Exile: Uprising – Chapter 21

Hours marched through the night while Tathek and Shuldin conversed together in the hangar, and Shuldin shared the events of the past several days. The Vanneth resistance had wasted no time in learning what they could about their enemy, following the virus’s trail as far into space as they could. “We discovered a larger construct positioned near the edge of our solar system,” he explained. “Not like X-Zero’s immense body, but something like a larger monitor, just another ingredient in our enemy’s recipe of control. We knew then that the Vekara would inevitably return, and we decided on this course of action.”

Tathek listened as Shuldin detailed the rallying of the resistance and the decision to bring the fight to Teksaroth. They’d brought what armaments and supplies they could and offered a formal alliance with the Teksar, to join the two races into a single fighting force. At first, the Teksar had been bewildered by the notion of fighting back against the Vekara, but the excitement of meeting the new race and the stories of Tathek and Sarath’s heroism in the battle for Vanna seemed to stir their long-dormant spirits.

The more he spoke, the more Shuldin’s eyes moistened. He had been dismayed at not finding Tathek or Sarath among the rest of the Teksar and sought news of his friends. When Xekan told him about the attempted rescue, he went to the deep scan complex, but the evidence there was dreadful. “I found only the fragments of my own vessel, mere crumbs at best, and no other signs of Sarath or you.” He touched Tathek’s shoulder, as if assuring himself once again that his friend did indeed sit beside him. “I was certain then that you had to be dead, or worse.”

“Worse,” Tathek replied hoarsely. “So much worse.”

He told Shuldin everything that had happened, from the moment that he and Sarath had walked into L-Two’s trap, to the events of that night. Though he chastised himself frequently during his retelling, Shuldin was patient, never recriminating his folly, and more than once wiped tears away. “Sarath,” he murmured, swallowing and shaking his head. “I will miss her very much.”

“I wish I had listened to you,” Tathek groaned. “I never should have left… not like that. I’m so sorry, Shuldin.”

“Your apology is appreciated, but unnecessary. That my friend is restored to me and his people against all odds is enough.” He paused to stare intently into and past Tathek’s eyes. “The ally of my friend is an ally to me. I welcome it like a feast in a time of scarcity.”

Tathek smiled. “X-Zero conveys its thanks.”

“We shall need as much help from you both as you are willing to give,” Shuldin said with absolute seriousness. Tathek leaned forward, alert and attentive.

The preparations for a new attack were already in motion. The flurry of activity he had seen on the runways during his arrival was merely the beginning. Thanks to the understanding garnered from their new research, the Vanneth had already finished modifying their virus to move beyond the over-station and strike directly into the heart of the actual Vekara. “Our enemies are preparing their countermeasures,” Shuldin said. “We must strike before they can neutralize our weapon, and with your help, we will be ready for them.”

“What’s the plan?”

“We are going to destroy all but one of the monitor satellites before they reawaken, both here and on Vanna. That will focus their attention through a single channel on each world, and increase both the range and speed of the viral delivery.”

Tathek’s pulse quickened as X-Zero calculated a high likelihood of success. “When do we start?” he asked.

“The virus will be ready at dawn.”

***

The first rays of yellow light spilled over the horizon and onto the preparations at the Facility. Xekan strode down the tarmac beside Tathek, an alien but deadly-looking rifle clenched in his fists and a fire smoldering in his red eyes. “The other fighters and I will keep the deep scan complex clear while you and Shuldin disintegrate those blasted monitors,” he stated, then pointed at the end of the tarmac where a massive Vanneth gravitic cannon had been erected. Shuldin trundled around its broad base, inspecting panels and computer banks and barking orders to the techs assisting him. “This is the only heavy weapon the Vanneth could get working in time, and its range is limited by the curvature of the planet. We’ll need you to pick off the monitors that it can’t.”

Tathek already knew the plan, but he could tell Xekan drew comfort and purpose from explaining it again. “There is no reason for delay,” he told Xekan. “The Vekara could bring the network back online at any moment.”

“I’ll get my men into position then. Guard yourself well, Tathek, and return to us victorious.”

They shared a single nod, and Tathek made for his Vekaran ship. As soon as he stepped into range, X-Zero prepared the engines so that they could take off immediately. Watch our backs while we’re up there, he thought. We’ll see this through.

Standard Vekaran behavior pattern indicates that odds of predicting unit Shuldin’s plan are minimal, X-Zero replied. L-Two unlikely to respond before virus eliminates target.

The ship sprang from the runway and glided through the air like a leaf blown on a graceful wind. Tathek pulled the nose of the ship vertical and shot to full speed, breaking the pull of the planet’s gravity within moments. He boosted toward the first waypoint, constantly scanning for incoming drones. “Shuldin, I’m moving into position,” he reported through the ship’s communicator. “Are you ready on the ground?”

“Priming the cannon now,” Shuldin responded. “Time to pound these horrible constructs into flour.”

Teksaroth spun gently beneath Tathek as the first of his targets came into range. At the squeeze of a trigger, a barrage of purple energy fired from twin ports beneath the sweeping wings of his ship. The bursts ripped pieces from the monitor’s frame until it was reduced to a pile of fragments glinting in the light of the sun. Maneuvering through the cloud of debris, he boosted toward the next target.

He kept Shuldin appraised of his progress and gave a grim smirk at every gleeful whoop from the Vanneth over the destruction of another target. As he approached the twelfth monitor, a stir at the edge of his thought drew his attention.

Detecting trace energy signatures within target, X-Zero said. L-Two attempting to reactivate planetary control systems.

Appreciate the warning, Tathek replied, and passed the information along to Shuldin and Xekan. “The Vekara are repairing X-Zero’s damage.”

“We’re ready for them!” Xekan declared.

Tathek blasted the monitor apart and gunned through the debris cloud. The next target showed signs of life, small lights flickering on and off, as he tore it to fragments. He brought the defensive guns online and connected a cable in his arm directly into the firing mechanisms. Targeting relays appeared over his vision.

As he suspected, three drones awaited his arrival at the next satellite. Keeping his primary guns on the monitor, he zipped around the drones as they exchanged bursts of fire. Each got only a single pass off before he brought them down.

“We have PODs,” Xekan reported.

“Are the fighters keeping up?” Tathek asked.

“For now, but don’t take too long up there.”

The next target was surrounded by at least a dozen drones. Tathek grit his teeth and ripped through the knot of them, running circles around the incoming fire until the satellite detonated and the drones wobbled and shut down.

This is going to get steadily worse, he thought to X-Zero.

Without prompting, X-Zero joined its consciousness to the defensive systems and took over their targeting while Tathek focused on piloting through the growing swarms and bringing down the monitors directly. Shuldin reported difficulties on his end: drones kept moving into the path of the cannon. While it could destroy them faster than the monitor could rebuild them, it slowed the progress of each kill. “I’m going to increase the power output, see if I can compensate,” he said.

“I’ve only got two more to go,” Tathek responded. A cloud of drones passed over him. His ship led them on a chase while X-Zero picked off as many as possible, fighting to open a path to the heart of the satellite. “Xekan, how are your men?”

“POD numbers are increasing! We’ll be taking casualties if this continues.”

Tathek frowned in concern. Many of those fighters were friends. “Hang on, we’ll be done shortly.”

“Tathek, my sky is clear!” Shuldin said. “It’s up to you now.”

His ship jarred under a fresh wave of fire, and he spun away from the blue beams of energy. The swarm was too large now to try to pick off individual targets, and X-Zero pivoted the secondary fire to the surface of the monitor. As with Shuldin’s attacks, drones moved into the line of fire, delaying the destruction of the satellite by precious seconds. Tathek raced off as soon as its lights went dark, moving to the final monitor.

“Skel and Gratha are down!” Xekan yelled. “The PODs… we’re losing control down here!”

Tathek bit his lip and poured every ounce of focus into his piloting. He swept beneath a wave of drones and around another, dodging fire from all around to blast the blinking face of the monitor.

Xekan shouted with pain and let loose a string of angry curses. “Been hit…” he grunted. “Have to back off!”

Tathek focused on a single point on the monitor’s surface and fired with everything. As if fueled by his will, the purple lances drilled through all opposition and tore the satellite asunder. “Monitors are down!” he howled. “I’m heading back—”

Unit Tathek, move away now!

Something vast surged forward on his flank, and his perimeter sensors went wild. The enormity of the object boggled the mind. It was a sight he had seen only once before.

Impossible… X-Zero gasped. Deviation… incalculable odds… how…

Tathek reacted with blinding speed and slammed the ejection key. The cabin lurched around him, and the rest of the ship sped forward as he ejected. The shell of the ejected cockpit melted away, bathing Tathek’s skin with heat as a blast of energy from L-Two’s incomprehensible body obliterated the miniscule form of Tathek’s ship.

He hurtled toward the surface of Teksaroth through the cold void of space.