Marcellus and Crixus wave as the group disappears over the rise. It is almost dark, but they set about collecting the bodies of the dead aliens. They reek of the horrid, rotten, bug smell that lingers when a firefly is kept in a jar too long. They drag each creature and stack them up for a funeral pyre. The colonists may have transformed into these awful things, but it was no fault of their own. As such, they should be treated as honorable Roman citizen soldiers who died for the empire. Treating them with respect, the men stack one body onto another. Marcellus pours fuel over them and creates a torch out of a piece of furniture from inside the ship. He tosses it on the corpses. In a whoosh the pyre goes up in blazing flames. The men both recite a prayer over their fallen comrades.
“Let these soldiers of Rome enter the land of the eternal and walk the fields of Elysium, to be troubled by war no more. Give them peace as they now guide us in our daily lives.”
For a moment, they watch as the flames leap towards the sky. Suddenly, the blaze becomes a strange apparition that bellows and roars. The men jump back as out of the fire walks some of the colonists.
They have resumed their human forms and are naked. Their irises glow an eerie cerulean shade. Marcellus is drawn to a young woman walking towards him, consumed by a sickening mingling of lust and love. He has never seen this woman in his life. What is happening to him? “You have so many questions. Time and space are not what they seem. The future is an eternity, and a moment is forever. Do not fear me. I am here to guide and help you,” she says.
“What is going on? Why are you here?” Crixus watches Marcellus talking to thin air, then a menacing growl grabs his attention. Coming out of the inferno are three lions with blazing eyes. The fiery apparition shoots up into the sky and the flames turn into whips that strike the beasts driving them. The blaze twists, forming a mouth. It speaks to them.
“Your gods tremble before me, human!”
Crixus tries to throw a rifle to his partner, but Marcellus is oblivious and stands motionless.
The lions circle Marcellus, their eyes growing redder, beasts sent from Tartarus itself. Crixus backs away and grabs his pistol, readying for the attack, but is not watching where he is going. His foot catches a rock and he falls. The creatures seize the opening and pounce. He covers his face expecting to be ripped apart and shoots, but nothing happens. The animals are gone and the bonfire is normal. A moaning drones in the desert air. Crixus sits up. There is a hole blasted straight through the fuselage, and the engine is venting drive plasma. He sees Marcellus lying in the sand. Smoke rises from his body. Crixus charges over, realizing he has shot Marcellus. The trio of lions were merely an illusion. Acting fast, Crixus drags Marcellus up the ramp into the ship.
Marcellus groans and curses under his breath.
“What have you done? Why?”
Crixus places him in a cot in the medical bay. The vessel is loaded with state-of-the-art trauma equipment and Crixus has trained as a medic, treating battlefield wounds in simulations.
“The wound is dire, but it was cauterized from the rifle blast. The blood vessels are sealed, so you won’t bleed to death,” Crixus says. He must calm him down and prevent shock from setting in. Crixus gives Marcellus a sedative shot that slows his breathing down so he inhales normally. He checks his pulse. It is coming down. The patient is stabilizing, but needs a doctor. They are about two hundred million miles from the nearest one. Crixus hooks Marcellus to the portable life support unit. For the moment crisis is abated. What a fool he was, believing in apparitions. He is a professional soldier, taught to be rational, but the illusion touched on those primal fears of being burned alive and eaten by wild beasts, playing on ancient self-preservation and survival instincts. Basic psychology reached into depths of the subconscious and pulled out what is most frightening.
“I forgot my training,” says Crixus.
Marcellus’s eyes flutter open and he tries to speak.
“I too fell under its spell.”
“It was all an illusion, sir.”
“No, it was more than that. I could feel her, and that is eternal for everyone. The love you have for someone close to you, a wife to her husband, a father to his daughter and a mother to her son. We are the same, time doesn’t hold us prisoner. We slip through its grip once we have passed beyond this mortal coil. Garelle couldn’t see that. Only his hate carries him on,” says Marcellus.
His pulse drops and he goes into cardiac arrest. Crixus grabs the defibrillator. It is slow charging. He screams at the machine. The lights flicker in the cabin and the electricity winks out. The blast to the fuselage must have destroyed the power cell, too.
Crixus starts compressions, up and down, pushing so hard he fears he might break the ribcage. He listens for a heartbeat but there is nothing, again and again. Sweating, he checks for signs of life, but Marcellus is gone.
Trying to figure his next move, Crixus steps into the cockpit and tries the radio, but as he feared, it is dead. His pocket communicator transmits only static. Mars’ atmosphere is awash in ionization that interferes with smaller devices. Out of options, he wants to honor his commander and burn his body, to give him a proper Roman funeral, but there is no time. He must find the others. With any luck, if he double-times it he can get to them before they reach the shuttle.
Darkness envelops the small band of travelers traversing the Martian landscape. The stars glitter in a moonless sky. Claudia reminisces as she takes her husband’s hand.
“Remember our vacation to the old city? The walk along the Tiber at midnight? The heavens appeared just as brilliant. Do you think we will ever see home again?” Achilles stops in his tracks, turning to her. She looks into his eyes. They say nothing and continue walking. In the distance the landing beacon of the shuttle strobes on and off. It is their haven and transport on this alien world. Trajan holds Augustina’s hand as they trudge along, her tiny feet and slightness prevent her from sinking. She giggles at him.
“You sink and I float.”
She skips, kicking the sand, playful and unafraid.
“You have your hands full,” chuckles Rufio. Titus rides on his shoulders. The little boy pats Rufio on the head like he is a bongo drum.
“I watch you fight in games. I want to be a gladiator too.”
“You will be strong and powerful someday.”
“Can I hold your sword?”
Rufio cannot see the harm. He will hang on to it so the child does not get hurt. He takes Titus off his shoulders and sets him down, then kneels and unsheathes his blade. The weapon gleams in the faint starlight. The child’s hand is so tiny it is hard for him to grip the handle. Then the young boy’s fingers swell to twice their size.
Rufio’s eyes widen. Titus is transformed into a grown man, complete with gladiator armor. His muscles ripple as he slashes the air with the sword.
“Over here!” Rufio cries to the others. They turn to see what he wants when the wind howls and whips up a tremendous sandstorm. Evil laughter echoes all around them.
“Pitiful humans! You cannot stand up to me!” the thing bellows.
Trajan picks up Augustina and holds her tight. The dust is blinding. Achilles unholsters his weapon. Rufio stares at the others. They are cowering at nothing. The suddenly adult Titus speaks to Rufio in a calm, authoritative tone.
“Are you prepared to die, old man?” he says. Titus assumes a combat position, crouching and holding the sword out to his side, ready to take a swing. Rufio is reluctant to defend himself.
Titus strikes, missing Rufio’s chest by centimeters.
“Fight damn you!”
Rufio pulls his gun, but sets it to stun. The stun function will not kill a man, but it might a child. Rufio hesitates to fire as he continues to dodge. Titus keeps up the attack, lunging and parrying like a gladiator. Rufio’s weapon reaches a charge. He takes aim.
Crixus is running towards him across the dunes.
“It’s a trick! Don’t shoot, for the god’s sake! He’s only a baby!”
Rufio turns back to Titus. Where once stood a fierce, grown gladiator, there is now a small boy. Rufio falls to his knees, confused.
Achilles and Claudia are hypnotized by the apparition of the sand monster. It grabs at them. She covers her eyes to keep from being blinded. From out of the storm flies Marcus, mutated into the sinister form of the Martians. He hovers straight towards Claudia with a knife.
“You thought you could get away from me, didn’t you, Sister?”
She takes out her gun and aims it at him. “No! No!” comes two voices through the wind. A hand reaches from out of the wall of sand and grabs her arm. Another appears beside Achilles and knocks his weapon away. The blinding sandstorm dissipates and reveals Crixus and Rufio.
“It’s all a trick,” Crixus says.
Claudia and Achilles look to each other, confusion boiling the air between them.
“That was fun, everybody was acting funny,” says Titus.
Claudia takes him into her arms.
“You saw nothing?”
“Just you and Daddy playing soldier.”
“What is happening?” asks Achilles.
Darius offers an explanation.
“The children aren’t fooled by any of this. This is all some grand illusion. We cannot be sure of what we say or do, only they can.”
“You mean we’re not on Mars?” Trajan asks.
“The planet may be real, but everything else is not. The Martians were mere illusions, there to goad us into self-harm, but Garelle cannot hide the truth from the little ones. He’s not omnipotent; he needs humans as a means. The kids are keeping him from that,” says Darius.
Sid is silent save for the monitoring beep issuing from his shell. Trajan finds it odd that the tiny drone has not reacted to any of the threats. The attack on the ship, the recent dust storm... It all makes sense if none of it was real and there was no danger. He should have paid more attention to his metal friend.
Crixus, reluctant to speak, clears his throat.
“Sir?” he asks Achilles.
“Where’s Marcellus?” Achilles says.
“That’s what I need to tell you. He’s dead. When we were disposing of the Martian bodies, Garelle appeared and tricked me into believing I was being attacked by lions. I panicked and shot at them but hit the commander. I killed him...”
Crixus pauses and the air grows heavy.
“The blast crippled the ship. The fuel cell is ruptured and the power pod is destroyed. She won’t fly again.”
With both ships out of commission, they are stranded. Achilles’s shuttle cannot hold everyone.
“The colony base may have reserve pods and the telemetric guidance procedures needed to repair the ship. That could take months, of course, and the station’s rations and water supply are exhausted,” says Sid.
If they cannot figure out how to stop Garelle, starvation is certain.
“Sir, I have accessed the shuttle’s operations. We can shelter there for the night,” Sid says to Trajan.
“Fine,” Achilles says.
The atmosphere processor may have made the air breathable, but it did nothing for the temperature. The frigid cold is settling in. Thunder cracks overhead and lightning lights up the sky. For the first time in a billion years water pelts the Martian desert.
The group looks up. They are getting soaked and have to hurry to the shuttle. The wet sand becomes like liquid cement, making it difficult to traverse. It is a long fight but they make it to the safety of the ship. Claudia gets the kids dried off and the men settle down in the cockpit.
“The colony records may have more information on this. I wish I could remember more, but it isn’t there. My memory is not as sharp as it used to be,” says Darius.
He’s always had the answers. What’s he hiding? What if it’s not Darius at all? What if no here is who they seem? Should I say something? No, I’ve been through too much to let this go on without asking questions.
Trajan draws his gun and aims at Darius.
Achilles watches Trajan carefully.
“You said it yourself, sir. We cannot be sure of any of this, not even you. Why is it you don’t know what to do? You’ve been deciding all this time. Now you can’t figure anything out? If I fire this weapon, will anything happen?”
Darius stands and puts his chest against the barrel of the gun.
“If you’re certain, go ahead. The Elysian fields await me.”
Claudia enters the cockpit and lowers Trajan’s weapon with her hand.
“When we get to the colony,” she says, “the first thing we can do is draw blood and run a DNA scan. The scanner is encrypted. Thanks to my father’s foresight, only I have the code. We will be able to figure out if everyone is who they say they are.”