Nadia took her seat in the lecture hall, close to the front row but not in the teacher's face. She rooted around in her bag for a second and produced a bottle of apple juice. She preferred the old type when they simply used synthetic flavor in order to imitate the extinct fruit. Now the fruit was brought back, but it seemed different somehow.
The hall was slowly filling up with students, most of them around her age, early twenties. Chatter filled the room until it grew to a dull roar. It got loud enough for Nadia to get out some headphones and her phone when the professor walked in. He had barely entered the room and the noise stopped. Tense silence hung thick like fog as he set his coffee mug down and looked at the students. His curly hair was tied back into a knot as normal with a number 2 pencil stuck through it. Nadia always thought he looked too young to be a professor. His hair was jet black and his face only showed slight lines on his forehead and around his eyes. He cleared his throat.
"All of you know what I'm here to tell you. Your independent study assignments. The big, final, year long assignments that start in a month for you to get your masters."
He nodded as students shifted in their seats. Nadia's heart sped up. She had been looking forward to this since her freshman year. Professor Brenley continued in that accent she could never quite place. It wasn't very strong, but it sounded western european. He reached behind his head and pulled the pencil out of his bun. He started to spin it around his thumb. It was an odd and slightly mesmerizing habit of his. Anything remotely pencil shaped he'd spin and twine around his long fingers, switching it between hands and rarely dropping it. When he did drop it, which was only about once in every five classes, he'd swear under his breath and stare at it for split second, looking almost offended.
"I have personally assigned you to somewhere in the galaxy to pursue this study. You better not come whining to me, because I spend a long ass time on the assignments." A few nervous chuckles bounced around the crowd. He picked up a paper and started listing the names. Nadia waited. She didn't have any friends in this particular class, and 'Waters' was not exactly near the beginning of the alphabet. Some of the places people were going seemed serious, government work, military bases. Brenley made a comment on each one, a sly remark or fact about the facility.
It seemed to take around a week before he finished with the person before her. He looked up, "I'm pretty proud of arranging this one. Nadia Waters, Eve program, Nephelai. Talk to me after class, I doubt you know what the Eve program is."
Nadia could feel the eyes of hundreds boring into her. She sunk into her chair as Brenley continued on the list. He soon finished up.
"Alright. I don't want anybody to come scrambling to me with thanks or complaints, you will get all your info in an email sometime today. Except for Nadia." The students started filing out, chatting excitedly with each other. Nadia approached the front desk slowly, her books clasped in front of her chest. The desk rattled as Brenley placed his hands on it. He was fairly tall, probably around 6'2 and very thin. His skin was a golden brown and his eyes were dark, almost black.
"Right. Every other evolutionary bio major I've placed in some high tech artificial selection place, or studying some cloned ancient earth animals. I think I even got one guy on the prehistoric team." Nadia nodded her head, duly impressed and slightly jealous of the others. She had always wanted to see the cloned mammoths. Brenley smiled at her expression, "Well, those chumps have nothing compared to you. Do you remember the Beyersdorf machine?"
"Some German guy managed to get a chimp into the future right? By harnessing the power of a black hole, warping time." She tilted her head. "Well not exactly harnessing, but you know what I mean."
"Exactly. Put it in a little capsule. Black holes pull everything in, light, time, all that. So when you go near one, time bends. He managed to get it to... skip, kind of." Brenley grabbed a piece of paper. "Imagine we're going along this paper, like it's a timeline." He dragged his finger over the top of it. "And we start here." He poked one edge of the paper. "What he did is this." He bent the paper in half, touching the opposite ends of it together. "He got the chimp to just pass this way, from one place in time to another. Whereas the rest of us go the long way." His finger traced over the top loop of the paper.
"Well anyways, some crazy scientist, Russian I think," he looked to the side, "they're always Russian or German. Anyways, he managed to build a Beyersdorf big enough for a solar system. Except switch the principal around. The planet goes the long way and we skip ahead. Combine that with a sun with only one planet, you've got a planet where you can speed up time. Do you see where I'm getting?"
Nadia bobbed her head slowly, her eyes miles away.
"In case you haven't gotten there yet, with this huge-ass contraption we can watch evolution happen in front of our very eyes. They put some organic molecules on the surface of the relatively new planet Nephelai, then pressed 'fast forward' so to speak for, a couple thousand years. Once some cells started to grow, they would pause it every once in a while to see the progress. They've collected hundreds of sample organisms from over time, but for now they've kind of paused it for the time being. They have some sociologists and anthropologists studying how civilizations are built. They've got an entire city built there."
Nadia put her books down. "So what do I get to do?"
"You, my friend, get access to Nephelai in this most recent manifestation. You'll be looking at all of the steps of evolution they have on hand."
A smile creeped its way across Nadia's face. "Thank-"
Brenley cut her off, "Don't thank me, I did this as much for me as you." He smirked, "I'm a selfish bastard like that."
"How does it help you?"
"Simple, I'm coming with you. Of course I have a second thing planned, if you're uncomfortable with that.." His eyes glinted as Nadia paused, considering going on a year-long trip with him. She knew him better than the other professors, but he was a little weird. He was called 'Batshit Brenley' by a large portion of the student body. Nadia looked back up at his cheshire cat face.
"Of course I'll go. It sounds like a once in a lifetime experience."
Brenley walked away from the desk, pumping his fist into the air, "Hell yeah!" He took a few hop-skip steps then turned back to Nadia. "Sorry, it's just I wouldn't be able to go unless you said yes. We leave tomorrow morning."
"What?! I thought you said they start in a month!"
"Well, everyone else starts in a month." He waved his hand between himself and Nadia, "We, we start tomorrow morning. Just take what you'd take for a vacation. It's very cold there but no need to pack warm, we'll be getting some of the local garb. You can leave everything not needed in your dorm room. I'll tell them not to get rid of it. Meet me in my office tomorrow at eight. Oh, and bring your passport."
Nadia was barely listening, numbly thinking about what she'd tell her parents, what she'd tell her roommate. She jolted back to awareness to Brenley snapping his fingers in front of her face.
"Hey! tomorrow at eight, alright?"
She nodded and turned to leave, Brenley's voice pulled her back.
"I'm looking forward to this. Apparently the organisms are pretty cool, not the normal prokaryotes you see in evo bio."
Nadia nodded, thanked him, and walked out the door.
Back at the dorm, Skylar stared at her.
"You're going on your year-long trip, to a secret planet, with Batshit Brenley, and you leave tomorrow."
Nadia sighed. "Yup. I like him but he's… Brenley. He talks really fast, he has no regard for lab safety, and he's just weird. One time I was in a lab with him and he walked by with a broom, the handle of which had a half melted candle tied to it with a bit of red ribbon. I asked him why he had a candle hanging from his broom and he just said 'You never know…' in a weirdly mysterious voice. Like what the hell."
Sky laughed, "Really? I love the guy. He can be brutally honest, which is… fun to experience, but I think his weirdness is kinda charming in a way."
"Where are you going, anyways?"
"It's a lab researching the Polymerase Chain Reaction. It's like an offshoot of Vozmet, I think."
"Really? Vozmet? That's awesome! Maybe you'll get to see Krupin."
Sky laughed. "Yeah, I doubt it. That guy is a billionaire genius. I bet he doesn't even do much research any more, just rakes in cash."
"I love Krupin. I mean the guy created life. That's like the definition of crazy scientist. And I fucking love crazy scientists. Also, he like, cured cancer. That's pretty huge."
"You just like him because he's attractive."
"Okay, well that doesn't hurt."
Sky chuckled. "Whatever, man. Point is there's like a 1 in a billion chance I'll see him. You should go pack though. If you leave tomorrow."
Naida walked back to her bed, where clothes and belongings lay scattered everywhere. She pulled a bag off the top of a dresser and started stuffing things into it. Her computer, some clothes, a mini-printer, toothbrush, and some odds and ends. It really didn't take up much space. She pulled out her phone, wondering what to say to her parents. Eventually she decided on a message rather than calling them. Her fingers blurred over the hologram- ike surface. 'Mom, Dad, my independent study starts a bit earlier than the others… tomorrow actually. It was just a scheduling thing. Don't worry I'll be fine, I'll tell you when I get there.' With that done, she went to bed. She had never found it easy to get to sleep. After almost an hour of fitful turning, she drifted into nothingness.
The bright buzzing of her phone jolted her awake and she blearily got out of bed, joints slow. It was almost eight. With a racing heart she grappled with some pants and a shirt before running out the door, saying a quick goodbye to Sky on the way out. The sun blinded her as she walked out of her dorm. Salus was a very stable planet as far as temperature went. It varied wildly over the entire surface, but in one spot it almost always stayed the same. It orbited the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, one of three stars in the Alpha Centauri system. They were the closest to Earth's sun. Because Proxima Centauri is so small, Salus had become tidally locked. It orbited the star but didn't spin, the side that faced the star always faced the star.
Due to this, one side of the planet was in a perpetual ice age, and the other had a never-ending hurricane in ungodly heat. People referred to the sun side as 'Florida.' But between these two extremes, there was a belt of habitable land that had long since been colonized- first with research bases, then slowly growing over with civilian populations. It was warm in the habitable zone, and rained almost every other day. Rivers snaked through the colonies, and swampland was abundant. There was no day or night, just a comfortable 67 degree dusk that only got warmer when the fairly active Proxima Centauri flared. Which was often enough. During flares, Nadia had no doubt that Florida got completely hammered, but the colonies only felt a slight increase in heat.
It was a short walk to the professors' office building, a rather disappointing structure, short and plain. Nadia entered, looking around timidly. Brenley's office was at the end of the hall, the name card a mess compared to the others. 'E. Brenley' was scrawled on it in a permanent pen. Nadia realised she didn't even know his first name. Elliot? Ethan? He was one of those professors that most just referred to by their last name, not Professor Brenley or Dr. Brenley. Not even Mr. Brenley. It was just Brenley. She had become used to thinking of it as a mononym. She set her bag down with a thump and knocked. A rustle emanated from inside, followed by a crash and swearing. The door was wrenched open, Brenley stood in the doorway, blinking blearily. His hair framed his head in a six inch dark halo of curls. Wrinkles stretched across his shirt and pants. He looked down.
"Hey. I'll be ready in a second."
Nadia peered past him. "Did you… sleep in there?"
Brenley looked back. "Well, yes. But not always, I'm not a total loser. I just had some work here, so I stayed the night."
Something told Nadia he was lying. The amount of clothes and junk lying around told a different story. Brenley walked back inside and grabbed a bag, along with a pile of papers. He glanced at Nadia.
"You got your passport?"
Nadia nodded, watching in interest as Brenley pulled back his hair and tied it with a quick efficiency using a spiral hair tie. She shifted her weight.
"What does E stand for?"
Brenley walked past her, papers under his arm. "What?"
"E Brenley. What does the E stand for?"
"Oh. Elias. Don't you dare start calling me Ellie though."
As they walked to the car park, Nadia trailed the haphazard professor. "So how are we getting there?"
"Commercial flight to the nearest planet, Eos. The university is cheap as hell, so it's economy class. Then it's a private flight sanctioned by the program, Eve."
Nadia tilted her head as Brenley unlocked his beat up car and loaded his bags in. "How did they get enough money to buy a planet? Let alone a Beyersdorf big enough, and private ships and everything."
"I have no idea. I think they got some pretty rich guys hitched on their little bandwagon. I'm guessing the Stafford foundation had something to do with it. Matt Stafford has funded big research projects before. Also, they probably have a killer writer for grant requests"
"Matt Stafford? Doesn't he do, like, philanthropy stuff?"
"Mostly. But he's rich enough that he also does quite a bit of science stuff as well." He closed the trunk and glanced at her, "Here. Catch." He tossed his car keys and she snatched them out of the air.
"You want me to drive your car?"
"You can drive, right?"
"Uh yeah, but…"
"I have a bunch of papers I procrastinated on filling out. I'll even start on the ones you have to do. Also we're less likely to get pulled over if this slightly sketchy car is driven by a white woman. Not a black man."
She shrugged. "An unfortunately true fact."
"Yep." He stepped into the passenger seat and Nadia pressed the power button. It started with an electric hum.
"When are self driving cars going to be the main mode of transportation? They came out awhile ago, but most people still use normal cars."
Brenley shrugged, "When they aren't so expensive. Then a little after that. Some people don't trust them, for some reason. I'd've gotten one if they didn't cost a fortune." He shuffled through his papers. "You need to fill out all of this shit. I'll write stuff in for you. It's just saying you won't sue if you… die or something. Also just general info and boring insurance stuff."
She chuckled, "Fairly sure I won't be sueing anyone if I die."
"Well if anyone could do that, it'd be an American. I think they knew that when they wrote up the war and peace of insurance forms." As they pulled away from the charging station he clicked a pen. "What's your middle name?"
"Elisabeth. With an S, not a Z."
"Mm. You're 23, right?"
"What's your birthday?"
"5th of february."
He nodded slowly and scribbled it down. "One of my oldest friends, his birthday is the 6th." He continued asking her questions, simultaneously filling out his own forms. She had no idea how he kept it all straight in his head. Somehow he managed to finish the massive stack by the time they got to the spaceport. He hastily stuffed them into his bag, and they walked into the building.
It took hours to get through the spaceport. Security lines dragged, moving as fast as sleeping snails. While they waited, Nadia watched the ships launching, the supports disconnecting with cracks as the ships struggled against gravity. Orange tongues of the after-burners flared, roaring like thunder. Across the way a ship was coming in to land. The landing engines slowing its descent. Struts extended and softened the impact.
Nadia flipped through her passport after the security lady gave it back. She looked at Brenley, "Why do we need passports? Isn't Nephelai technically 'international waters'?"
He nodded. "Yeah, but Eos is a british planet. Not much on it, but it's still owned by Britain."
"Do you know when passports will be completely gone?"
"Not really. I'm guessing for America and some other big countries they'll be gone in the next 5 years or so. Past that maybe twenty? It takes a while to get everybody on the same page with retina scans and stuff."
Nadia watched their ship being guided into it's launch spot. "They really should rename 'Air England'. I mean, space travel doesn't have much to do with air, does it."
Brenley snorted, "'Vacuum England' isn't quite as snappy."
She smiled. "I suppose not."
After a while of waiting, slouched in uncomfortable plastic chairs, they finally boarded the ship. The seats were packed close to each other, cramping legs and backs. The trip took around 10 hours. Getting to different planets didn't take much time if you were going 70% the speed of light, and getting to different galaxies didn't take much time if you could create wormholes. It took half the time to get to the wormhole that had been created ages ago just outside the Proxima Centauri system. Brenley, who sat in the window seat, peered at it in the distance.,
"Just coming up on Warp Drive."
"Yup." He leaned back, "Take a look."
She stretched over, looking through the window. Warp Drive was the name given to the second wormhole ever created by humans. The first being Old Faithful, which lay a comfortable distance from the solar system. Warp Drive had been a voted upon name by US citizens as the US had built it and let other countries use it. Apparently the citizens who voted were a bit sassy and loved Star Trek.
Old Faithful had been more of a test. It led to a very empty spot in space, which had soon become the convergence point of other wormholes. If they wanted to get to Earth or Mars, they'd go through Warp Drive, then travel for around 20 minutes through the affectionately called 'galactic intersection' to Old Faithful, and then go through it. Old Faithful and Warp Drive were the most commonly used. Since the three main colonized planets were Earth, Mars, and Salus, other planets and systems mainly harbored research teams, colonizers, and some small civilian populations. However, there weren't any other earth-like planets in the centauri or solar system. So more wormholes were created. There were around 10 now, all leading to vastly different parts of the universe.
They would be going through Galilei. Even though the first two wormholes had originally been made by the US, that was before ISCA. ISCA, which was pronounced iss-cah, stood for the International Space Colonization Agency. ISCA was basically a space UN, but only for space related matters. They had their own scientists from all different countries, and every nation chipped in to help pay for colonization teams and ships and the like. It divvied up land on planets after they had been colonized, and for the most part there weren't any complaints from nations about the decisions, as Mars and Salus were two whole planets. There was plenty of space for everyone. Since then, ISCA had recently started giving countries entire planets and let them colonize them themselves. Which led to Eos being an entirely British planet.
And ISCA had taken over the wormholes. The US had agreed to hand them over, as they were incredibly expensive to keep stable. Now, they only had to pay for a fraction of them, in return for the fact that every nation got to use them. ISCA was also in charge of creating the new wormholes, such as Galilei. The names were still voted on, this time by anyone, which lead to names ranging from the very scientific Galilei to the very unscientific Wormy.
Nadia was just able to spot Warp Drive in the distance. It was a bizarre and incredible sight. The light from the stars curved around it in einstein rings, bands of light that became thinner and more concentrated the closer they got to the wormhole. In the middle the stars on the other side could be seen, stars thousands of lightyears away. As they moved slowly closer the rings of light shifted, like a fisheye lens or a magnifying glass. Light slid in and out of the sphere that seemed to suck it in. Warp Drive was big. It could probably fit almost 200 ships through it at the same time if they flew close. It was nowhere near as big as a planet, but for a purely man-made thing, it was big. Brenley grinned as they approached it, the fisheye getting wider and the view on the other side expanding,
"I love going through these things."
A voice pinged over the PA, "We might experience some turbulence as we navigate warp drive. The captain has illuminated the seatbelt sign. Please return to your seats before we enter the wormhole." The closer they got the bigger the fisheye looked. As they gradually entered the wormhole the ship shook, rattling a kind of freaky amount. Outside the window, the einstein rings flipped over themselves and inverted. It reminded Nadia of one of those mind tricks where there's a silhouette of a person spinning and you can switch which direction it's going which messes your mind up a bit. Slowly the starscape they had come from became the fisheyed one while the originally fisheyed stars became their surroundings. Nadia made a face at Brenley. "Euuugh, these are so weird to go through."
"Cool though, right?"
"Well, yeah. But still weird." As they drifted away from Warp Drive, Brenley leaned his head back against the seat and closed his eyes. He was asleep in a manner of minutes. Nadia could never sleep on ships, so she contented herself to watch the terrible action movies that were offered as entertainment. He finally woke up when they came in to land. Landing was always a jarring experience, and generally not fun.
As they landed and taxied in, woman's voice came over the PA. "Eos is under the process of being terraformed right now. The temperature is fairly cool. Around 30 degrees Fahrenheit or -2 Celsius. However, the atmosphere is not sustainable for human breathing, so we have provided masks for your use. As you board your next ship, please hand these to the attendants and they will get back to us. Thank you for flying air England, and have a wonderful day."
Nadia and Brenley accepted the masks from the attendant walking down the aisle. They had elastic bands that snapped over their heads and flexible tubes that hung down and connected to a C shaped gas tank hanging over their necks like those travel pillows. They worked in a way that the mask was still partly open to the atmosphere, allowing people to still talk to each other. Nadia guessed that they sensed a drop in pressure when the user breathed in and opened the tank valve, filling the space around the mouth with air. She took an experimental breath and heard a hiss of gas as cold air surrounded her mouth. Brenley inspected his mask, fiddling with the mouthpiece. Nadia looked at him,
"I think they're opening the doors, you might want to put that on."
He pulled it over his head and placed the tank on his neck. "These things are weird."
"Didn't they use them on Mars for a while?"
"Yup. Way before I was born though."
He followed her out the ship and she looked around at the planet. It was a desert. Most planets were before terraforming. She looked up at him, "You think they used ammonia for this?"
"Maybe, I have no idea. They might be doing what they did on Salus, with the dark colored extremophiles. Ammonia worked well on Mars because it raised the temperature, y'know, as greenhouse gasses do. But it also provided nitrogen to the air, since before terraforming the atmosphere on Mars was really thin. 1% of Earth's at sea level." They walked towards the tiny spaceport to gather their bags. Cold air bit at her skin and leeched through the seams in her clothes.
"Huh. I didn't know that."
"I thought they taught that in like, basic earth science. High school level."
"I skipped earth science. Never liked it, and they offered biology a year early for kids who wanted."
He shrugged, "The terraforming stuff is interesting. I mean, they covered quite a bit of Salus with dark colored lichen to heat it up. That's pretty cool. Of course back then it was Proxima Centauri B."
They stood by the baggage carousel, they had both taken their masks off and let them hang like necklaces from the tanks.
She stared ahead, her eyes resting on the baggage entrance. "I've never actually been to Earth."
"Nope. I was born on Mars."
"Lincoln I'm guessing."
"Yeah. Then moved to Salus for school. I've never even visited."
"You should try to go sometime. I mean, I was born on Mars too, so I don't know Earth as well as a native, but it's really cool. Civilization hasn't been on Mars for like, any time at all. And Salus even less. So you don't get to see past culture at all. And I'm not just talking about Great Wall of China shit. Just seeing ugly buildings built in the 1970's is interesting."
"I've always wanted to go. Maybe when I'm done with school." She paused, "Wait, where were you born? Like I know it's on Mars, but which colony?"
She grinned, "You're French?"
"I mean I knew you had an accent, but I couldn't quite place it. Which is weird, because you think of French accents as being very distinctive."
"It's a French colony on Mars, since it's so separated from Earth the accents can sound pretty different to your typical Parisian accent. I mean you can tell when someone's an American from Earth and when they're from Lincoln, right?"
"Same goes for us French."
The bags started going around the conveyor belt and Nadia spotted hers, picking it up. "So you speak French?"
"Is it your first language?"
"Technically, yes. But I started learning English when I was pretty young. So it was only first by about, three years. Usually people who learn English as a second language later in life have very strong accents for pretty much their entire life. Since I grew up speaking both, mine isn't as strong. Even though I sounded like an absolute baguette when I first came to Lincoln."
She chuckled. "A baguette. You moved to Lincoln for college, right?"
"Yeah. Went to Brindley, undergrad, masters, and doctorate."
"Wow. Brindley is pretty… prestigious isn't it?"
He imitated a posh accent "'The MIT of mars'. I dunno, it was pretty good."
"Did you just do the math thing for them and they let you in or what?"
He smirked, "Eh, close enough." He grabbed his own bags off the conveyer belt. "I think the guy we're supposed to meet is waiting for us on the apron." He snapped his oxygen mask back on and she followed him out to the apron. He shivered as he looked around. "This planet is awfully cold for being named after a goddess of the dawn."
"Yeah, really. They're going to run out of greek and roman gods soon enough."
"I mean, they're already onto demigods." He spotted a man standing by the fence. "I think that's our man."
He was wearing a blazer and a pair of black pants. He looked up as they approached, eyes as dark as a shadow. Brenley walked up to him, looming over the shorter man. The man introduced himself.
"Professor Brenley, I suppose? Thank you for coming, My name's Aeson Sokolowski, I'm going to bring you to Nephelai." They shook hands, Aeson's milky skin contrasting with Brenley's dark complexion. "And this is your student?"
Brenley nodded absently, his eyes caught in the surrounding dunes of Eos, red as the setting sun. Nadia shook Aeson's hand. His grip was limp and pathetic. She could see him watching Brenley out of the corner of his eye, sizing him up. After a brief pause, he pointed at a sleek ship. The sun reflected off of its chrome hull. "That there is the ship we'll be taking to Nephelai. It's around a 4 hour flight, our time slot is in a half hour so we should board." Nadia followed the two men onto the apron. It was still weird going somewhere with Brenley with no other students. The professors somehow didn't seem as human as the other students. She rarely considered where they lived, what they did in their free time. She watched a shoelace trail from Brenley's left foot. The man really was a mess. The only part of him that was vaguely organized was his hair. He seemed to take care of it, even when it was out of it's bun it never looked ratty or dirty. A woman in a high-vis vest opened the hatch for the ship. It was rather roomy inside, there was a round table which was surrounded by a curved couch. Brenley set his bags down before slouching on the couch. Aeson fidgeted with his hands.
"So, just make yourselves at home, I'm actually the captain of ol' MARTY here so I won't be able to talk to you much. We have some movies and stuff if you'd like."
Nadia thanked him then sat opposite Brenley on the couch, Aeson retreated to the flight deck and donned some headphones. His voice was muffled by the door,
"Copy… Mike Alpha Romeo Tango Yankee ready for takeoff. Takeoff checks complete."
Nadia pulled out her book and started to read, Brenley started to wander around the cabin, opening cupboards and looking in shelves. Twenty minutes later, Aeson's voice crackled over the intercom.
"We're taking off soon, you might want to sit down. MARTY's not very big so takeoff can be a bit bumpy."
A small car came along and pushed them onto the takeoff platform. The ship started to rumble and shake as the engines kicked in. Nadia and Brenley were pushed into their seats as the small craft took off. The dunes of Eos receded beneath them as a cloud of dust billowed under the afterburners. As the spaceport grew smaller, Aeson turned the intercom on again,
"It's gonna be bumpy again as we leave the atmosphere."
He wasn't wrong. The tiny craft rattled and shook before settling down outside the atmosphere. Aeson flicked on the electromagnetic engine then walked back into the cabin.
"The engine takes a bit to warm up, but it's on autopilot now, so we should be good until we come in to land."
Nadia glanced at him, "Do you know how the EM drive works?"
"Sorry but, not really."
Brenley's eyes were far off as he stared out the window. "They use electromagnetic waves, light waves, and emit them in a chamber. So basically using light as a propulsion. But light doesn't have any mass. They only reason light is able to go at the speed of light is it's lack of mass. However it does have momentum. They're still kinda trying to figure out how Newton's laws factor in with the existence of them."
Aeson watched him curiously, "Well there you go. Thank you professor."
Brenley didn't respond. He seemed to be caught up in his thoughts. It was rare he wouldn't end up on a multi-hour rant when talking about physics. Aeson glanced between them awkwardly. "Do you have any questions about Eve before we arrive?"
Brenley motioned around the cabin. "This ship may be small, but don't think its price is lost on me. Where do you get money for this? Grants won't pay for fancy little biz-ships."
"Well we have some pretty rich folks-"
Brenley cut him off. "Who?"
"I'm not exactly allowed to say. I'd have to ask for permission."
Nadia smiled slightly at Brenley, who was now openly glaring at Aeson. An awkward silence ensued. The whole flight was awkward, really. None of them knew each other very well and Brenley wasn't exactly a conversationalist. It seemed to be around a week before they came into land. Aeson turned the EM engine off, opting for the smaller rocket fuel engines as they approached Nephelai.
From what Nadia could see, the planet was completely white, swirls of clouds patterned the surface. Their ascent slowed as Aeson turned the landing engines on, orange tongues of flame roared out. They touched down on the peak of a mountain in the middle of a flat concrete pad. Snow swirled around the tiny craft. Aeson led them out into the freezing air. They hurried into a structure next to the landing pad. The entire area was drenched in thick cloud, making it hard to see anything past 30 feet. A small heater hummed inside the structure, where a woman sat at a wide desk. Her grey eyes studied the lanky professor and his wide-eyed student. A placard with gold letters spelled 'Heidi Ormonde'. She looked to be in her forties, with curling brown hair down to her jaw and light skin. Aeson nodded at her,
"Heidi will take you from here. I have to get back to my ship. Enjoy your stay." As he walked out the door Nadia thanked him but he didn't seem to hear. Heidi gestured to a small man behind her.
"If you haven't noticed yet, Nephelai is very cold. If you don't mind, Jame here is going to take your measurements for outer-clothes."
The small man stepped forward with a measuring tape. He motioned for Brenley to raise his arms before wrapping the tape around his chest. The woman continued,
"This planet is pretty special. I'll give you a brief overview. We placed some organic molecules on the surface and reconfigured the atmosphere to be similar enough to earths for humans. The Beyersdorf we use is actually a lot of ships that position themselves around the planet. The planet itself has a pretty special environment. There is a lot of water, but most of it is not in its liquid form, so we get our drinking water from the clouds. The planet has a very warm surface, too warm for most life, which is why the water evaporates. There are some bottom-dwellers that get energy from thermal vents. However, as you saw, there are a lot of mountains that are taller than the clouds. Most animals live around this height. Some live on the peaks, most live in the clouds, flyers. They either photosynthesize and use the hydrogen from collected cloud water to float, or they're predators. This planet doesn't really have plants, just photosynthesizing animals which can range from 1 millimeter long to 200 feet. They're the primary producers. Planes aren't used here due to the huge amount of hydroprotists in the air, even a prop engine would rip them to shreds. We do have to travel a bit to get to our main lab, so we'll be taking one of the local transportation methods, which you will soon see."
The tailor finished up measuring Nadia and cleared his throat.
"What color would you like for the jacket?"
Brenley tilted his head, "Purple" He leaned over to Nadia, "I look good in purple."
"I'll go with grey." Nadia said to the tailor before thanking him as he exited the room. Heidi flicked through her tablet before handing it to them, it had a picture of what looked like a fat cell. Most of the organelles were squished against the cell wall by what seemed to be a hole in the center. She watched their faces studying the picture,
"Thats a cell from one of our photosynthesizers."
Brenley frowned at the large empty circle. "Is that a lipid droplet?"
She shook her head. "That is actually a special organelle only on this planet. The evolved cells are very similar to Earth's, a textbook case of convergent evolution, except for that organelle which is in both the autotrophs and heterotrophs. We've named it 'Hydrosinum', so it is essentially a pocket of hydrogen. It enables the animals to be incredibly light. We can talk about the functions of these cells more once we've arrived at the lab."
The tailor, Jame, walked back out from the door behind Heidi's desk. In his arms, he held the newly made clothes. Nadia decided there must be a machine given how little time it took to make all of it. He handed them over. They were lined with a thick soft fur. The designs were simple yet elegant, both jacket and pants were close fitting. The jacket extended down to mid thigh with high collars and slits up the back, like riding a riding coat. Jame also handed over wide goggles, scarves, gloves, and boots. The goggles looked sleek and shiny in the LED light. They weren't traditional goggles with glass; instead, there were flat camera lenses where the eyes would be. Putting them on, Nadia could see a screen which relayed the feed from the cameras. When she blinked, tiny wipers came down and cleaned the glass. They had microphones and over-ear headphones. Heidi stood and retrieved her set. She showed them how to properly lace the shin-high boots, and wrap the long scarves around their heads so that not an inch of skin was left uncovered. The goggles were a bit disorienting. They had a wider field of view than normal vision. Heidi showed them how to adjust it, given that a fisheye would mess up depth perception. The headphones didn't restrict hearing normal noise at all. A button on the side of them allowed them to connect to other people in order to talk when they were separated. Heidi demonstrated how to 'call' people by just speaking into the mic.
Brenley fiddled with his goggles, inspecting the high tech contraption. He rubbed his fingers over the scarf, feeling the heat trapping fabric. "How much do these… still suits, cost?"
Heidi smiled, "Nothing compared to what a working still suit would cost but they aren't cheap. About six grand. Those goggles are a bit costly."
Brenley raised his eyebrows in appreciation and Nadia stared. "Lord, this thing costs more than I'm worth."
Heidi opened the door and a blast of cold air slammed into them. Nadia was suddenly very thankful for the clothes- she could barely feel the freezing air. Heidi gestured Brenley towards the door and spoke over the com system.
"After you, Muad'dib."
Brenley chuckled and stepped out into the blizzard. She then led them away, assuring them their bags would be safely delivered to where they were staying. They pushed through the wind and snow up a long hill. As they cleared the cloud cover, the winds slowed and the snow stopped.
Nadia inhaled sharply, at the top of the mountain the clouds spread out below them, expanding off into the horizon in all directions. The sun glinted off mountain peaks. In the distance, something breached the clouds, massive wings pushing the air, forming white vortexes. It stayed for a flap of its double wings before diving back down, limbs pulled in for speed. Nadia glanced at Brenley, he had taken his goggles off, his eyes were wide, crinkles at the corners betraying a smile that was hidden by his scarf. Heidi watched their expressions. Her goggles were on her forehead and she had pulled her scarf down below her chin.
"Wait until you see our transport." She pressed the side of her goggles. "Alright, bring him around, Renata."
There was a low keen that reverberated through Nadia's chest as the clouds next to them broke. A massive olive green shape emerged with a figure sitting on top of it. As it continued to rise, Nadia could see it was some sort of animal, almost seventy feet end to end. It was round and wide, about half as wide as it was long. Rippling fins went down its entire length, they were thin and venous, akin to bat wings. Its massive flanks were ribbed and taught, like a cloth stretched over corrugated steel. The beast turned, facing them with its huge head. An eye the size of a viking shield blinked. Nadia wondered how the woman was controlling it.
Heidi laughed at Brenley and Nadia's shocked expressions. She walked up to the beast and stroked its face, which was wet from the cloud condensation.
"This here is Perry. One of our sky whales. They're closer to plants than whales, but the resemblance is there. He's one of the smaller breeds actually, some can get up to 200 feet."
The figure on top maneuvered Perry around so that his side was facing them. A rope ladder descended down his side. Heidi deftly maneuvered the fins and crawled up it. Nadia followed, with Brenley coming last. The sky-whale's skin was slippery and wet, leaflike in texture. A saddle made from some sort of synthetic fabric was strapped onto its back. Next to the saddle, holes the size of silver dollars riddled the skin, crimped close with two flaps, like eyelids. As they sat down in the low seats, Perry keened again and began to descend, the holes opening up and hissing as gas was released. Heidi turned to them,
"Sky whales are pretty much natural zeppelins, they are mostly hydrogen. Those holes are stroma in order to descend. They gain hydrogen by ingesting the water from clouds and separating the hydrogen from the oxygen. You'll see him do it in a bit. They also use the heat generated from the electron transport chain to keep from freezing."
As Perry dipped into the surface of the clouds he opened his mouth. The skin expanded like an accordion, openings appeared between the flaps of skin, reminiscent of gills., Nadia could see the sky through the gaps. The sky whale gulped in the condensation, filtering it from the air. They skimmed the surface of the clouds, the whale rippled its massive fins to move along smoothly. It could move pretty fast once it got going. Heidi motioned to their goggles, speaking through the com system.
"There's a switch on top of your goggles to turn on SWIR, it stands for Short Wave Infra Red. That will enable you to see through the clouds, The animals naturally use it."
Nadia fumbled with her goggles, her fingers located a small switch on the top right. She flicked it. Everything went black and white, but the clouds were gone. They sped through the air, Perry opening his mouth every once in awhile to take on water and adjust his altitude. Nadia looked over at Brenley who grinned back, his scarf pulled down below his chin. She gave him a laughing thumbs up.
In the distance animals swooped and dove, fur glittering with precipitation. Another sky whale was floating about a mile away, it's shimmery flanks expanded with the gas. The spires of a city slowly came into view, coming off the top of a mountain. Flying animals surrounded it, their flapping wings blinking and flashing in the sun. Heidi looked back at them,
"People generally take whales only when there's four or more people. Or when it's long distances. Otherwise they use Banshees or Harpies. Don't ask why they're named after mythical creatures. I'll explain more once we get to where you're staying." The whale keened and moaned as he opened his mouth, the gills expanding and billowing, like a ship's sails. They ascended and approached the city, making a beeline for a break in the skyscrapers. The buildings were built of what looked like concrete and steel. They were above the cloud cover, sun beating down on their backs. Nadia switched off the SWIR on her goggles.
Next to them a figure swooped in on some sort of flying animal. It had two pairs of wings, the membrane split up along the fingers. Each finger was like a wing unto itself. White fur covered its entire body. It's head was streamlined and fierce, eyes pointing forward, a carnivore. As it turned its long neck and banked up and away, Nadia could see a pair of legs tucked in underneath its lean body. This planet seemed to harbor hexapeds, six limbs instead of Earth's four. Behind a skyscraper a block away, a different animal looked to have one pair of wings and four legs. The whale turned, descending into an opening in one of the skyscrapers. The stroma hissed and opened, letting incremental amounts of hydrogen out. The opening was rather like a garage. Another sky whale was getting saddled inside, its handler cinching up the massive girth. Perry's fins slowed then reversed, rippling in the opposite direction as he maneuvered himself into the landing place.
Heidi disengaged herself from the saddle and jumped to the floor, her coat and scarf flapping in the wind. Nadia crawled off, slipping down its wet flank onto the concrete floor, Brenley following close behind. Heidi led them into a side room overlooking the city. She hitched her goggles to her forehead and pulled the scarf down below her chin. The skin between her goggles and the scarf was red from the cold. She pulled her gloves off, tugging each finger individually.
"The whales are hard to maneuver in the city. We're going to have to take harpies and banshees from here on out. You get to choose which ones you want, and use them for the rest of your stay."
Excitement filled Nadia. While the sky whale was cool, the flying predators looked badass. Heidi picked up a small remote from a table and clicked on a projector. Two images showed up on the wall, a diagram from the top and one from the side of the four legged flyer. Its lean body was long and muscled. Greyhound like. Its head thin and pointed. Chest, large, a bellows. Its wings had four finger phlanges while Nadia had noticed the two legged one had three along with a thumb on top. Heidi motioned to it.
"This is a harpy, they do not all look like this. Akin to dogs on earth, there are many breeds. Some smaller or larger, built for speed or distance or maneuverability. Some have short necks or legs or long necks, bigger wings, you get the idea. The wild species is quite vicious. And there are also many types of wild species, pPack hunters. They prey on anything from other flyers to sky whales." She clicked again and the slide changed to a banshee. It was much larger than the harpy, it's two pairs of wings stretched down to form rudimentary walking tools at the joint. Its back legs were stocky and muscular, presumably to take off. Its neck was longer than the harpies yet broader.
"Banshees are a bit of a jack of all trades. They're fast, but muscular enough to take things down on their own. They'd be like… the big cats on earth, less varieties than the harpies but still quite a few. They are better for larger loads and longer distances than the harpies due to the second pair of wings. The last species would be the sirens. The bears in this analogy. Huge and, again, lone hunters. Not common to find a domesticated one, that's why we're only offering harpies and banshees. I'll show you to them now."
Brenley walked up to Nadia, bending over slightly. "So, what are you thinking? Harpy or Banshee?"
Nadia smirked. "Totally Banshee. I've always wanted to ride some big ass predator."
He nodded. "Same. I think I'll go harpy though. Closest I'm ever gonna get to riding a dragon."
They followed Heidi down a few flights of stairs to a long room full of stables. Harpies and Banshees shifted in their small quarters, their snake-like necks sliding, surveying the three visitors. One of the harpies stretched out, and screeched, harsh and jolting. Nadia peered into one of the stables, a harpy looked back at her. It was a caramel brown with black fur on its back and the tops of its wings. Golden eyes watched her. Looking away, it yawned, exposing double rows of razor teeth. They walked the rows, examining the lithe animals. It took Nadia a while to choose a banshee. It was a dark grey, almost black with lighter grey markings along its stomach and tracing the fine bones of its wings. Heidi walked up to her.
"You want this one? Our company will cover the cost of buying it. They're essentially cars here."
Nadia nodded, "Does he- or she- have a name?"
"It's a he, and no, he does not have a name. Feel free to come up with one yourself."
Brenley walked over, "Hey, I think I found one." He pointed, "Red guy."
Heidi glanced over. "Actually that would be red girl. She has a… strong personality. You still want her?"
Brenley nodded, grinning. "Yeah. Perfect."
Heidi grabbed two halters and handed one to Nadia. "I'll show you how to put this on."
She opened the stall and they walked in, the banshee turned its long neck and shuffled backward. Blinking with massive brown eyes. The tip of its tail twitched and it stood up. Now that they were in the stall it seemed so much bigger. It opened its mouth and made a soft creaking noise then stretched its head out to them. Nadia noticed that it didn't really have any ears to speak of, just two holes that were covered by fluffy fur. She reached out and stroked its head. It was surprisingly soft. Her hand followed its spine, feeling the muscles slide and bunch as it shifted in place. Heidi slipped the halter over its head and tied it deftly, showing Nadia how to do it. They led the massive animal out, its six limbs moving in an unfamiliar walking gait. It walked in a fluid manner, every muscle worked together to project power. Heidi handed the lead off to Nadia and went to help Brenley with his harpy. Nadia looked at its wings. The fingers were folded on top of each other, fan like, the fur rustled as it repositioned its front wings.
It took a couple minutes for Brenley to get the halter on his harpy. She did have a strong personality after all. She was slender with a deep chest, making her look made for speed. Dusky red fur faded to black on her legs and wings.
The saddles that Heidi brought out were unlike anything Nadia had ever seen. They were long, elongated which forced the rider to hunch over, jockey-like. In front, there were armrests that had what looked like joysticks on the end. Heidi slung one over Nadia's banshee, she gestured to the joysticks.
"These correspond to small lumps inside the saddle that move, signaling the animal which way to go. Pull them back to go up push to do down, left and right to bank, squeeze the top to go faster and bottom to go slower. It's all electrical but the wires are insulated so they won't be affected by the fog. These inlet's here…" She pointed to holes that looked like they ran through the length of the saddle, "They have mini turbines in there. Just flying will keep the charge up. You can control the harpies and banshees to a certain extent but they are animals, they won't do something they physically can't, or in the red one's case, don't want to."
Brenley smiled. "I've decided to name her Ceylon. It's a type of tomato." He looked at Nadia's much bigger banshee. "What's his name?"
His brows furrowed, "Like that old Russian satellite?"
Heidi put the saddles and helped cinch them up. She led them to an opening into the sky at the end of the stable. "It's best to just throw you guys in the deep end. It's not like driving a car, as the animals will do everything they can not to crash. After a while you will be able to fly closer to things as they start to trust you to not kill them. So… clamber on."
Nadia looked back and forth between her and Brenley. "Wait. you're not going to help us at all? Just hope we don't die?"
"You won't die. Might be scared though."
Brenley shrugged and put his scarf back up and goggles down. He traced Ceylon's neck and hopped onto her back, leaning over and hooking his knees under the shelf looking structure. His long fingers wrapped around the joystick. Nadia saw muscles in his gloved hands squeeze the sticks. Ceylon lurched forward, then her powerful legs pushed off, the muscles shifting and bunching like snakes. Her wings unfurled grabbing the air, they tucked and she dove, wings folded in as she descended at a 90 degree angle. Brenley yelled,
"HOLY SHIT." A string of curse words trailed from his mouth as Ceylon fell at breakneck speeds. Heidi shouted down.
Apparently he heeded her advice as the wings billowed and Ceylon started to rise. She flapped and continued to rise. Nadia watched as her movements went from jerky to smooth as Brenley got more used to controlling her. He let out a whoop and banked sharply, flying parallel to the wall of the building. Heidi looked to Nadia.
"Want to try?"
Nadia's heart thumped in her ears. Her hands felt clammy. "Uhhh... sure." She clambered on top of Sputnik. Her legs fit comfortably into the L shapes. The joysticks felt well formed, and her hands wrapped comfortably around them. Every muscle could be felt in Sputnik's back as he shifted, anxious to go. Nadia hesitantly squeezed the joystick and was thrown back, the formed saddle pushed at the back of her thighs as Sputnik lept forward into the open air. His double wings flared and his head thrust forward. Nadia pulled sharply at the joystick, and Sputnik started to level out. The wind ruffled her scarf, and she watched his fur ripple. Buildings flashed past in her peripheral. She let out a yell of excitement and pulled back as hard as she could, squeezing the top trigger. Sputniks double wings rotated back and he pulled up. The horizon disappeared then reappeared at the top of her vision. Gravity pulled at her hooked in legs and arms as he came out of the loop. Adrenaline filled her whole body as she pushed the joystick sharply to the left. He folded his wings and rolled, the phalanges tucked in on top of each other. She noticed the saddle had two mirrors either side of the neck. In them she could see Heidi crawl onto what looked like a brindled banshee. Her voice came in through the headphones,
"See? You didn't die. You doing alright with Ceylon over there, Professor?"
Brenley's voice sounded slightly out of breath. "Yup. So far no problems."
"Good. Sorry if this is a massive information dump, but it's like trying to teach someone how modern society works. So just follow me, there aren't really any road rules other than 'don't be annoying'. The thing about the sky is that it's 3D, so it's quite a bit easier to have a more free flowing transportation environment. You'll get used to it eventually but for now people will generally avoid you."
She passed them up on her banshee, it's wings buffeting Nadia and Brenley. "Also don't forget these things are predators- they won't attack the sky whales or any of the photosynthesizers, but the whales can get a bit spooked if you fly too close."
Brenley chuckled, "Right. Don't buzz the whales."
"Exactly. Don't buzz the whales."
Nadia glanced at the buildings zooming by, the wind tugged at her scarf, threatening to tear it off. She was glad Heidi had shown her how to fasten it properly. "How fast can these guys go?"
"It depends on the breed. There's a type of banshee that can get up to 300 miles per hour in a dive."
Brenley sounded taken aback, "Holy shit…"
"Generally though they fly at about 70-100 when going in a straight line. We speed test them. Nadia, your's comes out to be around 90 normally, and Brenley, your's is about 80, but more maneuverable. The top speed is 240 for Nadia and 220 for Brenley. Oh yeah, and Brenley, one cool thing about the Harpies is that you can make a pretty much seamless transition from flying to running. Which also means you can, for brief moments, run sideways on the walls of buildings."
"Awesome! How do I do that?"
"Do you want to try it now? It might be a bit advanced for you.."
"I still want to give it a go."
Heidi glanced back at them. "Sure. Just fly in at an angle towards a building, then at the last moment, bank and accelerate while pointing the joysticks towards the wall, which at that point will be down relative to you."
"Right." He took a deep breath and headed towards a building. Nadia and Heidi dropped back, hovering on thermals and watching him. Ceylon flew in at about a 30 degree angle relative to the wall. A split second before the wall came dangerously close, Ceylon halted in midair, her wings flaring and dragging to a stop a couple feet in front of it. Brenley made a pained 'Oooph!' noise as she decelerated in less than a second. She made a 180 degree turn and flew in the other direction.
Brenley coughed over the mic, his breath a bit lost. "Yeah that didn't work."
Heidi chuckled. "Yeah. If you try again, try turning a bit earlier. They can fly for a surprising amount of time sideways."
"Alright I'm going again." He turned her and came in at the same angle. Right as she looked like she was going to come to another jarring stop, she suddenly tilted sideways and stretched her legs out. Her wings folded around Brenley. She took three long rapid leaps along the side of the building before pushing off into the air again. She barrel-rolled off the wall, her wings unfurling and billowing. Brenley laughed.
"Hah! Did it!"
"Good job, that's faster than most people get it."
Nadia grinned from beneath her scarf. "Man, I wish Banshee's could do that."
"Banshee's can't do that but they can hang on cliffs and crawl along them. They're also quite a bit better at hovering on thermals because of their double wings." In front of them the green form of a sky whale floated gently into view from behind a building. It was massive. More than twice the size of Perry. Heidi looked up at it, it's shadow barely touching her Banshee.
"We'll just fly under this guy. Again, don't buzz the whales."
They flew under it slowly, and the temperature dropped a good ten degrees. A couple drops fell from its underside and pattered on Nadia. She glanced up at it, it's gills flared and the lengthwise fins undulated. Heidi glanced side to side.
"Alright this is kind of where everyone lives. Where the actual specimens are kept is on a mountain range about 20 minutes out of the city."
It took them a couple minutes to navigate the maze of buildings. Once in the open air, Nadia squeezed the joysticks and Sputnik sped up, adrenaline filled her body and her breath was whisked out of her mouth. Heidi shouted into the wind over the com.
"Sorry I forgot to mention! When we go this fast it is almost impossible to breathe! Click the red square button on the left side of the headphones!"
Nadia reached up, hesitant to take her hand off the joystick, and pressed the button. A small mechanism unfolded beneath her scarf, covering her nose and mouth along with the microphone. Nadia breathed freely. "How do these things work? There's no gas tank."
"The headphones actually, they have a system of getting outside air into the mask despite the high speeds."
For the rest of the flight to the lab they stayed mostly quiet. Which was a little awkward. But it let them watch the scenery pass beneath them. It really was a beautiful planet. The peaks that they flew by or over had jagged rocks peeking out from under the snow. Along with the sky whales and flying predators there were small floating animals, and tiny ones that would slap into her goggles like bugs on a windshield. Not the most pleasant experience, to be sure, but the wipers soon got rid of them, and the breathtaking views made up for it. Nadia was suddenly very grateful that Brenley chose her for this assignment.