After half a month in the abyss, the dim lights of the wet-dock felt like a womb, a warm haven from the dark. Faint simulated sunlight filtered in through the hardened plastic ceiling, illuminating the room as if it were late afternoon; in reality, the surface was nearly two-hundred metres up and it was nearly sunset, but he relished the feeling despite that. The “sun” warmed his skin and soothed his frazzled mind as he clambered through the bulkhead, feeling like a criminal seeking sanctuary from the harsh underwater world. He glanced behind him to see where his partner Horrick was.
The sight of that unlit expanse made him backpedal so hard he toppled over, his movements slower in the three meters of water that filled the dock. His body and mind protested painfully at the sudden horizontal shift.
The mourph he wore was exhausted as well. Xeir fatigue was as real as his own, and the two fed off each other’s strength to get back upright. “Nearly there, Saerva.” He said quietly, feeling the mourph’s flex of agreement around him; almost like a hug. Nearly there.
It took an eternal five minutes just to get halfway into the bay, weary arms unsteady on the uneven rock floor. Through the sensory link, Daveed felt the mourph’s aching muscles, xeir slow, heavy breathing, the same longing to be at rest that he shared. He knew Saerva could sense his own fatigue and want for comfort too, and it was relieving to know they would both get a month to rest and recuperate.
After finally finding a flat rock to sit on inside the dock, the two slowly nodded off against the interior wall, giant limbs sprawled out in front like a cat. The mourph’s suit-like structure was as relaxing as being wrapped up in a warm blanket, and after many days spent inside it there was no better place to be.
Saerva – the Mourph – was grown from local plant tissue and geological samples, as well as some of Daveed’s DNA. Covered in purple-slate carapace, xei stood nearly nine-and-a-half feet tall and five feet wide at full height to accomodate xeir passenger; six meaty arms along xeir torso ended in brutally-precise digits and a pair of similarly thick legs supported xem. Xei had two sets of eyes – one pair keyed to see in wider spectra than natural light – and a complex suite of comms and sensory tech grown in, giving Daveed a level of detail about the world that was fascinating when it wasn’t making his head spin.
Saerva was specially designed for climbing through tight gaps and scaling walls, as well as spotting heat vents. Xei were a fine partner to have along for the trip, and often pointed things out to Daveed via xeir shared senses that he would have missed. They had only been paired for a year, but xei were rapidly becoming Daveed’s closest friend.
Even with the extra pair of eyes and all that time spent searching, they had found only plant-life in their section of ocean. Normally even that would have been astonishing this far from the Pith, but their team’s search for motile life – an organism moving itself of its own accord – had come up frustratingly empty. Daveed knew the other teams hadn’t found anything either, but after so many false-positives with waving plants, he was losing hope. This would be their fourth trip this year, and they still hadn’t found anything resembling fauna, major or otherwise.
His head hummed loudly with an incoming comm request, and he fought through a sleepy haze to answer it, one clawed hand pushing his amorphous form up against the wetdock wall.
“Daveed,” Horrick called out. His voice burbled over the line, rolling through Daveed’s head like the tide. “You good?”
“Yeah, Horrick. Burnt out, is all.”
Horrick’s grunt of reply spoke volumes through the murmur of the comms. Even he seemed out of sorts after their long trip to the ocean floor.
“Let’s get free of the mourphs,” Horrick said, “xei’re probably eager to get back to their flock-safety.”
Daveed heard Saerva’s rumbling agreement and he nodded, clawing up to a partially-submerged platform in the centre of the dock, finally feeling the weight of real air after so long underwater. Saerva shivered against him, xeir weary muscles in tune with his own. Having a flesh-bond with another creature was just another part of this job, but it made the disconnect harder to think about; like trying to take off your own skin.
With a grimace, Daveed keyed in a sequence through muscle flexes, releasing chemicals to start the process; his body tingled not-unpleasantly as they began their work. Saerva’s shell started to peel open like a boiled egg’s skin, hidden seams revealing sensory lines and adjoining tissues. Sticky strands clung to Daveed’s hair and face as he greedily sucked air through his own mouth again, choking on the now-unfamiliar sensation and leftover plasmatic-fluid he’d been breathing through. The emotions and senses he had taken on as his own oozed away with dream-like clarity, and after an hour he was left in his own skin, the remainder of the connective membrane sloughing off and dissolving in the water.
Saerva drifted in slow circles around him, xeir limbs reaching comfortingly for him as he floated just above the platform. Breathing took some effort, and the feeling of warmth he’d grown fond of was replaced by his body’s suddenly inadequate heating. He went through the motions of bringing his body back to function by itself again, just like he’d been trained. His stomach’s incessant growling drowned out most other thoughts, since it was no longer being drip-fed from Saerva’s nutrient sacs.
It could get addicting, suit-time; habit-forming. A being created to exist in near-perfect harmony with the user it was grown for, able to keep them fed and in health even in emergencies. Every time they paired, it felt easier to sink into that shared existence, a bizarre yet familiar feeling; six months, four dives, and it was getting harder to go back to himself, to this singular body.
His dreams were decidedly more bizarre. He didn’t add those to the psych reports.
I’ll talk about it in the checkup, he thought idly, listening to the distorted world through the water: the soft humming of Saerva nearby, the water sloshing against the walls and platform, his own unfamiliar heartbeat. I’m sure Horrick has had some weirdness, too.
Daveed felt strong waves in the wetdock, and Saerva darted playfully away as xeir clutchmate, Culos, blew streams of water at xem and gave chase. He watched the two with one eye, noticing Horrick paddling up in their wake from the second platform nearby. How had he not noticed him come in? Was he really that tired?
“Hungry?” Horrick murmured, treading water and breathing hard. Stars above – even exhausted, the man looked like he could go for days more. His algae-green eyes were full of mischief and energy, and his long, lean face was haggard but happy.
Daveed nodded sleepily in the warm water, and allowed Horrick to pull him toward the decontamination pads. They hauled themselves up and Daveed felt his body shudder awake at the living villi that picked and pricked at his skin from the mat, removing any contaminants or leftover mass. It felt like a field of hungry worms with dull teeth trying to clean him of mites, or rows of dull dinner knives rubbing him raw. There was nothing to ruin a good mood like a bacterial cleansing.
Horrick finished first and palmed a shimmering panel near the door to signal Saerva and Culos, letting xem know they could join xeir clutchmates in the caves outside. Daveed could hear their low chirring through the water, saying their goodbyes. He waved and gave back a human facsimile of the noise.
It was a melancholic moment, and Daveed sat with his legs under him after the decontamination, watching the pool’s inevitable return to a placid, flat surface. The air on his skin felt rough and unkind.
He felt like a frog that forgot how to live out of water.
“Come, Daveed. Eat something, and we’ll start the report, mm?”
Daveed stood, wobbly. Even with feed from the suits, his body felt too light on land. Sickly.
“Could you make your husband’s breakfast cake thing?”
Horrick chuckled as he started up the stairs at a half-jog. “You mean ‘Obivar’s Oatcake Supreme’?”
“No,” Daveed grimaced, jabbing at one of Horrick’s calves as he struggled to keep pace, “your third husband’s. The tart ones.”
Horrick’s face split into a wide grin as he rounded the corner, peering over the plastic railing at him. Daveed was surprised the man didn’t have a fourth husband with a grin like that.
“With extra homespice?”
The thought of that sticky, spicy mixture made his stomach roar in agreement.
Time in the seabase was a fluid thing; without real sunshine streaming through the windows, the days bled together. Artificial daylight was never quite right, and his body was keenly aware of it. Daveed thought it could be the body’s response to the crushing pressure outside, but Horrick disagreed. Still, he swore he could feel it out there, like a pallid curtain over the whole base: a dread omen, invisible and cloying. Occasional rays of light could be seen on the cameras floating higher above the base, but none illuminated the hab as much as the bioluminescent kelp and coral that surrounded it.
Thankfully, the kitchen was a good distraction; the two snacked on leftover pastry bits and “dropped” fruits from the tarts as they finished preparing them. Horrick was especially clumsy today, Daveed noted, watching the thin mountain of a man surreptitiously stuff his mouth full of Pana berries. It felt good to laugh and work at something with his own two hands again, smelling the savoury tarts bake in the secondary lab oven while the primary was carefully heating some plant samples to dry them out. Daveed thumbed some leftover homespice from the kitchen counter as the two started cleaning up, relishing the strangely-musky flavour.
Horrick had tried to explain it once: his family held the tradition of keeping a mixture of spices and herbs that reminded them of home – the smells of fresh rosewood, orange dandelions and bitter roundleaf – as well as smells that represented their loved ones and close friends. The mixture would change constantly over a person’s life, and each one was frighteningly unique. Family recipes would often call for homespice, which made each meal familiar and was a familiar motif in much of their cooking, though the taste drifted over the decades as relationships changed.
Being his research partner – and the fact they were the only two on the base – Daveed had special privilege to indulge in it when Horrick cooked, and Horrick loved to cook. His third husband, Jelco, made fantastic fruit tarts and the pungent tang from their homespice never failed to make them spectacular desserts. His second husband Obivar’s cooking didn’t impress Daveed nearly as much.
After they cleaned up the mess in the kitchen, the two sat at their workstations for a few hours, poring over data and reports as the hab synced their logs from the half-month’s dive. Pictures, seismographs, detailed renders of 3D scans, dense with incredible findings but scarce on the one thing they were actually looking for.
“Data confirms it: ‘no fauna found’.” Horrick said with a jovial sigh. “Makes very little sense, I think. Big signs of change on the planet, plenty of biomes to support it, but no motile life. No tracks or leavings, even.”
“Maybe they’re very efficient hoverdogs.” Daveed quipped, licking errant filling off his cheek as his fingers searched for another tart.
Horrick laughed so loud Daveed nearly choked; he’d forgotten the sonic boom that could come out of his partner’s mouth.
“Ja, hoverdogs. I like that.” Horrick chuckled and tapped away at his report. A few minutes later, he turned the screen towards Daveed with a grin that was almost audible. The display showed a sketch of a long dog-like creature hovering over a barnacle nest, with the caption “Daveed theorizes fauna must hover and leave no waste.” underneath.
Daveed narrowed his eyes, then tapped noisily at his own terminal. “‘Horrick believes the fauna were too tasty to live, and were all consumed by a large predator that died of a bellyache’.” His voice rose in a playfully mocking tone as he pretended to type into his report.
Horrick’s face split even wider and he mimed a pained expression as he pretended to die from overeating.
They continued badgering one another for the rest of the day, but in truth Daveed was happy to see the man after a week, hear him and even smell him. They’d been stuck in the mourphs for fourteen days, with no sense of the other person nearby save for sensor readings, the suit’s lateral lines and the occasional meetup to discuss a finding. There was something to be said for the experience of a person nearby; Daveed wondered if this was how long-haul explorers felt when they got back from the void, surviving on delayed comm spools and AI conversations like they did. It was almost too grim to think about.
Not for the first time this trip, Daveed found himself touching his forearm and expecting it to be bigger; scalier.
That thought kept him awake far longer than he wanted to admit.
Eight months. Eight months and a day, but who was counting anymore.
Daveed yawned and stared blankly out of the hab’s viewing den: from here, he could see the gaping maw of the mourph caves, sheltered from the currents and heated by redirected hydrothermal vents; beyond that, a dark pit yawned back at him, endless and frustratingly devoid of life beyond simple plants; further above, the slim sliver of the sun strained against the sheer mass of water overhead, never quite piercing to their depths.
It was starting to get to him.
Horrick, bless him, was still going strong, running on the treadmill while he talked with his first husband, Rin. He glistened with sweat and had gained a good ten pounds of muscle in the last four months. Daveed had stayed healthy but his body was getting too thin even for his liking, and he struggled to get up some days. The psychiatrist had warned that this kind of fatigue meant he might need to take a break, but he was too involved now – leaving meant some other explorer might get the find, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that might ruin him. Worry and irritation followed him like stinging insects throughout the day.
Nearer sunset, Horrick’s shouting shot through his mental fog like a crisp ray of light.
“Daveed!” Horrick stumbled over to him, hands flailing. “Come come, the surface crews- they say they’ve-” He could barely finish one sentence before another came leaping out of his mouth.
Daveed felt like he’d been submerged in a cold bath, trying to keep up while his brain was leagues behind. He let himself be led over to the console, plopping down into the second chair like a stringless marionette. Horrick hurriedly set up the feed with Rin’s video still picture-in-picture next to it, his fuzzy face confused but excited.
“-we’re enthused to announce we have finally found signs of motile life on the surface. Before you all celebrate, however, there’s a rider-” The feed wasn’t great, which meant the signal buoy was out of sync, but it was clear enough to make out the head scientist: Tarka Limnis. She’d been head of the research teams for nearly three years, and it was her discovery of the stark lack of difference between land and ocean flora that had brought Daveed and Horrick here in the first place.
Tarka was already well-known, and now her team might have cracked the whole thing wide open, leaving Daveed and Horrick as footnotes to her discovery. Daveed’s guts rolled over like they were trying to die off, and he struggled to concentrate.
“-samples are showing that the life isn’t technically fauna, at least by our limited definitions.” The feed interrupted for a moment, and the two of them could see most of the surface crew standing off to the side, with a few more feeds of other deep-sea labs popping in – Daveed nodded and waved wearily to them, distantly happy to see familiar faces.
Tarka’s voice continued off-screen: “The thing is, we were looking for something resembling what we’ve seen on other planets: something small, big, anything that was remotely similar to a creature we’ve encountered or theorized. Yet we found nothing; no fauna, but plenty of flora. And that, folks, is the kicker. This recording is from a biodrone patrol last week. We thought it was-” The view went static for a few seconds, and Daveed almost lunged at the screen in exasperation, Horrick laying a firm but friendly hand on his chest as he shared a look of anticipation and commiseration.
“-but now we know it’s real. It’s real, people.”
The camera’s feed cut to an angled downward shot, distorted and a little fish-eyed from the drone’s lens, showing a bed of ruddy-brown flowers atop thistle-covered shrubs. The recorded wind whistled eerily through the speakers as it shook the drone and the shrubs about, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. After nearly four years, no motile life beyond single-celled organisms; no tracks, dens, nests or leavings; no recorded sounds from anything but the natural environment, and all they had to show was a half-baked video of some-
Daveed’s anger nearly shook him up out of his chair, and he gripped the sides of it, willing himself to sit, his breathing coming in hard, ragged jolts. Horrick’s hand moved to his shoulder this time, massaging his neck in a surprisingly tender gesture. The anger nearly welled over into tears, and he fought to keep it together as the wind from the feed picked up. It sounded like the bush was being uprooted through sheer force, the poor drone’s fans struggling to stay in place.
Horrick suddenly gasped and his hand tensed against Daveed’s neck, making him look up. The sound continued, hard wood-like noises grinding against soft leaves, but Daveed could see it wasn’t the wind making that noise.
The shrub was moving. Ambulating, plodding along – pathfinding along the rocks on root-legs, slipping now and then as it made its way out of view. The feed was still fuzzy, but it looked as if the bush had left smaller versions of itself behind in and around its footprints, almost like a mask or camouflage. Daveed’s mind went from sheer defeat to utter amazement, and the gears shifted heartily into place as he started dissecting the footage. The small shoots that it left behind sprung up in short order during a timelapse – the clock showed only an hour had passed – leaving the scene nearly exactly as it was when the recording had started, as if the bush hadn’t just picked up sticks and wandered off.
Tarka chimed in just as the recording ended, the feed returning to the surface crew. “That’s what we’ve been looking for, people. That’s the motile life we haven’t seen. Hiding in plain sight, covering its tracks, and well outside of what we’ve seen before.” She looked tired but proud, Daveed thought, looking at the other researchers and scientists. Hell, most of them looked rough, too. The mourphs in the background looked odd to him, since they weren’t designed with the deep pressures of the ocean in mind, but they seemed just as happy as they took in the crowd’s suppressed excitement.
“We did it.” Tarka gave a sigh that was years in the making. “You, me, Us. This wasn’t one team’s findings, no handful of people cracked this.” Tarka was pointing at the camera now, her electric enthusiasm almost surging out of the display. “We. Did. It!“
The crowd behind her burst into laughter, cheering, even exuberant sobbing; someone’s suit was holding them up and making joyful croaking noises while another was startled by a bottle of liquer being opened. The feeds from the other labs were a mix of stunned surprise and dancing, yelling faces, all satisfaction and bliss.
As he turned to Horrick to see the man’s reaction – he was too astonished and confused to notice how he felt – Horrick planted a firm kiss on his forehead and swept him up out of the chair, hugging him so tightly he felt his spine crack. Daveed gave a breathy laugh and hugged back, the two of them shaking each other in excitement.
A laugh and yelp from Tarka came from off-screen as she jutted her head back into frame, her short auburn hair messy and her eyes wild. “Everyone, take a week off, relax! We’ve got shuttles en route to your locations to take you all back to Central so you can see your families! You deserve it!” She was beckoned back off-camera by happy shouting, but she called back, “Good work, everyone!” to a raucous uproar of replies.
Daveed’s throat was raw from screaming and laughing, his face pinched from smiling so hard.
“Rin, dearest light of my life!” Horrick called to the video of Rin, his husband’s face stoic but grinning from ear to ear, his head resting on one hand as if to say my lovely fool, my studious weirdo. He waved back to the two of them, winking. “I’ll see you at the port, you beautiful man!” Horrick’s voice was raw with emotion and he hoisted Daveed up again, hugging him so tight Daveed almost forgot all the stress of the last eight months.
Once the festivities had wound down some, and all the adjacent sealabs had signed off to prepare for the shuttles, Daveed and Horrick packed quietly in their quarters, occasionally shouting to each other across the hall with wordless abandon and falling into fits of laughter as one or the other mimicked a scuttling bush in front of the doorways.
They gave the mourphs the news, all of xem crowded into the wetdock like eager guppies, swarming around them with shared ecstasy and filling the air with xeir fervent chirrs. After some time spent swimming and playing, Daveed let xem know they’d be gone for a week and to behave – though Daveed could already sense the playful giddiness Saerva was hiding. The mourphs were happy for the two of them, and made sure they knew they were loved.
He’d really miss xem all. This base was home right now, and xei were his family. And now he could look forward to coming back to xem.
The shuttle came in short order, filled with the nearby Seabase 12’s crew of three and the two sub pilots; Horrick and Daveed exchanged hugs and jubilant cries with their colleagues, and the conversations devolved into speculation and hypothesis, even a mock debate. Scientists separated by distance for so long could finally gesture properly with each other, share their feelings without a screen to dully translate it for them. “Refreshing” barely scratched the surface of how good it felt to be around people again.
Eventually the rhythmic thrum of the engine and patterned beeps from the cockpit set most of them into a shallow sleep, smiles plastered all around. Between naps, Horrick leaned over to Daveed in a half-doze, shaking him lightly.
“You know you’re welcome to stay with my family. I had Obivar make up the guest room for you.”
Daveed snorted, patting Horrick’s shoulder. “As long as the walls are thick. Last thing I need is to hear you all rattling the house.”
Horrick’s cackle practically shook the shuttle’s hulls, waking the others with a start and sending them all into a confused spate of laughter again. As the sub crested the waves and the warm afternoon sky peeked through the portholes, Daveed felt as if he was finally home.