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“The Fate of Despair” © 2023 by Salomée Luce-Antoinette

 

The universe devoured you. Trapped in an escape pod of a stellar wreck, malfunctioning thrusters and molecular printer soon became heralds of a silent death, which might come in the blink of an eye, or the instant a comet’s fiery tail reflected in your dry eyes.

On more than one occasion you thought about opening the gate and pushing yourself into the blackness interwoven with patterns of nebulae. Yet, each breath of oxygen was more comfortable than ending it all at once. Staying in the softness of the coffin cabin was a thousand times more pleasant than the idea of your humanity turned into cosmic ice, as drifting as the loved/hated capsule, until you hit a stellar body. You admitted that it was poetic that thousands of fragments spread among the stars like a loved one’s ashes thrown into the sea.

It was difficult to choose your death. They were all, in a way, beautiful.

So, when the oxygen gauge flashed red numbers, you leaned against the door and exhaled on the darkened glass. A gift of life to an inanimate piece. In the mist, you drew a heart with a trembling finger. It was your favorite way to say goodbye, see you soon, to your children, before each xenoarchaeology mission. But, this time, there would be no more farewells.

You placed a hand on the panel.

You would fly through space.

You would become crystal.

You would become silent.

The “beep” sound made you forget to press the open button. If anything hadn’t gone bad during the wreck, it was the radar. Something was coming. Friend. Enemy. You do not care about it. On the fine line between life and death, hope always flutters.

You saw it. Another escape pod of a stellar wreck. Different, older, but human-made, of an unusual yellow color. Its thrusters were working and it was closing in on yours. Its cockpit glass was blacked out and you couldn’t make out its occupant. You watched its surroundings and the system announced a successful docking.

The previously dry feed hose cried for you when a vitamin compound began to leak. The oxygen meter stabilized. The molecule printer announced the start of a self-repair, because its code had been rewritten to work correctly. It produced a piece of bread that you devoured, unbridled, with the desire of one who clings to something loved. You activated the intercom and your saliva splashed the heart drawn on the glass of the door.

“This is capsule six, ten, twenty … do you hear me? Set the save mode, or there won’t be enough for both of us! According to my star map, there is a non-hostile inhabited planet two parsecs away. Do you have fuel to get there? Do you hear me? Hello … ?”

You got the sound of static. You doubted about your savior. Perhaps the capsule was empty, and someone who had more courage than you made the decision to merge with the universe, and the machine, in order not to feel abandoned, started running its security protocols. Changing coffins was a way out. However, it had been attached to the back of your cubicle. Going out into the cosmos without a suit was the death you once wished for, but at that moment, you hated it.

You realized that the cubicle system had been invaded and was setting up a route. The result is you will be trapped between two shipwreck pods that were sailing not towards the inhabited planet, but towards an unknown destination. And the destination turned out to be closer than you expected. A small, barren sphere, quite far from a sun, not at all familiar.

You snuggled up like a little girl when entering the atmosphere. Even though the escape pod glass darkened enough to keep you from the glare, you closed your eyes and the feeding tube dripped water onto your cheeks.

Touching down was as light as if the capsules were birds. Before you could brace yourself, the hatch opened, and you held your breath until your lungs screamed and you needed to open your mouth. Oxygen. Your dry eyes observed the area, full of capriciously shaped mounds, covered with dust and a substrate similar to black, fertile earth. You left the capsule and were surprised to feel the force of gravity similar to the Earth. Or so you experienced every time you visited the historical archives at intergalactic universities.

But the surprise was greater when you noticed the mountain in front of you, with an entrance similar to an abandoned mine. Overcome by curiosity, you approached the freight cars that lay overturned, wrapped in strange thorny plants and yellow shoots, similar to tiny sunflowers. You bent down and felt the substrate to find copious amounts of copper. And wondered who, in such a vast universe filled with amazing technology, could need something so simple as to build a mine in the deposit of a puny planet.

You retraced your steps and circled the capsules until you were in front of your savior. The glass was still dark and there were no external controls. You knocked three times on the door and waited for an answer. Instead, you were rewarded with the opening of the gate and the strangest apparition you could ever behold, even more than an abandoned copper mine in the universe.

Your savior was not a living being. It was wooden. Carved with an art lost to time, it represented a beautiful woman, bent over, crowned, with traces of yellow paint that once drew a dress to cover her curves. On her wrists, she wore copper inlaid bracelets. Despite her posture, she had a certain grace in her mixed-race, tri-culture features. The figure felt almost alive, as if she could stand up at any moment and dance.

You didn’t touch her. You backed away, slowly, like someone fleeing from a predator. Because her lips were about to open and whistle prayers in the form of songs. You heard it, recited it, in the back of your mind.

Oshun Ore Yèyé o! Ase!

You backed down because you were disturbed by the call. You thought you saw that the yellow paint on the capsule that housed the idol was pieces of her dress, and it waved as if moving.

Santa María de la Caridad, que viniste como mensajera de paz, flotando sobre el mar.

Because her black eyes were looking at you. Glowing up. Living wood. Living entity.

Areíto, Areíto, Atabey!

You ran towards the mine shelter and, after checking that the entrance was safe, you set up camp. With a rusty machete that you found next to the wagons, you cut down the thorny plants and built a bonfire. Your escape pod’s survival kit was enough to provide you with fire. You got food and fresh water, because everything was still functional. You did not approach the second capsule again, where the idol rested, the three women in wood.

As you drank the vitamin serum and devoured the bread created in the molecular printer, you remembered shreds of research. Cemíes, goddesses, ancient cults of the extinct Earth. You stretched out on the ground next to a wagon, with copper dust as a bed, without taking your eyes off your open capsule, without ceasing to think that they were watching you from the other side.

The dim and distant light of the sun roused you from sleep. You jumped up, expecting to find hostile natives, but you were greeted by the jagged mounded landscape, the gleam of copper shards, the dark cave entrance, and the unlit campfire. You got up restlessly, and without thinking, you walked around the capsules. The yellow one was still open. The idol, in the same place. However, its wooden surface was covered in water droplets. You told yourself it wasn’t right, it wasn’t logical, because the rest of the cubicle had no traces of dew.

“Where did you go for a walk, that you left me alone at night?” you asked, without knowing why, and trembled at a hypothetical answer.

It would have been easy to remove the carved trunk and leave it against the ground, so that she would not look at you again. Climb into the yellow capsule and use the thrusters to reach the inhabited planet, two parsecs away. However, you decided to explore the copper mine and discover its interior of meandering, golden-reddish veins, the stalagmites and stalactites that rose from the ground or pointed at your head like the fangs of a huge animal.

Upon your return, the idol was at the entrance of the mine.

Well positioned on the ground, the drops of water no longer slipped on her face but on her hands. And you panicked. You let the feeling of terror squeeze your chest until it bit your tongue, because you weren’t going to scream. You weren’t going to attract whoever would play such a bad joke on you. You didn’t want to accept the nonsense that crossed your mind.

The three women carved from the same wood watched you with their dark eyes. You thought you saw how the yellow paint was fluttering over the inanimate body. That the tips of her moistened fingers pointed at you. That her feet were about to break free and she would dance while she cornered you against one of the carriages.

You ran into the mine. You didn’t look back. You skidded as you reached a copper-flecked stalagmite and crouched behind it. You hugged your knees and closed your eyes tight. But you did see it. It didn’t walk. She was teleporting. One second she was outside; the next blink, she was inside the cave. You wished to melt into stone. You wished you had jumped into the cruel cosmos as soon as it crossed your mind. Wished you had never come across the yellow capsule and its occupant.

A blink. The three women in one produced a soft, dry sound as they reappeared at another point in the mine.

Closer.

Closer.

She stopped.

It took you ten minutes to convince yourself that you weren’t scared to death. You plucked up courage and peeked out from the other side of the stalagmite. The idol was next to a copper formation that you hadn’t paid attention to. It was not something natural. It looked like it was worked with tools. Crudely, but without a doubt, there was evidence of workmanship. The yellow paint on the idol glowed.

You got up and, already in a state close to absolute calm (you never knew when it happened!), went to meet the idol. You held it up reverently. The wood was warm, almost flesh, almost alive. Underfoot, there were notches. You placed the goddesses on their copper altar. You needed to turn them to engage correctly, and you heard gears turning. Inside the idol, throughout the mine.

You gasped as water began to gush from the structure. It ran first in trickles, then in rivulets that soaked the copper dust and carried it away. Fascinated, you left the mine and watched as the mounds covered in dust, dirt, oblivion, began to open up to reveal hundreds of capsules of stellar wrecks, where all those who had once been on the edge of despair slept for eons.

The castaways rose from the interiors of the capsules. They wobbled without being able to control their movements correctly, because they had remained preserved in their technological wombs. You watched them lean towards the fluids that spilled from the mine of copper. Murmur under their breath prayers that seemed like songs, solemn, to the rhythm of the life that lies in the fresh water, and kiss the substrate to make it give birth to wonders.

Oshun Ore Yèyé o! Ase!

Santa María de la Caridad, que viniste como mensajera de paz, flotando sobre el mar.

Areíto, Areíto, Atabey!

The lost souls of the cosmos, all just like you, now awake, gave thanks for being saved and protected by the three goddesses carved in the same wood.



Malena Salazar Maciá (1988, Havana, Cuba). Fantasy and science fiction writer, she is the author of the novels La ira de los sobrevivientes (2021, Editorial Gente Nueva, Cuba), Aliento de Dragón (2021, Enlace Editorial, Colombia), and Los errantes (2022, Últimos Monstruos Editores, Rep. Dominicana), among others. Her texts have been collected in both national and foreign anthologies. English translations of her stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Mithila Review, and Dark Matter Magazine. Her work has also been translated into Croatian, German, Italian, and Japanese.
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