This world was alive once. Birds sang, children ran through meadows of wild grass, the people here lived simple and happy lives. Its all gone now of course. The birds, the children, the meadows, all gone. Silence reigns supreme here, hanging heavy in the air, as if the world itself has snuffed out all sound.
I place a palm on the smooth frozen surface of the lake. Beneath the glasslike ice, fish and frogs are frozen where they swam, victims of this world’s slow death. Five years, that’s all it took since the terraforming failed, for this world to slide from a seeming paradise into a wasteland. There is no life here now. The cold blackness of space reclaimed it so quickly that barely anyone even had time to leave. As the atmosphere was blown away on the stellar winds, men, women, and children froze and suffocated in their homes. The quiet choking death of the void did not discriminate, and struck equally from the highest ranking official to the lowliest worker.
The roar of Arkazy starting up the HAV jars me out of my reverie. The engine noise rips across the silent plains like a monstrous intruder to this place of silence and death. Mada is already climbing back on the vehicle.
“Come on Selik, the city is just over the next lake according to these charts.” He calls out to me over our laser-link. I hesitantly rise to my feet, letting my eyes pan across the tundra.
“Alright, I’m coming.” I call back to him. We’re close to our goal now. It took us nearly six months to sneak into this system without detection by Federation scouts. And once we landed, it took another month to get this far. Soon, our journey would be over. This place is a tomb, and we are its grave robbers. I climb aboard the HAV and we set off across the ocean of glass.
The city is perfectly preserved, mummified along with everything and everyone in it by the cold and dry air. No weeds overgrow the abandoned buildings, no wild animals pick at the bones. It as if time has completely halted in this place, frozen like its inhabitants.
When Arkazy stops the HAV at the outskirts, the silence suddenly roars louder then the sound of the engine, threatening to sweep me away. We’re so close now.
Mada lets out a whoop of joy over the laser-link, throwing herself off the HAV and onto the hard ground. “Fuck yeah we made it! We are gonna be so goddamn rich!” She tossed her head back under the environmental suit and laughed at the sky.
It let my eyes follow her gaze upwards. The sky was blue once, it still is around the horizon, but directly overhead, it is stained purple and black, as if the heavens themselves are bruised. Stars twinkle even in the daytime, The atmosphere too thin to stop their faint light.
Arkazy leads the way, threading through the narrow streets. It isn’t long before we see the first body. A young women lays slumped against a doorframe, her body is completely dessicated, shrunk and dried out like a fruit left in the sun. The empty sockets of her eyes seem to stare into my soul, as if judging my presence, a living thing in this place of the dead.
Mada and Arkazy barely give pause to the bodies. They aren’t here to pray over bones. I crouch down in front of the dead woman and whisper an apology for my transgression in this place. This world belongs to the dead, and we are unwelcome here.
“Selik!” Arkazy calls over the link, I look up from the body, he and Mada are already at the next corner in the street. “Don’t fall behind, we don’t want to get separated here.” I rise and hurry to catch up to them, and we make our way deeper into the catacomb.
Our target is the planetary governor’s house. A large and somewhat gaudy structure in the well-to-do section of the city. The paint is peeling from its stone walls, but the building itself is as perfectly intact as the rest of this world. The story goes that the terraforming of this world failed because the governor secretly siphoned off funds from its operation for his own personal projects. The fool didn’t realize his mistake until after the atmosphere had already thinned to the point of suffocation. In his hubris, he killed his world, and his family, the riches of gold and silver left on their shelves, to be admired only by the spirits of the dead
It was this story that drew Arkazy and Mada to this place. Vultures, picking clean the bones of the dead for what trinkets they might have left behind when their souls fled this world.
The front door gives way under Arkazy’s shoulder with an almighty crack, the sound echoing off the quiet wood and stone, seeming to reverberate far longer then it should.
“15 hours left on life support. Should be plenty of time to get the entire haul.” Mada said, strolling into the house. Arkazy and I follow closely, and begin to fan out into the building. Mada starts grabbing anything that looks remotely valuable and piling it up in the centre of the foyer, while Arkazy searches for the office and the financial records of the governor. Somewhere it was assumed, would be access cards and codes to bank accounts, letting them leech off the living family of the dead man like blooders. It’s their way, but it is not mine. I think the things we bury should stay that way. This world of the dead should be left to the dead.
While they’re occupied, I make my way upstairs to the room at the end of the hallway. The room of a boy of less then ten years. My son.
His body, and that of my wife, are a dried lump on the bed. Features pinched and shrunk where they’d curled up together, trying in vain to keep out the deadly cold, before the life fled from their bodies. I feel the hot tears on my cheeks. It was my fault. I killed them, I killed this world. In my arrogance, in my short-sightedness, I had destroyed the greatest treasure of my life, and no accumulation of money would ever replace that. I didn’t deserve to live, and I didn’t want to. I would go soon to be with my wife and son.
But there was one thing I had to do first. The vultures downstairs had no idea that I was once the ruler of this place. To them, I was just another drifter, and this was just another job. But it would be their last. No one would disturb this tomb, no one would dig up these graves.
Mada had no chance to cry out before I struck her in the faceplate with the iron pipe I’d ripped from the bathroom. Her voice and life were snatched away by the bitter cold in seconds, and she crumpled upon the rich carpeting that my son had once played on. I felt bad, killing her, but it had to be done. If she and Arkazy got back to the world of the living, they would drain the accounts of my living extended family and thrust them into crippling poverty. I wouldn’t let that happen.
Arkazy was coming out of the office when he saw Mada’s body, and he let out a scream of primal anger and rage through the laser-link. Whipping his suited head around, trying to find the identity of his lover’s murderer. And there I stood, Mada’s blaster drawn and aimed at his centre of mass.
“Selik you fucking bastard! I will tear your fucking head o–” His shout was cut short by the weapon discharge, the bark of the blaster louder then any sound heard for ages in this place. His limp body went tumbling into their pile of treasure, where he and it would remain buried. I sighed and tossed the gun down. I was so tired. I’d kept up my mask of indifference to their actions for so long, the pain finally was free to flow.
I laid down on my son’s bed, cradling his and my wife’s body, and deactivated the life support on my suit. This was the end for me. This is where I would be buried, with my wife, with my son, my world, and my heart. The cold and dark took me blissfully quick, and I shut my eyes for the last time.