Chapter 1 – Awakening

— Sunday, August 28, 2129 AD —

(Sundia, Beauth 19, 8054)

“Ah…”

A young man awoke slowly, unconsciously fluttering his eyelids as he transitioned into a state of wakefulness. He stretched his arms out and yawned broadly before throwing the covers off of his body, swinging his legs over the side of the bed, and pulling himself into a sitting position. The small room in which he slept was softly lit by the rising sun; the man moved over to the window and pushed it open, allowing a cool morning breeze to flow in.

I love a good morning, the man thought to himself, …though I hate having to keep track of three different date systems. I can’t wait to get back to Earth.

He remained standing in front of the window for another few moments, soaking in the sunrise, the cool air, and the massive planetary rings that dominated the northern sky. They spanned the sky like a massive white and yellow arch, extending all the way from the eastern horizon to the west as they guided the sun along its morning journey over the city. After a brief moment of admiring the distant arches, the young man turned around and threw open his bedroom door. What laid beyond was a modest apartment: a small hallway to the left led to the living area and the kitchen; across the hallway from him was a closed door; and to his right was the bathroom.

Figures she isn’t up yet, he thought to himself smugly as he eyed the closed door. Score one for Pierce. Ha!

With no particular care for keeping quiet, Pierce stepped into the bathroom and flipped on the lights. He took a brief moment to examine his appearance: tall and slim, with a runner’s build, topped off with light skin and tousled dirty blond hair. On his chin was a modest beard, which he poked at for a moment before grabbing a comb and tending to his hair. As his hair was short and straight, it didn’t take long for him to achieve his desired look, with his bangs swept to the sides and the rest of his hair combed back. He then tossed the comb aside and turned on the faucet to begin taking care of the rest of his morning hygiene.

Halfway through brushing his teeth, Pierce noticed the lights come on under the closed door in the hallway. However, he was able to both finish brushing his teeth and washing his face before the door eventually opened. Out stepped a short young woman with an athletic frame, ebony complexion, and long, black hair. She rubbed her eyes wearily before turning toward the bathroom and glaring up at Pierce.

“Ever consider being quiet in the morning?” she questioned irately.

“Just think of me as your morning alarm,” Pierce replied.

“Sunrise was literally half an hour ago.”

“And rising with the sun is healthy for you. I’d think you should know that, with a name like Phoenix.”

Phoenix simply rolled her eyes. “Right. You done with the bathroom yet?”

“Please. You took so long to get up, I could’ve moved half as fast and still been done by now.”

“Always a fucking race with you,” Phoenix grumbled as she pushed past Pierce into the bathroom and then shoved him out. “Now get out, it’s my turn.”

“How nice of you to ask,” Pierce responded dryly, but moved out of the way all the same. He then stepped back into his room to continue his morning preparations, but before closing the door behind him he leaned back into the hallway and glanced toward the bathroom. “Better watch that attitude though, I don’t want to fail our exam ‘cause you’re being bitchy!”

He quickly ducked as a brush came flying through the air and whizzed over his head. He then flashed a cheeky grin at Phoenix, who simply glared back until he finally retreated into his room, shutting the door behind him.

Once alone in his room again, Pierce quickly pulled off the undershirt and pajama pants he wore for sleeping. Now half-naked, he stepped up to his closet and began dressing himself for a new day. A deep blue v-neck short-sleeved shirt, covered by a black, unbuttoned casual button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, to emphasize his toned forearms; followed by a pair of nice fitted jeans, stored in such a way to minimize wrinkles in the fabric. He then tucked in the short-sleeve shirt and slotted a belt through the belt loops of his jeans, finalizing the day’s outfit. He paused for a moment to brush off his shoulders and adjust his clothing to work out any wrinkles before turning back toward the door to his room and opening it.

Phoenix barely offered even a glance his way as she brushed her hair, but Pierce still passed her a brief nod as he turned down the hallway into the living room. The morning had progressed far enough for the living area to be completely lit through natural light, so Pierce didn’t bother to turn on the artificial lighting as he stepped into the kitchen and began hunting for something to eat. Normally, he would be content with a simple bowl of cereal, but today was special — he needed something more substantial. So instead, he reached into the refrigerator and pulled out the eggs and bacon in preparation for a more hearty breakfast — or at least, what he assumed was the closest equivalent to eggs and bacon. He wasn’t on Earth, after all, so the food was rather different than what he was used to. The items he now held in his hands certainly appeared to be similar to the eggs and bacon he was familiar with, but he still couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off about them. Guess it could be worse, he thought idly as he began making breakfast, it’s alien food, so it could’ve been some kind of weird slop. Good thing aliens are weirdly similar to humans.

Several minutes passed in relative quiet as Pierce fried the bacon and cooked the eggs. Right as he was just about finished with preparing the meal, Phoenix appeared in the living room, now dressed for the day. Her hair was tied up in a high, loose ponytail that sort of splayed out behind her head; a long, thin braid extended down the right side of her head just in front of her ear; and she now wore a crimson short-sleeved crop top, a black jacket, and black capri pants.

“You make enough for two?” she questioned hopefully as she entered the kitchen.

“Course I did,” Pierce replied. “I’m not that heartless.”

“That’s news to me.” She then sniffed the air and glanced around. “…You didn’t make any coffee, though, did you?”

“Damn right I didn’t. If you want to drink that nasty shit, then brew it yourself.”

“Coffee is only nasty if you drink it black…”

“If you stuff a bunch of sugar and milk into it, then what’s even the point? Might as well drink hot chocolate.”

Phoenix simply shook her head as she began preparing herself a pot of coffee. “…We’re up pretty early now, though, aren’t we?” she eventually questioned, “how long do we have before Brikén expects us to show up?”

“About an hour, before we need to be at the spaceport,” Pierce replied as he moved the bacon and eggs off of the stove and began divvying them up onto two plates. “You know Brikén, she likes to start early.”

“Everyone on this damn planet likes to start early…” Phoenix grumbled.

“Maybe you’re just the one who starts late.”

“Mmm… at least wait until I’ve had my coffee before you start trying to push my buttons.”

Pierce smirked. “You make it too easy, you know.”

“Fuck you,” Phoenix retorted.

“Still, though.” Pierce dropped one of the plates on the counter in front of Phoenix and then began eating from his own. “Today is the culmination of the three months we’ve spent here, you know. You better be at the top of your game, I don’t want to be part of the reason this new program fails the first year it starts!”

“I should be the one telling you that,” Phoenix countered. “Getting you to actually pay attention to your surroundings was like pulling teeth the first month we were here. The Nimalians were nice enough to pay our way, you know, and we were incredibly lucky to be chosen by the ETAA for their new college outreach program. I mean, c’mon, we’re only in our early twenties and we already get to see one of the most advanced worlds in the Nimalian Union! Not even most of SERRCom can say they’ve had this privilege. So you had better not be treating all of this lightly.”

“Ah, now you’re being too serious. All this trip has shown me is that interstellar travel is a pain in the ass. You’re telling me we have to keep track of three different date systems, with one of them off of the others by, like, ten minutes? It’s a pain in the ass. I’d rather just stay on Earth.”

“Three?” Phoenix passed Pierce an incredulous glance before taking the now freshly-prepared pot of coffee and pouring herself a cup. She began adding a variety of sweeteners as she said, “I know you mean Earth’s, and Ainminthalus’s local time would be two… don’t tell me you’re also trying to track Nimalia’s date, as well?”

“It’s supposedly the official interstellar calendar of the Nimalian Union, so why wouldn’t I? We’ll need to know it for when we travel back to Earth, because that’s a whole thing.”

Phoenix opened her mouth to respond, but was interrupted by a soft ringing sound. She and Pierce both snapped their attention to the front door.

“It’s unlocked,” Pierce shouted.

“Excuse me, then,” came a man’s voice through the door. It opened up, revealing a tan-skinned man with an average height and athletic frame. His black hair was short in front, but in the back he had a ponytail tied low. He wore a dark green jacket with black lining, as well as gray pants with dark green chaps — the official uniform of the Nimalian Systems Defense, the interstellar military of the Nimalian Union.

Pierce casually nodded toward the man as he stepped into the apartment. “Hey, Trenon.”

“You’re here early,” Phoenix remarked, a hint of annoyance in her tone.

“Ah, a little bit.” Trenon shrugged and closed the door behind him. “Figured early was better than late. You know how Brikén gets.”

Pierce snorted. “You know you don’t have to walk us to the spaceport, right? We aren’t fucking kids.”

“Sure, but you still need me to get through spaceport security.” Trenon casually leaned back on the door as he slotted his hands into his pockets. “Figured I’d meet up with you guys here, instead of wasting time waiting around at the port. See how you’re doing on your last day here.”

“Third to last,” Phoenix corrected, and took a sip of her coffee. “Are you that eager to be rid of us?”

“Nah, I wouldn’t say eager,” Trenon replied. “I am gonna miss you guys, you know. You’re the first Earthians I’ve ever met, after all!”

“Well now you make us sound like zoo animals.”

Trenon frowned. “That’s not what I meant…”

“Relax, I’m just teasing you,” Phoenix responded with a smirk.

“Shit, Trenon, you almost sound more tense than us,” Pierce remarked.

The NSD Officer sighed and shook his head. “The two of you are relentless.”

“The two of us? Ha!” Pierce snorted. “I know I am, but Phoenix?…”

“Not gonna take that bait,” she retorted, and took another sip of coffee. “…But seriously, Trenon. You’re literally superhumanly fast, why the hell do you care about being late?”

“Just because I’m a Velocitechnic doesn’t mean I can’t be late,” Trenon refuted. “…Though being able to run at supersonic speeds does help, I’ll admit. Still, though. Can’t be too careful.”

“You do know that you aren’t being tested today, right?” Pierce questioned, “Brikén’s exam is all us. You don’t even have to do anything.”

“Sure, but… I still want to make sure the two of you aren’t late. I don’t want to sound selfish here, but I was incredibly lucky to be assigned as a liaison on this Nimalia-Earth outreach program, you know? I just don’t want to screw up what little I’m responsible for.”

“You’ve done well enough so far,” Phoenix commented. “I’m honestly not sure what you have to stress out about.”

“Yeah, you seem like a pretty cool dude to me,” Pierce declared.

Trenon smiled. “Thanks, guys. The two of you seem pretty cool, too.”

“I know I am, but—”

“How much longer do we have?” Phoenix questioned, cutting off Pierce’s words. He passed her an annoyed glance, but she pretended not to notice.

“We still have some time,” Trenon answered. “Long enough for a short run before showing up at the spaceport, I’m sure.”

“Now that sounds like a great idea!” Pierce dumped his now-empty dishes in the kitchen sink and began stretching. “Phoenix, you up for that?”

“…I might as well,” she replied with a sigh. She promptly downed the rest of her cup of coffee before continuing, “I have been pretty bad about keeping up my routine these past few months. I really ought to get back into it…”

“This is exactly why you’ll never beat me in a race, you know.”

“I am not about to have this argument right now.”

“Heh, you two really never change, huh?” Trenon observed with a smirk. “You’re so competitive. Reminds me of my sister…”

“Dude, everything reminds you of your sister,” Pierce pointed out.

“Wha-what? That’s not—”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Phoenix cut in, having already deposited her used dishes in the sink and slipped on her shoes. “Are we going for a run, or what?”

“Trying to get ahead of me, are you?” Pierce quickly tied on his own shoes before throwing open the door to outside. “Can’t have that!”

“Seriously…” Phoenix muttered as she exited the apartment after Pierce and Trenon. “Sometimes, I really wonder why I’m still friends with you…”

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