The decision to make landfall here was deliberate. The high density of vegetation, unobstructed zenith, and immediate proximity to a significant liquid body made this the most efficient site for preliminary investigation into this lonely rock’s habitability.
The Visitor paused to muse over this characterization—lonely, relative to, what? True, this this place alone—of all its neighbors—was welcoming enough to even admit a craft through its atmosphere without the threat of crushing gravity, roiling temperatures, toxic gasses, or razor winds. The duty of tabulating and quantifying the subjects of each astral community had birthed an unending volume of data and description. But in the entire sum of these travels so far and so deep into the eternal void, never had this concept of “solitude” intruded upon The Visitor’s appraisals. Yet it was just that: solitary. It was not just the calm dark of the night cycle or the immediate lack of fauna. There was something in the background. Unquiet tension like a breath held for too long.
The nearby waters hissed as large swell broke against the silicate shores; the interruption brought back to bear the task at hand. A few steps back to the vessel and a few inputs into an external console began a series of focused, brilliant lights. Beams of radiant aquamarine and viridian reached up into the open air, breaking into large fans of luminance. Their survey returned a body of nitrogen, laced with oxygen, argon, and carbon dioxide. Several of the fans dissipated, their work finished. One, however, swept into a tight beam, and shot its way through the brush of tall, coastal reeds swaying in the midnight breeze. Inside his suit, The Visitor received a gentle but insistent pinging. An anomaly. Again, it was hard to deny an ineffable sense of vitality, hard to not see it as the planet extending an invitation.
Shuffling through the tall foliage was no chore. Just as the indicator beam pierced their ranks, they gave way with soft-spoken hisses, folding back as The Visitor took careful strides through their midst. The tone within the suit increased in frequency as the guiding light led on, filtering through the crowded field. So too did the sound of the tireless waters grow louder as the coast drew nearer. The last of the brush parted and the bright, bluish beam found its mark. The electronic pinging quieted.
It was a small structure, half-formed and slumping into the loose sand at its foundation. It was aluminum, terribly oxidized by the humidity and salt, on its last leg, but standing nonetheless in a tired vigil in the face of a sea that stretched on to the pitch blue horizon. Even before the results of the scan came back, The Visitor knew this an intelligent design. Corners had been tamped into defined edges, waves of regular corrugation on its surface not attributable to any natural phenomenon. Metal fasteners sealed an ill-fitting roof over the sagging walls. It was humble, and primitive. But again, the thought intruded: lonely. And more than lonely, sad.
Remnants of extinction were common in The Visitor’s journey: calcified bones stretching across cracked deserts, blackened and irradiated impact craters hiding shadows of some creature’s last few seconds of terror, crumbling cityscapes abandoned and extending metal fingers in a futile effort to touch the heavens. But rounding the corner to peer into the mouth of this small structure, the eroding aluminum edifice denied any sweeping, clinical assessment. Beyond the doorway, in the quiet, shallow dark of the shelter, was a heap of remains cradling a ruined tome. Two yellowing legs bones were pulled up to a cracking ribcage held in place by fossilizing arms wrapped in a protective fold around the bound collection of papers. A skull, still barely fused to a spine, was bowed in eternal sleep.
The thriving civilizations of the present had long abandoned mysticism. And, indeed, The Visitor had found existences and all the experiences it contained to be quantifiable. But, right now, there was more than the material. There was loneliness. There was sadness. This shoddy collection of metal had somehow consecrated its contents. Not just a vestige of life that was once was, but a sepulcher. A crude coda. The Visitor was frozen in a moment of uncertainty. That stillness turned into trembling, and—for in the first since childhood—The Visitor sobbed. The planet seemed to do so as well, joining in a grateful, long overdue death rattle.
After a time, the inevitable return to the ship was made. The essence was broken, and the planet returned to the sum of its parts. Gases, minerals, elements. The Visitor boarded his vessel and sealed the hatches, using one appendage to place the decaying volume in a hidden compartment behind the bulkhead before accessing the findings on this world. In the notes, The Visitor told the story. The loneliness. The sadness. The creature, and its last possession. It still made no sense. There was no rationale. Maybe the writing recovered was all nonsense, maybe it would never be deciphered. But The Visitor felt unburdened. The air outside felt calm at last. That would have to be good enough. The ship began liftoff.
As the vessel broke free of the atmosphere, the silence returned. The waters hissed. The reeds shuffled and swayed in the midnight breeze. The rapidly fading light in its star-filled sky had taken its loneliness away for good.