Solitude

They named the city Solitude, being without a sister on all the planet’s surface, a singular ruin spilling to the cliff-bound edges of a wide, high mountain valley. At least they assumed it was a ruin, for nothing moved among its sharp right angles, or nothing they could see from space; but then, life often acts unseen.

In the end four went down in the shuttle: Tor Mandelson, first lieutenant and pilot; Lida Trent, linguist; herself, Aless Raith, exobiologist; and Aless’s husband, Parnell Jacobs, planetologist. Parnell had consumed four cups of coffee in preparation and was beside himself with excitement as the shuttle descended. “We should have about twenty hours of daylight remaining, followed by eighteen hours of night. Then we’ll see something crazy, you better believe it. All that radiation striking the atmosphere is going to make things light up like a candle. It’s going to –”

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Image by Dylan Fowler

“Less chatter on coms,” Tor said, taciturn.

Jacobs just switched to a private channel and kept talking. “So far so good, not even much static, though we are sitting right inside the transmitter, so to speak. I still don’t think we’ve solved the problem of communications, though.”

Every planet had its difficulties: too hot, too cold, too much gravity, too little, no water, all water. Eos was a .92 on the Earth Similarity Index, a prime candidate for settlement; but its sun had a bad habit of emitting solar flares, interfering with radio communication. The first probe they’d sent had passed through the magnetosphere and then just… stopped communicating. It was a real problem; Aless just didn’t want to hear about it now, as they were getting their first glimpses of the planet. “Can we maybe just be quiet for a minute?”

“Sorry?”

“Can we be quiet? As we land?”

His brow tightened. “Sure. Sorry, just excited I guess.” He seemed to want to say more, but she turned off the channel and that was that.

They landed shortly after dawn in a wide plaza ringed by rectilinear monoliths. The sky was gray-white, the sun weak. As they performed the long series of checks prior to stepping outside, Parnell sounded clipped. Letting her know that if she wanted to be all business, then All-Business Parnell could handle it. At last the airlock opened and they were outside, enclosed in silver pressure suits and laden with equipment.

If aliens were around, they were being quiet about it. The city was thick with silence; it lay deep as the black dust in the edges of the plaza. “It’s quiet,” Parnell said at last, and Aless hated him for it, a little. Three years they’d spent in the confines of the ship, the hum of its machinery settling in the bones. She had grown up on Azul, and been accustomed to great empty spaces; the years onboard had been torture for her. Now at last they came to stillness, and had to face this insipid “it’s quiet.”

The monoliths around the plaza were of every size, some small as stepstools, others big as warehouses. They were doorless and windowless, the material a glassy black stone like schist. Some leaned at forty-five degrees or possessed simple arches, a child’s block set writ large. But they were not entirely featureless: for right at their feet, and on every visible surface, were deep etchings in the rock in two shapes: a dot and a dash.

Lida was already kneeling, brushing the surface with gloved fingertips. “Parnell, is there any chance this is natural?”

“Doubtful,” he replied, joining her in obeisance. “They’re perfectly regular. But they could just be manufacturing marks.”

“It’s binary,” she breathed, eyes wide. “It has to be. We have to record every surface we can find, get the AI working on it.”

“Can’t upload it to the ship,” Tor pointed out. “Been trying. Too much interference.”

“We’ll start with the shuttle’s computer, then. My god…”

Meanwhile Aless had wandered to the edge of the plaza, seeing something that interested her more than symbols.

She reached the nearest monolith, big as a yacht, and with one finger touched the ivy-like plant that crawled over its face. Its leaves were tiny and pinnate, very dark green in color, almost black, connected by still darker stems. But what took her breath away was that they responded to her touch; they rolled up like tiny cigarette papers and retracted toward the stem. “There’s something alive here!” she cried.

The others hurried over to see, while Aless traced the origin of one stem. “It goes into the rock,” she said wonderingly. “Into one of the dots. But where is it getting water?”

“There is open water here,” Parnell reminded her. “Canals run throughout the city.”

“So the monoliths suck up the water? They’re porous?”

“Could be.” He grinned behind his faceplate. “We can find out.” And she was reminded of why she liked him.

Tor’s voice came over their headsets, a bit staticky with interference. “Everybody stays in sight of the shuttle.”

“You can’t keep us here forever,” Aless said.

“Yeah, but you can wait an hour.”

They waited eight. Lida scanned the entire plaza, along with the faces nearby buildings, and fed it to the shuttle’s computer. Parnell took mineral samples of the stone and the black grit. Aless studied the ivy.

It was unusually responsive for a plant; in fact she was not entirely sure it was a plant. When she cut off a hand’s-length sample, the stem leaked sticky brownish sap, and the rest curled up into her palm tight as a pillbug. Thoughtfully she sealed it in a vial and took another.

Finally the lieutenant allowed them to take a walk, provided they set down a series of radio relays, each standing on a tripod. Together Parnell and Aless set off north, more or less, where there was an alley between the monoliths, setting a relay at its mouth.

In no time at all the shuttle was out of sight. There was no obvious danger, yet both of them walked with utmost care. Already the coms were breaking up. They set another relay at a diagonal turn, climbed up a rise to another platform. “We could get lost in here,” Parnell commented.

He was right; it did have the aspect of a labyrinth, and with the shaky communications, they could be in trouble. “Look,” she said, pointing east. A canal ran there, its waters calm, just a meter or so wide. It possessed a slight, nearly imperceptible current.

Parnell turned off the radio link, and she did the same, their voices only a little muffled by the helmets. “You doing okay with all this? You seem tense.”

“I don’t know how I am. Nobody’s ever experienced this before.”

“Fair enough.” He pressed a control on his wristpad. “Tor, you there?” But there was no answer. “How about you, Lida?” Still nothing; and he turned toward where they’d come. “Guess these relays aren’t going to work after all. We may have to run a cable.”

They trudged along with their heavy packs, back to the second relay they’d set, still trying coms; but even here it didn’t work. “Maybe there’s more solar activity?” Aless suggested. “A big flare?”

Hurrying a bit, they headed down the alley toward the plaza, where they could shortly see the yellow pole of the first relay. But when they stepped out of the alley, their mouths and stomachs dropped.

There was no shuttle. There was no Tor, no Lida. The plaza had shrunk to a space the size of a large classroom, and monoliths rose high all around. “We took a wrong turn,” Parnell said finally. “Anybody there? Anybody?”

“The relay’s still here,” Raith said. She felt lightheaded, unmoored from the ground. “This is where we came from.”

“Someone must have moved it. TOR! LIDA!”

They shouted more. They set flares. They climbed a tall monolith, drilling anchors into the rock. They retraced their steps. But the shuttle was gone.

***

They would not die immediately. They had their suits, which would provide them with air and warmth; and the air of Eos was fairly breathable in any case, if it came to that. They also each had ten emergency rations (read: protein bars) in their backpacks. In minutes, hours, or perhaps even days, the second shuttle would descend to bring them home.

Night fell, and the nights like the days were longer than Earth’s. Upon the field of stars seas of light rose and fell, labile landscapes of exotic color.

Aless woke in the darkness. Parnell was asleep. She had no idea how much time had passed. There was a sense of perfect emptiness here, a kind of waiting to be filled. She looked up at the sky and a great arc of flame tore slowly across it: not the borealis. It struck down far from them, and silently.

“I think the ship is gone,” she said, waking her husband.

He didn’t believe her. “What could cause that? Nothing. It was just a meteor. You have absolutely no way of knowing.”

But he must have believed her a little, because two days later, their despair deepening, he wanted to travel north to find the wreckage, if they could. “It’s too far away,” Aless said. “We’re surrounded by mountains.”

“So what? You’re just going to lie down and die?”

So she followed him, but he strode fast, recklessly, as though trying to convince himself of something. As though running an experiment, she lagged behind until he turned a corner, out of sight. She stopped altogether, testing herself, seeing how long she could withstand it. When she kept going, five minutes later, he had vanished in the maze.
She shouted and wept, cursed herself. But she was not totally surprised; secretly, she was glad.

***

She had nowhere to go, but she wanted to walk. She decided to follow the current upstream.

Often she ran her hand along the stone walls, stroking the ivy, feeling the texture of the dots and dashes, messages she would never understand nor need to. One day she took off her outer suit and breathed deep of the air.

She climbed upward steadily, and though it was hard, always she found a way. Most of the city lay beneath her now, and she could see to distant peaks.

At last she ran out of city. The water of the canals poured steadily in a waterfall down the side of a black cliff that ended in the rough rubble of the mountainside. There was another tall monolith here, and she climbed it with great difficulty, for she was weak now.

At its top she could at last see the source. It was a cave, utterly dark, unknowable, unreachable.

Thoughtfully, she took from her pocket a vial and unstoppered it, shaking out the sample of the ivy she’d clipped. It lay furled tight until she set it on the bare rock, with its dot-and-dash pores. Gently, unhurriedly, the plant spread its leaves. Its wriggling stem found one of the tiny gaps, and reaching down it drank its fill.

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