Disclaimer: I do not own Subnautica. Unknown Worlds does.

Chapter published 1/28/18.


Varien

The following days and weeks were among the happiest, most relaxed ones he could remember.

When he'd first landed, it'd been a raw struggle for survival against the elements, a desperate rush to get food and water and a shelter that wouldn't be smashed by hurricanes. Then it was fruitlessly searching for survivors, to try and get to them before they died while also learning Volara's language. Then it was making sure he got to the Sunbeam before it left without him. Then it was a terrible month of desperately looking for a cure.

And now it was over. He had plenty of food and water. There was no danger. No rush. Finally, Varien could relax and take his time.

Which was fine, because moving his base all the way down to Volara's cave had more than a few technical challenges. There was an entire day spent down there planning what to do, then an entire week spent with his terraformer digging tunnels beneath her cave and dumping the rocks in the shallows. Then the step-by-step creation of his habitat, with many Cyclops trips back and forth.

Now that he wasn't fighting for his life, though, Varien could afford to be non-utilitarian with his designs. Plenty of tables and benches, a vending machine, even an aquarium. And reinforcements. Lots and lots of plasteel reinforcements.

By the end of two weeks, he'd fully moved in. Most of his new base was underground, tunneling through the black rock beneath Volara's cave to save space. He'd even made dedicated rooms for various things. There was his farming room, with all sorts of edible plants along with nonedible ones he'd grabbed from the Degasi island. There was a room solely dedicated to water filters, another one for storage, and so on. One even had an 'alien containment' chamber, which was just a gigantic, squat cylinder in the center of the room filled with water, with sand and plants along the bottom. He raised fish to eat there, with growth hormones to grow them fast and genetic scramblers to prevent inbreeding.

Power'd been only a minor concern. There was no sunlight, and there was no thermal energy. A bioreactor wouldn't cut it. Luckily he had the nuclear option, and just four reactor rods gave him all the power he'd need for the next decade and then some.

When he hadn't been busy building his habitat, he and Volara had spent hours in each others' company. She showed him around her territory in detail, showing off the unusual rock formations that were ten times his size. Varien managed to hack his PDA and bring it out of emergency mode, and showed her all sorts of pictures he had stored on it.

Amazingly, the picture of 4546B from orbit wasn't enough to convince her the world was round.

Varien happily walked through the metal hallway, munching on the last bits of a cooked spinefish while humming a tune. Ahead of him the tunnel ended in a ladder straight up. Swallowing the last of his food he grabbed the rungs and climbed up, easily hauling himself up the narrow tube of a vertical connector. The climb didn't exhaust him in the least. He hadn't noticed it while sick, but now he felt good. No, he felt great! He was in the best shape of his life, given all the swimming he'd been doing.

He finished climbing and ended up in his above-ground observatory, a sphere made of solid glass banded with titanium, tough enough to resist the water pressure. In its center was a small but comfortable bed. Varien walked forward and looked around, staring out into the black waters. The internal lighting pushed back the gloom right around him, but beyond that the only lighting was from the bioluminescent plants.

He walked over to the bed and sat on it, staring contentedly into the darkness. He saw the outline of his moonpools where they stuck out of the rock, as well as his docked Cyclops. Rouge Cradles cast their crimson lights around them, fading to sickly green by the time it reached him.

His smile turned to a grimace, and he rolled his left arm. He must've slept wrong, his shoulder was killing him.

To his left, a row of glowing dots came into view, arcs of lightning playing between them now and again. His heart jumped as the ampeel grew closer, but he didn't want to get ahead of himself. Varien fished out his translator and narrowed his eyes, inspecting the eel's head. A swirl there, another there, going around their eyes. If he recalled correctly...

"Herzaron, right?" he guessed, pointing at him.

"You guessed right," the ampeel said. "Where's Volara, little thing?"

Varien suppressed an eye roll. "Went out for the season, I think she's going to fertilize Ohmaron's eggs." He couldn't help but feel his face warm slightly at the words. It helped that the mere word Ohmaron made his spine chill and his left hand ache. At least he and Volara were getting along and, by extension, he wasn't trying to murder him anymore. "She left her own out for the blighters to eat not long ago." Ampeel eggs were strange. They were purple, oblong things, and on each end they had four nodes like actual ampeel prongs sticking out. They were big too, as big as his torso.

Herzaron chomped angrily at the water. "Oh for - damn it. I needed to see her. Very well, thank you." He ran a charge along his tusk prongs. "I'll just go look for her."

"Tell her I'm going to be out, please?" he asked, receiving another tusk-zap in response before Herzaron swam out, gone as quickly as he'd come.

He stayed in the observatory for another minute, admiring the scenery. A blighter came by with its rasping laugh and milky eyes, tapping uselessly against the enameled glass. It bashed against the observatory for a few minutes before realizing it wasn't going to get him, at which point it swam away. Varien took that as his cue to slide down the ladders and make his way over to his seamoth's moonpool. He took a few turns through the metal corridors until he arrived at another ladder to climb.

His seamoth rested in the middle of his moonpool, held aloft by the suction-cup arms. Beneath it the black waters churned peacefully, the pressure held at bay by surface tension amplifiers. Varien'd painted the vehicle in shades of black and light blue, not unlike the black stone and ghostly blood vines of the area. He climbed in and picked up his helmet from the floor and put it on. With that done he pressed a button on the submarine's dashboard, dropping it with a jolt into the icy water.

Sitting straight up in his seat, he piloted it out of the cavern and into the gloomy chasm. Varien didn't bother with headlights, and instead waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. Once they did, the barest details of the blood kelp zone came into view.

The ghostly vines stretched far overhead, clustering around him like a barren forest. Some stalks were higher than him, others started so far beneath him they didn't even reach his seamoth. Ghastly blighters harassed schools of eerie spinefish. Globs of blood oil tumbled from their stalks. Varien smiled, perfectly at ease in the alien landscape half a kilometer beneath the waves. Varien admired the chasm's cycle of life a few minutes longer, then gripped the steering wheel and headed off.

He didn't grow sloppy as he ascended. But neither did his heart pound, or his spine chill, or his hands go clammy when the planet's megafauna drifted in and out of vision. A crabsquid appeared far to the left, so he simply moved in the other direction. When he left the dark trench and passed through the mushroom forest, he skillfully wove between the bonesharks that frequented the stony spires.

The forest faded behind him as he piloted his submarine higher and higher. Sunlight trickled down in thin streaks, and a pod of bellowing reefbacks silhouetted themselves against the local star while Varien soared across the grassy plains. Dense splotches of kelp swam in and out of view. Then the land began to fall again, overgrown with purple and orange moss, transparent membrain trees, and massive blue orbs straining to float against their anchors of vegetation, with spadefish swimming around the strands. The ground tumbled out of sight, like an entire section of the volcanic island had deliberately fell into darkness. He'd arrived in the reef.

Varien stared down into the abyss, then sunk until he skirted the tops of the spheres. He piloted his seamoth in a long patrol, slowly moving inward, eyes peeled for both danger and the person he was looking for. She should be around somewhere... she lived in the reef, right?

After an hour of fruitless searching, and a quick lunch break, he finally spotted her.

There, paddling in the open waters with her head high and jagged mouth open, was a Sea Emperor Leviathan. Even in the darkness, she gave off enough bioluminescence that he could make out the outline. Her tendrils beat furiously against the water as she chased motes of grey detritus, batting at them playfully. She was larger than when he'd last seen her; she'd grown from the size of a human to the size of an ampeel. Her horns were still short and mandibles still nubby, but they'd certainly grown in proportion.

Varien drove closer to her and flashed her with his headlights. Aa-nvc-vx, or 'Nev' as he called her, froze and turned in place to look at him, orienting herself upright while Varien put on his helmet and climbed out of his submersible.

Then the quartet of azure eyes flew wide open and the edges of his vision shimmered with colors. "Friend Varien!" a little girl's voice squealed in his head while she audibly chirped. She shot forward with surprising speed and wrapped her paddle arms around him, drawing him close to her armored chest. "Oh I have not seen you in many a day!" she cheered, crushing him with her preternatural strength.

Pop!

She froze and instantly the crushing grip relaxed. Varien gasped for breath, then shifted his arm. "Oh, thanks. You fixed my shoulder."

Nev drifted away and covered her mouth with an arm, giggling. "Hee hee! You are most welcome. Apologies, friend Varien, but it has been so long! I simply could not contain myself!" Her antennae waved around, the yellow tips bobbing in the current. "Oh! Where are my manners?" She gestured to one of the pods. "Please, sit! Sit!"

Obeying her, he swam to a nearby blue orb and sat on its surface. It was springy to the touch, but firm. Nev sat on one across from him, wrapping her tentacles around and below it, pressing the teal nubs at the end of her tendrils into the sphere. She looked down at him and chirped out a happy song. "What ever brings you here, friend? I thought you were mostly spending your time with Volara and Qrt?"

He nodded, looking up at the leviathan across from him. "Usually, but I'm actually going around your siblings and getting messages from them," he said, tapping some buttons on his PDA. In a flash another tablet burst from his suit; Silvia's tablet, loaded up with interviews from Nev's siblings. Holding it made his heart just that much more leaden. "You know about the rocket?"

"The rocket..." she muttered, tilting her head this way and that. "I cannot say I do!"

"The Neptune escape rocket," he clarified. "The one Alterra transmitted blueprints for so I can build it and leave."

The flowing colors of Nev's telepathy turned grayscale and her head drooped. "... oh."

"I'm not leaving," he clarified. "But I still need to send it off. Nobody else knows that thinking people exist on this planet, Nev. I was hoping you could give just say a little hello to everyone out there?"

She lifted both paddles to her mouth and shivered. It was such a human gesture, it was disgustingly adorable. "Oh, you're putting me on the spot!" she whined. "What do I do? What do I say? Um, hello people in the future, I - "

"I haven't started recording yet." He tapped a button on the screen and held it up to her, recording the video. "Alright, now go."

"Oh! Um." She waved an arm. "Hello, people out there. I am - "

"It doesn't work if you use telepathy," he said aloud. "It can only translate if you actually talk."

"I knew thaaat," she whined, resting both arms on the orb beneath her. Nev opened her mouth and began clicking and chirping, his PDA translating for him. "So um, hello people out there." She tapped an arm against her armored chest. "I am Aa-nvc-vx." She looked down and hummed. "Oh goodness me, where do I begin." She looked back up at his PDA. "I hope you are all having a splendid day, whenever you see this." Nev looked around the PDA and at him. "That's how it works, right? They'll be able to see this whenever they so desire?"

"It is, Nev," he replied.

"Oh, good! Hee hee!" she giggled. "So, um, anyway..."

Nev continued to speak, talking about how she hoped that once more humans invariably arrived, that they could join together in peace and harmony and all sorts of sappy stuff he'd come to expect from the leviathan children. Personally, Varien just enjoyed listening to her talk. Sea Emperor chirps and clicks were melodious, soothing to the ear. Even when she hiccuped out a blob of enzyme and excused herself.

"... friend Varien here," she continued, gesturing to him. ", has shown us much of the ways of your people, and your ability to utilize metal and stone. I do dearly hope that such things will not be kept a secret between us, and - "

A haunting, bone-chilling scream tore through the water. Varien shouted and dropped the tablet, spinning around on the blue orb. With shaking hands and trembling fingers he picked it back up, realized it was recording him, and flipped it around while he searched through the black ocean for the source of the cry. He'd only heard anything like it once before.

It was a Ghost Leviathan.

Then, to his left and Nev's right, it appeared, water bubbling and frothing around its head as it charged with its sideways mouth wide open. His gut sunk nauseously as he took in the scale of the thing. It was bigger than the juvenile he'd found in the underground river. This one was nearly dragon sized. Two ampeels could've laid end to end on the blades of its head with room to spare. His thoughts froze and his legs stiffened while he tried fruitlessly to think of some way out of this.

Nev clicked angrily, and he spared a glance to see her antennae waving furiously. The Ghost Leviathan closed its mouth with a crunch and went still, staring at them with half a dozen sulfurous eyes. Then it released a grumbling roar and turned around, nearly bashing Varien with its whiplike tail as it returned to the abyss as suddenly as it'd come.

Nev looked at him, and he shakingly had the presence of mind to point the PDA at her. "My apologies," she huffed. Still sitting, Nev raised herself haughtily and used a tentacle to gesture to where the Ghost had been. "My neighbors are most rude."

"W-What did you d-do?" he stammered, still trying to get the ice off his heart.

"I simply told it that we are both poisonous, and if it even gets close to us it'll die. Poor thing simply is not bright enough to consider I may have lied."

That got his attention. "Ghost Leviathans have a language?" Two intelligent species was pushing it already. But a third?!

She shook her mighty head. "No, no, my friend. Not like us. But they do have dim concepts. Like the peepers squeaking to attract mates. Oh! So, where was I before we were so rudely interrupted?"

"S-Something about technology?" he supplied, his thoughts still overwhelmed.

"Right!" she giggled happily. "Anyway..."

Nev continued to talk for another half hour, at which point she started to run out of ideas. "Um... I don't know what else to say," she said at last. "Take care, humans?"

"I guess that'll be it, then." He tapped the PDA, turning it off.

"Goodbye, humans!" she said, waving a paddle.

"I already stopped recording."

She turned her head away, looking at him with only two eyes. "... I knew thaaat," she complained, this time with telepathy.

Varien chuckled and stood on top of the blue orb. He kicked off into the water and beat his legs against the currents to stay in place. "Alright, alright. I need to get going, lots of things to do with this. Thanks for taking the time to do this, Nev."

"But of course, my friend!" She squeezed her tendrils, popping her off the orb like a cork. The young leviathan swam over to him and gave him a playful nuzzle with her giant head, mindful of the sharp edges of her mouth. "Please, do not be a stranger! My home is open to you whenever!"

He smiled and stroked the hard plate above her jaws with a hand. "Alright, alright. But only if you stop by tomorrow for movie night."

Nev chuckled, which for Emperors was a gleeful, rising and falling chirp without a moment's break. "I have no idea what that is, but I shall! I assume Qrt will be there too?" He nodded. "Then it is agreed! Hee hee." With a twirl of her tendrils, she spun away from him. "I shall head over at sundown tomorrow, then! Farewell, friend Varien!"

"Bye!" he waved as she swam into the darkness. He climbed back into his seamoth, gripped the wheel, and turned around. The rocket wouldn't build itself, after all.


With a grunt, he gripped the switch and threw it. The rocket shuddered beneath his feet, and a young woman's voice sounded around him. "Hydraulics system online."

"Three down." He stepped around to the ladder, rapped a fist on the empty storage bin to his left, and climbed up. As Varien climbed up into the roof, he entered a slim gap between the floors that let him see the shining white reactor core of the escape rocket. Then it slipped beneath him, and Varien pulled himself up onto the floor of the cockpit.

It was a hemisphere of a room, with multiple reinforced windows above to show the blue, sunny sky, with not a cloud to obscure it. A rarity given how much water there was. In the center were two tables centered around a swiveling black command chair, with holograms projected above them. The rocket wasn't set to launch yet.

Varien headed to the primary computer. He'd spent weeks reprogramming it, looking for any potential bugs, and changing the destination coordinates. He tapped a few buttons, and the rocket let him know it was online.

With his heart pounding in his chest, he walked to the next structure. He placed an open palm against the scanner, which beeped and opened the panel to its right to expose a time capsule. The capsule was about as long as he was tall, little more than a cylinder with rounded ends. He put in a few of the more rare resources - kyanite and crystalline sulfur - along with a picture of the Aurora's decaying frame sitting on the horizon. As for the message, he didn't know what to say. So he didn't write anything, and let the time capsule seal itself away.

Last but not least was the life support. Face leaden, he turned it on.

"Life support online. Rocket ready for departure at your command, captain," it informed him.

Varien sighed and looked around. Sure enough, the holograms were green, ready to launch. He slid down the ladders, opened one of the storage compartments, and placed Silvia's PDA - filled with all the data on 4546B's geology and biosphere he could gather, along with video messages from himself, the Emperors, and Volara - inside. He stroked it one last time, trying not to think of how it was the last thing he had connecting him to her. He squashed a stab of bitterness at the thought of Silvia's fate, and locked the compartment.

With that done he opened the entry door and stepped outside. A warm, salty ocean breeze blew over his face, billowing around in his ears. He put his helmet on with mechanical stiffness. Making sure not to look down - because wow that was a drop - he walked over to the elevator and ordered it to go down. Once down he jumped off the launch platform and, after pulling out his seaglide from his suit, made his way to a rocky nook in the shallows, where the land almost pierced through the choppy surface.

Volara was there, her long and dark body coiled around the cramped space. Her beady emerald eyes stared at him while she finished eating a stunned peeper, and her tail fin flicked happily. "So it's done?" she asked. He imagined that it wasn't just Volara looking; the Emperor children were probably looking through her eyes. Maybe even his. He wouldn't have been able to tell. Creepy.

After taking a moment to grab his translator, he nodded. "It's ready. Let me just..." He swam to the elevated stone and stood; it was tall enough that the upper half of his body stuck up out of the waves. Varien looked at the rocket, a safe distance away over the grass plains. The Aurora was to its right, a pale and mammoth shadow of the vessel standing ready to leave the planet.

Next to him, Volara stuck her head out of the water. She closed her eyes in discomfort as the water ran off her carapace, then opened them again. "You're sure about this?"

He was. Varien had rigged the rocket to be able to launch remotely; he wasn't going with it. His parents didn't think highly of him, Silvia was dead, and there was the small matter of his one trillion credit debt to Alterra. The last one he could probably lawyer his way out of, but not easily. There was nothing waiting for him back there, while meanwhile here he had friends, someone to live with, and he was healthier than he'd ever been.

There were things he'd miss. He'd miss greasy fast food auto-shops. He'd miss all the new movies and games and books. He'd miss solid ground. The hustle and bustle of cities. The sparse and welcoming countrysides. But those were all creature comforts, and he had plenty of those already in his new habitat.

"I'm sure." He held up his PDA and raised a finger over the appropriate button. "Here goes." He brought his finger in, hesitated, then shook his head and pressed it against his tablet.

For a moment nothing happened, but then the escape rocket began to roar. Light shone from the thrusters. Varien mentally counted down from ten, wondering if he was counting too fast or too slow.

Three, two, one, liftoff, he thought. No liftoff. Too fast, then.

A second later, fire exploded from the rocket. A sound like a Reaper's roar cut through the air, making both him and Volara back away. Plumes of smoke erupted up and around, obscuring the ship. Then the nose punched through the smoke like a fist. Crackling and bellowing, the metal ship lifted into the air atop a blinding pillar of fire, sending skyrays flying for shelter. Varien craned his neck back as the ship rose higher and higher, growing smaller and smaller until it was just a speck of light at the end of a narrow trail of smoke. It veered off to the side, flying not just straight up but also towards the local star. Was it out of the atmosphere already?

He stared wistfully at the rocket as it continued for a while longer. The fiery light vanished and the plume of smoke ended. Then, scant seconds later, there was the brilliant blue flash of warp travel. The rocket was gone.

Varien had not just programmed the rocket to go without him. He knew what Alterra was like - Silvia had spent many nights griping about some of its more predatory practices - and while their laws said that planets with intelligent species weren't to be touched, it'd be all too easy to suppress that information and come in anyway to pillage and plunder. And not with the makeshift weaponry he'd had, but with actual military-grade weapons.

So, the rocket wasn't going to Alterra. Instead it was going to the peace-and-harmony hippy Mongolians. Whatever else he could say about those religious idiots, they'd definitely put protections on 4546B once they found the data he'd sent.

He breathed out. "Well, that's it," he said, turning to Volara.

She glanced at him, not turning her head, and dove back beneath the waves. He followed after her and sat on a rock while the friendly megafauna drifted in the currents in front of him. "And it's gone," she whispered with dim arcs of lightning. "You stayed." She looked up at him. "Varien, I - I know you said, but I was afraid that you'd..." She looked down and sent a sigh crackling along her glowing prongs. "I was afraid."

"Hey, hey." He set the translator somewhere he could see and swam closer, stroking her head just above her mouth. This close he could see every one of her needle fangs, locked in an eternal frown, of the flesh inside her nasal arch. "This is my home. I'm not going anywhere." Varien kicked off from her and grabbed his translator.

"Now come on," he told the ampeel, his heart swimming in a mix of regret and nostalgia and relief and indecision. "Let's go home."


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