Exile: Uprising – Chapter 1

The crude pick bit deep into the tunnel wall. A vein of blue-green ore gleamed in the meager light, and the softer rock crumbled away, leaving the metal further exposed. Tathek reversed the pick in his hand and used the flattened head of the tool to pry away a large chunk of ore. He lifted the heavy piece, staggering back under its weight, and dropped it into the bin.

A muscle in his shoulder cramped sharply. Hissing through his teeth, Tathek massaged the spot with a dirt-caked hand. A Vekaran POD paused its patrol of the tunnels to observe him. Tathek remained still and felt the metal implant at the base of his skull grow warm as the POD scanned his biologics. He knew from experience that these examinations went smoother if he didn’t struggle. Instead, he returned the POD’s observation.

Projected Oversight Drone. A lifeless if accurate designation. They were the only manifestation of the Vekara that his people had ever known, but they controlled almost all aspects of life on Teksaroth. The PODs seemed designed to mimic the conquered Teksar, from their bipedal bodies, the broad chests that tapered to narrower waists, the sharply curved shoulders with pointed protrusions, to the graceful triangular flare of their heads. The differences, however, were just as stark. Instead of gray-violet skin, every POD was forged of a silvery alloy, and where the hair on a Teksar’s head would be, a short cascade of blue-lit tubes flowed down from their crest. They loomed at least a foot above the tallest Teksar, so that no one would ever forget who their conquerors were.

The POD’s eyes flared blue, satisfied that the worker it observed was not injured, and it resumed its patrol. Tathek rolled his shoulder and stared sullenly at the retreating form.

A tone sounded through the mining tunnels. The work shift had ended. Tathek and the rest of the laborers fell into practiced step and began the climb out of the shaft. Every Teksar around him, male and female alike, bore the same expression of blank listlessness, and Tathek knew his face mirrored theirs. Their shared pace was unhurried, for there was nowhere to hurry to.

At the end of the shaft, more PODs oversaw the deposit of work equipment and the cleansing of the laborers. Tathek stripped and tossed his filthy garments on the pile. Rows of naked Teksar waited in the rinsing chamber for the blasts of harsh disinfecting liquid. Tathek closed his eyes with a feeling that might have once been anticipation.

The first spray always stung. Tathek drank in the sensation of pain, before his skin numbed to the chemicals and he set about scrubbing away the layers of dirt. The white floor of the rinsing chamber soon ran with myriad black streams.

The sprays halted. As one, the workers exited the chamber. The liquid dried quickly, soaking into the skin to fortify the body against infection. Up ahead, fresh piles of clothing awaited them. Tathek pulled on a pair of black, closefitting breeches and leathery sandals. As was his wont, he left the matching shirt behind.

Outside the mines, personnel carriers were already lined up and waiting to return the workers to their housing facilities. Tathek immediately went to his designated loading zone. Sarath was already in position, staring idly into the distance. Tathek walked up, put his arms around her waist and rested his chin on her short-cropped hair. She leaned back against his chest, and she rested her arms on his. Every motion was a tradition, perfected like the steps of a dance through hundreds of repetitions. Tathek couldn’t recall the last time that the gestures had held any real meaning.

The carrier doors opened, and the Teksar filed in. Tathek and Sarath sat beside each other, their fingers twined loosely together, each staring off in a different direction as the engines engaged. The housing complex wasn’t far, just down the mountainside in the wide valley below. They would be home soon.

Tathek closed his eyes and tried to remember the Facility. It had been home long before the Vekara came, and traces of emotion still echoed within the halls of his memory. A remote campus, devoted to science: the pursuit of speed, the mastery of propulsion and… the fulfilment of dreams.

The carrier hovered silently over a field of wild, golden grass. The campus was a sprawling series of buildings of various sizes and heights. Each one had been designed with specific purposes in mind, but the Vekara had converted everything to accomplish a single task: provide adequate shelter for their mine laborers.

Those, like Tathek, who possessed their own housing on site before the invasion had been allowed by the Vekara to keep their dwellings. Tathek and Sarath exited the carrier at the appropriate stop and crossed the walkway to their small, three-room house. The overhead lights activated as they entered, and Sarath, following routine, walked to the kitchen to prepare the evening meal. Tathek passed by their sleeping chamber, entered the third room and looked around, desperate to connect to the ghosts of the past.

The sparring chamber was square, the bare walls sheathed in a layer of dark cloth, with padded mats lining the floor. It had once been a temple devoted to the mastery of the physical form. Now, like everything else in his life, it was nothing more than a routine. Tathek walked to the center of the room and adopted a wide, low stance.

He began the pattern of movement that comprised this ritual. The disciplines of Singh-Rak. Normally accompanied by a chant to center mind and body, Tathek couldn’t recall the last time he’d even spoken while following the rote moves of the form. His arms stretched wide, his fingers flexing to brandish his short, pointed claws. He imagined an enemy adopting the same stance in front of him, and he attacked.

A lashing kick, answered by a cross-armed block. A strike of the claws, dodged with a quick bend of the spine. Tathek fell into the routine, like everything that comprised life now. No surprises, no goals, no thrills… only patterns. He couldn’t maintain the image of his opponent in his mind for long. It wavered and vanished, and he didn’t try to conjure it again. Sweat rolled off his exposed skin and his muscles burned, but the sensations brought no feeling, no break in the tedium. They were all just biological reactions, another way to bleed out time.

Time. Time used to be so precious to the Teksar. Though their lives had always been brief, often ending violently, they relished every exquisite moment. Tathek looked at himself in the wall length mirror at the far side of the room. Even in the dim light, he could trace the contours of his twenty-two-year-old form. At this age, he was now older than any Teksar who had lived prior to the Arrival. The Vekara, with their implants and laws, had changed time itself. Now Teksar lives continued far past their span, largely in comfort, but the moments that had been so full of vigor were naught but drudgery. Tathek’s gaze passed over the callouses on his hands. Mining. Tathek was not a miner. He had been a racer, a fighter… the pilot that kissed the stars…

He closed his eyes and let the silence of the room wash over him, drowning the loss in his mind with emptiness.

Fingers caressed his back from behind. “Food is ready,” Sarath said, but there was a husky quality to her voice. Tathek opened his eyes and turned. She stepped closer and pressed her body against him, gazing up at him with orange eyes that glowed. “Unless you aren’t hungry.”

Tathek wasn’t. He knew what Sarath desired, what watching him had aroused in her, but he didn’t want that either. He wanted to desire her, but the void within and the sense of impotence just made everything worse. He stepped back, and Sarath’s face fell. “Am I repulsive to you now, Tathek?”

“No.”

In the back of his mind, Tathek raged at himself to speak further, to share with her the malaise that was robbing him of his passions, but he had no words to explain it, and silence was all that followed. Sarath’s gaze drifted down to the floor, her expression blank. She turned wordlessly and left the room. Tathek trailed after her as she sat down to the meal she had prepared. Spiced charnam cutlets, an old specialty of hers. The smell tickled another memory of better times, but Tathek pushed it down quickly. He couldn’t bring himself to face the rift he had opened between them just yet. He left the house and began walking without direction or purpose.

Several windows in nearby buildings were lit, but no Teksar roamed the pathways as he did. A few PODs patrolled the campus, but curfew was still some ways off, so they ignored his presence. A hot breeze raced over his sweat-beaded skin. It rustled the grass and blew dust across old testing sites and runways. Tathek stared around his home, and the void flooded over him. To have lived so long without passion was worse than any torture he could have devised.

Tathek lifted his gaze to the veil of stars. He remembered when he had first followed Sarath here, away from the city, how brilliant the stars had shone. Back when he still had his dreams. The stars still glittered, but the space between them seemed darker, and even he no longer dared hope for a return to their radiant embrace.

As he watched, one of the stars grew visibly larger and brighter, until it ignited. Tathek gaped as a ball of flame streaked across the sky. A sound, high and keening, shattered the evening quiet, and it raced above Tathek’s head. He turned and followed the fireball with his eyes until it disappeared behind a hillside with a tremorous impact.

He hesitated, wondering if Sarath would want to see a meteor crater, but decided against bothering her and ran toward the horizon alone.