Author: Ian Hill

We came to the dead planet, left our vessel in orbit, and used an old mining lighter to reach the surface. The gray, withered husk of a world was even bleaker than it looked from above. It was a dry place, all wind-scoured and slaggy, porous, rolling—or maybe falling. There were mountains and valleys, plateaus and caves, fissure-sewn sprawls and high-walled defiles. All bare. We set out carefully, for that lifeless desolation was so perilous. Before long, our progress across the small, quick-curving planet blocked our hanging ship from sight. The sky was little more than scraped white—the arching dome of a pale egg in which we were the incubates. White and void-gray, with a single, diffuse green dot representing the glow of the system’s mild sun.

We hoped to find something, but it was all just uniform slate. We scuffed our boots on a scree of chipped basalt, and we wandered through a field of tumbled talus; the boulders were as big as houses, each one rolled into monumental rest. There were no signs of life in anything, save for a few sumps and corners gathered thick with a powdery dust that resembled ash. It was naught but another one of the universe’s gloomy derelictions, left behind to desiccate and perish without ever knowing the soft grace of a hopeful eye. Except ours, of course.

After a dozen hours of effectless exploration, we stopped on a blistered plain to rest. My partner and I sat heavily, and—for the first time in a while—gathered the courage to tip our heads back and peer up at the intimidating abyss of pastel murk. That pinpoint of green haze was still there; it had been swinging about overhead all day, never sinking and always peering in a subdued, indifferent sort of way. It wasn’t hot; it wasn’t sustaining. In fact, it barely did anything. There it loomed, remote, inscrutable. I couldn’t tell if it was indifferent or baleful. The worst thing is, I didn’t know which scared me more.

And then, it changed. The glow intensified by degrees until neither of us could deny the reality of it. At its smoldering height, the solar beacon became like the bulb of a glaucous flashlight hidden behind a thin membrane. I thought I saw a filament discharge from it—a thin, winding tapestry of a flare, insignificant and fleeting, like a strand of gossamer peeled from a spider’s egg. Then, once the ejecta faded, the star cooled back to its sedate, dull simmer. My partner and I were uneasy, but our devices didn’t register anything dangerous.

Then, like a spear of fluid emerald driven overhead, aurora jetted over us. The dead fields glared dazzling green, and our eyes shone in the verdant haze. The whole sky danced and flowed vitreous, like molten glass wrought by formless powers above. After only a few seconds, the phenomenon dissipated, and the lingering shimmer of the world leached away. I looked at my glove and marked the drain, like a rod quenching.

Disturbed, we decided to go back. On the way, we noticed things. There were scars on the rock—tiny pits where things had been; there was floury ash in every crevice. And, as we crested the final hill before coming in view of our ship, we saw before us a picturesque field lush with grass and rushes and creepers and ivies. We froze and stared at the impossible meadow, static and perfect. Then, like the passing of a shadow, it all withered colorless and broke apart, crumbling to wind-tugged dust. All was gray again.

My partner pointed up. I looked and saw, hanging there listless, our vessel. Except it was green, now. Green and shrubby and damningly dismasted.