Author’s Note: This is another old short story I wrote during my MA in 2014. I intended this to be published in a science fiction magazine but it got rejected. As I wrote it, I found that this would make a better long prologue to a novel than a short story. It used to be a lot longer, near 5000 but it was so meandering that it was easy to cut it down about 3700 words.
I’d rate this prologue PG on its own. The rating would probably rise as the story lengthens.
I was their Squad Leader. How could I have let them get into this mess? That was for Squad Leaders like Adela Dragomir whose squad was in a desperate state of disorganisation and always landed the shuttles with the brakes on, not me. This was my first initial contact with a new planet and it was a worse shambles than anything Dragomir could have managed.
The launch from the ship had gone so well too. Everyone had been excited to be the first team to land on Curie. I hadn’t let them celebrate too much. Perhaps, I should have. It may be the last time they’d have anything to celebrate.
Yes, I had forgotten to rehearse the squad affirmation sequence but Acting Pilot Rahela Toma hadn’t and I was last in the list so it didn’t matter. Yes, my hands had trembled when the countdown started and the horper meat I had just eaten began a fast-paced tango in my stomach but that was to be expected. This was well and truly it. My first initial contact mission. The only information I had on Curie’s atmosphere, terrain and life forms were estimates from unmanned observation craft. They could so easily be wrong. At least half of my brain wanted to cry, “Abort!” as the countdown descended to single digits but I had to be ready.
Curie was straight ahead of my single-pilot pod when the door opened, its central continent a dappled white and grey shape against a green ocean.
The gravity struts sprang away right at the end of the countdown and, in a millisecond, we had left the R.S.S. Zarnacadea. The launch had been a success and, though Flight Lieutenants Augustina and Sorina got their positions in the arrowhead formation mixed up for a moment, so had the descent and entry into the planet’s atmosphere. The landing went just as smoothly as everything else. The turf was flat and firm. Even nervous Acting Pilots Rahela and Marta landed without difficulty.
We had all donned our breathing gear and done all proper checks before leaving my pod, as had all my crew. When I radioed Captain Leonte, she had been most impressed, “A splendid landing, Squad Leader Tudor. Your crew can make a start on testing the atmosphere. We need to confirm estimates of the air’s toxicity before you take your climate pills. Report back to me when – ”
The call was cut off. The solid ground disappeared under our feet and, in a few seconds, my vision was swallowed by complete blackness. I whirled myself around in midair, flailing my arms and trying to catch hold of someone that might give me someone to die with but I met nothing but empty, rushing air.
Finally, I hit something. It was not hard ground but something soft. It gave out under my weight. Once all the momentum from the fall had been squeezed out, the floor solidified. Not only was I alive but I was completely unharmed. I lay for a moment on whatever caught me, trying to get my breath back and take in the fact that I was alive. I called out to my squad again. They must surely be alive if I was but, still, no one replied. I tried twice to radio the Zarnacadea but only silence answered me.
I pushed myself up and focused all my attention on what was there rather than what might (or might not) be there. Motivated by procedure, I turned on my helmet voice recorder, “Terrain seems to be morphing stone, suggesting previous civilisation existing beneath the surface of Curie five hundred years ago. Squad is currently missing. I’m going to attempt to find them and investigate this place.” I reached out both my arms and took tiny steps forward.
Something seized my left hand. I gave a cry of shock (just for the recording) and flinched away. My hand went instantly to my weapon and pointed it in the general direction of my assailant.
“You are advised to remove your headgear. You will do something regrettable if you do not.”
The voice came not from whatever grabbed me but from somewhere above me and to my right. I wheeled around and released the charge catch.
“The air in this place is pure. It will do you no harm.”
It was a different voice. Higher than the last but male again with a noticeable hint of distortion: Computer generated. Robots but not state of the art.
“Squad Leader?” My heart almost leapt out of my mouth at the sound of Rahela’s voice.
“Rahela? Where are you?”
“It’s alright, Squad Leader. He’s telling the truth. We can breathe without our helmets. Please stop pointing that gun at me.
I had hesitated, wary of a trick. There could be some kind of gas filtering into my breathing system, giving me auditory hallucinations. I lowered my gun but did not take off my helmet. I raised my hands again and, almost instantly, found another hand. A very human one with no claws or scales but a thick exploration suit glove.
When I undid the clasps and pulled off my helmet, my eyes were brimming with tears. The place had not been dark and lonely at all. It was lit by phosphorus gems bright enough to illuminate the entire room and all my squad was standing around me, unhurt and without even a rip in their suits. I suppose the radio waves of the place disrupted the helmet’s circuits, rendering every function, including basic sight and hearing, useless.
Those radio waves must have been in place for as long as the giant golden animatronics sitting on chairs set into the walls around us had been. They looked like pre-technology gods with flowing robes and intricate headdresses but the ever-turning cogs around them and bursts of steam from their joints told me that they were indeed manufactured post-technology. It had the appearance of pre-gasoline technology and, yet, it was far too complex for anything created in that period. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how that was achieved. It distracts me from…other things.
“Your heart rate has lowered to normal levels.” An animatronic wearing a crown of maple leaves spoke. I haven’t figured out how the civilisation who built them could make their lips move as if they were actually capable of independent speech, “This is good for it means you have all recovered from your fall.”
Something strange struck me, “Where are our shuttles? Why didn’t they fall with us?”
“We did not have need of them.” The curly-haired animatronic next to the last one spoke this time, “We left them where you landed them.”
“They are not damaged in any way.” The animatronics were programmed to take their turns speaking, it would seem, for the one next to the curly-haired one spoke next, “You may return to them and contact your ship as normal after you cure Mahkah.”
“What is Mahkah?” asked Pilot Officer Diona,
“The planet you stand on. The planet that is close to death as we speak.”
“Why does Mahkah suffer?” I asked the next animatronic along. While the air had been deemed toxic by the probes, there had been no evidence of any pollution or anything to prevent a manned exploration.
“It suffers from many ills. All of the moons are contaminated with an individual wrong.”
“Moons? Mahkah doesn’t have any moons.”
“We refer to the islands around this central land. The previous people of this planet have always referred to them as the moons.”
“When all is well, only one moon rises from the sea every month. Because of Mahkah’s sickness, all of them have risen.”
“This is a precaution we all took but this is all we can do to prevent the pollution spreading through the ocean. Our technology cannot reach beyond this.”
“We can open the doors to the passages beneath the sea and guide you with our eyepieces but the action of purifying of the moons can only be done by a humanoid life form.”
“The previous civilisations did not have the resources to fight the contaminations. We sense that your technologies are more than sufficient.”
“Mahkah is a rich and fertile planet when it is not polluted. New settlers shall reap great rewards and will thrive here.”
The statues had come full circle. All had spoken and now they were silent. I turned to my squad. Some looked eager, even excited. Clearly, they thought this was like something straight out of a virtual game with chosen ones and battles with evil. I never liked those much. I liked the strategy and empire-building ones.
Others looked nervous and they were wise to do so. This wasn’t what anyone could expect on an initial contact mission and getting rid of whatever pollution the animatronics meant might prove deadly. Flight Lieutenants Augustina and Sorina, were both trying their radios again but their pleas to the Zarnacadea met only silence.
Then, Jenica raised her head to the animatronic that had just spoken and said, “What happens if we refuse to help?”
The answer was immediate from the one that had first spoken (the fiercest-looking in a wolfskin headdress), “Then, we simply leave you here and we wait for the next band of humanoid beings to arrive on Mahkah. Our fuel and patience are infinite.”
All our rations had been left in our shuttles and, no matter how good the horper stew we’d enjoyed before launch was, it would only keep us from hunger for a few hours at most. Contacting the Zarnacadea was out of the question and we had no tools to make a tunnel back to the surface. All these horrible realities popped around my squad and panic was beginning to settle in. Acting Pilot Marta looked close to tears and Pilot Officer Cornelia wailed,
“We’ll do it! Tell us what to do!”
Nearly everyone joined her but the second animatronic was firm, “We only accept the decision of your squad leader. She must speak for all of you.”
Everyone turned their pleas on me and I had to order them all to be quiet so I could think. No squad leader would follow an animatronic’s orders without giving it proper thought. I remembered the L.A.D.Y. rule, the rule drilled into my head since becoming a Squad Leader.
Leave nothing to chance. There were a lot of chances and risks in the purification of the moons. Accept that small inconveniences are better than loss of life. My squad would certainly die if I refused but the purification was no small inconvenience. Discuss each plan with your squad before acting. My squad had already made it clear what they wanted. You must lead in everything. It was my decision to make and I thought I knew which was the lesser evil.
“We accept your request.”
“Then, we shall begin the purification. All of you must stand still on the spot while your abilities are analysed.”
This sort of technology was outlawed before I was born, deemed too intrusive, too distressing on the subject and too much was at stake if the process went wrong. But the old cliché was right: nothing was more unreasonable than an animatronic. There was nothing I could do but tell my squad, “Do as he says. Don’t move a muscle, no matter how bad it gets. It’ll be over in a minute.”
When I had closed my mouth, I felt what must be the analysis. It was just as unpleasant as the tech-history texts described. Like worms were crawling over my skin, probing around me like they were trying to find holes in wriggle in. Seconds dragged past and the feeling only worsened. The worms made their way through my skin and wriggled around inside me. I could hear some of my squad letting out squeals of discomfort. I couldn’t turn round to see what they were doing. I could only hope they had the will to obey my order.
At last, it was over. The worms left and I could relax again.
“The analysis is complete. The data shall now be processed and you shall be each assigned a moon to purify.”
This caused a small uproar among my squad and it took me a lot of self-control not to join them. Nothing had given the impression that we would face the challenges alone. I tried asking them to let us face them all as a group but the animatronics were still and unreasonable as, well, animatronics.
Without really thinking, we all moved towards the centre of the room and formed a tight huddle. Like my squad, I was scared for their safety but but I was also ashamed. I had contravened the Y in the L.A.D. Y. rule. I had not led my squad. I had given into pressure and made a decision that could kill them all, And, probably, all of the relief squads sent after us when we’re declared missing. I had done worse than Dragomir. If I was remembered in history texts at all, it would be as the blundering squad leader who killed all her squad on her first initial contact mission.
“There are more than twelve of you so two of you will remain as substitutes in the case of a squad member’s demise. They shall be Sorina Blerinca and Constansa Tudor.”
“No!” Flight Lieutenant Sorina nearly screamed the word and I too failed to hide the panic in my shout.
“I’m the squad leader. I can’t stay here while the others go out on their own!”
“Please,” I had never heard Acting Pilot Rahela raise her voice or make a speech this long before, “let me and Marta stay instead. Squad Leader Tudor and Flight Lieutenant Blerinca will have no problem purifying your moons. We won’t be able to do it without dying and – and, if we die, your moons will never be purified.”
Marta was too scared to speak but she nodded and kept a close grip on Rahela’s sleeve.
“You misunderstand our purpose. We intend to make this experience one that will shape and teach you.”
“It is because of your lack of experience that we choose you. Our data is not flawed and there is a high certainty that you have the ability to purify Mahkah’s moons.”
“You shall not be alone. Each of us governs one moon and we shall guide you through our eyepieces.”
“Upon the completion of the purification, you shall have earned the right to Mahkah citizenship. You shall have proved you are worthy of restarting this planet’s civilisation.”
“Let there be no more arguments. You have agreed to cure Mahkah and your agreement is binding.”
“We shall announce who shall be assigned to each moon now. No other than the squad member assigned may enter each elevator.”
They broke their sequence and the first android spoke, “Cornelia Noica, approach me.”
Pilot Of – Cornelia looked ready to burst into tears. Flight Lie – Sorina gave her a tight hug and a little push forwards. Cornelia looked no bigger than a mouse compared to the animatronic and probably felt as powerless as one. With a grinding, banging sound, a hatch above the animatronic’s head opened and a golden cage on a chain was lowered in stops and starts to the ground in front of her,
“Enter the elevator and put on the eyepiece. I will take you to Tala, Mahkah’s first moon.”
‘Elevator’ was too kind a word for the thing. I would have called it what it was: a cage. Cornelia raised her shaking leg and placed one foot into it. She turned back, two tears falling from her amber eyes. I had to press my lips together so hard they hurt to stop myself following her example. Instead, I stood erect and gave her a solemn salute. I did it completely on a whim but, looking back, I’m glad I did. Cornelia stiffened and returned my salute. She stepped into the cage and picked up something that was blocked from our sight.
When she turned around, she was wearing an ornate golden pair of goggles with small levers and buttons all around it. The glass was dark and her eyes were hidden. Without them, she looked almost anonymous with her regulation topknot and plain uniform. There was a lump in my throat that I could not swallow as the cage door closed and she was pulled out of sight through the ceiling.
We weren’t given a minute to recover before the second one spoke, “Marta Radu, approach me.”
Marta just shook her head and clung to Rahela with her small hands. I had to dislodge her and drag her to the descending cage. She was so tiny that I felt as I would if I was leading a small child to a fire pit. By then, she was near inconsolable, screaming for her shuttle and her home.
“Enter the elevator and put on the eyepiece. I will take you to Istas, Mahkah’s second moon.”
I had to shove her inside. The animatronic had noticed Marta’s distress for it closed the door without waiting for her to put the eyepiece on. My salute did nothing. She screamed and rattled the bars of the cage all the way up like a crazed monkey. The cage swung alarmingly from side to side but nothing could stop her ascent. When the hatch door closed, her cries were abruptly cut off.
“Rahela Toma, approach me. Enter the elevator and put on the eyepiece. I will take you to Michton, Mahkah’s third moon.”
Rahela amazed us all. She did not falter. She didn’t even cry. She even gave me a salute without waiting for mine before boldly stepping into the cage. The golden eyepiece matched the colour of her hair perfectly and she kept staring ahead as she was lifted up. I’ll never stop being impressed and grateful for her composure in that moment.
Inspired by this, Viorela stepped forward with martial dignity but not before giving Celestina a hug and pinning her lucky silver violet to her topknot. She too saluted me before the fourth animatronic took her to the fourth moon, Ciqula.
Diona managed to hold back her tears as she and Tara held out their index fingers towards each other and twirled their wrists around three times. Their secret handshake since their cadet years. She swept her black braids out of her eyes and stepped into the cage. By the time the cage was moving upwards towards Sihu, she was sobbing.
When Lia was called forward, she and Teodora exchanged their pendants and made a solemn vow that they would survive to return them. Once the pact was made, she hurried into the cage, her loosened red hair flying behind her, and didn’t even turn back to face us as she was taken up to Ogin.
Amalia had tried to be brave but, by the time her name was called, tears were shining on her burn scars. Sorina gave her a hug but only because there was no one else emotionally close enough to her to do so. I’m not sure if that made it better or worse for her. Amalia said nothing even as she was being hugged and given last-minute advice. She just saluted me and allowed herself to be taken to Steltella.
Tara was as brash as ever, “About time too!” She called at the eighth animatronic, “I thought you were never going to get to me!” She actually managed to grin, displaying her platinum teeth, and wave at us as she was raised up to Namas.
Teodora’s eyes had not left the sixth animatronic that had taken Lia away. She fingered a stray lock of her dyed-red hair, sucked in a breath, saluted me and took the ninth cage to Humita.
Jenica scowled at the tenth animatronic when it called for her. Her spiky hair made her look even more like an angry mace than usual. When she entered the cage to go up to Takala, she turned her glare at me and returned my salute with a two-fingered one.
Augustina stood erect and held out her hand for me to shake, “Squad Leader Tudor, if I don’t return, I would like to say that it has been a privilege to be a part of your squad.” Perhaps, she felt that she was making up for Jenica’s disrespect. She maintained a military march to her cage and saluted me twice before disappearing to Chapa.
Celestina was trembling. It was never going to be easy, being the last person to be called. Sorina gave her a hug and, after a moment, so did I. I’m still sorry I hadn’t done it to everyone else. What good was a salute compared to a hug? Celestina entered the last cage and was pulled up to Tahki.
The animatronics fell silent again. Sorina and I are still alone in their midst, left behind while twelve of our company would be facing the unknown and potentially fatal. Sorina dropped down to the floor first and then I followed. I had been Sorina’s student mentor in cadet training. I had been amazed by her talents and was certain that we would go on to do great things together. We are certainly the most experienced and capable in our squad. What use was that now? Flight hours couldn’t retrieve them. Glowing test scores wouldn’t penetrate the solid stone of our prison. We are just as powerless as cadets waiting to hear if we’d passed our entrance exam.
The light from the gems never varied. The radio waves had stopped our digitalised watches as soon as we fell into the cavern. There was no way of knowing how long we had been stuck there or whether Captain Leonte had sent out a recovery squad. The centuries-old machinery clanked on around us. Sometimes, a section of the floor would open up and a box of dried fruit and salted meat would pop up. The animatronics did nothing to assuage our worry and guilt but they at least made sure we never went hungry.
Neither of us talked much. That would risk thinking about the twelve girls on Mahkah or Curie’s moons.