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The End Of Man
By Jason J Sergi
The Martian All-Terrain Vehicle—-affectionately known as The Spider because of the eight crawler arms branching four to each side—was making its quick way down the southern wall of the Melas Chasma within the Valles Marineris. Currently, The Spider and her crew were about 3,000 meters deep, about halfway to the canyon bottom, though the crew wouldn’t be going that far today.
Lieutenant Jen Sullivan sat in the command chair on the left-hand side of the helm, the soft swishing of the air gushing in from the vents above threatening to lull her to sleep. She was thoroughly bored, staring out the bubble canopy into the darkness beyond, The Spider’s lights only able to penetrate so far; revealing nothing but rock and empty space.
To her right at the controls sat Under-Lieutenant Josef Kilvov and, behind him, sat Ensigns Kim Lowell and Brad Jackson, the engineers of the crew.
Today’s target was one in a series of deep caves that’d been located the week before. Thousands of other caves had been found, riddling the length the Valles Marineris, but the vast majority were shallow dead-ends; these new ones, however, were so deep that even the prospector drones couldn’t reach the ends before their transmitters failed. The scientists back at Base 001 were thoroughly excited by the finds, speculating that the deep caves on Mars could retain enough moisture to harbor microbial life; and the discovery of any kind of life on Mars would be a major victory for the budget-strapped science communities of both Earth and Mars.
“We’re here,” Josef said, stopping The Spider adjacent to the gaping maw of a triangular cave entrance.
“Excellent,” Jen said. “Suit up and let’s head out.” She radioed back to Base 001, letting the dispatchers know that they had reached their target and were preparing for EVA.
Once she and the crew were deep enough within the cave the radios would stop working, but the dispatchers of Base 001 knew that the team would have four hours of oxygen and that if they hadn’t checked in after those four hours were up, a rescue team would be automatically deployed.
Jen joined the others in the rear compartment, sealing the door to the cockpit behind her before quickly donning her MSS (Martian Survival Suit). Once com and gear checks were complete, she ordered the airlock activated and soon the rear ramp of The Spider was being lowered and Jen was leading the other three out into the thin Martian atmosphere of the canyon.
She and the others used the handholds bolted around The Spider to maneuver towards the cave entrance, the light-pull of the Martian gravity making the task as simple as swimming in a placid pool.
“Instruments ready?” she asked as she and the others stood at the lip of the cave. When she got the affirmative, she nodded. “Let’s do it then.”
Leaving the lights of The Spider behind, she led her crew into the cave, their headlamps the only thing illuminating the darkness ahead.
The cave stretched on endlessly. For the past hour and a half, the crew had been taking air readings, rock samples, and acoustic scans, but nothing came back as noteworthy. The air was cold, registering zero humidity, and was rich in carbon dioxide. The rock samples were mundane silicate materials, and the acoustic readings detected nothing unusual.
Jen checked the time on her arm PDA. They had thirty minutes before they had to turn back for The Spider or risk running out of air.
“This isn’t natural,” Kim suddenly said over the headset. She was squatting over something and running her acoustic tester over it.
Jen walked over to her and immediately realized—even with her non-engineer eye—that the flat surface had been artificially cut, making a ramp that sloped gently downward. The rest of the cave floor had been pitted and squirming with mini-ridges up until now.
“Let’s see where it goes,” she said, leading the way.
The farther down they went, the more exciting details began to present themselves: carvings of faces with large eyes, fiery hair, pinched noses, and wide mouths were carved upon the walls in between lines of strange glyphs that Brad swore looked remarkably similar to Sumerian cuneiform—-and he would know, being the history buff that he was.
They eventually came to a set of metal double doors, their surfaces etched with more cuneiform writing and the outline of a robed being with the head and face like those found carved along the walls. Its arms were open wide, its palms splayed out in welcome.
“It’s made of solid iron, coated with lead,” Kim said, pulling the tester away.
“Should we try and open it?” Josef asked.
“I don’t see why not,” Jen said, breathlessly.
The four of them managed to yank the doors open via the offered handles, the hinges screeching loudly. Multi-colored lights flashed on, running the length of the concave ceiling that made up the metal-sided tunnel beyond.
Cautiously, they followed the tunnel down several hundred meters more until they came to a gargantuan chamber that was lined with, what looked to Jen, like cylindrical generators lying on their sides, each with a black window on its top and what looked like consoles attached to their sides.
“What do you think of these?” Josef asked, his eyes wide behind his helmet glass.
But before Jen could even fathom a guess, Brad issued a startling yelp over her headset. She spun around to find him reeling back from one of the cylinders.
“There’s a body in there!” he said, pointing wildly.
Jen approached the cylinder carefully and, sure enough, there was an outline of a face beneath the tinted window.
“We should try cracking it open,” Kim said.
Jen nodded, “Open it; carefully.”
What the hell? We’re here to search for life right?
It took several seconds but Josef finally figured out how to do so by frigging with the side console, the top rising like a coffin lid with the hiss of escaping air.
The being inside—-who was dressed in a long violet robe, its skin wrinkled and brown and with white hair gnarled around a pair of large eyes and a pinched nose—struggled to sit up, taking several deep breaths through its large, tooth-filled mouth, before collapsing back down motionless.
“It’s dead,” Brad said, scanner in hand. “Life signs definitely negative.”
“Take samples of the corpse and let’s try another one,” Jen said. She and her crew had just found life on Mars; and as remarkably stunning as that was, it would be more so to find living life to present to her commanders and the scientists back at Base 001.
But the next four cylinders held only the dead, and the sixth one gasped like the first before dying.
“They probably can’t breathe in this air,” Josef suggested. “It makes sense; if we can’t, then why should we expect them to?”
Nodding, Jen looked around and noticed a series of vents lining the ceiling. Searching further, she noticed a square outline set into one wall. She walked over and pried the panel back, swinging it out to reveal a downward facing switch. She tried lifting the switch but an alarm sounded loud from somewhere above, startling her, the switch unmoving.
Then, thinking of the air-lock back on The Spider.
“Close the doors,” she said.
The others did so and then she lifted the switch upright.
The lights above momentarily dimmed and then air was swishing from the vents after belching out clouds of thick red dust.
“Oxygen percentage rising!” Kim said
As a test, Jen deactivated her suit’s life-support system. When she didn’t receive an alarm, she removed her helmet. The air was dry and stale but definitely breathable.
“Doff your helmets,” she said. “We can conserve our oxygen supply but, Kim, keep the air tester active just in case. Now let’s crack a few more of these babies open!”
The next five beings were already dead, but the next one gulped in huge mouthfuls of air and continued to do so.
“Vitals picking up,” Brad said.
The being opened its huge eyes and sat up to stare at Jen and the others expressionless. “Na-ru-a-bi, lu i-pad, ki,” it said in a guttural tone.
“Break out the translator,” Jen ordered.
“And set it to what?” Josef asked. “The translator doesn’t have Martian programmed into it!”
“Set it to Ancient Sumerian,” Brad said. “If that’s what those glyphs on the walls are, then maybe this guy will speak something similar.”
Josef did so then nodded.
“We’re peaceful explorers,” Jen said. “Who are you?”
The translator spat out the translation in what she assumed was Ancient Sumerian; and it did sound close enough to what the being spoke.
The being uttered the same phrase as before, the translation coming back in standard as, “Are you the returned Man from Tellus?”
“Tellus?” Jen asked.
“It’s an ancient name for Earth,” Brad said.
“Oh…Yes, we are from…Tellus. How did you come to be here?”
But the being ignored the question, standing instead to walk over to one of the open cylinders, resting its wide hands on the dead before it dropped to its knees to wail in pain. Then it rose; going to each of the dead, repeating the process each time.
“What is the year?” it asked, finally turning back to Jen and the others.
“On Ear—Tellus, the year is 2122,” Jen answered.
“I am not known to that date. How many cycles since The Landing?”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” she answered honestly, looking at the others for possible answers but they had none as well.
“It matters not at all,” the being said, “Returned too late. Aid me in awakening the brethren.”
Slightly reeling from it all, Jen nodded and ordered her crew to help, hoping it would get them the answers they wanted in the end.
Out of the hundred and twelve cylinders that were opened, only ten beings were found alive, each one going to the dead, touching and wailing, filling the chamber with the awful noise.
The translator was only able to pick up one voice at a time, so it spit out random words in between error codes, “…Late, Mistaken, Helpless, Imperfect, Fault, Impurity…”
When the beings finally gathered before her and the crew, Jen asked again about how they came to be there.
“You have forsaken all memory and the mother tongue?” one asked, ignoring the question yet again.
“We never knew it. We’ve been exploring this world for less than a century; we still have much to learn.”
One of the beings growled, “Tell the child!”
Another being began speaking quickly, the translator struggling to keep up.
“This haven was placed to preserve…when god-sphere struck…learned it would cause great desolation…too weak for journey…too many…sent Man seeds to Tellus Star, knew was fertile…seeds engineered by genetic code…Man was to return when god-sphere had finished wreaking…Man was too late…many perished further…”
Jen was stunned; if she’d heard correctly, then sometime in Mars’ distant past, these beings had somehow sent genetic human material from Mars to Earth with preprogrammed codes written into the cells that would instinctually point humans back to Mars, once they had evolved, in order to “awaken” these beings after some sort of cataclysm.
As for the god-sphere, could that mean another planetary body? Like in the mega-impact theory?
Well we returned, she thought, shaking her head, though a bit late, apparently.
“Did he mean what I think he meant?” Josef said, “That we’re somehow from Mars?”
“That’s what I heard,” Jen said. Then, to the beings, “I wish to apologize on behalf of…Man. We didn’t know of all this; I can assure you.”
“Blame is our own,” one of them said. “Damaged code…other fault.”
An alarm went off on Jen’s suit. They had to get back to The Spider before rescue was sent. “We must leave. Is there a way you can come with us?”
“Not time,” one said after discussing it with the others. “We must…awaken others…you may return here, in time…bring others…knowledge.”
Jen got the gist. “We shall return soon then,” she said.
Back at The Spider, Jen excitedly radioed in to the dispatchers at Base 001 and sent them a digital packet of their discoveries.
She was soon transferred to Commander Bika, the officer in charge of the Valles Marineris operations.
“Excellent, team,” he said. “Keep this information under strictness confidence until further notice.”
“Roger that, sir,” Jen said, slightly confused. Their main mission was to find life…and they’d found it; why keep it a secret?
“New orders are: to eliminate all subjects and material immediately.”
That brought Jen’s eyebrows up as far as they’d go. “Sorry, sir; just to confirm: we are to eliminate all subjects and material?”
“Affirmative; return directly to base when done.”
Jen turned to her crew.
“This is the biggest discovery in the entire history of space exploration,” Brad said. “We can’t just erase it. Right?”
“Secret or not,” Josef said. “I’m not killing innocent beings.”
Jen nodded, “All right, I have a plan. Just go with it; Kim, make digital copies of everything we’ve discovered, timestamp it, and upload it to my personal data drive.” Then, to Commander Bika, “Roger, sir. Commencing elimination of the subjects.”
She then prepared to lead her crew back into the cave once more.
Only one being—now wearing a transparent globe fitted with a speaker over its head—remained when they returned. Jen informed the being that they were to kill it and all its brethren.
“What will be the decision?” it asked through the speaker, seemingly unfazed by the prospect.
“Well, we’re not going to do it, of course,” Jen said. “Is there a place where you and your brethren can hide until we can secure your safety at a later date?”
“Indeed, many are already there.”
“Good,” she said. “I promise that you will remain unharmed, but we will have to destroy this place.”
A panel opened of its own accord along one wall, revealing a small closet. The being entered it then turned around. “So be it,” it said.
“Where will we be able to find you again?”
“We will find you.” And then the panel swished closed.
Back inside The Spider, Josef disengaged it from the canyon wall, placing it to hover outside the cave entrance. Kim then typed the launch codes into her console, launching the turbontaium missile from The Spider’s belly into the cave.
Josef then fired the thrusters, The Spider reaching the lip of the canyon just as the shockwave was fanning out across the Martian surface.
“Do you think they made it?” Brad asked.
“I hope so,” Jen said.
And then The Spider was racing across the rusty plains, heading back to Base 001, the sun dipping low on the western horizon.
Jen and her crew were sent back to investigate and destroy the rest of the so-called “hibernation chambers”, though—while identical—every subsequent one had been vacant, even of the dead.
Jen felt honored that her team had been selected above all the other crews for such a high-profile duty, but the secrecy, along with the senseless destruction of the Martians and their chambers, was still unnerving and she wanted badly to prevent it, but not at the cost of disobeying direct orders.
Thankfully, she and her crew were being granted early rotation home as a reward for their service and she had plans to head directly to the media with the evidence she had secretly hidden on her data drive.
She loved her job more than anything, but she couldn’t endorse the killing of innocent sentient beings. Once she leaked the operation to the media, she couldn’t be prosecuted in good faith by any court, and then the Martians would be free to come out of hiding.
Hopefully, in the end, she would still have her job, but if not, she would deal and be content with her decision.
After a quick three month shuttle ride, they were finally nearing Earth, but instead of heading in for reentry, the shuttle veered off towards a landing vector with the Luna Penitentiary Facility, which sprawled across the bottom of a crater on the dark side of The Moon.
Her heart sinking, she asked the pilot, “Why are we landing here?”
“Orders,” was all he said.
The shuttle docked at a prison terminal and then Jen and the others took a lifter up from the shuttle to find a squad of Luna Peace Officers waiting beneath the buzzing gravitons. One officer stepped forth and called Jen and the others by name.
“Yes, what is going on?” she asked.
“You are all under arrest for dereliction of duty and treason. We are to confiscate your belongings and escort you to the dark cells for further questioning.”
As Jen was separated from the others, she thought that there must be a way out of this…but when she arrived at an aptly-named dark cell, she knew that there wasn’t going to be. Her life was going to end long before a way could be found; and long before she could save the Martians from needless annihilation.
Eloch stood with Ezeil upon the Mother’s battered surface, watching the primitive rockets of Man rise into the sky as others touched down.
The god-sphere had wreaked its destruction, as had been prophesized, but it was still difficult to look upon the Mother’s scars.
“The codes were obviously corrupt,” Ezeil said. “Man evolved weak. They should have killed us.”
“Agreed,” Eloch said. “We will eradicate them instead; they have performed their intended duty. We will perfect the new batch to take us to Tellus Star, there to raise the empire anew!”
“Agreed,” Ezeil said. “Let us gather the others to prepare the end of Man.”
Nodding, Eloch followed Ezeil down into The Mother’s Heart.