The Aerospace Vehicles and Interplanetary Operations Network, or AVION as it is known. A blacksite facility of the private sector, whose existence is and always will be denied. My new employer, my new home. I was sworn to secrecy, and underwent extensive preparations to ensure my complicity. All of which I completed and was once again welcomed onboard.
The team at AVION was a quantum leap ahead of anything we had in Munich. They were already well on their way to designing a competent craft, thanks mostly to the information collected from Vierter Forscher. The rhenium technology had once again been utilized to it’s full potential and by the time I signed on, they were well on their way to having completed their first craft.
After some time, I was able to see and inspect the occupants of Vierter firsthand. They were kept in cryogenic casing to preserve the cadavers, and the circumstances of their demise became abundantly clear.
Reisender3 and 4 respectively had both died soon after arrival once exposed to the vacuum of space. Their eyeballs had been ruptured and burst like balloons, with the remnant sacks frozen and dangling from their sockets. Their tongues and tissue of their mouths were scorched, as if their saliva had been boiled inside them. It was a gruesome fate, and one which instilled a severe amount of guilt within me. No one deserved to die like that.
It wasn’t just the crafts that were powered by the radiation anymore. AVION had computers, radar equipment, life-support systems, spacesuits and communication consoles all powered by the Zeta radiation. The base itself was even powered by the stuff to some extent. It was a marvel to behold, as never had I imagined it being utilized for such a wide array of purposes.
The implications of the Zeta technology were truly profound. A limitless energy source, wireless and able to be utilized for a multitude of purposes. In time it may even become the foundation for which cities and empires would be erected. We just had to reach it, and unravel it’s mysteries.
Despite all of that, one thought occupied my mind above all others. Reisender2. Could she truly still be alive?
There was no evidence to suggest Mars’ atmosphere could support carbon-based lifeforms. Furthermore, the planet was cold, with temperatures fluctuating wildly. In summer it could reach 20 Celsius on the equator, but winter would plummet to negative 125C. Much too cold for any human to survive.
A lot of the pieces of the puzzle we had didn’t make a lot of sense, but that was the main catalyst that inspired the expedition. We had to know what had become of Reisender2. And perhaps if it were possible, bring her home.
In time, telescope observation even managed to discover the remains of the Fünfter Forscher probe. It was anchored upon a part of Mars known as Tempe Terra. To the southwest of it stood the imposing Olympus Mons; the largest known mountain in our solar system.
The probe continued to broadcast the bizarre signal well into our time there, with Reisender2’s voice continuing it’s haunting melody. Her voice would change though, emphasizing certain parts on occasion and altering others. It was always faint, but undeniably present. For years this trend continued as we toiled away.
We attempted to contact the probe on multiple occasions, but never received any sort of reply. Reisender2 was entirely absent, never being seen anywhere on any of the pictures taken by the telescopes. Despite that, her voice never dissipated from the comms. We reasoned that the probes communication receptacle had been damaged and thus prevented her from hearing us. Oh how foolish we were.
On July 16th, 1969 NASA launched the Apollo 11 spacecraft from Cape Kennedy. Four days later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the very first steps on another planetary body. The world watched, enamored by the spectacle. President Richard Nixon made a call to congratulate the men, as the rest of the country cheered on the accomplishment. The event was historic, with support for NASA and patriotic sentiments reaching an all-time high.
That was the official story anyways. A few of my colleagues were not so quick to believe it though. Volker Klein specifically confided in me his thoughts.
“So, they get it first try huh? The greatest human achievement done completely right on the very first try?” He asked me one day as we sat at lunch.
“Tell me Klaus, how many probes did we launch in Munich before we had any success?” I put my sandwich down and thought a moment.
“Too many.” I said with a smile. Klein chuckled and rubbed his neck.
“Precisely, but hey as long as we beat the Soviets, right?”
The technology used by NASA paled in comparison to what we had at AVION. Their systems still relied upon petroleum-based thrust propulsion. I didn’t know why at the time that there was such dire need to withhold information. After all, we were on the same side. Now of course I realize, knowledge is power, and there were those within the upper echelons of AVION and elsewhere, who did not wish to share that power.
Proceeding the launch in 1969 from NASA, was a launch of our own just a year earlier. The project had no official name, but unofficially it was referred to as the ‘Red Trio’. Three separate crafts, each designed for a distinct purpose.
The first was Hera, launched in fall of 1968. Hera was an unmanned telescopic observatory designed to travel to Mars and enter equatorial rotation around the planet. It was to act as a remote viewer and assist in further detailing of the planet’s surface in preparation for the following probes.
The second was Demeter, another unmanned probe designed to touch down on the planet’s surface and deploy two remote-operated rovers. These rovers – known as Romulus and Remus were to commence exploration of the surface and acquire the first terrestrial view of Mars.
The third and final of the crafts was by far the most complex, and intriguing. Known as Aphrodite, it was to be the first ever manned mission to Mars from the United States. Five personnel with extensive aerospace experience and a boatload of bravery volunteered for the mission.
Von Braun didn’t come around much after my initial entry. In public he served NASA, but his true objective was orchestrating the innerworkings of AVION. Volker Klein, Albert Wolf, myself and the other couple dozen members of the team continued to prep and enhance the technology.
Hera successfully escaped earthly gravitation and proceeded to commence the 18-day stellar journey to Mars. We kept a close eye, enamored as the little blinking light on the celestial monitor drifted further and further from the earth.
In the back of my mind, a worrying thought refused to dissipate. The event which transpired during the journey of Fünfter Forscher, the supposed rock responsible for the strange event that lead to the death of Reisender1. Of course it wasn’t just a rock, but something else entirely.
No one in the group spoke openly about the Reisender1 event, but I could tell it lingered on their minds, at least for those who knew of it. Around day 14, was when Hera entered the approximate area in which the event had transpired over twenty years ago. Despite my concern, nothing of note happened, and the craft continued along it’s merry way without any interruptions. It entered orbit around Mars a couple days later, and our crew exhaled a collective sigh of relief.
The satellite began a retrograde orbit, and before long had sent back thousands of images of the surface. They were truly a marvel to behold, as for the first time we were able to properly glimpse imagery of the Martian surface up close.
We spent time sifting through the exorbitant number of images, until one very peculiar picture caught our eye. It was dust and rock much like the others, but in the middle was something intriguing. It was a remarkably flat depression in the land, outlined by straight-lined edges. It was difficult to confirm much from the images, but it appeared to be some sort of platform structure.
It appeared vaguely rectangular, but the damage done by the erosion of sand and vacuum of space was extensive, making any sort of definite identification impossible. The best we could do was speculate on it.
The discovery brought into the fold an interesting proposition which for years had been confined to the realm of science-fiction. Perhaps we were not the first biologic organisms to visit the Martian planet. Perhaps still, the planet was not as empty as we had once thought. Anticipation built with each passing day, but from our remote location we could do little aside from speculate and prepare the following probes.
Hera was monitored closely, while Demeter was readied to repeat the journey. In 1970, Japan and China threw their hats into the race for celestial supremacy as both nations sent their first satellites into the atmosphere. They were the fourth and fifth sovereign nations to enter space, following on France’s 1965 Diamant A program.
Meanwhile the “first” nation to enter space: the USSR was already well on their way to exploring our celestial neighbors. They elected to voyage in the opposite direction however, as their probe Venera 7 touched down on the surface of Venus.
This event landed them yet another accolade as the first man-made craft to successfully land on another planet and transmit data back, at least on record. Unfortunately for them, the accomplishment was short lived, as the hostile, caustic environment of the Venusian surface proved far too much for the unprepared probe to handle.
It survived only 23 minutes, and what it was that was recorded has been debated ever since. There is a lot of controversy surrounding the footage from those 23 minutes, and I’ve heard a few of the bizarre details. That’s a story for another time though, and Hans Scheffler ought to be the one to tell it.
In the summer of 1970, our own probe: Demeter, was launched in private. It was a success, and soon the probe was hurdling through space, bound for a date with the red goddess. Once again, the probe passed through the vicinity in which Reisender1 had been lost, and again it emerged unscathed.
Demeter touched down on the planet soon thereafter, upon the desolate lowlands of Amazonis Planitia. It landed about 30 kilometers northwest of Olympus Mons. The twin rovers were deployed soon after. Romulus was tasked with traveling southeast towards the massive mountain, while Remus was given the objective of completing a rendezvous with the old Fünfter Forscher craft to the far east.
As soon as Demeter touched down, something strange happened. The feed from Fünfter Forscher which had for years, continuously broadcasted the cryptic sounds suddenly went silent. We tried adjusting the feed several times, but the signal never returned. It was bizarre, but at the time we had other matters to attend to.
The rovers were powered by the same Zeta radiation used to transport their parent craft, Demeter. Despite this, they were quite slow, capable of covering just 3 kilometers a day in optimum conditions which rarely presented themselves.
They were small vehicles, little bigger than lawnmowers. Operated by a trolley of six wheels as well as a secondary dual, continuous track system for backup if the terrain became more difficult. They also utilized solar power, in case of abrupt failure of the Zeta propulsion system.
Two separate teams directed each rover, and for almost three weeks we watched them endlessly roll through the scarlet deserts. Remus had it fairly easy, traveling mostly over barren fields of dirt. It sent back pictures of valleys, hills and curiosities it would spot along the way, but none really were of much interest.
Romulus on the other hand, had it much more difficult. The land rose at a steadily increasing rate all the way up to the mountain, meaning that Romulus was almost constantly climbing upwards to some degree.
Olympus Mons is absolutely massive, almost to the point that it’s tough to fathom. It’s base is over 600 kilometers in diameter, and it’s peak rises to 25 kilometers above sea level. For comparison, Mount Everest is only 8.8 kilometers tall. Still huge to be sure, but dwarfed by the monstrous mountain on the red planet. Picture something almost three times as tall as Everest and as large as the state of Arizona and you have Olympus Mons. It’s truly something that has to be seen to be fully appreciated.
Many times Romulus encountered areas which were simply too steep for it to traverse, and would need to be rerouted for a separate trail. From orbit, the Hera satellite continued to scan for the path of least resistance in order to assist Romulus. It added a lot of time to the expedition, to the point where it became apparent that Remus would reach her destination first, despite it being a much longer journey.
Remus had 84 kilometers further to go than did Romulus. She exceeded all expectation, traveling well and making great time thanks to the ease of the terrain. That was until it approached the 80 kilometer marker.
Remus was happily puttering along in a narrow fault, when something drew our attention. She had been in the valley for several hours when a commotion stirred. Upon the crumbling walls of the starboard side wall, a flurry of pebbles came tumbling down the embankment.
Remus stopped, focusing her camera on the shuffling gravel some 30 meters away. By this point everyone in the lab had congregated around the control station to see what had happened. We all watched with baited breath as the camera feed of Remus slowly panned upward.
On the top of the quarry, where the mini landslide had originated, there was nothing. Just an empty hill with a starlit backdrop. I don’t know what I expected to see, but somehow seeing nothing was all the more unnerving. We ended up chalking it up to a natural phenomenon, but the event left us intrigued.
Overhead, Hera passed the landing site of Fünfter Forscher again and again, but nothing ever seemed to change. Remus crept closer day by day, while Romulus struggled upon the slopes of Olympus Mons.
On day 37 something else happened. Remus was then within just fifteen kilometers of Fünfter Forscher’s landing site, when a familiar noise emerged from her audio feed. Immediately the team stopped Remus dead in her tracks. I didn’t want to believe what I was hearing.
It was louder and more pronounced than ever before. For the first time I realized my mind had not simply heard what I wanted to hear. It wasn’t just some glitch on Fünfter’s intercom, it was real. Hans Scheffler was right all those years ago. Reisender2 was still alive.
The word ‘impossibility‘ comes to mind, and had I not heard it for myself, I never would’ve believed it. But there it was, the distinct sounds of a female voice singing in a melancholy tone. I even recognized the song she was singing. It was an old German song, ’Schön ist die Nacht’.
The sounds appeared to fade in and out, at times growing louder and echoing. The feed from Remus‘ camera appeared to distort as the sounds grew louder, and then disperse as they grew more distant.
Remus scanned the horizon side to side, but saw nothing. The morose serenade continued for a good twenty minutes, before slowly fading away altogether. All of us were just sort of astounded by the event, and after a bit of deliberation, Remus was returned to her course.
Romulus encountered a rough patch in her journey. For almost two weeks she had attempted to circum-navigate around a steep incline. Finally, a small, narrow path was discovered, and Romulus was guided towards it.
On the third day of the ascent, something happened. The feed from Romulus‘ camera began to shake back and forth, until suddenly flipping wildly with the sounds of metal and dirt accosting the rover. When the dust settled, the feed from Romulus showed nothing but the distant stars in the night sky.
It appeared that Romulus had struck a soft spot and tumbled back down the hill. Unfortunately, it was stuck on it’s back like a turtle with no way to right itself. Operations for Romulus were suspended, and the team attempted to develop a plan of escape.
Meanwhile Remus continued on her journey, with little of note happening beyond the strange singing event. Finally, on the eve of day 45, the sight of Fünfter Forscher finally came into view. We all cheered as the little rover trudged onward towards the site.
We stayed at the lab all night that night, and finally Remus arrived at the wreckage of Fünfter Forscher. The Hera satellite drifted overhead giving a birds-eye view of Remus down below. Remus crept slowly towards the gaping hole that now existed on Fünfter Forscher’s hull.
It was thought at first to have been victimized by the bombardment of space debris, but then the camera came into focus. The metal of the lander was bent outwards, as if something had burst out from within it. It looked as though a mad grizzly had torn it’s way out from the inside. I felt a cold chill slither down my spine as I realized what I was looking at.
Remus inched her way closer, and something came into view. Within the confines of the probe, something stood out from the grey interior. It sat slouched against the side wall head dangling at an uncomfortable angle. It was motionless, and appeared to have been partially mummified, and locked in a state of suspended decay. It was Reisender1.
A thick silence gripped the room, as we all stared at the travesty before us. Crippling thoughts of guilt and regret began to seap into my mind. Von Braun and Klein marveled at the sight, as if unaffected by the morbid scene. I felt an aching in my heart that I had not felt for a very long time.
Klein removed his hat and looked to me. There were no words exchanged between us, but we both knew. He was there because of us, he died because of us. Nameless and forever lost on the alien planet.
Remus continued to pier around the vicinity, taking note of the plaque on the side of the probe which held the mission statement and a bright red swastika. I hated the sight of it. I wanted so bad to just erase that part of my history, but in that moment, I learned running away was no longer an option.
For over twenty years I had maintained the facade. Family man, father, hard-worker, NASA employee, but also something else. Something I could no longer hide from. Murderer.
It was not by gun or by sword that my crime was committed, but instead by inaction. Because I, Klaus Herrmann Günther had not spoken against those who led the charge. The knowledge ate at me every night, interrupting my sleep and turning me to a shell of my former self. No more.
A static whir reverberated through the feed of the camera on both Remus and Hera. My attention darted back to the screen as Remus began to pan away from the wreckage. Then I heard it, Schön ist die Nacht, sung by a sullen female voice. I didn’t want to believe it, and I found my mind venturing into realms never before seen. Was she even real anymore? Was this some malevolent specter sent to torment us?
“Commander.“ One of the bald men spoke. I saw von Braun turn from the corner of my eye, but I remained focused on the Remus feed.
“We found her.“ Suddenly I perked up. I nearly leapt from my seat as I scrambled over to the feed from the Hera satellite. My eyes focused on the screen. In the midst of the red Martian desert, a single figure stood out. Reisender2.
A lone humanoid figure stood, dressed in the primitive grey spacesuit with the helmet still upon her head. Her outfit had been tattered and torn, exposing parts of her blackened flesh to the elements. She was motionless, arms at her side with her head staring straight. Her gaze was deadlocked directly upon the Fünfter Forscher wreckage.
In the background the singing continued as Reisender2 remained motionless. Part of me thought that Reisender2’s body had just been petrified in an upright position. Unlikely as that explanation is, what happened next was simply beyond words.
“Lieber Gott…“ Klein muttered with a quivering voice. As soon as the words left his mouth, Reisender2’s head snapped with the speed of a cobra to an angled upwards stare. Her gaze fell immediately and directly upon the Hera satellite looming overhead.
Her voice then changed, from a sullen almost comforting voice to a loud unbearable screech of metal and anguish. Within seconds it no longer sounded like anything resembling human speech. The migraine returned then, the very same that had struck in the wake of the incident with Fünfter Forscher years earlier.
All personnel in attendance fell to the floor in pure agony as the migraines threatened to split our heads like eggs. The pain was absolutely unbearable, and never have I experienced anything even remotely close to that agony. It felt as though a molten drill was slowly spinning into my brain.
I saw objects and foreign shapes begin to form in the peripheries of my vision. I closed my eyes, and felt accosted by an altogether alien series of unintelligible symbols and runes. They were like nothing I’d ever seen.
I almost felt as if something was trying to squeeze it’s way inside my head. Like a foreign phantom consciousness trying to break into the fortress of my mind. The bald men however, did not react to the audio onslaught.
“Cut the damn audio!“ Von Braun shouted while holding his head. It was done right away, and instantly the headache subsided. I hobbled to my feet, relieved the pain had abated but still with a myriad of ominous questions.
Other members of the team rose to their feet, but one employee: Mark Harrison, continued to convulse on the ground. He shook about wildly as foam began to dribble from his mouth. His eyes then rolled back into his head, and a pained gurgling groan escaped his lips. A few others rushed to his side and attempted to assist him. As he writhed, he suddenly shouted something which made my heart skip a beat.
“No more eyes! No more eyes!“ Again and again he screamed the words at the top of his lungs. Terrifying thoughts flooded into my mind then. My friend back in Munich who had been part of the salvage operation for the Deisenhofer craft, and what he had told me after. “Eyes shouldn’t be that big.”
Two men attempted to assist Harrison, but with a swift backhand he knocked both of them away. Mark Harrison then sprung to his feet and began clawing wildly at his face. Chunks of flesh and bloody bits began to peel away as the man savagely scratched at his face while wailing in the most haunting tone I’ve ever witnessed. The man tore his own eyes from their sockets soon after, while shrieking in an absolutely horrendous voice.
It was a shout of pain mixed with an unrivaled terror. The bald men then moved in, but before they could reach him. He darted away and over to a separate terminal. With one last howl of agony he reared back, and slammed his head down on the terminal with all his might. His skull and neck struck the console with a sickening crunch noise, and he fell to the ground silent.
All of us just stood there, a stunned silence as the blood began to drip from Harrison’s mouth. His now eyeless face was frozen in a gaping look of utter shock, and hands soiled with blood and tissue matter. One woman let out a blood-curdling wail of anguish and the lab erupted into panic.
Several members of the team began hyper-ventilating and others broke into all out sobbing. Von Braun stepped forward to assess the calamity and ordered the bald men to handle the situation. They quickly began to usher most of the crew out of the lab, as others began to clean up the mess. I just stood there, motionless, with neither words or thoughts to comfort me. What the hell is she?
After some time order returned to the lab. Only a few of us remained then, with most of the team having been instructed to return home. Von Braun gave a deep sigh and looked to me with a forlorn, stressed expression. I said nothing.
With nothing else to do, we eventually returned our attention to the task at hand. Reisender2, or whatever that thing was that looked like her remained motionless, with only her head slowly following the Hera satellite as it passed. Hera continued to monitor her until it orbited around the curvature of the planet and lost the image.
We re-positioned the camera on Remus to her location, and found her already staring directly back at the rover. She was maybe 30 meters away from the rover, on top of a small ridge. Her body never twitched, never moved an inch. We didn’t dare turn the audio back on.
Von Braun then left the room, leaving us to gawk in silence. Klein seemed every bit as destitute as me. He just stared up at the monitor, eyes wide and only blinking periodically. I looked to where our coworker had fallen. His body had been removed, with only a crimson stain remaining in it’s place. What had happened to him? What madness could possibly lead a man to commit so gruesome an act?
“Did you hear anything in that?“ Klein finally asked. I looked to him, but he refused to meet my gaze.
“What do you mean?“
“That noise… what did it sound like to you?“ I took a moment to think.
“Just… like scraping metal and a horn or something…“ Klein then slowly turned to me, mouth ajar and hands trembling. Klein was always a brave and daring soul, certainly more so than myself. But seeing him so absolutely broken was altogether horrifying.
“You didn’t hear the voices?“ His eyes almost begged for recognition, but alas I could not provide it. Before I could say anything von Braun reentered the room.
“That’ll be it for tonight gentlemen. Go on home, take some time to recoup. We’re all gonna need it.“ We stared at him for a moment, before silently complying. Klein and I left the lab together and were escorted off the premises with the usual routine. Nothing was said between us the entire way.
I returned home, exhausted, but with my mind racing a million miles an hour. The sun had just begun to creep over the horizon as I reached my home street. Jacqueline and Andrew were just preparing to catch the bus to school when I arrived. They waved to me with smiling expressions, and I did my best to mimic the gesture as I pulled my New Yorker into the driveway.
Evelyn was sat at the kitchen table, head resting in her hand with a swathe of fluffy pancakes sat before her. She prodded the stack with her fork and turned as I entered the room.
“Hi Papa…“ She said, approaching and wrapping her arms around me in a tight hug. It was without a doubt, the best and most-needed hug of my life. I felt a sparse sense of serenity return to me as I held her. I sat and talked with her for a few minutes while she nibbled at her breakfast.
My wife Teresa came in soon after, cup of tea in one hand, with her other resting on her increasingly large belly. Her due date was rapidly approaching, marking the 4th addition to our family. I greeted her with a kiss and tender embrace, all the while Evelyn made icky faces from the table.
Teresa’s lush green eyes seemed to revitalize my very soul. I held her close, laying a hand upon her belly while my other clasped her hand. Her expression then shifted, almost to one of concern. She must’ve sensed the worry within me.
“What’s wrong Robert?“ She asked. Cautiously I guided her into the living room and away from the eavesdropping ears of little Evelyn. I poured myself some coffee and joined her there soon after. Evelyn came to say her goodbye’s, and after a quick hug she scurried out the front door to catch her bus. I sat on the couch beside Teresa, and gently clasped her hands in mine.
“There’s something I need to tell you.“