The Shell: One

One:

Static hummed, the recording looped again, and Emily heard Knox’s final message once more, “Remember, you are the only one who can do this now. Keep yourself safe, keep the shell safe, deliver it, and all will be fine. If you’re worried, know that I’m with you. If you think you might be hurt or the specimen has been compromised, send a report through your bracelet. It will take time to reach the doctors, but your journey will take time as well. Godspeed to you.”

Pulling herself up from her mat, Emily again eyed the shell that had been made one with her protective suit. The cobalt blue dome rose from the back of the already cumbersome environment suit like an egg-shaped backpack that weighed about as much as a rock that size. Minding the cord that linked from her sternum, into the suit, and through its backside into the vessel, Emily began to armor up. First would be the back, naturally, as it could stand upright on its own as she sealed the breastplate, a dome of super-treated titanium over her chest. Already she felt the weight, the bulkiness of the armor, but more importantly, the drain the specimen was on her. It was akin to a parasite, sapping nutrients and oxygen from her blood, but at least it took care of its own waste. Continuing, she locked the almost spherical shoulder pad down to then affixed the arms. Emily left her hands free to clamp the lower pieces of armor in place. She had difficulty with those smaller locks with the enlarged fingers of the armor. The helmet was last; it wouldn’t need to be pinned to anything else. The final step of the process would take care of any loose connections. With all her gear set and ready, Emily engaged the synchronization, networking every piece to work as a stable entity as well as giving life to the display that made up her view in the helmet.

Greenlight blossomed on the monitor, the system quickly booted and began to register her vitals. Next, it began to scan everything in sight, giving readings and sending relevant reports when necessary. This abandoned tunnel had been considered safe enough the day prior for Emily to remove the suit. She was relieved to see the same reading as evening came. The last of the critical information popped up on the screen; the sun was falling on Yhoriel, the charge for the suits defensive systems was above ninety, and the specimen was still healthy. With all signs reading clear, Emily gathered up her loose gear and tossed it into her pack. Slinging the bag over one shoulder, Emily eyed her helmet once more in the smooth, shining stone that was nearly reflective enough to be a mirror. It looked like a great mushroom jutting out from between two boulders with its curved dome and slender length. She would have much rather taken any other model, even one with one of those retro bubble helmets, but this was what best suited the Yhoriel environment.

Stalking out of the tunnel, bore by some unseen creature into the tall hill’s side, Emily looked out on the sickly landscape of this alien world. It’s night sky was an anti-freeze green, Emily wasn’t sure if that was due to the moon or what, but it kept her ill at ease. Being slightly bothered by the sight of the sky itself was probably for the best, though. Emily had to be on her guard here, no matter what. Around any corner, over any hill, and certainly under every rock, there lurked any number of hazards she’d have to avoid. Climbing her way up to the hill’s apex, Emily scouted around, allowing the sensors in her helmet to pick up direction, terrain, and navigate the best course based on satellite imagery of the planet. To what the computers assessed as south was where Emily had come from the night before, the last outpost, now derelict and no doubt ravaged by native marauders. She needed to reach the extraction point which the map charted as being northwest from her current position. However, going due west would drop Emily off the only landmass that existed on this continent of Yhoriel, and to the north was a sea composed of a native, acidic element that had yet to be named. Taking its sweet time, the computer charted its maps repeatedly until finally, it had constructed a route, but by no means was that a simple path to follow.

Navigating around the hilly lowlands was one thing; going east miles out of her way was an entirely different thing. As her display outlined her route passing through territories that were definitely occupied by natives, Emily was put on edge. However, it would be necessary to trek east before heading north to avoid the caustic sea. A land bridge would dump her off far enough north to reach her destination without having to try to climb her way over across the rocky face of the western coast. Yet, just as damning and terrifying as passing through inhabited lands, Emily would have to navigate caves that ran deep into the planet beneath the sea. They would lead her out just where she had to be, but it would take careful pathfinding to get in and out of without incident. Ready to curse a blue streak as the display asked if this route would be suitable, Emily glowered to herself and accepted it.

Picking her way down the hill, entering into the lowlands that snaked around a multitude of similar flat-topped mounds, Emily began to wonder. The specimen was supposed to be the very last of its kind, an acquisition the Foundation could not pass up. Yhoriel had provided little in the way of resources for the Foundation and served as more of a testing ground, but once they came across the cappera, things changed. Seeing how the animals were used almost as some alchemical magic box, there was no way they could ignore the potential they had. However, as they were, the cappera were just prey for the monstrosities planetside. Extracting even one had sent the primitives into a frenzy, causing mass panic, hoarding, and near extinction of the animals. They were too slow and docile to escape; however, before they were all snatched up, the outpost, they had secured one of the critters.

Emily saw firsthand as the wrinkled, fuzzy creature devoured basic carbon and produced iron as a result. They had tried a few different substances and received mixed results; still, the findings were enough to entice the Foundation. The animal did not go unnoticed; however, there was no place to hide a bright orange caterpillar the size of a subway car. In no time, the natives laid siege to the outpost, leaving no survivors, not even the cappera. What they had not known, as they gutted the research team and no doubt began to devour their flesh, was that two had gotten away, Emily and an infant cappera. Knowing all she knew of the Foundation and their pension for abusing such ground-breaking finds as this, Emily had to ask herself if it was all worth it. Still, there would be no cure for it; she would need to reach the extraction point if she wanted to survive. The Foundation would likely leave her behind if she didn’t have the specimen with her. The moon pressed on through the night sky, as it passed its zenith, Emily reached the end of the hilly lands.

Just as the hills petered out, Emily nearly dropped herself down a wide fissure that tore through the earth several miles in each direction. Plummeting, especially with the delicate specimen on her person, was a terrifying notion; however, speculation as to what lurked below was far worse. She had seen more than her fair share of the native beasts to the land, not a one of them was something she wanted business with. Cappera were one thing, but the urchins, serpents, and the litany of yet to be classified fiends were another thing entirely. What worried Emily most was the possibility Gary had put in her head days prior. He had seen some of the natives pouring out of a hole in the ground before, taking a cappera without notice or trouble. If that were true, if they did live below the surface, Emily wasn’t sure even hurdling the gap meant she would be safe. Still, there was no other route, the display showed no optional paths around the crevasse.

Emily got a distance from the rift before charging forward, the suit and cumbersome shell on her back slowed her movements, but the slightly lower gravity of the planet allowed her to clear the gap. As she landed and stumbled a few steps forward, Emily glanced back at the opening, looking to comfort herself that she had, in fact, done it. A three-fingered claw rose out of the dark, it was no wider than a human hand, yet it stretched to an unnatural length. It fondled the ground, seeking whatever had just been there. Emily quietly as she was able, backed away from the opening, unsure what was connected to the claw. After a few seconds of searching, the ebony limb retracted into the gash, a low rumbling echoed forth, but that was all that came of it. Shaken, yet not yet altogether deterred from her journey, Emily turned tail and made away from the rift, down into flatlands only partially broken by winding, narrow rock walls.

In these low valleys, there was little if any shelter to be had for the coming day. There was a sparse population of trees; however, even were they plentiful, the flora was little more than sticks. They bore no leaves, but upon closer inspection, Emily found the thin, straight branches were populated with hundreds and thousands of microscopic needles. Their reddish hue gave the trees their overall appearance despite the wood itself being a light tan. They produce a fruit that could almost have resembled a pinecone without any of the deep rifts that characterized them. Where the recesses should have been were softer space that would break free with a little force. By her scans, Emily determined the fruit were edible enough for human consumption. She gathered up a fair amount in her satchel and made her way to a slightly enclosed narrow between two rock walls.

Both of the orange, sandy

columns that she sat between were low, just barely taller than the trees which were not of great size. However, Emily counted herself lucky to look up from where she sat and not find the scolding light of the sun overhead. The slight roof that covered the dead-end was its most valuable feature. Were she to have settled anywhere that the light touched, Emily would find her suit charred, the battery drained from maintaining a reasonable internal temperature, and potential damage for the specimen. Taking off the shell, Emily pressed the metallic egg into the narrowest confines of her makeshift shelter. It was entirely necessary to put the specimen’s well being first. They both would have been hidden from the sun’s light either way, but she felt better safe than sorry. Were anything to come of the specimen, she would likely find herself stranded, the Foundation without concern for abandoning her.

Settling with her back against the shell, Emily sent a report out for the specimen, not that she worried but to keep the Foundation’s eyes on her. If they forgot about her on this backwater planet, this hunk of dirt that was hardly worth conquest, it would mean it was all for nothing. After sending for a reading on the cappera, Emily slid off the helmet, finding the environment around her safe enough for that much. She did not proceed to remove any more of the suit, without the security that the burrow dug by what she assumed was a now long-dead cappera adult, she couldn’t afford to risk it. With haste, Emily broke open the native fruits and ate more than half of what she had harvested. The other half would have to wait until woke the next evening. It wasn’t until her stomach was full and that she finally let her body come to rest that Emily again felt the drain. Even after eating all she dared, taking of the purified water in her satchel and guzzling down more than what she definitely needed, the creature still demanded more of her. Convincing herself all would be well; Emily decided the pupa could wait to be fed again until the sun fell. Sluggishly, she rested her body against the egg, staying in an upright position despite having space enough to lie down. Somehow, having that little bundle of life closer to her felt comforting, her insurance policy for a ticket off the planet.

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