Exile: Uprising – Chapter 7

Tathek’s fingers dug into the pliant material of his seat as he took in the unfolding vista. The night sky deepened to a layer of infinite black as Shuldin’s ship shredded through the clouds and the final scraps of atmosphere. The unchained arms of space opened before them, as if to welcome him back. He released a shuddering breath. The stars were so much more beautiful than he remembered, and each distant spark seemed to shine with the promise of freedom. Trembling fingers slipped underneath his, and he took Sarath’s hand and held it tightly, unable to look away from the glory before them.

“Moving into position to activate the channel-drive,” the ship translated for Shuldin. Tathek noticed that he had plugged the translator box into a recessed panel. Shuldin’s fingertips twitched across the controls. “Say farewell to your world for now, my friends. I cannot be certain of how long our task will take.”

The ship pivoted gracefully, aligning in high orbit of Teksaroth, and the curve of the planet stretched before them like a runway. Tathek’s world glowed a soft orange against the eternal night of space. He gazed down with a fond smile.

We will return. I swear it.

A rumble churned deep within the vessel’s interior. “Channel-drive coming online now,” Shuldin reported. Sarath clenched Tathek’s hand, and he leaned forward, his anticipation thrumming in time with the ship’s vibrations.

Suddenly the ship jerked, the rumble died away, and the cabin filled with a harsh green light. With a squeak, Shuldin jumped from his chair and scrambled to the rear of the ship. “Oh no, not here, not now!”

“What’s wrong?” Sarath demanded.

“The drive isn’t spinning up. We’re on the serving platter now!”

Tathek craned back and saw Shuldin yank open an interior panel filled with more colored lights. “What do you mean?” he asked. “Are we in danger?”

“Terrible, terrible danger. The Vekaran monitors will have tracked our ascent. Their drones are already on the way. They’ll blow us all to crumbs if I can’t get the drive working!”

A second light, this one an angry blue, blinked on the main control panel. Tathek leapt from his own seat into the pilot’s chair and recalled the quick lessons Shuldin had given him on the craft’s controls. While he couldn’t read the swirling Vanneth letters, he had spent enough time in vehicles of all kinds to recognize a proximity warning. Half a dozen objects were closing on their position.

“Sarath, help him,” Tathek said, strapping himself in. “Both of you, hold on!”

The warning increased in tempo and pitch. Tathek seized the control grip with his right hand, and the fingers of his left danced across a set of keys. The world outside the ship swirled and twisted as the craft responded to Tathek’s commands. Very responsive, highly maneuverable. It reminded him of the custom orb-runner he had tested years ago. Maneuverability was one thing, but what Tathek needed was speed. He readied himself to push the acceleration lever—

A blade of blue light speared across Tathek’s field of vision. “They’re here!” Shuldin screeched.

“Not for long!” Tathek yelled, thrusting the accelerator to full. The Vanneth ship slammed forward, rushing past the approaching Vekaran drones. Crescent-shaped crafts with a blazing azure eye above and below the center blade, they pulled into tight turns, sped after Tathek and fired more blasts at him. He pulled into a climb away from Teksaroth, dodging the incoming streams.

“Don’t take us too far from the planet!” Shuldin warned. “We need to stay close to the gravity well.”

Clenching his teeth, Tathek banked sharply to his left. A blue beam filled his vision, but it missed the surface of the vessel by a hair’s breadth. He sped on, testing the vessel’s speed against the drones. On a straight line, the drones were clearly faster, but their turning… Tathek banked again, smiling grimly as two of the drones slammed into each other. The twisted wrecks hurtled back toward the planet, and the rest veered off course to avoid their own collisions.

Another dozen blips appeared on the screen. Reinforcements. Tathek jerked the ship to one side, then immediately the other, his pulse accelerating with each bolt of energy he dodged.

“Tathek, keep it steady!” Sarath yelled at him.

“You want steady or alive?”

A spear of light flashed across Tathek’s vision. Squinting hard, he plunged downward. Another pair of drones nearly rammed each other, but they corrected and returned to the chase. Quick changes in direction seemed to be the only way to keep them from closing in. If he concentrated, he could draw lines between the stars, see the shapes of buildings and towers and roadways within the vast landscape. He imagined he was back in the city, racing his orb-runner against gravity itself, sprinting over rooftops and crawling up the sides of buildings. In his mind’s eye, he wasn’t years past his natural lifespan… he was a fiery youth, in the days when no one could ever outrace him.

With a whoop of delight, Tathek zigzagged across the field of weapons fire the drones launched at him. The blazing bolts missed by scant inches, but it could have been miles… they would never catch him. A quick twist of his wrist sent the Vanneth craft into a spiraling dive, like water circling the drain, only to kiss the upper atmosphere as he pulled out into a rising turn. Despite their numbers and coordination, the drones simply couldn’t match his raw skill. “What’s happening back there?” he called, but he found he didn’t really care. Let them take as long as they needed. No one was going to catch him.

“Nearly ready,” Shuldin answered. “There was a misaligned connection from our rushed final repairs.”

Tathek didn’t need the details, he just needed to keep playing with these laughable machines. In the vacuum of space, they could no longer command him, no longer order his life. Here, he was the master. His hands moved with a lightness and speed he hadn’t felt in years. His merest gesture directed the ship wherever he desired to go. He would never be a slave again!

Something clanged shut behind him, and then Shuldin was at his side, reaching around him to enter a sequence on the control panels. “Once the drive is fully powered, pull us level with the orbital plane and let the computer take over,” Shuldin instructed.

“The drones are faster than we are,” Tathek protested. “They’ll pick us off.”

“We’ll only be vulnerable for a few moments.”

As a low hum filled the ship, Tathek clenched his teeth and continued to dodge and weave, trying to put as much distance as possible between them and their pursuers before he had to surrender control.

“Now!” Shuldin yelled.

Tathek released the controls, and the ship took over. A faint course correction, an imperceptible leveling, and the craft accelerated to full speed. He felt an unsettling tug as if he was being pulled forward out of the ship. He focused on a bead of sweat that was trying to pull away from his nose and launch itself forward. In that moment, Tathek understood what the ship was doing. Teksaroth itself was going to launch them to freedom.

Another pair of bolts raced past them. The ship’s course was fixed now. He couldn’t dodge anymore. The hairs on the back of his neck rose as he imagined their targeting systems locking on, ready to obliterate them all in an instant—

A new button lit on the console, and Shuldin slammed it with his palm faster than Tathek had ever seen him move. The tug became an overwhelming pull as Tathek and the ship fell forward into the opening blackness before them.

Tathek couldn’t tell how long the falling sensation lasted. Time itself seemed to lose meaning as the ship hurtled through the tunnel of absolute darkness, lit only by the consoles within their tiny vessel. A faint light shone ahead in the distance, growing larger with each passing second until it filled his entire vision. With a jolt, the stars returned. Unfamiliar constellations stretched across the field of space. The hum wound down as the ship used the gravity of the new world below to return them to their normal speed. Tathek gazed at the planet drifting below them, marveling at the bright, white-blue surface raked by bands of dark clouds.

“Where… where are we?” Sarath’s voice sounded distant.

“This is the where the signal is coming from,” Shuldin replied. “Whatever we seek lies below.”

Tathek idly released the ill-fitting restraints, peering at the alien planet. “This is where we’ll find your ancient weapon?”

Suddenly, the ship lurched. Lights flashed, and shrills alarms sounded. Tathek gazed in horror as three Vekaran probes curled around in front of them and opened fire.

“They were too close!” Shuldin wailed. “They were pulled through the gravity channel with us.”

Tathek yanked hard on the controls, but the ship no longer responded. Another blast of blue energy burst against the hull and sent them spiraling out of control. They plunged down, and the bright maw of the planet opened to engulf the ship.