C H A P T E R 2
E X C U R S I O N
The Excursion Bay is a large, circular room, full of black and white and bright lights. Whoever designed this base must be very fond of the monochrome aesthetic. Not that I’m complaining.
The pod docking room of the Bay takes up less than a quarter of the circular wall, and that’s where I enter. Two others are standing around a large round table in the center—a glossy black, of course. It’s a hologram table—a three-dimensional projection of the Celeis base is floating above it.
One of the people at the table waves to me. Nathan Aurel, if I recall: the Field division head. He has medium-toned skin, along with light brown-gray eyes. His dark brown hair is in an undercut, the mop of hair on the top of his head swept to his left.
“Hey,” he says. “Avaren, right?”
“Sier is fine,” I say, approaching. I take my place at a respectful distance from the two at the table. The other is Rhen Veil, I believe, with his short and wavy black hair and steel blue eyes.
“Call me Nathan, then,” I hear, and I refocus my attention on the man in question.
“Rhen is fine for me as well,” Rhen says, voice soft but clear.
Nathan nods. “Great! Now that we’re all here, let’s take a moment to introduce ourselves. The files can only do so much.” He places a hand on his chest. “I’m Nathan, your division leader. I like the smell of coffee but not the taste.” He chuckles. “You’ll all be reporting your regular updates to me, though I’ll also be in the field myself.”
Rhen nods, glancing at me before speaking up. “I’m Rhen, as you’ve probably figured out,” he says. “I was conducting research of Earth’s urban ecosystems in an independent group, previously. I enjoy art, and it’ll probably be what I’m up to in most of my free time.”
I remember Rhen’s file mentioning that. Regardless, it’s my turn, so I speak up. “I’m Sier,” I say. “I worked for the Sylven Foundation, a publicly funded group that researches and protects Earth’s green zones. I spent a lot of my free time in the zones, honestly.” I huff out a breath. “But other than that, I like to imagine worlds in my head and sometimes write a few things about them. Not any formal novels, though.”
“That’s neat,” Nathan says, an easy smile on his face. “Both of you. I hope we can all get to know each other more as time passes, though I’m sure Celeis will send more folks to work here later, and management will get busier for me then. In any case, I’d say it’s about time I get to business.” He sweeps a hand across the room. “As you probably know from your crash course, this is the Excursion Bay. There are units on the wall to the left, containing personal transport pods in addition to other vehicles and housing units.”
I look to the wall he points at, seeing five black rectangular panels embedded into the white surface.
“You can select what you need from the hologram screens,” Nathan continues. “Each projector is a terminal connected to a larger storage system. Once you come back, return the vehicles here, and the maintenance will be done automatically.”
I nod. I recall this from the course, but it’s still nice to have the reminder.
“This is also where you’ll get your data spheres.” Nathan waves a hand, and a ball of white light forms into the air before coalescing into a glossy black sphere. “They’ll sync to your exosuit so you can exchange information to and from them. Each one includes an omnidirectional camera and various matter projection configurations for sampling specimens or recording other data. Once you get yours, you’ll hold onto it—but make sure to sync the data to the base every time you come back. You can do it wirelessly, but it’s faster if you just press your finger to one of those panels,” he says, gesturing back to the wall. “Your personal desks would also work.
“You’ll be able to access and download everyone else’s data by interfacing with any terminal,” Nathan continues. “You can also pull data out in the field, but it’s much less efficient.” He looks at the two of us. “If you’re unsure about anything, feel free to use the instructional protocols in your exosuit. If that doesn’t work, feel free to contact me—I’ve been here for almost an Archeian year, after all,” he chuckles. “Now, if you’ll follow me, I can get the three of you geared up for an expedition, and we can go exploring.”
I make a sound of surprise. “Ah, already?”
“Well,” Nathan says, stepping away from the table and dismissing his sphere into nothingness, “it’s not a formal expedition. We won’t go far, just far enough to get a sense of what it’ll be like once you’re all left to your own devices.”
Rhen hums, and I turn to him as he starts speaking. “How soon will we begin our actual expeditions?” Rhen asks.
“As soon as tomorrow, if you like,” Nathan answers. He starts walking towards the panels, and the two of us trail after him. “You can pursue your own avenues of research here—just make sure to send in a request so I can approve it first. I’ll only approve long expeditions if at least one of us is still around here,” he adds. “And you’ll need a few shorter expeditions under your belt, first. Need to make sure you know what you’re doing. Plus, if the Laboratory division or any other division sends in a request for certain data or samples, we need to be available to acquire it.”
Nathan lifts a hand, the panel he’s now standing in front of glows white before a holographic screen appears in the air. “The process is fairly straightforward—just select the ‘Data Sphere’ and, for today, a ‘Transport Pod.’”
Rhen and I give our acknowledgements before each going to a different panel. I pull up the list of available connections in my mind, which includes the terminals, the holographic table, and the two others in my team—well, their exosuits, technically. There’s a collapsed list of the other employees and other connection points, but I pay them no mind. Each of the items in the expanded list is connected by a line to the subject, and I select EB TERMINAL 2 once I see that it’s referring to the panel in front of me.
The holographic screen appears, displaying a WELCOME, SIER before the text fades and is replaced by a box layout of images with labels at the bottom of them. The largest box has an image of a black orb, labeled with DATA SPHERE. I also see options for a TRANSPORT POD, which appears to be a black, vertically oriented object that reminds me a lot of a chrysalis, except much more geometric. There are also options for AERIAL OBSERVATION VEHICLE, depicting some kind of ship that looks big enough to accommodate the entire team, as well as OUTPOST, which depicts a sleek black building with glass windows.
They were all described in the introduction course—the outpost has all the necessities we need to rest and make initial analyses of our specimens. I’d need one for any expeditions over a day long… but right now, I only need the data sphere and transport pod, so I tap on those and watch as the terminal glows and sends a beam of light to my glove. The light fades, and I get a notification in my mind that the packages have been received. Soon after, a notification that the data sphere has synced appears as well.
I step away from the terminal, disconnecting and letting the screen fade away. The others finish around the same time, and we all turn back to Nathan, who smiles.
“Ready?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say, while Rhen simply nods.
“Good—this way, then.” Nathan turns slightly and gestures to the far wall of the Bay before walking towards the wall.
Rhen and I follow, and once we reach the wall, he waves his hand. The white polymeric surface dissolves into hexagonal light fragments in response, revealing a short hallway that extends into a view of the outside. There’s a wide path and a circular platform, in addition to ramps down the sides of the path that lead to the forest floor slightly below—though the trees themselves stand taller than the platform. The hallway shimmers faintly with white light, as well as another separating the hall from the outside. I realize that I’m looking through energy barriers, separating us from the atmosphere.
“The first one you can just walk through, and it’s a simple command to bring down the second,” Nathan says. “You should see it as an action option when you’re nearby.” He walks through the first barrier, and Rhen and I follow. It’s a curiously warm sensation.
“Now,” Nathan continues, “this part of the base is actually just outside the primary energy barrier. That is to say, please remember to deploy your exosuit before you exit—though it shouldn’t be a problem in most cases, since you’ll deploy your vehicles while inside.” He lifts his hand again, and the outline of what I recognize as a transport pod appears before filling with light and resolving into the vehicle. It floats slightly above the ground, and the front splits into three panels—two on the side and one on top—that slide away, revealing a seat inside.
“You’ve all learned how to drive one of these, right?” Nathan asks. “In theory.”
“In theory,” I confirm, and Nathan chuckles.
“It should be fairly intuitive,” our leader says. “Try materializing your pod, and go ahead and take a seat. I’ll let you all familiarize yourself with the controls, and then we can head out.”
I nod and lift my hand to summon my own pod. In moments, the vehicle is floating in front of me, the panels sliding open. I step up onto the floor of the pod, turning around and taking a seat on the smooth black seat. Everything inside is black, actually, at least until the panels close and the entire front area of the pod becomes a view of the surroundings in hexagonal sections, as if it were a window. There’s even a sense of depth, but I’m well aware it’s a simulated screen.
As I set my hands down on the arms of my seat, I feel a tingle through my gloves. Panels light up around me, and I see SYNCING TO POD 9… SYNCED. As soon as the last word appears, data starts filtering into my mind: distance from the ground, speed, energy levels. More than that is the sense of control—with the neural link, it almost feels like an extension of my own body. I try altering my altitude and moving forward and backward slightly, and it feels as natural as with my own body.
There’s a ping in my mind, and then two holographic screens appear: one to my left, showing Rhen, and one on my right, showing Nathan. Our leader gives an easy smile. “Looks like the two of you have the general idea,” he says over the communication channel. “Why don’t we head out, then? By the way, you don’t strictly need to deploy your exosuit while you’re in the pod, but I do highly recommend it.”
I nod, activating my exosuit. Light fragments wash over my body, mildly warm, and soon enough, I am completely encased in a dark suit, glass helmet enclosing my head. I see the others do the same through the screens, making them all look identical—at least until Nathan activates the helmet light, revealing the easy smile on his face. I follow suit, as does Rhen—who’s still holding that neutral expression he’s had since the first time I saw him.
“Is everyone ready?” Nathan asks. We all give our affirmatives, and then he nods. “I’m opening the shield.”
I turn my attention to the shimmering boundary between us and the alien wild. It pulses once and then opens up like ink spreading across the surface of water, and then I can hear the natural ambience of Archeiah coming through the speakers of the pod. It isn’t like the forests of Earth, full of bugs and birds and calls of other animals. There’s something almost like a hum, something I feel in my head more than my ears, just subtle enough to notice when paying attention to it.
“Follow me,” Nathan commands, and his pod hovers out of the gate. I follow right after him, Rhen and Ava at my sides. He guides us above the foliage of the Archeian forest, far enough to be clear of the tree-like flora but close enough to observe the activity below.
I glance back towards the base out of curiosity. Through the posterior paneling of the pod, I can see the faint shimmer of the primary shield surrounding the Celeis base. Our exit point is barely visible now.
Nathan’s voice draws my attention back to what’s happening in front of me. “I’ll be bringing you all to a place I’ve already surveyed,” he says. “No creatures on this planet seem to be dangerous to us, but it can’t hurt to be careful for this little excursion.”
I hum in acknowledgement. By now, the dark blue foliage has transitioned to trees with leaves shining with the glow of starlight—I assume, at least. There’s a clearing further up, which I realize is our destination when Nathan says, “We’re here.”
He descends, and the rest of us follow. Once we’re all hovering only inches from the ground, Nathan slides open his pod door and steps out, the pod itself dissipating into light that’s absorbed into the palm of his suit immediately afterwards.
I disconnect from the neural link with my pod controls before stepping out, turning to press my hand to the vehicle and dissipate it as well. When I turn back around, it’s just the four of us standing in a field of dark blue grass with speckles of light like stars.
Nathan smiles, clasping his hands together. “Ready?” he asks, voice projected directly through our communicators.
“More than,” I answer, grinning back.
Nathan chuckles. “Eager. Can’t say I’m surprised… Archeiah is a beautiful planet.”
“Have you already logged all the species here?” Rhen asks, taking a knee and running his fingers through the grass.
Nathan snorts. “I certainly did my best. The database of identified species should be accessible through your data spheres. Speaking of, you should take those out.” He lifts a hand, and his palm projects the white outline of a sphere before filling out with solid matter. He lowers his hand, and the now-black sphere continues to hover around him. “There’s a mental interface that should show up when it’s active.”
I hum before pulling my own data sphere from my projector inventory, lifting my hand to let it form above my palm. As soon as it forms, I can see the interface in my mind’s eye. There are options for its operating mode—automatic, semiautomatic, and manual—as well as various functional operations, including one to access the database. I activate that option, which brings me to a list of different topics. I notice “species” and choose that one. In moments, my mental space is filled with a listing of known species.
“Most of the species here have traits of both plants and animals,” Nathan says. I blink and refocus on reality. “We did our best to classify them in other ways and came up with what are essentially three types: species that are stationary throughout life, species that spend some time stationary and some time moving, and species that move freely. We’re tentatively calling these classifications akinetic, semikinetic, and kinetic species.” He pauses. “Also, as you’re probably aware from your training, if you’re experiencing mental exhaustion, you may want to switch to a visual interface instead.”
I watch as he looks at his sphere. Immediately, multiple holographic screens are projected from it, each displaying information on a different species. “I personally find the mental interface faster and more intuitive to use, but since all of you haven’t been using the exosuits for long, an information-heavy interface can take a bit to get used to.”
Rhen nods, humming thoughtfully. He stands and lifts his hand; in moments, screens start projecting out of his sphere as well.
I think that I’ll try to keep using the mental interface for now. As Nathan says, it’s much more intuitive to control, and I breeze through the records on various logged species. There are the nulls, of course—a kinetic species, most likely with high intelligence and seemingly with the highest concentration of starlight in any species on Archeiah. There are also zels, small lizard-like creatures that look similar to nulls. In fact, most of the kinetic species look fairly similar, having some kind of smooth exoskeleton that ranges from white to black in blue-purple tones.
There are also semikinetic species, such as the mycusa: a species that resembles a mushroom when rooted into the earth, and jellyfish when floating in the sky. And of course, there are the akinetic species, including many tree-like organisms.
“Many of them are unnamed,” I notice.
Nathan laughs, hand on the back of his helmet. “I’m not the best at naming… I mean, I named space dragons ‘nulls’ since they’re just a dark spot in all sorts of detectors. The other division leaders say that I should name all these species, since I was the one to identify most of them… I mean, the other leaders helped a bit, but I think they just like to see me squirm.”
I can’t help the corner of my mouth lifting in amusement. “I’m sure we can all give you a hand with that.” I like to think I’m good at naming things—I do make fictional worlds, even if I never do much with them.
Nathan holds his hands together in a prayer position, lowering his head. “Bless. I would appreciate it.”
Rhen huffs, dismissing the screens in front of him. “So, what exactly are we doing here?”
At that, Nathan straightens. “Of course. Let me show you how to survey new areas and log data…”
Nathan shows us around the area, demonstrating how to take pictures and record videos with the sphere, along with using the various other functions of the device, including storing and analyzing samples, scanning surroundings, and detecting approximate levels of starlight.
We then are instructed to go our separate ways and gather samples of anything we find interesting. “While I have explored this area,” Nathan says, “I’m sure there’s still much more to discover. Let’s meet back here in three hours, and we can go back to the base to discuss what happens next.”
So I start wandering. The grass-like flora carpeting the ground is thick, as if untrodden—though I wonder if that’s because it is untrodden or if that’s because it’s hardier than the grasses of Earth.
As I continue wandering, I can’t help but think that the forest truly is beautiful. Everything glitters with starlight—the grass, the plants, the creatures, the motes of light in the air. The glowing canopy makes the air almost dreamlike. I take a few of those glowing leaves off of a tree; when I pluck them, a viscous goo that sparkles like galaxies wells out of the stem.
Ichor. The blood of gods in mythology, but here, it’s the blood of every living thing. I use a finger to catch a droplet, and it rolls into my palm like a drop of mercury on glass. Considering that Celeis is here to research starlight, and that ichor seems to be the organic carrier of that energy, I expect we’ll be needing a lot of it.
I gather a few vials from various plants, storing them in the data sphere’s matter compressor. Sometimes, though, what I thought was a plant was actually not—a field of what I thought were flowers unfurled and flew away as soon as I tried to touch one.
On occasion, I would see something scurry away. A zel, I think—one of those lizard-like creatures. They seem to be fairly common, scattered around the forest. I’ll probably try catching one eventually with the sphere’s provided capture equipment, but I’ll save that for another day.
I become so absorbed in the alien flora at my feet that I don’t even notice the edge of the forest. At least, not until the trees clear and I’m provided with a view of the cloudy twilight of the sky. A bit past the treeline is a sharp drop to a lake below, with a waterfall somewhere to my right. Further than that are the cliffs that line the other side of the lake’s valley, trees blanketing the cliffs in a brilliant glow.
The view is stunning—I can’t resist taking a few photos. And of course, that’s when I notice a lower cliff to my left. Particularly, the null sitting there, facing the never-setting sun.
Like other nulls, it is long and serpentine, with three sets of limbs, another set of wings, and a trail of ichor floating behind its head. This one’s middle limbs are the shortest, and the hind legs are the longest. Its shell is pale, white with a teal sheen, and its limbs and wings are tucked close to its body. I use the telescopic function on my helmet’s HUD to get a closer look and see that it has only one pair of “ears” as well as two pairs of antennae underneath. Ichorous nodes are on the shoulders of its limbs and its knuckles, plus a large one on the end of its tail and the tips of the shell parts of its wings. The wings themselves look to be pure ichor, splitting into three extended points. The upper parts of its arms and central part of its legs also look to be made of ichor.
It must notice me, because it raises its head slightly before turning to look at me—as far as I can tell, given that nulls have no eyes.
I don’t move, unsure of what to do. All other encounters with nulls have shown that they’re not aggressive, but they’re huge. I’m probably shorter than its forelimbs are long. Do I go closer? Do I leave?
Turns out, the decision is made for me. The null stands, spreading its wings wide before leaping into the sky with a mighty flap. It flies towards me, and I can’t help flinching, shielding myself with my arms, only for a gust of wind to nearly knock me over as it passes above me.
I lower my arms to look around, then up, before gasping as the null lands right in front of me. Another gust of wind sways the nearby trees and once again nearly sends me to the ground.
Holy shoots. I am definitely shorter than its arm. It comes closer, head tilting, antennae moving this way and that. I take a step back by instinct, and it stops for a moment.
It makes a few clicks and a whale-like call, and in doing so, I can see its ridiculously sharp teeth.
What is the evolutionary purpose of having such sharp teeth if all you need to live is to absorb weird energy? I think frantically.
The null makes a chirring sound, lowering its head to be level with me. I’d say that it’s level with my head, except the head is about as big as my torso.
Okay, I tell myself. Stay calm, Sier. It’s probably just curious. I make an effort to relax, only to tense up again when the null reaches a hand forward and curls its slender fingers around me.
Is it going to pick me up? I vaguely think about humans picking up interesting insects. I mean, I’m not that small in comparison—its hand is just large enough that the thumb and other fingers can wrap around my waist.
My question is answered when the grip tightens. I have a brief moment of panic where I don’t know if the null knows how squishy humans are, and my hands fly to the edges of the null’s fingers. Then I remember that the exosuit does have crush protection, but before I can be too assuaged by that, my feet leave the ground. I can’t help but make a startled “eep!” and cling tightly to the null’s hand, heart pounding.
Alas, even if all the facts tell me that I’m going to be fine, monkey brain still thinks I’m in the sights of some dangerous predator and about to fall to death. Even though the suit also has fall protection. They really thought of everything.
The world sways as the null sits on its haunches. I gulp and decide to not look at the ground, turning my gaze to the null instead. Its head is slightly tilted, antennae swaying. After a few seconds, it brings me even closer, and then it lifts its other forelimb to tap the side of my helmet. I startle, instinctively jerking my hand to where I was tapped. No damage, which I should have expected; the tap was gentle and the suit is exceedingly sturdy.
The null makes another chirr, head straightening slightly as it does. I lower my hand to look at it, and it does it again.
It’s almost as though it’s… expecting something? It lifts its free hand once more to tap and my helmet very lightly.
“Hey,” I say, batting away the hand. As gentle as it is, getting tapped isn’t the best feeling.
The null makes a few clicks, and I squint at it. Maybe it’s trying to communicate something? It lifts a hand to its own face, pointing to the ichorous node that defines it.
I squint. Maybe… hmm. I turned off my helmet light earlier, but now I command it to turn back on and reveal my face behind the glass.
The null makes a rumbling sound that I’d like to think is a pleased one. It moves its head closer, close enough to touch. The dark blue of ichor seems to hold an infinity of sparkling galaxies within it, and on a whim I reach out. The null doesn’t react besides a twitch of its antennae, letting me feel the cool smoothness of its carapace through my gloves.
We stay like that for a moment, unmoving save for my own breathing and the null’s antennae shifting. The null doesn’t even breathe—nothing on the planet needs air to live, only starlight. It’s truly a wonder.
I startle when the null pulls me away from its face, and I grab the arm around my torso to stabilize myself. It sets me down gently, but I only realize after it lets go that I feel about as solid as jelly. I cling to the hand as my legs fold, and the null chirrs before lowering me completely to the ground.
The null pulls back, and I look up to see it still watching me. I realize belatedly that I probably should have taken pictures, and I quickly command the data sphere obediently floating around me to take a few. While the exosuit does automatically record everything, the quality is much lower.
I feel a strange buzz in my mind—around the neural chip, particularly—as I issue the command. That’s unusual… I put my hand there, at the base of my skull, but the feeling quickly fades as the null makes another whale-like call. It spreads its wings, and with one mighty flap, it leaps into the air.
I use one arm to shield myself against the wind, and the other to brace myself against the ground. By the time I look up, it’s gone.
I allow myself a few minutes to sit in the alien grass and calm my racing heart. Once I feel like I’m not going to astral project out of my skin, I open the communications channel.
“Hey,” I say. “I think my life just flashed before my eyes.”
B O N U S
N A T H A N A U R E L
BIRTHDAY: SEPTEMBER 10
DIVISION: FIELD (HEAD)
The leader of the Field division on the Celeis research outpost of Archeiah. Known to be charismatic, considerate, and communicative from previous management positions, and is also fairly experienced in field research.
R H E N V E I L
BIRTHDAY: MARCH 1
Formerly a researcher of Nexiel, a small research company collaborating with various universities to study urban ecosystems. A fairly skilled artist as well, supplementing his income with earnings from artistic work.