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 SIX
The pub is an odd mix of dark and light, busy and calm, roaring and patiently attentive. The grungy interior, lit by an assortment of various-sized candles, is not unlike some of the older pubs in the West Isles back on Earth. There's the bar in the far corner where a tender hands out drinks to his customers, but the rest of the pub is filled with several dozen stages, all surrounded by stools and wooden benches. Many of them are filled by individuals giving passionate orations, while others are occupied by singers and dancers and art exhibitors.
But the theme throughout seems to be the same: destruction. The end of the world, expressed through creativity and conspiracy alike.
"Ayeila," I say, touching her arm. "How do we become a presenter?"
"Just go up. Anyone is allowed to talk," she answers matter-of-factly.
Lieutenant Dairo leans in. "So, are you going to tap dance or act out the message?" she asks.
I roll my eyes and approach the nearest vacant stage. There's a small group of Eulysians surrounding it, drinking and chatting with one another, but they part as I pass through.
A series of lights shine on me the instant I step onto the wooden platform. All of a sudden, I'm brought all the way back to the third grade, when Mr. Grondel made us each recite a poem from history in front of the entire lower grade assembly. My dad and step mother were both there, and all I remember is yelling for two minutes straight before my teacher finally dragged me off stage.
Thankfully, though, things seemed to turn about by the time I got to my doctoral dissertation defense. Mostly.
I gulp down my hesitations and turn to the closest cluster of Eulysians.
"Uh, hello everyone,” I begin. Some in the crowd chuckle and turn away, sending blood rushing to my cheeks, but I press on. “My name is Captain Leslie Vosler of the starship Sao Paulo. I know I may not look like it right now, but I’m actually a human from the planet Earth.”
A few of those who turned away stop and return, but an entirely fresh batch laugh openly and walk to some of the other stages.
"I was sent here by the Alliance to warn your people of an impending threat to your planet. The gas giant around which you orbit pulls on Eulysia with an incredible force, a force that gives you a climate suitable for life. But it also gives you volcanic activity, quakes, and disruptive fluctuations in your magnetic field. For billions of years, your people have hung in a precarious balance, adapting to the violent respiration of your home world, but something has changed.
"The balance has been tipped," I continue, gaining confidence. Others from around the pub have stopped to listen, though they seem more entertained than worried. "This is not fiction; I am not a Eulysian theorist. This is the truth. Your planet is on an unstable trajectory towards complete breakup. Your planet's core and mantle have destabilized. Over the next ten years—or four eoras, according to your reckoning—you will start seeing an increase in eulylogic activity. In fact, you may have already started to notice this happening. Unusual eruptions in diverse places, quakes where none have historically happened. This is the beginning, and it will only get worse. Four eoras from now, your planet will be uninhabitable."
The majority of those present seem amused by what I'm saying, though I note several concerned murmurs hop around from person to person. Not many though.
I begin to wonder if this was such a good idea after all. How much good could we possibly do throwing our message into what's essentially a social chat room? Why did I ever think we would be taken seriously? But what's our alternative? How else are we supposed to get the message out to this incredibly closed-off species?
"There are hundreds of worlds in the Alliance that have volunteered to evacuate your species from Eulysia and grant you asylum until another solution is found, but you need to start preparing now before things get worse."
"And we're supposed to just…trust you?" says a man from the far edge of the crowd. His brows are twisted skeptically, and his already crooked nose turns in…disgust? It's hard for me to read Eulysian expressions. He places his hands on the shoulders of the Eulysians on either side of him, then turns from me, surveying my audience as if challenging each of them with the question he just asked me.
I shield my eyes from the lights and give him a closer look. He's dressed in all black from head to toe, and something about him seems to project respect. Authority. There's something strapped to his waist, a weapon perhaps?
But it's the pendant around his neck that garners the most attention. A bright green emerald set in a six-pointed star made of silver. It's so large and gaudy that I nearly laugh in front of everyone, but I manage to bite my tongue in time.
The others in the crowd part to either side and bow as he makes his way closer to the stage and takes a spot at the edge, placing himself directly in front of me. "Billions of eoras our world has thrived, and now this…outsider, this base model," he says, gesturing to my figure, prompting a round of laughter, "pretending to be some kind of foreign agent, says we're doomed to destruction in a matter of four eoras? It's laughable. Brothers and sisters, there's something to be said for entertainment, but this is borderline incendiary."
I look at my avatar's body, wondering if maybe this form is considered unattractive to Eulysians in some way, enough for them to laugh at me. Commander Tao did say these were the default settings. Though I can't imagine how that would discredit what I'm saying.
"If you all look at your Adjutants, you'll find I've sent you some articles and specialists proving that these statements are false," the man continues. "You are safe. Eulysia is safe. Our planet goes through very natural cycles and perturbations that are causing the very slight uptick in eulylogic activity. They might be inconvenient, but certainly not apocalyptic. For all we know, this captain might be nothing more than a troll. Or who knows. We are the most strategically advantageous system in the galaxy. Maybe she is a foreign agent, trying to clear our planet out so they can use it as a military post."
He chuckles, and the rest of the crowd laughs again. The sound is coarse and grating on my ears, like sheet metal being rubbed along a cheese slicer.
"Some people just want to stir up trouble and deserve none of our attention. Let us—"
I feel a tug on my pants leg and look down to find Ayeila gesturing for me to get down. Reluctantly, I comply and find myself forcefully dragged by the arm away from the stage and out the pub door. Lieutenant Dairo follows after us, her hand hovering around where her pistol would normally be.
"What was that?" I ask, infuriated. Partly at the newcomer, partly at Ayeila. "I didn't even get the chance to counter that idiot. I need to get back in there."
"That's not just some idiot," she replies, visibly shaken. "That's a Prophet."
Ayeila glances back at the pub door then guides us both down the street a short distance and into an alleyway. After checking over her shoulder, she turns back to us and lowers her voice.
"That's a Prophet. Guardians of the public and stewards of the digital realm. Seers of things to come. One of maybe a hundred worldwide. They rule our government and direct every aspect of daily life."
I scoff, perhaps more sharply than I intended. "Do you actually believe all that? Seer and everything?"
It's incredibly rude of me, and I try reeling in my words, but I'm still worked up from the pub. Besides, Ayeila doesn't even seem to care.
"No, of course I don't. No anfyitt does. But they do," she says, pointing back down the street. "The whole rest of the world does. Their words are law. Scripture. To challenge them would be a crime worthy of capital punishment."
"You mean they'd actually kill us?" Lieutenant Dairo interjects, thoroughly dumbfounded.
Ayeila tilts her head ambiguously. "It hasn't been enforced in modern times, but the law is clearly written out."
I fold my arms and groan. I could be sipping Cyprosian Mai Tais from a pineapple, but I'm stuck here trying to save a species that doesn't want to be saved. Hell, that doesn't even want to talk to anyone not from their world. Who knows, maybe we are wrong. Maybe our scientists missed something. It wouldn't be the first time. That would make my life a lot easier.
"What about those studies?" I ask. "The ones the…Prophet mentioned?" I almost gag on the title, dripping with self-piety.
Ayeila lifts her palm and sorts through the holographic contents of the Adjutant, swiping through article after article. After a quick look through, she closes her hand and shakes her head.
"These are all written by UniFore. It's a state-funded research and development center. They'll publish anything to back up the Prophets. There was one written by Huemore, but they're primarily a lifestyle blog. I'm not sure what business they have writing about astrophysics."
"So, in essence, the government puts out their own narrative, and the people just accept it?"
She nods solemnly. "To do otherwise would be akin to defying deity. Besides, to the public, it doesn't matter who authors a study; as long as it aligns to their own beliefs, it's fact."
I close my eyes in exasperation and rub the back of my head. I'm starting to get a headache, and I'm not sure if it's the stress or the link. Probably both. Plus, the whole extra joint thing is starting to creep me out.
"Can we have this conversation elsewhere? This Eulysian avatar is—"
I pause and look over Ayeila's shoulder into the darkness beyond. Maybe it's my mind playing tricks on me, but it seems as if there's someone there, watching us. Someone? No. Something? More like a shadow than a person.
"I see it," Lieutenant Dairo responds. She reaches for the ghost of her pistol once again out of habit, and I note the visible disappointment on her face when she grasps nothing but air.
Ayeila turns around. "What? What is it?"
"Look. Right there."
I point, but she continues to search from side to side, unable to find the figure.
How can she not see it? It's mostly darkness, an outline really, but there's a glowing green spot on its chest, like a throbbing ember. Impossible to miss, even from this distance. I can't say I've seen anything like it before, but then again, I've never seen anything like this virtual environment before either.
I take a step forward, hoping to get a better look. Is it an avatar, maybe? An AI entity or a glitch in the system?
"Hey!" I call out. "Hey, who are you?"
At the sound of my voice, the darkness shifts and turns away.
"Wait! No, don't leave!"
I begin running past Ayeila, towards the darkness, but I take no more than a few dozen paces before it disappears.
Just like that.
And I'm left standing in the shadows, confused and disquieted, heaving rapid breaths like a fourth-class cadet. Lieutenant Dairo halts by my side, looking just as baffled as I do.
Something's rubbing me the wrong way. Something about the entity. I don't know what it is yet, but I'm getting a strange feeling in my stomach. There was something unnatural about it, about the being, like it wasn't quite Eulysian, but also not artificial. It was reactionary, responsive, yet subtle and unfeeling. Cold. Like a memory of something that was once living, but is now nothing more than a shell, a layer of consciousness. Discarded like a snake's skin, shed and forgotten.
Well, whatever it was, it wasn't friendly. At least that's my guess, based on everything we've seen on Eulysia so far. And if that's the case, we've got to watch ourselves, not just in the physical world, but in the virtual one as well.
I stare at the empty darkness for a moment longer, then I call out to Commander Tao to bring us out.