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 NINE
The sound of concerned chatter and emphatic applause follows us as we exit the fourth pub tonight—this one aligned to the Unfortunate Truths forum. Ayeila has picked out twenty total targets to split among our three teams, and so far, we've had no interference from the Prophets or anyone else. Things seem to be going well—at least according to Bo's analytics—but I'm still cautiously pessimistic. Hazards of being the captain of a frontline battlecruiser.
I've pulled up our fifth target on the Adjutant and am in the process of selecting our new coordinates when I hear a silvery voice cut the night behind me and throw my heart into palpitations.
"Ah look, the Alliance officer, come to save the day and deliver our world from certain doom."
I turn around. There's a man standing before me, black cloak, black shirt, black cravat, an emerald pendant around his neck. Looks to be about my age, though I'm still not certain how Eulysian age works. His tone and expression are filled with derisive sarcasm, and his eyes dart across my avatar, as if searching for weaknesses.
I select the transport button, hoping to be whisked away to my next destination, but it doesn't respond to my touch. I press it again, but still, nothing happens, nor does it respond to vocal commands.
"Don't bother," the Prophet says, an amused grin tracing his oversized mouth. This is clearly his doing, so I comply and instead focus my efforts on determining the quickest way to destroy him.
"I can't be destroyed, my dear spacefaring friend," he adds, derailing my entire train of thought. Did I say anything out loud? I don't remember speaking at all. "It's alright. There are no secrets you can keep from me. You may speak freely, for I will discover your thoughts and desires regardless. This is, after all, my domain."
The next thing that goes through my mind is something cruder than I would normally speak out loud. I hope it translates into Eulysian well enough. His fading smile tells me that it does.
"If you're so omniscient, then you know why we're here. You know what our mission is."
"I do. I know everything about the meeting with your Admiral, about the studies that your scientists sent you, about your little attempted coup tonight."
"It's not a coup," I fire back in defense. "We're trying to save the lives of everyone on this planet. Surely you can see that."
"Perhaps," he admits. "It doesn't change the fact that neither you nor your persuasions are welcome here."
"You would allow the destruction of your people because of pride? Because of power?"
"Don't take me for some common authoritarian, Captain," the Prophet retorts, his voice booming from one end of the street to the other. After a moment or so, his demeanor returns to its previous collected baseline and he continues. "Have you considered the fact that we may not be the archetypal image of evil that you've conjured up in your mind? Have you perhaps considered that we might possibly be looking out for the good of everyone?"
"How can that be true?" I scoff, taking a step towards him, hoping to get a better look at his avatar, maybe find a weakness. "You would stand by and ignore clear warnings against a threat that could annihilate your entire species? How is that looking out for their good?"
He chuckles, like a parent laughing at a bumbling child's missteps. It makes my blood boil. "I can see you've studied our history, so I don't need to remind you of the Culling and the effects it had on us. Whether you agree with our culture or not, the fyitt and global network are as much a part of our identity as curiosity and discovery are a part of yours. If we were to abandon our planet and disperse ourselves among the stars, it would destroy us just as much as any other global disaster."
"But none of that will matter if your planet doesn't exist!" I argue. "You would rather die here than have to adjust to a new lifestyle?"
"It's more than a lifestyle, Captain," he answers calmly. "And besides, your Alliance predictions may not play out as expected. Science is a best guess, after all. Not an absolute."
My face turns hot with anger. Something's not right. There's an element to what he's saying that isn't adding up. I get the feeling that these are half-truths, platitudes and pacifiers to get me to back down. He's hiding something, I can tell. I just can't figure out what.
If he truly does know my thoughts, he makes no indication to confirm or refute my speculations. But even if they are true, what can I do about it?
Then, suddenly, a thought comes to my mind. Just the hint of a plan, a collection of impressions that happen to collide with one another in just the right way to illuminate a way out of this mess. I immediately take action without dwelling on the idea, lest I risk exposing my intentions to this fragment.
Without quite knowing what I'm doing or how, I propel my awareness into the fragment's mind, breaking through barriers I didn't even know existed. Immediately, I sense the being's surprise and shock at being caught so off guard. And before he can react, I plunge myself deeper, instantly overcome by a deep sea of depression and bitterness. Everything else in the fragment's mind is merely a boat floating on this backdrop of hurt and pain.
I recognize the corner of his consciousness dedicated to me and to the other members of my crew. They're all being held like I am, trapped in the network without being allowed to escape. He and the other Prophets have already nullified the spread of what they consider to be our "disinformation", and hardened the data access points so that no other foreign threat can enter the system. I quickly recognize that there's no fighting a system so experienced and established as the one these fragments have set up. Like the Prophet said, this is their domain. They own the government, the media, the very lifeblood of the population itself. And they've deceived everyone long enough that discernment between reality and fantasy is entirely in their hands. Truth is defined by them.
Our only option at this point is to escape, hopefully with our minds intact.
As I wade through waves of anger, through tides of memory and regret, I start to get a sense for what and who these fragments truly are. I can see now what they're hiding. I can see their resentment at being torn from their bodies, no longer able to experience physical life. I feel their hatred towards those Eulysians who survived, those who did nothing to save them, did nothing to prevent their demise. And I see their plans to enslave them, to keep the public as numb and as dissociated from the richness of real life as they are. Through deception, through exploitation, through long campaigns of seemingly small bits of disinformation to fuel a grand false narrative in their favor.
The power that they wield comes from each and every user on the global network, I note. They thrive on the collective neurological input of nearly all the inhabitants of Eulysia, like a virus feeding off the total computing power of a networked system. Save the anfyitts, of course, which they keep carefully tucked away in the dark recesses of obscurity and skillfully crafted segregation of mind and physical self. We are a threat to their existence by merely suggesting something that might do away with the network, for they are the network personified. They cling to it so severely in the absence of a biological form, like a shipwrecked sailor grasping at the nearest piece of wreckage, that it's impossible by now to tell one from the other. To eliminate the network would mean their annihilation as assuredly as a global catastrophe.
They would rather risk the entire world disintegrating before letting go of their hold. We are the ones threatening that hold, and they intend to eliminate that threat by whatever means necessary.
They mean to kill us.
I break free from the fragment with such force that the two of us stagger apart, disoriented. For a moment, I can do nothing but focus on breathing. Then, a pile of messages starts pouring in—verbal and text notifications from the rest of the crew alerting me to their situations, which are not far dissimilar from mine.
I force myself to tune them out, long enough to realize that the Prophets' hold on us has loosened. I'm no longer captive, at least for the moment. This may be our only opportunity to escape.
I order everyone to disconnect from the network, and not a moment too soon. As I sever the flaxen strands that tie me to the digital world, I'm assaulted by a searing pain in my head, an attack by the Prophets. Thankfully, it lasts no longer than a second before I've fallen back into reality outside the Data Processing Center.
"Go! Everyone move! Leave everything but your weapons and bikes!" I command, jumping up from my seat to help those next to me.
There's a mad scramble for the rifles that we brought with us, then we all pile out of the door and quickly assemble our motor bikes. The people gathered in the square remain oblivious to our existence, wandering about like cows grazing on grass, even as we all fire up our engines at the same time and speed off down the street.
If the Prophets know our intentions, our history, our very thoughts, then they certainly know our current location and that of our shuttles as well. I can only pray that we get to the park before they do.
We follow a much more direct path back than we did getting to the square, disregarding the stares of the Regulators along our way. For a short while, it seems as if we'll make it home without incident, but then I start noticing the street displays around us flashing red, and our images appear alongside a bolded notice written in Eulysian. I don't need Ayeila to tell me what it says.
I push my bike even harder, going past speeds I normally try to avoid outside the armored protection of a battlecruiser, and draw my pistol from its holster. My mind goes into combat mode, and soon I'm formulating about a dozen different contingencies depending on what comes next. What if our shuttles are compromised? What do we tell the others back on the Sao Paulo? What if we get trapped here? I start reviewing points of defense and areas of tactical interest from my limited knowledge of the area. Supplies, hideouts, potential bunkers.
As soon as we clear the city, I look up at our landing zone on the hill and feel my heart drop into my stomach. There are two armored personnel carriers parked alongside our shuttles, with about twenty or so Regulators poking around the area. I haven't had the chance to study their defense capabilities, but the Eulysians look as advanced as any Alliance member species. Their weapons are sure to be comparable to ours.
About a hundred paces short of the Regulators, I hop off my bike and swap weapons for my rifle, signaling the others to do the same. The marines come out in front of us, baring their teeth like dogs being held back by a chain. At this, the Regulators finally notice us and lift their own weapons, abandoning their search of our vehicles.
I lift my hand, directing my crew to hold their fire. We're about evenly matched—equal numbers, comparable firepower. And any instigation of hostility by either of us would likely lead to near total losses on both sides.
No one moves for an excruciatingly long minute, but then I take a few steps forward, lowering my rifle as I do so.
"Please allow us through," I say, even though I know they can't hear me. Hopefully my expression conveys my tone. "We just want to leave. That's all. This doesn't have to end with anyone getting hurt."
The morbid side of me wonders why I'm bothering at all. They live, they die. Doesn't matter. We could just unload on them, probably take out a good portion before they fire back at us. They'll all be dead in a few years anyways.
But that's not how humans work, I suppose. Futile emotion wins out over logic with us most days.
I take two or three more steps forward, testing their resolve. Their hands audibly grip their weapons tighter, and their barrels trace my movements, step by step, but they make no attempt to stop me. Still, I tense my muscles tighter the closer I get, fully anticipating to be halted by the crack of a gun. Only once I'm at the nearest shuttle do I dare release my breath.
Once they see it's safe, the rest of my crew follows suit, and the Regulators make way for them, allowing them to return to the shuttles without harassment.
I feel so much shame, so much guilt leaving this planet without accomplishing our mission. Especially considering the incredibly high stakes and wide-reaching consequences. The fates of countless lives hang on my decision right here, my choice to step aboard this shuttle and fly away.
But there's nothing else I could have done. I can't save a species that doesn't want to be saved, even less one that's been brainwashed to accept a broken memory's account of reality.
Commander Tao closes the hatch, and I get one final look at the confused and troubled expression of a young Eulysian Regulator before we lift off from Eulysia for the last time and turn our nose to the Sao Paulo.