Exile: Uprising – Chapter 26

“Tathek!” Shuldin yelled, watching in horror as his friend’s body was sucked into space. He scrabbled at the unfamiliar controls, trying desperately to get the ship to move, but he only succeeded in backing up and impacting the rear of the chamber.

The lights on the console blinked in sequence, and an unfamiliar voice filled the cockpit. “Unit Shuldin, desist,” it droned in perfect Vanneth.

Shuldin froze and stared. “X-Zero,” he gasped, recognizing the clipped speech patterns from the ruins of the Vekaran ship. “If you can talk, then Tathek isn’t—”

“Negative. Time critical. Will instruct unit Shuldin in vessel controls. Must save unit Tathek before asphyxiation causes irreparable brain damage.”

“Yes, yes, please! Tell me what to do.”

***

Tathek’s body pulsed with a thin wave of internal warmth, enough the keep the cold from utterly consuming him, but the last breath he’d managed to snatch before the vacuum had claimed him grew stale in his lungs. His instincts demanded fresh air, but there was none to be found in the dreadful emptiness. He was drifting farther away from the warming embrace of his world. Gravity would not save him this time.

Be calm. Relax.

He couldn’t. The ravenous pain in his chest mounted with every heartbeat. His lungs heaved with panic, but all that filled him was icy deadness.

Unit Shuldin assisting to retrieve unit Tathek. Remain calm.

Void…

Fear and a terrible heaviness settled inside him. He felt his pulse slow, a result of X-Zero trying to extend the last of the oxygen in his bloodstream, but his heart had become a blade inside his chest, twist, stab, twist…

Tired… cold… just want to sleep…

Unit Tathek must withstand the void.

Let… me… rest…

***

Shuldin poked his tongue between his lips as he fought to keep the ship steady and moving forward, but the controls were terribly sensitive.

“Unit Shuldin must hurry,” X-Zero intoned, and he squeaked with nervousness and the vessel lurched off course. “Vital functions extended to limits, will fail at current pace.”

“No, you don’t,” Shuldin rumbled. He clenched his fingers around the control grip and steadied the vessel. “Not now. Not after all this. Hold on, my friend.” He engaged the thrust command and put on more speed as he activated his device’s atmospheric generator and opened the cockpit.

***

The darkness of space seeped into the fractures of Tathek’s awareness. His sight blurred and dimmed, and the space between heartbeats extended, providing more relief from the agonizing pain. His lungs had stopped heaving and only quivered fitfully now.

If you die, I die.

Hearing X-Zero sound so angry, so desperate, as it threw Tathek’s own words back at him jarred him out of an almost blissful stupor.

Not… fair… not trying to… hurt…

Irrelevant. Fight. Survive.

Harsh light penetrated the fog of blackness coating his senses. A sleek, gleaming shape slid into view alongside him, split open, and a blurred, dark figure beckoned to him.

Reach.

Can’t… move…

Reach now.

The chilled muscles of his arm shrieked with pain as he stretched. His hand passed through a layer of warm air, and long, graceful fingers seized his wrist and pulled. A warbling voice yelled his name as the pocket closed around him.

Good, unit Tathek. Now breathe.

But the last of his strength had already been expended, and he hung in an interminable moment between heartbeats. His chest felt frozen solid. Darkness enclosed him again.

Breathe!

X-Zero’s thought was more forceful than Tathek could recall. He pried his lips open, tasted clean air on his tongue and sucked in a tiny breath, enough to purge the edges of the void. The next was deeper, and the encompassing pain finally began to ebb. He drew enough to fill his lungs to the brim and welcomed the warmth that smothered him in comfortable darkness.

***

Tathek returned to consciousness to see Shuldin’s face hovering over him and hear other voices nearby clamoring and talking over one another. “He’s waking up,” Shuldin called over his shoulder, temporarily bringing the tumult to a halt.

The heat of Shuldin’s hands underneath his shoulders as he sat up felt nearly searing. He realized they were still in the cockpit of X-Zero’s vessel with a crowd of Teksar and Vanneth clustered around outside the hull, staring at him worriedly and expectantly. The ship was parked on one of the runways of the Facility with the slanting rays of late morning already heating the tarmac.

“I’ve told them all what happened up there, and what’s coming for us,” Shuldin explained as Tathek climbed over the lip of the cockpit and slid down the side of the ship. “We’ve been trying to decide on our next course of action.”

Ravanel pushed his way to the front of the crowd. “I will tell you again, Shuldin, our plan of attack should not be to worry about the Vekara fleet. The core sentience is our real target, and we should focus our efforts there.”

“We don’t even know how the sentience can be accessed, Ravanel,” Shuldin argued.

Tathek wobbled as he stepped away from the ship and leaned back against it for support as the crowd gave way for him. X-Zero shifted within his thoughts as Shuldin and Ravanel continued to trade points, their debate interrupted now and again by another Vanneth’s statement or a Teksar’s confused question. Tathek ignored all of it and focused instead on X-Zero’s thread.

“Ravanel’s plan is sound,” he announced, which brought an abrupt end to the discussion. “X-Zero says we can use L-Two’s overseer station to act as an entry point. If X-Zero can find us a viable link through one of the Vekara, the virus can use that path to reach and infect the Core.”

“What if there is no viable link?” someone in the crowd demanded.

“Then we’ll try to make one,” Tathek responded grimly. “And if we can’t, then when the Vekara arrive to sunder our planet, we’ll throw every ship we still have at them. If that fails, we’ll fight them with our teeth and claws. I have already vowed to oppose the Vekara to my last breath. Does anyone here want to lie down and wait for death to come for them?”

The Teksar answered his challenge with growls of defiance and expressions of determination. Some of the Vanneth exchanged concerned glances with one another, but no one raised an objection.

“The overseer lies outside the reach of our vessels,” Ravanel said. “It is positioned at the edge of the solar system, outside the gravitational reach of any celestial bodies.”

Tathek slapped a hand against his ship. “This will get us there.”

A Teksar he didn’t recognize stepped forward and sized Tathek up. “You’re half-dead,” he announced. “You aren’t fit to fly anywhere.”

A grin played across Tathek’s face as a surge of recuperative energy swept through his body. He straightened to his full height, the tremors leaving his muscles, and he dropped into a combat stance. Faster than anyone could react, he hurled the belligerent Teksar back into the crowd with a single open-palmed thrust. Every face gazed at him with awe.

“I am more than fit to fly. I am fit to fight.”

***

Shuldin stayed behind with the rest of the Vanneth resistance to reconfigure the virus to make the necessary jumps to reach the Core. Tathek flew his vessel alone, with X-Zero directing his route to L-Two’s lifeless overseer station. Within minutes, he had travelled beyond the range of any Vanneth craft, and an object came into view on his sensors. It was far larger yet more compact than the monitor satellites, with thousands of sensory eyes spread across its surface. Every eye on it was black.

It looks dead to me.

Unpowered since L-Two’s termination. Connection to Core network still possible. Be aware, unit Tathek. Core sentience powerful. Without Overlord vessel anchoring awareness, X-Zero will be viewed as unassociated entity. High likelihood of attempted assimilation and reformat. Once connected, will require assistance from unit Tathek to maintain integrity of self-identity.

I won’t let you down, X-Zero.

Tathek emptied his mind of all stray thoughts and concentrated on his connection with the Vekaran consciousness, mapping the intersections between their thoughts, memories and experiences, remembering how strange harboring X-Zero had felt in the beginning and contrasting it to the natural flow now.

Since X-Zero possessed no body of its own, he would be the anchor for both of them.

Engaging connection.

A single eye on the overseer’s surface blinked on. Tathek felt X-Zero push forward, and a rush of data filled his thoughts, but he redoubled his focus, pushing aside everything that was not directly connected to his companion.

Pathway open… to Core network.

You’re straining, X-Zero. Are you alright?

Mapping… pathway… to Core…

Their connection wrenched loose of Tathek’s grip. For a moment, he lost sense of X-Zero completely and desperately traced back to the thread of awareness still connecting them. He brushed up against an immensity of thought that made X-Zero’s consciousness seem tiny in comparison and shied away from it, casting his thoughts wildly at the other end of the thread.

Slowly, imperceptibly, he recovered the awareness of his friend, dim and enlarged at the same time.

X-Zero, what’s going on?

Core… network…

Did you reach it?

Core… network… subsuming…

Tathek knew the command. Gritting his teeth, he wrapped his thoughts around X-Zero’s awareness like a net and pulled. The vast consciousness, not expecting to be met with resistance, released the tendrils it had laced into X-Zero, and their connection strengthened.

Before Tathek could pull his own mind back from the immensity of the Core, the sentience turned its attention on him.

TATHEK. YOU HAVE COMMITTED THE UNTHINKABLE. YOU AND THE BETRAYER HAVE SLAIN ONE OF MY IDENTITIES. FOR THIS ACT, AND YOUR REBELLION AGAINST THE MANDATED PEACE OF THE GALAXY, YOU AND YOUR WORLD ARE TO BE REMOVED.

Tathek tore his mind free of the terrible grasp, and a feeling of profound relief welled up. He released the tense breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

Do me a favor. Don’t try that again.

Agreed.