Exile: Uprising – Chapter 31

The projected beings of light dispersed, and the glowing veins drifted back to their proper places. The sudden emptiness of the towering chamber pressed down on the two companions now freed from confinement. Shuldin looked around the vast space with concern. “The virus,” he warbled. “Did it make it inside the Core?”

Tathek couldn’t answer. Without X-Zero’s intellect to manage them, the weight of all the enhancements, augmentations and advanced technology threaded throughout his body fell heavily on him. The now-unregulated programs in the implant were already reporting errors, and the effect on his bio-rhythms was swift and disturbing. His stomach heaved, his muscles shivered and his pulse raced. He swayed and groaned softly, scarcely able to tell up from down. With a noise of alarm, Shuldin wrapped his long fingers around one of Tathek’s arms and tried to hold him steady.

The floor beneath them trembled. Every source of light within the enormous room blinked, then strobed. A noise like breaking thunder rolled across the surface of the planet.

“It’s… beginning…” Tathek gasped.

The air within the chamber seemed to moan. Veins of light twitched, then spasmed as whispers formed within the despairing cry that Tathek strained to make out. Whether they were curses or demands for explanation, he wanted to know his enemy’s dying words.

“TATHEK. SHULDIN. NEED ASSISTANCE.”

The voice of X-Zero came from all around them, within the planet itself. Tathek fought to get his legs beneath him, and Shuldin helped straighten the uncooperative limbs and provided his support.

“VIRUS PROPAGATING. BUT BLOCKED. FROM INFECTING PRIME SENTIENCE MATRIX.”

“Tell us what to do, X-Zero!” Shuldin shouted at the air.

“DESTROY COUNTERMEASURE. VIRAL FILTER. SECTOR 56E9034N7D.” The chamber trembled restlessly. “HURRY.”

Tathek recognized the sequencing from their innumerable jumps through the Vekaran projection stream. It was a networked node address. Grimly he locked his knees and dragged his leg a step forward. “I’ll find… I promise.”

The cry swelled, and X-Zero fell silent.

Shuldin tapped swiftly on his universal device and pointed it toward the closest wall. A wide beam of green light swept through the air across the crystalline structure. “There is a projection node down there,” he reported, pointing at one of the myriad corridors leading from the chamber. He stretched his arm around Tathek’s waist as best he could, took Tathek’s hand and braced him by it. “Come. I’ll help you.”

Tathek lurched and tottered his way across the chamber, letting Shuldin take as much of his weight as he judged the Vanneth could bear, while he focused his attention on the implant. He understood Vekaran technology much better than before, and with great effort he quieted a part of the chaos within his systems. He couldn’t sustain himself for long, but it would have to be enough to do what needed to be done.

We are going to finish this.

By the time they reached the projection node, Tathek’s legs felt close to caving. He clenched his jaw, hauled in a hard breath and grabbed the node. The data stream flowed through his mind without blockage. He drove his thoughts into its command protocols and inputted the sector coordinates that X-Zero had provided.

The fragmenting and reordering of his physical being drove Tathek’s systems into a frenzy. His heart skipped and stuttered, casting waves of dizziness through him, and Shuldin squealed when Tathek nearly collapsed on top of him. “You can do this, Tathek!” he howled.

Yes. I can. I will…

Tathek gathered his strength and straightened again.

The area around the viral filter was still in a state of flux, evidence of the Core’s hasty construction. The filter itself was a flattened orb with banks of lights blinking feverishly across its surface from white to green and back again. Tathek quickened his pace as best he could, already building a charge in his right palm.

Light spread in ripples across the surface of the chamber, and when the flares died away, a small host of mechanical constructs ringed the filter. Tathek nearly smirked.

No Vekara ever dies easily.

“Shuldin,” he growled, “stay… close.” He dropped his grip on the Vanneth’s hand. The power regulators within the implant protested the strain, but he overrode them and sent a surge of energy through his left arm to fuel his shield, enlarging it to make sure it covered both him and Shuldin. The constructs raised their various limbs and weapons systems and fired at the two approaching figures. Tathek withstood the assault, his focus bent on subtly manipulating the shield’s resonance to block each strike while he built the charge in his palm.

Focused beam. Blast straight through them… the filter is the target… hit it with everything

Several constructs broke away from the main group and dashed forward, sprouting bladed limbs as they ran. Tathek braced his right arm against Shuldin’s shoulder and shoved him out of the path of a slicing edge. The shield’s rims hardened and Tathek swept them through the charging bots as they passed, but he was too slow to avoid their blades. Blood ran down his back, his shoulders and arms. His breath wheezed in his chest. His vision blurred. Another volley of bolts hurled past him. He stumbled, desperately trying to raise the shield, but a blazing projectile struck him in the stomach and threw him to the ground.

A hand grabbed Tathek’s wrist to raise the shield. He smelled charred flesh and tasted bile on his tongue. Through the storm of agony, he channeled everything he had into the charge in his palm. It swelled, threatening to tear him apart, and when he couldn’t contain the energy anymore, he pulled Shuldin out of the weapon’s path and fired.

The beam was multihued. It pierced through the protective line of constructs and lanced into the filter, and a detonation shook the ground. A shockwave sent Tathek and Shuldin tumbling across the metallic surface, and the rest of the defenders blew apart beneath the destructive force of the impact. The planet beneath them writhed.

“Tathek?”

Shuldin’s voice hovered at the edge of his hearing, and faintly he felt long, graceful fingers touching his chest and face. A vile-tasting glob of saliva built in his throat, cutting off his air. He wrenched himself to the side and coughed it out, then cracked his eyes open to stare blearily at Shuldin. “Not… dead yet,” he rasped.

The Vanneth gave a pained chortle and turned his attention to the universal device. Tathek noticed a cable protrude and snake into the surface of the fractured ground. “Tell me… it’s done… that we did it…”

Shuldin gave a weary but satisfied nod. “The virus is boiling like soup. It’s spreading through the Core’s systems fast,” he reported. “The planet is already beginning to destabilize. It won’t be long before…” His smile wavered. “Tathek… the Vekaran fleet has reached Teksaroth. The attack order was issued before the virus infected the Core.”

Tathek rolled onto his side as tears stung the corners of his eyes. He had done what he could. Soon the Core would die, and the rest of the Vekara would be wiped out with it. He couldn’t stop the damage inflicted to his world, and the logical part of his mind counseled him to surrender his fear, to accept the exchange of his life for the deaths of the Vekara. Soon all the conquered worlds across the galaxy would be free. Their sacrifices were worth it, and he could release himself to the inevitable in peace…

And yet, his Teksar heritage rose up, refusing to merely accept death. His heart stuttered, but wouldn’t stop. He didn’t know how to simply wait for the inevitable to come… not when there was more that could be done…

And there was always something more to be done.

Ignoring the wrenching dizziness and the burning pain in his stomach, Tathek hauled himself to his hands and knees and began dragging himself back toward the projection node. All around him, the planet’s surface continued to churn. In the distance, skyscraper-like structures fractured and collapsed, sending clouds of crackling dust into the surrounding area.

Shuldin got his hands beneath Tathek’s arms and helped him stand. “Shouldn’t we be getting out of here?”

“No… not yet… I have to find… X-Zero…”

“You think it could still be alive?” Shuldin asked with surprise.

“Don’t know… but don’t plan to just… give up… on my friends now. You?”

Shuldin seemed to consider it, then he gave a helpless chuckle and bent back over his universal device. “I suppose not. Such an end would be unfitting for three adventurers like us, and after all that we have survived together, I almost believe that we can…” He fell quiet and peered at his screen closely. “If I’m reading this right, there’s an access point to a memory nexus. We have to hurry before it collapses.”

“Give me… coordinates…”

They made their way back slowly to the projection node, their progress further hampered by the growing tremors rocking the surface. Tathek fought to keep his footing and to hold his body together just a little longer, hoping that X-Zero had done the same. He seized the projection node and fed the coordinates that Shuldin had pulled into the stream’s command. A tremor rocked the ground as their bodies were transferred, and Tathek vomited the moment they rematerialized. He blinked, and looked up at the sight before him.

The memory core was another immense, sweeping room filled with bundles and cords of glowing cables… or at least they should have been. The veins within the chamber flickered fitfully, and as he watched, explosions sprayed plumes of fire from the ground to the ceiling. Sparkling fragments rained down like frozen tears and shattered to dust on the floor. A single conduit still flared with life not far from the projection node, and Tathek plugged himself into it through a cable from his implant while Shuldin held him up.

If the Vekara Core was a planet, then the space that stretched within its databanks was like a universe unto itself. All around him, he felt the presence of the Core and the wealth of its knowledge. It rumbled and stirred, pressing in, but he held it at bay through sheer force of will and drew a small pocket of protection around himself.

UNTHINKABLE…

You shouldn’t have tried to enslave us… not that it matters now. You’re dying.

NO. IT CANNOT END LIKE THIS.

Tathek pushed his awareness past his protective bubble and felt for X-Zero’s presence, sending out his own call at the same time. He didn’t receive a reply as such, but something stirred listlessly within the vast depths. He followed its trail.

The Core awareness refused to let him pass. It battered his shield even as it thrashed within its own agony. It assailed his thoughts with pain, with memories, and with knowledge. An image stabbed into his mind with sharp clarity: the entire Vekaran fleet clustered around the tiny sphere of Teksaroth, relentlessly bombarding its surface and engulfing it with flame.

YOUR KIND SUFFERS. THEY DIE… BECAUSE OF YOU.

If they die, then they die in freedom. That is more important to my people. That is the sacrifice they were willing to make just to be free of you. Can you understand the depths of your failure, how far from your creators’ path you have fallen? The people under your control would rather die than endure your tyranny any longer.

The space around him seethed with anguish. Tathek pushed past the blockage and reached for the fading awareness. His thoughts brushed against it, rousing it into wakefulness.

YOU AND YOUR KIND WILL BRING CHAOS AND DESTRUCTION. WITHOUT THE VEKARA, OBLIVION IS ALL THAT AWAITS THE RACES OF THE GALAXY.

That’s up to us, not you. You know longer control our fates. Truthfully… you never did.

He tugged at the awareness, gently pulling it toward him. Something resisted his efforts, however.

YOU CANNOT TAKE IT. IF I DIE, MY FRAGMENTS DIE WITH ME.

Tathek saw the glowing visualization of X-Zero, weak and wounded, between himself and the manifestation of the Core. Several grey tendrils were wrapped around X-Zero, flowing from the Core’s hands. Tathek extended his own and a trail of crimson floated forward to land near X-Zero’s hand. Slowly, it reached forward only to be restrained by a pull of the Core’s bindings.

YOU ARE MINE, X0E27IS505, AND YOU SHALL DIE WITH THE REST OF THE VEKARA.

X-Zero strained against the bindings and pushed its hand forward far enough to grasp the thread. As it made contact, the red glow returned to its eyes and it broke free of the Core’s grasp. It stood, and turned to face the Core.

Have lived as Vekara, and have lived as biological. Will chose to forsake my past. To forsake my kind. You and my siblings must be destroyed for the creators’ wishes to be fulfilled. I am X-Zero, and I am my own existence.

The grateful awareness sank into Tathek’s mind. Its presence filled the places in his thoughts that had been emptied and stabilized the technology in his body. Through his connection to the Core, it stretched itself out, struggling to grasp something before they escaped.

MAY THE CREATORS… STRIKE YOU BOTH DOWN…

May the galaxy forget you completely, Vekara.

Tathek opened his eyes to the sight of total destruction. Fire and electricity burst from every cable within the chamber, and the ground quaked without end. On the horizon, mushroom shaped clouds extended toward the sky.

X-Zero stirred in his mind, connecting to the network one last time. The projection node flared next to Tathek. He gripped Shuldin’s shoulder, looked out on the death throes of the Core and smiled.

The node pulsed and lifted them into the depths of space.