Disclaimer: I, sadly, do not own Subnautica. Unknown Worlds does.
Massive thanks to DevoutRelic for editing, and A Mage's Apprentice for editing earlier chapters. This story wouldn't have been the same without you.
Chapter published 2/11/18.
A Few Years Later
With a start, he woke from a nightmare. Heart pounding beneath his icy skin, Varien sat straight up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
Damn it. Another one? He thought he'd gotten over those; it'd been a month since the last one. He sat up in his bed, sending the sheets tumbling down, and placed a hand over his roaring heart.
To his left, outside the observatory's glass dome, Volara's massive form woke up. Her glowing eyes snapped open, and her prongs cast enough light for him to see the outline of her body curled up on a mat of plants. "Bad dream?" she asked, the light-show of her speech hurting his grimy eyes.
"Yeah," he grunted, swinging his feet over the side of the bed. Varien stood and stretched, popping his spine in a few places. Damn, was he getting old? "It's fine. Just a dream about bleeders."
"If you say so. Varien, you know I'm here if you ever feel that you're not fine."
A grin broke out on his face. "Thanks for the concern, but it's not the worst I've had. I'm gonna grab breakfast, okay?"
Volara drifted up and gently nudged her mighty snout against the glass. "Be quick!"
He took a moment to marvel at the swirling patterns on her carapace. "I will, I will," he called, turning away and heading down the ladder into the depths of his habitat. A few turns and ladders later brought him to his alien containment chamber. He snagged a few of the reginald fish roaming about within the cylindrical aquarium, cooked them at a nearby fabricator, then climbed higher up in his habitat until he was back in his observatory-slash-bedroom.
Varien sat on his bed, crossed his legs, and started munching on the greasy, mohawked fish. He stared outside into the blackness of Volara's cave, willing his eyes to adjust. There was Volara, with her massive glowing rows of prongs, chewing on a blood crawler. Around her, three smaller rows of light swam about in energetic loops and spirals. The smaller ampeels were puny next to Volara, barely able to reach from the bottom of her head to the top, only as long as he was tall.
One of them, with lines going up and down from her eyes, curled around a blood crawler's severed, spiky leg, chewing on the barbs. "Dipolara, no playing with your food," he chided, wagging a finger at her.
She uncoiled around it and whipped around to face him. "Sorry, Dad," she groused in a burst of static. Dipolara brought her jaws around to the wide end of the leg and started crunching the armor to get at the meat inside.
Varien finished his breakfast first, washing it down with coffee. He slipped into his reinforced dive suit - then checked and double checked it was secure - and opened one of the many hatches in his habitat. Feet first, he entered the oily waters and swam over to where the four ampeels'd be able to see him. He and Volara made small talk while the fries ate, his translator always close at hand. Once they were done he beat his flippered feet to where Dipolara, Faralaron, and Magnelara could all see him. "Alright, you three. Come on, time for lessons."
Magnelara smacked Diploara with her tail fin. "Don't complain!"
"Sorry, Dad," she grumbled, looking away.
Volara ran a laugh along her prongs, rising into the water. "Alright I'm full. I'm going over to Ohmaron's, they wanted me for some redecorating. Be good for your father, you three." The giant ampeel coiled about in the water until she was turned around. With a swaying motion of her long body she swam out of the cave, vanishing from Varien's sight in seconds.
He pulled his seaglide out. "Come on, let's head down," he told the fries. He held down the handle and let the machine pull him forward, the human-sized ampeel children easily keeping pace with him.
It was insulting how easily they could swim as fast as his seaglide even while so young.
They burst from the cavern entrance and oriented straight down, passing the black, quartz-streaked rocks to reach the ocean floor. All around Varien the familiar, ghostly beauty of the blood kelp zone surrounded him. Beautiful but dangerous. He always had to remember that; one blighter biting his suit would be the end of him. At least he had apex predators on his side.
He touched down on a dull, worn stalagmite and stored his seaglide away. He'd spent the trip down running through the day's lessons in his head. Some hunting skills, mainly in identification, leading into math seemed good.
Varien reached into his dive suit, and pulled out one of the dead, bony spinefish he'd kept stored there. He let go and the fish flopped limply, slowly but steadily rising through the water. "Alright, who can tell me if this one is dead, or just pretending to be dead?" he asked.
The three ampeels looked among each other, crackling to each other in quiet whispers. "It's alive!" Faralaron said at last, his eyes happy.
"No, it's dead!" Dipolara insisted, pushing in front.
Varien reached up and dragged the dead fish back down.
"... I think it's alive," Magnelara said from the back.
He held up his hands. "Stop, stop," Varien called. "Faralaron, why do you think it's alive?"
"Well it's still all bright and stuff! It isn't rotten or anything."
Varien nodded, keeping his lips tight to avoid smiling. He turned to the other ampeel fry. "Dipolara? Why's it dead?"
"Well look at all that flaky white stuff on it! It's gotta be dead!" she insisted, coiling energetically in the pitch black water.
"Aaaactually, I agree with Faralaron," Magnelara said, swimming around to look her sister in the eye. "That white stuff could just be the flakes they eat - "
"Actually," Varien spoke up, grabbing their attention. "Dipolara's right, it's dead."
"You can tell," he continued. ", by the flakes. These, you see, are fungus." He rubbed one of the white, squishy flakes between his fingers, showing off how it came apart. "This one was dead for long enough to start rotting. Rotting doesn't always mean it gets darker, Faralaron."
The fry looked away awkwardly. "... oh," he muttered.
"It's alright," he said, swimming closer and scratching Faralaron's chin. He leaned in and crackled happily, but he was young enough and Varien's suit was insulative enough that the electricity just tickled. "Everyone makes mistakes, and I sure didn't know how to tell until your mother told me. Alright, now, let's try another one."
Varien ran his kids - the mere thought sent his heart hammering and a heady warmth into his head - through several more trial spinefish, then took a lunch break. For them, the lunch was said spinefish, or the ones that weren't old and rotten anyway. Sadly, Varien couldn't exactly eat while in his suit, so he toughed it out. He didn't mind if it was for them, and -
- and he'd gone through much, much worse than missing one lunch. The pit in his stomach, the dizziness, the sensation of his limbs being sucked in -
A sparkle of lights in his face shook him out of it, and Varien found his head fuzzy and his glass visor foggy. His lungs were tight; had he been hyperventilating?
"Dad?" Faralaron asked, close enough to take up most of his vision. Squeezing into the corners of his field of view, his daughters looked at him despairingly too.
He breathed out weakly, body shuddering, and drew Faralaron into a crushing hug. He hadn't even noticed he'd sunk back to the ocean floor. Magnelara and Dipolara came in around his back and legs, crackling out of sight so that he couldn't see what they were saying as they nuzzled into him.
The horror faded, the terror receded and the memory went back to a memory. He pulled away and let out a shaky breath. "Okay, okay. I - I think we should call it for now. Let's head back."
The fries shared uneasy looks, but zapped their tusks and followed him as he seaglided back up to the cave with the ampeels on his tail. His habitat, even with the lights off, stuck out in the darkness when his lights fell upon the glossy metal hull. Like a crazed man he wrenched open a hatch and tumbled inside, letting his seaglide clang and clatter into a corner.
Varien trudged to his bed and collapsed on it, staring up at the glass ceiling of the observatory. Dipolara, Faralaron, and Magnelara swam to the top, looking down at him. "Dad, are you sure you're okay?" Magnelara asked with dim zaps.
"I'm fine, I'm fine," he said, waving off her concern.
"Here!" Dipolara bopped the hatch with her snout, and when he opened it to inspect, she spat a spinefish from her jaws into the habitat. "You didn't eat anything when we were."
His heart warmed and he smiled at her generosity. Varien picked up the dead fish, headed over to the fabricator at the far end of the corridor, and cooked it. Varien stumbled over to his bed and sat on it, nibbling the chewy, watery flesh of his food while the ampeel children swam around the observatory, looking at him worriedly. But time passed, minutes ticked on, and when they saw he was fine, they started playing and joking around with each other, nipping each other's armor and zapping the water.
Varien smiled and looked up at them playing, and his thoughts started to wander. Time to time, when going about his day, Varien sometimes felt gnawing doubts telling him he should've gone with the rocket. That he still could build a new one and leave. That this dangerous world was no place for a human, however beautiful it was. That he missed the creature comforts of living in federation space. But he'd come up and watch the kids - his kids! - playing, or take one look at Volara, and he'd remember why he stayed here.
He wondered if the rocket had arrived in Mongolian space yet. Probably not; it was a years-long trip there, to say nothing of the round trip. Varien allowed himself a smile; he could only imagine some poor desk lackey getting the messages on his PDA and spitting their coffee all over a monitor when they read it.
He finished up his lunch and jumped back into the water, rounding up the fries and running them through addition and subtraction. Though privately he wondered if maybe Faralaron was ready for multiplication. It'd be easier with a written language, but whatever. One step at a time.
Eventually a hum of electricity, louder than the three fries trying to work out twenty-seven minus twelve, came to his ears and he spun around in the water to see Volara swimming in. "You're back!" he greeted, swimming in. They met up and Volara nudged her snout into his stomach, driving him into the stone floor while wriggling her body around excitedly. "How was it?"
She let go and drifted a safe distance before talking again. "Well, Zaparon kept trying - oh!"
"Mom, you're back!" Magnelara shouted, rubbing her snout along the underside of Volara's head. The other fries swarmed her, their serpentine, glowing forms dwarfed by their mother.
"We were just going over their numbers," he told her, swimming in place with ease. "I had some trouble around mealtime, but I'm better now."
Volara snapped her attention to him. "You did?" she asked quietly. She swam close. Not too close to talk, but close enough to make out the worry in her gently glowing eyes. "Do you want to talk about it?"
No. "Sure. It was... you know how before we met, I had a rough time? I just... I was so hungry back then, and I skipped lunch with the fries, so..."
"Hey, hey," Volara insisted. She swam in and nuzzled him, and he responded by leaning in and laying his head on her snout, feeling warm and tingly. Then she drifted away. "It's behind you. Anyway - "
Colors flooded into his vision and he shouted. Volara and the fries contorted about in surprise too, but they all quickly relaxed. The familiar visage of a Sea Emperor, with painfully bright eyes, appeared in his field of view. "I'm sorry, am I interrupting?" Aa-qrt-vx - or Quart as Varien called him - asked.
He swam to his observatory and sat on the glass dome. "Uh, sort of, why?"
"Well, it's just that you invited me over, and it's about time for movie night?" Quart shyly insisted.
His eyes widened. "Really? Already?" Yeesh, did living in pitch darkness messed with his sense of time or what? He turned to the ampeels, then focused back on the hallucination. "Uh, sure, come on over. I'll get it set up." The vision faded and he turned to Volara. "Be right back, I gotta go get it set up."
"Go ahead!" she said with a dip of her head.
Without further ado, he slipped back into the shelter and fished out his PDA. He flipped through his collection of movies - enough to last him several lifetimes - and chose one he thought they'd like. It was an old classic from the 2050s, revolving around the drama of automation taking over even skilled and creative labor in some parts of Earth. He ran a few light tests to make sure it could project properly - he'd terraformed a smooth slab of stone just for this purpose - and supported the PDA properly so it'd stay in place.
By the time he got it set up, Quart arrived. With his natural luminescence, the teenage Sea Emperor took the form of a dark blob with teal outlines, so large he could barely fit through the cave entrance. And he still wasn't done growing, either! It amazed him how big the creatures on 4546B could get. "I'm here," he called out telepathically, squeezing his tentacles through the gap.
Magnelara, Faralaron, and Dipolara cheered when he arrived and charged at him. The fries wrapped around his mandibles and hung from his horns, crackling excitedly.
"Qrt, you're here!"
"Don't call me that, I'm not that much older than you."
"Hey, Qrt-vx. Good to see you."
Volara swam up to him, and Qrt turned to her and bowed his head. "Friend Volara, friend Varien, thank you for inviting me into your home," he said, gesturing calmly with his paddle arms. Given he was five times Volara's size, his overly-polite speech bordered on comical. "I trust friend Varien has set up rousing entertainment for this morning?"
"It's morning?!" Varien shouted.
Qrt chuckled, raising an arm to his jagged mouth, but said nothing more.
He sighed. "Anyway, yeah, we're all set up. Take a seat, get comfortable."
"Why, thank you." Varien's kids swam away from Qrt as he moved, swimming into the middle of the cavern. Qrt didn't have to worry much about a good seat, what with his telepathy and all. "Also, is it alright if Pmt and Vrr watch?"
He waved it off. "Sure."
Volara ran a charge along her tusks, waving her lower body back and forth. "I'd be delighted, O Great One!"
"Please don't call me that."
Varien laughed. "Alright alright, get comfortable, I'll start it up." He dipped back into his habitat, quickly activated a two-minute timer to start the movie, and headed back out. He quickly seaglided to beneath the 'screen' and placed one of his spare translators there to act as subtitles for the ampeels, and took a position near where Volara had laid on the ground. "It'll start soon."
Soon, the movie began. Faralaron and Dipolara rested on Volara's sloping snout. Magnelara swam to him and curled up in his lap. She shuffled around to find a comfortable position for her prongs and he scratched between her armor, mindful of her gills. He smiled as she crackled ticklishly, and selfishly wished that the fries never grew any larger than they were now.
As the introduction went on and the characters were introduced, Varien's smile grew dopey. Whatever doubts he occasionally had, he wouldn't trade this for all the world. He was happy here. He had a family; he had kids, friends, and a 'consort' as Volara called it. When the Aurora first fell, his life'd been derailed. He'd lost his future, his chance at a house, and the love of his life. Those were all things he had again.
He'd made it home.
And there it is. I hope you've all enjoyed.
Midway through writing this I had an idea for a series of 1-shots set in the far future, and several ideas. One idea was the Mongolians uplifting the ampeels tech-wise; it's not fair that they stay in an eternal stone age simply because they have no hands and live underwater. Imagine trying to discover fire when you have no hands and live underwater! But even without that, I imagine that with Varien's arrival it'll trigger the seed for the ampeels and emperors to spread out and advance, with some difficulty.
But I'm not going to write that series; I wrote Death Never Dies, Recursion, and this story back-to-back. I think I'm gonna take a break from writing. I hope you all have a wonderful day, and find many wonderful stories to read.
See you around.