Author's Note: This was my response to the following writing prompt: "You are a NASA intern who discovers that no astronauts have ever returned to Earth." I really enjoyed writing this though and it fell together in a way I was pleased with enough to want to share here.
Three hours into the internship with NASA I was assured would change my life and I was already beginning to feel more like a mail clerk than an intern for some of the leading scientific thinkers of our time. When I arrived, I'd been granted my very own lanyard as well as a lengthy tour of the facility and all of the places I wasn't allowed to go on my own; but it wasn't long before my supervisor started piling on the grunt work.
It's not like I didn't expect to have to make the occasional coffee run, or copy some important documents, but when I was told that this internship would open doors for me, I didn't expect that door to lead into a basement office full of filing cabinets and a paper shredder.
"The stuff in these cabinets is mostly outdated procedural briefings and job aids," My supervisor Laura Alger had told me when she first brought me down here this morning and unceremoniously dumped me here. "They've been taking up space for years. We've been meaning to get rid of them for a while now, but there just never seems to be the time."
Making a good first impression was high on my list of priorities, so I nodded and assured her with a bit more energy than was probably necessary that I was happy to help.
"There's a phone on the wall there," Laura said, pointing behind me to a dimly lit corner of the room that I was sure saw more use from spiders than it did actual people. "Just dial 313 if you need me for anything. I'll be back to check on you around lunchtime."
That was nearly six hours ago.
My stomach was growling, and my fingers were sliced six ways from Sunday thanks to a sudden propensity for paper cuts. I had managed to make my way through two and a half cabinets of shredding and loading the bits into a bin and I wanted to finish the cabinet I was on before I bothered Laura to ask when I could take a break.
It wasn't all bad. I scanned over the documents briefly before I shredded them – who wouldn't? Mostly, they were what Laura had said they would be: procedural briefings and job aids that had become hopelessly outdated by new technology that I'd even learned a bit about while in school, but some of the documents were more interesting. Each time I recognized certain names of astronauts or particular missions, I felt a little rush of excitement travel through me. It wasn't all bad, getting an inside perspective of the heroes I'd idolized since I was a kid. And the farther I got into this cabinet the more important the documents seemed to be becoming.
I knew I was onto something when I slid open the last draw and a bright splash of crimson caught my eye, wedged in the back of the cabinet amidst a sea of beige hanging folders filled with white papers. Curious, I reached in and pulled the thick file folder out.
CLASSIFIED MATERIALS ENCLOSED
FOR PROJECT CRIMSON LEADER'S EYES ONLY.
Immediately, my nerves sent a chill through me and I couldn't help but glance behind me to ensure that the door was still closed and no one had seen what I had stumbled on.
The rational side of my mind assured me that it couldn't be that important, considering it was tucked away the way it was in some long-forgotten filing cabinet. But the conspiratorial part of my brain overrode that logic by reminding me that its level of importance might be precisely why it was tucked away in the first place. I mulled over my decisions. I could shred it without glancing at it and wonder about it for the rest of my life, or I could skim through it like I'd done all of the others and then be able to rest easy when it turned out to be further science on propulsion or gravity shielding or something.
After another moment's hesitation, I flipped open the front cover of the folder.
"PROJECT CRIMSON –
TRANSCRIPTION DATE: 20 February, 1962
TRANSCRIPTION TIME: 16:52
Project Mercury spacecraft Friendship 7, piloted by John H. Glenn Jr. reports strange sighting described as intense light during second orbital loop stage of mission. Communication with vessel lost at 15:48; restored at 16:27. Pilot of vessel expressed difficulty communicating. Could not recall his name, or callsign of vessel. Indicative of need for advanced medical study once safely on ground.
Immediately, I felt my pulse begin to pick up as excitement washed through me. This wasn't a mundane briefing or arbitrary job aid at all. This was different.
Pinned to the report was two photographs, one of Glenn in his helmet, smiling before the flight and the second photo was watermarked a day after the report I'd just read. It showed what I initially thought was another man entirely: frail, and confused, with sunken cheeks and eyes that seemed slightly too large for his skull staring blankly up at the camera from what looked like a hospital bed. I flipped deeper into the packet of pages until another one caught my eye.
TRANSCRIPTION DATE: 21 July, 1969
TRANSCRIPTION TIME: 01:13
Orbital landing on our moon reported successful. As astronauts prepared to sleep for five hours before first attempted EVA, Aldrin radioed to earth with the following message:
'This is the LM pilot. I'd like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.'
It was shortly after NASA received this message that Aldrin radioed again, reporting the appearance of unidentified lights in the distance that prevented the men from sleeping prior to EVA to lunar surface.
At 23:51, NASA receives emergency alert from Apollo 11 vessel. Received report of strange noises outside vessel, and blinding light. Communication lost for 35 minutes. Upon regaining communication, astronauts must be reoriented to their mission, as well as their sense of selves. Indicative of need for advanced medical study on return to Earth.
Once again, the pictures attached to the report showed a dichotomy of before and after. The before photo showing a group of healthy looking men as they embarked on a journey that would change the world forever, while the after photo presented the same men lying in white-roomed hospital beds, their eyes disturbing large yet vacant of emotion, feeling.
My stomach began to turn inside me the longer I read through page after page of similar reports. Manned missions to outer space becoming interrupted by strange sights and a loss of communication, only to have those involved placed under quarantine and study once they returned to Earth. These were materials that weren't meant to be seen by anyone's eyes, and yet here they were, in my hands and showing me things I never wanted to know but also couldn't will myself to look away from.
I flipped further through the reports and fanned past numerous photographs of men warped in what seemed to be distinctly inhuman ways until I came to the final page in the file.
TRANSCRIPTION DATE: 11/01/2015
TRANSCRIPTION TIME: [redacted]
Project Crimson entering advanced stage on Earth.
338 American astronaut subjects successfully replicated and replaced during manned missions off of the planet and into surrounding solar system.
Advanced colonization of Earth will commence with its world leaders and those with advanced knowledge of space technology. Conversion has already begun and must continue to be swift and without mercy.
"You weren't meant to find that," a voice spoke from behind me, "at least not this soon. You work fast!"
The shock of being caught caused the entire folder of papers to spill from my hand across the floor. Photos of smiling astronauts and their insidious doubles spread around the linoleum in front of me as testament to all I had learned as Laura's double stepped into the room.
"I had meant to come back for you sooner," she started, letting the door close behind her and turning the lock behind her back. "But getting used to a human body isn't easy you know. I'm always forgetting the things your people consider important, but I'm beginning to learn that this world has ways of reminding you of those things when you least expect it."
A beat passed between us as my heart thudded in my chest and I realized that a blinding white light seemed to be emanating from her directly, becoming so bright that I had to shield my face from its glow.
"I hope you know that what has to happen next isn't personal," she sighed from within the glow, her voice inches away from my ear. "It's just lunch."
I hope you enjoyed this! I had fun writing it. :) Please know that I enjoy all types of reviews and welcome constructive feedback. Thank you!