A people that hear without listening, that talk without speaking, too stubborn and blind to be saved from their own dying planet. The ESS Sao Paulo has been sent to rescue the inhabitants of Eulysia, but what they find when they arrive is a darkness, one that seems to swallow their warnings in pools of silence.
SOUND OF SILENCE - CHAPTER FOUR
Normally, when on approach to a planet’s surface, we get some sort of contact from orbit control or flight monitors telling us where to go, what to look out for, clearance to touch down. Sometimes we’re escorted if there are particular hazards in the area, or occasionally the technicians will send waypoint navigation.
But there’s nothing this time. Not even a chirp. No escorts. No attempt to communicate with us. It’s as if they don’t even recognize that we’re here.
As we cut through the stratus layer, the front windows turn an opaque and blinding white. Small beads of water collect on the glass, eventually growing large enough to streak along the windshield and disappear from view. Moments later, we break through the clouds, and a densely-packed cityscape appears, stretching from the base of forest-capped foothills to the azure foam of the continent’s golden coast. Streams of vehicles wind their way through sinuous roads and highways, while pedestrians dot the walkways and various bridges that span the glistening rivers of an intercity delta.
Commander Tao picks out an open clearing just west of the city and puts us down in the middle of an open field surrounded by thick, kelly green deciduous trees. The side hatch opens up, and we step down onto an almost pillow-like surface, with grass that seems to hug our feet as we move through it.
"So, now where?" I ask as I walk towards a pond on the far side of the clearing, savoring each step through the supple fields.
"The central administration bureau isn't far from here; we could start there," Ensign Khealia says, reciting a portion of the limited information given to us by the admiralty. I hesitate to admit that she read the report more closely than I did.
"Agreed," I concur. "Leave the shuttle. It'll be fine."
It takes us about twenty minutes to walk to the Eulysian government quarter, but when we get there, it's almost entirely deserted. The grandiose executive palace lies at the center of the district—golden rails flared along the edges, waterfalls around the sides, statues and colonnades supporting a tiled roof like a snake's scaled back—but the doors are locked. No matter how many times we circle the building, not a single entrance yields when we press on it. No doorknob, no keypad, no biometrics, fob receivers. And none of the locals seem to be entering the building either, from what we can tell. There’s no one in this whole district at all, in fact.
“Captain, there's a concentration of life signs about seven pikor to the south," Commander Tao mentions. "I suggest we continue our search there, seeing as there's no one here, and our attempts to otherwise communicate with authorities have proved fruitless."
"Seven pikor isn't too far. We can walk," I say. "And loosen up, Commander. Don't you know we're on vacation?"
He ignores my sarcastic response and leads the way down the road.
The buildings gradually lose their splendor and eminence the farther we travel from the government district, while the roads transition from smooth, cleanly paved lines to narrow, meandering streets of cobblestone.
It's like walking back in history with each step. The neighborhood we're in now seems less intentionally built than the government quarter. Like it was thrown together as an afterthought as the city grew. Vibrantly adorned markets fill the gaps between leaning residential blocks of brick and steel, while strings of light and banners crisscross the distance between the two sides of the road like a spider’s web. Common sense and architecture seem secondary here; individuality and brute-force engineering are the dominant personalities.
I want to pause and admire our surroundings. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. But a sickly twist in my stomach quickly reminds me that it won’t be long before all of this is swallowed up by the planet’s mantle itself. I move on, silently mourning the imminent destruction of a culture untapped by archivists and xenoanthropologists.
Commander Tao directs us through the maze of back-alleys and tightly crafted lanes until the buildings open up, quite suddenly, into an immense public square. I gasp, taken aback by what I see. The others stumble to a halt beside me, their faces alight with wonder.
Lieutenant Dairo steps ahead of me in an apparent defensive posture, though I suspect she’s simply angling for a better view.
An innumerable throng of Eulysians fill the square from end to end, some milling about aimlessly, some standing, some crouching or seated on the ground. Almost all of them face a grand tower in the center of the square. It’s composed mostly of some kind of concrete, but there are bands of lights running along the length of it, I think. It's hard to tell in the daylight.
"How many do you think there are?" I ask in awe.
Commander Tao joins me by my side, shaking his head. "Ten thousand, perhaps. Maybe more."
I shake my head in disbelief. "Ten thousand.” And this is just one square in one city on one continent.
I think about the daunting task ahead. This crowd represents a fraction of a percent of this planet's population. And yet, we would need eight, probably nine ships the size of the Sao Paulo to evacuate this square alone.
And that's it they all didn't mind bunking with the marines for a few weeks.
I step forward and make my way to the nearest individual, with Dairo eyeing me the whole way—checking waists for weapons, body language for hostility, I'm sure.
"Excuse me," I ask, tapping him on the shoulder. "We're trying to find someone who can direct us—"
I stop, realizing that my words are having no effect on the man. He simply stares straight forward, as if unaware of my presence. I turn to Ensign Khealia, gesturing to the translator tab on my neck, but she just shrugs in response.
I tap the man on his shoulder, but again, nothing. Commander Tao and I move on to a couple more individuals, with Lieutenant Dairo looking on warily, but in every instance, we get the same reaction. Or, rather, lack of one. It's as if they're not really there, or as if we're not there.
After a dozen attempts or so, I remove myself from the throng and rub my forehead with anxious twists of my hand.
This is a joke. It has to be. How can a whole civilization be so inaccessible that it's impossible to even inform them of their own pending annihilation? It's absurd. No acknowledgement from the government. Literally, no one else will give us the time of day.
I’m stewing in my own disbelief and exasperation when the smallest of details catches my eye. Among the mindless, wandering horde of Eulysians is a single girl, no older than eighteen or nineteen—though, I’m not sure what the timeline of Eulysian maturation looks like. There’s nothing particularly strange or different about her, but there’s something putting me off balance.
I take another look, and that’s when I realize what it is.
She’s staring at us.
Not looking off into the ether like the others, not seemingly disembodied, unattached from reality, caught in the snares of some distant virtual world. But active. Engaged. Aware.
“Hey, Z. Do you see that over there?” I ask, pointing to the girl.
Z is sometimes how I refer to Commander Tao. His full given name is Zihao, but I’ve never been able to pronounce it right. He’d never mock my attempts—he’s too kind for that—but his buddies would. And still do. So, over the years I’ve shortened it to something more manageable.
Commander Tao squints and peers through the undulating mass of bodies, training his eyes on the spot towards which I’m pointing. But before he can zero in on her, she disappears.
"Wait, what the—" I stammer.
"No, I think I saw it."
"She was right there, I swear."
We push through the crowd, fighting our way forward, step by step, Dairo and Khealia right behind, calling out for us to wait up. But, despite our efforts, by the time we reach the spot where she was standing, she's gone.
I huff in frustration and lift myself up by the toes to peer over everyone's heads.
"There! I see her!"
I turn to Ensign Khealia, who's pointing towards one of the roads leading out of the square. Sure enough, there's the girl again, shuffling away as discreetly and rapidly as she can manage.
It doesn't take long for us to catch up with her. The marines move forward to restrain her, but I hold them off with a gesture and intercept the girl myself.
"Hey, wait! Hold on!" I say, making sure not to touch her. We don't want to instigate some kind of interplanetary incident during our first hour on the surface. "Wait, can we talk with you?"
She stops. But she remains silent, eying us suspiciously.
"Captain," Ensign Khealia says softly, "She probably can't hear you, and even if she could—"
"I can hear you."
We all stare at the girl when she speaks, surprised. She backs up a few steps, unsure, as if regretting her words. She looks so terrified; it hurts just to look at her.
"Hello. We didn't mean to startle you," I begin, hoping that my baseline officer's tone has softened into something less threatening. "You're the only person that seems to recognize our existence, and it's important that we speak with someone in leadership here as soon as possible."
She continues staring at me with eyes of vibrant amber, unresponsive, assessing. After several moments, I begin to wonder if she's become like the others in the square, but then she pushes several loose strands of dark, golden hair out of her face and steals a furtive glance around the rest of our party.
"How would I help you?" she asks in a small, yet confident voice. "I'm just an anfyitt."
I ignore the translator's momentary gap in ability and move just a bit closer to the girl, cautiously. "We're having trouble getting into your government offices. Do you know how to get in? Or do you know somewhere else we could go?"
Her forehead twists in confusion. "The government offices are closed. It's a Fourday."
"What does that mean? When do they open?"
"It's a Fourday," she repeats, as if it were obvious. "Governors only appear in person every other Oneday. Or in an emergency. Since today is the second Fourday, they wouldn't be there. They're on Global for work. The network."
"You mean they don't actually meet in person?"
The girl nods her head to the side. "They do. Just in the network. The buildings downtown host their servers. There are very few physical offices or conference rooms."
I turn my attention to Commander Tao. "So, everything's virtual. Meaning we have to access the network somehow? How are we supposed to do that?"
"Or," he replies, gesturing to the girl, "find someone else who can access the network on our behalf."
I wink and give him a finger gun. "That's why you're my XO, Z." I feel dumb for not having thought of that. But then again, I am very tired, and I should be on leave right now.
"Wait, Captain," Ensign Khealia says, moving closer so she can speak in a quieter tone. "Look, she doesn't have a fyitt."
I look at the girl, at the small spot on her temple where the little metal tab should be. But there's nothing there. Just like Khealia said.
I take a step towards the girl and reach my hand out towards her, but she retreats several paces. I lower my hand.
"I'm sorry," I say, gently. "We never asked your name. I'm Captain Vosler of the United Alliance. Who are you?"
She eyes the whole of us suspiciously, her eyes darting to each of us in quick succession. For a moment, I wonder if she'll answer at all, or if she'll decide to flee again. But then she seems to surrender a small measure of her tension.
"I'm an anfyitt. I don't have a name. But…" She looks from side to side, as if she's about to divulge some sort of secret. Her visible discomfort is overwhelming, and I almost feel guilty for asking in the first place. "Those who know me call me Ayeila."
"That word, anfyitt," Khealia says, "does it mean…?" She gestures to her temple.
"It means that I'm anfyitt. Yes," Ayeila responds simply. "My biology is incompatible with the connection." She pauses and reaches a hand out to touch my own temple, letting her fingers drift to my eyes, the shape of which I'm sure are foreign to her. "Who are you," she asks, now sounding more curious than afraid.
I touch her hand with my own, surprised by how cold it is. "Like I said, I'm Captain Vosler. We're representatives of the United Alliance." For the first time, I notice how differently she's dressed than the rest of the individuals in the square. More crudely. Haphazardly. Her hair seems more disheveled, and the cuts and bruises on her legs tell stories that no book ever could. "Are you okay?" I ask.
She takes back her hand and nods. "I am now. I thought you were Regulators before. That's why I was running. I thought they'd found my hiding spot."
"What are Regulators?" Lieutenant Dairo asks.
Ayeila taps her temple. "Guardians of the network. They manage the security of the physical realm."
"And what do they want with you?"
"They want to take me back to the camps with the other anfyitts. We live there. Or at least we're supposed to. That way they can keep an eye on anyone not in the network. Study us to see what's wrong with us. But I can't stand it there."
"They treat you poorly?" I probe. "Are the conditions bad?"
She shakes her head. "No. But the camp is so small. I never get to see the world. Everyone else can teleport anywhere in the galaxy by using the fyitt, but I'm not allowed to so much as set foot outside a single city block. I don't want to live that way. I can't. I don't think anyone could."
For a moment, I get a glimpse of a deep-rooted passion that's been thoroughly concealed by layers of fear and distrust, but then she retreats again, and her demeanor is covered once again by wariness.
"So, you decided to hide here? In the middle of a crowded public square?" Lieutenant Dairo probes, raising an eyebrow.
Ayeila gives us another one of those looks, the one where she's getting ready to explain something obvious. Like we're from a different planet.
So to speak.
"It's not just some public square," she explains. "It's a Data Processing Center. This is a network hub. The best signal can be found here. The fastest connection, the highest fidelity. This is the last place they’d expect an anfyitt to be. These are sanctuaries for the connected, not for people like me.”
Commander Tao leans in. “Captain,” he says, “perhaps we’re wasting our time. If the network is the only place where we can interact with this species’ leadership, and if she can’t connect to it, then…”
I look into Ayeila’s eyes and sigh. This is more than we bargained for when accepting this assignment. We weren’t sent here to deal with social internment. Nor were we sent to pass judgment on another species’ culture. And who would have known we’d be ghosted so severely upon arrival, making it near impossible to do our job.
“No,” I finally say. “She could still be helpful to us. Right now, she’s the only lead we have, and I don’t want to risk letting that opportunity pass us by. What do you think, Commander? Do we have enough room in the shuttle for one more?”