by Lara Alonso Corona
At first Esther thought there was something wrong with her helmet. She checked the comms.
“Control, do you copy?”
“Copy,” the voice said, cracking through the silence like an electric discharge. Esther felt a whip of pain at her nape. “Doctor Llosa, everything okay?”
The question was void of any personal sense of worry, just care for the mission at hand.
“Fine, just checking. Over.”
Then it came back, as soon as the static hiss of the comms fizzled out. What she thought was her helmet shutting the world out. It was just—silence.
It wasn’t like the “silence” she had been taught. Back on Earth, everything was human-noisy, machine-whirring, and weather-howling. Loud. You carried those noises in your head the whole day, and they drilled the soft parts of your sleep at night. There were options, though. There were always options. For a price you could rent a Silence Tank by the hour. But the price was so steep (man-made silence only for the few, the latest luxury) Esther only went there a few times, only thanks to university grants.
But the silence of the tanks was just “silence”, a quote-unquote thing, a substitute without reference, for those who didn’t know any better. Not like this.
She was not so impressed by the fact of being on a different planet. She had been offshore a few times already, cataloging melodies, recording unearthly symphonies, studying alien instruments, lost forms of notation. What impressed her was having to shift her own definition of what silence meant.
It was not a vacuum but a viscous hungry presence that annihilated any other form of sound as if it were a threat.
It was disorienting too. Even with clear visibility she found it hard to put one foot before the other, advance towards the place of the song. Without noise her whole body had to readjust to this new sense of balance.
She didn’t know how to walk through silence.
It was a small planet. So small that in the beginning—when there was a chance of human colonization—its precarious name was Saint Exupery, a harmless joke by those who didn’t know what was on the surface. That soon changed, of course. Esther looked at the map on her PDA, and up ahead she could see that ridge, that ravine, views she knew by heart from the intel she had spent months studying like it was a complex fugue, a Charles Ives-heights problem to solve. Esther knew in a few seconds, in a handful of steps, she’d arrived at the zone where first contact had been made.
The spot where the song was first heard.
Science had long given up explaining the tune, and anthropologists its origin. Politics found no use for it except as a vague threat to justify unpopular policies, security expenses. The military said they weren’t willing to lose more soldiers over it without the proper budget compensation. The sciences, though, were slower to develop such self-preservation. Esther knew she hadn’t been chosen (and she couldn’t help but think of it that way, that she was one of the chosen, but what musicologist wasn’t a mystic in their own right?) because of her academic prowess. She was good, but she was young and wasn’t academically recognized yet.
And she had no family. Convenient. Her parents were dead, and she had a girlfriend (and three tanks of tropical fish in her living room) but no spouse or children, no family or immediate plans for one. She was both an expert and expendable. No one else was as crazy or stupid as to try this.
Of course no one could be “chosen” unless they “volunteered” first.
Everybody who came here, from a certain moment in time, after the first two or three experiments, knew they were going to die.
Hubris is intoxicating.
They knew they were going to die, but they didn’t understand what that meant.
Only their own curiosity.
There were stories on Earth about this, some of it had survived. The siren. The Pied Piper. Music as a trap, as an accessory to murder. But music as the murder weapon itself? Noise cancelling earphones didn’t work. Sending in deaf soldiers didn’t work either, they tried that too. It wasn’t hearing the music but the physical fact of the music.
It was organic.
Yet it wasn’t in the air. The spacesuit wouldn’t protect you. Air samples collected post-mortem rendered no explanation.
The corpses were quarantined afterwards, recovered by mobile robotic arms. Robots could give you the bare facts of it, but sending in AIs still left both the military and the scientific community unsatisfied. The quarantine of the bodies would then follow the strictest parameters, regulated by epidemic panic. Music as contagious.
It is a virus, the scientists insisted in closed-door conferences, showing them microscopic monochrome pictures they seemed morbidly proud of. The same lack of imagination that drove them to name the virus Euterpe.
“They’ll send a dog next, mark my words,” Esther’s former college professor had commented after one of these conferences, to which she had graciously brought Esther along. It was the early days of the discovery. She added, “Or some other animal. It won’t work, of course.”
She was right.
Euterpe only attached itself to humans.
Animals came back intact and happy enough, but they provided no answers.
No answers other than the vital one: Euterpe only attached itself to humans.
Something to do with souls, Professor Womack had proposed. Jokingly perhaps.
The topography of the planet was hardly exciting. The surface was a muted red, like the old photographs from back when people first arrived on Mars. Turned into a military (deserted) post for security measures, the planet no longer had a name, let alone one optimistically inspired by humanistic literature from centuries ago. Instead, it had a series of numbers, but those changed often, rotated regularly as a security measure. Everybody understood what that meant, and its importance: security measures. If Euterpe could be harvested and handled, it would make an excellent weapon, the argument went.
From the ground it was just an ocean of dust and rocks, and once she got used to the overwhelming presence of silence, Esther started noticing the noise she made in the environment. The way her steps made a crunch-crunch sound, like stepping on bones. Those scientists weren’t the only morbid ones here.
Esther knew there was another reason why she was here, her thesis.
She had followed the thread of the deadly tune backwards, and came up with a new answer.
Stone age humans knew of the song, of its danger. They took steps to protect themselves against it, starting with setting down a primitive notation on a cave in Northern Spain. Or was it Southern France? Walking through all this silence was making Esther dizzy, forgetful, as if noise had been a crutch to walk on all these years. Sirens, Hamelin, it was all a smokescreen—ancient humans knew music could kill. The idea that humans had already been in contact with the tune, or rather its chiral, iterations, non-deadly fragments from long ago. That was her thesis.
A breeze crossed her path, a gust of blue wind cutting through the silence and the crunch-crunch of Esther’s boots with a jewel maker’s precision. Esther wanted to commit everything to memory, even if she knew that was worse than useless, it was childish.
A couple of notes arranged in a peculiar way, a piece of written melody found in a time of catastrophe, Euterpe lying dormant in between under the ink on a pentagram filled by Félicien David, the later works of Szymanowski. The virus wasn’t alien. Or if it was, it had made a visit to Earth before.
Esther turned the secondary recorder on, just in case something happened to the one in her helmet. It would be stupid to come this far and miss making a recording.
No one had ever heard the melody and lived to write their conclusions, of course. Records were deemed too risky. All scholars like Esther had to go on was the annotated form of the song—provided by computers immune to its lure. Isolated, Esther found it easier to identify the elements and develop her particular conspiracy theory. The supposed beauty of the music—astronauts rhapsodizing on its glory with their last breaths, alarming smiles on the faces of all the victims—couldn’t get in the way of your studies if it was simple data, collected, inert.
Esther was thinking about the harmless-looking shape of the notes (that tenuto, is that really what the computer meant?) when she first heard it. She stopped.
She’d almost missed it.
It was still some distance out, and the sound was…not just like the sound of something far away, but the sound of something weak. Esther took a step forward, and then another, and the melody became a bit clearer.
She checked the device. This was the place.
“Why didn’t anyone leave as soon as they heard it? Out of fear?” she asked Professor Womack once, discussing the latest death of a researcher.
“Maybe they wanted to keep listening,” was her mentor’s reply.
Esther took another step.
It was not too late, not yet.
(It had never been too late, from the beginning.)
She could turn back, let the scientist examine the effects on a body only exposed to the minimum of contact with the melody. She could even be saved, in any case offer something new. Esther waiting for the survival instinct to kick in.
(It never did.)
Wasn’t this the ultimate dream of a musicologist? Finding the tune that can end your life, recording it lovingly as it sucks the air of your lungs?
And who knew what happened after this too-sweet death? Who was to say this music immortal wouldn’t give her life after all? Who was to say this wasn’t success of the mission, in fact?
Esther resented her own labored breathing, which became panting, because it contaminated the pure quality of the sound.
Ah, yes, she knew this was the next note.
But to hear it! It couldn’t compare to her expectations. All those machines have left out so many things. There wasn’t any musical notation Esther knew of that could set this moment down.
A cracking, dry sound in her ears.
Control. The voice had urgency, but just as before, still no worry or warmth.
Esther gritted her teeth. Dirty human voice, filthy link static, tainting the melody.
She turned off the comms.
She took off her helmet.
The air wasn’t breathable but—
oh to listen to the tune unfiltered.
Lara Alonso Corona is a queer writer from the north of Spain. They studied Film and TV in Madrid before making the decision to write in a second language and move to London. Their fiction has appeared in online and print venues like Literary Orphans, Whiskey Island, FIVE:2:ONE Magazine and anthologies like Betty Fedora or Dostoyevsky Wannabe’s LOVE BITES. Lara is the current reviews editor at Minor Literature(s).