The planet rippled like a pond. For a single moment everything shuddered in perfect coordination. Confusion and unease solidified in every stomach like a ball of lead. On an ordinary day, this would have been ignored. Perhaps the feeling of a rising storm would rate a mention on the news but nothing more substantial. This was not an ordinary day. The world was at a standstill with all eyes turned to the Mars Mission.
Every eye watched this historic woman, Moldavian Anastasia Bors, descend the ladder toward the red dust. Something about this mission had captured the interest of the entire world so completely that the usual squabbling about who had to pay for what never happened. The mission was delayed by nearly a year, but only to ensure that every country had sufficient space to allow the video feed to be shown live.
Every eye was glued.
Though pointed down, the lens still caught some of the rugged landscape. No one could understand the anticipation in the air as Anastasia drew further away from the ship’s camera. To the eyes of the world the gravity difference and the bulky space suit came together to create an unnatural jerk to her motions.
Her foot planted firmly on the stark, barren dust. The powder was so fine that it wrapped around her boot to her ankle. At that moment a shiver traveled up Anastasia’s spine. A jolt of current that was as unexplainable as it was brief–and profound. Tears filled her eyes and a well of devastation filled her. That same energy shivered its way through the planet and every person on it.
Anastasia allowed her personal camera, mounted on her helmet, drift across the barren landscape. The weight of this moment was a bowling ball in her throat, stopping her voice. History swirled around her, electric and alive.
For a moment, another view painted itself across her vision. Dust and scarred rocks vanished into rich, dense plant life. The leaves were short and spiky, bushes of vibrant orange. Occasional shoots of blue weaved their way through the brush. A path of cherry red soil stood out invitingly.
Anastasia took a step forward. Muffled in her ears was the concerned noises of the ground crew. Her pilot, Ion, mumbled a question. Anastasia could not parse the words, though she could understand what he wanted. She was not supposed to move more than a few feet from the landing module. She pushed a murmured reassurance past the block in her throat. There was nothing he could do to stop her, way up in orbit.
Their voices became white noise. Every speck of her attention was focused on an impossibility. No data or sample ever collected gave even the suggestion that life had existed on this planet. As far as she knew she was the first to walk on this surface. And yet, in the depth of her soul she knew a path lay before her. There was something drawing her, a pull to the core of her being. Her very bones knew there was something to find.
With careful steps she continued on, never straying from the path. It did not matter that her vision was long-gone, she knew the way like she knew her own hands; like the childhood paths of her home. Her arms were tucked in tight to her body, never risking breaking the invisible line of the long gone path. Regardless of how long all the plants had been dead she couldn’t quite convince herself that breaking that line wouldn’t result in pain from the sharp leaves.
As the voices started to rise in pitch, concern sharpening their voices, she arrived at her destination. To the cameras and her eyes, there was nothing but a barren wasteland. Anastasia knew that this was the spot though. She lowered herself carefully to her knees, hyper-aware that a puncture to her suit could mean the end. No one could save her and only the voices in her headset let her know she wasn’t alone.
The dust moved easily under her gloves. Anastasia was more than aware that her oxygen supply was a finite resource. She refused to let that deter her as she dug into the Martian ground with infinite care. There was something at this place she had to find. The hole enlarged millimeters at a time, the sand and dust so fine it flowed back into the depression like water. She found what she was looking for when the hole was as long as her body and up to her shoulders in depth, each movement in time with the confused chatter from ground control.
Something that was not stone scraped under her gloves. The voices trying to cajole her back to the ship stopped as they took in the flat plane of metal in view of her camera.
The object was perfectly flat and seemingly untouched, dark against the dust. It was metal, but unlike anything that Anastasia could remember seeing. It was also attached to something further down in the sand. She didn’t dig any further. There was no need, she found what she was looking for.
Strange, sharp, precise slashes were cut into the plate, shining starkly against the dark metal. It was so unlike anything written on earth that it could have been argued that there was no meaning to the marks, no language. However, the meaning floated from the depths of her mind, as clear as the Romanian she had grown up with.
The metal plate read ‘We said we would fight to the last and I know we have won. For I am alone and I will die the last. Unremembered.’
Anastasia had another momentary vision of a great machine of twisted metal, a cage of limbs and weapons. A machine with no use but war. She saw her own hands as she carved the words into its surface. The air burned from the poison her own people had poured into the atmosphere. The vegetation was dying around her, from the power unleashed by her enemies. In that instant she knew, they all had chosen attrition. Death to all rather than letting the enemy–the other, the ‘unlike us’–survive.
Her past-self felt only pride. Her present could only feel horror.
Shrill beeping pierced the horror. The alarm on her oxygen was the only sound that could take on that tone. She had less 20 minutes of air left, and it had taken her that long to get to this spot.
Each step made fear race to the beat of her heart. Her forced shallow breathing made her head helium light and her legs gold plated. The last few yard left her lungs screaming for oxygen, with nothing left in the tank.
Pure luck meant that Anastasia was able to get into the ship without losing consciousness. A miracle of Biblical proportions meant that she was able to close hatch and fill the cockpit with precious air before darkness dragged her under.
Three hundred and 10 long days later, Anastasia sat in a meeting room on Earth. It had only been ten days since she arrived back on her home planet and before she even entered the atmosphere many of the people around her had been pushing for this meeting. Those voices ceased their complaints when it became clear her frailty was in no way faked. The silence of space had been replaced by an overwhelming burble of voices. Her limbs seemed to have acquired a new weight, even as muscle mass and tone had shrunk.
The din died down as the head of Agenție Spațială, the space agency which had sent her to Mars, stood to speak. “As of this morning nearly 1 billion people have reported being able to read the Martian Writing. The question is what do we do about it?”
The head of the American agency NASA boomed over the rest, making Anastasia’s ears hurt. “What to do? We need to go back there. We need to know what’s up there.”
“Don’t” Anastasia whispered, her voice lost under the roar of other voices.
“Even with the new fuel it takes almost a year to get there” Another voice, “How can we afford to go back to Mars, and do what? Excavate? It would take decades?
“Don’t go back” Anastasia’s voice grew louder yet still was lost to others debate, the air felt thin.
“With what’s up there?” another man began, looking haunted “How can we leave those machines up there?”
The man from NASA lit up at the word, “Machines?”
The haunted man nodded, “Many of us have had…visions. Machines of war, built of cages and weapons. They’re up there, beneath the surface.”
The man from NASA turned to the rest, “See. Now there’s a reason to go. Think of all the things we can learn from excavating Mars”
“Let the dead rest!” A voice sounded out and Anastasia was flabbergasted to realize it was hers, stronger than she had hear herself speak since stepping foot on Mars.
She spoke no further and though the hall quieted at first, the debate resumed with her comments ignored. Fear had frozen her vocal cords and made the air too thin to breath. In the core of her being she knew there were things that should not be found under the Martian soil. Machines that represented the very worst one being could do to another. Her eyes drifted across the packed room, searching for allies. A tiny handful of eyes met hers, the same gut wrenching horror within. Most were caught in the bloom of untapped power, the flush of potential lying just beneath the surface.
Anastasia held little hope that she and her allies could change the minds in this room. Not with the lure of the power of the Martian machines, fool’s gold though that power was. Humans, like the Martians before them would follow such a lure to their own destruction. Unless she did something about it.
The world rippled when she set foot on Mars. Everything changed in that instant.
How could it not when she walked across so many graves.