A morally profound chamber piece, Agustín de Rojas’ A Legend of the Future takes place inside a damaged spaceship following the failure of a mission to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. The journey back to Earth forces the crew members to face their innermost fears. This mesmerizing novel is a science fiction roman à clef about the intense pressures—economic, ideological, psychological—inside Communist Cuba.
This canonical, riveting work from the patron saint of Cuban science fiction—reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—now available to an English readership for the first time. Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor, de Rojas’ A Legend of the Future is available in paperback June 23rd from Restless Books.
Due to die of radiation poisoning before they reach Earth, the crew’s only hope seems to be to find another ship that can rescue them. Salvation appears in sight when the ship’s radar picks up a signal, but Thondup, maddened and hallucinatory, comes to believe that aliens from Titan have stowed away in the hold, and he threatens to crash the ship to prevent “the invaders” from reaching Earth and taking it over.
The voice roused her from her slumber.
‘What is it, Isanusi?’
‘I can see a ship on my radar.’
‘Have you gotten in touch with them?’
‘There’s no reply. Perhaps it’s too far away; I’m trying to work out the distance.’
‘How do you know it’s a spaceship?’
‘It’s changed course twice, so it can’t be a comet…’ The intercom fell silent. ‘It’s too distant to hear us; it’s in the planetary plane.’
‘Can’t you steer towards it?’
‘No. It’s travelling away from the sun, in the opposite direction as Sviatagor. I would have to slow down, then accelerate again. I would lose its position during the maneuver and wouldn’t know where to head.’
‘Yes, I understand; it could change course again. Won’t its radar pick us up as well?’
‘Possibly… It could even be they’re looking for us. But they won’t be expecting to find us in this direction, Gema.’
‘What if we changed course two or three times… ?’
‘I’ll give it a try.’
A confused voice came from the other pod:
‘Gema, what has happened?’
She replied in an urgent whisper:
‘Isanusi has seen a spaceship. He’s trying to establish contact with them.’
‘Another ship? What’s it doing here?’
‘It’s probably looking for us, Thondup.’
The sudden thrust of the engines pushed Gema’s shoulder into the soft side of the pod. Thondup asked anxiously, ‘What’s that?’
‘Isanusi changed course; perhaps that will make them realize this is Sviatagor and not a comet.’
‘Why don’t we call them on the long-distance transmitter?’
‘Have you forgotten? The directional antenna is broken, Thondup. You yourself checked it…’
Another thrust, this time in the opposite direction, so that Gema’s shoulder lurched away from the pod wall.
‘I don’t understand… Can you please explain what another ship is doing in the neighborhood of Titan? Are they extraterrestrials?’
Gema stared at him.
‘Don’t you remember what I’ve already explained to you?’
‘No… The last thing I can recall is that we were appro…’ He broke off, waiting for the new thrust of the engines to finish: ‘…that we were approaching Titan, and I had gone to lie down so that I would be wide-awake when we entered into orbit around it. Why are you and I here?’
He tried to get up from the pod but gave up. ‘I feel very weak, Gema. What’s happened to us?’
Gema waved at him impatiently.
‘I’ll explain later.’ She spoke into the intercom: ‘Isanusi, have they shown any sign they have seen us?’
She waited a long minute for the reply. Sviatagor changed course a third time, and then the intercom spoke:
‘I don’t think so. They have changed course again, but not towards us. It’s likely their radars aren’t as powerful as ours…’ The intercom fell silent for a moment. Then it announced: ‘It’s gone out of range, Gema.’
She turned to face Thondup.
‘Alright… I can explain what happened to us now.’
Still staring up at the ceiling, Thondup asked, ‘And did they succeed in finding life on Titan?’
‘That’s a shame. I remember that Pavel and Kay were very excited by that possibility. The number of dead worlds keeps growing, Gema.’
‘We can’t say that for certain, Thondup.’
He looked at her with surprise.
‘Didn’t you yourself tell me we didn’t find life, Gema?’
‘Life as we understand it on earth, Thondup; life based on carbon.’
‘Is there another sort?’
‘There could be. It’s true it hasn’t been found yet, but the exobiologists refuse to rule it out.’
‘But if there had been another kind of life on Titan, we would have found it, Gema.’
‘It’s not as easy as it seems, Thondup; in fact, if we don’t know the specific characteristics of that life, it’s very difficult. We need to start from the thermo-dynamic principle of life: a living being is a system that lessens its entropy by absorbing energy from its surroundings… but that is a principle that’s too general to be of any use to us.’
‘But we spent six months there…’
‘It would take years rather than months and a much more varied team than we had if we wanted to be able to dismiss the existence of another kind of life on Titan, or to prove it does exist. I’m surprised you don’t remember anything about all this, Thondup: Kay always liked to talk about it.’
Thondup said nothing and did not try to renew their conversation. Gema looked at him closely out of the corner of her eye. “He’s thinking… What about? I’d really like to know.”
Pointing an accusing finger at Gema, Thondup insisted in an exasperated voice, ‘Forget those fantasies, Alix; you’re not Gema. She stayed on Titan with the others, on the temporary base we set up; or did you forget that as well?’ He paused, still looking directly at her. Before she could answer, he went on: ‘And that collision with the meteorite never happened. It was the Titanoid who stowed away who made that hole in the nuclear reactor…’ He took a deep breath: ‘And above all, you’re not going to die in five or six days… You aren’t, and nor am I. The diagnostic machine,’ he waved an arm in the direction of the defunct equipment, ‘showed we were gravely affected, but not in any danger of dying immediately.’
A low rumble reached the pod from the intercom:
‘Has he fallen asleep, Gema?’
‘There’s no need to call me that if he’s not listening…’
‘Why did you go along with him? I almost believed I was the one who was mad, Isanusi.’
‘If I had told him the truth he wouldn’t have believed me either, Gema. The version he’s created is much pleasanter for him than the reality he’s running away from. You’ll see, if you think about it: everyone alive and the discovery of a new form of life on Titan.’
‘Why on earth did I mention that possibility to him?’
‘Don’t worry; at least that version is inoffensive. He could have created a worse one.’
‘Worse… But why does he have to change me into Alix?’
‘Because she would have been the one they would have sent with him to tell people back on Earth. Besides, Gema and Kay would have had to stay on the base in order to study the Titanoids. See? His version is seamless, Gema.’
‘But I can’t pretend I am Alix, Isanusi. There are a lot of personal things about her I don’t know.’
‘That’s not important. Thondup will put your lack of memory down to your physical enfeeblement, or to the shock at the appearance of the Titanoid and his destruction in the reactor.’
Gema gave a lengthy sigh.
‘Alright, I can see there’s no other way… I’ll have to be Alix.’
‘Like I am Palas.’
‘Isanusi, have you seen the spaceship again?’
‘No doubt about it, we are nothing but bad luck.’
‘Don’t exaggerate, Gema. What’s really strange is that it came close enough for me to pick up its signal. Finding other ships is like finding the classic needle in a haystack. Gema, how about taking advantage of him being asleep to induct ourselves? Perhaps now we can make direct contact.’
‘Alright, let’s try.’
‘…What I still can’t understand is how the Titanoid got on board Sviatagor, when Kay and Gema had inspected the ship so carefully. Do you have any idea about that, Alix?’
In his pod, Thondup went back to his own thoughts. Gema was slipping into her usual drowsy state when her companion suddenly shouted, ‘I’ve got it!’ He smiled at Gema triumphantly. ‘It was obvious; I don’t know how they didn’t see it…’
‘What’s that, Thondup?’
‘The mineral samples, Alix.’
‘Do they have something to do with all this?’
‘Yes…’ Thondup’s face darkened. ‘It’s very serious,’ he concluded.
‘If you remember, Kay was unable to complete the study of their lifecycle.’
‘We only saw adult specimens; we never found any examples of their other life stages.’
‘In among the mineral samples we brought there must have been some embryonic forms, Alix.’
‘Latent, you mean.’
‘That’s right. And that’s what worries me: how can we be sure that there was only one latent Titanoid?’
‘The samples are all different, Thondup. Besides, if there was another one, it would have appeared long ago…’
Thondup shook his head.
‘No, Alix, I don’t agree. Remember we know nothing about their life cycle; other specimens could be in earlier stages than the mature one.’ He growled: ‘A fine situation we’re in: heading for Earth with a cargo of exogenous forms of life.’
‘We can’t be sure of that, Thondup. Perhaps there was only one Titanoid.’
‘Let’s hope you’re not mistaken, Alix.’
Gema called out very softly, ‘Isanusi?’
‘Has he fallen asleep?’
‘Yes, he has. I don’t like the direction his hallucination is taking, Isanusi.’
‘Nor do I, Gema.’
‘What can we do?’
‘Nothing.’ The intercom fell silent. ‘Gema, what’s important is to reach Earth.’
‘And to do that it’s essential you two remain alive in my mind. Shall we try to induct ourselves again?’
‘Go on then…’
‘Look, look, it’s there…’
‘I can’t see it…’
‘Take a good look, now it’s crawling along the wall.’
‘Thondup, the door is shut tight; it couldn’t have got in here.’
‘Look!’ There was a note of panic in Thondup’s voice. Staring at a point on the wall, he murmured breathlessly, ‘It’s going through it.’
‘The wall.’ He turned a face contorted by fear towards Gema. ‘Now things really are dangerous, Alix.’
‘Don’t you see? In its current phase it can pass through solid objects. How can we keep the Titanoids shut in?’
‘It must be a transitory stage, Thondup.’
‘Possibly, but when they are in that stage they’ll be able to escape from wherever they are being studied… Are you sure you didn’t see it, Alix?’
‘No, I didn’t.’
Thondup nodded pensively.
‘I’m not surprised; they are much less well-defined than the other examples we saw on Titan… I could only tell where it was because of a slight change in the luminosity of where it was on the wall: tiny shadows and shiny dots appearing and disappearing… Yes, they’re very hard to spot in this phase.’ He stared hard at Gema. ‘Alix, Sviatagor mustn’t reach Earth.’
‘Why not? Those are the instructions Isanusi gave us; we can’t disobey them, Thondup.’
‘If Isanusi knew what we had onboard, he would be the first to countermand them. We cannot take a strange form of life that cannot be isolated back to Earth. Remember, they are irrational beings; they will spread everywhere, causing irreparable damage in their quest for energy. And don’t forget what that first Titanoid did when it crashed against the reactor.’
‘Thondup, when you say they are irrational, that’s just a hypothesis, it hasn’t been proved,’ Gema explained very clearly. ‘Even the case you gave of the other Titanoid could be interpreted completely differently: perhaps it was trying to examine the reactor. In any case, the new Titanoid has not crashed into it; it must have assimilated the first one’s experience.’
‘That possibility would be even worse, Alix. Don’t forget that no irrational being has done as much harm to Earth as the rational being that inhabits it—mankind. If the Titanoids are rational, it seems to me obvious they must be primitive; they must have been aware of our presence, but have done nothing to establish contact of any kind. No, Alix…’ His voice became firm. ‘Sviatagor must not reach Earth.’
‘Where then? The expendable fuel won’t get us back to Titan.’
‘I don’t know, Alix. Perhaps to Mars… That’s it: Mars.’ He spoke a command into the intercom: ‘Palas, change course. We have a new destination: Mars.’
The intercom did not respond.
‘Didn’t you hear what I said, Palas?’
‘Wait, Thondup,’ Gema interrupted him quickly. ‘You’ve forgotten that I am the only one who can tell Palas to alter course.’
‘Do it then, Alix.’
‘I cannot go against…’ She caught sight of the look on Thondup’s face. ‘Give me time to think about it, my love; it’s not so easy to plan a change of direction.’
Thondup’s face was tense, anxious.
‘If this isn’t just a delaying tactic, alright then… Providing it doesn’t take too much time. When will you have the new course worked out?’
‘By tomorrow morning at the latest, Thondup.’
‘He’s asleep at last, Isanusi.’
‘It took too long.’
‘He was very excited; he gets hysterical every time he sees a new Titanoid. It’s really exhausting.’
‘I could hear you, so you don’t need to tell me.’
‘According to him, there must be at least ten of them on board. How are we going to deal with it, Isanusi?’
‘I can’t see any way. What you told him about the expendable fuel I have left was correct; just enough to reach Earth and go into orbit around it. There’s no chance of heading for anywhere else, let alone Mars; it’s too far away.’
‘Couldn’t you simulate a change of course?’
‘How? He knows how long a change of trajectory should take. And if I use up more fuel, the ship won’t be able to reach Earth, Gema.’
‘Then you mustn’t give in to him.’
‘Alright, I won’t. But I’m sure he won’t give way either.’
‘There’s nothing I can do, Gema.’
‘That’s true… Have you not seen the other ship again?’
Gema continued patiently:
‘We’ve passed the critical point, Thondup. From our current position, and with the amount of fuel we have left, our only possible destination is Earth. If we aimed for anywhere else, we would not be able to reach it. Do you understand?’
He remained silent, his eyes fixed on her.
‘Besides, remember that Sviatagor is not going to land but will stay in orbit, so there is no danger the Titanoids will reach Earth…’
‘How can you be so sure? I can’t, Alix. You have to understand that this is a form of life completely different from ours. Possibly its spores could reach Earth from orbit, and then what?’ He moved his head slowly from side to side before going on: ‘You’re the one who doesn’t understand. We’re talking about the Earth, about humanity. We must protect it at all cost.’
Turning his back on Gema, he extended one leg outside the pod. Pushing with his arms, he sat swaying on the edge.
‘What are you trying to do, Thondup?’
‘I should have done it yesterday and not waited so long…’
Managing to shift his center of gravity outside the pod, he fell heavily into the polyfoam coating the floor of the sick bay.
‘Thondup! Did you hurt yourself?’
Gema raised her head to try to see what had happened to him, but he was on the far side of the other pod. He did not reply.
Clinging to the side of her pod with both hands, Gema managed to rest her chin on it. Thondup’s head appeared at the top of the other pod. He was crawling very slowly on his elbows across the floor, muttering to himself as he did so:
‘Sviatagor mustn’t reach anywhere inhabited by Man. We cannot allow those monsters to spread through the solar system…’
‘Where are you going, Thondup?’
‘…It’s better for the two of us to die; Isanusi and the others will understand. Shame we had to leave the long-distance transmitter back at base; otherwise I could explain my motives to Earth and not let them think Sviatagor failed us…’ He paused for a moment and patted the floor affectionately. ‘Yes, it’s been a good ship; it’s a shame they won’t know that…’
Gema had managed to raise her shoulders level with the edge of the pod. Struggling to keep her head erect, she said, ‘Please tell me where you’re going, Thondup.’
Thondup gave her a surprised look. He murmured, ‘Alix… I was forgetting her.’ Addressing the face peering out of the other pod, he went on in a calm voice: ‘No need to worry, my love; I’m going to do our duty.’
‘What duty are you talking about?’
‘We have to prevent the Titanoids reaching Earth… Goodbye, my love.’
‘And how do you plan to do that?’
Thondup had renewed his crawl towards the door.
‘By removing the safety shield from the reactor.’
‘But it will explode!’
‘And us along with it, I know… But the Titanoids as well.’
‘Don’t go, Thondup; please, I beg you.’
He halted and looked at her in genuine astonishment:
‘Alix, I don’t recognize you. Are you suggesting we shouldn’t do our duty?’
‘That duty doesn’t exist! The Titanoids don’t exist, Thondup!’
A hint of compassion appeared in Thondup’s eyes.
‘You’re trying to escape reality again… Poor, poor Alix.’
He resumed his crawling towards the door.
‘Isanusi, what… ?’ Gema did not finish her question. “No, I mustn’t put such a weight on him.” She whispered urgently, ‘Farewell, my love,’ and switched off the intercom. “It’s better for him not to hear.” She measured the distance to the floor with her eyes: “Taking into account the layer of polyfoam, the reduced gravity and how little I weigh now…” She put her right hand on the bottom of the pod and tried to swing her left leg over the side. Her left foot reached the top, but only for an instant, before falling back… “Keep calm. Concentrate your strength.” She looked inside herself. “Not enough.” She bit her lips. “Perhaps I’ll have sufficient if I distribute it properly. I have to be precise and quick and forget everything else… Let’s try again.” This time her heel hooked around the edge of the pod and did not not slip back. “Keep going; there’s no time to lose.” She clenched the muscles of her body as tightly as she could…
Thondup came to a halt and pressed his cheek against the soft floor. He sighed:
‘I’m so tired… as if I were two hundred years old, not twenty-two.’ He shook his head. ‘It doesn’t matter. I have to get there, and I will.’ Setting his mouth in a firm line, he renewed his advance.
For an instant, Gema’s body lay in precarious balance on the edge of the pod. “One last effort.” She fell out of the pod, rolling over almost instinctively and pulling in her head. When she landed, the shock took her breath away. She gathered her strength. “Turn over.” She turned onto her front. Still dazed by her fall, she looked around for Thondup. “There he is.” Clawing her way across the polyfoam, she started out after Thondup. She could hear him indistinctly:
‘…criticize you, Alix; I don’t want to die either…’ He drew breath. ‘I was with the group, with you, for so little time.’ Looking over his shoulder, a smile spread across his face and lips. ‘Are you coming to help me?’
“Perhaps there’s still…” Gema begged him in a faint whisper: ‘Wait, Thondup, there’s something important I have to explain to you…’
He glanced at her sadly.
‘You’d better go back, Alix. I warn you, you’re not going to stop me.’
Thondup fell silent and struggled to crawl more rapidly.
“No, there’s no other way… Supposing he manages to stop now, what will happen afterwards?” She dried the sweat? the tears? clouding her eyes. “You made a mistake, Isanusi. You should never have brought the dead back to life… If you’d left me as I was, it wouldn’t be so hard for me now…’
Thondup had reached the door. He pushed at it, but it was shut. Frowning, he muttered, ‘I didn’t remember…’
He looked up and saw the golden disc close to the doorframe.
‘It’s too high, I can’t reach it with my hand.’
He turned to lie on his back, with his right side against the wall. He calculated the trajectory his leg would have to follow:
‘I can do it…’
He launched his foot upwards: the tip smacked against the wall close to the door contact. The pain in his toes made clench his jaw.
‘It doesn’t matter. Try again.’
This time, his foot hit the disc, and the door slid open. Smiling, Thondup began to turn on to his front once again…
“I can’t do any more.” Gema halted, waiting for her breathing to return to normal. She tried to shake away the fog before her eyes, to see clearly… “Nearly there… One final push, and…”
Thondup’s head was already out of the sick bay when Gema’s hands grabbed his ankle and pulled him violently towards her. Caught by surprise, he wobbled on his elbows, and his head hit the doorframe. Gema saw the impact and how he collapsed. “Has he gone? I don’t think he hit his head so hard… It must be a temporary loss of consciousness. I need to find out.” She dragged herself as quickly as she could up his inert body. “Luckily, I was right… If he’d been conscious, I couldn’t have stopped him; he’s managed to stay stronger than I have…” By now, her head was level with Thondup’s. Holding her breath, she listened closely. Her forehead wrinkled. “He’s still breathing; there’s lots to do yet… But you can do it!” Raising her right knee, she placed it between Thondup’s shoulder blades. Then she moved her left leg out to almost a right angle and braced her foot against the floor. She was just in time; Thondup was shifting feebly, trying to get her off his back and almost succeeding. “Quickly, before he comes around completely.” She thrust her right forearm forwards, trying to encircle his neck, but her weary muscles let her down, and it hung in front of Thondup’s open mouth. Before she could position it as she had wanted, his teeth clenched around her flesh. The pain galvanized her, and she wrenched her arm out of his mouth. Thondup opened his eyes and stared at the blood dripping to the floor. Horrified, he asked, ‘Have I done you… ?’
He was unable to say anything more: Gema’s other arm had closed around his throat and was pressing on it, stifling his breathing. He writhed around, trying to escape. Gema could feel the energy draining out of her, fading fast: “I’m going to black out before I can finish…” Calling on her last reserves of strength, she tensed all her muscles and pulled his head back, still pressing with her knee on his spine. Something cracked, and Thondup stopped moving. Gema collapsed on top of his lifeless body and burst into tears…
She slid slowly to the floor. She peered at the blood spurting from her arm and falling into the layer of polyfoam. “Best to end like this; there’s nothing left for me to do.” All at once she remembered and glanced over at the silent intercom. “I’m wrong; Isanusi needs to know there’s no more danger.” Her eyes searched for the pod in the sick bay, and finally found it. “It’s too far away. I’ll bleed to death before I reach it, I can’t stop the hemorrhage…” Her face tensed: “I need to talk to him; to tell him that he can, that he must reach Earth, if only for my sake; all of this must not have been in vain…” She blinked confusedly: “What’s this?”
The cloud approached, enfolding her is warm waves of affection? Compassion? Love?
“No, it’s not real: all that nonsense about emotional telepathy is nothing more than a deception so that Isanusi can reach…”
The mist solidified into a steel-hard tentacle and pierced the armor plate that Gema had created to protect herself. Her mind was once more filled with a strange, pleasant sensation…
She still tried to resist. “No, no; Thondup explained it to me very clearly. There has to be a theoretical framework first and proper control methods; without those, it’s almost impossible…” “Almost?” She lost the thread of her thoughts and struggled desperately to find them again. “It’s obvious, silly girl; it’s nothing more than a hallucination. Because I want so, so much to feel Isanusi beside me now…”
Gentle colors filled her mental sky: From the distant horizon, countless memories flew towards her, surrounding her, penetrating her…
Gema was paralyzed with shock: “What’s this? They’re not mine.” She tried to escape, to fight her way back to the remote world outside. Her troubled gaze fell on Thondup’s lifeless eyes. Scrambling quickly back into her interior world, other people’s memories circled her again. Exhausted, she yielded, and they came flooding in. “Oh yes, now I know you were right, Thondup: it may only be an illusion… But why renounce it, when it’s so beautiful?”
The curtain of mist trembled and evaporated; the figure of Isanusi rose before her. Gema ran to meet him, and they embraced tightly… He gently lifted her head for her to look. Gema saw them striding towards her: Pavel, Kay, Thondup, Alix… Their faces were calm. Happy.
A weak smile was starting to spread on Gema’s lips as her heart stopped beating.
Excerpted from A Legend of the Future © Augustín de Rojas and Restless Books.