Orbus

Aeryn Miller has found herself at her dream job after weeks of arduous training and four consecutive days of examinations at the Orbus Practical Research Facility. When Aeryn discovers Project (Name Pending), an expedition to an underground lake in the Antarctic, she has to fight her way to the the top in order to get herself on the team. But Project (Name Pending) is more than she could ever have imagined, more than anyone could have imagined.

The year is 2101 and we are not alone. There is a creature...
Beneath the ice.
**Sorry for any spelling/grammar mistakes etc, this is a first draft ^_^

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1. One

Aeryn’s head exploded through the surface of the water, her nose stinging, eyes smarting. She clutched her throat and spluttered, coughing up the water that she had inhaled, she gasped for breath. Squeezing her eyes shut she rubbed them furiously then slapped her own cheeks, smacking the sense into her. She peered through locks of tightly wound curls to the tile on her right, waiting for the little blue spheres to stop spinning so that she could watch the video.

            Eventually, the dozen or so spheres contracted then broke apart, flying off the edge of the screen. A picture of Aeryn sat in the bath expanded, and she held her finger down on the fast-forward icon, watching as she lowered herself into the shallows of her own bathtub, cautiously pinching her fingers over her nostrils. As soon as she was fully submerged, she released her nose and immediately shot out of the water, droplet whizzing off at all angles, spattering the camera and leaving a hazy picture.

            Aeryn double-tapped the video to bring up the options menu, then dragged the blur bar down so that she was in focus once more, wheezing and choking. She leaned to the side, pressing her forehead against the cool surface of the wall and sighed; she’d never get into Orbus if she couldn’t cope with prolonged submersion.

            Aeryn held down the rewind icon and brought up the option to slow down the video, the watched again, in slow motion; her unintentional cry drawn out into a comically deep baritone, and laughed in spite of herself. She crawled to the end of the tub, dragging the screen along the tiles with her, and pulled the little envelope image onto the video, bringing up Emery’s contact avatar as she pulled the plug. He would find it hilarious.

            Aeryn pulled at her sodden vest top, clinging uncomfortably to her stomach. The decision to have a last minute final attempt at holding her breath underwater had been rash. She’d run the bath and jumped in wearing a vest and her pyjama shorts. She had only wasted much of her precious time to prepare before catching the train to London, to Orbus.

            As she stood on the mat beside the bath, her image and data expanded on the screen.

Name: Aeryn Daphney Miller

Age: 21

Weight: 121lbs

Height: 5ft 8inches.

The time and date flashed in the corner; 6:30AM, 22nd August, 2101. Aeryn kicked the mat away from her as an ad for ‘NowTech: The future is here!’ Obscured the information.

            “When’re you going to invent something useful?” she muttered as she stood beneath the head encasing hairdryer that flipped out of the wall, waiting the minute or so that it took to obliterate all dampness. It transformed her hair into a rug, but at least it wouldn’t store the water like a sponge, dripping down her neck for the next three hours.

            Aeryn dragged her feet along the plush carpet of her hallway, feeling the need to lie down right there and sink into the cosy threads, wrapped in her towel. It was far, far too early for her to be awake, but the train from Birmingham to London was a long one.

            Feeling that perhaps she should have prepared a little the previous day, Aeryn slumped down before her wardrobe, struggling to think of an outfit that she could wear for literally anything.

            “Bud, clothe me,” she said. Bud was the building’s inbuilt robotic help system, and ancient one, sure, but still useful in times such as these.

            “Good morning, Aeryn. Activities?”

            Aeryn groaned. For Bud to pick out the right clothes for her, she’d have to input what she would be doing. Unfortunately, she wasn’t entirely sure. The entrance exams to Orbus were brutal, spread over four consecutive days and almost entirely shrouded in mystery. The only hints that Aeryn had gleaned from the internet were that there would be aptitude tests and practical examinations based around water –including, she’d read, prolonged submersion- land and sky.

Aeryn reached for the well-worn Orbus pamphlet on her desk. It slipped between her fingers and dropped to the floor, opened on the page she had studied the most: Advice for candidates.

Aside from basic information, contact details, conditions of entry and similar things there was one, barely useful nugget of advice:

‘Be prepared for all eventualities’.

Aeryn had the sentence memorized, and had been trying to decipher as many of these ‘eventualities’ as possible for a number of weeks.

“Activities, Miss Miller?”

Bud’s mechanical tones brought Aeryn out of her reverie.

“Um… Unknown.”

“Please choose from the list of possible activities.”

A panel on the left wardrobe door flickered into life, and Aeryn was shown a list of activities ranging from composing to virtual bobsleighing. A blank avatar spun as if on a rotating podium to the right. After barely reading the list of one hundred or so options, Aeryn tapped ‘select all’. Her avatar spun a little faster as it loaded, then became garbed in combat trouser, thick walking boots, a thermal and t-shirt. Tentatively, Aeryn selected the suitcase icon, and was rewarded with a display of every other item of clothing that she owned, bar the onesie that she was hidden in the back of her pyjama draw.

Every Eventuality

Aeryn dragged the suitcase into the trashcan, combats would have to do.

The day was warm, and Aeryn’s thermal, fleece and various other garments she wasn’t sure that she would need were stuffed into her tattered satchel. She glanced at her watch, without a car the journey to the station was a thirty minute walk.

She had fifteen minutes till the train left. The trains were always on time.

Cursing under her breath, Aeryn stuffed the pamphlet in one of a dozen trouser pockets, slung her bag over her shoulder and dashed out of her flat.

“Lock up after me, Bud!” she called, and barely noticed the faint click of the bolt as she jumped the steps two at a time to the landing and jammed her fist into the elevator button.

“Come on, come on, come on,” she muttered.

When she was finally out of the building there was barely a car on the road.

“Where are all the bloody taxis?” she cried. There was no way she’d be able to make it on time, even running. The next train was fourty-five minutes later, she’d be late, and Aeryn had a feeling that Orbus didn’t condone lateness.

Aeryn glanced about her as she snuck to the back of the building, to the bike shed. She was sure that Orbus didn’t condone stealing either, but they would never have to know about this. Anyway, this wasn’t stealing, this was borrowing. The owner would have it back in four days, less if she didn’t pass the tests.

After Bud had recognised her voice, the metal door swung open and Aeryn was treated to the sight of rows upon rows of bikes. She just had to find an old one, one that didn’t have an embedded security system. Aeryn dragged her fingers along the lines of bikes as she ran along. The newest bikes wouldn’t have locks, they didn’t need them; she just had to find an old one without a lock.

“Bingo,” she grinned and tugged the battered bike from between the rails. She rode it out of the door, and as she passed through the wind in her ears masked the words that she knew Bud would be saying.

“Unauthorized access.”

Aeryn grinned, “Too late now.”

*

The station was flocked with commuters; unusual considering that it was almost deserted outside. Aeryn rolled the stolen bike into the rails and checked her watch again as she handed over the currents for a chain and padlock. She didn’t want it stolen from her.

She sighed with relief, two minutes, plenty of time. Even so, she jogged towards the train, hovering on a magnetic field. The frantic cycling hadn’t taken its toll like she thought it would, and Aeryn was pleased that the last month’s training had been worth it. She’d barely broken a sweat by the time she sat down on a plush seat on the train. The UK’s entire transport network was being renovated to the standard of this train; the first step of Project 2100, getting you closer to Britain.

Aeryn pulled the pamphlet from her pocket and began to read it all over again as she settled down. Her phone buzzed in her pocked, a last century throwback; the design of a noughties mobile, with the technology of NowTech. Very in-season, apparently, Aeryn had bought it because it was cheap. She flipped the lid to find a message from Emery.

--Did you make it? Brill video by the way, you’d be great on TV ;)
--Barely, had to steal a bike to get here…
--Bloody hell! Why didn’t you get a taxi? Is Orbus really worth stealing for?
--Oi, I don’t need you lecturing me. If I could’ve I would have taken a bloody taxi.

Aeryn snapped her phone down and sniffed, irritated. Clenching it tightly in her hand she stared at her own olive toned reflection. She had just flipped her phone back up and started another vengeful message when her train of thought was interrupted.

“Do you mind if I sit here?”

Aeryn glanced up at the kid; he didn’t look a day older than seventeen, and immediately started looking around for other places for him to sit. But the train had crowded quickly, and the only space was next to her, where her satchel was. The boy shuffled awkwardly as she scouted.

“Sure,” she eventually muttered, dragging her bag to her feet and storing it in the drawer. She pressed her finger to the scanner and waited for it to turn red as the boy sat beside her. His bag was too large to fit in the compartment beneath his seat. He rested it on his lap; it was riddled with lumps and bumps, as if it had been hastily stuffed, just like hers…

“Hey, you going to Orbus too?” he asked, confirming her thoughts as he spotted the electric blue logo on the leaflet in her hand.

“Are you?” She couldn’t help but sound sceptical; the minimum age for Orbus was twenty-one.

“Yeah, this is my first year trying, you?”

“Um, same, yeah.” Aeryn was keen to cut the conversation short. She had already taken a distaste to the kid’s floppy brown hair; that he’d already brushed it out of his eyes far more often than was necessary. She dug her phone out of her pocket and pretended to text.

“I’m Malcolm.” Aeryn spared him a brief glance, intending not to reply, until she noticed that his hand was thrust out towards her. She struggled to refrain from grimacing; he was like an eager puppy.

The train began to glide forward noiselessly as she took his hand.

“Aeryn.”

“Nice to meet you, Aeryn. It’s always handy to check out the competition,” he chuckled.

“Competition, sure,” Aeryn scoffed. Judging by the size of him, the tests would swallow Malcolm whole. Malcolm pretended not to notice Aery’s callous tones and continued interrogating her as she grew ever more certain that there wouldn’t be enough oxygen in the compartment for both of them.

“What’ve you brought with you? The be prepared for any eventualities thing had me stumped, I think I went a bit overboard though…”

Even though he was far too talkative and cheerful, Aeryn was intrigued to find out what a fellow candidate had packed.

“I brought- let’s see…” Aeryn counted each piece of clothing on her fingers. “Thermal, jumper, shorts, extra trainers, gloves, hat…” she trailed off. There was no need for basic clothes because the facility provided candidate uniform. The last item on her list would have been underwear, but that was unnecessarily personal. She was discomforted by the way Malcolm’s eyes bulged.

“Is that it?”

“Why, what did you bring?” she snapped. Malcolm scratched the back of his neck uneasily.

“Well, like I said, I think I went a bit overboard.”

Aeryn waited patiently for him to continue, knowing that his chatty nature would force him to spill what was stuffed into the duffel bag.

“Let me think- same as you, plus waterproof coat, waterproof trousers, sunglasses, a- er- helmet…” Aeryn began to choke with laughter as he proceeded to list ever more ridiculous items, ending with a flourish- a wetsuit.

“Please tell me you brought a snorkel too!” she said, clutching her ribs. “Why do you think, what could have made you think, that you would need any of that crap?” Luckily, Malcolm laughed lightly.

“Unfortunately the, ah, parental influence was strong.”

“Seriously?”

Malcolm shrugged, “They have a point. Every eventuality, right?”

“Don’t remind me.”

For the remainder of the journey, Malcolm plugged in his ear buds and brought up the train’s entertainment package. A screen dropped down from the ceiling and he popped the wafer thin controller out of the charging socket. He scrolled through the films and games for a minute or two before settling on Break neck, the new racing game popular with pre-teens across the nation.

Aeryn shamelessly stared as Malcolm narrowed his cerulean eyes, concentrating solely on the swerving vehicles before him, and leaned from side to side with the motion of his car as if he was in it. He hissed under his breath when another car with tyres of all things knocked into the side of his. Malcolm had sensible chosen a NowTech Toyota, hovering off the tarmac by the air repulsion blades at its base.

Aeryn shook her head stubbornly and turned to look out of the window, wondering if she had really just made friends with a toddler.

Outside the towering metallic skyscrapers began to recede and great cannon-like machines scattered the city’s border. The intermittently puffed clouds of blue gaseous molecules in to the sky that would rain down on Birmingham in an effort to keep pollution at bay, but the solution was only temporary, it wouldn’t work forever.

Aeryn didn’t understand the science of it, but the shimmer blue smoke had an ethereal quality to it that she appreciated, though it soon gave way to the government mandated rolling fields.

“Why do you want to join Orbus?” Malcolm asked, making Aeryn jump. The screen had folded back up and Malcolm was dropping his ear buds into his jacket pocket as he gazed at her, curiosity burning in his eyes, as if he was struggling to figure her out.

“Ha! Doesn’t everyone want to join?”

“Well, no, I mean, you have to live there, wear a weird uniform every day, keep a load of secrets and take a four day long course of examinations to get in and loads don’t even survive the first year. I know that candidacy is open to everyone with the right criteria, and you don’t need any qualifications or anything, but it’s no wonder that only a couple of hundred even bother to take the tests.”

“You sound like you don’t want to go,” Aeryn smiled, “but being paid to see the world? I can’t think of anything I’d rather do. You don’t have to pay for accommodation, I think the uniform’s cool and I like to think I’m a pretty good secret keeper.”

“Each to their own,” Malcolm grinned. “I totally agree with you though. Think about it, we, we, could be the scientists who discover a new species of mammal in the Amazonian rainforest.”

“Or the scientists who unearth new bacteria that cures… everything!” Finding herself rising to an unacceptable level of excitement, Aeryn leaned back in her seat and closed her eye, allowing the tiniest of smiles to play across her lips…

Trekking in the dessert, Aeryn was ravaged by gnats, the sun beat down beastly hot against her bare back, for her shirt was wrapped around her head, offering little protection. Aeryn’s bare feet slid a little deeper that the surface of the sand with every step she took. The miniscule granules wound between her toes and snaked up her legs, curling about her until she was covered from head to toes.

Her heel struck a smooth, hard object in the sand. Curious, she knelt down and brushed away the dusty layer, lifting out a scorpion by its pincer. As she stood up, it curled up angrily, digging the point of its tail into Aeryn’s wrist.

“I’ve found it!” Aeryn cried, as her wrist began to bulge. She turned to Malcolm, “I’ve found it!”

“Found what?” he asked, as sand crept up his legs.

“The cure, the cure for everything!”

Malcolm shook Aeryn awake, and she instantly flexed her fingers, dropping the imagined scorpion, subconsciously brushing her skin of sand.

“We’re nearing London,” Malcolm, the real Malcolm, said. He pointed out of the window to the NowTech branded depollution cannons, and in the near distance, a city of metal and glass loomed in a blue haze, low-lying buildings of old scattered between them. Aeryn’s heart fluttered with nerves and anticipation. Who knew what waited for her there?

“Now in: London,” a female voice announced from the overhead speakers. Aeryn pressed her finger against the scanner beneath her seat until it flashed blue and collected her bag, which seemed small and useless compared to Malcolm’s monstrosity.

Past the scanners, Malcolm and Aeryn were disconcerted by an enormous hologram bearing the Project 2100 logo and slogan. Malcolm reached out to stick his arm through the protection, but Aeryn swiftly grabbed it and dragged him down to the small store offering food and magazines.

“That’ll be two and a half currents,” the man said. Aeryn sniffed. The granola bar she’d chosen for her breakfast could have cost her half a current in her building’s vending machine. Unfortunately, the purchase was made necessary by her not having eaten since she woke up. As she grudgingly handed over the slim metal tokens, Malcolm’s hand gripped her arm like a vice and she spun around, alarmed.

“Holy crap, there it is!” he hissed, “the bus! Ah, cool, it’s got the new anti-grav generator!

The bus had stopped perhaps fifty yards away from them, but the blue Orbus loo was clearly plastered on the side. Aeryn’s heartbeat quickened, and yelling ‘cheers’ back to the salesman, she ran towards it, dragging Malcolm, whose bag made him slow and clumsy.

When they reached it, Aeryn barely had to brush the tips of her fingers across the button before the door slipped open. The vehicle was crammed with expensive technology, the rows of passenger seating stretched from front to back, so it must have had auto-drive, and it swayed a little on the anti-gravitational field as Aeryn’s boot landed on the first step.

A holographic man expanded out of a projector rooted. He wore glasses and carried a slim glass tablet.

“Are you two candidates for Orbus?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” Aeryn said, as Malcolm squeezed in next to her.

“Yes, sir.”

“Brilliant, if you would please slip your candidacy confirmations into the reader then you may take a seat.”

A wave of nausea drenched Aeryn, and she felt the colour seep form her cheeks as she turned cold. She hadn’t remembered to pack it. She knew she hadn’t, and yet she rummaged desperately in her bag. As Malcolm put his confirmation in the reader, Aeryn withdrew her empty hands, and thousand curse willing to spill bitterly from her lips.

“I haven’t got it,” she said, through clenched teeth. Her eyes were fixed stubbornly downwards as Malcolm stared at her incredulously.

“Well, that’s alright!” said the hologram, “I you’ll just give me a second, I’ll find your name on the database, what is it again?”

            Aeryn stared, dumfounded, mouth unattractively agape. She was sure, so sure in that moment that she would be catching the next train back to Birmingham.

            “Aeryn, her name’s Aeryn- uh…” Malcolm started.

            “Aeryn Daphney Miller. Thank you so much,” she said, clasping her hands together in earnest as then man smiled and walked out of view.

            “Holy shit,” breathed Aeryn, dragging a sweaty hand through her hair, cutting through the knots in the curls with her fingers.

            “Yeah, I was sure he was going to chuck you off the bus,” Malcolm said, “I heard these guys are ruthless.”

            “Well, you might still be right,” Aeryn muttered out of the corner of her mouth as the man came back into the image.

            “Aeryn Miller, I’ve put a pass on your identity for the buses. The confirmations are only really there to speed the process up, but you should be aware that the incident will be noted on your record. Have a nice day.” The man smiled again as the inverted cone shaped image snapped shut, no longer blocking their path to the seats.

            “My… record?” Aeryn whispered, as a nervous lump choked down the volume of her words. “I already have a… record?”

            “Hey, it’ll be fine!” said Malcolm, clapping her shoulder as he massed her and took a window see. “What difference does a little ‘incident’ like that make?” He gestured joking speech marks about the word ‘incident’ and laughed a little, but Aeryn knew what the difference could be.

            It could be the difference between getting into Orbus or failing the first day, except if she were to be sent home after she’d already arrived there would be dozens of witnesses to her humiliation.

            She took a seat next to Malcolm, dumped her bag in the drawer and rested her head in the palms of her hands.

            “you have got to see this,” Malcolm said, and Aeryn wondered if he was trying to cheer her up or if he was simply oblivious to negative emotions. She rolled her head to the side, glared upwards at him, and ended up smiling in spite of herself.

            There was a small switch beneath the window next to them. When Malcolm flipped it, a deep black spread across the glass like oil, obliterating all light, and when he flipped it back, it receded into the frame. Malcolm was clearly enjoying himself, not letting the black spread to the middle before sending it back into the frame with childish glee.

            “Come on, Aeryn, just tell me this isn’t awesome, have you ever seen anything like this before? I mean, I know you get tinted windows, but I sure haven’t. This must be brand new-”

            “Hey!” A voice sliced through Malcolm’s sentence like a knife through butter. “D’you want to cut that out? I’m trying to read back here.”

            Aeryn and Malcolm twisted in their seats, having been taken by surprise. They hadn’t realised there was another passenger on the bus. He was a man, sat in the far corner, dressed in a black leather jacket and shirt, jet hair slicked into perfect waves. As soon as they turned to face him he muttered illegibly and buried his nose back into the book in his hands.

            “Oh, sorry!” Malcolm called, barely able to stifle the immature laughter that came hand in hand with confrontation. He cringed as he was forced to flip the window switch one last time for them to have a little light, and even Aeryn couldn’t help but snigger into her hands.

On the way to Orbus, the bus stopped at every train station en route, but only one other candidate boarded; a petite girl with cropped crimson hair and a bag so large it seemed to drag down her height by a couple more centimetres. She was skittish, and glanced about furtively before choosing the seat furthest from Aeryn, Malcolm and the boy with the perfect hair.

            “Bets on how long she’ll last?” Malcolm muttered.

            “She’s not that much smaller than you. Dad says great things come from small packages.”

            Malcolm chuckled, “Sure, but strong things don’t.”

            “How do you expect to pass the second day then?”

            Malcolm grinned mischievously, “I’ve got the smarts.”

            “Well, may she has too… why didn’t you apply to Nosco, then?”

            “Nosco? That place is for pensioners with nothing better to do than study the cryochambers of their grandparents,” he said, yawning exaggeratedly.

“Not exactly my cup of tea, either.”

            Aeryn almost hadn’t noticed that the bus had stopped moving. The transition from mobile to stationary had been smooth, and she was momentarily puzzled by the three other passengers collecting their things and departing. The boy with the hair brushed past her, leaving a heavy whiff of cologne and, Aeryn thought, arrogance. She hastily pressed her finger to the scanner under her seat until it turned blue and retrieved her satchel. Her phone buzzed and she flipped it up.

--Good luck x E.

Aeryn smiled, feeling a little more confident.

As soon as she stepped off the vehicle, she was confronted by a large rotating sphere, drooping from a flexible metal pole bearing the words;

Orbus
Practical Research Facility

            The building itself was comparatively insignificant to the planet-sized monument, about which roughly one hundred other candidates were gathered. Aeryn glanced at her watch, they were ten minutes early.

            Ten minutes later, the number of candidates had more than doubled and Aeryn and Malcolm had to weave their way through the throng to get a clearer view of a woman who had marched out of the building exactly on time.

            She was wearing electric blue trousers and a tunic with a mandarin collar and the Orbus log emblazoned on the left chest, a name tag on the right.

Celia Day

            The crown had hushed and parted as she moved to stand at the base of the great pole holding the Orbus sphere. She stared around at the candidates as if looking directly into each individual’s eyes. She spread her arms wide and curls of her flame orange hair flutter in the breeze.

            “Welcome all, welcome- to Orbus.” 

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