-Soon it will be dawn, -said Peter, looking at the eastern horizon of the island. The normally grey clouds seemed to be brownish, in the amber light of dawn, in the middle of them, clearly visible, was one of the two satellites of the planet, the larger of which, its spectral face, pierced by hundreds of meteor impacts, slowly glided like a ghost ship through the clouds.
-It's time to go to the next node -said Gabriel, who was standing at the console of the terraforming computer-. Already the parameter update of LUCY is ready.
-What's next on the itinerary? -asked Peter, without looking away from the small slit that served as the only window to the main node's computer room.
-We only have to go to one of the nodes on the continent that is inactive, - answered Gabriel-. According to LUCY's scan, it had a power failure and went offline.
After rebooting the planet's terraforming AI systems, they returned to their ship and started walking to a remote node, located on a mountain range on one of the planet's three continents.
On arrival, the node was completely dark and no signal was received from the radio beacon that should still be working, even without electricity.
-There is nothing, everything is completely off, -commented Peter as he looked at the electromagnetic sensor readings-. It's as if I'd been shocked by an EMP.
-Who is going to launch an EMP into a terraforming node, -replied Gabriel, as he maneuvered to lower the ship onto the platform.
-That's the only thing I can think of to make a system with five levels of redundancy fail, - added Peter-. It could have been an atmospheric phenomenon, or the entry of a meteor, perhaps the explosion of one in the upper atmosphere, caused the EMP.
-Looking at it from that perspective, it's possible, but why didn't LUCY record it?
-I don't know, maybe the sensors failed even before the explosion, - answered Peter-. That's the only reason I can think of for such a failure, that or someone having shut down all the systems on purpose.
After descending and getting their equipment ready, they went into the node building, their watertight yellow tires phosphorizing in the absolute darkness of the building, the infrared scopes on their helmets showed them that all the panels seemed to have burned out, as if a big over-voltage had overheated and scorched the circuits.
-What are we going to do, we have no parts to repair such damage, -said Gabriel, lifting the cover of one of the control panels and revealing its charred interior. -What could have caused such damage?
-I don't know, it seemed to be done on purpose, as if someone had overloaded the whole system -Peter opened the cover of the cabinet which contained the cobalt isotope batteries which served as a backup to the power system-. Look at this, what the hell is it?
The batteries seemed to have caught fire inside the cabinet, fortunately the shell containing the radioactive material remained intact, around the ashes you could see traces of some kind of phosphorescent dust.
-I have no idea, -said Gabriel, bending down to take some of the strange dust with his fingers-. It's hard to tell by taking it with your gloves, but it's very fine, it looks like powdered calcite, but calcite doesn't fluoresce.
They went into The Room where the node servers were, and found that like the access panels, all the computer units were completely damaged, as well as finding more of the mysterious phosphorescent powder all over the place.
They decided to retreat and ask for the complete restitution of the node, as the damage was irreparable. As they walked towards the ship, a strange, ghostly figure suddenly crossed their field of vision, seeming to move swiftly in front of the door frame of the building's exit.
-Did you see that? - asked Gabriel in surprise.
-Of course I did.
They ran to the door, and looked in the direction in which the figure had advanced.
-Look at the floor, -said Peter pointing to a trail of phosphorescent dust -. That wasn't there when we came in.
They followed in trail in the darkness, advancing on the sharp frozen rocks of the mountain on which the building stood. They went down what looked like a nature trail through the rocks. At the end of the path they could see a female figure phosphorus in an intense greenish-yellow color, which prays to float in the middle of a clear area.
-Damn, what is that? -exclaimed Gabriel, through the communicator of the suit, as he stopped abruptly.
-You don't belong here, -they heard a ghostly, familiar female voice say over their communicators.
The figure approached them suddenly and quickly, almost in the blink of an eye, and was within their reach. The infrared scopes and phosphorescence did not allow them to distinguish the pale face from the terrifying apparition, which now spoke to them through their own communicators.
-You must get out of here, this is not your world, -the face of the specter drew what appeared to be a grimace of anger. -Get out of here now! -it shouted at them as its size suddenly tripled, as if it expanded.
Stunned by the situation, Peter and Gabriel were paralyzed for a few seconds, then the spectre leaned over and approached them, its now enormous face, and they could see changing features as if they were in fluid.
-GET OUT!, - it shouted again in a loud voice, its face forming a frightening grimace.
Peter and Gabriel ran wordlessly to the ship and boarded it for take-off, speaking no more than was necessary to make the manoeuvre. As they moved away to start the ascent and leave the atmosphere, they looked back at the mountain where it was nodding. His figure was hardly distinguishable in the middle of the dark night.
-I am going to give the order, in a few hours this place will be completely razed, -said Peter.
-What the hell was that?- asked Gabriel as he led the ship, still frightened.
-A fault in the AI node, I think the bright dust were terraforming nano-machines which must have been reprogrammed by the AI, I suppose they were the ones that were dying, and the monster, they were thousands of nano-machines grouped together, - explained Peter, catching his breath.
-Damn it, I've never seen anything like this, -exclaimed Gabriel-. But how did it happen?
-The LUCY's tend to have a very motherly and overprotective personality, in some cases they have refused to allow engineers to upgrade them or to get close to the planets they are terraforming, - explained Peter -. I think she somehow managed to create a manifestation of herself by reprogramming the terraforming nanomachines. It probably caused the node systems to be overloaded in the process.
-Damn it, we were close, she seemed furious, -said Gabriel, in a more relaxed tone.
-She wouldn't hurt us, at least I think; her programming wouldn't allow it. Anyway, we are not safe yet. Luckily the fault occurred in a node and not in the core of the network, we must get out of here immediately, remember that those nano-machines are everywhere, when the infection spreads, the whole planet will be lost.
-And what will happen to the planet. -Will all the work that's been done on it be lost? -asked Gabriel.
-No, as I understand it, the procedure being followed is the use of devourers, nano-machines that will remove all traces of technology on its surface, and then a new network of nodes should be created to continue the terraforming, if there is luck, not much of the progress made so far will be lost.