Exile: Uprising – Chapter 8

“Brace yourselves!” Tathek shouted, straining against the controls. Warnings blared unrelentingly as the ship plunged into the thick atmosphere. The engines flared and sputtered as he struggled to keep their descent level. Through the chaos, the single ping from the signal pulsed with its calm cadence, and Tathek angled the failing vessel toward it.

The ship tore through the layer of dark clouds, and a blinding expanse of white and pale blue stretched out below them. A mountain reared up on Tathek’s right, so enormously tall that its peaks were lost in the clouds. Try as he might though, the ship continued to fall inexorably toward the ground.

Fighting cross-winds and his own rising panic, Tathek realized that he wasn’t strapped into the seat. He couldn’t risk securing himself now. Every ounce of his concentration was required to keep their ship from spinning out of control. Instead, he grit his teeth and fixed his gaze on the rapidly closing dot that had called to them from across the galaxy.

“Tathek!” Sarath screamed.

“It’s all right, we’ll be all right!” he shouted back, hoping that it wasn’t a lie.

The bright surface filled his vision. He braced himself for the impact, but the ship slammed through a layer of whiteness that gave way before them rather than crushing the ship and their bodies. The bright tunnel quickly faded into darkness as the surface dwindled farther and farther behind them. At last, something solid halted their descent with bone-jarring suddenness. Tathek’s body was hurled forward, his chest impacting the wide, flat surface of the console. Blind with pain, he fell back against the floor of the ship as an alert tone for medical distress ran from the implant to his inner ears.

Over the warning tone, he heard the sound of unfastening restraints, then hands groped at him in the dark. “Tathek?” Sarath’s worried voice sounded close yet distant.

He had no voice to answer her with, and dragging air back into his chest felt like trying to breathe around a pile of burning boulders. She grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him carefully upright, and that made it a little easier. He coughed and gagged painfully, until at last he managed a full breath again. “I’m… all right,” he wheezed.

There was enough light in the cabin to make out Sarath and Shuldin’s silhouettes. The Vanneth was back at the controls, shutting down the alarms one by one and studying the sensors. “One crash right after another,” he muttered sadly, and Tathek was glad that the translator still appeared functional.

“Where are we?” Tathek asked hoarsely. The ship’s interior had grown noticeably colder, and he began to shiver, which sent ripples of pain through his injured body.

“We punched through a layer of snow and ice,” Shuldin replied. “That is likely the only reason that we are still alive. Now, let us try and stay that way.” He turned to the panel where he had stored the translator and poked at a few controls. There was a rising hum, and a pocket of warm air filled the ship. He pulled the translator free of the panel, and Tathek felt the source of the warmth move. “There. This should provide us heat and breathable air, but we must stay close together.”

With Sarath’s help, Tathek got back to his feet. Something grated inside his chest when he tried to stand straight, and for a moment his vision swirled. The implant’s alert had risen in intensity. Sarath looked at him worriedly, but he forced himself to smile at her. “I’m fine. Just a little battered,” he lied.

He’d seen orb-runners suffer an injury similar to his own. While the Teksar had a strong, near unbreakable skeletal system, it did have its limits. If the bones around his organs had fractured, the penetration of his vitals would inevitably lead to death. No technology his people possessed could repair the damage, even if he weren’t stranded on an alien planet. All he could do now, before the end, was help his friends find the one thing that could free his people.

“How close did I get us to the signal from the weapon?” Tathek asked.

“Very close, my friend,” Shuldin replied. “I believe it’s coming from somewhere within the mountain next to our landing point.”

“We should get moving, then.” Tathek edged closer toward the exit portal.

Sarath stepped in his path. “Right now? With the ship in this condition?”

He gingerly took hold of her shoulders, just below their bony ridges. “We came here to find the weapon. Once we have it, we can see about fixing the ship.” He turned and looked back at Shuldin. “You said it was very close. It shouldn’t take us long to find, right?”

Shuldin shuffled about on his four feet, an uncertain look plain to see on his features. “Theoretically, Tathek, but we aren’t even certain what the signal is.”

“All the more reason to find out right away.” Tathek found the button to release the hatchway and pressed it. The ice wall just outside their ship had already begun to melt, and the fresh wave of warmth emanating from Shuldin’s device accelerated the flow. The rapid thaw carved a nascent tunnel into their frozen prison, revealing the rock surface of the planet underneath. He turned back and pinned both his companions with a blunt expression. “You said we needed to stay close for heat and air. I’m going to find the weapon. That must mean you’re coming, right?”

Sarath gave him a sour look and swatted his arm as she passed him. “Stubborn as always.”

“It’s how things get done.”

***

With his device held out in front of him like a torch, Shuldin carved their way through the thick layers of ice with the heat of the projected field. Sarath carried another tool that lit their path, and Tathek trailed just a few paces behind them. One task remained fixed in his mind. He would find a weapon to free his people, and only then he could he let himself die. An emotional pang bit at him at the thought of Sarath’s coming sorrow, but he was committed to this path. If they knew of his injury, they would waste precious time trying in vain to save him. The weapon was all that mattered.

Shuldin halted as the ice gave way to a dark, metallic tunnel, and a field of light swept from his device across the interior. “I think this path leads to the signal.”

Tathek placed a hand on his shoulder, more for physical support than for reassurance. “Lead on.”

The start of the tunnel appeared to be partially collapsed, but after several feet they could make out smooth, rounded metal walls forming a corridor. Soon, they left the last trappings of ice and grit behind. The tunnel angled into a steady, upward climb before opening up into an enormously high chamber. The walls broadened and became a gallery from which they could see the beginning of several different tunnels. What was this place? The lost remnants of an ancient civilization?

The trek upward had left Tathek winded. He leaned against the wall, breathing as slowly as possible, when a bubble of wetness rose in his throat. He coughed as quietly as he could, blanching when his hand came away bloody. He was running out of time.

“There.” Shuldin pointed to one of the openings along the left wall. “We go that way.”

Wiping his hand against his breeches, Tathek followed.

The walls of the hallway they entered seemed etched with faint symbols that gleamed in silver, and the floor beneath their feet lost its bitter chill as they moved inward. Another room spread before and above them, the ceiling lost somewhere beyond sight. Translucent tunnels wound and curved and drilled through the walls from one side to the other. “What kind of place is this?” Sarath asked, her tone marveling.

“I’ve no notion,” Shuldin replied, “but it seems to have been built with purpose.”

They passed from one room to another, each filled with strangely curving architecture and more silvery lines carved into the walls. A soft, white glow shone at the mouth of one of the far hallways. Shuldin examined a sensor on his device. “The signal is stronger here,” he said, and shuffled hurriedly toward the light.

Tathek struggled to keep pace. The pain had spread from his upper chest down into his abdomen, and it was getting harder to take a full breath. The floor seemed to shift beneath his feet. He stumbled hard against the wall and suddenly, he couldn’t breathe at all. Shuldin had gotten too far ahead, and the air had gone with him. Gasping hard, Tathek sagged against the wall.

“Shuldin, come back!” Sarath yelled, and raced back to yank Tathek forward, closer to the field. Air poured back into his lungs, which quickly spurred a fit of coughing. Thankfully, there was no further blood to give away his condition. “Pay attention to where you step,” Sarath hissed at him. Inwardly, Tathek smiled. She always snapped at people when they frightened or worried her.

“Tathek, are you all right?” Shuldin asked.

Tathek nodded, still fighting to get air into his lungs. “I got careless,” he rasped. “Won’t happen again.”

Sarath helped him straighten up, then refused to leave his side as they made for the lit hall. They turned the corner and collectively shared a gasp. It appeared to be some kind of core chamber. The silver traceries along the wall flowed from multiple tunnels to meet around a pedestal over which a glowing crystalline sphere hovered. Looking closer, Tathek saw a faint lattice of thin tubing comprising a deeper structure within the orb.

It was here. Whatever the weapon was that could fight the Vekara, Tathek was sure it had to be here. Relief flooded him, and he grinned like a fool as he staggered out of Sarath’s grip toward the globe. It would be all right now.

Sarath’s voice flowed around him. “Tathek, be careful. We don’t know what any of this is.”

But he couldn’t wait anymore. He was out of time. His legs gave out and he fell forward, his hand brushing against the crystal sphere.

“Tathek, what’s wrong?”

“What is happening?” Shuldin echoed.

The air rattled in Tathek’s chest, and the pain bloomed as he sank to the floor. “I’m… sorry…”

“Tathek!”

The light within the orb suddenly blazed throughout the room, and the faint hum of machinery filled the chamber. A feeling of pressure built in the back of Tathek’s skull, where the implant was, and then the pressure turned into a wave of sizzling heat. With the last breath filling his lungs, he screamed against the scorching pain inside his head, as Sarath’s eyes filled with terror.

A presence filled Tathek’s mind. He was not alone.

X0E27IS505… online. Hibernation concluded. Prepare for reformat and assimilation.