They stand awestruck by the sheer complexity of the advanced Martian technology. To be descended from such creatures, even in the smallest degree, is humbling.
There is a sudden cracking noise. The three of them turn, drawing their weapons. To their amazement, it is Marcellus and Achilles. They hesitate, nervous at being tracked down. Had Marcus sent them? In a knee-jerk reaction, the new arrivals pull their guns. Both parties are cocked and loaded, neither knowing the condition of the other. In a leap of faith, Achilles lowers his weapon first.
“I assume none of you are under the effects of Crystal Blue, otherwise, the empire wouldn’t be hunting you. The rest of the planet assumes you’re dead. Your ship was reported destroyed moments after it left Earth,” he says.
Trajan charges his rifle to full power and gets directly in his face. “What about you? For all, I know you are here to kill us!”
Achilles tries to defuse the situation.
“If we wanted you dead we would have killed you as we approached. You were easy to find. The Martian sand leaves a distinct trail to follow. Besides, once you hid in the magnetic center of the planet it left your ship ionized. It glowed like a red beacon on our trackers.”
Rufio laughs, confident that neither man is under the influence of Marcus or Crystal Blue.
“We don’t have to worry about them.” The standoff is defused and everyone lowers their weapons. It is only then that Marcellus’s and Darius’s eyes meet. Across the gulf of fifty years, they remember the times as small boyhood friends that once played in the Martian dunes. They embrace. As they pull away for a better look at one another, their kinship and bond returns after half a century.
“Marcellus, you look good. I lost track of you after we returned to Earth. Where have you been hiding?”
“The military kept me very busy,” he says.
Darius wants to continue down memory lane but the task at hand has to take precedence. He relates what they have found so far and what Garelle is up to.
“I agree. Domitian’s records were compromised by Marcus to create the Crystal Blue,” says Marcellus.
“People are changing, I’ve seen it myself. At first, their voice becomes higher and they behave erratically. Old memories are forgotten and they have to bluff their way through conversations. Their complexion darkens and they lose their hair after long-term use. Scientists and doctors on the moon remain unaffected and concur with my observations. I left them there to conduct research on a possible preventative cure to block the effects of Crystal Blue,” says Achilles.
“It is not enough, though. Most of the fleet and high-ranking officials are under its spell. The base is secure for now, and Claudia and the children came with me. She is convinced the kids are the answer to all this. I took a pod down for reconnaissance and that is when I found your shuttle. After I learned you were down here, I brought them down. Their ship is beyond a rise just outside. My personal guard and adjutant is with her, but I do not wish to leave them alone for long.”
Darius points out that the other problems to overcome.
“We must shut down the atmosphere processor, but where do we even begin to look for the ancient machine?” he says.
Claudia is pensive as she stares out at the bleak, red planet. The sun is getting lower in the sky, adding to the fiery appearance of the landscape. A shape drifts past the view port, quick enough that she cannot get a good glimpse. Scared but curious, she peers out, her breath fogging the glass. Zooming, the object bumps into the window and bounces back.
Claudia shrieks at the sight of the creature. It is a part man, part insect. The arms have been replaced with wings and the head is human, but has large black orbs for eyes. Its legs are drawn up and bent at the knee. The feet resemble claws and have tendril-like hair. The creature is green-gray in color.It hovers in front of the ship.
Her scream alerts Crixus, who runs in from the cockpit with his sidearm ready. Both stand transfixed by the horrid apparition as it flits about studying them. The kids have not awakened from their afternoon nap. She is grateful for that at least. Another creature appears and joins the first. They are unaggressive, merely curious.
“Juno! What are they?” Claudia says.
“I have never seen it this far advanced. The ones we quarantined on the moon underwent a similar metamorphosis, but nothing like this,” says Crixus.
More of the flying abominations show up, their behavior becoming more erratic. They careen into the fuselage and their buzzing grows louder as more surround the vessel. Crixus runs to each window. What he sees frightens him to the core. Hundreds of the Martian hybrids are hovering around them. Panic grips him before his soldiering instincts kick in. He is a servant to the empire and his princess needs him to be strong. He returns to the cockpit, sits down, and turns on the radio. There is nothing but static and that awful, low hum coming from the creatures. “The bugs are blocking any kind of clear transmission,” he says to Claudia. She attempts to call on her personal comm system. but her reception is just as bad. A voice filters through the crackling static. It is not human. It also comes over the ship’s speakers in a resonating insect tone.
“I see you have come back my children,” it says. She drops the communicator as Crixus grabs her. They huddle together like two scared animals in a cage surrounded by hunters.
Suddenly, Crixus grabs his temple and falls to his knees screaming.
“Get out of my head!”
Claudia kneels down to comfort him but she too is overwhelmed by an unseen force.
“Who are you?” she asks.
“We are all Garelle,” the voice answers.
She struggles to the window, looking out at all the creatures. The human qualities of the insectoid monsters, no matter how corrupted, are conspicuous.
When the colonists arrived, they provided him with the energy to begin again. These people became his workers.
“You are smart young one,” Garelle’s voice booms.
He can hear me? I have to control my thoughts.
She creates a blank image in her mind. His probing is strong, and the pain is stinging, but Claudia resists. Exasperated, Garelle sets his intentions on Crixus.
“Give it to me!”
Garelle turns Crixus into a killer. He lunges at Claudia, grasping her throat and squeezing. Claudia tries to screams as Garelle speaks through Crixus.
“Tell me what I want to know! Why are you here? Your brother has done well, just as I had asked, but your will is strong.”
Her outcry awakens the children.
“Mommy!” they call out, scared and terrified. The Martian breaks his hold on Crixus. He tumbles backward, shaking off the effects of the mind control.
“No!” Garelle cries out.
Outside all the creatures lose equilibrium and begin flying into one another, bouncing off of the ship wildly. The kids have broken Garelle’s concentration! She had been correct; the children hold the key.
Crixus raises from the floor, his face bruised from the fall.
“I’m sorry, your highness. I’ve failed you,” says Crixus. In a gesture of remorse he surrenders his sword to her. Claudia pushes it back.
“It was not you. You’re a soldier of Rome. Now act like it.”
From outside they hear sounds of blasting and explosions. Glancing out she sees her husband followed by a small band of human fighters. Darius, Trajan, even the great Rufio! Achilles tosses a sonic grenade at the mass of aliens. The weapon uses directed sound waves that not only cause a violent concussion but incapacitate the enemy by bursting their eardrums. The device whines as it reaches its explosion point. There is a low boom followed by a piercing shriek. The vibrating air stymies the creatures. Those directly over the grenade explode from the inside out, their heads bursting from the pressure wave. Dozens fall in its wake, clearing a path to the ship. Trajan is shaken; this is his first real combat action. Rufio pats him on the shoulder.
“You did well!”
The men mop up, checking out the corpses of the insectoids. Darius stops and bends down. It was once a human female. Darius whispers a prayer as Trajan approaches.
“What is it?” he asks the older man.
Darius will not look at Trajan. Rufio touches Trajan’s shoulder.
“Let’s go,” the gladiator says. Trajan looks once more at Darius before following Rufio.
“Mother...” Darius says.
“Garelle!” he screams at the heavens.
“I will have my revenge! Earth will not be yours!” It has not been easy for him all these years. Even rising to the great heights of power as leader of the empire has not filled that space left by the death of one so dear. All his greatness was achieved for them, but now he saw his own slothfulness. Part of him resents not returning to Mars before now. He bent to the popular wisdom that it was better to let the problem die in isolation. For so long it worked, but they became complacent, assuming the disaster that befell them was forgotten. Somehow, though, he knew this day, this battle, would come, that they would have to return and finish the job. How he wishes he acted sooner, when he could have brought an entire armada with thousands of Roman legions ready to wage war. Hesitation left him with nothing but scraps to defeat Garelle.
Darius rises from the Martian dust beneath his feet. The wicked smell of death rises on the desert winds as he runs to rejoin the others.
Sid has been analyzing the situation and congratulates them on their rescue of drop ship.
“It was a brilliant decision on your part to use a sonic grenade, Achilles. Considering you’re only human,” it says. Achilles eyes Sid, wordless. Claudia runs from the ship and into her husband’s arms, relieved at his victory and his safe return.
“It was the children! Once they woke up the creatures, Garelle, became erratic. He can reach into our minds but only to a point. I blocked him. He cannot control a person completely until they are changed. The Crystal Blue alters human DNA and causes the metamorphosis. The kids’ brain waves must be different enough from ours that he can’t unlock their thoughts,” she says.
“He is able to manipulate our behavior completely if we’re not careful. I tried to kill her,” says Crixus.
The revelation stuns Achilles and the others, but Claudia defends him.
“It was not his fault. With a little more caution that can be avoided. Keeping the children near will thwart any of Garelle’s attempts. I believe that all this is to change humanity into Martians,” she says.
“We figured as much. There’s a thought library that may explain more,” says Rufio.
“Garelle desires flesh more than anything. Billions of years locked up in a machine have made selfish all the souls caught in the ice. He has designs to return them to our bodies, but, do they want that?” Darius says.
Trajan blurts out.
“If we can free them we’d have an army! I’m sure they’re pissed off about being entombed alive for all eternity.”
“The colonists were just the first step. The air had to be made breathable so he could bring Earth’s population here. He couldn’t leave the planet he loved and waited millions of years. Such patience... Too bad the Martians who made it to Earth so long ago didn’t warn us,” says Darius.
“Maybe they did, and we didn’t listen. Those voices of nature and the feeling you get on an early spring day when everything comes alive? The innocence of a child’s laughter and playing in flowers? To them, there is no evil. Only when we grow up do we see that. Maybe that’s it. Garelle is a pitiful, angry being. Something caused his behavior. If we are compassionate, he may weaken. He seems to gain strength from violence and fear,” says Claudia.
From behind the group, one dead creature rises and hovers over to them. It is a bloody mess, mysteriously reanimated. Sid beeps a warning and everyone turns around.
“What do you know of suffering and pain? I’ll chill your souls to the bone, then your flesh will be mine!” says Garelle, using the mangled corpse as a mouthpiece. The insectoid body drops to the ground with a thud. The heap of bodies begin to laugh where they lay, a chorus of the dead. The Romans cannot let fear stop them. They must move on and accomplish their mission.
They go into the ship and Achilles and Marcellus disable the vessel, taking out the reactor drive assembly and dismantling it. They pack it into their backpacks to take it with them. Claudia holds the children close and covers their eyes so they will not see the horrific mess outside. Trajan and Rufio load up on thermite charges and other weapons. As they make their way back to the shuttle, Trajan watches Darius.
He’s not quite himself. His recall of Garelle is uncanny. How did we happen upon the Martian archives so easily? How could it be we just stumbled across them? Something else is driving the Proconsul, but what? He seemed to know exactly what Marcus was up to...
“Why do you believe these dead Martians will help us?” Rufio asks Trajan, calling him out of his reverie. “I mean, the very idea! Seeking an ally from a dead race still trapped in ice. It’s ludicrous.” He chuckles and shakes his head.
Trajan almost agrees with the mighty warrior.
Sid hovers beside Trajan, silent. There is a note of reservation in the monitoring beeps sounding from Sid’s shell. A pricking tips Trajan’s thumbs and a shiver cuts its way down his spine.