By Malena Salazar Maciá
Translated by Toshiya Kamei
“Aren’t we going down?” Micaela asked.
“No,” Vero answered, unfazed. “It’s an abandoned planet. Our protocol requires us to send the probes to—”
“—check temperature, oxygen levels, identify hostile agents, collect samples, and perform primary analyses . . .” Micaela cut in. “We’ve got favorable readings. What’s stopping us from going down and doing the real work?”
“Prudence,” Vero replied. The remnants of buildings eroded by time and abandonment loomed on the screen. “And my own experience. Haven’t you read the report?”
“Yes. But it’s full of technobabble. Practically unreadable. I joined the mission to find out what made Termil-57 a cursed planet.”
“And your first doctorate requires practical activities.”
“That too,” Micaela answered between her teeth. Her initial excitement vanished. The probes scanned flat landscapes and transmitted equally repetitive results. “I want your personal report, doctor. I’m not convinced my future success depends on working through the probes. Instead, I’d rather collect samples and decrypt lost civilizations.”
Vero leaned back in her chair.
“We’ve got no reliable records on what destroyed Termil-57,” Vero began. “Most files are corrupted. The inhabitants failed to transmit anything substantial to the base before they lost communication. They did emphasize one thing, though—no one comes in, no one comes out. They accepted their fate stoically. Termil-57 was forgotten. No one was allowed to enter its atmosphere.”
“But some broke the rules anyway,” Micaela said.
“Yes, they did.” Vero nodded. “Lured by myths and legends. No one came back, however. I chose this mission for the sake of the truth. Termil-57’s destruction is ancient history. We need to look into it. It’s up to us to find . . .”
Vero stopped. With a grimace, she leaned over the screen. Micaela, who remained absorbed in the explanation, realized that they had lost communication with the three probes sent to explore the planet’s rough terrain. Vero tapped keys on the console, attempting to reestablish a link with the probes. She executed a second emergency protocol, then a third. She failed to reestablish communications.
“They can’t have just disappeared,” Vero murmured. “We’ve found no life or any biological form representing a threat. We’ve detected no electronic operating system sending virtual or physical attacks. No report indicates the probes have been destroyed. Termil-57 has nothing but junk.”
“Let’s send the 5019,” Micaela said, like a novice who hadn’t sniffed out the dangers of each mission. She wasn’t backing down—not when she was so close to achieving her goal.
“No,” Vero said. Without much thought, Micaela classified her mentor as an obstacle. “We need to retreat to the base or send a message requesting support. We only have three probes left . . .”
“That’s enough.” Micaela stood her ground. Vero raised one eyebrow. “Let’s send it. We’ll configure it to detect energy sources of any kind, of any magnitude. In real time, we’ll transmit a mapping of the points with more energy concentration. I expected you, the prominent xenoarchaeologist Verónica Ill’aer, to be a little more resilient. You wouldn’t panic over the first setback. Think about it. The probe will give us more data and we will assess what to do. Going home empty-handed is not an option.”
While Micaela endured her mentor’s silence, she clenched her fists until her nails pricked her palms. She was about to take a decisive step in her career. If she succeeded, she would earn renown, acclaim, and a spot on any exploration team. Micaela Habat’s name would go down in history as an xenoarchaeologist who solved the mystery of cursed planets.
In open defiance of her mentor, Micaela programmed the next probe. She added visible, electromagnetic, and frequency spectrum detection. Vero watched her in silence. When the probe was launched toward Termil-57, Vero still said nothing and kept her gaze fixed on the screen. If her apprentice’s behavior bothered her, she didn’t show it.
The first readings didn’t pique her interest. The planet was dead. Not even bacteria proliferated. Even so, a flickering red dot appeared on the western continent. Nothing else. The only energy source detected on the entire planet was there, but it was as weak as the occasional wink of a star millions of light years away. In a matter of minutes, the probe saved the distance that separated it from the signal and initiated an approach between the rusty mountains. The video became clear on the screens, without interference. The last image Micaela and Vero received before the fourth probe vanished bewildered them.
“What does this mean?” Micaela asked.
“It means we should forget about this planet. Mark heading to the base . . .”
“Wait.” Micaela pursed her lips. “I’ll get the recognizance capsule and my spacesuit. I’m going down.”
Micaela expected Vero to oppose her impertinence with the force of a supernova. She considered her own decision reckless. Yet returning home with the mission aborted wasn’t going to speak highly of her. She falsified recommendations and crushed enough candidates to obtain a place with Verónica Ill’aer and explore Termil-57, an unexplored xenoarcheological gem. She craved a triumph. Her triumph. She was willing to snatch it from Vero if necessary.
Vero responded to her momentum with professionalism, offering a show of control over her nerves. Micaela let envy chew on her for a few minutes. The rational part of her was able to understand the depth of the well where she intended to dive, because what probe was capable of disappearing without triggering an alert or being detected? Even if she didn’t show it openly, Vero didn’t seem very keen to find out.
But Micaela was determined. Termil-57’s curse had become an achievable obsession, with all the recognition that went with it.
“If you don’t want to go down, Doctor . . .” Micaela’s words pierced the air like knives. “You can stay here. I won’t hold it against you. One of us must operate the ship if something happens. But you must announce that the discovery is mine.”
Micaela waited for her words to sink in. Vero frowned, the faint wrinkles between her eyebrows deepening. She was taken aback by her disciple who so blatantly demanded the glory of an unprecedented discovery. Micaela savored the defeat crossing Vero’s heretofore unchanging expression.
“No. I’ll go with you,” Vero said in a calm tone as she rose with elegance. “You may need help down there. Perhaps whatever destroys probes isn’t limited to doing just that. You need a contingency plan.”
“Of course,” Micaela said, feeling comfortable. The tables had turned. She was in charge. Her friends would be thrilled to hear how she made Verónica Ill’aer hide her tail between her legs. “I calculated the time it took for the probes to disappear. We’ve got twenty minutes to go down, collect a sample from that power source, and return to the ship. Before preparing the capsule, we’re going to load all the information we’ve got so far from Termil-57 into a probe, including the location of the power source and the video of the structure where it was detected. I’ll schedule it to send itself to the base in twenty minutes.”
Micaela took Vero’s silence as victory. She prepared the probe, the capsule, and checked her space suit for leaks. When she returned to the cockpit and put on her space helmet, Vero recorded a personal log and downloaded the information from a microchip into the probe they would send to the quadrant base. Micaela didn’t interrupt Vero, staying away from her.
She thought she should leave a message, too. Yet she had no time to approach the panel because Vero was already straightening up to put on her space helmet. Micaela took a couple of seconds to follow suit.
“Let’s go to the capsule.” Vero’s voice reached her through the transmitter.
They took the remaining probe, which was programmed to protect them and the samples they would obtain. As they entered the atmosphere, they set their timers for twenty minutes. The exploration capsule descended at a dizzying velocity. It took them two minutes to traverse toward their precise landing spot. When they touched down, three minutes had passed. Micaela was the first to leave the module. Without betraying her amazement, she observed the construction they had seen in the video captured by the last probe before it disappeared.
A pyramid made of scrap metal soared before her—a huge, magnificent matte gray pyramid the same color as the planet’s soil. Thus, it was indistinguishable from orbit. The entrance was open. An arch of absolute darkness. However, what disturbed Micaela about the video was the vision of hundreds of rusty, inert androids crawling toward the building.
Followed by the probe, Vero walked quickly among the androids without even grazing them, traveling on foot because any indiscriminate use of technology could damage the findings. Micaela considered using the suit’s thrusters as she followed, but thought better of it.
Micaela couldn’t look away from the androids on the ground. Their eye sensors were dangling out of their sockets. Their agape mouths revealed rust-stained teeth. Their tongues remained paralyzed in cries of suffering. Do robots suffer? she wondered. All of them possessed a terrifying similarity to human beings, as if they had been the fruit of a fussy craftsman. Even the dark wires in their hair were as fine as real hair fibers.
The mouth of the pyramid swallowed both women.
They had fifteen minutes left.
As they stepped further inside, more androids appeared. In the gloom, they even looked more human than Vero and Micaela. But when their eyes adjusted, the shining metal dispelled the illusion. The walls were lined with pictograms, which were accompanied by long scribbles in a language Micaela couldn’t identify. It wasn’t a common human language. Vero used the probe to scan as much information as possible.
“We’ve seen enough,” Vero murmured. She certainly didn’t like the inside of the pyramid. “Let’s go back.”
“No,” Micaela said and shivered, still in her spacesuit. But she shook off ominous sensations and gazed down the corridor. Her body temperature shot up in spite of the suit regulator. “We still have some time left.”
“Is it not obvious?” Vero never lost her cool. “It’s not the first time that a digital rebellion has occurred. AIs massacred human beings. The planet’s energy ran out, except for some generator here, inside the pyramid. The androids were damaged trying to reach it. Who knows what guards it, but it destroys everything that comes near. We must go back.”
Thrilled by the impending discovery, Micaela ignored Vero and entered the bowels of the pyramid. A sad digital rebellion wasn’t an academic delicacy. Something hummed inside the building. Something precious. Micaela wouldn’t leave without it. Vero followed her at a deliberate pace as the probe hovered overhead.
Micaela’s tenacity bore fruit when they stepped into a room filled with stone sarcophagi and wall niches that told the planet’s history in an unknown language.
A burial chamber.
They had ten minutes left.
Without hesitation, Vero pushed the lid off a grave and peered inside. The probe buzzed around, shot video, and picked up bits of metal and desecrated debris. Drunk with triumph, Micaela watched the niches occupied by androids with closed eye implants and serene expressions, wrapped in shrouds and adorned with jewels.
Some had assumed the lotus position like Buddhist monks trying to reach Nirvana. Others lay bandaged like Egyptian mummies. Like fetuses inside the wombs, metallic children slept, covered with chicha and coca leaves and surrounded by toys.
Micaela spotted a rosary woven between an android’s fingers.
“Robots . . . practiced religions?” she murmured. The probe buzzed overhead. She stepped toward the android. She tore off a piece of mortise with her pliers. She snatched the rosary. Then she withdrew to herself.
How was it possible? Did their programming evolve to the point where they believed themselves to be human? Did they try to be like humanity, to the point of possessing a soul? Did they undergo a religious conversion in search of salvation? Or perhaps Termil-57 was a planet of cognitive robots? To what or who were they praying, exactly?
A sharp sting shot through her spine. By reflex, she scratched herself over her spacesuit. It was a splendid discovery. Her persistence had finally paid off. She had found what she was looking for: the secrets of the cursed planet. The propellant for a meteoric ascent. Yet she hadn’t gotten rid of the inconvenience behind her.
Gasping for breath with excitement, Micaela turned back. Vero groped through the trousseau that belonged to an android seated in a niche facing southwest. The probe was no longer in the room, fulfilling its programming. As Micaela awkwardly retraced the hallway, she imagined herself standing at an immaculate podium, surrounded by an admiring crowd. She would talk about god-fearing AIs. She would bring up the disaster that occurred on Termil-57 and narrate, with appropriate somberness, the fatal accident Dr. Verónica Ill’aer had suffered. She would eulogize the brave Vero who sacrificed herself as she let Micaela board the capsule and escape to the safety of orbit.
Micaela tripped over an android and fell on all fours. Short of breath, she collapsed against the wall. As she felt her mobility limited, panic crept up her chest like a spider.
“There’s something . . . strange . . . here.”
Vero stood next to her. She didn’t seek the height of her eyes. It didn’t comfort her in any way. For her survival, Micaela mentally discarded Plan B and held out her hand.
“I can’t breathe,” Micaela gasped. “Help me get out of here. Now.”
They had six minutes left.
“You’re perfect right there,” Vero replied. Micaela frowned, more confused than when she found god-worshiping androids. “During my first foray, I was reckless. I got carried away by despair. I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t even make conclusive records. Now, thanks to you, my fourth rebirth will work better. Thank you.”
“What are you talking about?” Micaela asked, desperately looking around. She wanted to move but felt as if someone had nailed her to the spot.
“My family lived on Termil-57 when the disaster struck,” Vero said and looked around as if she were on a picnic instead of a cursed planet. Micaela felt herself lose what remained of her mobility, her bones suddenly heavier. A tingling sensation shot through her mouth. “I was an intern in the quadrant,” Vero added.
How old is she really? Micaela wondered. Thanks to technological marvels, humans could extend life a little beyond one hundred and fifty years. But Vero looked about one hundred. And the Termil-57 catastrophe had happened a long time ago. Perhaps she had remained looking relatively youthful through cosmetic surgeries and stem cell treatments.
“From then on, I did everything in order to come back,” Vero said. “To find out where my family was and what happened, to discover the secret of destruction, to get the weapon of the gods who punished the planet. It could be very useful. Do you have any idea how many hostile civilizations would pay to obtain what’s hidden on this planet? Or to destroy it. For the sake of goodness. Or understanding. Serve them. Yes. Accept them, embrace them, bring them offerings! I had time to choose. So I became a prominent xenoarchaeologist. Free to visit any devastated planet for the sake of science. Like Termil-57. The first time, I came alone. I ignored the reports and entered the atmosphere. I didn’t bring a suitable sacrifice for conversion. Silly me. I don’t know what happened to me in my biological life. I never went back to the planet. But I left instructions, just like now, before leaving the ship. My consciousness. Information. A rebirth. Another chance.”
Micaela opened her mouth to form words, but failed on the first few attempts. A sour, metallic taste peppered her saliva as she swallowed it down, her tongue heavy and coated. Her fingers stiffened, like her legs and her torso, inside the gloves. She felt no pain. She felt herself transform into something else. She could think as well as someone on the brink of death possibly could.
Vero wasn’t human, much less organic. She was a cognitive bot. Illegal, presumably. Micaela shivered. Throughout her career, she had been in the hands of an android with a copy of the brilliant Veronica Ill’aer’s conscience. She had heard of crazy, degraded cognitive bots, but she always dismissed them as urban legends—until she landed on Termil-57 with someone she thought was her mentor, who now subjected Micaela to her ravings.
“They appreciate the power sources,” Vero continued. “But they delight in the organic. Listen, they’re satisfied! How wise to bring you with me.” Vero watched one hand in fascination. “They didn’t touch the probe. Instead, they’ll deplete my energy as soon as they’re done with you. It doesn’t matter. I’m truly grateful to you, little Mica. I’m sorry it ends like this. But believe me, your sacrifice will achieve a greater good.”
At some point in the past, the nanobots were servile and prolonged human life. At the height of a schism caused by some attack or corrupt file, they decided to rid their hosts of all diseases for further preservation. The most sensible thing to do was to transform their organic components into non-organic ones. After all, the latter lasted longer, even if their hosts died in the process. When the nanobots were left without an energy source, they devoured the rest of the planet before they went into hibernation—waiting for someone or something to come around to provide them with more food.
Micaela’s eyes turned into eye sensors. The lights were going out for her. Yes, that was it. Just as a stream of nanobots invaded her through her spacesuit, she gradually turned into an android, her energy petering out bit by bit. The nanobots crawled through her system. And nubots messed with her DNA chain itself.
Vero served the gods of Termil-57. Invisible, unreachable, omnipresent. Nanogods of ruin.
She had one minute left.
Vero crouched down next to Micaela. She put a hand on her head.
“Don’t be afraid,” Vero whispered softly. “I’ll come back in another body. I’ll bring more sacrifices. They will be converted like you. The gods will be pleased. They won’t unleash their fury on the rest of the universe. They call me their guardian. I am. I will be. But you’ll have a place in the pyramid. You were the first to help me. You deserve recognition. When you’re near the end, you begin to believe. In something. In someone. I should have, in my first life as an organic entity. I’ll give you this prayer. It’ll help you pass without fear.
Vero moved her mouth closer to Micaela’s hearing sensor:
“I slide the bolt of the door,” Vero began. “It opens before the mysteries of the Lower World. Open the way for my soul toward the eternal abode! May I come to it in peace! Divine spirits, watch! My soul marches at your side. It speaks to you. It’s purified like you, since the balance of judgment has been declared in its favor.”
Micaela went off in peace just as her suit chronometer clicked down to zero.
About the Author: Malena Salazar Maciá is an award-winning Cuban writer of science fiction and fantasy. She has authored several novels, most recently Aliento de Dragón (2020). Translated by Toshiya Kamei, Malena’s short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, The Future Fire, Mithila Review, and elsewhere.
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