I’ve visited observational posts on asteroids less lonely than the Citadel on Aucturn. As I crossed the courtyard today, I saw no one, heard not a soul. Not in the courtyard, nor in the halls that open onto its damp cobblestones, nor again from the towers rising high above me—wet-black and spine-like, helixing and branching—to poke like bony fingers at an ochre sky.
As Aucturn daylight is brief and dim, I tarried before a carapaced rail near the bridge to the Nisk Archives. A spot there overlooks a steep drop to the levels below, where the bases of the towers splay into the ground like the roots of a tree. All below appeared quiet and still and yet not peaceful, conveying nothing like tranquility—more the patience of an ambush predator, of something which stares back.
In total that day, I saw just three people. Two in the Archives: the librarian and a hooded figure slouching through the Stacks, the latter glimpsed for only a second. A bespectacled man muttered nervously to himself in the courtyard as I returned to the Defenestrom dormitories, a tumorous growth sprouting from the side of his neck, bobbing with every syllable.
Everyone here is so cloistered and isolated that you’d never guess more than a hundred thousand souls reside in the Citadel. In quiet moments, however, you can imagine them sealed away—below, above, around—and, as you imagine them, you inevitably imagine they bend their attention toward you, and you scurry faster. Or perhaps I project.
Of my visit to the Archives, there is little to talk about.
They weren’t why I came anyway.
I’m told machines are here which purify the air, but I hear nothing and have never seen one. I can’t escape the impression that the towers themselves breathe in the poisonous yellow air and sigh forth oxygen. I wonder what would befall me if, of a sudden, they all chose to hold their breath.
When does a series of noises become a song?
Is it a song if it’s arrhythmic?
What if its patterns are so broad, you can listen for hours before those sounds repeat? I once did exactly this, huddled over a receiver high above this planet, twelve and terrified, monitoring signals while my father salvaged the Gjálfrmarr, a ruin of a ship still drifting over Aucturn.
What if the whine of wings, the clucking of proboscises, and telepathic blurtings of orphaned Aklo nouns are unpleasant to hear?
Is it music then?
The processional noises of orocoran monks have all these qualities.
Every day, I sneak from the Archives to witness their cacophonies, to record, to verify, each time with a twinge of guilt; I’m here on fellowship for work I’m not doing. But this may be my only trip to Aucturn. And the song calls me.
A song, I say.
Its patterns repeat every three hours.
Every day the patterns have been the same.
The monks only make this music when lined up before the Seep of the Earth, a fane on the sepulchral ground level of the Citadel.
It rained this morning, viscous, jaundiced drops that sizzled on the stone and bone of the towers. Though the air is safe to breathe, the rain is far from safe, and so I found myself navigating the passages and stairwells of the Occular Ward, a task for which neither paper map nor computer records proved entirely helpful, and I soon lost my way.
It was only by blind (and momentarily terrifying) luck that I stumbled into the procession of monks then winding through passages near the Seep. They paid me no heed. Eyes glazed forward. Proboscises twitched. Wings buzzed under robes, a mumbled hum.
I sat on flagstones and watched.
Shuffle, step, buzz.
A psychic blurt of a word in the Aklo tongue, screamed by a hundred nearby minds: Uulth. And an image entangled within it, a fountain.
Wary of discovery, I’d never been as close to the monks as I was now. Had I been missing psychic imagery all along?
Over three hours, I noted more images.
An obelisk with wings.
A jagged alley with a stone floor that climbed and fell.
All knotted to blurt-screamed words.
Every step exactly the same length.
Nomadic cultures yet to invent writing sometimes employ a memory-palace trick called a songline. They map a song to the geography of their world. Into this song they encode their lore. As they travel, they perform their song, as though the tribe is a needle on a phonograph, each landmark a music cue. And they remember.
After the rain stopped, I stayed late at the Archives surrounded by a constellation of city maps that failed to capture the three-dimensional madness of the Citadel. I worked by the glow of a table lantern, the Archives as always an undead space, neither alive with activity nor ever quite closed, the silence blemished by bumps without visible authors.
In time, I found it: the Sarrocian Ward. Sealed off and reportedly forbidden.
Home to the Fountain of Uulth.
The Aeskerian Stairs.
The Winged Obelisk of Sarroco.
One city engineer’s maps were quite precise. I counted thirteen monk-steps from the Fountain of Uulth to the top of the Askerian Stairs. In the song, thirteen proboscian clucks separate the blurting of those landmarks.
Three hours’ mapping produced something like a spiral, a vortex.
Eyes blurred with exhaustion, I returned to the Defenestrom, confident of a breakthrough but with no sense what it meant.
Have you received my first few entries, Meera? The silence in place of your response unsettles me. You’ve heard me in my sleep, humming and smacking echoes of what I heard as a child, obsessively cycling through them as though in search of a missing ending. And so I’d hoped you’d understand that my departure is no referendum on our affair. Please reply, even if angry, so I may cross out at least one hypothesis concerning your silence. In notes I’ve not sent, I’ve imagined many.
I’m shaking, sheets damp with perspiration.
What the hell was that dream?
Finally, a response bearing your signature.
Yet the audio file contains just a laugh, one that does not sound like yours.
I must admit to feeling unsettled. The repeated dream last night doesn’t help.
If, indeed, it was a dream.
I remain in my room. Read the humorist Josadine. All I hear is that laugh.
It sounds like the buzzing of wings.
Three nights now. Same dream every time, except—
No, I get ahead of myself. The phenomenon I study already involves psychic imagery. I can no longer ignore the possibility I may be suffering side effects beyond the psychological.
This then must be part of my record:
In the dream, I race through the Citadel. Places I’ve never been, imagery as vivid as the room around me now. Chiaroscuro and shadow. Damp flagstone under bare feet. Odors of rot.
Also, behind me: the leathery flap of wings and click of talons on stone.
When I glance over my shoulder, always by the Fountain, the creature stalking me bends all light to it, everything whorled and distorted, as though terror has its own gravity, its own singularity. Ahead, everything to either side of the avenue directly before me stretches and curves. I try breaking left. My feet slow, and my pursuer gains.
Panicked, resuming the forward path, I stumble down the Aeskerian Stairs, which is as far as I make it the first night.
On the second, the dream ends as I lurch into Myopic Alley.
The third night, I reach the end of the alley. Stand in a puddle that reeks of decay and buzzes with biting things.
There, a closed door waits, plain and patient.
I feel like I’ve been driven here. Why this door?
I refuse to open it. Instead I turn, certain I’ll be torn asunder by the tidal forces of the Beast that Follows.
Then I awaken, feet damp, flesh swelling around a bite on my ankle.
I’ll be forced to follow the orocoran path again, when next I dream. I’m sure of it.
I’ll stand before the Door again.
I must plan.
I have no plan.
Too terrified to sleep last night. A small blessing.
I tried to find solutions in the Archives, but by afternoon could no longer keep my eyes open as I read.
I hear the song every minute now. It lulls.
Sleep beckons and will not be denied.
(Are you there?)
—what if the thing pursuing me wants to stop me from opening the Door?
Perhaps what lies on the other side means it harm.
I think: Let them fight.
It’s the only solution I can think of.
Tonight, I’ll open the Door.
And if all goes well, I will write again.
About the Author
A product of California, Graham Robert Scott now resides in north Texas; a born scofflaw, he owns neither surfboard nor cowboy hat. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Nature, Barrelhouse Online, X-R-A-Y, and Pulp Literature. He tweets semi-regularly at @graythebruce and maintains a blog at hemicyon.wordpress.com.
About Tales From The Drift
The Tales from the Drift series of web-based flash fiction provides an exciting glimpse into the setting of the Starfinder Roleplaying Game. Written by members of the Starfinder development team and some of the most celebrated authors in tie-in gaming fiction, the Tales from the Drift series promises to explore the worlds, alien cultures, deities, history, and organizations of the Starfinder setting with engaging stories to inspire Game Masters and players alike.