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Silent Faces of a Gray World

Two explorers on a dead world make a startling and dangerous discovery.

By Joachim HeijndermansPublished 7 years ago 20 min read
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“What do you suppose it is?” asked En as she looked upon the strange shape that lay before them.

“I don't know. Perhaps some sort of idol of worship?” Bra said.

“Worship? Why would anyone worship something that looks so dreadful? That poor creature looks like it's in pain. That spiked contraption on its head. The open wound down on its lower body. And...are its hands and feet pierced with something? How awful,” En gasped, horrified at sight of the tortured image of the large bronze figure. Bra walked closer toward it, his curiosity intensified, despite En's objections. True, he was just as confused as to what kind of culture would create something that seemed to celebrate suffering. But there was a strange kind of beauty to this design. A fluid gesture gracefully mounted upon a strange crossed shape, head tilted upward, as if toward the heavens, while a jagged crown laid on its head. Bra stroked the object's surface, closing his eyes. While he couldn't feel the smooth material through his thick polymer glove, he could still feel the contours, memorizing the grooves on the creature's face. Perhaps he could recreate it in clay once he returned home.

“Let's move on Bra. We shouldn't linger in one place too long,” En said.

Bra descended from the plateau that supported the fallen object. As he walked away he could not help but look back, still curious to the meaning of the creature and its disturbing position. Any possible idea he could come up with would be but speculation. An estimated guess based on a single finding on a long dead world.

“Oh! Bra, come here quickly!” En suddenly called out. Her voice elated, overjoyed with curiosity and pride for having made a discovery. Bra hurried toward her, as she knelt down and picked up a small gray object, easily overlooked in the dirt beneath them, and presented it to him.

“It's the same design, maybe even the same creature, but much smaller. Look at the detail. Amazing,” she gasped, as she began to study it intensely. Bra looked closer to inspect En's finding. He had to agree that the details were quite intricate for something so small. It took fine craftsmanship to make recreate this miniaturized copy of the fetish. The material was covered by a strange greenish corrosion. Silver perhaps? Regardless of what its composition, it was certainly the same idol as the large structure that lay fallen on the plateau. Further evidence that this design was indeed meant as a symbol of worship.

“Good find,” Bra said. “Bag it and label it, En. I'll call Dro and tell him what we've found.”

Bra began entering commands into his wrist communicator, trying to stabilize the reception. With the copious amounts of radiation in this world's atmosphere, tt was difficult to get a strong signal to the main ship, let alone from within this strange structure. But it was too fascinating a place not to spend much of their daily allotted time. There was so much of it that mystified Bra. From the stone-built ceiling above hung a large metal circular design, covered in rust and barely hanging onto a large chain. Beside him were the remains of what he assumed were bits of decayed wood, which perhaps once served as seating? Whatever this construction was and what purpose it served, neither time of the events that collapsed this world had not been kind to it. Fortunately, the idols that were held within this structure had been made of sturdier materials than that, allowing for analysis and sample collecting. Bra wondered why this place served as such a treasure trove to so many relics. Could it be the indigenous species had foreseen their end and hoped to pass on their culture in a more definite state? Again mere speculation, but an interesting question nonetheless.

Light began to emit from Bra's wrist com, followed by a voice. “Dro here. Hello, Bra. What's new?” It took a few seconds for the tiny holograph projected from his wrist to stabilize, but in time, Dro's materialized with some mild glitching.

“Hello, Dro. We've found something interesting in the lower areas. A structure. We believe it is a house of worship of some kind.”

“Really? What does it look like?” Dro asked.

“Large. Very elongated design. Made from some kind of stone that endured the ravages of the planet's downfall. There are traces of marble here and there. We've also found a number of what we think are religious idols, suggesting a worship of one of their kind, presumably a male deity.”

“Are they long creatures in a sitting or lying pose? One hand exposed, showing the palm? Legs crossed? Perhaps with very stretched earlobes?” Dro asked.

“No. It's a lone creature placed upon a cross-shaped structure, with wounds inflicted on several parts of its body, such as its hands and feet. There's a jagged object on its head, which might be a crown. Oh, and a cut on it's lower body, which I think might be its lower abdomen,” Bra summarized to the best of his abilities. He was a skilled junior-archeologist, but when it came to alien physiology he barely had the right to call himself an amateur, having made his share of bad deductions when excavating grave sites (the incident with the “vestigial arm” came to mind).

“I dunno Bra. Hru and Vi found a large number of this other deity in their assigned territories. Like, in the thousands. This one seemed popular enough that the natives gave it some of the best prime locations. Team B even found the remains of an extremely large one in a sleeping position. I don't think what you described was fits with their findings,” Dro sighed.

Bra wracked his brain. It didn't make any sense. All signs pointed to him being correct. “Here's a thought. Could it be that the indigenous species worshiped different deities among each other?” Bra asked, not willing to give up his theory just yet.

“Multiple religions? That's a tricky subject, not to mention a controversial one. You'll need more evidence for that if you wanna back that theory.”

“I've already logged the footage I've taken of this place in the ship's log. En has taken some samples. If we can find--,”

A beep interrupted him. Dro moved out of view, but Bra could hear him opening screens on his display back on the orbital station. He returned seconds later, with a concerned look. “Bra, sorry to cut you off like that, but the system is telling me your life support is getting low. Get back to your ship as soon as you can. You can go out tomorrow and continue your excavation, but you need to turn back for now.”

In a quick motion, Bra took a look at the monitor on his wrist. Dro was right. His suit's battery had just dropped below twenty percent. He let out a frustrated sigh, but there was no arguing with a system built to keep him alive. He took a quick look around the mysterious structure, taking it in once more for the records, as well as for himself. He and En had been at this location, a crumbling cityscape, for nearly six turns of the planet's axis. In that time they had found nothing but weakened structures, burned remains of what they assumed had been transportation vehicles and fossilized remains of the indigenous species. It had been a morbid, eerie experience. This desolate world, covered in ash and dirt, struck down by some yet unidentified disaster. By mere chance, they had found this puzzling structure buried under the remains of constructions that had once dwarfed it, unaffected by the rampage that razed the outside world, leaving a shrine to the past for them to explore. The first real glimpse into the people of this world that did not require reconstructive scans and computer models based on speculation, which in the end would still be limited by comprehension. Bra silently cursed being forced to abandon this find, a discovery that might change their impression of this silent gray world.

“All right, Dro. We're done here. Headed back to the ship now.”

“Good. You can bring your theories up when we go home. Stay safe,” Dro said, before ending the transmission.

“En, we've got to head back. You want to--,” Bra began before realizing he was talking to himself. En was no longer behind him, nor was she inside the ruins. Why would she leave so abruptly? Did something happen? If her life support system was low, she would have told him surely.

“En? Are you there? Respond!” he called out, heading toward the hole through which they had entered earlier. When Bra exited the structure, he was relieved to see En standing silently in the

middle of the ruined streets, looking into the distance.

“En! What's wrong? Why did you leave like tha--”

“Don't move!” she snapped. Bra did as ordered. His confusion grew, but he could tell from En's behavior something was amiss.

“Sergeant...did you see something?” Bra asked as quietly as he could.

“Speak up. Whatever it is, it can't hear you unless you move. You don't need to whisper,” she commanded sternly. Her mood had changed drastically. The playful woman she'd been nearly every day since their arrival, gleefully joining Bra in his excitement whenever they discovered a small trinket or a lost piece of writing, had been replaced by the alert soldier. The soldier who could throw it down with the strongest men in her class. The one Bra had once see beat a creature twice her size to death. She lowered her hand to her side, releasing the clasp that held her sidearm within its holster.

“Ok. But what did you see?” he spoke in a normal volume.

“I'm not sure. I didn't get a good look at it. It ran off when I spotted it. It--,” she suddenly stopped. “There! Behind those rocks!”

Bra peered into the distance. To his shock, he did see something. Thin, gray and nearly impossible to differentiate from its surroundings, but definitely alive. It slowly moved into their line of vision, its own eyes fixated upon the two explorers.

“How can this be?” he asked. “I thought we confirmed all life to have vanished from this planet.”

“Well, we apparently missed one.”

“What do we do?” Bra asked.

“Don't move. Just stay still,” she commanded him. “Don't give it a reason to feel threatened.”

“No, I mean--” he began, when, to both their shock, the gray creature ran clumsily into a crevice in the ground. For a brief moment, it trapped itself in the crack that opened up the road, violently struggling before disappearing from sight.

Seeing this, Bra could no longer contain himself. The prospect of life on this dead world was too great of a discovery to let pass now. He ran toward the crack in the earth, his speed limited only by the low mobility that his suit provided. He could hear En yell at him. “Bra! Get back here!”

He ignored her. While he respected En and her judgment when it came to dangerous situations, he could not ignore this extraordinary find. Life! On what had been assumed to be a doomed planet, ravaged by unknown disasters or conflict. A world every scientist had written off as ruined graveyard of lost culture and wasted potential. After the destruction of both what little breathable atmosphere there had been and the soil to produce anything resembling vegetation, life endured among the ruins. If only he could capture more clear footage. All he needed to do was to get closer.

“Bra, do not pursue! Get back--” he could hear Em yell as she ran after him. But he did not hear the rest as the earth beneath him cracked away. For an instant, he seemed weightless. Pieces of rubble flew past him as he fell down into the darkness. He felt as if he would fall forever, spinning around for infinity, when he was abruptly reintroduced with the ground below him.

The bio-suit protected Dro from most of the impact. As he stood up, loudly groaning, he felt as if he'd been pelted with a million rocks, with his entire body screaming at him. Almost instinctively he pressed a command on the computer mounted to his wrist. On his visor, a small holographic mock-up of his body appeared. His suit was scanning to see whether or not he'd been injured. As far as he could tell, he wasn't. En's voice came in through his communicator, shrill with worry.

“Bra! Are you alive?”

“I'm fine. Just a little sore. I don't think I fell that--,” he wanted to say “deep”, but as he looked up he was instantly proven wrong. Although he had no way of knowing how deep exactly he had fallen without the proper instruments, he knew he was not going to simply climb out anytime soon. Stranded within a large underground cavern, lit only by the small lights attached to his suit, allowing him to see the bare minimum, fear began to take hold of him.

“Ok, Bra! Don't move. I'm gonna get you out of there. I'll call the ship and pull you out with a cable. Just stay right there. Don't move and keep talking to me!” En commanded sternly, with a tint of worry she tried to mask by deepening her voice. The soldier in her had taken charge, and she was not going to let her partner and friend stay trapped in a hole in the ground.

“I'll be here,” Bra responded with a chuckle, trying both to be funny and remain brave in the face of the unknown. He turned around to light the dark cavern. If the gray creature from earlier lived in these dark enclosures, his desire to get closer to it rapidly diminished. He had no weapons to defend himself with. Even if he did, he'd never truly been trained in them. He was terrified, longing for the fearlessness that led him down here to return to him. Courage was something he only possessed whenever something new was to be discovered. Of course what he had assumed was courage, Sergeant Em no doubt would have called reckless stupidity.

His mood suddenly changed at the sight of color on the walls of the cavern. They seemed to be markings of some kind, but with a particular pattern.

“En! I think I found something else down here.”

“Remain where you are. The ship should be coming down in about--”

“This needs to be logged into the system. I'm going to open a feed-stream to you and I need you to record it as well.”

“Fine! But don't go anywhere and don't do anything stupid,” she harshly snapped at him.

Bra moved closer to illuminate his new discovery. At first glance, it seemed as minor discoloration within the soil. A red pattern decorating the gray dirt in an almost hypnotic design. But on closer inspection, it was much more than that. Small strokes brought together to form something similar to a man. Above it, a single stroke that might represent a sun or some other circular object. These were drawings. Actual cave drawings by a still living culture beneath the surface. Or at least, hopefully still living. One single creature did not ensure the existence of others.

Suddenly it hit him. Could whatever lived down here perhaps hold the key to understanding what had killed this once thriving world? Were they the children of the beings that built the towering constructions that decorated this planet. If they could create art, that must mean they communicate with one another. The stories passed down from parent to child, had become their legends. With a sudden vigor, and having completely forgotten his earlier fears, Bra began to search through the drawings. What he could not decipher he would study later back on the ship. There was so much of it. He turned to look further into the cavern. More of the walls had been decorated with the red art.

He felt like a child, nearly giddy with excitement before he was interrupted by a loud beeping from his visor. In large red writing the phrase “LIFE SUPPORT 12%” blinked onto the visor of Bra's helmet. Unlike earlier, when he was only annoyed by his draining life-support, he realized that any further time away from the ship would be dangerous.

“En! How much longer?” he asked.

“ETA for the ship is four klicks. How're you holding up?” En's voice cracked from the other end of the comm.

“I'm on twelve percent life support. I'm going to put down a beacon so we can find this place again tomorrow. There's so much--” Bra said when a noise from behind him startled him. A metallic clank echoed deep throughout the dark caverns. Frantically, he began to shine his light into the darkness, seeing nothing. Perhaps his imagination had gotten the better of him, spurred on by the disappointment of having to abandon his find and the tension of his decreasing life support. There was nothing there. Nothing, but a gray figure peering from behind a rock.

Dark obsidian eyes that spied on Bra, who stood frozen, unsure of what to do. The thin creature simply sat there, nearly immobile but for the quick breaths it took that moved its ribcage up and down in a frantic motion. Bra slowly took a step back. His earlier excitement faded, replaced with fear. He was on this creature's turf. There was no way of knowing how it would react to this intruder. But Bra knew that for something that seemed so fragile and withered to be able to survive on this world, it could not afford to be kind.

“En...I think you should hurry.”

“What's wrong? Is your suit leaking?” En's voice jumped with worry.

“The creature. It's down here with me.”

“Bra! Do not make any sudden movements. It's more--”

“More scared of me than I am of it. Yeah, I think I got that,” he responded dryly.

“This is serious Bra. Do. Not. Move! I'll be there as soon as the ship gets here. Are there any others?”

Others. That thought hadn't even occurred to Bra yet. His first instinct was to turn and look, an instinct which he remembered to ignore lest the creature would take it as an invitation to attack, and instead peered from out the corners of his eyes. He let out a sigh of relief he saw nothing on his right. But with a quick glance to his left any relief he still had vanished. A secondary set of dark eyes were looking down on him from a crevice above the drawings he had admired not too long ago. Eyes that slowly made their way closer to Bra. A third pair soon followed from his left, with a fourth and a fifth emerging from the darkness. The dim light from Bra's suit illuminated parts of these gray creatures, revealing thin skeletal figures with sharp cheekbones nearly protruding through their gray skin. Their hands dirty, with traces of grime and blood under their broken nails. Their eyes hollow and dark, having not seen the full light of the sun in ages. Bra hoped that their growing numbers did not diminish their fear of him. Perhaps they would leave him be if he stayed as motionless as possible.

They did not. Before he could react, two of the creatures leaped at him and grappled Bra down into the dirt. He struggled to break loose, to no avail. Their thin callused hands far stronger than he had imagined. They had no intention of letting him go. He invaded their gray world and would now pay the price.

“En! Code Indigo! I'm under attack!” Bra yelled out.

“Just hold on! I'm almost there!” En replied.

A thousand thoughts flew through Bra's mind as he wrestled with the creatures, the most pressing of which was: “what is that creature doing with that rock in his hands?”

With a loud crack, the rock was hurled down onto Bra's helmet. Any recording devices and sensors suddenly ceased functioning. En's voice was cut off, static taking its place. To Bra's horror, a small crack had appeared in the center of his visor. A second creature joined in on the attack, using some sort of metal bar on Bra's helmet. Others began wailing on him, slamming their callused hands against his helmet.

Then it happened. His worst fears were realized. The water that was contained in his suit began to leak from his helmet. With a dead battery, he could hold out maybe for half an hour. But without water, he would suffocate in minutes. Bra panicked, hoping to find anything that could help him break free. Their grip was strong. Determined to kill, they looked down on him, their hollow eyes filled with rage.

Eyes! That's it! Bra thought. It was a gamble, but those eyes must have been attuned to the darkness. He hoped his suit could still register vocal commands, let alone have the power to perform them.

“All power to illumination!” he shouted.

For the first time in ages, light filled the tunnels. The creatures shrieked in terror, having never truly seen the sun past the dark clouds that covered the world. Bra's suit was the closest any of them would ever come to it. Their rage and bloodlust vanished as they scrambled to cover their eyes, screeching in pain and confusion.

Bra jerked himself loose from his captors and ran toward the hole through which he fell. His battery would not last long with the brightness so high, and as water leaked through the broken visor, he was teetering on the brink of complete shutdown. For a brief moment, he turned around, regretting it instantly. The gray creatures began to swarm toward him. He would not escape them a second time. They had him.

“--ra--et--down!” a scrambled voice suddenly yelled out at him. Bra looked up, greeted with the sight of En, dangling on a cable from the ship. In her hands, she gripped her rifle, and, without a moment's hesitation, opened fire on the attackers. A few dropped dead instantly. The rest were thrown into a panic and fled into the darkness. The last of them turned back to throw a rock at them, screeching with rage before joining the others. Bra could not imagine what horrors they must have endured under the earth to turn them into such ghoulish beings like this. But any thoughts on his assailants quickly faded when the water level dropped below his eyes, and he began to gasp for air.

En dropped to the ground and quickly clamped Bra to another cable and spoke a command that lifted them both out of the cavern and back onto the surface. His eyes growing foggier, Bra could barely make out the tall structures that pierced into the dark skies above. He gasped as the last of the water from his helmet leaked out. It grew dark again. Dark and cold.

Fresh water passed through Bra's gills. He could breathe again! He jumped up, turning his head a few times to take in his surroundings. He was onboard the drop-ship. A few screens had been turned on, showing diagnostics on his body and his suit. En's helmet floated in the warm liquid interior of their small ship. She stood before him, grasping his shoulders. The orange hue of her skin was a welcome dash of color after a day in such extreme darkness.

“Can you breathe? Did they hurt you?” En asked concernedly.

Bra nodded, still adjusting to being out of his suit and being able to breathe normally again. Before he could react, En slapped the back of his head.

“That's for ignoring a direct order! You could have been killed three times over!” she snapped.

Dizzy, Bra looked up at his friend. Her sapphire eyes peering angrily at him. He slowly placed his hand on her small wen, nestled between her eyes. She calmed down like she always, whenever he made such a gesture.

“I'm sorry. I—I just needed to know,” he said.

En sighed. She placed her hand on Bra's head, stroking his fin.

“I get that. But you don't have to be an idiot about it, y'know.”

They stood there in silence for a brief moment, reflecting on their experience. Bra broke the silence.

“Did you save all the footage I got?”

Annoyed, En pushed Bra from his bunk onto the floor. He quickly swam up, to be greeted by her judgmental look.

“Yes! It's all been logged in. I just need to add our samples from today into the records. That, and my report on your insubordination.”

Bra shrugged it off. Yes, he'd been nearly killed. But he made the discovery of a lifetime. To him, tt had all been worth the trouble.

In the next few hours Bra had shared all his findings with Dro. He immediately called up the other archeologists at the other sites. Reports had to be filed out. The universities back home had to be notified. What had been a haunting experience for Bra as he came face to face with death a few hours ago, had become a landslide of notices and confirmation messages that needed to be signed, logged and categorized.

En sat in the pilot's seat, letting the ship's water pass gently through her dorsal fins. She didn't seem too interested in the find of the century. Bra noticed her sullen silence and could feel the tension between them.

“Hey, En,” Bra said.

“Yeah?”

“Thank you...for saving me back there. It--” he stopped. It was then that the magnitude of what nearly happened sank in. He began to shiver, even though the water in the ship wasn't cold. En placed her hand on his shoulder, squeezing it.

“I'm sorry you had to go through that. If anything had happened to you, I would've--,” En began.

“No, it was my fault. I was stupid. It's just--,”

En shushed him, brushing her hand through his tendrils. She then rummaged through the pockets of her pants, pulling out a small metallic object and holding it out before him; the little idol they found earlier. “Here,” she said.

Bra held it between his fingers. Touching it with his bare hand allowed him to truly appreciate the amazingly small details of its craftsmanship.

“You know, on second thought, I don't think this symbol celebrates suffering,” he said.

“Why not?”

“Look at those creatures we found in that cavern. They suffer immense hardships on a daily basis. Maybe their forefathers did as well. Perhaps this idol gave them some kind of comfort during it all? A light in the darkness?”

“You gave them plenty of light in the darkness today with your little stunt,” En chuckled. “And what kind of comfort? The bigger statue we saw was dreadful. How could anyone find that soothing?”

Bra sat in silence, pondering on that question.

“I don't know. In the end, it's all speculation. That's all we can do.”

“Well, you can ponder it back at the station. Strap in. We lift off in ten. I'll buy the grub when we get back to the station, okay?” En said. Bra nodded back with a smile.

A few minutes later, En flipped the switch and engaged the thrusters, blasting them towards the heavens. Their ship shook as it left the gray world’s atmosphere, before gliding smoothly into space and headed toward their away station, drifting silently in orbit of the ravaged planet.

Bra thought back to the creatures in the caverns. He pitied them, but they, in turn, fascinated him. He imagined what it was like for them, alone in the darkness, suddenly coming face to face with a man in a blue suit, covered with blinding lights. He pondered how he would be remembered, imagining their thin skeletal hands drawing his figure on the walls of their cavern. Drawings of men with silent faces that brought the sun into their home. The idea of being deified unnerved him, as he took one more look at the small idol in his hand, before bagging it and logging it into the records.

extraterrestrial
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About the Creator

Joachim Heijndermans

Joachim is a freelance artist and writer. He writes short stories and draws comics. Likes to travel, paint, collect rare toys, and read in his spare time. His fiction writing has been featured in magazines, websites, podcasts and television

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