Exile: Uprising – Chapter 20

The full breadth of Tathek’s awareness contracted to a single, fixed point. He hung there, motionless in a sea of void more complete than space. No sound, no temperature, no body to encase his spirit, stretching beyond forever, and over in the fraction of an eyeblink.

He caught a glimmer of fading light at the edges of his vision as he opened his eyes. His new vessel sat softly rotating in close proximity to a Vekaran monitor satellite. The sight of it, silent and unlit, with no hint of drones in orbit around it, shoved a knot of dread down his throat. Could this be another trap?

A horrendous, unvoiced screech filled his mind. In response, a jolt of energy lanced through his arm, and a momentary burst fired from his pulse weapon. It wasn’t strong enough to damage any of his ship’s systems, but it brought sweat to Tathek’s face.

X-Zero…

His Vekaran compatriot writhed in the confines of his mind, unable to answer and perhaps unable to hear him at all.

Tathek didn’t know what to do. He knew nothing of how to write computer code, much less counter a virus as powerful as the one the Vanneth had created.

If X-Zero was destroyed…

…then he would most likely die as well.

He recalled X-Zero’s warning when he’d threatened it before with termination: his own death would be the result. With the amount of Vekaran technology threaded throughout his system, if X-Zero shut down, the strain on his own body would be too great.

Very well. If that is to be our fate, then I will face it in due course. But it won’t be here in the cold dark of space before a tool of my enemy.

Tathek inherently understood how to pilot the ship. X-Zero’s design had incorporated all his piloting memories and strengths. Everything on the control panel felt familiar, intuitive. The sense of clarity suffused him once more, and he let it enfold him as he pivoted the ship away from the monitor and down to the glowing, orange sphere beneath him.

Home.

The virus was only a fragment, but it relentlessly tore through X-Zero’s defenses, and Tathek winced at the cries in his mind, as full of pain as any dying creature. While he didn’t share X-Zero’s agony, he felt its effects as more of his own augmentations destabilized. The overlays within his eyes blurred, momentarily blinding him, then switched off. An electrical spasm worked its way through his muscles, stiffening his spine and his limbs until they felt as unbending as steel. When it ended, each muscle wobbled like water, barely responding to his commands.

Teksaroth beckoned him, but he scanned continually for incoming drones and frowned when he detected none. L-Two had disabled the monitors for its trap, why would it have left them off?

Perhaps X-Zero had disrupted enough of L-Two’s systems on their way out that it could not manifest its will yet. A surge of gratitude welled up in Tathek. To die on the surface of his world, free of slavery, even if only temporarily, was a better end than he deserved.

X-Zero’s screams wrenched at his mind. As far as he could tell, the full virus had worked quickly upon Vanna’s Vekara. It hadn’t died a slow death. Whatever modifications L-Two had made to the virus had ensured X-Zero’s ending would be painful beyond imagining. Tathek stretched out his thoughts to touch the failing consciousness. There was only one thing he could think of to try to ease its suffering, and he had no idea if it would make the slightest difference. If the situations were reversed, however, it was what he would want.

I am with you, he thought. If you die, you will do so with your ally at your side.

There was no reply that he could interpret, but it seemed that for a moment the cries diminished.

The ship plunged swiftly into the atmosphere, bearing the touch of Teksaroth’s gravity with grace. Within moments he caught sight of the mountain range ringing the Facility. A thick blanket of night stretched over this side of the planet, but the lights within the old buildings blazed. Runways that had been unused for a decade proudly broadcast their landing lights, and he spotted Teksar moving quickly across them in a flurry of activity that he hadn’t seen since his maiden voyage to the stars.

His ship drifted closer and he detected other objects beside the runways. Ships. A long row of hovering vessels, each a gleaming, golden yellow.

No… it couldn’t be…

The thruster in his right foot ignited and filled the cockpit with a thick layer of smoke. It extinguished as quickly as it’d started, but the telltale tingle that marked the cellular repairs didn’t replace the burning sensation.

Instead of cries, X-Zero groaned internally, and the sound seemed even more painful as it quieted.

Hold on, Tathek begged. We may not be finished yet. Just hold on.

Distracted with metal cables and traceries trying to poke their way through the skin of his arms, his approach wobbled, and other Teksar raced to get out of his path. The ship took over the landing sequence, bringing them to the ground safely. After he touched down, the fleeing Teksar changed direction and ran toward him, several pointing objects at his ship that seemed like weapons. He grappled with the hatch control and tumbled onto the tarmac to exclamations of surprise.

Tathek tried to speak, but an endless stream of gibberish issued from his mouth. He growled in frustration. Now the translator was malfunctioning. The other Teksar hesitated, and he reached out to them in clear supplication. Cautiously they helped pull him to his feet.

Across the runway, something shuffled toward him as fast as its squat legs could manage. “Tathek!” Shuldin yelled.

Fighting to regain control of his mouth, Tathek bent over and grabbed Shuldin’s shoulders when his friend was close enough. “I feared the absolute worst,” the Vanneth sobbed. “Oh, my friend! The sight of you is a great joy. But…” The jubilation on Shuldin’s chubby features eclipsed into confusion. “But… where is Sarath…”

Tathek shook his head and by sheer willpower ripped his words free from their unintelligible prison. “No time!” he rasped. “X-Zero infected… dying… need counter-code… now!”

Shuldin squinted, struggling to understand, then his eyes widened. He snatched Tathek’s hand and pulled him bodily along. “This way, come!”

Tathek stumbled and trudged his way across the runway toward one of the hangars close to the Vanneth ships. Someone—he thought it might have been Xekan—slung one of his arms under Tathek’s shoulder and helped him the rest of the way. In the far corner of his mind, he felt X-Zero’s presence grow weaker.

He made it all the way to a small bank of computers before his legs gave way to spasms. Shuldin squealed with alarm and scrabbled at the back of Tathek’s neck. “I need one of your connecting cables!”

Tathek strained and forced his control on a small connector, pushing it free of his skin, the effort making him go cross-eyed. Shuldin wiped it as free of blood as he could and Tathek heard him hook it to something. Another electrical pulse locked his muscles into a rigid state and made breathing extremely difficult.

X-Zero’s presence was minimal now. Hang on, Tathek called. Just a moment longer…

But the Vekara didn’t have a moment longer. He felt the flow of energy within it falter, then fade, even as the code transmission poured down the cable.

Tathek plunged after X-Zero’s dying signal, chasing it into a dark corner of his mind. In a vast, shadowed chamber, he searched desperately and at last discovered a figure collapsed in a corner. To his mind’s eye, it looked like a Teksar, ancient, wise and powerful, but with a blinking nimbus of light that pulsed slowly about its frame like a dying heartbeat.

He crouched beside the figure, and it looked his way only for a moment, too exhausted and in pain to show surprise, and too weak to speak. He looked down at himself and saw a light within glowing steadily. You kept me alive when I was dying, he thought as he stretched out his hand and touched the figure’s chest, where the heart of a Teksar would be. It is time for me to return the favor…

The light flowed from his hand and blended with the figure’s. The pulse grew faster, stronger. The figure raised its head and looked at the connection between them. The counter-code flowed through the link, like a cool breeze coming off the mountains. The figure took a deep breath. The pain left its expression, and it regarded him with a look that went beyond thanks, past any need to communicate with mere words.

Tathek smiled and withdrew his touch.

He opened his physical eyes as the last of the errant impulses faded from his limbs. Sitting up with a groan, he met Shuldin’s anxious, hopeful eyes, and the events of the past several days caught up with him.

The crushing defeat at L-Two’s hands, the death of Sarath, the horror of his torture, the surge of hope at his escape and the encompassing anxiety as X-Zero slowly died in his mind.

He did the only thing that made any sense to him just then.

He wept.