We lose three good men our first hour on Siren. Not to air tank malfunctions or sledge accidents. Not to the frigid cold that freezes our gauges and locks up our drills the moment the sun falls behind the horizon. We lose them to the damn music.
The creaking, grinding, strumming noise that echoes through the ice beneath our feet. The sound of ice shelves, the weight of small moons cracking and shifting in the darkness below. Seeping up from the depths of this planet’s chilled ocean, through the metal of our boots, and into our bones.
The song that makes men wander out into the dark. Away from the landers. Away from air and heat. The song that gave this planet its name.
We knew it would be here—the ice that makes it is the only reason we are—but we didn’t know it would be so different. So irrefutable here on the surface, without two dozen kilometers of thin atmosphere to soften its weight.
Here, it’s all we can think of, all we can feel, all we can dream. The music of water humming through our flesh. Turning us into instruments.
And we are instruments. Of the colonies, the corporation, or the planet, I’m not certain. All I’m certain of is the pay waiting for me once we’re through, and the ticket it’ll buy to somewhere warmer and greener than this.
We lose two more hands off the build site before we finish the first sound occlusion chamber and finally get some sleep.
* * *
I hold Chalia to me as the music falls away, replaced by the beat of her heart and the whisper of her breathing, and the sandpaper rhythm of my dry skin on hers.
Through the window above our heads, a small green dot hangs in the star-speckled sky. Water is scarcer than gold in this system, and the colony planets have dumped trillions to fund the outpost here. They’d give anything to own Siren’s ocean and its music. But not me. I’d take Chalia’s song over this planet’s any day.
She kisses my ears with wildfire in her eyes and the lingering scent of exhaust on her skin. “You only say that because you have no ear for music.”
When I wake in the night, the song is back. Not from the floor, but from Chalia’s lips. She hums it so softly that I barely hear her, but even that is enough to terrify me.
Our sleep shift ends, and we’re roused by loud knocking as a new pair walks in to take our bed. Their eyes are bright with that same mad fire, the same persistent tune on their lips. Chalia merely grins and touches her faceplate to mine.
“Not all which is beautiful has to be dangerous,” she whispers. But I know otherwise.
* * *
I lose her halfway through our next shift. One moment she’s perched atop a scaffold, the plasma torch in her hand burning bright. Then, she’s lost to the darkness.
I search the whole build before I’m certain she’s gone. Everyone I ask gives me the same distant stare. They haven’t seen her, though we all know where she went.
I strip a tracker from one of the sledges and follow her into the night alone, not bothering to ask for help. The guidelines are strict. No one who leaves the build will be rescued. As far as I know, I’m the first one who’s tried.
Beneath my feet, this world is breaking, dancing along to some beat I can’t fathom. Each note, resolute, as the ice cracks and grows, stretching in the warmth of the dayward side, contracting here in the shadows. An entirely natural phenomenon, they promise, but the strength of the song still makes me shiver.
My helmet’s dampeners should block it out, but even the engineers underestimated this planet.
* * *
When I find her in the morning, I’m certain she’s frozen, her body stock still with her arms at her side. She stands alone like a tree on bare desert, her black suit framed red against the rising sun. Around her, the ice steams with the new day’s warmth, and I feel the ground beneath my feet shudder.
“Chalia!” I scream as I sprint towards her, and her eyes burn so bright they stop me in my tracks.
“Listen,” she whispers, staring down at her feet.
I do listen. To the sound of my heart pounding time in my ears. To the crash of my breath through my ventilator. And I suddenly realize what I don’t hear. The planet has fallen silent around us.
Chalia reaches out her hand. “Right here,” she says, a wonder in her voice that I can’t comprehend. She draws me near and wraps the cold metal arms of her suit around my own.
“This is it,” she says. “This is where the music begins.”
I listen but hear nothing. Only the sound of her suit scraping up against mine. “I-I don’t hear anything.”
And then I do. A horrible, deafening roar as the ground beneath our feet splits in two. A few meters away, the ice cracks like dropped glass, until we’re standing on the edge of a gaping canyon. Somewhere deep in the darkness below, there’s the sound of water moving. Of a hidden sea lapping up towards the stars.
We stand in silence. Just the wind and our breath, until I’ve convinced myself we’re really alive.
“Nothing?” Chalia replies with a grin. “You only say that because you have no ear for music.”
She would stay here until she froze, I don’t doubt, or until the ice swallowed her in the next fault line. With nothing but the song to keep her company, just like all the others.
I take her hand and lead her back towards the build, towards the landers and domes huddled like birds on the horizon. She hums that same, soft tune the whole way, and her voice is the sweetest song I’ve ever heard.
© 2017 Steven Fischer