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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2. Two

Aeryn’s hands shook a little as she trailed at the back of the crowd, following Celia, who guided them into a vast atrium with a skylight instead of bulbs. In the centre was another, comparatively smaller rotating Orbus sphere. From her pocket, Celia retrieved a small black bar as she waited for all of the candidates to file in. The bar had a thin dividing line lengthways though the middle, and as she pulled at the two sides, they split at the line and a tablet screen slotted into the gap.

            “Here I have a list of all your names and relative Blocks. I will be taking you on a short circuit of a small part of the Orbus campus to deposit you at the candidate Blocks. Once there, you will find your rooms, equipped with basic amenities. You will be supplied with everything you need, including clothing.

            “It is currently nine-thirty. After you have settled I expect you to return here at ten-thirty sharp. Tardiness will be reported. Further instructions will be given from there. Please follow me.”

            Malcolm glanced at Aeryn with a wide grin stretched across his lips.

            “This is so awesome,” he whispered. Aeryn nodded and puffed a breath of air through her teeth. It certainly was.

            Before passing through a large arch, the exit of the atrium, the students were made to place their bags of various size upon a large conveyor belt in a separate, adjoining hallway; so they were walking alongside their possessions with a wall between them, and collected them outside another door no more than a dozen metres away.

            Aeryn was startled when she was handed a small canvas bag at the second door. The front was labelled with her name, but when she looked inside, all she saw was her underwear, her toothbrush and a few basic toiletries.

            “Where the hell’s all my stuff gone?” Malcolm exclaimed, his face fixed in an expression of confusion and worry as he was handed the meagre bag. Similar statements were heard from other members of the group, until they were collectively hushed by Celia.

            “You have been given all that you need. There will be no advantages for any of you. This was we can ensure that you are all on level ground before the first round of examinations. Now, if you’ve all decided to stop behaving like children, we can continue.”

            Looking sulky, Malcolm was the first to press on. Aeryn spared one last glare for the bare bag clutched in her hands before hurrying after him.

            “I’m just glad I had my phone in my pocket,” Malcolm huffed, as Aeryn caught a glimpse of the boy from the bus. She didn’t like the way he was acting, with his arms crossed and an oddly triumphant smile playing across his lips.

            After passing through the great glass arch, the group was taken directly to a ring of small building that encircled a small common of tall grass that wafted lazily in the wind. The buildings were all panelled with metal navy tiles, each with a large number above the doors of the entrance.

            “These buildings will be your home for up to the next four days,” Celia began, “depending on how you stand against the tests. Be prepared to share rooms; there will be roughly twenty of you in each building. Right, Block One candidates…”

            Once again, Malcolm’s hand clenched around Aeryn’s wrist as names were called out in alphabetical order. Eventually, the group moved to Block Three.

            “Casey, Abbey; Corner, Malcolm-” Malcolm sucked in a sharp breath as Aeryn prised his fingers from her arm.

            “I guess I’ll see you in about an hour, then,” Aeryn said, feeling abnormally shy about their departure. Unexpectedly, Malcolm’s arms wrapped around her neck firmly; after the initial shock, she tentatively returned the gesture.

            Once he had pulled away, Malcolm saluted her, “Thanks,” he said, then slipped through the crowd to join the others destined for Block Three, and was gone.

            Aeryn then realised that the day was overcast, and she was cold.

            In vain, Aeryn tried not to think about how different this experience was without a friend, and duly trudged along to Block Nineteen where her name was called. The red headed girl from the bus was near her in the queue for the same Block, and hastily dropped her gaze when Aeryn smiled at her. Aeryn rolled her eyes, socialising was hard.

            Once inside, each of the candidates was handed a card with their name, room number and a small amount of basic information. The bottom of the card read:

Our home system is called Jean,
test her out!

            Aeryn snorted quietly in disbelief, they’d given the system a human name. Unable to avoid the notion, she thought about how amazing Malcolm would think it was, top of the range.

            Outside room 3C, Aeryn found her roommates, clustered around the door with torn expressions of annoyance and confusion, all except for the red headed girl, whose downcast face was impossible to read.

            “What’s going on?” Aeryn said, wondering why everyone hadn’t begun to make themselves at home.

            “See for yourself,” a tall, blonde girl snapped, moving to the side for Aeryn to see the cause of the disturbance. “The stupid thing doesn’t recognise us yet and it doesn’t even have a bloody door handle.”

            “It doesn’t need one,” Aeryn said absentmindedly as she pulled out her card, trying to remember the name of the home system. Her parents had a high-tech house with a system like this; she just had to remember its name. The blonde girl folded her arms and glared daggers at her, whilst a petite brunette what she had been thinking.

            “What do you mean?” she asked, “Oh, I’m Sienna by the way. I believe this is Tracey.” She held out her hand as she gestured with her other to the angry blonde. Aeryn took it; the girl had a firm handshake.

            “Oh, I’m sorry,” Sienna said, “I don’t know your name.” She was speaking to the smallest of the group, the girl from the bus.

            “Megan,” she whispered, without dragging her eyes from the ground. To save this fragile looking girl the inquisitive stares of the others, Aeryn answered Sienna’s original question.

            “Uh, this place has a really expensive home system, like the one my parents have. The one’s that we all have recognise us already, but we need to make ourselves known to this one before we can use it. Check it out.”

            She raised her voice a little and spoke to the door, her cheeks warming as she became the centre of attention. “Hello Jean. This is candidate Aeryn Miller with candidates Tracey, Sienna and-” The blood rushed to her cheeks as Aeryn realised that she’d already forgotten the other girl’s name. Thankfully, Sienna covertly whispered it in her ear, “Megan.”

            “Good morning, candidates,” the smooth female voice came from the ceiling, so human. “Please swipe your cards through the door to enter.”

            One by one, Aeryn, Sienna, Tracey and Megan swiped their cards, and the door swung open with a dull click.

            As they entered, the corridor rang with the voices of fellow candidates following Aeryn’s example.

            The room was basic, with four beds, a window facing the common, cupboards and a separate room with a toilet, sink and shower. Sienna flopped onto her chosen bed face down.

            “I’ve been awake so long I can’t decide whether to have a power nap or not,” she said, her voice muffled through the mattress.

            “Probably not the best idea,” Aeryn smiled, perching on the end of the bed nearest the window. The view showed multiple other buildings, including Block Three, where Malcolm was.

            Suddenly, the world was tilting to the side, and before Aeryn knew what was happening, her right side had slammed into the floor. Dazed, she blinked a stared upwards, right at Tracey.

“Sorry, she shrugged,” I must have knocked you, ah, by accident.”

“S’alright,” Aeryn muttered, as she sat up rubbing her head, even though it wasn’t. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that Tracey had a problem with her, perhaps a problem with basic social interaction, but it was Aeryn’s first day at Orbus, as she wasn’t about to start a fight. Sienna had jumped up from her bed and was helping her up when she emitted a high-pitched squeal.

“What is it?” Aeryn asked, startled as she rapidly scanned the room for the source of Sienna’s outburst. A shaking finger guided her eyes.

“Our uniforms,” she whispered, and there they were, in plain sight, though all four girls had missed them. A stack of four, neatly folded thick squares of mustard yellow.

“Ugh, yellow,” Tracey said, wrinkling her nose. She had strode up to the uniforms as soon as Sienna had noticed them, found the largest one with her name tagged on it and was staring at it with an air of disgust. “It’s like they want us to leave.”

“No-one’s stopping you,” Sienna murmured beneath her breath as Tracey waltzed over to the mirror to hold the uniform in front of her, pressing the fabric of the tunic to her waist. Sienna shuddered as she theatrically flipped her hair.

“What do you think, Megan?” Aeryn asked, trying to include the petite girl, but it was at that moment that she noticed the sound of water streaming form the bathroom.

“Can you believe that?” Tracey fumed, “she took the first shower without even asking.”

“She doesn’t need permission to have a shower, Tracey,” Aeryn muttered all too audibly. Tracey shot her a withering glare before stalking to her bed. She then slapped her hand against a small patch of dark film on the wall.

“Candidate,” came the home system’s eerie voice, “please hold your palm still for five seconds to process command.”

Aeryn and Sienna sniggered as Tracey growled and curse, steadily placing her hand back on the film. In five seconds, and opaque, though completely penetrable barrier formed around her bed.

The shower had turned off, and Aeryn turned to her friendly roommate, a cheeky grin curling her lips.

“I hope you don’t mind, may I have your permission to use the shower next?” she asked, conveniently forgetting her dip in the bath mere hours ago, she thought she could hear Tracey’s teeth grinding.

“Of course, be my guest.”

*

Fourty-five minutes later, Aeryn was reunited with Malcolm, smoothing the non-existent creases in her uniform whilst Malcolm pulled miserably at the hem of his.

“A dud in my dorm, Jason, said these are called tunics,” he said, pulling a face. “Looks more like a mini-dress to me.”

A minute later, and the rest of the group had convened in the atrium, waiting in jittery anticipation punctuated with mutters and murmurs until Celia Day approached, gazing at them appraisingly.

“If you’ll follow me,” she said, gesturing towards a pair of double doors that she then proceeded through. The group was lead into a thin, white corridor, washed blue from the light strip on the ceiling. They were forced to walk in single file and Aeryn could not see past the head in front of her until she was shuffled through the next pair of doors, into a cavernous hall set with two hundred single glass tables.

“Each one of you will find your name on the top right hand corner of a table. I trust you all to find your places in, say, five minutes?” Celia said. Glancing at her watch, she raised her eyebrows at the candidates, “Well?”

The boy from the bus was first to stir, deftly winding through the crowd to the first row of desks where he began to scan for his name. Having triggered a reaction from the others, the room was soon swarming with candidates trying to find their place.

Aeryn’s seat was on the back row, far away from Malcolm, who was near the front. The boy from the bus was sat diagonally in front of her, a row ahead, and she narrowed her eyes in suspicion and annoyance at his cool demeanour. He leaned his head back lazily, digging his hands into his pockets. Aeryn turned her attention to her transparent desk. Bold, red font read ‘please look forward’.

“You will have two hours to answer the questions. There will be no speaking, or gesturing, or wandering eyes. If anyone is caught doing these things then you will be made to leave the facility at once. The Detuner on the frame of the door has frozen any electronic devices you may have brought in, and mobile signals to this room have been blocked. I trust that you will all do your best. You may begin.

As though the last few seconds had been a blur, Aeryn was confronted with a screen of questions. The first page told her that there were one hundred marks available, a section each for Earth, Space (and sky) and Water. Breathing deeply to calm herself, she expanded her page into an average question paper, with questions, lines to type onto and the occasional diagram. She read the first question, or rather began to read, until her eye was caught by the boy in front of her.

He had slipped a small black object from his pocket, with a flat, metallic base and a rounded top that curved up into a spike. Aeryn gripped the side of her chair as he reached under the table, placing the object onto the underside of the screen to which it clung like a limpet. The screen then showed the visual equivalent of white noise before a new document expanded.

The boy was regularly switching between the new document and the examination questions, and it didn’t take long for Aeryn to figure out was the little device was.

A cheat sheet.

She contemplated alerting Celia, but Aeryn wasn’t so sure of that woman yet, and whether or not she’d be annoyed at Aeryn’s eyes having wandered to the boy was debatable.

An anger for the candidate in front of her consumed Aeryn’s thoughts and she sighed irately, glaring towards the clock. She had wasted fifteen minutes.

Once again, she read the first question, squinting so that she would focus on the screen only, and not on the boy that was misting her eyes with a deadly cloud of crimson.

*

“I completely screwed that up,” muttered Malcolm, as he and Aeryn met back at the atrium. “In the space questions, I put Saturn before Jupiter,” he knocked the palm of his hand against his forehead, “I mean, that’s GCSE-1.0 stuff!”

As Malcolm continued to post mortem every question he could think of (which was pretty much all of them), Aeryn dug her hands into her pockets and glared across the room at the solitary boy in the corner, though was brought out of her ireful reverie when her fingers tickled a cold metal chain. She lifted it and hung it in front of her eyes. It was a silver necklace with a thick glass pendant filled with what looked like the stars of a thousand galaxies.

“Where’ve you been hiding that?” asked Malcolm, evidently having calmed down now that he’d reviewed every question.

“I don’t know,” Aeryn murmured, then blinked and smiled, “Sorry, I mean I found it in my pocket. It’s not mine, but I bet the owner’s long gone by now.”

“Keep it,” Malcolm said, shrugging, “It’s nice.” Aeryn’s smile broadened a little. Her first thought had been of what it would look like around her neck, and Malcolm’s words felt like consent.

“There’s a button on the back,” Malcolm said, and took the hanging jewellery, pressed a round silver button and the glass lit up, sparkling as if a fire really roared within them.

“Nice find,” Malcolm grinned, passing it back to Aeryn, who gazed at the piece with wide eyes. She’d never thought much of adorning oneself with what was essentially chunks of metal, but this was something else, this had character.

“Come here,” Malcolm said, and took the necklace again, this time clasping it around her neck as she lifted her voluminous chestnut curls. Celia entered the room just as Aeryn tucked the pocket universe beneath her collar.

“The computer has read and marked your tests,” she began. “After you have had your lunch you will convene in a different building, to which you will be taken by Orbus staff. Further instructions wait for you there.”

Once again, the candidates were herded like cattle into the canteen building. It must have been used specifically for candidates, because I was empty when they entered.

Aeryn was sat at a table with her roommates, Malcolm and a couple of boys from his room, picking at the remnants of her chicken salad when six blue clad men and women entered. The little circle of white plastic table that her plate was set on sunk through and reappeared empty.

“If you’ll follow us,” a man said. Aeryn squinted, but couldn’t make out the name on his badge. There was a clattering of chair legs against the linoleum floor, and then they were following the Orbus employees.

They were taken through another blue-washed corridor with several doors on either side, then into an empty room, empty but for the randomly clustered chairs. Aeryn cautiously took as seat, there was a door on either side of the room, one of which they had just walked through. The same man who had spoken before stepped in front of the opposite door. The candidates were silent.

“You’ll be called one at a time for interviews. Until your name is called, you are free to do as you wish, but must remain in this room.”

The man smiled broadly, then positioned himself beside the door and stood in silence. His co-workers were stationed equidistant from each other against the walls, and gradually the noise in the room picked up to a clamour as the candidates began to speculate.

“Julia Anderson, come with me, please.” Celia had appeared in the door frame, bearing a warm smile for the girl whose knees knocked together as she rose from her seat, wringing her clammy hands.

After five to ten minutes, Celia reappeared to call in the next candidate, though Julia Anderson did not reappear, and Malcolm was growing ever more nervous as the number of people left gradually decreased.

“Malcolm Corner?”

Malcolm stared at Aeryn with wide, anxious eyes for a moment before breaking into a brave smile and standing up.

“Good luck,” Aeryn said, feeling unusually nervous for him. She didn’t usually concern herself with the thoughts and feelings of others, but something about Malcolm’s childish nature made her feel as if she was there to look after him.

“Thanks,” he said, and in the next second he was through the door, gone. Aeryn gravitated to where Sienna was sitting with a large group of people whom she hadn’t yet introduced herself to, and was glad as they were one by one called to be interviewed before she had the chance.

“Sienna Kepling?”

Sienna had luck wished upon her by almost every candidate, and Aeryn couldn’t help but wonder, as she found a seat for herself away from the others, how she had managed to impress herself upon them in such a short period of time. Sienna was not away for very long.

“Aeryn Miller?”

No one wished her luck as she strode towards the door with false confidence, though Aeryn contented herself with the thought that Malcolm definitely would have.

Aeryn walked into a cold, bare room with a table in the centre that Celia was already settling herself at. Beside her was an E-Voice, to record their conversation and convert it into text.

“Sit,” Celia said, as Aeryn realised that she was standing rigid. She sat clumsily and landed heavily on the seat as Celia clasped her hands together on the table. Aeryn laughed nervously.

“So, your test results,” Celia said, jumping right in. She touched the table with every fingertip on her right hand and Aeryn was presented with her exam, complete with several large X’s, question marks and rare ticks.

“What does that mean?” Aeryn said, pointing to one of the question marks that littered her exam.

“It means that the computer didn’t know what to make of it. It’s very unusual; you have a question mark on almost every one of the questions that weren’t purely knowledge based.”

Aeryn nodded but remained silent, staring at Celia quizzically and willing her to continue. Celia leaned forward.

“It means, Miss Miller, that you need a human to read you. Not a quality often found these days, because when I read your answers, I felt like I was inside your head.” She pointed sharply at Aeryn’s forehead, “A little- jumbled, certainly, but also rather extraordinary.”

“Extraordinary?” Aeryn repeated, raising her eyebrows.

“Mmhm,” Celia leaned across the table and flipped the virtual pages, “however I noticed that you, and very few other candidates, did not actually finish.”

Aeryn gulped, unable to explain why, her pride stepping on her toes.

“Could you tell me why?” Celia asked, “You seem rather too bright.” Aeryn stared at the table, at the questions with no answers.

“I, ah, took some time to read all of the questions first, to see what I was dealing with.” For a second, the E-Voice flashed an angry red, and though Celia appeared not to have noticed it, her eyebrows shot up at the falsehood.

“Even at the expense of finishing the exam?” she asked, gazing at Aeryn as if she was a curious specimen trapped beneath a microscope. Aeryn nodded.

“Tell me, why did you sign up for Orbus?”

Aeryn breathed a sigh of relief and grinned, that was easy.

The rest of her precious few minutes to impress passed in a flash, and Aeryn soon found herself dismissed and reaching for the door.

“I see you have a black mark on your record…”

Aeryn froze and cursed beneath her breath. It had been going so well. She turned around to face the woman dealing with her gate at this facility. Celia smiled.

“Consider is erased.”

Aeryn thanked her fervently as she wrenched open the door and dashed into the next room, where the rest of the candidates were being held in isolation.

“Well, what happened, how did it go? Was it good, bad? The Abbey girl was crying when I came in, her must have gone awful!

Aeryn slumped down onto a nearby chair and laughed, actually, really, happily laughed.

“It went really, really well.”

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