Exile: Uprising – Chapter 22

Heat.

Skin scorching, all-consuming heat. The pain only surpassed by…

Cold.

Intense, penetrating, soul rending cold.

Tathek fled from the sensations, retreating into his own mind where the voice of X-Zero continued to murmur, chastising and arguing with itself as if stuck in a loop.

Calculations nonviable… how… no… accounting for deviations… cannot justify…

X-Zero, stop, Tathek interrupted.

He felt it halt at his thoughts. Unit Tathek. Explanation does not suffice… unable to account for—

Stop trying to account and help me.

Reflexively Tathek’s mouth opened for air that didn’t exist. He gulped down the cold, swallowed it, and it ate away at him from within. His body was failing. He couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, couldn’t scream.

Even as his senses faltered, his will sharpened. L-Two is not what you remember! You said it yourself. There is no predicting it anymore with standard Vekaran behavior. We have to face it as it is.

Different, X-Zero clarified. It paused, and its presence became focused. Beyond correction. Termination required.

Tathek couldn’t feel the cold anymore. Couldn’t feel anything. The void compressed his straining heart, and his pulse stilled.

Adaptations… required… he thought with the last of his strength. Help me…

Heat built in Tathek’s chest and surged. His stiffening body spasmed. The warmth flooded his brain and coursed through every limb, and the cold fled from it in terror. Pain like thousands of blades pierced him, but he welcomed it with joy, knowing that as long as he hurt, his body was still alive as it fell into the upper reaches of his world.

He tasted threads of air, not enough to quell the hollow ache in his lungs, but he sucked them in greedily. Little by little, the atmosphere thickened. Enough strength returned that he could open his eyes.

Tathek turned onto his back as he hurtled downward into the waiting arms of his home. His limbs, still numb from the chill of space, seemed to float around him. Up above, he could easily see the enormity of L-Two’s body. The massive ship dwarfed both of Teksaroth’s moons.

L-Two… it was here. Physically. Looming over Teksaroth like a giant poised to crush an insect underfoot. Did it think him dead already? Did it believe him defeated?

Tathek clenched his jaw grimly and struggled to force feeling back into his lifeless arms and legs. We have to get back in touch with Shuldin and Xekan. They have to know what’s happening. And we need to get back on the ground!

Further adaptations required. Warning: adaptations likely to cause—

I know. I trust you. Do what you have to.

The pain started in his jaw, worked its way through the bones of his skull, and drilled into his left ear. Droplets of blood crawled up the skin of his face to be grasped by the passing air as he plummeted farther down. The left side of his head felt on fire, and a burst of noise screeched through his brain. He screamed and thrashed as he fell.

Internal communicator functional. Voice link with surface combatants restored. Speak aloud at normal volume.

Tathek groaned as he opened his mouth. “Shuldin… Xekan… it’s Tathek. Is anyone still out there?”

He couldn’t hear the sound of his own voice over the passing currents, but he resisted the urge to shout. The sound of whistling air was all he could make out. “Shuldin. Xekan. Please respond.”

“Tathek, is that you?”

He heard Shuldin’s voice as clearly as if the Vanneth stood beside him. “I’m here, Shuldin.”

“Sweet stew, what’s happened? That… that thing up there! Tell me it isn’t… it can’t be…”

“It is. L-Two came here personally. My ship’s been destroyed. I’m…” He broke through the cloud layer and caught a glimpse of Teksaroth’s surface. “I’m heading back to the planet right now. I’m all right.” For now.

Further adaptations required. Stand by.

“Tathek, we’re overcooked for sure!” Shuldin wailed. “The virus… we programmed it with a delay to allow for successive jumps, anticipating that it would need to travel through several points in the data steam. It isn’t capable of infecting a Vekara directly! And that ship could destroy us all in an instant.”

Snaps and tears jolted through Tathek’s spine and across his shoulder blades. Cries of pain tore from him before he could mute his transmission.

“Tathek, are you all right?” Shuldin called. “What’s happening?”

Tathek looked behind him and stared with astonishment. A pair of metallic wings, their silver frames still dulled by a thin film of blood, stretched out past the reach of his arms. He felt the touch of X-Zero’s command as they fanned out and caught a current of air. His body tilted and his descent slowed. A peal of exultant laughter burst from Tathek. X-Zero had just transformed him into a living ship.

Unit Tathek. Modifications temporary. High probability of surviving descent. Unable to effect flight beyond initial landing sequence.

“Tathek!” Shuldin shouted through the communicator. “What’s going on?”

“I’m fine, I’m fine!” Tathek called back, pulling his focus back from his elation. “I’ll just have to draw L-Two’s attention, keep him distracted while you modify the virus.”

“There isn’t time—”

“Yes, there is! There are two big reasons that L-Two is here now. I think…” His eyes narrowed to tight slits, and his nostrils flared with challenge. “I think it came after me and X-Zero. L-Two wants to finish us personally. It is an advantage. I can keep it fixated on us long enough for you to finish the weapon.”

Shuldin went quiet, and Tathek felt a building tension at his hesitation. “Fix the virus, Shuldin,” he said with fervor, “and we will avenge Sarath’s death together.”

“Promise me you will be careful.”

“You have my word. Now go!”

Tathek gunned the propulsion engines in his feet, barely noticing the scorching heat as he sliced through the air. As they blasted toward the deep scan complex, he shared some thoughts about the coming battle with X-Zero, who immediately began tweaking Tathek’s augmentations while counseling caution.

Tathek had no intention of letting his passions get the better of him this time.

“Xekan,” he said into the communicator. “Xekan, are you still out there? Respond if you can hear me.”

“We’re… we’re still here,” the craftsman finally replied. “Lost more of us…” He shouted, and a peal of weapons fire sounded over the line. “The PODs just keep coming. We won’t be able to hold for much longer. Is the virus ready to go yet?”

“Not yet, but hang on! I’m already on my way.”

“Bringing that fine new craft of yours?”

Tathek just grinned and didn’t reply.

Through the trees he spotted the trail that led to the deep scan complex. He sped toward it, ignoring the blistering pain in his feet. X-Zero could repair the damage later, he just needed to be able to fight.

The complex was swarming with hundreds of PODs. Of Xekan’s original squad of seventy-two Teksar, only twenty-nine registered on Tathek’s scans. He saw Xekan in position near the building’s entrance, using several fallen PODs like a barricade. Tathek streaked close enough to see his old friend’s eyes widen. He dropped into the thick of the fighting as his wings detached. Claws splayed, he grabbed an attacking POD from behind and hurled it to the ground. “No, you don’t, L-Two,” he snarled, just before he buried the metal-shod claws into the construct’s chest. “Stop fighting through your toys! Or are Vekara only bold when their captives are tortured and restrained?”

He left the POD a twitching heap of shredded metal and wires and charged his pulse cannon and shield, yelling for the other Teksar to fall back. The PODs turned as one to focus solely on him. They fired at him with their guns, and he danced away to duck behind other machines and let them take the shots. They closed on him, trying to grab him or punch him or hold him down, and he blasted them with precision bolts or cut swathes of them down with charged pulses. All the while, he taunted and railed and heaped further challenges on L-Two.

The air vibrated with growing energy. The PODs still capable of standing fell back to a ring formation and waited. Tathek stepped back and grinned as the field before the deep scan facility lit with blue energy. The hulking figure of L-Two’s armored body materialized and stepped forward.

“Time for a rematch,” Tathek growled, dropping into a ready crouch.