Erik opened his eyes. They felt full of grit. The lid of the cryopod hissed open. The lights were deliberately dim, but they still seemed dazzling. His throat was dry as dust and his nasal passages were clogged. He sat up. The others stirred around him. Walter walked over.
"Mr Lehnsherr, would you like a drink and a hot towel?" asked the android.
"God, yes," croaked Erik.
Walter handed him a plastic cup full of sparkling water. It was cold and the bubbles burst against his tongue. It was the most delicious thing he'd ever tasted. He drained the cup and took the warm, fluffy towel from Walter's hands. He rubbed it over his face and torso.
Emma Frost damn near leapt from her pod. She dropped and started doing push-ups. Fucking bitch looked like some kind of Aryan goddess. Shaw stood with his fingers pressed to a power socket. Sparks crackled up his hand and arm. He went from washed out old man to middle aged and glowing - literally - with health in seconds. Ororo Munroe, the captain, a beautiful woman of colour, warm brown skin contrasting spectacularly with her icy white shock of hair, talked to Walter. Munroe was in charge of the ship, Frost was in charge of the mission and Sebastian Shaw provided the funds.
"David, report," snapped Frost.
The David 8 walked over to her, lips curved in that creepy, ingratiating-yet-superior smile.
Erik had designed the exotic metals that formed some of the androids' non-organic components. Shaw had said he'd show his gratitude in a "special and unique" way. When the big unveiling had taken place and Erik had seen that the androids looked like him, he'd freaked out.
"But, Erik, it's a tribute to your work, without which the creation of these magnificent machines wouldn't have been possible."
Shaw had been aggressively wooing Erik at this point and Erik had been determinedly turning him down. The Walter model had a blank space between its legs and no anus - all waste was processed internally. The David 8 was anatomically correct and Erik was one hundred percent certain that Shaw fucked it.
The two androids were identical, except Davids had blonde hair and blue eyes and Walters had brown eyes and hair. They didn't look exactly like Erik. They were a fraction taller and Erik's broad shoulders and narrow waist and hips were even more exaggerated in the androids. They were better looking too; jaws a little squarer, noses straighter, cheekbones more pronounced and mouths not so wide, with fuller lips. They had lines on their faces because the customer concepts team had focus grouped it and apparently the wrinkles gave them an air of experience and wisdom. Erik had green eyes, auburn hair, a lot more lines and generally looked much more worn, plus there was the crescent shaped scar above his lip. He'd still had the unpleasant experience of people assuming he was an android and attempting to order him around. They'd then had the unpleasant experience of Erik giving them an object lesson in obscenity and profanity.
Walter always seemed like a calmer, kinder version of himself. David 8 was like a reflection in a distorting mirror, impossible to make sense of.
He didn't like thinking these kind of thoughts. He needed to calm his mind. Erik let his mutation expand to take in the whole ship. The metal of the hull and bulkheads. Components in the machinery and equipment. The metals he'd created inside Walter and David. Walter carried on blithely serving drinks to the awakening crewmen. David's eyes flicked away from Frost to Erik. He always knew when Erik was feeling out the metal inside him. Frost snapped her fingers in his face to get his attention. An entirely inhuman, incalculable expression crossed his face, then he turned to Frost with a smile.
Erik staggered into the showers and let the hot water pound all thought from his head. He dressed in company fatigues and made his way to cargo bay two for the briefing.
He sat down on the same row as Sean, the red-haired, freckle-faced xenobotanist, Hank, the pale, lanky, sweet-faced xenobiologist and Angel, the tiny, brown-skinned, brown-eyed, black-haired data specialist.
"Hi, Erik," said Sean. "So, think they're finally gonna tell us what this mission is all about?"
"I doubt it."
"I'm sure they'll tell us everything we need to know," said Hank, pushing his glasses up his nose.
Why the fuck he didn't get his eyes fixed was a mystery to Erik.
"Hank, baby, you are too trusting to live," she muttered, exchanging a grin with Erik.
He liked Ms Salvadore. She shared his cynicism.
Armando "Darwin" Munoz ambled over and sank onto the seat next to Angel, long limbs sprawling, dark-brown skin gleaming in the harsh lights of the cargo bay. He was the ship's pilot and navigator.
"Mando, tell Hank's he's dreaming if he thinks the big bosses are going to tell us plebs the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth," said Angel.
Darwin laughed. "Hank, don't you let old stormy weather here burst your bubble. You keep on believing, my man."
Angel punched his arm, then yelped and grabbed her fingers when his skin transformed into armadillo-like plating. Darwin's mutation allowed him to adapt to anything, hence his nickname. Erik sometimes wondered if it was what made him so preternaturally likeable. He always seemed at home in any situation and everybody warmed to him.
"Well, one thing we know for sure, there must be some kind of higher life forms on this planet or we wouldn't need the marines," said Sean.
They all looked across to the other side of the bay, where the marines were sitting in a group.
"Ooo, look Hank, it's your boy, Alex. Why don't you give him a wave?" said Angel.
Hank blushed a fiery red. Alex Summers was a blond-haired, blue-eyed, all American type, with a plasma burst mutation that made him an ideal recruit for the military. Hank had developed a massive and obvious crush on him during the prep for the mission.
"He's not my "boy", he's just a friend," muttered Hank.
"Aww, your boyfriend," cooed Angel.
At that precise moment, Summers looked up and waved at Hank. Hank waved back, was overcome by embarrassment and fixed his eyes on the floor, hunching over in his chair. Sean and Angel hooted with laughter and Darwin smiled.
They hushed when Shaw, Frost and Munroe walked out in front of them, flanked by Major Moira MacTaggert and Lieutenant Azazel "I'm so scary I only have one name", as Sean insisted on calling him. MacTaggert was a tall, slim woman, fair-skinned and dark-haired. Azazel was a striking looking teleporter, with black hair, bright red skin and a prehensile tail. David stood behind them, holding a data sphere. MacTaggert and Azazel went to sit with the marines. The captain sat down next to Sean.
"Greetings, everyone," said Shaw. "I'm pleased to see you're all looking a little more wide awake now."
"I know you're all eager to find out more about this mission and when you do, I think you'll all be as excited as I am at the opportunities that await us. As you know, this is a full scale follow up to an exploratory mission that returned to Earth some two years ago. Emma, my dear, the floor is yours."
Was he imagining things or did Frost wince at that "my dear"? She stepped forward, immaculate in tailored, white fatigues. She glanced at David. He threw the data sphere into the air. It hovered above Frost's head, then vivid lines of light shot out and formed the holographic image of a star chart.
"NDN-1173, or "Eden" as we call it, is a planet in the Ocrimi II system on the edge of explored space. As you can tell from the name, it's a binary star system. Unusually for such a system, Eden is a rocky, Earth-like planet in a stable, Earth-like orbit."
The holograph zoomed in, passing a couple of gas giants and focusing on a blue-green planet. It zoomed in still further. Blue seas, tinged with purple, expanded before their eyes. They soared over islands and plunged down into lush forests, dense with green and purple plants in all shapes and sizes. Brightly coloured, exotic creatures crawled and ran and flew. Everyone gasped.
"Oh my god, oh my fucking god," whispered Sean.
"As you can see, Eden is rich in all kinds of life, including the higher forms. Indeed, Eden is home to intelligent life."
The viewpoint shifted to a clearing. A group of people were sitting in the middle. They got up and turned towards the holocamera. More and louder gasps from the audience.
"This is amazing," breathed Hank.
The aliens were humanoid, but slimmer and shorter than the human norm. Their skin was silvery and their hair shot through with jewel colours. Their eyes were large and gleamed like gemstones. They had aquiline noses and full, multicoloured lips. Their faces were delicate and fine-boned, giving them an androgynous look. They were clothed in swathes of bright material.
"The aliens are of two genders, corresponding to our male and female, but their secondary sexual characteristics are less pronounced than ours."
"I'd still tap that," yelled one of the marines.
Azazel grinned, but MacTaggert snapped "Belay that, marine."
"The "Elendi", as they call themselves, are simple farmers. Their technology is roughly equivalent to our Iron Age. They have a rich culture in which dance plays a key role. Here we see an Elendi female wearing ceremonial jewellery."
The holographic figure gazed out at them. The female looked serene and somehow completely comfortable in her skin. She was bedecked with silvery bracelets and chains.
"The jewellery she is wearing is pure adamantium."
An outbreak of whispering amongst the audience.
"Fuck," gasped Erik.
That Elendi was wearing enough adamantium to buy a decent sized starship. The purpose of this mission was now blindingly clear.
"Most Elendi possess similar quantities of adamantium jewellry. The personnel of the exploratory mission were unable to ascertain the source of the metal or the means of extraction, adamantium being notoriously difficult to mine and process. However, we are better equipped and have the appropriate expertise. I am confident we will succeed where they failed."
Shaw's insistence on Erik being part of this mission and the presence of a whole team of geologists, led by the silent Janos Quested, suddenly made a lot of sense. The data sphere dropped into David's hands. Frost stepped back and Shaw took centre stage again.
"Well, I can see you're all as fired up as I was when I first heard about this. The opportunities are limitless. Think of the benefits to our species of cheap, easily processed adamantium. After all, if a bunch of farmers can learn to manipulate the stuff, I'm pretty sure we can."
"Of course the good of mutant and humankind is at the forefront of our minds, but it would be specious to pretend we don't stand to make a significant profit from this enterprise. And there's nothing wrong with that, is there?"
Some shouts of "no".
Shaw smiled his cold smile.
"I'll leave you to talk amongst yourselves. Enjoy tonight - David and Walter will be serving free alcohol - we prepare for planet-fall tomorrow."
"Oh my god, did you see that vegetation?" said Sean.
"Never mind the vegetation; the animals, the people," said Hank, bright eyed with enthusiasm.
Erik, Darwin and Angel looked at each other.
"It's not like I wouldn't welcome the data gathering opportunities, but I can't help wondering if the Elendi have been asked what they think about this?" said Angel, looking troubled.
"I'm sure negotiations with the native peoples will be completely open and honest," said Captain Munroe and walked away to speak with Frost.
Darwin scrunched up his face.
"Is it just me or did she sound not entirely convinced?"
David walked up to their group with a tray and glasses.
Everyone took a glass except Erik. Sean and Hank knocked their drinks back and speculated excitedly on Eden's flora and fauna and people. Darwin and Angel listened and sipped thoughtfully.
"None for you, Mr Lehnsherr?" said David.
"Deep in thought, are we?"
"Penny for them?"
Erik looked at David's smiling face. His own face, but better and, at the same time, worse. David always looked so knowing, like he knew something bad was going to happen to you but he wasn't telling.
"I was thinking of the fate of peoples who encounter a civilisation with a much higher level of technology than them," said Erik.
David looked thoughtful.
"Hmm, let's see; marginalisation, estrangement from their own language and culture, impoverishment, addiction and genocide."
He smiled brightly.
"Of course one might take the view that inferior life forms will inevitably be succeeded by their superiors. Are you sure you won't have some champagne?"
Erik spent most of the night on the viewing deck, looking out at the stars. They looked small and faint and almost overwhelmed by the surrounding blackness.