The control room was quiet again. Monitors upon monitors showed a bouncing ‘NASA’ logo, signifying that all of the terminals had been idle for at least ten minutes. The occasional electronic beep would cry out for attention, but it would not be attended to until the designated operator decided to return.
Adam sat alone in the multi-million dollar facility, silently judging everyone for not being there with him. Was he just supposed to execute the maneuvers on his own? Every second wasted was thousands of taxpayer dollars being flushed down the drain, and these people acted like they didn’t even care. There were times when it bothered him. When they’d started this journey, everyone had been so excited! So enthusiastic! Now it felt like they just punched in and punched out, and rarely at the correct times.
There were other times, however, when he embraced the quiet nature of the control room. He would stand up, switch off the main fluorescents, and put the live feed from the rover up on the big screen. He’d sit down at the main terminal, turn off his phone, and explore the foreign world. He wouldn’t ever move the wheels, of course. That would mean the exploration team would have to plan a whole new routine for the day with an entirely new heading and set of directions. No, it was best to leave Curiosity where it was; but no one ever seemed to mind a bit of head turning. A lot less planning involved in that, and no one had called him out on it yet.
Lit only by the blue glow of screensavers, Adam strutted towards the captain’s chair labeled “Terminal: Bravery”, struggling not to grimace upon reading the words, as they always disrupted the flow of his fantasy. The government had forced them to name every little piece of equipment something inspirational. Originally, it had been a point of pride among NASA scientists, and they’d say things like, “Me? Oh nothing really. I’m just one of the Curiosity pilots working out of ‘Terminal: Bravery’. Yeah, the whole thing would basically fall apart without me.” They put it on their resumes, for god’s sake. Now the names were a joke. They’d all given up on trying to name things what they wanted to name them ages ago. Instead they’d taken to calling random office objects by these uplifting monikers as well, and the coffee pot became Caffeine Dispenser Victory, the copy machine was Xerox Valor, and the unisex toilet was known only as A Better Tomorrow for our Children and our Children’s Children. Or just, A Better Tomorrow if you were in a hurry. Terminal Bravery still bothered Adam, however. It had been named without a hint of irony.
One last look over his shoulder to make sure no one was listening, and his adventure began.
“When we last left Captain Adam Rodgers,” he bellowed, using his best dramatic voice, “He’d made history by communicating with intelligent life! The planet Earth was united in celebration, as the brave captain had negotiated a lasting peace and new age of collaboration with the Martian supreme leader. Ahhhhhh… Ahhhhhh…” He made a raspy noise with how throat to simulate a cheering crowd, and flung his hands into the air after inputting the maneuvers for the rover to follow. It would be a few minutes before the camera actually received the commands and turned, but how could someone be impatient with all of these devoted fans cheering his name?
“Captain Rodgers!” His voice was now that of a nineteen-forties radio newscaster, “Our boys back on Earth sure do wish they had your bravery, and all the girls wish that you would be their fella! What you’ve done is truly monumental! So tell us, Captain: What’s next for the great Adam Rodgers?”
“Here’s the thing, Chip;” He’d puffed out his chest, put his hands on his hips, and was now doing his best All-American Hero voice, “I’m just a regular Joe, like the next Tom, Dick, and Harry. I put my pants on one leg at a time, and I always drink my Ovaltine.” He turned towards an imaginary camera and raised an eyebrow. In his head, he was as majestic as a bald eagle. “I want the little boys and girls out there to know that they can be just like their old pal, The Captain. They just gonna eat their vegetables, listen to their parents, and say their prayers at night, just like The Captain does!”
This was pretty typical of Adam’s lonely evenings. He’d turn the rover’s head ever so slightly, and fill the fifteen minutes of time between action and consequence with his science fiction fantasies. He realized that if the others knew what he did at this terminal, he’d be laughed out of the building, but he couldn’t help himself. He controlled a robot that was millions of miles away on another planet! As far as he was concerned, the fact that he didn’t do more with the rover showed great restraint on his part.
He continued on this way for some time. Intrepid reporter ‘Skip’ and the Heroic ‘Captain’ exchanging banter for a quarter of an hour. Once it began to get closer to time, however, Adam wound down their conversation. He enjoyed playing hero, but there was something sacred to him about giving the rover his full attention whenever it turned it’s head. It was about to unveil a special piece of a whole other world; and it was just for him. This was his own personal slice of Mars. Every time he’d been left alone and took control, a burst of colorful emotions grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and shook him awake. It was the feeling of being in love with someone, and resting wanting eyes on their bare skin for the first time. Mars was a beautiful woman who hid herself away from hungry stares; but once you were close to her… once you actually ran your fingers across her skin, she changed for you. Her eyes closed, and the silk slid from her shoulder. Mars trusted him to never kiss and tell.
Eagerly, and nearly unblinking, he gazed upon the Martian landscape that painted the giant projection screen in the color of rust. Any moment, it would turn fourteen degrees to port, Adam would get an erection that he would feel awkward about later, give one final interview for his adoring fans, and then reset everything. No one would know, and even if they did, they’d never rat him out.
“They should be thanking their lucky stars that I don’t tell-” Adam had begun to speak out loud, when the last word caught in his throat. His heartbeat in his ears drowned out the various computer fans and random beeps that the control room cultivated. Cold sweat broke the surface of his forehead, and he forced his lungs to be still. He was afraid if he moved in any way, the image he was seeing on the screen would disappear. Or worse, that it would remain. His chin quivered and shook. He felt ill.
There was a man. A regular, human man with his back to the camera. He stood there, motionless on the left side of the screen, wearing clothes that Adam himself would wear, gazing out on the great red desert.
Adam didn’t know how long he sat there staring at the screen. There was a familiarity that he felt towards the man on Mars, but his mind refused to focus on it. Everything in his brain was alight, and bright, shiny colors had begun to swirl into his line of vision. The lack of oxygen had began to take its toll. The self-imposed suffocation would be what eventually snapped him out of it, though, and when he finally inhaled, it was violent and desperate. His lungs cried out for nourishment, and in letting them indulge, he allowed his eyes to briefly close. Though he managed to open them again almost instantly, it wasn’t fast enough to see the man move.
He was now in the center of the screen. Adam eyeballed the distance that the man had traveled, determining it to be roughly twenty meters; All in the blink of an eye.
Adam was terrified. There was a man on Mars. What was he supposed to do now? What was the procedure here? He turned his attention to Terminal Bravery, and tried to take a screen capture, or begin recording video, but none of the key features of the terminal were responding to his commands. From what he was able to discern, it seemed to him like he could probably still control the movements of the rover, though he dare not. His mind jumped through hoops to try and justify the extraterrestrial stranger he was seeing before him. Perhaps he’d fallen asleep at his desk, and this was all just the stressed out dream of an overworked man. Here he was, so overwhelmed by the gravity of his work, that we was still doing his job in his sleep!
“That must be it.” He said out loud to himself. “I’m dreaming. I mean, it certainly feels like I’m awake, but I’ve had dreams like this before. I just have an active imagination is all!” Adam forced a smile, but he was in no way comforted by his own words. He knew damn well he hadn’t fallen asleep, and that what he was seeing on the screen was either there, or he was suffering from some kind of mental breakdown. Sweat from his forehead had made its way into one of his eyes, and even though it stung, he kept it open and trained on the screen.The figure hadn’t moved since the last time he’d broken his gaze. The man on Mars seemed to know that Adam was watching.
“This is fucking insane.” Adam said to an empty room, but almost certain the Man on Mars could hear him. “We’re going to figure this out right now. I’m going to stand up, and I’m going to walk backwards to the door. Once I get to the door, I’m going to push it open, and I’m going to yell for someone. Anyone who’s around. Then I’ll have my answer, won’t I, Mr. Martian?” He’d dressed his voice in a suit of faux confidence, and stood up from Terminal Bravery. He took several deep breaths, but none of them flowed smoothly. What if he had gone crazy? Even worse, What if he hadn’t?
His first step back towards the door felt like the biggest he’d ever taken. One small step for man. It was a thought he’d normally have found funny, but in this particular instance, he remained stone faced and didn’t let the man on the screen out of his sight for even a moment. Once his left foot had broken free of its own gravity, he placed it behind him, following a moment later with the right. He then froze, scanning the giant monitor for any hint of activity, but the figure remained still. It stared out upon its red kingdom as it had before; stoic and statuesque.
The next few steps back came slightly more easy to him. He’d expected there to be a higher level of difficulty, but he’d been up and down the various walkways and stairs of the control room so many times that the map he’d made in his head was true. He’d gotten away from the terminal, all the way up the stairs, and almost to the door when he felt his foot catch. He’d gotten careless and hasty and his heel caught the baggy pant leg of his khakis. Before he could react, he was tumbling backwards. White light shot through his vision as the back of his head collided with the heavy door, and his eyes had closed automatically from the shock to his system. As he pulled himself up and rested his back against the door, he found himself utterly terrified to open his eyes again. There was that feeling; the one he couldn’t seem to shake. It can see me. It knows I wasn’t watching because it’s watching everything I do. He decided that he wouldn’t reopen his eyes until someone entered the door behind him… Until he heard it.
He was just in time to see the back foot of the man move off screen. All that was left was the desolate landscape, and the sound of his own name echoing in his ears.
He no longer believed himself to be crazy. He knew he’d just heard someone speak his name. It sounded as though it had been run through several layers of encoding, and while that had distressed it, the message remained loud and clear. The man on Mars had spoken to him, and addressed him by name. Regardless of the delay, the man knew precisely when to speak to interact with Adam; one specific person on a planet millions of miles away.
Adam rose to his feet, the back of his head pounding with each beat of his heart. His vision was slightly blurred, but on unsteady feet, he moved away from the door and made his way back towards Terminal Bravery. While he was still unsettled, he’d decided he wouldn’t be much of a scientist if he let this opportunity pass him by. He sat in the chair he’d sat in a thousand times before, punched in his login, and entered the commands needed to turn the unblinking eye of Curiosity off to the left. He was going to find him, and he had a feeling that the man on Mars was going to let him. Having input the commands, it was all about waiting. The space that would normally have been filled with his boisterous fantasy space drama was instead occupied by Adam balancing his phone on a edge of a desk in order to record the big screen. Adam wanted to make absolutely sure that what he had seen was recorded somewhere. This wasn’t going to live and die with him. No ghost on Mars was going to make him look like an idiot.
He stood up, turning his head away from the screen, confident that his phone was recording, and made his way past the rows and rows of glowing monitors to the door which now bore a dent in the shape of his skull. His vision was still slightly swimming, but he managed to pull the heft of the door towards him, and step into the hallway. The blue and white hall was washed out by the humming fluorescence above; any and all color oppressed by the chemical light. He looked to his left and right, his eyes reaching for anyone that might have been working or even just passing by. He no longer needed their confirmation, but he did recognize the potential benefits of having someone else there to witness what he had been witnessing. If it ended up being a major discovery, he wouldn’t mind someone else’s name on the paper, just as long as their name was after his, and in a smaller font.
But the hallway showed no signs of life. At this time of night there should at least been a janitor shambling through, pushing a bucket of dirty water and listening to his headphones way too loudly, but instead, there was nothing. Adam’s eyes were tired and dry from a lack of blinking, and there was no sound but the buzz of the lights above his head. He stood there for about five and a half minutes, but the hallway remained completely desolate. They’d all see what he had seen soon enough. For the first time on his career, he didn’t want to be watching when the rover turned its head. It was too much to bear. Either he was going to see something or he wasn’t. He just couldn’t figure which option would be more frightening.
Stepping into the hall and away from the screen for a moment, he felt lighter. There weren’t dozens of screens silently judging him, and beeping sounds that called and demanded his attention. There was only the electric hum of the lights. The bathroom wasn’t more than twenty feet away, and he hadn’t realized until he glanced the door just how badly he needed to relieve himself. After a quick look in both directions, he ran at the door, and burst through it, like a child running down a dark hallway at bedtime.
Inside the bathroom, he found precious normalcy. There was nothing strange about the room, which relaxed Adam in a matter of seconds. He needed something to look and feel like it always had. He’d halfway expected there to be a message on the mirror written in blood, saying something to the tune of, “WE KNOW WHAT YOU DID” or “REDRUM”, but mercifully, there was only an exhausted NASA geek in a sterile NASA men’s restroom, which was usually nothing special, but now it felt like being on vacation. He relieved himself at the urinal, feeling less anxious with each passing moment, and made his way to the sink to wash his hands. As he lathered his palms underneath the warm water, he caught his own eye in the mirror. He looked tired, maybe even a little older. His collar and his armpits were soaked with sweat that had begun to cool, and the air conditioning in the facility was always up high. He felt the goosebumps prickle on his skin.
“Your name is Adam.” He splashed water into his face, and looked deep into his own eyes in an attempt to ground himself. “You are a researcher at NASA. You had oatmeal for breakfast.” He felt the tension begin to leave his shoulders. He’d gone into this exercise with a fair amount of skepticism, but it was actually kind of working. “Your favorite color is red. Your favorite food is mashed potatoes and gravy.” Another splash of water, and a deep breath. He could do this. He was going to go back, capture the anomaly on film, and then he was going to be famous. He was not crazy. He was Adam, and he was right here right now. “Your mom’s name is… Your mom… She… Her name is…” His eyes widened, and Adam struggled to take his next breath. Why can’t I remember. Why can’t I remember my mother’s name?
Another splash of water, and a much shakier breath. It’s stress. He thought. I’ve been having a very stressful evening, and this is a totally normal byproduct of that mental strain.
“Your father is… He’s your father. He raised you. He was a good man who raised you with compassion, and his name is… is… SHIT.” he slammed his hand down next to the sink. Adam had experienced a lot this evening, but this was the most upsetting development by far. He couldn’t remember. Not a single detail. He tried desperately to remember the house he’d grown up in. The color of his bicycle. His first kiss. All the boxes of memories that he tried to open were empty. He couldn’t find his past. Everyone has a past, he was sure of that, but right now he couldn’t seem to find his. Was this the doing of the man from Mars? Had he gotten that far into his head? Had he hijacked Adam’s brain from millions of miles away? He tried to convince himself that this couldn’t be the case, but the impossible had gotten up close and personal this evening, and out of all the voices he’d heard today, his was the least convincing.
Adam was done. He was going to finish what he’d started, and he was out of here. Back to the real world, and back to his memories. He was going to call his damn mother the second his sneakers hit the parking lot, whatever her name was. He pulled a paper towel from the dispenser, dried his face and took one last look in the mirror. Get it together, Adam. Stay frosty.
The hallway didn’t provide the same comfort that it had before. It felt lonelier than ever, and the buzz of the ever-present lights seemed to taunt him. Despite all that weighed on him, he was still managing to put one foot in front of the other and make his way back to the control room. Back to Terminal: Bravery. He was going to blow this whole thing wide open. He would be the talk of the scientific community. He’d get all kinds of awards! It was only a matter of time before his name was uttered in the same sentences as Neil Armstrong and John Glenn. He would-
“Happy Birthday to you…”
The voice materialized almost violently, despite the calm it carried with it. He froze. What else could he do? This was about more than just the screen. The voice he’d just heard had been the same voice that had called his name from Mars. The same electronic distortion, and the same tone, he was sure of that, only this time it didn’t come from the screen or Mars. It had come from the empty hallway behind him. It had waited for him to look away again, and then it had called to him, just like before.
“Happy Birthday to you…”
Closer this time. It couldn’t have been more than twenty feet away. The temperature around him had dropped, and something was coming towards him. Something was making contact, he could feel it. Was this the man he’d seen staring out into the nothing, with his back to the camera? This can’t be real, but I’m not dreaming. I’m not crazy though, am I? Do crazy people think they’re crazy?
Adam put his back to the door and looked left and right down the hall once again, but was greeted with the same solitude he’d seen before. No one in either direction, so why had it sounded so close? The only explanation is that it was in my head. I moved the rover’s camera, and started recording to try and validate a hallucination. There will be logs of me attempting to access the recording tools. I’m as good as fired!
He needed to reset the rover to where it was. Maybe he could convince them that the movement had been a glitch, or an error on his part. A forgivable, understandable mistake. It was unethical, but this job was all he had. It’s not like there were many openings for a trans-planetary camera operator. Psychosis can be managed, he thought, There are pills and potions a-plenty that I can just shovel down my throat, and I’ll be right as rain again. He took several steps back, pushing the door open using his back, but his footing was still lacking, and he tumbled down the short flight of stairs to the first landing. He struck the back of his head a second time, and felt a warm liquid running through his curly black hair, making the strands tacky and moistening his shirt. He didn’t reach back to assess the damage.
“Happy Birthday, dear Adam…” The digital hiss of the stalking voice was right next to his ear this time. Whoever was singing was standing over him; and even though he saw no one, he felt their breath sweep around the hair on his neck; the charged and haunting melody had the scent of iron and atmosphere.
Without thinking, Adam threw himself at where he thought the song was coming from, but found himself tackling empty space. He landed hard on a computer monitor and tumbled back to the floor. He found it almost impossible to focus his eyes, and his mouth hung slack. He was frantic and horrified. This place. This sacred place where he’d spent years of his life helping to explore a foreign world, had turned on him. It had been corrupted. Adam was without a home now, and this tore at him even more than the man on Mars.
“Leave me alone, whoever the fuck you are! Get the fuck away from me!” He grabbed a keyboard from the desk he’d landed next to and swung it violently from side to side, desperate to strike his invisible assailant. “This is my place! I belong here! You don’t belong here!”
Despite his now substantial visual impairment and the darkness of the command center, he saw it standing just below the screen. The man from Mars stood facing out at the red Martian desert. His clothes were even more familiar, but that wasn’t what had stopped Adam’s breath; it was the bloody spot on the back of the man’s head. Just above where his skull met the base of his neck, a deep crimson wound dripped down the back of the man’s sweater. Even though he was sure he already knew what he’d find, Adam lifted his hand to feel where the damage on his own head was.
The Man from Mars moved his arm in the same way at the same time.
Adam lowered his arm, and the man did the same. He lifted his right hand, waving it back and forth and the man from Mars did the same with no delay. He raised both arms high over his head, exposing his midriff, and the man from Mars did as well. He even had a shirt the same length… and color. The Man from Mars had curly black hair as well. How did I stare at him on the screen for that long and not realize?
The khakis, and the tennis shoes. The watch on his wrist. The slump in his shoulders. He even stood slightly crooked, like he’d gotten a knee injury decades ago playing baseball in high school. Adam dropped his hands down at his sides, and let the keyboard he’d been holding clatter to the floor, but the other Adam didn’t move, leaving his hands up high above his head. Slowly, the man from Mars turned, and Adam saw his face for the very first time. Burned by a distant sun, his eyes and mouth were nothing more than scorched, and empty holes. Adam thought he might have seen a glimmer where the eyes were supposed to be, but it was just wishful thinking. The voids were lined with fissures and cracks, and steady streams of red dust and sand were cascading down onto the sterilized NASA floor. He stood in the same room as Adam, but his voice still sounded like it was being piped through a broken speaker:
“Happy Birthday to you.”
Adam screamed and turned to run for the door behind him, his terror completely overtaking him, but when he turned, he found himself staring into the cavernous orbitals of his Martian twin, only inches from his own face. It’s hands shot up from its sides and grabbed Adams head, its jagged, rocky nails digging into his skin. Adam’s mouth opened wide in horror, but before he could even scream, the sand from the creature’s eyes and mouth shot forward and invaded every part of him. He felt the tiny sharp rocks tearing down his throat and boring into his eyes. The dust shredded his tongue, and whatever noises he tried to make devolved into a grotesque gurgle. Soon, Adam’s voice was the sound of a harsh country wind, blowing through the ragged holes in a forgotten scarecrow.
His eyes were gone, but he could smell it all around him: Sulfur, chalk, and rust. It burned his esophagus, and infiltrated every wound. He fell to his knees on rocky, unfamiliar ground and when he tried to cry out, no sound came. No tears fell down his face, and no blood seeped from the back of his head anymore. All that fell was dust. Though he could see nothing, he felt that someone was looking through him. Peering through the back of his head like a vulgar mask, and viewing the surrounding planet before him; The red graveyard that would be his final home.
The smile that abruptly tore through his face caused pieces of his lips and cheeks to break away and join the rocks below. He heard them strike the other stones, and eventually settle. He was a part of this world now. With all the effort he could muster, he forced his lungs to drag in the poisoned atmosphere, and her moved it through his ragged flesh to create sound once again. The tune was one only he could hear, but it didn’t matter. From here to eternity, no one else would ever sing it for him.
Today is my birthday.
“I can already tell by the look on your face that something went wrong again.”
“I really wish you could figure out why this keeps happening, Carl. It takes forever to reset this thing.”
Carl sighed, looking over Greg’s shoulder at the monitor. “I know. I thought I had found it last time, but judging by these readings, he was a bit all over the place last night, huh?”
“I was in here watching it. It was like it didn’t even hear me. It didn’t respond to any commands for over an hour.” Greg took a drink of coffee from his mug. Bitter. It matched his mood. “Erratic movements, instruments raising and lowering by themselves. It was a mess. We might even have a damaged camera on our hands.”
“Shit.” Carl loosened his tie, and looked at the readings for a few more moments before shaking his head. “We should just go back to manual, shouldn’t we?” He asked. “The A.I. was a good idea in theory, but if it’s going to damage itself, that’s pretty much the end of that, right?” He sat down at the terminal next to Greg, logged in, and started pulling the images that the rover had captured the night before. The two men chit-chatted about their wives, the latest TV show that everyone was watching, that new annoying pop song on the radio, and the weather. Another day at the office.
“I need a refill.” Greg announced, rising from his desk chair, coffee cup in hand. “You want anything from the break room?”
“Nah, I’m good.”
“Are you sure?” asked Greg, “The coffee today is particularly repulsive.”
“Well,” Carl paused briefly, “You make it sound so appealing, who could say no to that? Just be sure to put it in my special mug. The one with the-”
“Flowers.” Greg said cutting him off. “I know, I remember. I can’t figure out why you like that hideous thing, but your wish is my command.” Ha laughed and made his way to the door, pushing it part of the way open before stopping briefly and turning back around. “Oh and hey! The rover actually did do something right last night in the middle of all the chaos.”
“Sure did! It’s August 5th, remember?”
“Oh yeah! Sneaks up on me every year.” Carl reached into his desk and pulled out a slightly worn, cardboard party hat. He made a grand gesture of putting it on his head, and stretched the elastic over his chin to secure it in place. He then pulled out a second one and threw it to Greg, who caught it in his free hand, and put in on over his thinning hair with just as much pomp and circumstance as Carl had used.
“Do you ever feel bad that it’s out there alone? Singing to itself?”
“Actually, yeah I do, now that you mention it.” Carl stood up from his chair, and saluted the giant screen in front of him. “Happy birthday, Curiosity. Poor bastard.”
Greg raised his empty coffee mug, “Happy birthday, little buddy.”
The two men stood in silence momentarily before Greg left to get more coffee, and Carl went back to reviewing footage. The monitor in the front of the room continued to display an unblinking view of a far off world, seen through the eye of it’s only inhabitant:
A lonely robot who only knows one song.