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Short Fiction: "The Last of the Silent"

AeternisJan 17, 2021, 11:30:20 PM
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Lukas stared into the fog, waiting for his survey drones to return. No sound broke the oppressive stillness of the dead city, not even wind hissing through the open windows of the corroded prefabricated buildings. The only motion in view was the gentle fluttering of scraps of torn cloth hanging from some of the windows.  

Though Frontier legends spoke of the existence of the Silent Planet, Lukas hadn’t known what “silent” would mean until he found the place. Even a flock of bird-like creatures soaring in close formation through the misty sky made no noise as they passed over the dead towers. Each time he shifted his footing on the roof from which he’d deployed his drones, the groaning of the pitted sheet metal seemed a roaring intrusion. 

Finding the Silent Planet had been an accident, just as it was in all the stories. The world didn’t appear on any navigation chart, and he’d stumbled upon it in a nameless system while performing an asteroid-mining survey. Most likely the builders of the four and five story towers of prefab modules had intended their colony to be hidden. Perhaps they had been Penderites or practitioners of some other isolationist philosophy, seeking to cut off all contact with the Core Worlds. Perhaps the town had been a hideout for pirates and their families, or perhaps a damaged colony ship had limped into the system, stranding a few unfortunate settlers in its enduring, oppressive silence. 

Though there was no way of knowing how long it had been since the builders had left or died out, Lukas saw nothing to indicate human habitation within the nameless town in his own lifetime. Neither had he seen any human remains – the inhabitants had vanished without a trace, leaving him to guess at their fate. Even decayed and moldering, the ruins hinted at a colorful, vibrant community, at a life interrupted. It was as if a city of thousands had simply walked out into the mist, never to return. 

The hum of the returning drones deafened Lukas, though the machines were considered quiet and unobtrusive anywhere else. After each of the three fist-sized machines circled its owner and docked to the charging ports on his pack, Lukas turned around and clambered down the way he had come. The pack's computer would soon spit out a map of the ruins, hopefully pointing the way to any easily-salvaged valuables the lost inhabitants had abandoned. The timetable on his contract prevented him from staying planetside long enough to perform a full search of the ghost town. 

In fact, as Lukas stepped over the ruins of some sort of polymer-printed furniture, he wondered why even people with something to hide might have come to such a dreary place. There were dozens of genuinely pleasant worlds on the Frontier just as secluded as this one, without its dreadful, dead aspect. Despite this, thousands of people had lived, worked and loved – and apparently died – in the shifting mists and constant stillness of the Silent Planet. He couldn’t imagine anyone, even religious ascetics, choosing such a life if they had any other choice. 

As Lukas returned to the crumbling pavement of street level, he spotted movement in the corner of his eye, in the shadows of a yawning doorway. Grabbing at the carbine slung under his arm, he leveled the weapon at the disturbance and brought the lights on his suit to full power. The harsh blue-white beams found nothing within but the far wall and a few rotted heaps that might once have been furnishings. 

Shaking his head, Lukas brought up the map his survey computer had rendered to orient himself, heading toward the location determined to be the highest likelihood of portable valuables. The silence was getting to his nerves, but there was a simple explanation for it: the world had a fairly standard biosphere, save that none of the wildlife had ever learned to use human-audible sound. 

Lukas had only moved a few meters down the weed-choked thoroughfare before he spotted motion again. Something withdrew around a corner ahead of him as he approached. Carbine ready, the explorer activated his helmet recorder and followed the disturbance. Despite his uneasiness, Lukas knew good data on the planet's wildlife might be as valuable as any salvage. Whatever it was seemed skittish, so he probably wasn’t in any danger. 

"Let’s have a look at you." 

Immediately Lukas regretted voicing the thought; even a whisper under his breath echoed thunderously off the weathered walls looming on all sides. In an instant, the dreary, damp atmosphere became forbidding, even hostile. Lukas wondered if it would be wiser to abandon his hopes of easy profit and head back to his landing craft. After all, the legends said the Silent Planet was cursed; even if he didn’t personally put much stock in such mysticism, the legend might have arisen from very real danger. 

Turning around to head back to the edge of the settlement where he’d landed his spacecraft, Lukas found himself face to face with a tattered black cowl. He yelped in surprise and fell backwards, dropping his carbine to the moss-covered pavement. 

The figure didn’t react to Lukas’s alarm except to beckon with one shrouded arm. Lukas followed its gesture and saw something slither into a shadowed alley. He didn't get a good look at it, but he sensed he didn’t want to – the hooded being might have saved his life. Lukas nodded silently, trying unsuccessfully to see the figure's shadowed face. 

Satisfied, the figure dropped its arm and, leaning heavily on a walking-stick made out of a bent piece of piping, hobbled away down the lane. Not even the foot of its cane made any noise on the crumbling pavement. Forcing himself to be quiet, got back to his feet and hurried to follow. 

After a few turns through the labyrinthine ruins, the figure ducked through a tattered cloth curtain covering a doorway, and Lukas, not without reservation, followed. Inside, behind a neat stack of ancient-looking plastic canisters, he found the embers of a small fire glowing in a scavenged metal bowl, their heat keeping the dampness at bay. Soot-stains on the ceiling above suggested the place saw regular use as a shelter, and a pile of cloth near the fire probably served as bedding. 

 The cowled figure dropped stiffly into a seated position near the fire-bowl and cast back its hood. In the red glow of the embers, Lukas saw his rescuer’s face – a woman's, angular and painfully thin, her mouth twisted into a permanent scowl by a wide scar across her lips and left cheek. Lukas guessed based on her limping gait that the scar was only the beginning of her ailments, even though she didn't look a day older than thirty. 

Lukas approached the fire cautiously. The woman had no obvious weapons, but that didn’t mean she was harmless. "Who are you?" 

The woman took a few seconds to remember her voice before she answered in a smooth, melodic voice softer than the most careful whisper, and totally at odds with her battered appearance. "I am... Mira." The name seemed to be something dredged up from a vast distance. "I am the last." 

“I’m Lukas.” Lukas sat down opposite Mira, setting his weapon aside. “What happened here?” 

The woman only shrugged – whether out of ignorance or apathy, Lukas couldn’t say. “This world ever hungers. Do not feed it. Even the mists sometimes devour.” 

Lukas shuddered, remembering the unmentionable thing he’d glimpsed slithering into the shadows. There might be treasure in abundance on the Silent Planet, but he didn’t fancy tangling with whatever had shredded Mira’s flesh. “I don’t plan on it.” 

Mira laughed quietly, though her mouth could not form a smile to accompany the sound. “Others like you have come. Loud, awkward, confident. They rarely leave.” 

“Then why are there no spacecraft?” Lukas held up his wrist unit, activating its screen to show the map his drones had created. Even the pads of the colony’s crumbling spaceport lay empty save for a few hulks picked clean of parts long before the colony’s end. If Mira was telling the truth, there should have been dozens of abandoned ships around the dead city. 

Mira leaned forward to scrutinize the map, grasping Lukas’s wrist with one painfully thin, long-boned hand. Despite the poverty of her situation, the folding screen on the wrist of his suit didn’t seem to surprise her. 

After a few moments, she let go and returned to her previous position. “I cannot say. Perhaps in time even machines become food.” 

Lukas looked at the map himself, looking for structures that might be plant-choked spacecraft which his drones had misidentified. After a few moments, though, he decided such analysis would have to wait until he was safely back in orbit. If the planet’s ecology did eat spacecraft, he was operating on borrowed time. “Thank you for your warning, Mira. I think I’ll leave, and you’re welcome to join me.” 

As Lukas stood, Mira stood also, taking up her bent walking-stick once more. “Join you?” 

“Yes. I can take you off this world.” He tapped the location of his ship on the map. “Can we get here?” 

Once again, the woman scrutinized the map. “I can help you reach your ship, but why would I leave?” 

Lukas shook his head, incredulous. "Why would you want to stay?” 

“Because I am the last.” From the look on her face, Mira seemed to find this question as ridiculous as he had found hers. 

“You’ll still be the last when you leave.” 

Strangely, this answer seemed to satisfy the crippled survivor. “Perhaps that is so.” She raised a hand to her face, running her fingers along the scar marring her otherwise noble visage. “Or perhaps there will be another to take my place.” 

Lukas suddenly felt uneasy at the idea of having Mira aboard his ship. What if she wasn’t what she seemed? What if she was as broken mentally as she was physically? Still, he had offered, and couldn’t bring himself to take it back. 

In Lukas’s hesitation, the last inhabitant of the Silent Planet made her decision. “I will go with you, spacer Lukas.” As she spoke, she seemed to stand up straighter than before, as if remembering that she was a human, not a mere scurrying prey animal for the planet’s skulking terrors.  

Lukas nodded, shouldering his carbine. He kept his reservations to himself; he had offered her an escape, and he could not now recall his words. 

“Follow. Be absolutely quiet.” Raising her hood once more, the scarred woman hobbled toward the curtain-covered doorway and back out to the misty street. 

- - - - - - - 

(Banner art by Marco Di Vita)

The Silent Planet is a legendary place among spacers who ply the Coreward Frontier. As people used to the subtle sounds of a functioning starship and the cacophonous bustle of the Reach's orbital spaceport hubs, they invariably find the oppressive stillness of the world sinister even before they encounter its very real environmental dangers.

The Silent Planet does not appear on any official chart, and many of the coordinates given on the datasphere are incorrect, leading to the impression among many that this world is not always found in the same place. The identity of the group which built a colony on this world is not known, and may never be known - few who search for the Silent Planet find it, few who find it and land return alive, and few who return from the place do so without being affected by the experience.

Mira Silent (the only known human to survive for an extended period on the world) is probably not a descendant of the original inhabitants. Instead, she is probably the last survivor of a foolhardy expedition to explore or plunder the place. In this way, she is possibly correct that another "last" will someday arrive and become stranded to replace her.