Exile: Uprising – Chapter 3

Tathek dashed across the campus at a full sprint, his muscles burning with exhaustion and sweat tracing lines down his chest. The curfew warning continued to ping in his ear. The PODs he passed ignored him, since he was not yet in violation of their rules.

As the curfew tone rose in pitch, he rounded the last corner to his house. The lights within were dark. He ripped open the door and slammed it behind him, just as a final tone sounded in his skull. Tathek leaned hard against the door and panted.

The tall lights that illuminated the pathways of the facility abruptly went dark. The patrolling PODs had no need of visible light, as they had demonstrated numerous times over the years on anyone foolish enough to be out at night. The house was awash in cool blackness. Tathek recovered his breath and savored the faint chill seeping into his body from the beaded drops of sweat. It warred with the heat generated from his mad dash. He hadn’t felt this alive in years.

Shuldin’s arrival had upset the entire order of his existence. For too long, he had felt trapped by a world with no future, no hope. Even now, he didn’t know what chance two rebels stood against the unknowable might of the Vekara, but the mere opportunity to strike back sent a shiver of anticipation surging through his limbs. He couldn’t help but let out a sharp laugh.

“Tathek?” Sarath’s voice emerged from the darkness.

Tathek straightened. The fire in his veins burned even hotter at the sound of her voice. “Sarath…”

He made out the silhouette of her figure, standing in the hallway just outside their sleeping chamber. “Where were you?” she asked, and an echo in his heart answered the undercurrent of hopelessness in her voice. He knew that bleakness intimately, wanted desperately to rip it from her as it had ripped from him.

“I…” He forced restraint down on his rising hopes. Not yet. Soon. He wasn’t sure how she would respond to his discovery. He didn’t know how he would have felt if he’d merely heard it, rather than seen and touched it. He wanted her with them, wanted her with him. Beneath her despondent exterior beat the heart of a brilliant engineer, and together, they could find some way to fight back against the Vekara.

Soon… but for now a fire lit in his eyes as the memory of her pressing her body against him came flooding back. There were some passions for which he needed no restraint. He crossed the room and wrapped his arms around her, nipping playfully at the jut of her shoulder.

Sarath remained rigid in his grasp at first, then curled her arms around him. The tips of her claws came out and drew fine lines across his spine.

Without warning, he lifted her off her feet, ignoring her light gasp of surprise, and pinned her against the wall with his body. “I am right where I desire to be,” he breathed against her throat. She growled low and deep, and her strong legs locked around his waist.

***

After another passionate exchange that morning, Tathek had carried his newfound drive forward into his work. He struck with the pick, hard and fast, needing some way to bleed off the energy that flowed through him. When the tone sounded for the midday rest period, his entire body was coated with a thin film of black mud, as his perspiration mixed with the dirt from the tunnel.

In the cleansing chamber, Tathek broke ranks. He maneuvered himself out of position to stand behind Sarath and ran a teasing claw through her damp, black hair as they exited. Her eyes widened, radiating surprise, even as a faint smile crept across her lips, the first he’d seen from her in a long time. He returned the smile as he headed to his unit to collect the rations that made up the midday meal.

Remembering his promise to Shuldin, Tathek gathered as many food objects as he was permitted without arousing suspicion from the PODs. The rest period was generous and leisurely, and as long as no one entered any restricted areas or broke any rules, the Teksar were allowed to go where they wished. Gathering up his armload of food, Tathek left the main mining complex and slipped into one of the abandoned corridors.

Not many of his fellows knew that the current mining network connected to the old tunnels, and Tathek once again felt the thrill of doing something forbidden. The dimly lit tunnels wound through the underbelly of the mountain. He checked over his shoulder frequently to ensure that no PODs had seen him, but the passageways remained empty. He quickened his pace.

At last the tunnel opened into a large chamber lit by a wide beam of sunlight invading from above. Tathek heard a faint rumbling sound that could easily have been mistaken for shifting stone in a side passage up ahead.

Shuldin had moved his vessel farther down the previous tunnel into another cavern. Artificial lights had been attached to the walls of the cave and shone down on his ship as he worked. Tools and strange devices were strewn about the floor. Tathek cleared his throat to draw Shuldin’s attention.

Shuldin gave a baying howl. “Food! Oh yes, food, food!” the box translated after only a second’s delay.

“Not so loud,” Tathek growled at him, surprised by Shuldin’s carelessness. The Vanneth shuffled toward him eagerly with his hands stretched out. Tathek passed him the rations and stared in astonishment as Shuldin plunged the food into his wide mouth, sometimes not pausing to remove the wrapping first. The meal was devoured within moments, and Shuldin let out a noise that might have been contentment.

“Much better. You have my great thanks, Tathek. It was becoming more difficult to think.”

Tathek sat down on a patch of bare rock and chewed at a ration that he had kept for his own meal. The taste was bland and heavy, and bits of it stuck between his teeth. “How did you know that this food was safe for you to eat?” he asked.

“Vanneth stomachs are very hardy. A benefit that we’ve developed over many years. As a result, there is very little we cannot consume. After all, we need a great deal of food to maintain our mental strength.” Shuldin’s gray tongue lapped at the last crumbs of the meal. “The more we consume, the better our minds work.”

Tathek looked down at the half-eaten ration in his hand and passed it to Shuldin. “I shall bring you as much as I can then. We’ll need your mind working well in order to fix your ship.”

Shuldin inclined his head and accepted the ration with polite restraint. “You are a strong ally, Tathek.” He plopped the food into his mouth.

Tathek stood and approached the Vanneth vessel. Without the danger of discovery and capture pressing on him, he studied the ship with hungry interest. It was smaller than his own prototype craft had been, with a bulge at the top and rounding at the sides. The outer skin was clearly constructed of many different segments, but they fit together seamlessly. The surface material was a pale yellow and highly reflective. “May I touch it?” he asked Shuldin.

“Of course.”

His fingertips slid across the metal, and Tathek marveled at how smooth and polished it felt, as if it had been coated in a thin layer of lubricant. “This is… incredible.”

Shuldin’s gaze roved over the vessel. “Have your people travelled from this planet yet?”

“Only once,” Tathek answered, lost in awe and reverie. “Our ship was built in the Facility just outside. I was the pilot. When the Vekara first came, I dreamed of fighting back and returning to the sky, but after so many years, the memory of the stars became a burden. I haven’t dared to dream of them again… until now.”

“You are quite remarkable, Tathek of Teksaroth. It is my hope that our meeting is the first step to freedom for both our peoples.”

Tathek nodded, his face a mask of determination.

“If you wish to see the stars again, I will need further help. There are raw materials I require in order to repair the…” The box paused for a moment and beeped several times before continuing, “…bending-drive.” Shuldin reached back into an open panel at the rear of the ship and withdrew a long, violet crystal. “This mineral appears abundantly on many worlds, and I think your planet’s conditions would support its growth.”

Tathek took the crystal and held it up to the light, turning it about in his fingers. “I have seen deposits like this in the mines. They are always discarded as useless. It will be difficult to smuggle them without the PODs noticing, but I think I can do it.” He handed the fragment back to Shuldin.

“That will be a good start then.”

The dry air of the cavern was suddenly split by a shrill screech. Tathek whirled around, claws splayed reflexively, and he spotted a figure at the cavern entrance. It was no POD, but a Teksar with short-cropped hair and fearful, orange eyes.

It was Sarath.