Casian Vazquez opened his eyes, pushing his back into the uncomfortable wood of the hearing room bench. He’d dozed off yet again as they entered the ninth hour of this absurd charade. He checked his watch—7 PM. He could smell the acrid sweat of the senators, and he was in the back row. The pungent stench knocked his vision back into focus, and his eyes returned to the scene.
“Thank you, Senator Richards,” Vice-Chair Tarantin said. “I believe just Senator Edwards has a few questions remaining for you, Martin. I’m so sorry this has taken so long.”
“I appreciate the sent—sentiment,” Martin said, the well placed stutter barely noticeable. “I pro—promise. I am fine. I do my duty to my country today.”
Casian could only see the back of the head of Doctor Martin Van Wert, the center of public attention. He couldn’t see the man’s face, but he’d listened to him speak many of the same words over and over again all day. No, for the past month, really, ever since he’d returned from Mars. He’s doing his duty for his country. Everyone’s eyes had looked toward the red planet for over a year, and today, Martin had finally answered their questions. Most of the answers had been less than satisfactory to the public. But they would satiate their appetite.
“Vice-Chair Tarantin, thank you,” Senator Edwards said. “Martin, no one denies the great service you’ve performed for your nation, and for your species. You managed to survive on Mars for three months all alone before the Goliath arrived to pick you up. It amazes me, and all of us, that you did what we thought was only possible in movies.”
“Thank you, Senator,” Martin replied.
“So my final few questions are simply to establish a clear timeline of events. We’ve drilled you on the details all day, and I just want to make sure we have a clear view of things. That we’re not missing any major gaps, that no stone has been left unturned. Does that make sense?”
“I believe so.”
Casian leaned forward, glad they finally reached the line of questioning that most worried him. Senator Edwards had always opposed the joint venture between NASA, the ESA, and a few of the multinational space development corporations, and he’d threatened the operations of Casian’s employers for even longer. But Martin remained strong, even after nine hours. He could hear the resolve dripping behind every word the man had uttered.
“On July 6, 2029, you and five other humans arrived on Mars, correct?” asked Edwards.
“Correct,” said Martin.
“And for a month, the six of you established Home Base and explored the surrounding, let’s say, countryside, for the lack of a better term?”
Senator Edwards typed something into the keyboard on his arm. “On August 14, you and Commander Hanks discovered a cave three miles north of Home Base, correct?”
“That is correct,” replied Martin.
“What did you find inside the cave?”
Casian breathed in sharply, awaiting the response. He’d heard it five times today, but the man’s answer never got old.
”I—we found a geothermal vent,” Martin said. “Inside the cave. It somehow created a breathable atmosphere of sorts, trapped inside. When I say breathable, I mean only just breathable, of course. It also had liquid water. And—and I don’t really know how to describe it. But in the cave, there were—shadows. Creatures. They attacked. They attacked!”
Martin descended into hysterics for a moment, trembling. Before it seemed like they’d lost him entirely, the Doctor straightened his glasses, smoothed his sleeves, and placed his hands gently back on the table.
“At least, that’s what Commander Hanks believed,” he said. “I promise you, there was nothing in that cave other than the geothermal vent and the water. But Hanks—Hanks became his shadows. He became the monsters. The poor man made the choice to take off his helmet. For a moment, he breathed in the air, and he believed he was safe. But he didn’t account for the extra gases from the vent, even if the cave had an atmospheric composition breathable to humans. Within moments, he went insane, he attacked me, and I fled.”
Casian heard the tears in Martin’s words. He had communicated the necessary emotions with such gusto and skill.
“And why didn’t you have a recording of the initial events in the cave?” Edwards inquired.
“During my altercation with Hanks, he broke my camera. It’s not like we had Wi-Fi on Mars, other than the tiny local network that connected our servers. Following our expeditions, we uploaded all of the recordings into Home Base’s mainframe. When I arrived home after the attack, I found my suit’s computer system damaged beyond repair.”
Edwards brushed his hair to the left side of his face. Casian suspected the Senator wanted something more, as if he knew Martin hid the truth. Politicians all sounded slimy, though, even when they asked innocuous questions.
“All right,” Edwards said. “So after you returned to Home Base, what happened?”
Martin took a moment before responding. “I informed the rest of the team of what happened. I told them I didn’t think Hanks was dead, and that he might return at any moment. We prepared for his arrival, but he snuck in through the vehicle airlock using his bypass commands.”
Martin breathed shallow breaths. From Casian’s angle, the man’s hands turned a pale-white color. Impressive.
“He killed them all,” Martin said. “He arrived, and he raved on and on about seeing our doom, that hell’s gates would open upon us, that he couldn’t let us leave Mars. He started cutting the power to the rooms…”
“It’s all right, Dr. Van Wert,” Senator Edwards said. “You don’t need to continue. I wanted that clear narrative established for the record. I am so sorry that you’ve had to replay this ordeal today.”
Martin’s hands returned to their normal color. “As I’ve said, it’s vitally important that the public know what happened. I survived to tell the tale of my colleagues, even the tale of Commander Hanks. He acted in pursuit of our species’ survival, even if his act was shortsighted. When we return to Mars, we need to take greater care, lest another horror film play out before another set of unsuspecting eyes.”
Senator Edwards looked taken aback at that last comment, and he furiously typed away before asking another question. “So you believe we should return to Mars?”
“Certainly,” Martin said. “We proved that humanity can survive there for prolonged periods of time, did we not? We suffered great tragedy, yes. But I don’t want the mistake of one man to ruin the future of our species.”
Casian sighed. He had played the final card, the final message that sealed the fate of Home Base. The public would believe this man’s statement, for they pitied him and his experience. They would look beyond the events that precipitated his imprisonment on the Red Planet, they would not think of the ripples formed because one man survived when the other five died.
Vice-Chair Tarantin nodded toward Senator Edwards before turning his gaze upon Martin. “Thank you for your time today.”
“It was my honor,” Martin responded.
Tarantin glanced down at his tablet. “Seeing no further questions, this hearing of the Senate Committee on Science and Technology will adjourn.” He tapped his gavel against the metal plate welded to his wooden pulpit.
Casian stood in unison with the crowd, pushing forward to reach the front of the room. Martin placed his own tablet into his bag before turning to leave the room. Seeing Casian, Martin nodded, as if recognizing the significance of his presence.
“It’s good to finally see you after all this time,” Casian said, reaching the small wooden gate separating Martin from the public pews. “NASA’s sent you through so many medical tests over the past few weeks we thought you’d never make it back to Washington.”
Martin continued nodding to himself, as if holding a private conversation in his mind. “It’s good to see you too, Casian, but I’m surprised to see you here. I would have expected for you to find me when I visited my sister next.”
Recognizing the subtext, he appreciated Martin’s constant vigilance toward discretion. The man was always on guard, going above and beyond even his own call of duty.
“Circumstances have changed,” Casian said. “She asked me to bring you by tonight. She’s got a major announcement to share.”
Martin’s eyes widened, and the man broke character for just a moment, though Casian knew no one noticed. After nine hours of hearings, everyone wanted to make it home for a decent dinner, or to the final minutes of a happy hour.
“I guess we better not keep her waiting, then,” Martin said.
* * *
The driverless car pulled up to the massive compound an hour outside D.C., located deep in the heart of Virginia. Casian noticed Martin leaning his head against the glass, drifting in and out of consciousness. Understandably, the man was exhausted. As the car stopped, though, he looked up, his eyes darting back and forth from window to window.
“This isn’t Langley,” he said. “Why aren’t we in Langley?”
“A lot of things have changed since you left,” Casian tapped his fingers on the glass. “Our division moved to a new location to keep it isolated from certain interests, especially as we get closer to the 2030 elections.”
Martin nodded, his tired brain not wanting to object. “I assume this means you received my package?”
“We did. I don’t even want to ask how you managed to smuggle it through your medical exams.”
Martin’s face transformed into an involuntary grimace. “You don’t want to know.”
The two left the car parked outside the compound. The building was an old Virginia plantation, though the owners of the building had reforested the plantation fields decades ago to bring about a renewed sense of privacy. Casian pulled a key-card out of his pocket and placed against a small black pad, nestled behind one of the white columns buttressing the entrance. A small green light appeared, and he pushed the door open. Martin followed him inside.
In the middle of the foyer, a brown table stood with two chairs. On the table, a small, unassuming black box rested. A monitor adorned the wall, paused on a high-definition image of a red, rocky surface. Casian stepped around to the far side of the table, taking a seat. He motioned for Martin to join him, and the man accepted the other chair.
“So we’re going to review what you’ve provided us,” Casian said. “We need to confirm from your own mouth what it is you brought back before we officially thank you for your service. Though you’ve done a fantastic job so far; from what we can tell, no one suspects a thing.”
Martin nodded. “I did what I had to do.”
Casian raised his right hand, faced the monitor, and swiped his hand to the right. The video screen sprang to life, transitioning from the still image to a live recording. On the screen, a shaky camera displayed an image from inside a Martian cave, from when Martin first discovered the strange place alongside Commander Hanks. A few feet ahead of Martin, Casian could see a figure he assumed was the Commander.
“Walk me through what’s going on here,” Casian said.
The pair moved through the cave, strange mineral stalactites and stalagmites protruding throughout. In order for such formations to develop, water needed to drip. The first sign that they’d found something unexpected.
“We entered the cave because we detected strange temperature fluctuations in its vicinity,” Martin said. “I advised that we return to Home Base before further investigation, but Hanks wanted to press onward. I followed his lead, and we entered the cave.”
The two men, their clunky space suits making them look larger than life, wobbled between the darkened rocks. They passed between rocky outcroppings, pushed through tight squeezes, and climbed over boulders. Eventually, the cave sloped downward, and a yellowish glow appeared ahead.
“When we noticed the strange lights, we knew we’d discovered something spectacular. But we never imagined what we’d find.”
Casian had watched this video half a hundred times by now, but he wanted to hear the story from Martin’s perspective. Needed to hear it. He had a job to do here today, but he needed to hear this story from the man who lived it.
“We arrive at the geothermal vent I mentioned so often in my testimony, but we also found”—he paused as the video turned to display the subject in question—“this.”
On the screen, a massive brownish green organism grew out of the ground beside the geothermal vent. Vaguely reminiscent of a tree, it was clearly composed of organic material unlike anything native to Earth. From its branches, strange bulbs grew. Yet even though the magnificent, terrifying, wonderful thing had plenty of strange elements, its trunk most fascinated Casian. The trunk grew upward into a canopy, but near the base of the trunk, a distinct face displayed itself. Well, not a face, but just as humans loved to anthropomorphize rocks and clouds and mountains, Casian recognized a face on the tree trunk. More importantly, the face breathed.
“After this moment, everything moved very quickly,” Martin said. “Most of my testimony is, of course, true. Hanks took off his helmet, and within moments, he touched the tree and he transformed into a raving lunatic. He attacked me. I fled.”
Casian’s hand rapped against the velvet of the black box sitting between them, while he held up his other, holding his palm toward the screen. The image paused as Hanks reached his hand toward the mouth of the creature.
“And you believe this—this tree caused him to attack you?” Casian asked.
“I do,” Martin said, closing his eyes.
“And did he kill everyone at Home Base, or did you?”
Casian watched the beads of sweat drip down Martin’s nose as the man reopened his eyes.
“I did what I had to do to keep our country safe,” Martin said, straightening his glasses. “The mass hysteria that would ensue if this sort of thing reached the public? I only followed the protocol that we established for this sort of contingency.”
Casian resumed the video. “For our private record, Martin, we need you to answer the question.”
“Hanks killed two. I killed the other two after I killed Hanks.”
“And the tree?”
Martin closed his eyes again, as if he had avoided reliving these moments of his story. “I buried their bodies outside the base, then I destroyed the tree.”
Martin nodded toward the black box. “Except for that.”
Casian opened the black box. Inside, a small glass sphere rested, and he pulled the object out of the box. Inside the glass, vacuum-sealed from the elements of Earth, a tiny bulb laid suspended: a seed of the tree now lost to the Martian sands.
“So you are confirming that you extracted this organism from the tree before you destroyed it,” Casian said, “transported it back to Earth with you, and managed to slip it by NASA without anyone detecting?”
Martin leaned back in his chair and nodded. “I had the materials to create that object at Home Base, just like we would have prepared countless other samples for our return. I had three months. I did what I needed to do to prepare for my trip home.”
Casian stood from the table and placed the small glass orb back in the box. “You have done a great service for us all, Dr. Martin Van Wert. You’ve ensured humanity has a sample of its first contact with alien life, and you ensured that the public believes that what happened on Mars was a freak accident, nothing more.”
Casian walked over to a cabinet at the side of the room. He opened a drawer, pulling out a set of black gloves. He kept his eyes fixed on Martin, who began to stand.
“So when will the Director meet with me?” Martin asked.
Casian finished fitting his fingers into the gloves.
“I forgot to tell you, Martin, I don’t work for the Director anymore,” said Casian. “I’ve found new employment, and they’re very eager to ensure that this sample stays out of the hands of the U.S. government.”
Casian closed the drawer, a small pistol in his hand. Martin stepped back toward the door and turned to flee, but he stumbled over the legs of his chair. As the man picked himself up from the ground, Casian didn’t hesitate, firing three shots in quick succession. Two missed. The third bullet connected with his target’s spine, and he slammed into the door before he could hope to escape.
After picking up the black box, Casian approached the bleeding man and used his foot to turn him onto his back. Blood spurted from his mouth as if he wanted to croak out a question.
“I’m sorry, Martin,” Casian said, though he wasn’t. “Sylvia will know you died with honor, protecting your country. And I want you to know, as you depart from this world, that I too act for this country, but I also act for the entire human species. My employers, they have a vision for the future that goes beyond just one people, one culture, one nation.”
He looked at the small black box wrapped gingerly between his arm and torso. “This seed will open the secrets of the universe to humanity. You’re the final loose end. I know you thought that this was like one of those old movies where the one person who survives gets a happy ending.”
Casian pointed the gun at Martin’s temple.
“This isn’t that type of story.”