facility. Or perhaps… another, living Vekara.

Three objects hovered into the room and circled around his prison. The first was round with a single blue light that looked like an enormous eye, swiveling its scan over his entire body. The second was squat, rounded and multi-armed, with an array of intricate, mechanical appendages protruding from its surface. The last was shaped like a flat disc with thousands of dots of blue light winking from a rotating black band on its edge.

The eye drifted closer to Tathek and seemed to blink at him as a voice issued from it. “Analysis: Teksar, male, technologically augmented. Renegade, captured in the act of rebellion against the Vekara, suspected in the attack on the planet Vanna.”

The words were precise and eloquently spoken, completely different from X-Zero’s stilted and patterned speech. The tone, however, was mechanical and sterile. The light of the eye pulsed with every syllable. It hovered closer. “Why did you rebel?”

Tathek hung his head as a dreadful ache awoke in his chest. His eyes burned with escaping tears. How could he have been so foolish? Shuldin had warned him of the dangers of his course, but his pride, his passions had urged him on. Sarath… she had tried to warn him too… and now she… she…

“How did you acquire Vekaran technology? Who integrated it with your system and taught you how to utilize it?” the eye asked.

Tathek balled a fist and pounded it against the wall of his prison. A growl of defiance was the only response the eye would receive. He had failed Sarath, but he would not fail in this. If the only thing left to spend his life on was to spite his captors, then that was what he would do.

“That was the expected response,” the eye said. It drifted backwards, the light still fixed on Tathek. “Beginning motivation.”

A pink-tinged liquid began pooling up through the grilled floor. It felt cool against Tathek’s bare skin and rose quickly. He tried to kick and tread to stay above the surface, but his muscles proved unresponsive once they were surrounded by the fluid. He held his breath as the liquid rose above his head and engulfed him.

The disc orbited slowly around the tube, beams of blue light continuously flashing over Tathek’s body. Within a minute, his lungs began to burn for lack of air. He strained his arms, trying to claw for the surface, but his limbs refused to obey his commands. Finally, when he couldn’t suppress the impulse any longer, his mouth opened, releasing the last of his breath in drifting bubbles as the liquid poured down his throat. His lungs spasmed at contact with the fluid, desperately trying to find air, and pain and panic threatened to overwhelm him.

Minutes stretched on, and somewhere in the back of Tathek’s awareness he realized that his mind should have been unconscious, his body in the process of dying, but somehow oblivion was just out of reach. His heart continued to pound blood through his veins when it should have stopped. His body was receiving oxygen through the liquid, through his skin, leaving him to experience the agony of drowning without the release of death.

In his panic, he extended his claws to scratch at the surface of the tube, but his limbs were no more than useless weights. Wide-eyed with pain, he watched the disc impassively orbiting, scanning and watching him back.

A powerful suction pulled him to the grate as the liquid was drained from the tube. Tathek vomited and coughed up what he had swallowed, and the first breath felt like a fire inside his chest. He rolled onto his back, struggling to regain control of his senses.

“Your stress responses indicate that your body is operating at sixty-nine percent of standard capacity, Teksar,” the eye remarked almost conversationally. “Augmentations within your skeletal structure, as well as actively adjusted hormone levels, kept your vital functions in relative balance, and your mental stress levels within tolerable parameters. How did you accomplish these actions?”

Tathek barely heard the questions as he focused on trying to gulp down as much air as possible.

He heard a rush as more liquid bubbled up beneath him. He kept still, but a splash landed on the skin of his back and scalded like acid. Screaming, he lurched upright and stared at a pale yellow liquid slowly beginning to lap at the soles of his feet. Everywhere it touched seared with pain. A mechanical collar descended from above and locked around his throat, lifting him to his full height and holding him upright.

“In contrast to the last substance, this one merely stimulates specific nerve-impulses in biologicals,” the eye explained. “You will suffer no physical damage, merely experience transmitted nerve trauma. Your responses will prove useful in providing the information that you will not.”

The liquid filled the tube slowly, one inch at a time. Tathek’s flesh scorched without being burned, was consumed without being devoured, and he screamed himself into a state of near unconsciousness. The collar sent periodic pulses of electricity through his neck, returning his awareness to full whenever his mind began to fail. While the skin that had been immersed first gradually grew numb to the pain, within seconds, the nerves would reawaken, sending fresh surges of agony coursing through his body, until his whole being burned with rotating waves of pain. The liquid eventually covered his entire body, up to the collar, and he remained suspended in total agony for what seemed like an eternity.

Once again, Tathek fell to the grate when the fluid was expelled. His body shuddered involuntarily as the pain receded, and the disc’s roving scans endlessly continued.

“The data again proves inconclusive. If neurological stimulation is ineffective in revealing your methods of control, then physical samples will be required to gain further understanding,” the eye intoned blandly. It blinked, and the multi-armed drone approached the tube. Tathek couldn’t explain how, but its metal limbs melded through the surface of the tube to lift him and hold him in place. It injected him with a vial of greenish liquid as clamps, blades and laser scalpels surged to life. Soon his skin was slick with blood as it was cut, scraped, stabbed, bored and broken. Various implants and fragments of the systems X-Zero had seeded through him were removed, torn free from their anchors along his bones. Whatever the green liquid was, it served to repair the damage to his body whenever the drone was done harvesting another piece of equipment. He kept his eyes squeezed shut, unable to watch, even as he continued to scream until his vocal cords gave out.

Throughout, the eye maintained a horrendous, droning commentary. When at last the armed drone withdrew, and he had again collapsed, the eye addressed him more directly. “Once again, you display modifications that exceed expected results. Your chemically augmented regeneration rate performs five hundred percent beyond the expected level. However, you continue to block out physical and transmission-based access to your core implant. Elevated measures may be required.”

Silence followed the statement.

“Tathek… look at me.”

Shocked at being addressed by name, Tathek slowly lifted his head and dragged his eyes open. The drones were gone, replaced by a humanoid figure that approached him with a curious gaze.

No… not humanoid… Teksar.

Sarath.

The multi-armed drone approached behind him. It reached through the translucent wall and stabbed a thin probe into the base of his skull. Tathek groaned and let his neck go slack, tears sliding down his cheeks.

“Tathek… look at me,” the image of Sarath commanded. It even sounded like her. Unable to suppress his sobs, he obeyed. “I was your mate, wasn’t I? You cared for me deeply. You loved me.”

“Yes…” Tathek murmured. He reached out to her, desiring to touch her one last time, even if she was only a hallucination.

Sarath’s orange eyes glowed like the sun. She looked down on him, studied him. “When I died, I was carrying your offspring.”

Tathek’s hand froze in midair, his mouth falling open in shock.

“It was only a few days old. But a second life dwelt within me, and it was snuffed out when I died.”

“No…” His heart tore itself apart. It could have been a lie, a trick, but somehow he knew it was true. He had fixed Sarath, given her what she desired most… and then taken it away from her with his recklessness and stupidity. With a strength rising from a place deep within, he lifted his arms and slammed them against the walls of his prison, shrieking with grief and rage.

“This is what I looked like the last time you would ever see me.” A flash filled the room, and when it faded, Sarath’s head was gone. All that remained was the charred stump that had once been her slender neck.

The probe withdrew with a sickening wrench and with the last of his strength expended, Tathek fell onto his side, weeping openly.

“You may hold onto your secrets for now,” the eye said. “We will continue again shortly.” The light of its eye flared, and Tathek felt his eyes close.

Biological.

The voice echoed from far away.

L2I84TE313 powerful. Enhanced prediction array greatest asset. Predicted that allowing expiration of X-Zero at conclusive battle of Arra-Ongil war was course of highest probable success. X-Zero cannot contest logical formulation.

The voice quieted.

L2I84TE313… different than memory records indicate. Calculating altered development path given inability to follow directive of creators. Millenia of biological subjugation resulted in inclusion of cruelty in decision matrix. Diminished impassiveness inhibits adherence to original directive. L2I84TE… L-Two demonstrates corrupted purpose. Must not be allowed to continue.

The tone hardened.

X-Zero did not abandon unit Tathek. Calculated odds of success against L-Two in direct confrontation infinitesimally small. Preserved resources to sustain host function in subsequent interrogation. Calculating odds of escape, will report at completion. L-Two will be stopped.

The voice quieted again, and Tathek opened himself to the comforting embrace of unconsciousness.