Murky static, like layers on layers of ocean, compressed and stacked up in ways that would make sedimentary rock blush.
This was Yox’s life: sifting through datum and voices with the practised ease of an algorithm, unravelling transmission bundles with all the care of an octogenarian opening their birthday presents. Sometimes the bundles contained beautiful imagery, intoxicating emotion and amazing clarity. Other times, the feelings and words and numbers were sewn so tightly it was impossible to decipher it without immersing oneself in it, sinking below the water level of Tidepool Relay Indigo to fully experience the transmissions.
It was dangerous beyond simple drowning; if a Seamripper like Yox stayed below too long, it might not be them coming back up. There had been a spate of imprinting lately, and they’d “lost” a few good rippers – though Yox knew it was more like they’d been dipped in a thin simulacrum of someone else; left to dry and coalesce over their personality until it wasn’t clear where the separation lie.
Days here were less about the warm sun beating down or the cool, heavy night air washing through the shore. Yox’s shifts depended on the twin moons’ push and pull of TRI’s oceans, draining and filling near-perfect craters on the beaches on a five-hour cycle. Most folk in the Inner Rings were accustomed to some sort of solar regularity, like the standard Sag A* 37hr clock, or the 8-12-14 routine some younger generations had developed. But Yox’s schedule was five on, five off, five on, five off – a nearly perfect rhythm, a drumbeat that had been rumbling on this planet for who knows how long.
Yox marched to it happily, much as any person might cling to routine, but it did make their social relations beyond planetside difficult. They’d tried dating someone on Vorlene, the primary moon, a few years ago, but scheduling wasn’t the issue there. Yox had experienced so much of the ‘verse through their tidepool that connections outside the Seamrippers felt…well, single-band. Mono versus Stereo, like the old song went. It didn’t help that most offworlders weren’t modded to send and receive bursts, packets of sensory and emotional data, so being limited to words felt archaic at best.
Yox came out of their shift weary, blinking out the thick freshwater to adjust to the dim starlight – civil twilight had started without them. Climbing out of the tidepools was a monumental effort, and not just for the viscosity of the water; taking apart bundles and weaving them back together for the Outgoing shifts took more work than most physical labour jobs, Yox reckoned, even with the fancy biomods they grew here. Yox’s new implant was giving them trouble to boot, wriggling around as it tried to settle alongside their spinal column; it was supposed to help them better control the incoming bundles by hooking into their nervous system, but it kept twitching and interrupting their shifts, nearly four rotations now. They had half a mind to take it back to the flashtanks and recode it, then shunted the thought as they remembered the implanting process.
“Yox!” Came a shout from across the tidepools, their shapes stretching out towards the sea like some dodectopus’ tentacles left to soak in the washing tide. In the dim light it was hard to read who it was, but a quick burst of sensory and motor info shot out from faer and trickled down Yox’s spine, and all of their skin went taut and prickly. It felt nice, in a way they couldn’t explain beyond experience; thousands of emotional responses cluttered up their cortex as they wove a quick return burst towards the figure, fast approaching. It was Din, their neighbour – tidepool and pod.
“Heya, Din.” Yox drawled out, still wringing the syrupy fluid from their hair and chest. “Got a spare rag? Lent mine to Tinna last shift, before…” Yox trailed off, resisting the urge to glance at what was once Tinna’s tidepool. It was hard to lose someone you knew, even harder when you knew them like Seamrippers did.
Din nodded as they drew up to Yox’s side, laying a thin micro-mesh rag over their shoulders. “I know.” Faer hands worked the fabric slowly over Din’s torso, squeegeeing the pool’s liquids back into it from the smoothed edge they stood on. Yox noted that Din wasn’t looking at the tidepool either, though they weren’t sure if that was avoidant or just distracted. Yox hoped it might be the latter – they’d been working out lately, and might even be idly flexing as Din’s ministrations trailed down their back.
Who could say?
“All done!” Din’s voice rose an octave or two, and they shook the water-repellent rag out over the pool to a resultant crescendo of heavy blorps as the water rejoined itself. “You can, uh, keep the rag. I’ve got a spare at home.”
Yox grinned slyly without turning to face faer, then flashed a three-finger gesture to say Thanks, I owe you one. They groped around in the rapidly growing starlight for their clothes and started to dress methodically, hoping to fluster Din a touch more. “Still on for tonight?” Tonight was, of course, subjective; most people on TRI called on-shift ‘Day’ and off-shift ‘Night’ for convenience, much to any offworlder’s confusion.
Din’s eyes snapping away from Yox’s dressing was practically audible. “Y-yeah! Yep, yes. That’s the plan. Uh, so, Gornean plateau, blankets, picnic under the aurora.” Fae rattled off the evening’s plans in classic checklist form, sufficiently distracting faerself until Yox was fully clothed. Din glanced back and visibly relaxed, hands shoved firmly into faer jumpsuit’s pockets. “Ready?”
“Let’s go aurora-diving!” Yox cheered, and a few whoops of joy echoed back across the tidepools, bouncing weirdly off the slowly-receding water as the tide went out. “Yeah!” They gave a few more shouts and jeers and blew a kiss to someone before jogging towards Din’s ride – a Silica-Strider X0O – with Din giving chase.
The ride out to the plateau was blessedly quiet. After a shift, silence was at a premium, no matter how it was obtained; five hours of hundreds, thousands of voices in your head made even the rumble of a skimmer over sand sound soft and muted. Once they found a good spot, they set up a neon-coloured hard-blanket to catch and replicate the aurora’s colours, and fixed their picnic with juce-paks and high-density treats for stargazing. Down the plateau, the two could see a few other groups doing similarly, one even going so far as to bring reclining chairs.
“That’ll be Orin and hir crew, no doubt.” Yox chuckled huskily, sending a cheeky burst toward them and waving. The return burst was a bit saucier than Yox had expected, but they took it in stride, wrapping an arm around Din’s waist as fae finished smoothing and anchoring the blanket. “Shi’s being a naughty bugger, but don’t worry, I’m all yours tonight.”
Din’s cheeks fluoresced a soft blue tinge – some Inner Ring affectation, fae’d told them – and fae waved back to the group, faer other hand laid over Yox’s. “Thank goodness. I can barely handle how hot you are; I might combust if shi came along too.” Yox’s grin set the fluorescing into overdrive, and was just enough to light the hard-blanket up a little, sending the two of them into a fit of giggles.
“If I’d known I could see an Aurora without stepping outdoors,” Yox teased, laying down on the firm fabric surface with faer as the sky began to light up, sending the blanket into a refraction mode to mimic the light, “I’d have kept you indoors all night.”
Din said nothing but faer blush intensified, giving the blanket a soft blue highlight near faer cheeks. The evening passed slowly and thoughtfully, with barely any noise but the electromagnetic thrum of the aurora above, weaving and bobbing through the atmosphere like something alive, searching, wandering.
The two of them managed to catch some shut-eye after the festivities, but the descent back to the tidepools was like dropping down into a sea of noise, a cacophony of emotions and sounds and sensations. If it weren’t for the extensive bio-modification they’d gone through, only two hours of sleep might have killed them, let alone trying to function on it. Nonetheless, they arrived full of energy, the aurora dissipating overhead as the tide rolled back in on sludgy waves. Clear, sweet-smelling water filled the tidepools again, and Yox was already floating in it before it had reached half-measure. “See you after shift, Din.” Yox smiled, sending faer one last burst. The way faer body moved was almost enough to rip Yox back out of the water; teaser they might be, but they weren’t immune to receiving it.
As the tide slowly gooped in, Yox could feel the world filling up their senses again, and their spinal mod started twitching again. Yox tensed their back muscles for a minute straight, breathing deeply and regularly, and when they released the tension the twitching stopped – for now. It was almost clockwork in nature; every twenty minutes, like a reset. Maybe that was some new quirk of this gene sequence. They’d have to ask one of the other rippers about it.
The day was routine, almost boring, until later in the shift, nearly four-fifths through, something weird came through. And Yox had dealt with weird: from scientific bundles full of bizarre energies all the way to sense-dumps from lonely Inner-Ringers trying to fishhook folk, and even obituary weaves.
But this was…weird. It felt – alive? – in a way that bundles never had. It felt like a living, thinking thing, as far as either of those definitions could be stretched. It floated around in their head like a sea creature, bobbing towards their brain’s boundaries as if in a tank. It reached out and poked at memories, calling up parts of their life as if it were all on file, catalogued and collated for a viewer’s perusal. It didn’t greet them or even acknowledge them, just wormed its way into all their private thoughts and feelings.
Yox wasn’t a fucking database. “HEY.” They shouted, stopping the entity in its tracks as it looked toward their mind’s eye. “No living thing should be able to survive in a bundle, so you’re either a Wyrm looking for dirt or an Excavator trying for gold. Either way, get the fuck out my head before I get mad.” It didn’t flinch or so much as move. They were already irritated that this thing had started digging through their life without so much as a hello, but its calm demeanour was maddening. Yox could hear footsteps coming toward their pool but didn’t want to look away from the creature in their head, just in case. It was almost floating in their cortex, staring blankly without eyes, metaphorical tendrils paused in their probing.
Then it spoke. And it was all Yox could do to paddle out of the soupy pool away from it, shedding data into Outgoing as fast as their neurons could shuttle it, their brain almost melting from the sheer weight of the thing’s voice. But there were no words, no way to describe how it had sounded – it spoke in feelings. A spectacular deluge of emotions and sensory input that was overheating their spinal biomod, practically cooking their back as they were hauled out of the pool by other Seamrippers. Someone injected a coolant solution into the burning organelle and it quelled the pain somewhat, but their mind was boiling still with the feedback. They weren’t even sure if the creature was still in their head, but they were just shy of pounding their head into the crystalline sand to make sure.
“Yox!” Came a shout, cutting through the racket in their head like a knife, making all the noise slowly abate. Yox’s face contorted into an ugly laugh and they rolled onto their side, hand outstretched as their vision blurred from the pain. Someone’s hand slapped into theirs, sticky with pool residue but firm and familiar.
“What’s so funny?” Came the troubled question, the speaker silhouetted against the night sky. Dawn was starting to approach from the horizon, creating harsher shadows around that gorgeous form.
Yox hacked and chortled again, the edges of their world closing in. “I never thought I’d be so happy for a noisy Din!”
Then the stars rushed into their vision, steadily fading to nothing.
Nothing but a whisper of sensation. Silk on marble.
A feeling across lightyears.