Every galaxy has its Dismal Nitch. Every member of the Expeditionary Force knows that, yet Wuten, even with her many cycles of service, had never seen a planet quite like this. It was literally raining vermin. Shiskovny had christened the gliding spider-like critters dismites and dubbed their nagging bites nitch itch.
At the moment, a wicked downdraft from the volcano they were surveying had created a jet stream of the eyeball-sized dismites splattering against their outskins, reducing visibility so much that they’d had to lower their visors and depend on pocket drones to guide them. Wuten thought it was a crazy way to survey a planet. In this day and age, it could have all been done by drones and bots. That’d be faster and more efficient. But it was not the EFing way.
The EFing way was old school. Boots on the ground. Literally boots, though these were covered by the outskins which acted as virtual epidermis and allowed Wuten and Shiskovny to collect data on a planet’s atmosphere, climate, flora, fauna and florauna without the unfortunate downside of being sickened and killed a thousand million ways.
Though sickness and death was part of the EFing way. Outskins were only as good as the last modifications made from recently surveyed planets. There were always opportunistic life and semi-life, as well as unpredictable geo-climatic events that defeated outskins. That’s how it had always been. Expeditions were expeditions and that meant a certain tolerance for expendables.
That was not callous or cold. You didn’t become an EFer without knowing the risks. You joined because of them. Except in Wuten’s case. She’d ignored the risks. Or more accurately, she’d romanticized them. It could happen when you understood the EFing way. The belief that exploration had to be felt. Knowledge was meaningless without an emotional component. EFers lived the planet they were exploring. Outskins protected them from almost all serious threats to their health, while still allowing them to experience an algorithmically safe amount of natural sensation.
EFers needed to feel, name, countenance and suss a world. They were to map, write, draw by hand, even though their outskins streamed continuous sensory data to their ship parked in orbit. Every step was to be scouted by human eyes, touched by way of outskin fingertips, toes and tongue. The beauty and beastly bits of any world were in the eyes, ears and nose of the beholder. The EFing way was to do that for humanity. Regardless if a world would ever be colonized, it needed to be cataloged—by human touch.
Wuten understood that romantic vision of the EFing way, but she was on a Dismal Nitch. A planet which sucked on every level. A bitey, smelly, uncomfortable world that seemed to have little to offer human sensibilities. Even the topology was terminally tedious. An endless stretch of gullies. It was like climbing out of one gutter and dropping right into another.
The only interesting feature on the planet was a lone volcano where Wuten and Shiskovny explored the base only to find themselves in a dismite downpour. Thousands of the pesky critters pelted them from on high. After numerous nagging bites, Wuten felt close to packing it in for the day and maybe bagging the EF altogether. She hustled to a nearby outcropping to take cover and waved Shiskovny over.
That’s where she found it.
Wuten found Beauty. Not some personal eye-of-the-beholder beauty; she found Beauty. Absolute. Unqualified. Unquestionable.
The outcropping deepened into natural grotto which apparently formed the preferred nesting ground for dismites. Every surface was a squirming carpet of larvae being fed a disgusting vomit-slime extruded by flightless dismites. It was a putrid, festering hellhole. Completely disgusting.
But, in the middle of the most dismal nitch on this galactic Dismal Nitch, Wuten beheld Beauty. Indescribable. Uncomparable. Unforgettable.
Shiskovny joined her, stood at her side. The dismites swarmed them, biting ferociously. Neither budged. They stood in the presence of Beauty and understood.
No probe or bot would have registered Beauty in the middle of that hellhole. Not even the most sophisticated moravecian AI would have recognized it.
It took Wuten and Shiskovny. It took discomfort, pain and disillusionment. It took pure heart.
There is only one EFing way to discover Beauty.