Author Topic: Missionaries  (Read 43 times)

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D. Compton Ambrose

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on: 07:40:54 PM 11/20/18

***

In 1988, President Reagan enacted an official U.S. “space policy” outlined in documents that remain classified to this day. In these documents was such a mission deemed far too terrifying to disclose to humanity…

In the fall of 1989, the U.S. Government launched the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) with the intent of putting a base on the Moon and Man on Mars by 2009.

The first manned mission to Mars was launched in secret in 1990.

It was code-named ARIES…

***

4 APRIL 1991

Lieutenant Commander Glenn Van Allen of the ISV ARIES – one of four astronauts aboard the dual-Apollo system derivative of the Apollo-spacecraft system positioned in orbit around Earth – had become an addict of his comic book collection that he’d brought along for the mission. Now, 185 days later they had come into visual contact with the Red Planet.

Allen had spent most of his time alone, since the other crew were often doing their own thing, tending to his plants and reading his comic books. His favorite plant - a Venus Flytrap - he'd named "Audrey," after the alien plant from "Little Shop of Horrors," and his favorite comic series he opened only on special occasions happened to be "Superman vs. Aliens", he himself being an avid fan of both science-fiction characters.

The crew consisted of astronauts Van Allen and Grissom – as well as cosmonauts Sergei Echlin and Viktor Chekov. Echlin and Van Allen were the official pilots of the Martian Module (MM), while Chekov and Grissom were to be the engineers for technical difficulties.

It was officially April 14, 1991 – a Sunday – when they first sighted Mars. Van Allen had intended to be the first crewman awake and prepping the MM for deployment, but had unequivocally been bested by the Commander himself, Echlin.

“Good to see you up, Lieutenant Commander,” the Russian drawled in his thick Slavic accent – distracted by re-calibration of the communication and solar arrays. “We must continue forth with the up-to-speed alignment of trajectory systems, if we are to witness optimal landing of the MM, Van Allen,”

“I’ve told ya at least umpteen times now – Glenn is perfectly fine.”

“I realize this and apologize now. I have forgotten you, Grissom and Chekov are all very partial to my presence on this ship.”

Van Allen hadn’t been prepared for such a scathing judgment by his superior officer. In fact, the superior officer of the entire mission.

“Do what? No! No, no, no, no, no – you have completely misunderstood, sir. I’m… sorry. I’m gonna make some coffee, do you want some coffee?” He didn’t wait for a response – he exited the module as the Russian continued to calibrate the machinery.

Back in the CSM, Allen was greeted by a groggy Grissom. “Morning, Leftenant,” she groaned.

“Do you take it black or with sugar?”

Grissom grinned, “Sugar please.”

Van Allen rolled his eyes and poured her a cup. “We’ve been cramped up in this cell for too long,” He said as he handed her a cup. “It’s had its moments.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he responded as he disappeared back out of the module.

The familiar sound of a rustling crewmember prizing himself from his bunk indicated that Chekov was joining the world of the living. “What time is it? Did I miss anything?”

“Get your coffee and get your game face on, it’s about that time.”

“About time for launch?” The baritone growl of the hulking Commander Echlin bounced into the module as Chekov took his seat behind Grissom. Echlin had a coffee bottle in his hand, as he drifted over to the pilot seat and wrapped his other around Allen’s chair.

Naturally, the veteran KGB officer offered only a grunt in response to the monumentally-historic event unfolding before their eyes, even as Allen primed the main view window shutters to release, and yield before them the multibillion-dollar-view of the Red Planet itself.

Another grunt.

“It’s beautiful!” Chekov exclaimed. Grissom mouthed the word, ‘wow’ as she leaned forward.

No more than 30 minutes later, they had checked in with Moscow to confirm the habitat modules were in place, and were suited up and strapping into the MM.

And on that day, April 14, 1991 – at 11:42 AM – Commander Echlin, Lieutenant Glenn Van Allen, Specialist Sergei Chekov, and Sally Grissom became the first four human beings on another planet.

4 JANUARY 2004

Lance popped the cork and the foam spewed and spilled from the opening. It wasn’t the only one in the room doing that, as it was accompanied by at least a dozen others as the op center erupted in riotous roars of celebration and cheers.

“Merrick,” he chuckled, “come on, this is a time for celebration. Put it away,” Merrick Hudson was getting emotional, looking at a photograph he’d taken with his son two years ago. “He always liked space,” he said.

Lance Odom, the mission control chief, highlighted a rather obvious fact, “you’re the only one in the room not celebrating. We just landed the second rover on Mars in human history,” his tone became a little more serious now. “You can’t keep killing yourself like this, Mer.”

Mer exhaled and nodded.

He put the photo away and waved his fingers, “hit me.”

Lance grinned, “that’s the spirit!” He poured him a glass of champagne and Mer downed half the glass in under a second. “You’re absolutely right,”

“C’mon, I’ve been there for you since middle school. It was me who got you on the team,” he winked. Mer exhaled again as Lance refilled his glass. The celebrations had started when the first photograph of the Spirit landing site had reached the giant screen dominating the entire front wall of the room. And just like that, everyone’s day improved instantly.

Everyone’s, that is, except Merrick’s.

He decided he would fix that by taking liberal abandon advantage of the free alcohol being distributed about. He still loved his wife and her distrust of him and the subsequent deterioration of their family over the past year were really beginning to take their toll on him.

Lance and Merrick left early to retreat to his apartment in Orlando. By this time, they were both exceedingly intoxicated; Lance more so, to the point that Merrick had to help him up the stairs. It took them a good fifteen minutes to get to the second floor.

It wasn’t but an hour later that Lance had passed out and Merrick was wide awake, sobering up, and bored. He caught himself looking at his family photo again, and knew that if he didn’t distract himself immediately, he’d start slipping back into an episode of depression. This is when he remembered the other photo – the one of the Spirit landing site.

Merrick fished around in Lance’s bag for the folder, and recovered the image.

A small area of the photo near the bottom was blurred out. At first he thought it may have just been a smudge on the lens, but the more he thought about it, the more that seemed unlikely.

And the more he thought about it, the dark form at the center of the blur disturbed him.

4 YEARS LATER

Merrick had signed up for AA, and was standing on her doorstep, pressing his finger on the doorbell, just a few short hours before starting his new job as launch supervisor at Cape Canaveral. It didn’t hit him until he was standing there – that he might get to see his son.

“We need to talk,” was basically all she had said.

The door opened, and he saw her. “Macy,” he said. He began to smile as soon as he saw her green eyes, her raven-black hair. She looked as if she’d aged backwards, or not at all. He was in love all over again.

“Come in,” she said. And he did so.

“Would you like something to drink?”

“Yes, thank you – um, yeah some water if you have it.”

She poured a glass and handed it to him. “I’m glad you called. I’ve missed you. I have to admit,” he added with a chuckle. “Is Brian home?”

“He’s at school,” Macy said. “I heard you’ve been getting cleaned up, and you got promoted,” she said with a smile. He nodded with one of his own, “yeah… yeah. The past five years have been hell, but I think it’s starting to look up.”

She cocked her head. “You ‘think’?”

He shrugged. “I’ve been dry for almost three-hundred and sixty-five days…” he took another sip. “But, anything can happen.”

“This is true,” she said. They decided to keep the conversation light. If there was any hope of salvaging a friendship, and seeing Brian again, it was through her. She was his only hope. And he hated himself for his failures. Before he left, he dropped a hint of maybe stopping by during recess, just to say hi to his son. To his surprise, she was okay with it.

“Hey, wait a second,” she said as he was about to leave. He peeked back into the kitchen to see her aiming the remote at the television. A straight-laced square of a newsman droned on, and as the volume increased, he discerned what the man was saying.

“…the developments have stunned the space exploration community. The image was uploaded back in November, but only recently as Wednesday morning British newspapers have been going crazy after an enhanced version was uploaded, with the Times of London reporting that NASA scientists have been ‘puzzled’ by the peculiarly life-like image, as we can see here.” His face was replaced by a photograph of the very same Spirit rover he and his team had landed on the Red Planet exactly four years earlier. “This is the original photo, and – I must caution – what you are about to see next may disturb you,” and as he said this, the photo was replaced by an enhanced region of the image.

Macy gasped. What the image appeared to advertise was a humanoid form crouching atop a rock, almost apelike in appearance. “Of course, many are dismissing it as either a rock formation, or a hoax – but it certainly has ignited the conspiracy theorist community, giving them something to talk about other than ‘inside jobs’, ain’t that right, Jim?”

Merrick’s phone went off, and Macy narrowed a gaze at him. “What’s going on?”

Merrick shook his head. “I’m sure it’s nothing,” and with this he answered the phone, gave her a hug, a kiss on the cheek, and was out the door.

Not quite like old times but close enough.

* * *

“Lance! My office!” Merrick shouted over the chaos unfolding in the ops center. People fluttered about as blurs and others were in shouting matches.

Once inside and Merrick had the door shut, he got straight to the point. “Okay, what in the actual fuck is going on?”

“I dunno, some script kiddy got a hold of one of the high-res copies…”

“I want to see the original file.”

“Yeah,” he said nodding, “yeah sure.”

“The original photo, the one with the blur.”

“The one from the landing site…?”

“Yes! And I want you to find out who the hell did this. It’s a prank, obviously. A hoax. But I want to see if he can clean it up.”

* * *

​ They cooperated with the local police to bring him in; a young man in his 20’s called Talbot. Hudson didn’t make it out of the office until after 10:30. On his way home, he got a text from Lance saying it was done, and that the image was in his inbox waiting for him at home.

Merrick decided to call Macy before doing anything else. Once he got home, he dropped his jacket onto the couch and followed closely behind. He sank into the couch cushions and decompressed for a moment, closing his eyes and breathing deeply. After a moment, he dialed her number.

The third ring passed and the phone picked up.

“Daddy?”

“Brian! Oh my god it’s been so long, how ya been bud!”

“I’m good. I made the baseball team. Mama says you’ve been on a team too. Flying SPACESHIPS!”

“Yeah,” he chuckled. “Yeah, yep. Its – uh – it’s a cool job. You could fly a spaceship some day. You know?”

He heard voices in the background. One of them sounded like a man.

“Mama says I have to go. Her friend’s here. I love you daddy.”

“I love you, son.”

“Bye,” and with that, Brian’s voice was replaced by his mother’s.

There was a heavy, repetitive knock on the door.

The knock repeated, heavier.

“I’m coming.”

As Merrick approached the door, it flew open. Three uniformed men wielding handguns tackled Merrick to the ground and flung him over, slapping handcuffs on him.

1991

They hiked for nearly twenty-four hours before reaching the compound. Needless to say, things didn’t go according to plan. The port module descent thruster blew out roughly thirty-six-hundred feet above the surface, sending them into a tailspin, and knocking them approximately fourteen kilometers off course.

The screaming and chaos that unfolded in the confined space as they barrel rolled was dwarfed by what occurred once they hit the ground. Echlin let out a squawk before being rendered totally unconscious by the crash, which turned into a slide.

“Shit, Echlin’s down! Repeat, the Commander’s down,” Van Allen vaguely remembered Grissom shouting aside from their tin can prison bouncing and shuddering.

Plans were further complicated by the unconscious Echlin.

“He’s starting to wake up!” Allen had announced halfway into their hike. Unfortunately, his hip had been dislocated, so he still needed help to move on. Once they crested the largest hill of their journey, they saw the first glint of a reflection of their new home in the distance. Yet, during their celebrations, they also came upon the realization that Echlin’s injuries were far more grave than previously anticipated. Not only was his hip dislocated, but he had a compound fracture, involving a piece of bone sticking out of his flesh, and causing both internal and external bleeding. It was quite clear he was not going to make it.

They collected and steeled themselves for the final stretch of the journey, collected what they could carry, and vowed to return to give him a proper burial. He had given them the information needed to get the compound running, but it proved to be exceedingly difficult.

The habitat included one central module shaped like an oversized Apollo Command Module that housed three floors; the ground level consisted of seven rooms surrounding a central hub which led to the second floor, consisting of three rooms, the top floor was an emergency escape vehicle and a subterranean chamber that served as the compound operations center. A corridor leading from the main room on the ground level subsequently led to three small ‘blisters’ that served as life support, hydroponics and maintenance respectively. It took them another six hours to get all three up to par.

* * *
“To Echlin,” Chekov toasted once their job was done, and all three downed their Vodka shots and got a few hours’ sleep. The next day they refueled their oxygen supply and set out for a survey of the Martian terrain and to retrace their steps to Echlin’s body.

The land survey went according to plan, everywhere within a 10 mile radius around the compound was recorded, but what baffled the trio was that they were unable to find the body.

2008

The F.B.I. went on for twelve hours. The questions involved were, “how long have you known,” “what other photos are you aware of,” and “who else was involved”.

It ended with them apologizing and letting him go. The Agent in question was one Raymond Parker. Agent Parker and himself ended up befriending one another, after the former offered to buy him a beer, “the least I could do and offer you a little explanation after what we put you through,” he’d said.

“Maybe you could help us,” he said after an awkward silence. It was Merrick’s third beer and because his tolerance had plummeted, he was considerably hammered. “I’m sorry, Mr. Parker?”

He looked over his shoulder and leaned in. “This story is a threat to national security, the one about the Spirit rover.” It took a moment for this to register with the intoxicated Merrick Hudson.

He shook his head. “Begging your pardon, Parker – but what?”

“They wanted me to keep civilians out of this. Hell, they wanted me to throw you in Gitmo. Listen,” he leaned closer. “We’re putting together a multi-national team of military and government officials, now – are you in or out?”

He sobered up a little. “I’m in.”

* * *
“Hudson, Odom, this is Commander Natia Tereshkova of the Mir-II orbital space station,” he said as they introduced one another. “I’ll be acting as your mission supervisor and welcoming you to Operation Columbus. There are several things we need to review before we begin your training,” she explained.

Lance and Merrick exchanged expressions. “Training? What for?”

“Perhaps I should have informed you first, but we found some interesting things on your laptop. Things we may not have been prepared for. We believe that enemies – of both Russia and the United States – have operatives active on the Red Planet,” he said. “Washington, together with Moscow, has been monitoring these ‘events’ for the past twenty years. Whether or not there was a secret manned mission to Mars committed by a major power or a private party is unclear, but as we continue our investigation, it has become quite clear to both the American and Russian governments that there is human activity on Mars.”

A stunned silence enveloped the room. “And you want us to help you with this, I presume,” Lance inquired.

The Agent nodded. “Precisely, we’re going to run you through what we call ‘the Gauntlet’ in Star City, Russia. There, you will be trained in flight, engineering, astronomy, and – most importantly – extended isolation. Do you have any questions?”

1991

The trio spent alternating shifts for the next few days monitoring the terrain anomalies. On April 21st, the end of their first week on Mars, the trio gathered for a meeting in the recreation and dining hall on the first floor to discuss their findings.

“So, are we sure that we didn’t just go to the wrong place,” Grissom inquired, referring to Echlin’s body. Chekov shrugged. “I do not know. I mean, it certainly is possible, but my notes suggest that there are significant anomalies occurring with regard to terrain surrounding outpost since our arrival,” he explained, handing her the clipboard.

“What I’ve noticed,” Van Allen began, while Grissom went over the cosmonaut’s notes, “is that some terrain seemed disturbed around that area when I went out yesterday. I would’ve collected samples for study, but I realized that would’ve been irrelevant since I would only be further disturbing the surface layer if I did.”

Grissom sighed as she handed Chekov the clipboard. “Maybe we’re just being paranoid and overemotional since we were so close to him, I mean…” she shrugged, “maybe we just lost him. I mean, this is an alien planet that nobody has ever been to. It’s different from discovering a lost island or something on Earth… this is an alien planet,” she said.

But they were inevitably drawn back to the events of April 14th, as they would find, the Red Planet would continue to remind them that nothing was as it seemed.

* * *

On a hunch, Glenn decided to return to the site he’d been previously two days ago. It was at the bottom of a large dune, and – despite what they’d concurred in the meeting – Allen still felt as though something was off about the area there.

His heart nearly leaped into his chest when he realized that some rocks had been moved, he distinctly remembered a mid-sized boulder about the size of his head lying amid a cluster of smaller rocks and pebbles approximately ten feet diagonally from his current location, which was now absent. Glenn took a photo with his compact camera to compare to the previous image, and began his trek back to Aries-One.

Back at the compound, Glenn entered the operations blister and uploaded the photograph. Just as he feared – the photos did not match up, and indicated a disturbance. What was scary was the simple fact that there had been no storms in the past 48 hours with enough wind speed and power enough to move a boulder of such size.

* * *

Glenn went out again the next day, this time taking Chekov with him, to return to the site of the anomaly. “So, this is where you saw disturbance,” Chekov asked.

“Yeah, notice anything unusual?” When Chekov confirmed he did not, Glenn showed him the photographs. Afterward, they searched everywhere in the vicinity, hoping for a sign, anything, that would counter or at the very least help temper their paranoia.

They found nothing.

When they returned, Grissom was assessing the photos in the control room that Glenn had taken.

“This is… chilling,” she said.

“Maybe it would be best if we stayed indoors for while?”

Grissom nodded. “Yeah, geospatial and climate readings show a storm headed this way, and it’s a big one,” she said. “Martian sandstorms – due to the low gravity I presume – can last three to nine times as long as sandstorms on Earth.”

“Yeah, a month or two on average,” Glenn noted.

Chekov sighed.

“Let’s get some sleep, we haven’t slept but maybe twenty hours combined since we got here.”

***

The Shuttle loomed like a statue of some ancient deity, with all of the majesty and dominating presence of one. A prehistoric civilization would have revered the presence of such a machine.

A lift carried them to the spacecraft. Once inside and fully-suited, they began the process of loading the propellant. Afterward, tanking and the traditional 9-minute countdown soon followed. In total, the process lasted nearly three hours. Once countdown began, and the launch process initiated, the 7-person crew – Merrick, Lance, Parker, Lavrov, Volkov, Kravychko, and Rasputin – took their positions.

“Propellant ready,” Kravychko announced. “Countdown procedures underway,” he finished. Volkov turned to Rasputin, the flight officer and a Serbian. “You ready little brother?”

Rasputin gave him the finger and turned back to getting the shuttle launch ready. “You Americans have a way with machinery. Did you know this,” he inquired.

“Yes. Yes, I am quite aware,” he lied.

Lance put a hand on his shoulder and leaned forward. “Into the void,” he said. Merrick replied with a shrug and a nervous, quick nod. “I’d say so, old friend.”

Before they knew it, the next eight minutes were up, and the final countdown commenced.

“Ten…”

“Here we go,”

“Nine…”

“Seven space cadets into the void!”

“Seven…”

“Six…”

“Five…”

“I don’t intimidate you do I…?” Volkov inquired.

“Three…”

“Why, because you’re a woman?”

She cackled.

“Two…”

“One…”

Volkov led out an enjoyed howl as the lift rocket kicked the earth with 53,500 cubic feet of liquid hydrogen fuel, thrusting the spacecraft through the stratosphere and mesosphere into the vacuum of space. As it did so, the rocket boosters, followed by the external tank, were shed, as the craft was pulled into the Earth’s orbit by its upward momentum. It circled the planet until Rasputin spotted the Mir-II with his naked eye.

***

They arrived shortly after 7:40 AM. The mission commander – Reznov – gave them a brief tour of the modules. “We were just finished station inspection,” he explained. “Each module serves an individual purpose, we have a total of fourteen. One observation, two laboratory – the central modules like you see here. three for crew quarters, two for life support, one robotic and two for storage. We have three airlocks – two for docking and one for extravehicular access,” he stated.

Each module was accessed through a narrow cylindrical corridor. The constant state of freefall took some getting used to, but when viewed as a new opportunity for physical freedom, Merrick soon began to enjoy it.

At around ten after 8:00 they gathered in the central lab module for a mission statement from ground control. What was covered by operations was more than Lance and Merrick bargained for.

“As per DARPA and Space City command, the crew of the ISV Columbus is to depart for Lunar One in T-Minus One Hour,” the man explained.

“Lunar One,” Lance inquired.

“The Lunar Station established by Moscow and Washington in 1986,” Parker stated. “State-of-the-art.”

After the meeting concluded, it was time to depart on the jury-rigged ISV Columbus to the Moon. They bid their farewells, noting upon the fact that they would be returning from Lunar One straight back to Earth, likely never to see Reznov, or the other six ever again. Rasputin and Lavrov stayed behind on Mir-II, supervising the landing.

A network of cylindrical modules tied together by inflatable corridors stretched across the incline of a squat knoll. A dune buggy bounced across the rugged landscape and, after a moment, two men in bulky pressure suits departed from the vehicle and entered the central module. Once they knew where to go, the crew departed for Lunar One.

* * *

Lunar One was – for all intents and purposes – a miniature (scientific) community. Outside of the main airlock, a neat little sign reading, “Lunar One – Population: 11, Est. 1986” was posted. Spearheaded by Superintendent Marsha Makarova.

“Hello, Earthlings,” the strange man joked. “Welcome to our humble abode – Lunar One, the first humans to live off-world, not to mention completely beyond the prying eyes of humanity for the past twenty-two years.”

“Twenty-three, Liam,” said a voice further down the hall. He was joined by a man in his fifties, of squat and rotund physique, graying hair and a face Lance would later remark, “looked like a bulldog’s ass.”

“I see you’ve already met Liam,” he said, extending a hand. “I am Peter Dykstra, the resident communications director. Liam here is my associate, a brilliant mind – but not the friendliest of folks.” In response, Liam offered up an irritated huff.

He shrugged and waved for the entourage to follow.

The administration module was the third-largest, behind commons and the greenhouse. It was about as large as the commons, which consisted of six sub-modules, one of which they would soon be cramped into.

“Attention, greenhouse and research laboratory off-limits to undocumented personnel. Please return immediately. Attention, greenhouse and research lab–,” and so the automatic robotic voice repeated itself, until Peter swiped his identification.

The corridor adjacent to the main module hissed open and the five were allowed entry. The fat, squat corridor connected to a cylindrical room, complete with its own vegetation and sleek technology.

“Ah, we meet at last,” exclaimed Agent Parker, springing to their defense much to the other four’s relief. For the most part, they – besides introducing themselves – sat back and let the FBI Agent do all the talking.

“Well, we’re happy to finally see you arrive safe and sound,” Makarova said before formally introducing herself. She introduced her assistant, Patricia as well as her husband Peter, and Liam. Together, they were the four-person administration team of Lunar One.

Agent Parker chuckled, and began, “well, I think we are all awaiting your announcement on the settlements, yes?” She nodded and waved toward Liam, who began work on several control panels and instruments. A screen thereafter illuminated the back wall of the spherical chamber.

“This is Deutschland-Tianjin – the complex established a mere month before the ARIES-One mission,” Patty announced. “At one point there were six operatives aboard, working for both Germany and the People’s Republic of China. They recently went missing.”

Lance and Merrick exchanged glances, and the latter exchanged one with Volkov and Kravychko.

“Tomorrow, we want you four to examine the samples we picked up in the past 48 hours. After examining this, we hope to come closer to a conclusion as to what exactly happened down there.”

Marsha nodded to Patty and Peter who showed them to their quarters. “Get some sleep,” he said. “When you wake up, you’re immediately at the workplace, and sleep is a cherished commodity in these parts, comrades.” He winked and sealed the door.

* * *

That night, Merrick caught lance looking at photos – which he revealed to be his estranged family. “That there is my brother, my ex-wife and I,” he revealed, pointing toward a chubbier version of himself and a tall elegant blonde with accentuated curves.

“Looks like we both have woman problems,” Merr said with a chuckle. “Have any kids?”

“No, thank God!”

They laughed, and continued to joke into the night. Merrick shared his stories about Brian, how they would always take a Father-Son trip down to Miami beach one day out of the month. He described his son’s first visit to the beach, his first time seeing the Atlantic Ocean. The awe that had encapsulated Brian’s face stuck with Merrick all of the years.

Eventually, Lance had told him to shut up and rolled over to go to sleep. Merrick stayed awake for another hour or so, staring at Lance’s family photo – envying the happiness eternally present within that frame. He had fallen asleep holding it tightly, but he would never know this – for when he, Kravychko and Volkov awoke – they would not recognize their waking nightmare as the room they had fallen asleep in.

* * *

​ The storm lasted longer than they had predicted. Chekov estimated it would stretch over a roughly two-and-a-half month period. It ended up lasting for six months.

The trio had begun to lose track of time. They no longer knew what day it was – or, let alone, how many days they had been on Mars. This had begun to weigh on their psyches, as Glenn would discover when he and Grissom were alone in the kitchen, making sandwiches. She had been discussing with him her family and older siblings growing up, when she abruptly stopped talking.

“You said he was stealing your dolls and cutting off their hair,” Glenn said as he swiped the mayonnaise-sodden knife across the thin layer of peanut butter. Another moment went by, as he finished the sandwiches, of silence.

Glenn turned to see Sally Grissom staring at a non-particular point in the room, her eyes wild.

“Sally?”

She remained unmoved.

“Sally?” He left the sandwiches and approached her, grabbing her by the shoulders. Still – she remained fixated on outer space. “Sally – SALLY!” He shook her slightly, and then violently. “SALLY!”

Chekov descended the ladder into the main commons at the behest of such commotion. “What’s going on?”

“I dunno, It’s SALLY! She stopped moving!”

“I stopped moving,” she inquired suddenly, snapping out of it.

“Yes, you were staring at the wall. Your eyes were shaking in their sockets, but nothing else was moving.”

She cocked her head. “I do remember the room shaking, but I didn’t realize I had stopped talking. I heard myself talking; I was asking why the room was shaking.” Her expression was one of deep suspicion.

“Such a strange place… don’t you think?”

Allen and Chekov exchanged glances. “We need to find out when this storm will be over. We need to get outside of this complex,” Chekov stated, “even if it is back into the inhospitable Martian atmosphere. We’re all going a little crazy.”

“You mean, you’ve experienced this, too?”

Chekov did not answer Grissom, he returned to the upper levels without a word further.

This didn’t cut it for Allen. He decided to pursue further, the truth – to him – was all that mattered. He stopped Grissom in Navigation and Scanning on the second level.

“Hey, wait a minute,” he demanded hesitantly. “You didn’t exactly answer the question, Chekov,” stated Allen quizzically, staring Chekov directly in the eye.

Chekov sighed and stood up from the navigation desk nestled in the far-left corner of the slightly-rectangular room. He shoved his hands in his pockets, sighed and nodded.

“Yes?”

“Yes, I have experienced what Grissom–Sally–experienced just a moment ago,” he stated. His eyes rolled to their corners as Allen realized he was glancing at a point over his shoulder. Allen turned to see Grissom, just as she inquired, “Is this bad?”

There was a moment of silence before Chekov nodded. “Yes, it is bad. But hope is not gone,” he said as he shouldered a bag he had kept stuffed underneath the navigation desk.

“You know,” Allen said.

“Know what?”

“There’s something here,” said Allen, in an elevated state of emotion. He looked Chekov directly in his pupils as he said this. They both knew there was more here than met the eye.

Chekov cleared his throat. “Come,” he said, as he stepped past the astronaut. “We must assess the habitat the Commander informed us about,” he said.

“W-what for,” stuttered Allen. Chekov stepped past him and turned, “because you are correct, Lieutenant.”

Another moment of silence eclipsed the small room.

“Besides, we must get outside to temper insanity,” and with that disturbing final statement, the navigator had disappeared back into the bowels of the habitat.

They had each received an email detailing the need for a maximum of one accompanying Chekov to the abandoned structure, within the next 12 hours. They were instructed to get sleep, and rest for their potential endeavor.

That night, Allen awoke. As if on impulse, Allen climbed the ladder to the navigation desk. Once there, he activated the surveillance feed – again, on impulse. When the feed hummed to life, what he was staring at upon such an event was quite likely the most haunting visage his eyes had ever laid themselves upon – the passenger door to the rover hung ajar.

He doubled back down to the commons area to make sure he wasn’t mistaken that he was indeed the only living soul awake. When his fears were confirmed, he returned to the feed.

The door was closed.

“What the f–?”

Before his sentence of fright could be completed, he heard a deafening crash in the next room, the toilet.

He sparked up a torch, and edged his way toward the small room.

A thin trickle of light emitted from the chamber, as if there were some sort of light source. Van Allen braced himself, approached the door, and flung it open.

He was immediately tackled to the ground by an unseen force. There was a man – easily his own size – grappling in fear and hysteria, begging for help.

“Oh my god!”

“HELP!”

Van Allen flung the man into a cluster of swivel-chairs, backing against the wall and readying his torch to be used as a weapon if need be. “Who are you!? IDENTIFY YOURSELF!”

“MERRICK,” he screamed. “Merrick Hudson.”

“Where!? WHERE THE FUCK AM I!?” He screamed.

Van Allen hesitated before answering.

“Mars.”

There was a moment of silence.

“What?!”

“Mars. You are on Mars, the Red Planet, comrade,” he explained. Mr. Hudson fumbled around. “I – I…” he stammered, getting his bearings. He gulped. “I think you are mistaken, sir.”

Van Allen cocked his head. “What?”

Suddenly, there was a beam of light spilling out from the opening leading to the commons below. Angry voices could be heard filtering through along with it. Hudson grabbed Van Allen forcefully, ushering him to be quiet.

“They’re coming,”

Van Allen managed a hushed, “Who?”

Hudson wrenched the struggling Van Allen into the toilet and slammed the door, locking it tightly.

The blood red light filtered into the room, spilling beneath the crack of the door. A few moments later, there was a pained screaming, followed by a crash and striking against the walls and chairs. They remained in the confined space for a few minutes longer, before Hudson relinquished his grasp. Van Allen furiously flailed back into the room, now illuminated by the overhead lighting. He then began to scream.

Blood streaked the walls; gore was piled in lumps in various areas around the room. What appeared to be the remains of a body peppered the floors and ceiling, strewn about in a mad thrashing.

“Down the ladder, now,” Hudson ordered. Van Allen did not stop to ask, he immediately began to descend back down into the main chamber of the commons one level down, with Hudson immediately in tow. As he neared the bottom, he heard a pained gasp – but the duo were too late. As they reached the bottom, within the blink of an eye, the beat of a heart, Van Allen was strapped to the chair in the center of the room. Men in white lab coats surrounded him, and after screaming his throat sore for what seemed to be a half-hour, at last the largest of the scientist trio spoke up.

"I believe you're wondering what is happening right now," he stated.

"Let me go, let me go right now, what the fuck just happened?"

The man ignored him and produced a syringe. As the doctor turned into the light, and he got a better look at his face, he realized it was none other than Lance Odom.

He smiled and said, "the Timekeepers are here."

* * *

Chekov was the first one suited up. They had decided upon Van Allen and Chekov going out while Grissom remained behind to monitor their progress and environment.

“So, we believe the terrain anomalies are occurring from beyond the northeastern ridgeline,” she said as a refresher. “You sure you two are okay doing this?”

Chekov fastened his helmet. “We’re sure. Ready the airlock from operations,” he stated. She nodded and shook his hand before giving Van Allen a bear hug. “Be safe,” she said, before disappearing up the ladder. They stood before the hatch before it began to hiss open and the duo then stepped through. After roughly five minutes of pressurization, they were outside in the elements of the Red Planet.

“I read you, Chekov. You there, Glenn?”

“Read you loud and clear,” he stated.

Throughout their journey, the terrain anomalies indicated a human disturbance of the environment as they journeyed further into the Martian wilderness.

Eventually, they began to see things.

Chekov heard pebbles and rocks crackling, and he whirled around just in time to see a large, dark form dart quickly behind a geological formation.

“I’m picking up your camera feed. I saw it too,” Grissom said over the comm. This sent chills down Glenn’s spine, because he also saw movement. “We’re not alone here,” Chekov said.

They continued their trek through the rocky outcrops and valleys for roughly two hours, after descending into the valley on the opposite side of the ridgeline. After ascending through another valley and incline, they saw it – the abandoned habitat.

“There it is,” said Chekov. “Deutschland-Tianjin II. Echlin said it had been prepared for over a decade, but was never used.” With that, they descended the incline. The mountain range towered over the horizon, and the faint silhouette of Olympus Mons could be seen in the distance. Deutschland-Tianjin II was a small complex of a few modules interconnected by various inflatable corridors.

As they drew closer, the duo was informed of movement on the complex’s eastern periphery. “I see them,” said Van Allen.

“Don’t let them into the habitat,” she said. They made sure to be stealthy in their entrance into the structure. Once inside, they read an absence of oxygen and pressurization. After progressing through the subsystems modules and doubling back into the first of four inflatable living modules, they discovered their first dead body.

“My god,” noted Chekov, referring to the corpse’s mutilation, as if it had been torn apart from the inside-out. The arms, torso and esophagus looked as if something had ripped out of it.

“This... doesn't appear to be a natural injury,” Chekov noted. They spied another dead body in the library, also in the same condition as the first. “What the hell is going on here,” inquired Allen. Chekov then unzipped a bag he had been carrying with him, brandishing an AK-47 assault rifle. "This is self-mutilation."

“What the hell?”

“Just in case of emergency,” he stated, yanking the lever back. Not soon after this, they began to hear banging and scraping noises outside of the complex. The noises intensified, and for another few seconds they were left hanging by Grissom.

Then the noises stopped.

Abruptly.

For a moment, Allen was relieved.

But, it was only for a moment.

Then Allen realized the crushing silence was even worse than the incessant scratching and sounds of warping steel under the blows of something large, and impossibly powerful.

And now, there was a maddening quiet.

It only lasted for a few moments more, before it was once again interrupted.

This time, to their relief, it was Grissom over the comm.

“Get out of there!”

Chekov and Van Allen exchanged glances and nodded. A few moments later, they stood in the airlock, but they did not follow procedure, they immediately went EVA.

“The storm’s back,” commented Van Allen. “Yeah, I got that much!” As they passed beyond the outer perimeter of the habitat, they began to notice dark silhouettes lurching their way toward them. “Come on! GO!” Their steady stride broke into a sprint. They lurched their way through the howling winds and G-Force currents ripping across the jagged landscape. After an hour of trudging, not only did Van Allen realize he was going the wrong way – he realized he was alone.

Chekov tripped and fell into a ravine, but the sound of the squall - while reaching its end - was, nevertheless, unhelpful to the prospect of Van Allen hearing him do so. Chekov rolled his ankle, delivering shooting agony through his nervous system. Chekov would have screamed for help. But, whatever was out there - whatever had made those noises - was sure to hear him just as well.

Although the storm had passed, and the blue skies of Sol had returned to the God of War, it did not imbue him with newfound healing abilities. His ankle was still howling with injury, and Chekov could not put much pressure on it at all, he found. As Chekov made his way hour-long endeavor up and out of the crevice with his decommissioned limb, he tried to maintain a mental image of the crew he had spent so many months with. Chekov tried to remember them as they were, and not as they had been. They'd been annoyed, but all were themselves, before the Red Planet imposed itself upon them. Echlin had been suspicious and paranoid, yet gruff and confident, and so full of life. Grissom was always trying to big sister or mama everyone else, and always seemed cheerful, even when she was sad. And then there had been Van Allen - the sarcastic comic book nerd who'd always be a kid at heart, and who'd always have a brilliant mind.

Chekov neared an incline that was just level enough to be able to climb-roll up onto. It was just around the- suddenly, his thoughts were interrupted by a horrific visage.

His heart skipped a beat as he saw what looked like an arm... and a hand. Somebody- no, something... was standing there. It looked human, but it was far too big. The towering suited form, wearing a large helmet that gave its head a disproportionate size and square shape, appeared unaware of his presence. He didn't get a good look at it, for his survival instinct had kicked in, and he'd ducked quickly behind the large rock formation. But from what he could infer, it possessed a suit consisting of wires and tubes, and was roughly the same camouflaged coloration as the environment surrounding it.

And it had to have been at least eight feet tall... if not more.

Chekov didn't get a good look at its face, but he didn't care. The sounds of it clambering around had ceased, and there was silence. The cosmonaut breathed a sigh of relief, exhaling with pent-up terror and consternation.

But when he looked over, he got a great look at it's face.

“Chekov!”

No answer.

“CHEKOV!”

Van Allen hiked through the wind and dust, unable to see more than a few feet in front of him for the next several house. He noticed his oxygen reserves were depleting, and he was nearing the point of safe return. And all the while, he heard footsteps in the darkness.

He called out to Chekov, receiving only the guttural rushing squalls in response. Van Allen's fear and anxiety were eventually replaced by anger and frustration. He became impatient with his situation, knowing fairly well he was going to die, and this knowledge only served to alleviate any uncertainty about his fate. Instead, he was mainly just infuriated at what little control he had over the situation.

Eventually, the storm began to die down, and sunlight returned to the martian surface. This, however, only revealed his silent audience.

The monstrous humanoids, possessing space suits that seemed impossibly at the same time organic and mechanical, stared at him from various locations. Every time, he caught only glimpses of a head and shoulders peeking out from behind a rock, or half of a humanoid-simian face barely hidden from view. Each time, they would disappear back into hiding.

Van Allen noticed that every time he saw one, he'd lose his sense of direction. He took off, running as fast as his feet would carry him in the thin Martian atmosphere. He ran until he felt his legs could not move much further, until he no longer heard the soothing yet frantic voice of Grissom over the comm.

Eventually, his eyes caught sight of a shape he thought he would never see on the surface of the Red Planet – a pyramid.

* * *

After seeing the data entries from Mission Aries, Merrick decided it would be best not to share what he’d discovered from them with the other two. But what he had learned, was that the astronaut known as Glenn Van Allen had recorded in his personal crew logs exactly what Merrick had dreamed about before awakening restrained in that laboratory.

But that was not all he had 'dreamed' about, if these 'experiences' even were dreams. He'd many times wondered if what he was experiencing right now was a dream.

After Odom and Parker had inserted the syringe into his arm, Hudson had awoken back in his bed. He gasped, looking around in the darkness. As he lifted himself up, and turned to dangle his legs off the top bunk, he noticed Odom was not in his bed. The covers were neatly folded, as if the bed had been completely undisturbed. He finished his motion and climbed down onto the floor, walking over to the sink to get a glass of water. His throat felt like matted tissue doused in fly- and sand-paper. When the cascade of cool tap water greeted his innards it was like being baptized from the inside-out, almost like being reborn. Hudson smiled at himself in the mirror and sighed... but that's when he noticed something.

A swollen red pustule on his face, beneath his left eye. It looked like a bug-bite. But here? On the Moon? No... that couldn't be right.

He poked at it, and noticed it move.

His heart skipped a beat, and that's when he noticed it itching.

It began burning uncontrollably, and was soon joined by other regions of his body.

He wrenched his shirt off, screaming as he saw, to his horror, he was covered in them.

Large undulating boils inundated his body as ubiquitously as the craters of the moon itself.

As he began hyperventilating, it got worse.

The one he'd touched burst open and hundreds of spiders poured out.

Hudson screamed and cried as they emerged from his nose and mouth as well, and other body parts. He saw movement beneath his arms and legs, and began to cut at them.

Hudson broke the knife off inside of him when he got to his shoulder, and then proceeded to dig into his flesh to scoop them out manually, and then claw his eyes out until dark ribbons cascaded in spider-ridden waterfalls of blood down his face.

* * *

Hudson was awoken by a frantic Kravychko.

"We must go. Now!"

Hudson reached down and grabbed at his skin and face. "Do I have anything on my...?"

Kravychko frowned. "What? No, we have to go. NOW!"

As they made their way back into the main part of the base, Hudson noticed the blood first. And then the bodies.

"Wha-what... hap-?"

"They killed themselves. Mass-suicide. Along with the rest of our crew. Volkov is in critical condition."

Another moment of silence dripped by as they made their way down to engineering.

"Besides that, I don't know. But, whatever is causing this, it doesn't seem to reach down here," he said.

"What? Why? How?"

"I think it only effects planetoid surface," he said climbing down the ladder. "Come on, or do you want to die?"

They made their way into the bowels of the facility, ducking behind and around low-hanging pipes and machinery. They eventually came to Volkov, who was lying with her back against the wall, her legs splayed out in front of her. She appeared deathly ill, and seemed to be holding her stomach.

"She is very ill," he said, after a few minutes attempting to give her water. Volkov responded by throwing up not only what she had ingested, but also a horrific black, viscous fluid. She did this for an extremely-prolonged five minutes, continuing to force up the liquid until she collapsed once more on the ground. When Hudson saw it, he began to panic.

"Uh-Kr-uh... uh... Kravychko," he managed to force out.

The cosmonaut looked up to see him jabbing a trembling finger at the black pool next to Volkov's head. In it, where hundreds - perhaps thousands - of squirming wormlike forms. They almost looked like alien embryos from the infamous sci-fi horror series.

Before Kravychko could respond, a large centipede-like animal, roughly the size of his head, leaped from the shadows and dove right at Hudson's face. The creature tore at his head, scraping his face and taking large chunks out of his scalp with its long nails. Just as Merrick managed to muster enough strength and momentum to grab the flailing animal with his hands and sling it against the wall... Hudson blacked out.

* * *

The scene that Hudson awoke to was less than welcoming.

Volkov's body lay slumped against the generator, her insides torn out. Dry blood caked her's and Kravychko's finger-nails, the latter laying lifeless against the far wall with his eyes torn out. Coagulated brown blood clung to his face like the tears of a hell-spawn, and as Hudson stood up, he realized something petrifying.

He was alone.

* * *

The pyramid was made of polished black mineral that reflected Glenn’s silhouette like a dark mirror. The wide corridor led to a room that resembled the shape of the pyramid in which it was situated. In the center of the room was a miniature of the structure in which he resided, pulsating with a dark blue glow. A figure stirred in the shadows, emerging to reveal itself as a man who appeared identical to the late Sergei Echlin.

Glenn blinked once. He blinked twice. The visage before him, however, did not vanish. Echlin stood before him, his arms wide.

"Do you realize what is happening, yet, Hudson?"

That name - Hudson - he knew it, but he couldn't place the origin of his knowledge.

"W-what do you mean? My name is Glenn Van Allen."

He smiled and shook his head. "No. No, my dear friend," he said. "That is the name of one of my crew... one of 'his' crew," he said. "Glenn Van Allen, Viktor Chekov... and Sergei Echlin... are dead."

Glenn cocked his head. "What? I'm not dead."

"No, not you, Hudson. Glenn."

Glenn shook his head now, rubbing his temples. "So, what you're saying - is - I am not who I think I am?"

He continued to smile. "No. And I'm not who you think I am, either."

Glenn tried blinking away the apparition, once more to no avail. The man then motioned to his surroundings. The dark chamber was caked in thick vines and leaves, like that of an Earthling plant... but 'pulsating.'

"Meet... the Timekeepers. The Clockwork Elves. The Manifold Imps, as we are sometimes called. But no human being knows that Timekeeper is simply a mistranslated version of the title 'Yakizeekzekker,' there truly is no terrestrial analogue for who we are."

Glenn shook his head once more, his gaze darting around at the self-transforming plant-animal, evaporating into streams of black liquid cascading into the sky, defying gravity and the laws of physics. Echlin remained unfazed, still smiling wickedly.

"We can be anyone. Anything. We safeguard the laws of space and time, and the cosmos itself."

"No," Glenn shouted, clutching his head. "This isn't REAL! THIS ISN'T REEEEEAAALLL!!!!"

"Oh, but it is. We are all that is real. Nothing exists outside of us. Did you really think humanity was meant for worlds beyond its own? Did you really think your psyche could exist beyond the prison you have been committed to? Humanity is not from Earth. You are not from apes. You are from us. You ARE us. And we control your fate, your history, your existence."

"NO!"

"Then I will show you," said he.

For a moment, all froze.

The cascading pillars of black liquid...

The undulating plant being...

The scuttling swarms of spider-like creatures.

All froze.

Glenn looked down at his frozen form from a disembodied location somewhere above him.

Then, in the blink of an eye, the pyramid, the red planet, all was yanked away like tissue.

His disembodied form was pulled through space and time...

Beyond the Oort Cloud...

Beyond the Solar System.

Past Alpha Centauri, beyond the local cluster and the Milky Way Galaxy, he was torn.

His life-force, or consciousness, or whatever it was that he was presently, was yanked beyond the Great Intergalactic Wall through the Supervoid and the Great Attractor at the centre of the observable universe. He then saw something too terrifying for words.

He was staring into a lake of fire, explosions, supermassive black holes and crimson hypergiants. And it all congregated into an environment where a beast of unimaginable size and power looked at him.

It looked directly into his being.

A living eternity.

A breathing void.

And it was hungry.

* * *

Macy slapped Commander Dawson in a fit of blind emotion. "What do you mean you've got everything under control? You don't have anything under control. You're a bunch of children who want to play space pirates," she yelled. Brian was on the verge of tears once again at the prospect that he might never see his father again.

"We're doing everything we can to reestablish contact with the station, and-"

"How about you tell me the goddamned truth, Dawson!?"

A moment of silence befell the room. Brian clutched at his mother.

The Commander sighed. "To be completely honest, ma'am - we don't know what the hell is going on."

Macy shook her head in disgust, wearing a grimace.

"I should have known. I really should have known."

* * *

Grissom had lost track of time. She knew it had to have been at least a year. Or two. Or five. But this was secondary. She'd managed to keep Van Allen's plants, including the Audrey, alive by rationing her water supply. The hydro-electric generator managed to be converted into a collection drive from the air. She didn't remember how she had done it, but Grissom had at some point in the distant past managed to jury-rig the external atmospheric conversion systems into a sustainable framework.

Now, it was just a manner of endurance. This was no longer a race to get to Mars as soon as possible, it was how long could she survive until she found a way back to Earth.

More and more, however, Grissom began pacing in front of the airlock.

She began staring at it.

She began getting ideas.

* * *

"This is taking too long," complained Odom, darting back and forth between computer monitors and the comatose Merrick Hudson. "How long until he wakes up and gives us what we need to know," shouted Odom, glaring angrily at Parker.

"We won't get it until the silicate microbes successfully utilize his neurotransmitters to combine with the dimethyltryptamine we injected into his arm and spinal column. We are so close to finding the meaning of life and meeting the real god, my friend... we just have to wait a little long-,"

"I'M DONE WAITING," Hudson screamed, getting in Parker's face. "I'VE BEEN DEALING WITH THIS SPLIT FUCKING PERSONALITY FOR YEARS," he said, recalling his struggles with alcohol. The voice in his head, Odom, coaxing him into having some more alcohol. "Just one more drop," he'd coo. He could feel himself trembling with rage. "Do you know what its like to have to deal with that?"

Parker sighed. "You're missing the point, the simple fact that this 'Odom,' this person inside of you could 'know' all of these things..."

"Oh, my fucking god, just because I read the files about the Mars mission during one of my episodes, does not mean there are damn Martians trying to brainwash us. What makes you get 'aliens are invading' from 'one of my crewmembers has a severe mental illness so maybe if I dose him with some fucking DMT he'll start speaking in tongues. No, you know what, fuck you. This shit is just pissing me off because I'm starting to see everything in fucking fractals." Hudson then wrenched and peeled the computer monitor from the wall. The scientists were hysterical, pleading with Parker to stop him.

"Okay, its clear you're becoming a problem. Makarova, Liam, restrain him."

The colonists moved in on him, and Hudson responded by knocking Liam out and kicking Makarova to the floor. Peter and Patricia grabbed him from behind.

"I tried letting you walk around and be free," he said, readying another syringe. "It's clear I'm going to have to give you another dose."

While Pat and Peter held him down, Makarova strapped a face mask around his head, while Liam plugged his ears.

"Perhaps if we increase the dosage, and deprive you of all major senses, we can get a better read of where your mind is going." Parker then approached the restrained man.

"Hold out his arm."

But as they did so, as Hudson felt his consciousness yanked from his body and spiral through the cosmos and infinity, what felt like decades had only been seconds.

Hudson was hoisted into the air by an invisible force, and the five people around him were tossed aside like bowling pins. A bellowing sound that could be felt so much as heard, erupted from him like a fog horn. Liam, Parker and Patricia covered their ears, while Peter and Makarova could only look on in awe. Their eyes, ears and nostrils began to trickle blood, and soon a thin rivulet began to drip from their mouths. Their heads caved in, and soon the survivors - Liam and Pat - were convulsing on the ground as if in seizure. Hudson then dropped to the ground.

But when his feet touched back down, Parker realized that it wasn't Hudson anymore. His eyes were rolled into the back of his skull, displaying only white. And a thick black fluid dripped from his jaw like tar. He approached Parker, who felt a pull upon his jacket collar. Parker was forced to stand up.

Hudson looked at Parker with dead, empty eyes, and cocked his head.

"Do you know what happens when you meddle with things beyond you in every way?"

Parker didn't answer.

"You have no idea how insignificant you are. We are the Yakizeekzekkers. Humanity is obsolete!"

Hudson snapped his hand into a fist, and Parker's head caved in.

* * *

That damn airlock, she thought, staring at it.

Grissom rocked back and forth while it sat there in its silent mocking sanity and logic.

She was going to go, she had to. Either way, she was going to die.

Grissom no longer cared about using the last of the oxygen, but at the same time she knew what was coming if she did. She took a deep breath as she stood before the airlock, bracing herself before marching toward what was likely her death, and then closed the helmet.

She didn't want to die in this fucking tin-can. That much was sure.

Grissom hit the data-pad, and the door began to hiss and creak as the metal slid across metal. The mechanisms rotated and twisted, and the outer metal of the airlock popped open to reveal the outside.

But what she saw beyond the door confounded her beyond belief. It was not what she was prepared for.

As opposed to dark red and brown martian dirt, or even the twilight of a martian dawn or dusk - as the time indicated - it was nothing.

Blackness.

Grissom felt her blood run cold.

What the fuck is going on, she asked herself. Was she going insane? Was she dead and in hell?

A spark of electricity briefly illuminated the environment before her. She was in a base of some sort, structure and corridors cascaded around her as she stepped out of the capsule.

Had... had she been inside the entire time? Was this some sort of a trick, or a sick joke? Was this all a dream? The questions flowed into her before she could formulate rational answers, like a freight train of madness.

Grissom grabbed the pistol that had been placed by the door in case of emergency, beneath the control paneling.

She continued into the poorly-lit facility, and felt her flash-frozen blood turn into a noxious, nauseating gas once she realized that this place was littered with dead bodies and dry blood. She had to fight from throwing up in her helmet, before realizing that the air was breathable. Grissom then removed her helmet.

She continued into the facility with unobstructed vision, and her suspicions were reinforced as she came to realize that she was not dreaming. This was not a joke, or a trick. And that even if she were in hell, she was very much alive.

Grissom made her way to a chamber in the far corner of the base, at least what she assumed was a far corner since she could see outside.

She was on the moon. The gigantic blue and white sphere of Earth could be seen just beyond the horizon. And Grissom could feel eyes on her.

She whirled around, looking at the bodies. She saw a chair that looked like it was used to restrain someone. The lifeless forms had their heads caved in, their arms and limbs contorted and twisted in impossible ways. And everywhere she looked she saw the same, dark, black substance on virtually every surface.

This is when she noticed something horrible.

There was movement in it.

She approached one of the patches, to try to make something out - to clear the fog in her head and alleviate the fear of the unknown.

But this only served to replace it with the fear of the known.

As she realized it was a small insectoid form, the room began to move.

Grissom screamed, and fired a few rounds in a panic. As she ran back into the hallway, a voice permeated into her psyche.

"Weaponized madness," it said. "The warring governments and tyrants of the Cold War have used it, ancient Kings and empires have used it. Where do you think it comes from?"

Grissom had to cup her hand over her mouth as she climbed into a closet and slammed the door, attempting to remain still.

"You cannot hide. We are the Cosmic Consciousness. We are the Timekeepers. The Yakizeekzekkers. The Gods. The Angels. The Devils. Monsters... we are what you REALLY are."

There was a lumbering stomp beyond the door. Through the metal slits, she could see nothing. Then, a hulking form eclipsed what little light there was in the facility.

Grissom whimpered as it appeared to stop in front of her hiding spot.

Then, it moved on.

She trembled with fear and relief, after a few moments of silence.

But, that's when she realized...

The door was wrenched from its hinges and a massive black vine enveloped her ankle and yanked her into the corridor. Thousands of small, scuttling black forms constantly changing in shape poured off of the megalithic plant-being. A vaginal, toothy maw greeted her as she turned to move away.

"FEED ME!"

Grissom screamed and fired into it. It recoiled and began undulating, shrinking and changing form as the swarms of small amorphous creatures raced after her. She didn't stop to see what it was doing, but as she made her way out of the room and through the door, she saw the form had taken on a humanoid shape - with a face much like Van Allen's - as she closed it.

"No."

"Yes," the voice screeched, more like an inhuman growl than a voice at this juncture.

"I am."

Grissom couldn't help herself.

She looked through the window of the capsule's door.

Van Allen's face stared back, sneering, spiders pouring out of his eyes.

Grissom screamed and ran to the control room, getting the pod ready for launch.

As she returned to the loading bay, she saw - standing inside the door - was Van Allen.

Grissom ran at him, screaming as she fired her weapon, not caring if she damaged the base. She was leaving, after all. When her gun ran dry, she ran and leaped at him, but he merely shrugged her off, then grabbing her and throwing her against the wall.

Glenn tossed her aside each time she ran at him like she were weightless.

Grissom coughed up blood, lying in the threshold of the door.

Glenn approached, his smile unwavering.

"What have we learned child? When you gaze into the abyss, the abyss stares back."

He then did something horrifying.

As Van Allen stepped forward, with each step his flesh began to flake and peel away from him.

"I am within you."

The rest of his flesh dissolved and dissipated away from his underlying musculature and bone. Thick tendrils of nerves, arteries and tendons began to float into the air around him.

"More you," he said, as his bodily organs, bones, and all elements of what one would normally constitute the human body began to fall and disintegrate away into the ether. "Than you."

The naked muscle and bone of his face fell away last, revealing perfect, circular eyes that bore through the nexus of her consciousness.

She knew she would never sleep a night without seeing those eyes for the rest of her days.

Or what came next.

"Will ever be," were the last words he spoke with his jaw, as it too fell away, until all that was left staring at her was a hulking, flailing, storm of tentacles attached to an exposed brain and perfectly round, ocular spheres that unmistakably once belonged to a human being.

As Sally Grissom spit up blood, she had adjusted herself only slightly, at this point uncaring what was about to happen, or if she died. All fear had been replaced with bitter rage.

"You know what I say to that," she asked through a mouthful of what might as well have been her fury in liquid form.

Not waiting for an answer, she activated the door as the creature slithered into the threshold, decapitating it, and erecting a middle finger.

* * *

The capsule launched, and thirty minutes later – the horizon of the Earth's moon was rocketing away from her into the distance.

Sixteen years and 185 days had passed, and as the module rocketed toward Earth, Sally Grissom re-opened the final log in the mission report.

“Date: Unknown

Lunar-One and Aries mission: COMPLETE.

Survivors: 1

This is Sergei Echlin, I have eliminated the voices. They wanted me to kill the Deutschland-Tianjin team. Translation of the transmission may have come too late, however. I believe I may have killed them all. Nevertheless, the organism has been dealt with.

Martian Presence: ACTIVE

- S. Echlin”