Taylor could feel the snow crackle under her feet as she took another step forward in the darkness. Overhead, the light of far too few stars shone faintly as if obscured by dark clouds, but the sky was clear, the pinpoints of light sharp but pale. A thin sliver of moonlight above her cast a hard-edged shadow across her path.
The shadow moved as Char stepped up to stand beside Taylor. Char took her hand as their shadows merged, his a head taller than hers.
“What do you think?” Taylor shivered.
Char looked around the barren plain, then down at their bare feet and the trail of footsteps behind them that faded off into the distance. “I expected it to be colder. But then, last time you took me to the snow I was unwell.”
Taylor smiled and looked up at the stars above them. “That was a little different. But it’s cold, alright.”
Char took in a deep breath, then let it out. “Last time I could see my breath.”
“I doubt you could see it yet.”
Taylor pointed down at the edge of her footprint in the mottled snow. It was gradually blurring, then her feet disappeared in a faint layer of shifting mist that rose around their feet. A glow began to spread in the distance as their ankles and calves were enveloped in white. Taylor took a step, slipped, then Char pulled her back up to her feet.
“Watch your step, it’s melting.”
Char held Taylor’s hand firmly in his as they walked towards the light, her five olive-skinned fingers laced between his four green fingers and strong dual opposing thumbs.
The glow brightened in a tight curve ahead of them, then they were surrounded by the glow as the mist lifted up past their heads and continued rising.
“Wow,” Taylor breathed as she stared towards the source of light. They were now walking in slick puddles several centimetres deep on top of a deeper layer of slush and ice as the fog thickened around their ankles and joined the rising vapour.
Char took a deep breath in, then breathed out slowly. The mist in front of his face swirled briefly, then merged with the drifting fog. Ahead of them the view was gradually clearing, but then a pale blue-green glow began to rise from the slushy surface, blending with the white mist.
“What is that, Taylor?” Char pointed.
Taylor peered at the coloured fog. “Methane, I think.”
Char shook his head slowly. “How many of them do you see?”
Taylor blinked, confused. “What do you mean? We’re seeing the atmosphere rise on Xartac. We just walked through melting and sublimating oxygen, nitrogen, flourine and argon back there. The green stuff looks like methane, it has a higher boiling point.”
Char shook his head. “I do not understand, Taylor. You may explain later. But what is moving over there?”
Taylor laughed. “Nothing should be moving other than boiling gasses. But they won’t rise very far. The gravity is pretty strong.”
Char stepped forward, pulling Taylor along behind him as they splashed through the growing puddles. “No, right there. See that? Something moves. Many of them.”
Taylor blinked and the smile faded from her face. They stood at the edge of a sparse forest of waist-high milky-white threads, drifting in the mist. No, not drifting, they were undulating at the top, while the bottoms were stuck fast in the slush below. She blinked again, but the threads remained, and if anything the forest grew thicker before her eyes. Taylor looked over her shoulder to find that the forest was now spreading behind them.
Char watched the thickening threads as they twisted in regular patterns. The fog seemed thinner around them.
Taylor’s eyes went wide. “Life? On the surface of a black dwarf star?”
Char shrugged and passed his left hand through the thick threads, feeling a slight resistance as the white tendrils slid over his green skin. “It tickles.”
Taylor reached out her right hand and slid a finger along one of the tendrils as it rose up. No, it was growing. She turned to look at Char, then looked back at her hand in alarm. The tendril had wrapped itself around her fingers, and was pulling her hand downward. She gave it a tug, and the tendril snapped away from the main stalk, but not before six other tendrils had wrapped themselves around her arm and wrist, all pulling downwards. Taylor tugged at her arm, but only managed to break away two tendrils before a dozen more wrapped themselves firmly around her arm. She could feel something twining around her legs as she felt a tug on her other arm. She turned towards her mate in panic. “Char!”
But he was no longer holding her hand. Char was now busy fighting the thickening tendrils, some of which had swelled to the size of a thin rope, and he, too was being inexorably dragged downward.
Char turned his head, eyes wild as a white rope wrapped itself around his neck. “Taylor!”
She strained at the cords that pulled down on her shoulders. “I’ve seen enough, I think. Aeden!”
A small, bald man in a grey one-piece uniform appeared in front of her. “Yes, Taylor?”
Taylor looked up at the bald man, even though he was normally a head shorter than her. “Aeden, help us!”
“Are you sure?”
Taylor scowled. “Yes, dammit. This isn’t some command you need to double-check on, to prevent me blowing up some planet or star by mistake. We need help!”
Aeden smiled and crossed his arms as Taylor was dragged down onto her knees. Char splashed down beside her, lying on his side as he struggled against the writhing white cords that cocooned him.
“If I help you now, you’re going to miss the best part.”
Taylor gritted her teeth. “The best part? The best part? What part of being eaten sounds like fun to you?”
Aeden smiled as Taylor felt herself being pulled down flat against the slush. The tendrils were ignoring him. “I can’t be eaten, Taylor.”
“Say that to the reapers,” Taylor spluttered into a puddle.
“Now, If you’ll just stay still for a few minutes…” Aeden murmured as he turned his head to the left. He fell silent as Taylor continued to struggle. “Ah, here we go.”
Taylor glared up at Aeden with one eye as the light began to fade around her, and the movement of the tendrils slowed. With half of her face pressed down into a puddle, Taylor heard a high, crystaline tinkling sound, then a cascade of noise as hundreds of tendrils shattered around her, falling back into the puddles. She felt the tension against her body release as the tendrils froze around her. She pushed up with her legs and felt the white cords shatter, but found that one side of her face was now frozen solid in what had been a puddle just moments before.
“Aeden…” Taylor mumbled.
Aeden bent down low to look at her. “Yes, Taylor?”
Taylor blinked at Aeden with one eye. She couldn’t feel the other side of her face. “Help, please?”
Aeden smiled and stood up. “Of course! Why didn’t you say so?”
Taylor felt the ice release its hold, and Taylor pushed herself up onto her knees.
Char rose on unsteady legs, shards of frozen tendrils falling to the now-white ground.
Taylor reached out an arm towards Aeden, but her hand passed right through his legs. “Take us home.”
Aeden frowned. “What’s the magic word?”
Taylor clenched her fists and gritted her teeth. “Please. Please take us home.”
Aeden smiled. “Of course. You told me that I should help you practice your manners whenever possible.”
Taylor shook slivers of ice out of her hair. “You’ve got quite the sense of timing. We’re going to have to talk about your interaction routines.”
Aeden grinned. “Four hundred and fifty million years out of practice, until you came along. We need to practice together. But I’ll take you home now, if you’re ready.”
Char looked at Taylor and Aeden. “Yes, please.”
Aeden held out a hand to each of them. “I’ll take you home, but of course, you must remember-”
A bright light struck her eyelids, and then Taylor opened her eyes and looked up at Aeden standing in front of her, surrounded by lush green forest.
Char blinked at the warm sunlight filtering down through the branches.
Aeden looked down at them. “You must remember that you were never actually there with your physical body. You’ve been here on my surface the whole time.”
Taylor felt a slight tickle as the Yahnee tree released her, hundreds of tiny silver filaments receding into the rough bark. She lifted her hands and examined her wrist where the icy tendrils had first gripped her arm. Her skin was unmarked.
Char looked at Taylor and grinned. “Can we do that again?”
Taylor sighed and pulled herself up against the tree, her legs weak from the memory of being dragged down onto the ice. “Some other time. We should see how the kids are doing.”
Aeden frowned. “It’s only been four hours.”
“Kids can change a lot in four hours at the moment, Aeden.”
Aeden nodded. “True.”
Char looked up at Taylor, then turned towards Aeden. “Was that real, or a dream?”
Aeden held out a hand to help Char up off the ground. “Real? Yes and no. Xantac is very real – a unique dwarf star remnant on the outer fringe of the Perseus Arm, on the far side of the galaxy. The Xathen set up a research base in orbit there long ago to study the silicate life forms, that’s the only reason you were able to see what you did. But did you interact with it, and the Imoli that live there? Did you leave footprints on the surface of a black dwarf star cinder before they melted? Yes. But you were never in any actual danger.”
“In that case it was even more fun. Thank you, Aeden. I will go check on the children,” grinned Char as he headed off through the trees.
Aeden turned to Taylor. “What did you think?”
“It sure felt real,” said Taylor. “I was really worried.”
Aeden put a hand on her shoulder. “Immersive sight, taste, smell, touch and mass-effects are an essential part of any good Xathen projection. The extreme temperatures and immense gravity effects are moderated so you can enjoy the experience. Next time, you should let the Imoli pull you all the way under, don’t struggle. In fact, you might want to lie down to help them, the feeding season is so short. But to be cocooned in a hydrogenated amorphous silicon oxynitride blanket on the surface of a black dwarf as the distant companion star sets is an experience like no other.”
Taylor tucked a long strand of chestnut brown hair behind her left ear. “Some other time. Maybe we’ll go somewhere warmer for our second trip.”
Aeden’s eyes twinkled. “Warmer?”
“Like a planet with a nice quiet beach or something.”
“Ah. And I already have another nice little sun picked out…”
Taylor sighed. “I’m sure you do. But I’m not in a hurry to go anywhere just yet. I didn’t like feeling that we might be stuck there.”
“Soon you will learn how to project to other worlds on your own, and come back whenever you wish.”
Taylor shook her head. “I understand that, but there’s something that’s really bothering me.”
Aeden gave her a broad smile. “What is it?”
“When I said I was worried, it wasn’t about being hurt. It felt very real but technically I knew I was a projection. No, I was worried because you seemed to enjoy not listening to me, and I got the impression that you might have left us there unless I ‘used my manners’. I’m not going anywhere else until you’re fixed, Aeden. Just imagine if the children were with us. They would have been traumatised.”
Aeden paled. “You don’t mean you’re…”
Taylor pressed her lips onto a thin line. “That’s right. I’m going to wake him up, and it it’s not going to be pretty.”
Aeden’s face crumpled. “I’m very sorry, Taylor, I’ll try harder…”
“Too little, too late. I’m starting to see why the Xathen don’t like artificial intelligences. I need to talk to Samath.”