We should never have gone to the moon, I understand that now. Throughout human history there have been myths and fables about the price of curiosity and hubris, of greedily seeking more than we were meant for. Babel, Icarus, The Rotating Wheel –so many tales of warning and yet we never learn. If all those years ago I had said “man is not meant to go to space,” it would have been laughed off as cowardly superstition, and yet I think how much pain might have been spared.
When the president first asked me to head the Apollo program, I could not have been more honored. My team and I all knew our work was making history, that this was to be a great leap for the history of humanity. How could we have known that leap would be one into an abyss? Since the dawn of time man has looked to the stars with wonder, dreaming to sail among them and know what lurks beyond our home. Perhaps it was some Pandora gene in us all this time, driving humanity towards our doom. We should have been grateful with what we had and explored the oceans instead. We should have appreciated the stars from our view on the ground and left well enough alone. But we have always been a reckless lot.
God forgive me, why did we send a manned craft?
Perhaps there is no point in my writing this. After all, the whole world saw what happened that day in 69. We all cheered when we saw the crew set foot on the moon, all watched in stunned amazement as they took those first steps. And then just as quickly we all felt our blood turn to ice when those things stepped out of the shadows before the camera –those towering pale creatures with the empty eyes. Even now I can see poor Neil, my friend, approaching the nearest one, hand outstretched in greeting. Sometimes I wonder if those things could hear us screaming, the whole earth screaming, seconds later as all three astronauts lay floating dead among them. For myself, I still hear the last seconds of those men’s screams, those men we sent to die out there in the abyss. Most people only talk about what was heard after the camera went black -that single word from the dark echoed by a dozen voices: “repent,” along with the short blare of that distorted choir hymn. I don’t care what it was or what they meant. All that sticks with me are the screams of those men we condemned.
There has never been a retrieval mission for the bodies or craft, no serious figure has even suggested it. After what the whole world saw that day, it seems that for once humanity reached an unspoken but unanimous agreement: never again would we reach for the stars. After untold generations of wondering if we were alone in the universe, one swift answer to that question has sent us retreating inwards. The American and Soviet space programs are no more, and in most respects these past thirty years have seen the steepest drop in technological advancements since the dark ages.
Like everyone else, I’ve tried to move on, took a simple teaching job back home in Boston that gave me the first chance in years to reconnect with family. It was a smarter choice than I realized at the time now that the government has added steep restrictions on interstate travel on top of the ongoing martial law. But of course, it doesn’t really matter where you go anymore, there’s no outrunning the trauma anymore than there’s any outrunning the moon. It’s always with us.
Sometimes people recognize you out at the park or store, and there’s that brief moment of wondering how bad things may get before they just give you a look or say “go to hell” and move on. For the most part I’ve been lucky and have no real right to complain, not with what has happened to plenty of the other people from Apollo. In the past five years alone one of us was shot dead and two more are still hospitalized after attacks. For the longest time my wife insisted I try to pull old strings and get us in witness protection, but that hope died years ago. What most people don’t realize is that for ages now just about everyone in the government has at least as much disgust for us scientists as the public does. If anything, I’m shocked the current administration hasn’t just thrown us all to the mob, and the truth is I wouldn’t blame them if they did.
If the lunar incident had been all there was it would still have been too much for our world. But of course not even a full month later the missing probe, Mariner 7, crash landed through that house in Gary, Indiana. Most people believe poor Sandra McDougal was killed in the ruble, but a few of us have seen the official police reports and photos. By this point I had lost the clearance to know what they found in the probe’s remains but after seeing what it had done to McDougal I can’t say I want to know. That pale puppeteer body that lurched out of the house, that took down two cops before they could subdue it, that wasn’t a human anymore. All these years later Gary is still quarantined from the world, and while I would like to hope the rest of its people are doing well it feels safe to assume there is at least some truth to the ghost stories.
I still get a lot of questions from people who assume I’m any less in the dark than the rest of them. Everyone wants to know if there’s a method to lunar entities’ games or if it’s all just random. I don’t personally think knowing either way would bring comfort, because the truth is at this point humanity hardly needs any help making new nightmares from our trauma. We still don’t know who actually replayed their original message on the emergency broadcast system, just like we don’t know what became of the ground crew at Cape Canaveral. In the past people used to speculate how some tragic event or great threat might unite humanity in a common goal, but when the real nightmare came it brought no such ambition. The only thing we’ve been united in is our fear as we all just try to bury ourselves and hide from the world outside. We cheered for the curfew, because who wants to be caught in the moonlight now anyway? We accepted the interstate travel restrictions just as easily as we did the ban on travel in or out of the country. And we’re already on our second ‘dear leader’ with all the answers, despite all the further pain born from the Jim Jones administration.
I don’t think anyone misses televisions though.
Even after all that has happened, I don’t think I’ve fully processed the Manhattan Rapture. It’s simply too big, too horrific, too unreal even for the world we now live in. Ten years to the day of the original moon landing, an entire island of people just vanished overnight. Of course, now we’ve got all these cults and weirdos claiming it’s all part of some grand design. I don’t know how a healthy mind could have watched the original Apollo footage and called those things angels. No angel could have done those things.
But even I’ll admit they may be right about these being the end times.
I’m told it’s not just the humans, but all animals and bugs too, that were wiped from Manhattan. It’s like they dropped a bomb on the place, but instead of bringing fire and rubble this one simply took, took life without struggle or sound. In the blink of an eye our greatest city became our greatest ghost town. The truth is that I think for most of us it’s worse than if this had been a normal bombing, because we don’t even know these people’s fate for sure. There are no bodies to mourn, no visuals of a world transformed, no answers to that ever-present question of why.
The only time in my life I felt anything close to the constant dread that now haunts me was a young man in the navy, back at the height of the pacific war. Like now, there was that dread because you knew the enemy would strike again, you knew they were out there planning. But of course, there were two comforting differences back then. The first was obviously that we could fight back, we had a chance of responding. The second is the difference which bothers me most. Back in that war you at least knew what your enemy wanted, what the goal behind their actions was. But now we live in an age where the enemy can make a million people vanish in a second with no notice, where they can toy with us and terrorize us for seemingly no reason at all. So we panic and we hide and we fight each other because we have to fight someone, we have to set free this fear and rage that fills us all. Still each day we wonder, is the big attack coming? Is this all leading up to some grand finale? I think the truth is we all hope it is, because no matter how bad that finale might be, it would at least offer some finality, some escape from this endless torment.
For myself though, I don’t believe there is any end to the nightmare, not for all of us at least, because I think I’ve finally realized what this all is. For so long we were sending things up to space, poking and prodding and seeing what we could learn to feed our curiosity. Now the tables are turned though, and it’s they who are running the experiments, doing what they will to us all just to see what happens and to watch us squirm. We humans gazed too long into the abyss, and now that abyss is gazing back.
It has taken me a long time to put any words down about my thoughts on this nightmare, but I finally did find a reason to. I could never craft the apology the world deserves for my role with the Apollo program, because no matter how much guilt and shame consume me the crime is simply too big for my words to offer any healing. So instead I’m writing these words to offer my confession. A lot of people from our program aren’t here anymore, and more than a few people have asked me how I manage to keep on despite everything. The shameful truth is that even after all that has happened, I am still curious. As much as it fills me with disgust, I still want to know more, want to see more, just like they do. It is not that I haven’t learned anything, but that I haven’t learned enough.
I cannot learn enough.
We gazed long into an abyss that has swallowed us whole, but I gaze deeper still.
Brady Ellis is a writer from Appalachia, Ohio, a graduate of The Ohio State University with a B.A. in English and Political Science, and the associate of multiple infamous cats. When not writing he can be found fueling his caffeine addiction or wandering through the nearest woods.
How do I feel? What kind of fucking question is that? When I said I was gonna talk, were you all so surprised that you didn’t prepare any good questions? How many suspects refuse a lawyer? The responding officers were dumb-struck, but they at least got their shit together to unstick me and Riley from the walls. They could’ve waited a few minutes before slapping on those cold, metal loop-de-loops. But I guess that’s what we get for breaking into The National Air and Space Museum: cold, metal loop-de-loops.
Thieves’ honor is fucked when the cops who pick you up and take you away are in different uniforms. We were all color-coordinated. Cops and robbers, all in black.
Did you guys get Lee outta the suit? You did? Has he ratted on us already, told you everything? Ah, your poker face is cracking, Detective…Murphy.
Maybe I won’t tell you anything.
This is the part where you offer me something cool to talk like enhanced immunity. Deal. I’ll take a cigarette too. But wait, what about that No Smoking sign? Ha! I always knew cops liked breaking the rules too.
Alright, Detective Murphy, look deep into my green eyes and see that I’m telling the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the—my eyes are gray? They change with the lighting, sometimes. This interrogation room is pretty gray.
Consider yourself lucky. I’ve wanted to tell this story for weeks. Each layer almost had me running to tell all my best friends and none of them are cops.
I swear we got the job from a flyer. You know, one of those paper octopuses stapled to telephone poles that wiggle names and numbers in the wind? MOVING JOB – CASHis what it said. All caps, little clarification needed.
Why did I apply? Did you not hear me? Cash. C-A-S-fucking-H. I thought you were supposed to be a detective. You didn’t notice my college ID in the empty wallet you guys made me put in that gray bedpan? But you’re right. It was also the perfect job.
I ripped the fifth paper tentacle thing off. Lee was the second and Riley was the fourth. No idea who was first or third. Probably two other broke college students.
But I do know why Dr. O’Connor hired us. We each had a skill and a past. Riley was an IT specialist at Hagerstown Community College and was the go-to expert to remove the virus that was slowing down you and your rich uncle’s PCs. It helped that she created the virus.
And moi? I’m an actor. I worked with Riley. We met through a mutual mark. Long story, not worth the jail time to tell. Though I don’t know which jail you’re gonna put us in. Guantanamo? Area 51? Roswell Correctional Facility for the unlucky souls who encounter extraterrestrial, paranormal, or weird shit while committing crimes?
But lemme shine that spotlight back on me. If casting directors didn’t frown upon such things, my audition reel would be full of Emmy-award-worthy CCTV performances such as Milo as a rich, senile old man who needs to make an ATM withdrawal.
Lee? We didn’t know Lee, but we’d learn more about him later. Be patient. You’re getting this testimony for a few stale cigarettes, a grudge, and a promise. Don’t expect better service.
We all got a text saying we had to go to some house in Northwest DC, where all the rich diplomats live. Me and Riley talked about it while planning another con—I mean, birthday party. It was funny that we both had walked by the same flyer, both ripped off a tentacle. But we both can’t turn down cash so it wasn’t that much of a coincidence.
Neither of us remembered texting the number, but, sure as shit, there was a message on our phones proving just the opposite. We agreed to act like we didn’t know each other.
If I write down Dr. O’Connor’s address, can I get another cigarette? Thank you. Nice pen. I don’t know the ZIP code, but I bet you can rustle up a meter maid to track it down. I’ll give you the pen back when you hand me the lighter.
We all arrived at the same time, driving dusty sedans with red, white, yellow parking passes watermarking our windshields. There was no FOR SALE sign on the lawn or moving truck in the driveway.
Dr. O’Connor’s house looks like a castle and a triple-tiered wedding cake had a gray and purple baby. You can see it for yourself when you go later, if she hasn’t burned it to the ground already. Don’t worry, don’t worry. Jeez, your face sure can tremble. She never explicitly said she was gonna do that, but it would be a good way to destroy the evidence. A lot less messy than having to pay someone to shiv us in our cells.
Lee lunged up the walkway and stood flexing on the porch. With too much stuff in her backpack as always, Riley shuffled up, leaned on the railing, and played with her phone. They didn’t talk.
I sat in my car, sticking on a fake beard with Vaseline since I forgot my spirit gum at home. When the beard slid off my face and onto my lap, I got out. Waving to the other two made them shiver. The door opened too.
I’m not one for interior design—that’s Lee’s area of expertise, so to speak—so I don’t remember much about the insides beyond all the…eccentric antiques.
Dr. O’Connor’s collecting philosophy seemed to be to take all the things no one wanted. Tacky court portraits that must’ve lead to a few free haircuts for their painters, thick yellowing skeletons of small dinosaurs that would offend a dog, coral totems that were the missing link between mythological and pathological. All boring, off-putting, and odd. I’d need to take way more electives to understand any of it, but I don’t think they teach you about spooky shit like that in college.
You didn’t wanna touch the stuff. Nothing was small enough to fit in your pockets too. Believe me, I tried.
A tall woman in a long black dress ferried us into a dining room. That was the only time I ever saw Dr. O’Connor’s “help.” Trying to think of her makes my head hurt. It’s like her face was…blank. Smooth. Gone.
We had our interview around a long, thin wooden table shaped like an oval. It made the dining room seem huge. Dr. O’Connor sat at the head of the table. Under her right hand were three manila folders.
She asked us how our days were and had us introduce ourselves to each other. Lee said he was studying physical therapy or one of those pre-med thingies. Riley reminded me of her major: biomedical informatics, which made me think she was working on cyborgs. I talked about some commercial work I did and the plays with the long and twisty names that college directors love performing like they get paid by the syllable. But my eyes never left those folders.
During our introductions, Dr. O’Connor stayed silent. She didn’t even say anything when one of us finished, just open-palm pointed at the next person. She didn’t seem to be paying much attention, but was acting like she was. Her body was turned toward the speaker, her arms uncrossed, her eyes level. But she was staring blankly like someone who’d memorized the answers before taking a test. And I was right. That body language master class paid off after all.
When I finished speaking, she slid us our folders. Every folder contained the same thing: single-spaced reports about each of us. The crimes we’d committed, all the ones we got away with, the close-calls, the mugshots who got the book thrown at them instead of us. There were frames from security cam footage that’d been blown up to reveal as much of our beautiful faces as possible. If she was working for you guys, you might’ve caught us. I consider your capture today to be a supernatural technicality.
The pictures of me were terrible, but they made me wish I didn’t have to burn the costumes after my performances. Riley only had one picture that I assumed was her hacking into a computer that wasn’t hers. The rest of the documents about her were confusing, full of coding language that read like an error message. I recognized some debit card numbers from our cons—birthday parties.
But I did learn why Dr. O’Connor chose Lee. He was an excellent rock climber and liked stuffing shiny rocks into his pockets. His muscles made sense. In his stills, he was walking on his hands, more often than not.
Lee slammed his folder shut. Me and Riley were more polite. We wanted to see what the blackmail was being used for.
When we looked up, three stacks of cash were in front of Dr. O’Connor. She slid these across the table and then told us about Edgar Mitchell. Edgar Mitchell was—Riley already told you. Lame. I really liked that story.
What did the others not tell you? The planning? Really? What did Lee end up talking about? His trip, huh. Can you tell me that? We didn’t have time to talk in between you peeling me and Riley off the walls and dragging down Lee. You can’t? Ugh. Fine.
I’ll set the scene and then I might head to bed. Okay?
Imagine Riley hunched over her chunky multi-monitored computer, clicking and typing away with two mouses and three keyboards. Why she needs this bulky set-up, I’ve never understood. She’s digging through the National Air and Space Museum’s iCloud account or something, nabbing all the passwords and floor plans she can get. She can’t get everything however and that’s where I step in.
After Riley spreads some very convincing lies on the Internet, Dr. O’Connor outfitted me in a snazzy suit and ran lines with me. I become Michael Collins-Danforth The Third, a rich kid looking to become a patron of the arts, sciences, humanities, and whatever else museums hold nowadays.
Act One involved me bragging to the museum’s head honcho about my love of private jets and rockets, my wealth, and, of course, my wealth. They put me on hold the first time I called. But not the second time. They didn’t want me to throw my money at SpaceX and urged me to accept a private tour of the history I’d be preserving.
Act Two was me driving down to DC in Dr. O’Connor’s Mercedes and getting a private tour of the whole place, after all the plebes left for the day. During the tour, I took obnoxiously long and loud phone calls with my imaginary but persistent stockbroker Timmy. These one-sided phone calls revealed everything about my wealth and allow me to wander where I shouldn’t.
I also teared up and ask for a moment to be alone near certain artifacts and their less dusty outlets and control panels. My shiny wing tips and manicured hands set off every single alarm. I got in trouble a few times, but then they just turned off the alarms. Money talks.
I didn’t ask about the suit. But they did show me some of the rocks that Mitchell and the other guy brought back. They were boring until I touched them. My hands froze. Literally froze. My bones and muscles bent into a C. I couldn’t even pocket one.
The attendants didn’t respond to my contortion. Even when I groaned. They were frozen too, staring at the ceiling. I wiggled my arm and the rock rolled off it. An attendant caught it with one gloved hand like she’d been waiting for it. My hand cracked back into place.
I didn’t tell Dr. O’Connor or the others about the rock. It would’ve killed the job or made it harder. I was paid for the space suit, not the rocks. And I’d already spent all the money.
I should’ve called it and let some other talented, black mail-able, and broke college student get the gig. But I didn’t. That’s the scariest sentence in our whole language: But I didn’t.
Act Three took place back at Dr. O’Connor’s. We met there three times a week to plan the heist. Me and Riley hadn’t done anything this big. Lee might’ve, but he didn’t like talking. He preferred bending us into uncomfortable positions and grunting when we couldn’t do standing backflips. Dr. O’Connor let him do all this because she thought the security was gonna be tougher than what our recon said.
The floor layout of the storage area gave us all chills. Rows and rows of the same shelves, the same boxes. Our eyes strained and dripped with the lack of detail. But we stuck with it.
Dr. O’Connor provided those special bags you had to detach from the wall next to me. We bought the clothes and the tools with Dr. O’Connor’s never-ending fortune. We never went into the same store together, never purchased the same things together, never even thought about appearing in public together. They didn’t even visit to the museum until the big day—night.
So yeah, we broke in. The museum could’ve saved all the destruction costs by just selling the damn thing to Dr. O’Connor. Just saying.
Can I take a nap now? There’s something about wrestling with the occult and cops in two different uniforms that really drains you. I’ll take another cigarette before I leave. Thank you very much.
I’m not saying shit. Nope. Nothing. You can speak to my lawyer. You did? She said I should talk? You got that on paper? You do. Hmm. Lemme call her. You need to get a new phone, Officer. This one’s so outdated. It doesn’t even have a—
Do I want a cigarette? No. Milo smokes, I don’t. Save them for him. You’re gonna need one while talking to him. But I do want some Advil and an iced tea. I’ll take a Pepsi. Thank you. My head’s all puddled.
What do you wanna know? Why Dr. O’Connor wanted it? Isn’t that obvious? Someone must’ve told you what the suit can do! Why does it do that? I don’t know! It’s nothing I learned in my STEM classes, I’ll tell you that.
Before working for Dr. O’Connor, I didn’t believe in any of this shit. Still don’t, really. I always thought occultism was something rich people invented when badminton got boring.
But Edgar Mitchell, a smart ass dude, MIT graduate, Apollo 14 astronaut, he believed in it. He also believed in aliens later on, but that’s not important. Or maybe it is. Dr. O’Connor didn’t tell us about that part and told us not to look anything up because of search histories and all that stuff rookies don’t know how to hide. But seeing how good she was at tracking us, I stayed sequestered and tried to find her bugs in my computers without setting off too many alarms. Maybe Milo knows more about it. Lee isn’t much of a reader.
In 1971, while on his way to the moon, Edgar Mitchell conducted a few…experiments. I don’t know if my professors would call what he did experiments, but I’m not sure if there’s a better word.
The first one he did was telepathy. Mitchell flipped a bunch of cards, stared at them, and then wrote some stuff down. On the return trip, he did it again. His psychic friends back on Earth were supposed to be receiving his mental messages.
Mitchell got fifty-one out of two-hundred right which, considering statistics, is about how much you would get randomly guessing. But if you compare the two score-cards, he got every single one wrong on the second try. He was trying to fail.
But that was after he walked on the moon. As him and Alan Sheppard were descending, something malfunctioned. After lots of jiggering, they got back on track. But then the radar blew. Mitchell commanded the radar to work—“Come on, radar. Lock on!”—and it did.
Considering the tech they were using, it wasn’t a miracle. The recorder you’re using right now is probably more advanced then some of the stuff inside those space ships. Is that a TASCAM DR-680? Officer, the police get so much funding. I’ve seen the bank accounts. You really should get—You should hire me as your tech assistant after this. Okay. We’ll talk more about the moon. You’re lucky the Advil and Pepsi are working.
So they landed and something went wrong, again. They were lost. Mitchell forgot to command the radar nicely since it dropped them somewhere not on their itinerary: the dark side of the moon.
No one knows exactly what happened while they were there. They took some pictures with a 16mm data acquisition camera and both made vague statements after the fact. Mitchell threw a javelin and Sheppard swung a golf club. This is why I don’t date STEM guys. Can’t remember a birthday if it’s not written in C++.
Dr. O’Connor was convinced something happened and that whatever it was, Mitchell’s suit would provide some answers.
Why did I join the team? You ever have to fix thirty laptops full of porn and viruses for minimum wage while juggling a full schedule? It’s not fun.
Fun is shutting down the National Air and Space Museum’s security system. Luckily, government-funded stuff usually runs on outdated technology, even science museums.
The night guards move inefficiently. You need at least two pairs of eyes to notice anything. The head guard was on a smoke break when we showed up! Our fake keycards were useless since he propped the door open. You think the museum would hire me, if you don’t?
We went in through the unguarded security room, dressed in all-black. I plugged my computer into one of the terminals and killed the electronic locks and security cameras. After that, I looked into what I could do with the lasers from inside the museum. Lee stretched. Milo paced around, leaning to the right and left when he got to a corner, mimicking Lee. Lee grunted and I told them both to knock it off.
I ran through everything and found no way to do it. The lasers were old as shit, barely better than electric fences. It was like someone wanted us tenderized before we got to the suit. There was a laser outside the security room so we had to exit through a fire window. My back’s still hurting from that one.
With the security cameras looping last night’s footage and the electronic locks thinking they were closed, we only had to deal with the lasers and the guards.
Did I notice that there were no guards? In the moment, not really. I just thought we were lucky, that all the guards were living in the fantasy that no one would rob the National Air and Space Museum. You take luck when you find it. Most people’s passwords are obvious and stupid. Besides, the silence was loud. It usually amplifies everything. But tonight, it sucked every decibel away.
Where were the guards, by the way? The ceiling? Are they—I’m not gonna ask that. I’m too tired to deal with that guilt now. I’ll answer your “final” question and then I’m gonna end this and call my aunt again. I mean, my lawyer. Ask the question.
What color are my eyes? Brown, but usually red from staring at screens all day. Weird question considering you have two eyes to answer it for you. Do you want me to tell your eye color? You get one more question.
How did I feel? Scared as shit.
The cold air in the museum didn’t help anything. We used the moonlight and red EXIT signs to guide us. Hoping for a guard’s flashlight was a bad idea. The preparation in Dr. O’Connor’s mansion gave me nightmares and backaches, but it worked. If you turned off the lights right now, I could see better, clearer.
Yeah, nightmares. I dreamed that every thing I opened lead to a locked door. Cereal box, computer file, storage bin, door, door, door. The knobs were hot, cold, rusted, slick, jagged, smooth. But the doors were all red. The red of headaches, of heatstrokes, of sun blindness. I’m not gonna sleep well tonight.
We moved in a single-file line, a hand on each shoulder. Lee was in front and Milo was imprinting his bony hand into my new bruises. The floors should’ve squeaked more and the carpet should’ve been rougher. But it was like a cold stone path.
We went over and under the lasers. I don’t know how long it took us. Time seemed to stop. The moon barely twitched.
The darkness shifted with each step. Propellers, parachutes, and prop planes lunged at us and retreated. We almost slammed into a rocket in one hallway. The faceless mannequins wearing flight suits made us gasp more than any security guard could’ve. But we had time. The cleaning staff weren’t coming until dawn. Dawn was so far way. It still is for us three.
I really need to lay down. My back pain’s spreading to my feet. Being stuck to that wall didn’t do me any good. Smashed my computer and phone too. Can I use your phone again? It’s dead? Ugh.
I fla-fla-fla-floated. I floated. It was…I’m cuh-cuh-cold. Turn the he-heat o-on! It’s on aye-eighty? Nuh-nuh-no way. My gums fuh-feel like eye-eye-icecream. The cuh-coat. Gim-me-me the coat! Nuh-now!
I can still feel the cold in my lungs and stomach, but it’s not pressing against my skin anymore. One thing they never tell you is that museums are cold at night, laboratory-cold, ice-bath cold, cemetery-cold. Cold as space.
You said if I talked about the other two I walk, right? I’ll take “basically.”
Do I want a cigarette? No! Do you know that every cigarette stabs your lungs? It weakens all your muscles. You shouldn’t smoke. Try running instead.
I’m never stealing again. Promise. I can’t—I floated. I fucking floated.
It took us too long to get through the main building. Not because of me. The other two needed to take breaks to keep up. They’d forgotten everything we’d practiced at Dr. O’Connor’s. She’s the woman who hired us. Thinking about her makes my chest hurt. The others will tell you more. I need to get this off my chest so it will literally get off my chest. I have a triathlon in three weeks.
The storage area was dark. The moonlight was gone. No guards waving their beams. We had flashlights. Little blue icicles of light. The same brand as the security guards. If one of them was in the storage area, they’d think we were their coworkers. If they got too close, I was supposed to snooze them.
The boxes all looked the same to me. Dr. O’Connor had told me privately that I alone would know when we found the right box. She said I was more observant and had better sense than the others. Since I spend most of my time perfecting my body and reflexes, I agreed with her. She was right about something.
The first box I sensed weighed at least two-hundred pounds. What do I mean by sensed? You know when you look at a pile of plates and know much you can clear that day? It’s like that. Alpha-sense.
Only I could take the box down. It was no biggie. Inside was a disassembled iron fence. After lifting bar after bar and finding no suit at the bottom, I slid it back into place. I told the other two to turn off their flashlights so I could sense better. Milo laughed at me and Riley kept searching.
The second box I sensed was lighter. When I shook it, it clinked like a glass visor hitting metal. But inside it were thirty-five teacups. They cracked as I threw it back. I was about to yell at them to turn off their fucking flashlights, but I heard scraping.
Milo found it. His flashlight shone on its cracked label first. A chill sprinted up my lats. It had to be the box.
For how weak he is, he didn’t need my help lifting it. It didn’t make a sound when he dropped it on the ground. He stuck his tongue out when Riley and I got next to him.
I jabbed the crowbar into the lock, but it didn’t give. The lock on it was different than the others. It was older, not like the new ones where a well placed punch can short-circuit it. It took Riley longer to find her lock picking kit in her backpack than to crack it.
The suit was resting on a foam pad. It looked like the suit was surrounded by a thin empty oval. It was so ordinary. Smelled bad, though. Cheesy feet. Milo retched. Riley said it was the humidity, a fault in the AC.
While holding his breath, Milo unzipped the bags. Riley kept watch. I scooped the suit with one arm. It shouldn’t have weighed much. Nothing I couldn’t deal with.
But it…rose, rose like someone was dragging it by the helmet. Its gold visor was reflecting rays from some invisible light source. It sparkled like another sun.
Its reflection widened, coloring the room lava orange. And it rose higher. Milo screamed. All that actor’s training he wouldn’t shut up about didn’t help him one bit. He should’ve hit the gym like I told him to.
The suit’s right hand twitched and Milo was flung to the wall with all the bags surrounding him like giant blood stains. Riley ran away. Her backpack spilled her things everywhere. Milo’s thud was followed by another one to my left. She was gone. A smeared puddle somewhere out of reach.
I couldn’t move. The visor’s reflection shrunk. Only a crescent of orange light was blazing on the ceiling. The helmet was more than empty. A void. And it dragged me into it.
Something heavy pressed into me on all sides. My muscles swam. My triceps flooded into my shoulders. My jaw cracked back and forth, left, right, left. All my bones broke, but I couldn’t pass out. My eyes sunk into my skull. They couldn’t close.
No, I don’t need the cigarette and I don’t need to stop. I am a man. I am strong. The other two can’t tell you this. The suit would’ve pulverized their weak and lazy skeletons. It chose me.
The helmet clicked. I sucked in oxygen rich air. Mountain climbers’ saving grace. My lungs were squeezed tighter with each inhale. My senses were jumbled. I could only hear the darkness. I could see this…humming. I raised my hand to guard my eyes. My arm shot up too fast, but caught itself with a tug at the shoulder. My fingers pressed against a soft, padded glove. I was in the suit.
I jerked down the visor. When I looked up, I saw a night sky that held no hope of day. The oxygen choked me, but the visor didn’t fog.
And then I looked down. On my feet were boots pressing against gray rocks covered in dust. The ruins of a scarred desert. The ground shook. A rock pile that looked like a mountain range made of glass rose in front of me. It was no bigger than two feet squared, but it electrified my spine.
I heard a new frequency. Two high-pitched notes tried to merge, but didn’t connect and wailed in agony. It was like two ice needles were jammed into my ears. The glass rocks seeped steel oil full of sparkling chunks of red light.
Even though it was leaking away from me, I ran. The moon’s surface was flat and dead. Perfect terrain to run in. But the suit restrained me. It felt like one hundred rubber straps were suffocating every stride. My heart rate spiked, but I wasn’t scared. I was not scared.
I stopped and turned around. The oil stopped too. I was safe. And then it shot up and rushed toward me. The sparkling chunks were full of gnawing teeth made of cracked red glass. No eyes, no lips, just teeth.
Stop asking me if I need a fucking minute! It’s over! It’s all fucking over!
I woke up to the two officers cracking open the suit with the crowbar. All the lights were on. The storage area guards were standing on their heads, their arms twisted behind their backs. There was less blood than I expected. Milo and Riley were being carried away on stretchers, in handcuffs. The air was too thin and I got sick. Thinking about it—Ugh.
Sleep? I do wanna sleep. I do. But when I blink, I see it. Void. It’s in your eyes too. It’s beyond the iris now. Blinking doesn’t help. I am not scared. I am not scared. I am not scared. I am not scared. I am not scared. I am not scared. I am not scared. I am not scared. I am…We’re never gonna leave here, are we?
Dan states: “I studied journalism at Boston University and received an MFA in creative writing at Columbia University. I’ve worked as a movie theater cleaner, a cashier at a vacation clothing store, an indie bookseller, and a tech assistant for an art consulting firm. My website is dadell.com.”
We were on the edge of an unknown solar system in an unknown sector when the alien craft appeared.
It was massive, a perfect sphere. All black. Large hair like growths jutted out in all directions. The soft glow of the systems blue giant reflecting off its exterior was absolutely beautiful.
We hailed it to no avail.
A tractor beam locked on to us, trapping us within a false gravity. A set of bay doors opened at its front. Then a flash. Two metallic tendrils shot out of the dull blue haze within, their claw-like tips digging into the front of the ship.
Decks three through six lost both pressure and atmosphere. There were no survivors.
The captain gave the order. Ten volleys of plasma torpedoes followed and not a scratch.
We were pulled inside to the sound of klaxons and screams. Another flash and everything went black.
This was first contact.
This was a complete nightmare.
I woke in small cell without windows or doors. Cold. Fetal. A nutrient tube had been sown into my stomach. Dried blood surrounded the point of insertion. Pulling only made the stitches grow tighter.
There was a presence behind me. I could feel the coldness of it; the wrongness of it.
It shifted its weight and spoke.
“Hello, Pat, is it?”
I looked up, my eyes rolling lethargically within my skull. The ships waste management tech stood over me wearing a shiny robe of red velvet. His head came into focus. A glowing orb drifted above his face. Two wires in the back connected to the empty sockets of where his eyes once were.
I recoiled and scuttled backwards. “What the hell happened to you?”
“Stay calm,” he said taking a step towards me. His grey lips stretched into a smile. Purple liquid dripped from the corners.
His name was Raymond. There was a rumor among the ship that he was the sole survivor of a suicide cult on a desert planet. Their method of self-execution was walking out into the vast wasteland outside the safety of the port city and starving themselves of all water and food.
Two months after the cult’s leader broadcasted the groups intentions, Raymond was found drenched in blood in a small cave, thirty pounds overweight and surrounded by the hacked up remains of forty-three people.
The genitals were first to be eaten. Or so they said.
No one ever got too close.
“Do you trust me?” said Raymond.
“Not really,” I said. I was panicked. Hyperventilating.
“You should. I come to you today with a wonderful offer.”
The color of his face orb shifted. My breathing slowed. A strange calmness came over me.
It was hard to move.
It was hard to think.
Raymond sat down at my level. Legs cross. Elbows on his knees. He said I had a choice: accept the Pale God’s guidance or become an offering.
I could only stare. Whatever they had drugged me with was kicking in. I was trembling. My vision blurred. The walls vibrated all around us.
Raymond was a rock within it all. He gently put his hand on my shoulder and moved in closer.
With growing fervor, he told me how the Pale God only gave his blessings to those who joined willingly.
He told me how he couldn’t even begin to describe how good it felt to live in its light.
He told me how in its infinite kindness, it would absolve me of all my sins.
I just needed to say yes.
By now the entire room was shaking. Raymond praised the Pale God at the top of his lungs like a mad man, head up, arms to the ceiling, his face-orb brightly flashing a rainbow of colors in sync with the words.
My back was to the wall. There was nowhere to run.
Suddenly, Raymond froze and held up a finger. All went still in an instant. The orb drifted closer until it was inches from my face. A million tiny particles danced within its now soft purple glow. It was all I could focus on.
I was drawn to it, mesmerized by it.
Raymond reached out from beyond its light, squeezed my arm softly, and said, “My friend, I have no doubt that when the time comes, you’ll do the right thing.”
He then stood.
He then smiled.
Then flash, and he was gone.
A coldness came over the room. Everything seemed so empty and hollow in the absence of his orbs glow.
This was the part where I’d usually give you an engaging insight into my past, but my memory was fading fast within the fog. Only glimpses remained: A woman scorned. A cat smuggled. A plasma torch igniting.
This wasn’t the first time I was offered a false hope in exchange for enteral servitude.
We were all running from something…
I stood naked in near darkness, placed single file in line with my former crewmates, our muscles locked in place by some invisible forces. The air was thick and warmed. A severed nutrient feed dripped down my leg.
Glowing particles rose from the floor all around us, slowly merging and taking shape, forming the landscape of an Earth I’ve never seen with my own eyes.
In minutes we were all standing in a field of violet flowers within a mountain valley. Ethereal sunlight seeped through the cracks of large, vibrant clouds, shining onto a large stone platform engraved with intricate gold patterns.
But something off. Everything was too crisp, too saturated, all of it blowing in a breeze I couldn’t feel.
A small creature appeared on the platform, serenaded by loud, disembodied claps, and draped in purple. It rode atop an elaborate machine, all torso and head without features. Fleshy growths clung to the cracks in skin textured like chipped marble. An orb twice its mass was embedded deep into its skull.
On either side stood a pair of massive aliens with massive limbs. Their heads were oval with jaws fillies with razors. Each had an orb of their very own, single wires extending into their single eye sockets.
The Pale God’s orb rippled and flashed green.
Our muscles suddenly freed. Many of my former crew looked around in confusion. Some murmured. Some wept.
Not one deviated from the line.
“This isn’t right,” a voice whispered from behind me. “Did they talk to you too? What’d they mean by ‘an offering?’”
I didn’t answer. All my focus was on the Pale God. I could feel a gentle vibration somewhere within the back of my mind. It was faint, almost soothing.
Our ships’ captain jumped up on the podium with gusto. Her crimson robes were pressed to perfection. Her face orb glowed bright blue.
“It’s a wonderful day for all of you,” she said with uncharacteristic glee. “Today is the day you get to receive the truth of our God’s glorious blessing.”
The captain motioned to the person at the head of the line. It was the first time I had ever seen her smile.
“You, Madeline. You get the honor of being first.”
Madeline held a rosary tight in her grip, her lips moving wordlessly. Two robed figures guided her up onto the platform until she was just feet from the Pale God.
Madeline brought the rosary to her face. She was sobbing uncontrollably.
“Kneel before him to receive his gift,” said the captain.
The woman froze. She shook her head ‘no’ rapidly, her eyes closed tight.
“Oh dear,” said the captain.
The Pale God’s orb turned red. It didn’t hesitate.
Madeline’s body was lifted inches off the ground, limbs locked and outstretched against her will. Her screams of protest cut off in an instant as a fine red mist her shape and size was ripped from her. The false Madeline hovered in the air for mere moments before being absorbed into the pale Gods orb.
A dried husk hit the ground. No longer moving. No longer defiant. It flaked into dust piece by piece, blown away by a gentle breeze.
When it was finished only the rosary remained.
The line erupted in terror. I vomited uncontrollably, starting a chain reaction that spread to the next three in front of me.
The orb flashed a warning. The vibration in my head was growing warmer. I tried to resist it, the comfort of it, the wrongness of it.
It was nothing more than a false hope, a tease to convince us to submit.
“Please, everyone, calm down,” said the captain, waving the crowd to silence. “I know how you all feel right now. I really do. I was hesitant to receive the gift myself. But, my friends, I assure you, I now can’t even imagine a life outside his grace. All the pain, all the suffering, ever sin I ever took part in or endured, all of it has been forever washed away. It will be the same with you. All you have to do is submit and we can continue our journey, spreading word of his eternal love to all we come across.
The vibrations grew stronger.
The man behind me whispered it was all bullshit. He said he saw our ship be destroyed with everything on it. Our only chance now was to fight.
The words were slow to sink in within the fog. Muddled glimpses of everything I had lost flashed in my head: A rock from my home planet. An engagement ring returned. A cat freed from a butcher in a shipyard in exchange for six pounds of thigh meat.
Everything I owned was on that ship, everything I ever knew and loved; all off stripped away in an instant.
My fist and jaw were both clinched tight. Sgt. Snugglesworth didn’t deserve any of this.
I whisper back to the guy behind me that I was in.
The podium shifted.
Next in line was the ships head cook. Old. Rotund. He made his way in front on the Pale God and dropped to his knees instantly, professing his undying devotion.
The Pale God’s orb glowed blue.
The captain plucked a fleshy mass out of a crack in its skin and approached the cook.
“Open your mouth,” she said softly.
He did as he was ordered. He was shaking. He was drooling. There were so many tears.
The captain gently placed the flesh on his tongue. It sizzled on contact.
Then a pause. A moment of silence.
The chef suddenly stood and turned towards the crowd in a panic, grunting and clawing at skin around his eyes as they started to boil and melt into a thin milky liquid that ran down his cheeks.
The chef dropped to his knees, gasping and pleading.
Two robed figures calmly approached, one with a uniform, the other with an orb. The former wrapped him in red velvet. The orb was placed just above his face. Two wire snaked from the back, slowly finding their target, and digging their way deep into the chef’s now defunct eye sockets, latching tight onto his cerebral cortex beyond.
The orb floated from the latter figures grip. It flickered green, matching that of a Pale God’s.
The cook froze, slowly lowered his hands, mouth agape with a look of wonder stretched across his face. A newborn discovering newborn things.
He welcomed the captain’s embrace with a smile.
He beamed when she told him how proud she was of him.
He jumped and clicked his heels together with all the grace of a seventy-four-year-old, proclaiming loudly to all of us how he had never felt better in his entire life.
Twelve people ahead of me and counting.
A woman with dreadlocks and a purple face orb moaned and writhed with delight atop the platform. I now knew with absolutely certainty that all my ex-girlfriends had faked it.
The vibration grew louder. The brain fog cleared. This bliss was just a taste of what the Pale God promised.
It was getting harder to resist.
Next up was a steel worker. As the captain cheered, he turned towards the crowd with a smile and an orb, just like the rest of them.
I was so close to the front. The fear was overwhelming. The vibration was overwhelming. A complete dopamine rush radiated throughout my entire body. Better than finest meal. Better than the finest drug. Better than sex.
I couldn’t let it get to me. I had to be stronger than this. I knew deep down that there was no real choice, no real way out. Die in excruciating pain and become nothing or live as monster, blinded and enslaved.
I was terrified of the things it’d make me do if I accepted. I was terrified I would only be a mindless husk of my former self. But most of all, I was terrified of eternity.
Do you really want to live forever?
The line inched forward.
At two from the front, the man behind me whispered it was time, he said he had a plan.
I was all ears and endorphins.
He moved in close, whispering that he had smuggled in two plasma grenades from the ship before initial blackout just in case. He said to not ask where he stored them.
The person ahead of me took the podium. He was only the second to refused. He shit himself as his soul was torn from his body.
The man behind me shoved a plasma grenade in my grip. He whispered to take the Pale God out and he’d handle the rest.
I armed it behind my back as the captain motioned me up. I looked from her to the Pale God on its tiny throne and took a deep breath.
Its orb was bright and all consuming.
I shook in awe of it.
I was so close to giving it.
I closed my eyes. The grenade felt so real in my grip. A tiny red light flashed on top. It beeped softly, a countdown my imminent demise.
But I no longer mattered. I was going to end this, for the man behind me, for my cat, for every single person and thing lost or indoctrinated. I was going make damn sure no one would ever be given this terrible choice ever again.
My eyes shot open. The grenade was white knuckled in my grip. I drew back for a pitch of a lifetime.
The captain smile faded.
The Pale God’s orb flashed.
The man behind me yelled to do it already.
It was then I heard a meow.
I froze mid-throw. Eyes wide. Mouth wider.
There among the initiated was Sgt. Snugglesworth. He wore a collar of red velvet. Dried eyeball juice was crusted into the orange fur around its now empty eyes. A tiny orb drifted just above it all.
He was a calico.
He was purring.
He was being held by the woman scorned.
She reached her hand out to me. All the horrible memories came flooding back; memories I joined this doom expedition into the unknown to forget; memories I never wanted to relive again.
It started when we were neighbors in a slums of dumpster fire of a planet. It was a new colony. The air was thin. The crops weren’t taking. Every night I went home starving to a tiny shack, eating what little rations remained from the ship. The distress beacon had been on for three months and counting. We were all getting weak and losing hope fast.
She lived only one shack over. We shared a wall of plywood and fiberglass. Neither muffled the sound of her husband’s abuse.
I didn’t just kill him for her benefit. No, it was a slow torture. I lost a hundred night’s sleep to his rage. I thought of every single time I had to hear her cried out in pain as I grazed my blowtorch against his skin.
I thought of her protests.
I thought of the sound of her body slamming into the wall.
I thought of every time I was too cowardly to stop him.
It took him hours to die. When it was done, all I could focus on was the smell of his burnt flesh.
I cut and rationed it carefully, hiding the rest of his remains deep down into a sulfur pit where they’d never be found.
It was that same smell that lured her over. She looked at me with eyes filled with the same exhaustion and desperation I felt. I should’ve turned her away.
We spend hours together, just talking and eating. At sundown she said it was getting late. She said she was starting to worry about her husband’s whereabouts. Then, as she reached for the door, she turned and thanked for the first real meal she had had in months, asking me where it came from.
Telling the truth was a mistake. I thought I’d be her hero.
Not long after the federation came with an offer and a way out. Three ships were being sent to scout the unknown regions. They were looking for the best of the expendable with the promise of unlimited food and shelter. No background check required. None of us had any illusion it was anything less than a suicide mission.
I signed up immediately, pretending to be surprised when I bumped in her in the shipyards. Going in for a hug was my next mistake.
I never did learn her name…
Back on the podium the Pale God shifted.
I looked around in a panic, the grenade still tight in my grip. Everything was hazy and out of focus. Figures drifted in and out in rapid succession.
The Pale God.
I raised the grenade above my head, my hands shaking violently, phantom orbs seared into vision. The fog was back. I was warm and fuzzy all over.
The man behind me ordered me to kill.
The Pale Gods orb turned red.
The brain vibration were teeth shattering.
Time froze. Suddenly everything went dark. I saw visions of countless alien races on alien planets. Their collective memories all rushed in at once. Their accomplishments. Their sins. Their wars. All of it wiped away.
They Pale God knew everything they knew; all knowledge was gained from those absorbed into it orb and feed directly to his disciples. It took what it needed and discarded the rest.
The vision shifted to a future with me and the woman of my dreams. Her past didn’t matter. Neither did her name. We were on Earth having a picnic, surrounded by countless indoctrinated. Everything was clean, and in perfect harmony.
All the people were polite. Everyone smiled and helped one another. There memories were my memories.
Underneath a twilight moon, the woman grabbed my hand and placed it on her stomach. She had the beginnings of a baby bump. There, poking through both her shirt and stomach, was two tiny wires connecting to a tiny flashing orb.
The vision shifted. I saw a million murders committed by a million species.
I saw a creature wrapped in the limbs of his enemies drive a sword down the throat of another of its kind.
I saw two lanky green aliens drive a probe into a caveman.
I saw Raymond castrate a dead bearded man with his bared hands.
The Pale God was there overseeing it all. There was no judgement. Only forgiveness. Only love.
The vision shifted.
I saw myself cooking another man alive with glee.
It was all too much. Complete sensation overload…
Back on the podium I dropped to knees, tears running down my face. The grenade was nearing its countdown. The Pale God’s orb dimmed, it’s two alien guards were tense and ready for anything.
This was the part where I was supposed to tell you that I could see through the fantasy to all the Pale God’s nefarious true intentions. I could say that it was all an illusion, a false promise devised only to expand his kingdom of slaves. I could exposé the virtues of how some people shouldn’t be forgiven so easily.
But I won’t.
I deserved this. I wanted this. Within his grace I could pretend I was still the good guy. The how didn’t matter.
I switched off the plasma grenade with only a second left, letting it roll from my grip, a coward all over again.
Sgt. Snugglesworth jumped into my lap, nuzzling up to my chest. His orb was yellow and pulsating in rhythm with his purrs.
As I scratched his ears, the captain asked me to open my mouth. I ate the flesh of the Pale God without hesitation, never noticing the man behind me running up, his grenade armed and blinking…
Joe writes out of Charlotte, NC. His work has been published in over 40 markets including K-zine, Strange Constellations, and Liquid Imagination, as well as having been twice nominated for the Pushcart prize. You can check out his blog at jablonskijoe.blogspot.com.