Three days of torturous waiting had finally passed. I was in the Mess Hall before my friends were and I waited for them anxiously, taking glances at the entrance every few seconds. While I waited I forced myself to eat with an uneasy stomach, knowing full well I would need all the strength I could get. After what felt like a half an hour I saw Becky and Xeenan enter the Mess Hall. I caught a glimpse of my repair kit wrapped in a piece of material and carefully concealed in her long, loincloth. She and Xeenan walked through the food line with grim faces, but I could see the uneasiness in their eyes. As soon as they got their bowl and cup, Becky stepped to the other side of the table and sat down across from me, while Xeenan seated himself on my right side. I ate another bite of my gruel before I spoke.
"Slip it under the table," I whispered.
Becky quietly took the kit from her loincloth and held it under the table. I felt for the kit, closed my hand around it and with one fluid motion it was in my pocket; no one noticed the exchange—guard or slave—and the three of us relaxed.
"Thank–you Za'Becc. I know that was a huge risk for you to take."
"Any risk is worth our freedom," she said.
I felt Xeenan's hand slip into my pocket and place something inside.
"Is that it?" I asked.
Xeenan nodded, "I came pretty close to getting caught with that oil. It slipped out of my waist band as the guards pushed us out of the room. Luckily, I managed to catch it before it was noticed by them."
I nodded. Xeenan had been working in the engine and boiler rooms below the citadel and I had asked him to get me a tube of the slickest oil he could find.
"Did you let the slaves in our compound know what we are doing?”
“We told the adults yesterday, the sucklings don’t know yet. We’ll tell them tomorrow night,” said Becky.
“We didn’t tell them about the Elder. They understand that once we're out of the citadel, we go our separate ways,” informed Xeenan.
I looked at ex-warrior, "Is Al the only family you have here?"
He shook his head, I had a feeling he would say no.
"I have a few family members left. Althui'entci–uh is the youngest and the only one who has stayed with me. The rest of my family disowned me after I was punished and they made sure I was never again a part of their lives."
He growled the last sentence in detest, and I saw his eyes flare in anger. I patted his forearm.
"Hey, you gonna be okay?"
He nodded and smiled, the fire in his eyes became more friendly, "Yes, don't worry about me."
I smiled back, "So we all understand what to do?"
"Yes," they answered in unison.
The next day came fast and I spent the long hours cleaning out the last bit of junk from the room in the Guard's Quarters. The apprehension of the upcoming event twisted my stomach into painful loops. As I went through every prayer I knew and I must have recited the Rosary about five times. I needed God to be with me more than ever. The plan had to succeed, it had to. I did not want to think about the consequences if it failed.
At the end of the work day, the guards lead me down the Great Hall; for the final time. The tube of oil and rod in my pocket brushed against my thigh as I walked with the fast pace of the giant guards. The cell door opened and I was tossed inside. Spinning on my heels, I watched the guards turn their backs to me and I dashed for the closing door. With one motion I whipped out the tube, dumped the oil at the base of the door and held the rod at mid height. The door closed on the metal stick with a clank and held it tightly. I waited for a few tense moments, listening through the inch wide space. When I could not hear a sound, I let myself breath normally and the blood began to pound in my ears. The whole ordeal took only a few seconds, but it felt like a few minutes.
I sank to the floor and looked through the window to the darkening sky. I checked my watch; the numbers nine thirty blinked on the face. Four and a half hours until we escape. My gut twisted with again and I grumbled. I wanted to fall asleep, knowing full well I would I need all the rest I could get, but my body was still high on adrenaline. I stood up and walked around the room, thinking it would make me tired but it just made me even more jumpy. I finally forced myself to lie on the dirt, close my eyes and concentrate on taking, long deep breathes. Inhale...exhale...inhale...exhale, my mind ran. Soon my heart slowed to an easy beat and the adrenaline left my system. The moment was all I needed and I drifted off to a light sleep.
I must have woken up three times that night and every time I did, the hour to escape drew nearer. On the fourth time I awoke, I checked my watch again and saw it was ten minutes until two o'clock. I figured this would be as good a time as any to leave my cell. I crawled to the other end of the cell and uncovered my repair kit from a hole I dug the other night. Slipping it into my pocket I stepped to the door and stood beside the rod. I pressed the square button and the metal stick extended with a shnack and I cringed at the loud noise, but all stayed quiet. I checked through the gap to make sure the rod extended all the way to the other side. When I was satisfied I wrapped my hands around the stick.
My body trembled and ached with fear. A cold sweat broke on my forehead and I felt my hands loosen on the stick. I had never been so terrified in my entire life. So many what if's flowed in my mind, but I immediately shook my head to get rid of them. This was not the time to think about worries or doubts, this was the time to act. I swallowed, my grip tightened on the rod and I pulled hard. The door slid on the slick oil more easily than I thought it would and I soon made an opening big enough to fit me through. I retracted the spear, stuck it in my pocket and slipped through the opening.
I tiptoed to the door that lead to the Great Hall and fished out the repair kit. Lowering myself in front of the panel, I took one last glance at my watch and found I had five minutes before the night watch switched. Opening the kit, I took out the metal cutter with a diamond edged blade and sliced off the soft, metal covering over the panel. I was faced with a mess of wires. I strained my eyes under the dim orange light as I probed through the machine. Even though the design was similar, the cables on the station had their own colour so they could be easily identified. Nadar–ian'ah told me these wires were separated by heat. I sighed and closed my eyes, trying to recall my mechanics class and Nadar–ian'ah’s instructions. I needed to find the main power wire; that was, easy considering it was the largest and thickest. I found the wire and held it in my left hand.
Now all I had to do was find the cable that controlled the gears to the door. That wire would be clamped by metal plate, beside two other cables. It should feel the coolest out of the three; since the two extra lines sent power to the scanning pad.
Moving a few wires aside I found the tiny metal plate screwed over the three lines. Using a tiny, screwdriver, I removed the screws and plate. Fingering the three cables, I was relieved to find one cool wire. Wielding the cutter, I sliced the wire in half and stripped the end. Without cutting the main line, I made a small sliver on the black covering and pulled it apart. I turned my wrist to view my watch and it read five after two. My belly tightened again as I crossed myself for luck. I held my breath and twisted the stripped wire onto the main cable. The door slid open with a quiet swish. I uncomfortably waited for something to happen. Nothing did. I breathed again and stuck my head out.
The Great Hall was dark; so dark I could barely see two feet in front of me. The damn clouds completely covered the friendly glow of the moon. Finding the compound was going to be extremely difficult. I took a deep breath, gathered my belongings and stepped out into the massive hall. Before I left I extended the rod, flicked apart the connecting wires and pulled the rod out before the door could close on it. With the door line cut it will take the guards a while to open it.
I had to really strain my memory to find the compound as I groped along the wall in the darkness. I heard nothing in the immense silence, which reassured and frightened me. I hated being alone in the silent blackness, but I knew I would not be in it for long. I felt my way across four compound doors, Becky and Xeenan's was the fifth one; I hope. Coming up to the door, I put my ear to the steel and tapped it once. Someone on the other side tapped twice. My eyes brightened, Becky remembered the signal. It took a little longer to hack into the control panel since my vision was limited. But finally the door opened and I was greeted by my friends. Becky and Xeenan had the knives I had stolen tucked into the waist bands and both were holding the small hands of Sor'an and Al. I heard whispers and muffled clicks circulate through the dank room.
"We're ready Isha, all twenty of us," announced Becky.
I nodded, feeling my heart rise. Not only would twenty escaped slaves give the High Elder a bad, if not worse, reputation, but with any luck it should inspire others to do the same. I could just make out the outline of the slaves and noticed the children clinging to the hands of an adult. Whether the adults were related to them I will never know, but it warmed my heart to see children with someone. I glanced at my watch and sighed.
"We don't have much time, but before we leave I want to say something. Thank–you all for everything. I don't think I would have survived this long without your help and guidance. I'll never forget any of you. You are all wonderful, beautiful people. Believe that. I give you my blessings on beginning a new life."
I was about to turn around when a voice spoke from the crowd.
"It is you who we should be thanking, Isha."
I peered over my shoulder and the crowd parted to reveal a thin, seven and a half foot male, with thick hair barely growing past his shoulders and wearing leather cuffs on his wrists. He stepped forward and put a hand on my shoulder.
"It’s you who showed us a light in our time of darkness. Your gift of song gave us a reason to go on living in our despair. Your defiance to the High Elder allowed us to believe that we too, had strength. And now, you’ve given us our freedom. For this Isha, spirit of hope, we thank–you. We shall always remember and honour your name forever."
Tears of happiness and joy filled my eyes. Never in my life have I felt so touched, so—if lack for a better word—honoured. I smiled and reached high for his shoulder, giving it a loving squeeze and gentle shake. Both of us let go and a tear managed to slip down my cheek before I wiped my eyes. I faced the slaves.
"Okay everyone," I said in a whisper, "We'll head for the main door. Xeenan, take half of them and go to the entrance, but don't do anything until Becky and I get there. Go slow and steady and keep the children quiet."
Xeenan quickly lead the first half down the Great Hall while I ushered the rest out of the compound, pulled apart the wires and placed the panel back on. With any luck it should look undisturbed until it was time to wake the slaves.
"Right here," she put a hand over my shoulder. I took her arm.
"You're gonna have to lead me to the entrance. I can't see very well."
She nodded and we quietly crept to the main door, keeping close to the wall. The children in our group did not make a sound as we moved. We soon met up with Xeenan's group and I groped to where he was kneeling. He was leaning against the marble wall and peaking around the corner. I sat beside him and followed his gaze. Squinting I could make out two shadowy figures standing on either side of an immense steel door. The male took my arm and gently pulled me back. He whispered so quietly into the translator I was surprised it picked up his words.
"I have an idea on how to get by those guards," he motioned for Becky and she came beside him, "Za'Becc, you take half of the slaves and go through that corridor."
He pointed behind her, "It will lead to the other side of the main entrance. Make some kind of noise to draw one of the guards away. Knock him unconscious once you do," Xeenan handed me one of the stolen knives, "you and I will sneak up behind the other guard. He's smaller than I am, so I should be able to restrain him easily. But just in case, have four able bodies near me if he tries to break free."
Becky nodded her acknowledgement and relayed the message to her group. Once half the slaves were gone, my group waited. Sweat dripped from my forehead again and an ice ball formed in my belly. A thumping noise came from the other side and I saw the guards react to it. One grumbled to check it out. The first guard left with his weapon at the ready, while the second waited with his back turned to us. With the stealth of a warrior, Xeenan tiptoed behind the unsuspecting guard. The four chosen slaves and I moved close behind. There was an audible yelp and a thonk, but before the remaining guard could do anything, Xeenan flew from behind, clamped a hand over the guard’s mouth and pressed the knife to his throat. The guard struggled and tried to get out of Xeenan’s grip, ignoring the knife. Although the former hunter was bigger than the guard, he was not as strong as him and it was not long before it looked like the guard was about to escape.
At that moment, the four slaves dove at the guard, two held his legs and the other two clutched his arms. The small guard strained against the five bodies and made a muffled roar, but his struggles were soon brought to a halt. Florescent blood dripped down the guard’s neck. Becky appeared out of the blackness like a ghost and pressed her knife against the guard's throat.
"Right my friend, you're going to help us out of here," she hissed, putting pressure in her blade and lowering her face an inch in front of the guard, "open the door."
The guard struggled again, trying to move his head but Xeenan's firm clasp over his mandible mouth kept him from calling out.
"You’re not in a positon to argue. Carry him, "said the ex–warrior.
The four slaves holding his limbs kept their strong grip as they carried him to the panel. The guard protested again, trying to break free, but it was no use. More fluorescent trickled down the guard's neck as a result from his struggles. The group set the guard back to his feet.
"Enter the codes, now!" Xeenan hissed.
Both my friends pressed on the blades around his throat as the slave directed his right hand to the panel, but he clenched his fist. I gave an evil grin.
"Perhaps he needs a little more persuading," I said.
I walked in front of the guard and showed him my knife. I could feel his glare on me and I heard a muffled growl as I traced the blade over his six pack abdomen and down to his lower regions. His eyes widened when he felt the knife prick on a very private area.
"Open the door, now!" I repeated in a low tone. I pushed against the blade and heard a pained rumble, "or say good-bye to your precious man bits!"
The guard obeyed and tapped out a code on the panel. A green button blinked and the giant door split open. A refreshing, warm breeze blew back my hair and the sweet scent of fresh air reached my nose. Becky stood in front of the entrance and guided the slaves out. One by one, they left, but not before giving me a smile and a respectful bow. I watched them with smiling eyes, memorising each face as they disappeared into the night. It was hard to hold down the temptation to run into the outside world and claim my freedom. Once we were left I pressed the knife harder on the Yautja guard before asking a question.
"How do you close this door?"
He pointed to a round button. I grinned.
"I have a message for the High Elder. Tell him he was a stupid, son of a bitch to keep me alive. Tell the old asshole to remember this defeat and humiliation. And tell him, that as long as there are slaves with a warrior's spirit, he can never break them!"
I exchanged a quick nod to Xeenan and he gave the guard a solid hit to the head. He grunted as he fell limp. Becky and Xeenan took the guard's arms and dragged him to the other end of corridor, while the last four slaves shook my shoulders and disappeared into the night. When my friends came back I waved them out.
"Go you two, I'll shut the door," I said.
They picked up Al and Sor’an, hoisted them onto their back and dashed out. I pressed the button, sprinted to the door and leaped through it before it could close. I rolled on the ground and sprung to my feet. It was then I noticed the scene in front of me.
The moon had managed to send a sliver of light through the thick clouds. The wonderful, soft breeze glided over my skin and causes goosebumps to form. The tall trees and the foliage were momentarily bathed in silver, causing eerie, yet beautiful shadows to from. I blinked and shook my head, I could enjoy the scenery later. I ran through the field to join my friends.
"Head for the river," I directed.
Sor'an and Al bounced on the adults' back as we ran into the thick, black jungle. I jumped over rocks, roots and leafy bushes with my friends keeping behind me in single file. There was no way to avoid making a trail in the woods. Panting and puffing, we soon came to the water’s edge.
"Can you guys swim?" I asked.
Xeenan nodded, but Al and Sor'an shook their heads. I looked at Becky and she shrugged.
"I can swim, just not for very long."
I peered into the underbrush and strained my eyes to see, "Look for some kind of log. Make sure it floats and can carry on us all."
The five of us dispersed into the forest and it was little Al who became the hero. She found a long, thick log that had many branches attached to its trunk. With much effort Becky, Xeenan and I dragged the log into the water. Xeenan was the first to step in and he stood waist deep in the water while he helped the children onto the log, positioning them in between the branches so they could hold on. Za’Becc was next and I was last. I clutched one of the branches and pushed down on the sandy ground. Xeenan and Becky kicked the water to bring the log out and it was not long before the current took us down the river. The children whimpered, feeling slightly panicked as they clutched the branches tightly. Water splashed over my shoulders and wet my hair as I pulled myself up on the log and tried to comfort the children. Singing a few short lullabies did the trick. I checked my watch; ten after three. We had just made it out. I prayed that the next shift would not notice anything wrong for another two hours.
The river was a good idea,” said Xeenan, “With this fast current, we'll put half a day's head start between us and the trackers."
I got an uneasy feeling, "I still hope that doesn’t include Arbitrators."
The children looked at me, horrified.
"Xeenan are the Arbitrators going to kill us?" cried Al.
Her older brother patted the small of her back, "No little sister, they won't. I promise."
Sor'an joined in with his own worried questions and it took Becky to calm him down. Once they were quite I asked another question.
"How far until the rapids?"
The male looked at his surroundings, "Not for a while. We may hit them by morning, but we'll hear them before we see them."
I nodded as water splashed over the log, drenching my arms. I pushed myself higher on top of the dead tree to avoid the moisture from getting onto my face and head. I did not know if the translator or converter was water resistant. I scanned my surroundings and I gasped in awe.
The immense tree tops swayed and creaked as a gentle wind rustled the thick leaves. The clouds broke apart and a soft glow of the moon shone through and danced on the ripples of the water. Everything, from the trees that hung over the stream, to the foliage along the bank, was bathed in silver. The comforting noises of the lapping water reached my ears. I smiled under the mask as the sweet scent of the outdoors reached my nose. It was like I was in a peaceful dream. I felt a hand on my shoulder and I turned to see Becky's sparkling eyes. If the Yautja could cry, I'm sure she would have wept then and there.
"You did it Isha," her voice was choked with emotion, "you freed us."
I shook my head, "No, we all played a part in gaining our freedom," I paused, "but we're not out of hot water yet—no pun intended."
"We still have a long way to go before we get to Nadar–ian'ah," I glanced at the children. Both of them yawned, "Now you two should get some sleep. You've had enough excitement for one night."
The little ones automatically obeyed. The two snuggled into the branches of the dead limb and soon fell asleep with the gentle rocking of the log. Watching them sleep made me yawn.
"You should get some sleep too Isha," said Becky.
I shook my head and wiped wet hair from my face.
"No, I'm good."
"Please rest," said Xeenan, "you must be tired after all that planning."
Actually, I was, but I felt guilty about resting when they were probably as tired as me. I gave a look of protest and Becky and Xeenan stared back at me with seriousness in their eyes. I knew it was senseless to argue.
"By the way, what did you do with those guards?" I asked.
Xeenan grinned, "We stuffed them in a storage room. Don't worry, they won't wake until the late morning. And when they do, they going to have a really bad head ache."
I laughed as I pulled myself up onto the log. I positioned myself between two branches and laid my head on the bark. The log gently bobbed up and down on the stream and as the current carried us away. My lips curled into a smile and I closed my eyes. For the first time in what felt like a long time, I fell asleep without any worries.