The word that changed everything. Written in red dust on the surface of Mars by the Curiosity Rover before it blinked out of existence. Scientists were dumb-founded at first, unable to understand their robotic probe’s actions.
Some argued the tracks were left by coincidence, that the robot had malfunctioned and that the word was just an accidental jumble of tracks left by movement.
But there it was, written on the surface in tracks consistent with Curiosity’s own tyres, in an image that had obviously been taken by the bot after it had scrawled the word. It had wanted them to see it.
Curiosity was an expensive project, one that had mankind on the edge of its seat as the little robot had explored the red planet. As time had went on, we’d found more than we’d ever thought possible. Evidence of past water, signs that mars may have once supported microbial life. Things were getting exciting. Then, without warning on August 3rd 2017, Curiosity vanished. Only one word scrawled into the sand and submitted back to us.
2020 saw a breakthrough in space travel technology. Speed increased, money was invested. NASA geared up for its new project. They put robots to the back of their minds and focused on the real objects they wanted on Mars. People.
By 2025 we were ready. Glued to their television screens and view-goggles, humanity watched the first steps taken on the Red Planet.
The first Astronaut, James F. Connolly, descended the steps of the lander and set his feet to the ground.
“One small step…” He whispered. His companions descended behind him, slow and sluggish but their faces painted with awe. Even through the plastic of their helmets he could see the astonishment on their faces. They’d all been asleep for three weeks to get here, but tiredness fell away to amazement as they took their first steps on Mars.
At home, the people watched their devices. No matter where you were on Earth, someone held a tablet, or a phone or even view-goggles. Anything with a screen was pressed to their faces.
NASA had not forgotten about Curiosity though. They had sent their shuttle to land where the last message was received. James F. Connolly transmitted his message home.
“No sign of the rover. Message still there. Definitely looks like the word leave.” He looked around, the view-screen of his helmet transmitting live feedback to those watching around the world.
Both James and mankind were treated to stunning vistas of red, copper, rust. The colours of Mars that twinkled like matte rubies under a blanket grey sky. On the horizon something glinted. They all saw it. The group of Astronauts decided to investigate.
It was a short trek across empty plains, where dust and age were the only companions. The glinting light seemed to be further and further away. The astronauts felt frustration, and curiosity. The people at home were glued. One step at a time, the Astronauts climbed a rising peak towards the light that kept receding, away from them.
When they reached the top of one of Mar’s many ridges, James Connolly screamed. He shrieked so loud it threatened to deafen those watching at home.
From every tablet, every phone, every laptop, every television – he screamed.
Then the other astronauts reached him, having been climbing behind. They too, began to scream.
The transmission was cut to the public. The scream guttered out. All that was left on their screens was a message.
Even at NASA, at the highest level of clearance possible, the transmission only lingered a moment longer.
Long enough to show the grey creatures, their heads empty of a face. Cruel limbs draped in claws, their sightless eyes fixed on the Astronauts.
‘Leave.’ Came a command, but no words were spoken.
The creatures, hundreds of them, poured out of the caverns and raced towards the screaming Astronauts. Moving quickly on otherworldly limbs that bent and quivered – boneless. Then even NASA’s transmission cut out.
Across the globe, from government officials to a child holding a phone, all that anyone could see was a black screen with a message in clear white text.
The Earth was stunned. Contact was never regained with the Astronauts despite several desperate attempts. Silence, and the message repeated on every screen in the world. It stayed there for days, regardless of power supplies or attempts to change it. New Planes fell from the sky as their fancy touch-screen guidance systems failed, mobile phone communication was almost destroyed. That one word was all the world could see, burned into every single person on the planet’s devices.
The dreams started quickly after that. Night terrors came to all human beings. Visions of dark creatures, black shapes in the night. Only the NASA scientists had seen the beings, but it was quickly agreed across the globe that everyone was seeing the same thing. Each night, we saw them.
Long, slender limbs that slid and jutted rather than moved. A face of pure blackness, with no eyes nor features. Long talons on their arms, or what seemed like their arms. The sight of them brings nausea, panic, dismay. The creatures seem ambivalent about the terror they cause. Instead, they move towards us. Their empty faces getting nearer. Almost touching. They smell like disease.
Every night for weeks on end, humanity suffered these nightmares. Insomnia became a pandemic. The less people slept, they figured, the less they would have to see the creatures. People began to die. Exhaustion first, then suicide.
Even religion began to fray apart. What was this? Demons? The devil himself? All questions fell on NASA. But they couldn’t answer. All of their equipment, all of their work. It was stained. With one word.
Then, James F. Connolly re-appeared. He was found naked, in the desert. He cried like an infant child when they discovered him, the U.S Army. They quickly brought him into a secure containment area and tested him to make sure he was healthy. To make sure he was even real. Even the doctors were suffering the nightmares. It was becoming harder and harder to know what was fact or imagining.
There in that room, James F. Connolly was held. But he would not speak. He couldn’t. His vitals read healthy but his face told a different story. His eyes were dark ruins, bloodshot with ebony black where red capillaries are usually found.
For days, all he could do was sob, weep and scream.
The nightmares worsened. Humans began to panic. Riots ensued. The world turned to chaos as people battled to escape their dreams. No one wanted to see those empty faced creatures – those jet-black others that held no souls and repeated only one command.
After a week of deep screams, astronaut James F. Connolly fell quiet. Dead silent, like a tomb door had been pulled shut across his face. He sat still. He asked for one thing.
“I must speak with the rulers. I must transmit this message.” He spoke with such still clarity that it surprised the scientists around him. They were used to his frantic screams.
Without electronic devices to beam his image to them, many world leaders had to be flown in for an audience. Some refused, others didn’t care. Many more had already ended their lives. The Nightmares had grown to a climax now, those void-creatures sliding their deathly cold hands across our faces in our sleep. Suffocating us.
Around James F. Connolly they gathered. He sat in a chair in a white medical smock. His eyes now empty, black as coal. They waited with bated breath. He spoke.
“Leave…” The leaders looked around, dismayed and disappointed. They’d wanted more from this man. They’d wanted an answer. An end to the nightmares. But the Astronaut spoke again. His voice deeper.
“Leave….Earth. It is ours again. We come… We come for our ancestral home.”
James F. Connolly cried out once more. Then he slumped in his chair. Gone.
“Leave.” Said the messages on the screens around the world.