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 SEVEN
I rub my temples as we glide along the underground rails towards the park where our shuttle is located. Ayeila has proven to be an invaluable resource, showing us key points around the city, resupply points, areas to avoid, as well as public transport stations. Much better than having to walk hours each day.
She may not know much about the digital world, but she certainly knows the physical one well enough.
The subway car is completely empty, besides ourselves; apparently there's not much demand for physical transport when the majority of the population lives in a digital environment. All the better. I've been feeling uneasy since our encounter at the pub.
The train comes to a halt, and we exit onto the platform, dragging our artificial fyitt technology with us. We'll try again tomorrow, but for now, we need to analyze the data that we've collected and reevaluate our strategy.
Plus, I need the doctor to give me a look over; my head hasn't stopped pounding since linking up.
As we climb the stairs to the surface, I find my attention drawn to the walls, which are adorned by long, flashing digital displays with moving graphics and advertisements. I recognize the imposing figure of a Prophet dressed in full black, starting outward with vainglorious confidence. His image is accompanied by bits of text written in Eulysian.
"Ayeila, what do the walls say?" I ask, pointing to the nearest script.
"Those are government slogans. Mantras crafted by the Prophets," she answers without having to look up. "This one says Trust the voices of those who know. The one over there says A glorious Eulysian future must be dreamed of and built by Eulysian minds."
"And these are common? These displays and messages?"
"Oh yes," she says scornfully. "In the subways, in public spaces, even in the halls of residence blocks."
As I watch the signs, they flash once again, changing their script with the image of another Prophet. It's astounding, the iron grip that these individuals have on the entire global population. And the willingness of the people to accept whatever narrative is given to them.
Maybe I'm just looking at it from a human perspective, because I'm sure that the Eulysians have their own unique cultural framework and history to support what I'm seeing, but I can't imagine being so devoted to such a unilateral and uniform worldview, loyal to a single party in every aspect. At the very least, I would expect a greater number of dissidents, like Ayeila. Albeit her discordance was involuntarily prompted by natural causes.
In any case, it makes for a rough road ahead. We are the outsiders, in every sense. Physically, virtually. Even in our way of thinking, we are the odd ones.
"How's the head now?" Doc Kosnik asks after administering an injection, her tone soft and earnest.
She's in one of her better moods today. Probably because I've been keeping her occupied with projects. I've found that the busier her hands are, and her mind, the less she gets lost among her demons.
Just as long as the projects I give her don't involve our marines.
"Yeah, it's feeling much better, Doc. Thanks."
"Good. Get dressed. I've got some updates for you."
I get down from the scanning bed and grab my uniform and pistol from a table to the side, shivering as I slide myself into each pants leg. The environmental controls were damaged in our last battle, forcing us to keep the ship at a balmy seven degrees Celsius, just high enough to keep the fuel and Dendaris from freezing. Plus, the scanning table has never been much of a tanning bed anyways, so ten minutes of nothing but underclothes is about all I can take.
Once I've reassembled myself, I join the Doc in her office.
"The neurological aperture Bo made for y'all seems to be working alright," she says, pulling up charts on her tablet as I take a seat. "You can expect the headaches to continue, as can the rest of the crew, regardless of species, but it's mostly harmless. I wouldn't recommend going longer than two hours at a time, however. Because your brains are literally under attack."
"Yeah. When Bo was programming your links, he had to do some digital gymnastics in order to get around the Eulysian defense protocols, the same ones that shielded them from the Culling. His architecture is effective, but not perfect."
The medical bay door chirps, and Doc allows Bo to wander in. "Captain, you're here. Good. I was going to find you after talking with Doc anyways."
"What's up, Bo?"
"It's about the data you brought back. We've been digging into your encounter with the shadow, and I think we've got some serious issues."
Bo takes a seat in the chair beside me and puts his tablet in front of us, using his hand to slide the display of charts and graphs onto the table's screen.
"This right here," he says, gesturing to a scrolling page of code, "is the anomaly you saw near the end of your session. And this," he says, pointing to another page of code "is a typical Eulysian signature."
I'm sure he thinks he's just said something significant, but honestly, the two pages look like complete gibberish to me. My eight credit hours of one-hundred-level software engineering did hardly anything to help my digital literacy.
When he sees I haven't caught on, Bo highlights a few portions of the code. "It's almost identical. Sort of. Except there are whole portions missing from the anomaly. It's almost as if it's more of a fragment than something intentionally built. Like it's been corrupted."
"So, you think this shadow is a person? A Eulysian?"
Without answering my question, he simply pulls up two videos, both showing the alleyway by the pub. "Here. These are both Ayeila's and your visual records synced to the same time stamp."
I watch first-person footage of myself talking with Ayeila, turning my attention down the alleyway, discovering the dark figure, chasing after it, and finally witnessing it disappear from view. It's less disturbing watching it now, like I'm watching it all happen to someone else.
Then, I focus on Ayeila's perspective of the same events. She's talking with my avatar, then I look away. She follows my gaze.
But there's nothing there. No dark figure.
My avatar runs past her, but then seems to stop for no reason at all.
"Alright, so she couldn't see it. But you're sure it was in fact there?"
Bo bobs his head left to right, a Huhu sign of acknowledgement. "Yes. We've cross-checked it with Lieutenant Dairo's feed. This thing that we're seeing is very similar to a Eulysian in terms of a neurological signature, but major pieces of its code have been destroyed, including the portion that makes it a recognizable entity to Eulysian optical receivers. But there are other bits and pieces that are recognized by different species."
A shiver runs along my spine as I watch the footage repeat itself, one that has nothing to do with our icebox of a ship. I have an unsettling feeling that I'm missing something, like I've lost the final pieces of the puzzle, but the most crucial pieces, too. I have enough pieces to keep me disquieted, but not enough to explain why.
"Eulysians don't recognize these beings. But we do?"
"And you're suggesting they are...Eulysian? But not exactly?"
"So, is this a problem? Will I see any mission impacts? Or is this just some curious Eulysian at home with a faulty connection? I'm not understanding. What's the situation?"
Bo clears the table and looks at me seriously, taking a moment to let the silence marinate. "These entities that we're seeing are the consciousnesses of Eulysians, stripped from their bodies during the Culling. Remember the virus that Ensign Khealia mentioned in her brief? The official term for it is called neurological fracturing, but, in essence, you're seeing the digital echoes of once living Eulysians, sentient in their own right, but only barely. Only technically."
I stare at the empty table with a blank expression, horrified by what I'm hearing. It's sickening. I can't even imagine being torn from my physical self, trapped in a virtual world with only pieces of my shattered mind left to work with.
But as appalling as this reality is, we've still got a mission to accomplish. Billions of lives to save. That's our priority above anything else.
"What's the threat, then, Bo? What should I expect when we link back up?"
Bo grunts, a sigh of sorts. "The virus is still there, Captain. In the system. It was quarantined but never destroyed. And over the decades it's been allowed to adapt and modify itself. It can’t strip away any more consciousnesses, but the dark remnants that you're seeing utilize the virus to control the global environment and adjust it according to their desires. They've created false profiles that I'm sure you're familiar with, known as the Prophets. And with these profiles, they manage to control the public, readjusting policy as it fits their agenda. They've forged this system over many immortal years, perfecting their hold on the population.
"We still don't know to what end, but unfortunately it seems you've been identified as a threat," Bo confesses as he stands and takes back his tablet. "They've already started modifying their code so that they can hide, even from human and Asgeilan optical inputs. It won't be long before you can't see them either. And I can only guess what their plans are from there."
I stand and holster my pistol. "Okay," I sigh. "Then that means we have even less time than we thought. We'll have to reattack our whole plan from a different angle before these fragments can react to us. Commander?"
There's a small chirp from the shipboard comms.
"Yes, Captain?" Commander Tao responds.
"Z, gather the crew. And have transport logistics prep the other landing vessels."