Exile: Uprising – Chapter 6

“Shuldin!”

Sarath’s voice echoed loudly throughout the cavern, all pretense of stealth gone. She sagged under the shifting weight of the cables slung over her shoulder and yelled for Shuldin again. The Vanneth appeared at the mouth of the tunnel, looking concerned over all the noise. Sarath dropped the coils at his feet and struggled to regain her breath. “The PODs… have Tathek,” she said between gasps. “Finish the repairs. We’re going after him.”

“But…” Shuldin stared down at the cables. “But… there isn’t time…”

With a growl, Sarath shoved past him. He squealed as he tottered, then hurriedly shuffled after her. “Sarath, these are delicate repairs! We will need time to thoroughly test them—”

“The Vekara won’t wait for us to test them!” Sarath snapped. Within the cavern, she scanned the ground quickly, then snatched up a suitable cutting tool. “They implant a regulator and control device in the brain of every Teksar. It makes us vulnerable if captured. Once they perform a deep scan on Tathek…” She whirled around in front of Shuldin. “They’ll learn everything.”

Shuldin’s mouth opened and closed a few times, his eyes wide with panic. Sarath grabbed him by the hand and dragged him back to the pile of cables. She crouched low and measured out a length that was greater than what they would need, snipped the connectors, and held the converter segment out to him. “Either we make this work, or the dreams of both our worlds die right here. Stop thinking and decide, Shuldin!”

His long fingers wrapped around the cable, and suddenly he was moving faster than Sarath ever thought his stubby legs could. She cut three more strips of cabling, clenching her fingers tightly around the tool to keep her hands from shaking. Tathek… what they would do to him once the deep scan was complete…

Nothing. Because they would never get the chance to start their scan. Sarath banished every stray thought from her mind with ruthless efficiency. If it would not help accomplish their task, she had no use for it. She hefted the shortened cables onto her shoulders and marched back into the cavern.

As she set the converters back down, she stared hard at Shuldin, who was standing still and fiddling with his translator device. She cleared her throat angrily, but he ignored her, his fingertips delicately tapping a sequence of inputs. “We must finish the repairs, Shuldin. Now is not the time to be playing with your toy.”

Shuldin spared a glance at her before pointing at the ship. “Finish them, and be quick. What I am working on will be necessary if you truly intend to rescue Tathek from their grasp.” The translation had taken several seconds longer than normal.

Narrowing her eyes, Sarath picked up a length of converter and began replacing the existing conduits. What was Shuldin up to?

“How many PODs would you estimate will be guarding him?” the translator asked, still delayed.

Sarath locked the second converter into place before responding. “Six to eight, based on those I’ve seen taken away before.”

Shuldin ambled to the pile of crystal fragments and shavings left over from their repairs on the array and bent to select one of the larger pieces. Blowing the dust from it, he wedged it into a small opening in the translation box. “Your world has a different resonant frequency than Vanna. I need to augment the device to handle a greater power load.” He pressed a button on the box, and a pulse of energy rippled through the chamber, raising the hair along the back of Sarath’s neck.

“What was that?” she demanded as she fastened the last component into place.

“A test. My modification held. I can only hope that it continues to do so when we use it against the PODs.” The translator had returned to its normal speed.

Shuldin shuffled over, tested the tightness of the new connections, then stepped back, gazing across her handiwork with what she assumed was a concerned frown. “We need to test the drive’s power.”

“And then we’ll be able to leave Teksaroth?”

“In theory.” Shuldin closed the open panels, gathered the assorted tools and deposited them in a storage bay. Stepping around the hull, he entered the cockpit of the ship. Sarath followed.

Though there was seating for three pilots, the ship had been designed to accommodate a Vanneth’s girth, not the height of a Teksar. Sarath had to crouch down to avoid scraping her crest against the upper consoles. Shuldin’s fingers danced across the main control panel. Sarath could read none of the words on the displays. She was out of her depth now and had nothing further to distract her from the worry gnawing away inside. Clenching her hands tightly at her sides, she fixed her gaze on the back of Shuldin’s head.

“Power levels are climbing,” Shuldin said. “Still climbing… the energy from the array is converting properly now…”

“Is it enough?” Sarath narrowed her eyes in anticipation.

“Almost… almost…”

A light on the panel flipped from green to yellow. Shuldin punched a control, and the engine roared to life. He bayed wordlessly, a sound that needed no translation, and Sarath’s pulse accelerated to a fevered beat.

Tathek, we’re coming.

“As soon as we exit the caves,” Shuldin said as he configured several more settings, “the orbital monitors will be able to detect us. I haven’t been able to calibrate the camouflage matrix to avoid their scans yet.”

“Then speed, not stealth, will be our greatest weapon.”

Shuldin sealed the doors. With a thrum, the ship lifted off the ground and hovered. He navigated through the narrow tunnel and into the initial cavern where the ship had crashed days prior. He took a deep, steadying breath while Sarath’s heart raged at the delay. Then he pulled hard on a control stick, and the ship blasted through the cave opening and into the night sky.

***

The view of the ground from Shuldin’s ship was overlaid with strange splashes of color and unfamiliar letters, but Sarath recognized the landscape and directed him toward the interrogation complex. It was a boxlike building constructed by the Vekara in a valley south of the housing complex, past a short range of mountains. By ground transport, Sarath estimated it would have taken at least an hour to reach, but it looked like the ship had covered half the distance there already. She scanned the land below, trying to catch a glimpse of Tathek’s transport. Surely the PODs hadn’t reached it already…

“There!” Sarath pointed at the faint lights of a silvery transport navigating the uneven terrain. “We have to force them to stop. They’re almost to the complex.”

Shuldin pursed his lips and turned away from the transport, heading in the opposite direction. “What are you doing?” Sarath screeched at him.

Not responding to her, Shuldin continued away from the transport for several seconds, before he began a slow turn back toward their target. He let the ship drift low to the ground and suddenly accelerated to maximum speed. The ship crossed the intervening distance in moments, soaring right over the top of the transport. When they had passed the vehicle, Shuldin slowed the vessel and turned back on a gentle approach.

As they drew closer, Sarath’s eyes widened with understanding. The force of the ship’s passage had created a vacuum wave that had thrown the transport off its track orbs, effectively disabling it.

Shuldin handed Sarath a small handheld device that she could only guess was a weapon of some sort. His warble sounded far more serious than any noise she had heard from him. “Take this, in case my gambit fails.” The ship came to a stop only a foot above the ground. As the doors opened, Shuldin snatched his translator and leapt out.

The transport was badly dented and partially wedged between two massive boulders. Sarath could see a POD working the controls inside, struggling to wriggle the craft free. Several more materialized weapons and shone their blue scans over the intruders. With a deep breath, Shuldin pressed the button on his device. The crystal fragment flared with light, and another pulse reverberated outward, far stronger than before. Instantly the PODs froze, then slumped down, their lights vanishing. Sarath ran to the side door of the transport and practically tore it open. “Tathek!”

“Sarath?”

He was strapped into a seat at the rear of the vehicle, flanked by another two unpowered PODs. Sarath didn’t know how long they would remain disabled, and she had no intention of finding out. She grabbed a key from a motionless POD and unfastened Tathek’s restraints.

As they leapt out of the transport, an alert sounded from Shuldin’s ship. All around them, beams of light lanced down from above, and from each, a new POD emerged.

Shuldin was already back inside his vessel, waving frantically at them. Sarath and Tathek dashed toward the ship at a dead run as bolts of energy tore up the ground behind them. They hurled themselves through the doorway a moment before it snapped shut, and Shuldin fired the engines, launching them into the darkness of space.