People complicate things. That’s what they’ve always been good at. Take a look at any functioning civilization and you will see chaos, confusion, and frustration. It could be human, Xi’an, Banu, Vanduul, whoever. We may look different, be built different, but boil us down and you’ll find the same insecurities, fears, and anxieties gnawing.
Tonya Oriel watched the yawning abyss outside the window. Kaceli’s Adagio in 4 gently wafted through the otherwise empty ship. Scanners cycled through their spectrums on the hunt for any flagged anomalies.
The void. It was pure. It was simple. It was permanent.
A calm serenity huddled around Tonya’s shoulders like a blanket, the kind that can only exist when you are the only person for thousands of kilometers. Everyone else can have Terra, Earth, or Titus, with their megacities teeming with people. Never a moment where there wasn’t a person above, beside or below you. Everything was noise. Tonya needed the silence.
Her ship, the Beacon, drifted through that silence. Tonya customized almost every hardpoint and pod with some form of scanner, deep-range comm system, or surveying tech to get her further and further from the noise.
The problem was that the noise kept following.* * * *
After three weeks on the drift, Tonya couldn’t put it off any longer. She was due for a supply run and to sell off the data and minerals she’d collected. After repairs, new scrubbers, and a spectrum update, she hoped she’d have enough for some food.
The Xenia Shipping Hub in the Baker System had been the closest thing to a home she’d had for the past few years. Tonya set her approach through the shifting entry/exit patterns of ships. The station’s traffic was busier than usual. As soon as the Beacon docked, her screen buzzed with a handful of new messages from the spectrum. She passed them to her mobiGlas and went to the airlock.
Tonya paused by the entry and savored this last moment of solitude as the airlock cycled, then hit the button.
The sound of people swept inside like a wave. She took a second to acclimate, adjusted her bag and crossed into the masses.
Carl ran a small information network out of his bar, the Torchlight Express. An old surveyor for a long-defunct terraforming outfit, Carl traded moving minerals for slinging booze and information. Tonya had known him for years. As far as people went, Carl was a gem.
The Express was dead. Tonya checked local time. It was evening so there was no real reason why it should be like this. A group of prospectors sat at a table in the corner, engaged in a hushed conversation. Carl leaned against the bar, watching a sataball game on the wallscreen. His leathery fingers tapped out a beat to some song in his head.
He brightened up when he saw Tonya.
“Well, well, well, to what do we owe the honor, doctor?” He said with a grin.
“Don’t start, Carl.”
“Sure, sorry, doctor.” He must be bored; he only called her that when he wanted to pick a fight. Tonya slung her bag onto the ground and slid onto a stool.
“Anything interesting?” Tonya pulled her hair back into a tie.
“I’m great, Tonya, thanks for asking. Business is a little slow, but you know how it is.” Carl said sarcastically and slid a drink to her.
“Come on, Carl. I’m not gonna patronize you with small-talk.”
Carl sighed and looked around.
“At this point, I’ll take any patrons I can get.” He poured himself a drink from the dispenser. Tonya swiveled her mobiGlas around and showed him her manifest. He looked it over. “Running kinda light this time, huh?”
“I know. You know any buyers?”
“How much you looking to get?”
“Whatever I can,” Tonya said as she sipped. She could tell Carl was annoyed with the non-answer. “I need the money.”
“I might be able to get you ten.” He said after a long pause.
“I would give you my unborn child for ten.”
“With all the unborn kids you owe me, you better get started.” He said. Tonya smacked his arm.
One of the prospectors drifted over to the bar with empty glasses. He was young, one of those types who cultivated the dirty handsome look. Probably spent an hour perfecting it before going out.
As Carl poured, the prospector looked at Tonya, giving his looks a chance to work their magic. They failed. Carl set a fresh batch of drinks down. The prospector paid and went back slightly deterred.
“I think someone liked you.” Carl teased.
“Not my type.”
“Exactly.” Tonya watched the prospectors. They were really in an overtly secretive conversation. “Any idea what they’re here for?”
“Of course I do.”
“Yeah? What’d they say?”
“Nothing… well, not to me anyway.” Carl pulled an earpiece out and held it out to her. Tonya wiped it off and took a listen. Suddenly she could hear their conversation loud and clear. Tonya looked at Carl, stunned.
“You have mics on your tables?!” She whispered. Carl shushed her.
“I deal in information, honey, so yeah.” Carl said, almost offended that he wouldn’t listen in on his customers.
Tonya took another sip and listened to the prospectors. It only took a little while to catch up. Apparently Cort, the prospector who tried to woo Tonya with his ruggedness, got a tip from his uncle in the UEE Navy. The uncle had been running Search & Rescue drills in the Hades System when their scanners accidentally picked up a deposit of kherium on Hades II. Being the military, of course, they couldn’t do anything, but Cort and his buddies were fixing to sneak in there and harvest it for themselves.
Kherium was a hot commodity. If these prospectors were on the level, they were talking about a tidy little fortune. Certainly enough to patch up the Beacon, maybe even install some upgrades.
Even better, they obviously didn’t know how to find it. Kherium doesn’t show up on a standard metal or rad scan. It takes a specialist to find, much less extract without corrupting it. Fortunately for Tonya, she knew how to do both. “You’ve got that look.” Carl said and refilled her glass. “Good news?”
“I hope so, Carl, for both of us.”* * * *
Carl offloaded her haul at a discount so she could set out as quick as possible. Last time she checked, the prospectors were still at the Express and from the sound of it, they wouldn’t leave for a couple hours, maybe a day.
Tonya disengaged the Beacon from the dock and was back in her beloved solitude. The engines hummed as they pushed her deeper into space, pushed her toward a lifeline.
The Hades System was a tomb, the final monument of an ancient civil war that obliterated an entire system and the race that inhabited it. Tonya had it on her list of places to study, but every year Hades was besieged by fresh batches of young scientists exploring it for their dissertation or treasure hunters looking for whatever weapon cracked Hades IV in half. So the system became more noise to avoid.
Tonya had to admit that passing Hades IV was always a thrill. It’s not every day you get to see the guts of a planet killed in its prime.
Then there were the whispers that the system was haunted. There was always some pilot who knew a guy who knew someone who had seen something while passing through the system. The stories ranged from unexplained technical malfunctions to full-on sightings of ghost cruisers. It was all nonsense.
There was a loose stream of ships passing through Hades. The general flight lane steered clear of the central planets. Tonya slowed her ship until there was a sizeable gap in the flow of traffic before veering off toward Hades II.
She passed a barrier of dead satellites and descended into Hades II’s churning atmosphere. The Beacon jolted when it hit the clouds. Visual went to nil and suddenly the ship was bathed in noise, screaming air, and pressure. Tonya kept an eye on her scopes and expanded the range on her proximity alerts to make sure she didn’t ram a mountain.
Suddenly the clouds gave way. The Beacon swooped into the light gravity above a pitch-black ocean. Tonya quickly recalibrated her thrusters for atmospheric flight and took a long look at the planet around her.
As was expected, it was a husk. There were signs of intelligent civilization all around but all of it was crumbling, charred, or destroyed. She passed over vast curved cities built atop sweeping arches meant to keep the buildings from ever touching the planet itself.
Tonya maintained a cruising altitude. The roar of her engines echoed through the vast empty landscape. The sun was another casualty of this system’s execution. The cloud systems never abated so the surface never saw sunlight. It was always bathed in a dark greyish green haze.
Tonya studied the topography to plot out a course and set the scanners to look for the unique kherium signature she had programmed. She engaged the auto-pilot and just looked out the window.
Being here now, she kicked herself for not coming sooner. It didn’t matter that this was one of the most scientifically scrutinized locales in the UEE. Seeing the vastness of the devastation with her own eyes, Tonya felt that tug that a good mystery has on the intellect. Who were they? How did they manage to so effectively wipe themselves out? How do we know they actually wiped themselves out?
A few hours passed with no luck. Tonya had a quick snack and ran through her exercise routine. She double-checked the settings on her scans for any errors on the initial input. A couple months ago, she was surveying a planet and found nothing, only to discover on her way back that there had been one setting off that scuttled the whole scan. It still bugged her. It was an amateur mistake.
She brought up some texts on Hades. Halfway through a paper on the exobiology of the Hadesians, her screen pinged. Tonya was over there like a shot.
The scope gave a faint indication of kherium below. She triple-checked the settings before getting her hopes up. They seemed legit. She looked out the front. A small city sat above endless sea of dead trees lay ahead. It looked like an orbital laser or something had hit it excising massively deep craters from buildings and ground.
Tonya took a closer look. The craters went about six hundred feet into the ground, revealing networks of underground tunnels. They looked like some kind of transport system.
Tonya looked for a suitable landing spot with cover from overhead flights. If she was still here when the prospectors showed up, her ship would be a dead giveaway and things would get complicated.
She strapped on her environment suit and respirator. She could check the ship’s scanners through her mobiGlas but threw another handheld scanner/mapper in with her mining gear just in case. Finally, she powered up her transport crate, hoping the anti-gravity buffers would be more than enough to lug the kherium back.
Tonya stepped out onto the surface. The wind whipped around her, furiously kicking up waves of dust. She pushed the crate in front of her through the blasted forest. Gnarled branches clawed at her suit as she passed. The city loomed overhead, black silhouettes against the grey-green clouds.
Her curiosity got the better of her so Tonya decided to take a ramp up to the city streets. She told herself the detour would be easier on the crate’s battery. Smooth streets are easier for the anti-grav compensators to analyze than rough terrain.
Tonya moved through the barren, empty streets in awe. She studied the strange curvature of the architecture; each displayed an utterly alien yet brilliant understanding of pressure and weight dispersal. This whole place seemed at once natural and odd, intellectually fascinating and emotionally draining.
The kherium signature was still weak but there. Tonya maneuvered the crate around destroyed teardrop shaped vehicles. Pit-marks in the buildings and streets led her to suspect that a battle had taken place here however many hundreds or thousands of years ago.
The crater closest to the kherium was a perfect hole punched through the middle of the city into the ground. Tonya stood at the edge, looking for the easiest way down. The crate could float down but she would have to climb.
In a matter of minutes she secured a line with safeties for herself and the crate. She stepped over the edge and slowly rappelled down the sheer wall. The crate was making what should be a simple descent a little more complicated. The anti-grav buffers meant that any kind of force could cause the crate to drift away, so Tonya needed to keep a hand on it at all times. To make matters worse, the wind started picking up, flinging small rocks, branches and pieces of debris through the air.
A shrill scream tore through the air. Tonya froze. She heard it again and looked for the source. The screaming was just exposed supports bending in the wind.
Suddenly she realized, the crate had slipped out of her grasp. It slowly drifted further out over the crater, the swirling wind batted it around like a toy. Tonya strained to reach it but the crate floated just out of reach. She kicked off the wall and swung through the churning air. Her fingertips barely snagged the cargo before she slammed back against the wall of the crater.
Her vision blurred and she couldn’t breathe from the impact. The HUD went screwy. Finally she caught her breath. She took a moment or two before continuing down.
The scanner from the Beacon couldn’t isolate the signature any clearer to determine depth so she had to rely on her handheld. The kherium looked like it was situated between two tunnels.
Tonya secured the crate, climbed into the upper tunnel, and tied off her ropes. She checked her suit’s integrity in the debris-storm. The computer was a little fuzzy but gave her an okay.
She turned on a flashlight and activated the external mics on her suit. The tunnel was a perfectly carved tube that sloped into the darkness. Tonya couldn’t see any kind of power or rail system to confirm her transport tube theory. She started walking.
Hours passed in the darkness. Tonya felt a little queasy so she decided to rest for a few minutes. She sipped on the water reserve and double-checked her scanner. She was still above the kherium and it was still showing up as being in front of her. That much hadn’t changed.
She heard something. Very faint. She brought up the audio settings and pumped the gain on the external mics. A sea of white noise filled her ears. She didn’t move until she heard it again. Something being dragged then stopped.
IR and night vision windows appeared in the corners of her HUD. She couldn’t see anything. In the vast stretches of these tunnels, there’s no telling how far that sound had travelled. Still, she went to the crate and pulled the shotgun out. She made sure it was loaded, even tried to remember the last time she had cause to use it.
Tonya started moving a little more cautious. She doubted it was the prospectors. For all she knew it could be some other pirate or smuggler down here. Regardless, she wasn’t going to take any chances.
The tunnel started to expand before finally giving way to a vast darkness. Tonya’s night vision couldn’t even see the end. She dug through her supplies and picked out some old flares. She sparked one.
It was a city. A mirror city to be precise. While the one on the surface reached for the sky, this one was carved down into the planet. Walkways connected the various structures built out of the walls on the various levels. She’d never heard of anything like this before. Everyone speculated that it was civil war that destroyed this system. Was this a city of the other side?
She came to an intersection and the first real sign that the fighting had spread here. A barricade of melted vehicles blocked one of the tunnels. The walls were charred from either explosions or laser-blasts. A shadow had even been burned into the wall.
Tonya stood in front of it. The Hadesian seemed to have a roundish bulky main body with multiple thin appendages. A thousand year old stain on a wall is hardly much to go by, but even as a silhouette, it looked terrified.
A cavernous structure was built into the wall nearby. Tonya approached to examine the craftsmanship. It was certainly more ornate than most of the other buildings down here. There weren’t doors down here, just narrow oval portals. There was some kind of tech integrated into the sides.
Tonya decided to take a look. It was a deep bowl with rows of enclosures built into the sides. All of them were angled towards a single point, a marble-like cylinder at the bottom of the bowl. Tonya descended toward it. There was a small item sitting on top. She kept her light and shotgun trained on it. It was made from a similar marble-like stone as the cylinder. Tonya looked around. Was this some kind of church?
She leaned down to get a better look at the item, careful not to disturb anything. It was a small carving. It wasn’t a Hadesian shape. Not one she was familiar with. She weighed whether she should take it.
Tonya’s head suddenly swam. She stumbled back and steadied herself on the enclosures. After a moment or two it passed. A subtle stabbing pain started to ache in her arm. She stretched it, trying to work out the ache. She took a last look at the small carving.
Tonya stepped out of the ornate building and brought up her scanner. The kherium was close. She followed the scanner’s directions into the dark and twisted tunnels. Her eyes stayed locked on the growing glow of the screen. She tripped over something. The scanner clattered across the floor. It echoed for a minute.
Tonya shook her head slightly. This place… She turned her lights back right into the face of a rotted corpse, its mouth open in a silent scream.
“Hell!” she yelled as she scuffled away from it. She looked around. There was another form on the floor about twenty feet away. A strongbox sat between them. The initial shock subsided.
Tonya got up, grabbed her scanner and walked over to the first body. Its skull had been cracked open. There was no weapon though. No club or bar nearby. That was odd. The other one had clearly shot himself. The gun was still in his hand. They were definitely human and based on their clothes; they were probably surveyors or pirates. She didn’t know what kind of elements were in the air here so she couldn’t give an accurate guess how long they’d been dead but suspected months.
She shuffled over to the strongbox and kicked it open. Kherium. Already extracted and carefully wrapped. Sweet relief drifted through the exhaustion.
“Thanks guys.” Tonya gave them a quick salute. “Sorry you aren’t here to share it.” Something flitted across her IR window.
Tonya snatched up her shotgun and aimed. It was gone. Her breathing became rapid and shallow as she waited. Her finger hovered over the trigger. She pumped the gain on the external mics again and scanned the hall. The whole time, telling herself to calm down. Calm down.
Every movement of her suit amplified a hundred times in her ears. She tracked the rifle through the tunnel, looking for whatever was in here with her. Something came through the static. Close.
“Welcome home,” it hissed.
Tonya fired into the dark. She spun behind her. Nothing down there. She racked another round and blasted anyway. The shots blew out the speakers in her helmet.
She grabbed the strongbox and ran.
Ran through the slippery, sloping tunnels of pitch-black, now in total silence. She passed the intersection, where the Hadesian still raised its arms in terror. She kept looking back. She could swear something was there, just beyond the range of the IR, watching from the static.
Tonya sprinted up a rise to see the grim overcast light of the exit, now just a pinhole. Her legs burned. Her arm killed. All she wanted to do was go to sleep but she wasn’t going to stop. If she stopped, she knew she would never leave.
She pulled herself up the rope and pushed through the blasted forest back to the Beacon. Thirty seconds later, the thrusters were scorching earth. One minute later, she broke atmo.
As Hades II drifted away, she tried to steady her nerves. Her environment suit slowly twisted on the hanger in the decontamination chamber. She noticed something.
The respiratory functions on the back were damaged. The fall in the crater must have done it. It bashed up the feeds and she was getting too much oxygen. The headaches, nausea, and fatigue… even that voice. Even though it chilled her still. They were all probably just hallucinations and reactions to oxygen poisoning.
Tonya set a course back for the Xenia Shipping Hub in Baker. She had goods to sell, true, but right now, she wanted to be around people.
She wanted to be around the noise.
Back in the decontamination chamber, the tiny Hadesian carving sat on the floor.