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The Skull of the Red Planet

The year is 2025, and the first humans have landed on Mars

June 13, 2054

I cannot seem to rid myself of this memory. I will be haunted by this until the day I die. I decided to write out my thoughts to clear my head, to get just a single moment of peace.

The year was 2025. The first astronauts had landed on Mars. After years and years of hardships and training, the first 10 humans had landed on the Red Planet. There were some who were relieved to be there. Some wanted their legacy to live on long after their death, and they believed that being the first to colonize Mars was the only way to do it. Others, oddly, enjoyed the silence. They would sometimes spend hours on end trudging through the terrain, feeling relieved that everyone who once existed and everyone they once knew were millions of kilometers away. Then, there were others like myself. I would find myself getting hit with a burning pang of regret. I will never leave this place.

Everything changed on that cold night. A small group, along with myself, were observing the scenery outside. You would never get bored of exploring Mars. It was one of my good nights, where I didn’t have the need to be anywhere else. I just wanted to soak in the feeling of humanity’s greatest achievement. One of my closest friends, Carol, was smiling up at the sky when everyone heard a large crunch from underneath her foot. She did not notice at first, because of how thick our suits were, but she took another step and that crunch sound happened again.

John was the first to ask what the sound was. Carol was confused, saying she did not hear anything, but myself, along with Ezra, who also was apart of our group, nodded our heads slowly in confusion. I remember seeing Carol quirk an eyebrow, giving us the same look a mother would give to a misbehaving child. She decided to ignore us and took another step. Then she finally heard it. She shot her foot up in fear, for that sound was not a crunch you usually hear. Not the one of potato chips or broken glass, but one much harder, much stiffer. 

When we saw what was on the sole of her foot, everyone was too shocked to do anything. We just stood there shaking, eyes wide, completely horrified. In any other instance, this may have been a comical sight, for Carol with her leg high in the air, achieving perfect balance, while blankly staring at her foot would have made any passerby laugh out loud. But then she let out that thundering moan of disgust, and then that blood-curdling scream, and there was nothing funny about it.

On her foot were broken fragments of a human skull.

That was when I woke up.

I woke up in a hospital. I had always been quite a healthy person and had never even stayed for long in a doctor’s office. That was my first thought. Then the memories came rushing back in a mad whiff of hysteria that could have paralyzed me had I not jumped from the bed and started rushing toward the door. I was then grabbed by nurses, who kept a tough grip on me, as I tried to claw at their arms. They injected me with a tranquilizer and brought me back to the bed.

The next time I woke up, a doctor was standing over me. He began to explain to me what had happened. I had a psychotic episode, and according to the doctor, this wasn’t the first time. He explained, as if he knew me, that I had many visits to the psychiatric ward and how I am victim to many hallucinations. I became angry at the doctor, trying to grab him, but I was handcuffed to the bed. When I told him that was all impossible, that I was an astronaut and should be on Mars with my colleagues, he just gave me a sad smile, saying that that was all part of my hallucination and that none of it was real. Even if it felt like many years of hard labor, difficult studying, it was all in my head, and in reality, lasted a few seconds.

I spent months muttering to myself in that hospital. There is no way that is true. I was there. I was with people who I considered friends. How could I make all that up? All that science I had to do, all the faces I met during my career. Those all had to be real!

When I finally left that hospital, I did everything in my power to prove them wrong. I went to NASA, demanding to speak to someone, demanding to see their plans for the Mars mission. I told them of the human skull and that they abandoned someone up there.

I looked through every record of my team. I couldn’t find a single picture or last name for any of my friends. Not even Carol. A few years later, I began to start to believe the doctors, thinking that perhaps I was just clinically insane. That I made this all up in my head, and there was no human skull and never a mission to Mars.

That all changed around 10 years later, when I was looking through boxes in my house and came across a photograph. A picture of our team. Of Ezra, John, Carol and the others. I wept in happiness, for there it was. Our official NASA picture together, all smiling excitedly at the camera. My grin and tears of joy soon faded, when I saw someone else in the photograph I didn’t recognize. Another individual, also smiling at the camera, but there was something off about his face. He had soulless black eyes that seemed to stare deep into my core.

To this day, I still don’t know who the man in that photograph was. Everyone I talked to, of course, denied that the photograph was even real. No one believed me.

Could he have been the fragments of the skull that was left behind? Was there an eleventh member of our team? One that wasted away, all alone, on Mars? I still don’t know any answers, and every day I just sit at home, staring at that photograph, haunted by the hellish memories. I will spend the rest of my life wishing I was not on Earth. Wishing I could be on Mars again, just for a day. Just to see what was really out there and solve this mystery. I would give anything do to that.

Now I just stare into the lightless pits of my unknown teammate’s eyes.

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Written by Nilofer Rolston

Nilofer Rolston is a Pakistani Canadian and an aspiring novelist.