Exile: Uprising – Chapter 4

Sarath screamed at the sight of the awful creature, as tanned as a piece of old leather, with pudgy limbs and a bulbous face. It yowled at her and lifted something in its hands. She growled and prepared to leap away from an expected attack, but her growl disappeared along with every other sound in the area. The echoes of her voice, every drip of water, the scuff of her sandals against the floor, even her panicked breathing was consumed by nothingness. She screamed silently and pounded her fists in vain against the cavern wall. Her throat grew raw and her hands throbbed, but the dreadful silence pressed in on all sides.

Tathek raced at her and grabbed her wrists, his purple eyes wild. Sarath threw off his grip and shoved him back. When he reached out again, she dropped into a low crouch, one hand splayed with claws bared. Somehow, he was in league with this creature… but she would not be easy prey.

Sarath leapt at him with a clawed strike, but his questioning look was replaced with a defensive stance. He deflected her blow and dashed toward the center of the chamber. Shoving off from the curved wall, she barreled into him from the side. Tathek went down beneath her, but before she could wrap him in an arm-lock, he arched his back, grabbed her waist and pulled. A sense of vertigo surged as she was flipped over onto the ground. Tathek’s face filled her vision. He loomed above her and pinned her shoulders against the floor… he had always favored using his height advantage in their practices. Would he remember her counter-move?

Sarath snapped her head up, her forehead connecting sharply with his chin. More surprised than wounded, Tathek jerked back, taking his weight off her shoulders. She rolled away and came up again, arms extended, one arched high, the other low with claws angled outward. He dropped back and shifted stance, his legs spread wide to give him stability, arms out before him, claws turned slightly inward, a warning of what would happen if she closed on him…

Panting with breaths she could not hear, Sarath blinked. The memory of forms, the familiar ease of her muscles’ movements… She had not practiced Singh-Rak in many years, but her body remembered. Tathek stared at her with intensity, the fire in his deep purple eyes sweltering. She remembered that look as well, whenever they had sparred in an age now lost. It was the same look he had given her just this morning, before they had…

The muscles in her face shifted of their own volition, and she smiled at him. A look of recognition lit in his eyes, and he returned the gesture. They launched themselves at each other and began an intricate combat dance. Blow flowed into counter-blow, strikes led to blocks, sweeps prompted somersaults. Everything as it had been before the Arrival.

Sarath was about to lose herself to the flow when the world of sound came crashing down upon them both. They stopped their sparring to cover their ears against the sudden noise and a rumbling from the hideous creature.

“Tathek, are you all right?”

The strange, mechanical voice drew a quizzical look from Sarath. The ugly alien shuffled forward, glancing between her and Tathek. Sarath found it much harder to be afraid in her heightened state. As monstrous as the thing first appeared, its body was soft and its movements slow. It could not possibly pose a threat.

“I’m fine, Shuldin,” Tathek said, his gaze still on Sarath. “Are you?” he asked her.

“Of course. I am uninjured.” She watched the creature watching her, its large, dark brown eyes unreadable. “What is it?”

“His name is Shuldin,” Tathek replied. “He is a friend.”

Sarath raised an eyebrow skeptically. “Friend?”

The creature waddled closer on its four walking limbs and inclined its head at her. Low howls and barks issued from its mouth, but an entirely different voice said quite understandably, “Yes, Tathek is correct. I am indeed a friend.”

Sarath looked around for the voice that had spoken and Tathek laughed, taking her by the arm. “We have something very important to talk about.”

***

Tathek explained what he had learned about the Vanneth and about the search for the ancient weapon. When he was finished, the being called Shuldin affirmed the story, or at least the box that translated for him did. Sarath sat and listened, scarcely daring to believe it was possible, but the presence of the alien before her, and the vehicle resting in the rear of the cavern, was undeniable.

“Another race,” she murmured when she found her voice at last. “Yet more slaves of the Vekara.” She looked at Tathek sitting beside her. “You should have told me last night.”

“We were busy at the time,” Tathek remarked, and Sarath tried to conceal a faint smile. “I had intended to tell you tonight.”

Her gaze was again drawn to the ship beneath the bright, artificial lights. “How does it travel between planets?”

Shuldin warbled at her. “It could take a long time to summarize, and I do not know if I have the correct words to explain it properly,” the voice from the translator said.

“Sarath will understand it far better than I could,” Tathek said to Shuldin. “She helped design our space-faring vessel.”

Shuldin peered at Sarath closely. He opened a panel on the metallic box and made several adjustments. “Sarath, could you explain to me how your vessel operated?”

Sarath pressed her fingertips to her forehead. It had been years since she had thought of their prototype, but it did not take long before the design schematics were at the forefront of her mind. “We based our design on a multi-tiered propulsion system, so that the ship would ascend in stages until it broke free of the gravitational pull of our planet.”

Shuldin asked further questions, about the types of fuel used, what the composition was, the method for re-entering the atmosphere, and how their light-drive worked to travel vast distances. Sarath explained, and every explanation prompted more complex follow-ups from Shuldin. Periodically he made additional adjustments to his translator. At last, haltingly, he moved from asking questions to offering parallels to his own vessel, then to how the systems diverged.

As Sarath began to grasp the technical details, her passion for the unknown, something she had thought lost forever, returned to the fore. Shuldin’s explanations continued: the Vanneth had been travelers and explorers of space for many years, but it wasn’t until they had developed an engine for travelling between star systems that the Vekara had appeared.

As he described his interstellar engine, the translator struggled with the exact term. The closest approximation was “channel-drive.”

“It harnesses the gravitational force of a large celestial object,” Shuldin explained, “to create a gravitic pathway to a distant destination. That is why I came here from Vanna. The planet that I am trying to find is beyond the reach of Vanna’s gravity well. I needed to take a smaller journey to get close enough to travel to the signal. However, I had not anticipated that the Vekara’s reach would extend all the way here,” he finished, his eyes seeming downcast.

Sarath stood and moved closer to the vessel, peering cautiously into the interior and at the various panels within the ship. “The minerals that you mentioned before, they act as a focusing array for the stored gravity?”

“In part, but they also charge the capacitors which power the ship.”

“Then it is not just the raw minerals we need to collect. From our own testing, we discovered that Teksaroth’s crystals have molecular impurities, so we shall have to adjust your array to increase its resonance tolerance.” Sarath considered the problem. “Some way of reducing the impurities will also be useful.”

Shuldin pondered for a moment before clapping his long fingers together. “Yes! An astute observation. It is akin to your… how did Tathek describe it? Cooking?”

An arm circled her waist from behind. Tathek pulled her against him and rested his chin against the top of her head. “We can do this, Sarath. We can fight back against the Vekara.”

She leaned back, suddenly finding it difficult to keep her thoughts on engineering quandaries with the heat of Tathek’s body behind her. “I believe we can… unless the Vekara find us first.”

A short tone vibrated from the implant through her inner ear. The midday rest period was coming to an end. Tathek immediately let go of her and turned back to Shuldin. “We must go. Once our shift is finished, we shall return.”

“With more food?” Shuldin asked.

“Of course.” Tathek looked at Sarath, and the smile returned to his face. “How about Carrack stew? I can’t remember the last time you made that.”

Sarath mirrored his expression. “Only if you think a Vanneth can handle the spices I use.”

Shuldin gave a muffled rumble. “Spices?” Even the translator’s tone sounded puzzled. “What is spices?”