AFRICAN OASIS SETTLEMENT OF KANURI
TENERE DESERT – SOUTH CENTRAL SAHARA
1156 HOURS: 12/12/2031
A hundred metres or so off the corner of the remote settlement of Kanuri, African children played a game of soccer with a leather-skin ball, in an improvised soccer field drawn in the sand with sticks. A goal was scored, and a cheer went up from the victorious team. As a skinny, dark-skinned boy called Asha ran to retrieve the ball, he heard something. A distant roaring sound, the sound of something rapidly cutting through the air. He looked up.
“Hey, Jamila, what’s that?” he called to his friend, in African, pointing at the sky. One by one, his friends joined him and looked into the sky, shielding their eyes from the blazing desert sun.
“A shooting star!” one boy called.
“Make a wish!”
“There are no shooting stars in the daytime, idiot!”
“There are too!”
Asha narrowed his eyes and squinted up at the object that was heading at an angle towards the ground. It was on fire, leaving behind a trail of smoke and sparks. It was falling, so high up it seemed like it had come from the stars. It was a round object, but besides that he could not see what it was. It was so far away, and so high up. But he knew one thing. “That’s not a shooting star . . ."
The boys stood watching the round object as it entered the Earth’s atmosphere, heading east, towards the Tenere desert plains. It would eventually hit the ground, it seemed. It was so high up . . . . Asha heard his parents calling him. He turned to see the parents and adults of the community waving at them from back at the town. It was lunchtime. Hunger eventually overcame their curiosity and one by one, the children left, running home to eat their lunch. But Asha continued staring at the object, entranced by it, as the sun beat down blankets of heat onto his face.
“Come on,” his sister Layla urged, tugging at his arm. “All right, all right,” Asha muttered and turned to go, but something caught his eye just as he turned around. Quickly, he whipped his head back to look, and saw, just for a second, something unexplainable.
Although the object was so far away, he saw a tiny figure on top of it as it fell through the air. A silhouette of a figure, vaguely humanoid, moving, twisting. It looked like a . . . man. But it wasn’t. It was strange, different, with long, twisting limbs. It appeared to be constantly changing, as if it was made of liquid, changing its shape. It was there, on top of the ball shaped object, out of nowhere. Then it was gone.
It seemed to sink into the round object itself, which Asha could not identify, he only guessed it was some sort of aircraft, but unlike any aircraft he had ever seen. The thing that had been on top of the aircraft had gone inside. But how? And, more importantly, what the hell was it? He stared, hoping to gain more information, but nothing happened. The ball shaped aircraft just kept falling, at an angle, heading away from Asha, getting further and further away, into the Tenere desert.
“Come on,” Layla said again impatiently, backing away from Asha, but still looking at the object as she went. Asha reluctantly turned and jogged back to his town, following the other children, feeling the soft but hot sand fall under his feet. He reached the town and headed for his house. He opened the door and went to go in after Layla, but then he turned and looked to the sky. He could no longer see the falling ball. It was out of sight, but he could still see the air trail it had left behind. He had no idea what had just happened. He bit his lip, but then he smelled the delicious food and the incident left his mind for the moment.
Asha stepped inside his home, and helped himself to lunch.
Over twenty miles away, well into the Tenere desert plains, one of the harshest and most extreme places in the world, a ferret fox stalked a desert mouse, eyeing it hungrily. Food, wildlife, vegetation and water were all scarce in the Tenere desert. The few species of animals living there have a hard time surviving the extreme climate.
The mouse scuttled across the sand, making its way back to its burrow. The fox crept along behind it. The mouse stopped, twitched its ears as if sensing something, and then raced away. The fox gave chase, covering the ground faster than the mouse could hope to outrun. The fox closed the gap and snatched the mouse off the ground with its teeth. A quick kill. The fox trotted off, meal in its mouth. Victory. And another day without starving. But the fox sensed something. Something large was approaching.
The fox ran, a large round shadow descending on it. The fox darted left as the large, round object hit the sand, creating a massive sand cloud. The impact was so great, the objet continued into the sand another ten or more meters down, creating a deep, wide crater in the sand with a radius of over twenty meters on either side of it. The fox barely escaped the crater, running off to eat its meal.
There was silence, and peace. The round object sat in the crater. It was big enough for a man to fit inside it, grey and round, its paint flaking and the metal charred and burned. And in fact, it had fell so hard, gone so deep, it had uncovered a new water source. Water soaked up, forming a new pond. Animals like the fox living in the area would appreciate that. Water was a luxury around here.
A second shadow descended on the desert some hundred metres away, a smaller one, descending much slower, in the shape of a man. A man with a parachute, who had ejected himself from his escape pod before it had hit the ground. A man who had escaped a terrifying enemy with barely his life. He reached the ground and cut away his parachute, letting it fall to the ground. He was absolutely terrified of something. His eyes were wide and he was shaking uncontrollably, sweating waterfalls. The man had blood trickling down his face from a cut on his forehead, and he bore a bruise on his cheek. He was wearing casual attire, a blue t-shirt and black tracksuit pants. The burns were plain to see, on his arms, face and neck – 2nd to 3rd degree burns. His shirt was ripped at the front, next to the emblem on his breast pocket. The emblem that read, in capital letters: NASA. And under those four capital letters: Journey to Mars.
He collapsed onto the sand, and lay there. But then he gathered his resolve and staggered to his feet, unsteadily, unsure of his legs. The sand seemed to move like the sea beneath his feet. The sand. This was the first time he had set foot on solid ground, on Earth, in what? A year? He was returning home, and he didn’t like what he saw. “Oh, crap,” he breathed as he looked around him. Desert. Lots of it. As far as the eye could see. As far as God could see, for all he knew. And it was hot. Jesus, it was hot. He asked himself, what did I do to deserve this? But he steeled himself as he looked towards the crater his escape pod had made. He just had to check.
He headed for the crater. Steam could be seen rising above the lip, as the pod had been hot, from burning up in re-entry, and now was sitting in a pool of water. He slowed his pace as he reached the edge, peering over the edge. Silence and stillness greeted him. He waited there. Nothing. He slid down the sand towards the center of the crater, where the pod was sitting.
He approached with caution. He had no weapons. But what could defend him, what could harm that . . . thing? He ducked his head to peer inside the escape pod. And it came at him, the purple, the monster. It moved so fast, so fluid in its movements - it was an unstoppable wall of liquid. He stumbled backwards and tripped, landing on his ass. Just as well. The thing flew over him, landing on the sand.
He got to his feet, and did the only thing anyone could have done. He ran. Up the slope. But it was impossible to get a purchase on the ever-shifting sand. He tripped and fell, face first, and tasted sand. He spat it out and looked back. It was coming for him. Wait, no. It was heading back for the escape pod. No, not the pod. The pool of water the pod was sitting in. Oh, no, he thought. He had seen this before. He had to do something. But what could he do?
The purple monster reached the pool, it’s dense, shiny and ever-pulsing liquid body slipping smoothly into the water. Instantly, something happened. But not what the man was expecting, what he feared. The thing was writhing in the water, losing its shape. It was in pain, emitting a . . . . It sounded like it was screaming, sending out a noise that sounded like water boiling in a kettle, bubbling, steaming. Its body went berserk. Purple tendrils spike out every which way. It was . . . . melting.
“What the hell?” the man said, staring at the horrible, terrifying, but yet entrancing sight.
The creature was now trying to escape what it had thought would help it, but had turned out to be a death trap. Slowly, it edged itself out of the water. Steam was rising off it, a hissing sound could be heard, as it left the pool. It was moving slowly, but it had stopped screaming, stopped steaming. Now it was heading for the man again. Slowly, but surely.
It was struggling, moving slowly. And then it stopped altogether. The man held his breath. It was impossible to tell what was going on, what the thing was thinking. Did it think? It stayed there for what seemed like an eternity, but was only a few seconds. Then something strange happened. It melted. It dissolved. It lost its mass, its color. It changed into . . . . water.
The man blinked.
The creature - the water, now - soaked the sand, changing its shade to a darker brown. It was gone. Water on sand. The man cocked his head, confused. He got up cautiously, staring at the wet patch of sand. Nothing happened. Was it a trick? He stood there, staring at the sand, not daring to move, for five minutes, until he was convinced it was gone. His mind raced, trying to figure out what had happened.
The thing needed water . . .
The heat . . . . It couldn’t take heat . . .
He tried to focus, tried . . . It was so goddamn hot.
The heat . . . . His mind wandered. He tried to focus. What had he been thinking about? The water . . . The monster . . . The heat. . .
His eyes drifted towards the newly formed pool at the base of the crater, the water lapping up against the sand as he stood there, still disturbed by the creature. The water . . . He could use a bath. And a drink. But was the water safe? Once again, he slid down the sand towards the pod and the pool of water. He reached out and dipped his hand into the water. It was warm, almost hot. But it was water. He scooped up a handful, and splashed it on his face. Instant relief. Another handful went into his mouth. But it wasn’t enough. He was a walking sweat factory, and his arms, face and neck were all burnt from intense heat of re-entry.
He plunged his arm into the pool, and winced as the burns stung. The pool was just the right depth. He lay inside it, not bothering to remove his clothes. It was just right, his head nestling up against the sloped sand, and the rest of him fitting comfortably under the water. The water was quite warm, but he didn’t mind. It was comfortable. It soothed his burns and cleansed him of the dirt and sweat. It was like a bathtub, but the sand made it feel more pleasurable and soft. The escape pod was directly to his left, towering over him, it seemed, blocking him from the sun, and the heat that came with it. He almost felt relaxed.
Twenty minutes later, he sat inside the escape pod, sheltered from the sun, feeling refreshed, but perhaps not clean, and definitely not hopeful. He didn’t know where the hell he was, except that he was in a desert, in the middle of nowhere, and that it was unbelievably hot. He had no food, no water save the pool his escape pod was sitting in, no way of communicating with N.A.S.A. Or anyone, for that matter. Nothing. Not even sunscreen. Just himself. But he had to tell them. Tell someone what had happened. Warn them, maybe. They had to know. What may be the most important finding in perhaps all of human history, what could open doors to opportunities for expansion and exploration, but what may endanger the Earth.
He had to tell someone what had happened on Mars.