It was an unusually warm day on Mars, around eighty degrees Fahrenheit near the equatorial base of Enyo One. Temperature spikes in certain areas had been playing havoc with the computers' atmospheric projection calculations, particularly in one area. Stranger still, one of the probes had gone dark when trying to investigate the cause of the anomaly.
It wasn't like dark probes were uncommon; Enyo One had literally hundreds of the tiny flying drones scouting every square inch of the planet we could manage. They went dark for every reason one could imagine, from running into a rogue dust storm to simple faulty wiring. What was weird about this one, though, was that we hadn't the slightest idea why it had gone dark. Most probes would constantly broadcast their status and surroundings to the computers back at base, feeding terabytes of data to be thoroughly analyzed by digital and human minds alike. This probe, on the other hand, had seemed perfectly fine until its readings began slowly blurring, as if faced with some sort of increasingly heavy interference, until it stopped sending any information at all.
Interference, of course, was physically impossible. Our probes couldn't run interference on each other, so unless one of our colonists was deliberately sabotaging the probe for unknowable reasons, the interference shouldn't exist. Furthermore, even that possibility was astronomically unlikely, as Enyo One was the only continuously habitable location on the planet, much too far from the dark zone to be reachable by signal jammers. Although there were plenty of temporary research outposts and vehicular transit dotting the planet's surface, none were anywhere near the location in question.
Such an occurrence warranted further investigation. Usually, we'd simply send another probe to inspect the first. Due to the curious nature of the first probe's disappearance, however, Command had assigned three of us to investigate the matter manually.
That's why Doctor Gabriel, Engineer First Class Stoker, and myself were currently cruising through the Martian atmosphere in a long-range M-plane. The aircraft was so advanced as to mostly be automated, but there were always problems machines hadn't been programmed to handle, which is where I came in as the investigative party's token pilot.
"We'll be entering the dark zone in five minutes," I said into the M-plane's intercommunications system. The craft was small enough that we could have easily spoken to one another, as Dr. Gabriel and Engineer Stoker were seated just a few feet behind the cockpit, if the engine hadn't been roaring loud enough to compete with the screech of the Martian atmosphere rushing by outside. "The M-plane has manual mechanically-released parachutes and landing gear should the aircraft run into the same problems as the probe, though Command has assured us that's highly unlikely."
"They also assured us this sort of problem was highly unlikely," scoffed Stoker in his nasally voice, oddly high-pitched for an upper-middle aged man such as himself. To be perfectly honest, the guy gave me the creeps. I knew he'd spent the majority of his life working on machines indoors, and even in direct sunlight the Martian surface would never give one the coloring a human being would receive on Earth. Even still, though, I'd never met anyone half as pale. "What else have they not told us? What are we really up against?"
"Feeling a bit paranoid, are we?" laughed Gabriel in her musical voice. If Stoker was unnerving, Gabriel was anything but. "You sound like a conspiracy theorist. Expecting little green men to have snatched the probe?"
Stoker grumbled, but said nothing.
I had to admit, it was unusual, but extraterrestrials were the furthest thing from my mind. We'd been on Mars for years, mapped very nearly all of the terrain via satellite and probe alike, and had yet to encounter any concrete signs that anything had ever been alive on Mars before us. As much as the science fiction authors of the past would have liked to find dying civilizations, flying saucers, and planetary canals, it seemed the only life to be had on Mars was from Earth.
We entered the dark zone without trouble, not experiencing the slightest bit of disturbance. Much to my surprise, though, the probe's locator began picking up its signal.
"That's odd…" I murmured. Then, louder so that Gabriel and Stoker could hear me, I announced "We've picked up readings from the missing probe. We should see it any minute now. I don't know how the signal could end right outside the dark zone, but at least we have a reading."
However, when we finally were all but on top of the signal, the probe was nowhere in sight. Rocks and dust had been strewn everywhere besides a rather sizable hole that looked, impossibly enough, to have burst open from the ground. It burrowed deep into the Martian surface, eventually fading out into darkness.
I was no geologist, but even I could recognize the difference between an impact crater and a hole, particularly one that looked artificially made. I brought the M-plane low to hover over it, running all manner of scans on opening. There were no traces of foreign matter within, so that definitely crossed off the possibility of an impact. We hadn't been informed of any rocks large enough to break the atmosphere anyway.
The oddest thing about the hole, though, was that it was smoothly rounded. The vertical tunnel was in the shape of a perfect circle, running straight down at what looked like a ninety degree angle to the surface.
"Nobody told me this probe was a driller," Gabriel said. We were close enough that she could easily see the large opening outside her window. "I thought subterranean exploration hadn't been sanctioned in this area, not with all the seismic anomalies."
"It wasn't and it hasn't been," Stoker said grimly. "I'd bet my soul we're witnessing one of your 'seismic anomalies'."
"Not that that would mean much," Gabriel chuckled, sounding a lot more calm than I felt.
Though I wouldn't go so far as Stoker, I'd be willing to place a hefty wager as well on this opening being mechanical in origin. Nothing we'd seen on Mars so far had ever construed sediment in a perfect ring like this, but there weren't any drilling or digging machines for hundreds of miles.
"This doesn't make any sense," I thought aloud. "Unless someone is really pulling the ropes to conceal this thing, and I don't know how they could with all the computerized monitors we have on everything, this wasn't made by us."
"By the Enyo One team, you mean?" Gabriel asked. "Or…humans?"
I didn't know how to answer. Instead, I backed the M-plane up and landed a safe distance away on the off-chance another one of those holes opened up nearby. Each of us had been suited up the whole ride, so we simply opened the M-plane and cautiously stepped down onto the Martian surface.
When I saw Gabriel pulling out rope from the supplies unit, I cringed.
"You're not seriously thinking—"
"There's only one way to find out what we're really dealing with and where the probe got to," she said. "Besides, what could we find that would present a danger?"
Stoker snorted. As much as I hated to admit it, for once I was on his side.
"For one thing, whatever seismic activity opened up a fissure that large could easily trap us down inside it, if it doesn't crush us," I pointed out, not seeing how she could be so ready to simply leap into an anomaly. "At the very least, we should send for backup."
"Don't waste your time," Stoker said dismissively. "They won't be able to hear us anyway."
"What makes you say that?" I asked, already calling up the base. All I received was static. "But that's…what's causing that? How did you know?"
He made a noncommittal grunt and headed off towards the hole. Gabriel had already reached it and was securing the rope to her suit, making sure the other end was safely tethered to the M-plane.
"Are the two of you insane?!" I demanded. "We are not climbing down into a hole of unknown origins, depth, and contents! Repel down there and I'll fly the M-plane out, even if I have to drag you both back to base outside."
"The M-plane is dead as well," Gabriel said. "See for yourself."
Getting a suspicious sinking feeling, I tried to remote activate the aircraft. Nothing happened. On the verge of panicking, I climbed back inside, only to find that my suit wasn't the problem. All of the controls had gone dark.
"You two sabotaged it," I breathed. "But how? Why?"
"You have to trust us when we say we didn't," Gabriel spoke firmly, the usual jovial tone gone from her voice. "We just expected that to happen. Whatever brought down the probe doesn't want us to leave yet either. Come on, we'll need your help when we do find the probe. I'm useless with machines, but Stoker will need a hand."
Exiting the cockpit, I found myself alone on the Martian surface. The other two had already repelled down into the hole.
"Command is hearing about this the moment we get back," I said to myself. I didn't know exactly to whom I was speaking, much less what it was I was planning to tell Command.
Hurrying over to the edge of the opening, I connected my suit to the rope and repelled down after my companions. I'd never known either very well, Stoker least of all, but I was getting the feeling I knew even less than I thought. How could they have known any of this? Was this all part of some bigger mission they knew of that I didn't?
We repelled deep enough that by the time we reached the bottom, looking up revealed only stars rather than the light of the afternoon. Furthermore, the probe wasn't at the bottom.
Myriad tunnels branched off from our entryway, though one in particular had scratched markings along the bottom, as if something heavy had been dragged through it.
"We should have walked out of the dark zone and signaled for help," I said as the others promptly began walking down the worn path. "We can still do that. I've never believed in extraterrestrials, but this is the most solid evidence I've ever seen. We need to get the others involved before we just walk into it on our own."
"Without the M-plane we'd run out of oxygen before we reached the edge of the dark zone and you know it, boy," Stoker scoffed. "Even if we could walk out, we'd still never make it. We wouldn't be permitted to do so."
"How do you know all of this?" I demanded, reluctantly following them down the tunnel.
"I suspect you already know that's classified," Gabriel said. "We're sorry, we really are. We had hoped this wasn't what we feared, but it's looking more and more like it is. Just…don't mention anything you see to anyone back on base, would you? The outcry would be…unfortunate."
"You knew," I said. "You're some of Command's elite, aren't you? Somehow Command already knows there is life on Mars. Native life. How? How long have they known?"
"If you value having your blood on the inside, you'll hold your tongue," Stoker said quietly.
After a few minutes of walking, the tunnel began to open up. The lights on our suits finally lost track of the walls and ceiling, and we were in what appeared to be some sort of giant cavern.
I swept my light across the cave, illuminating smooth rock walls and fine dust for a floor.
Then I shone across a face, and I screamed.
The other's lights were on it instantly, showing a worn, haggard face that was undoubtedly that of a living being. It was also immobile, not even blinking in the fierce glare. After a few tense moments in which my heart felt like it would burst, I swept my light up and down across the figure. It had all the features of a human being, same number of limbs, same proportions, same face, everything. It was nude, and seemed to have been carved from rock.
"It's a statue," I observed, having caught my breath.
"It's Greek," Gabriel added, to my confusion. "I've seen one just like this on Earth."
Seeing my puzzlement, she said "I was an art history minor in college."
"There's more," Stoker alerted us. "Some of these are Roman."
We swept our lights through the space, lower to eye-level this time, and saw all manner of intricately carves statues of marble, bronze, even one that looked like obsidian. However, everything looked incredibly old. There were chipped terra cotta vases, piles of worn gold coins, faded frescoes, and dull swords and spears. What could have rusted looked to be the same color and strength of a dying autumn leaf, and almost everything had sections missing in sharp gashes.
"Why would Martians collect artifacts from Greco-Roman culture?" I wondered aloud. I was no expert, but there didn't seem to be any other cultures represented.
"Stylistic taste, perhaps?" Gabriel mused.
"Further in," Stoker called from ahead once more. "You're going to want to see this."
Hurrying, I followed Gabriel to what appeared to be a giant stone structure, hewn from reddish native rock. There were columns, actual Corinthian plumes atop them, as well as a frieze on the topmost visible portion. Most of it had chipped, broken off, or otherwise fallen into disrepair, but the images were clearly not depicting human figures. Whatever this building was, it clearly hadn't come from our home planet.
"Were they copying Earth?" I asked no one in particular.
"I don't think so," Gabriel disagreed, walking inside into a long hallway covered in a mosaic. "At least, not exactly."
This artwork had fared better than most of the artifacts, but only just. The opposite wall of the hallway seemed to bear a mirror image, and the first subject of either side was what appeared to be a depiction of a hurricane, a large swirling design. Next came two humanlike figures, followed by several more. Each was distinct from the others, holding symbols or wearing unique armor or toga-like clothing.
Finally we came to twelve figures, three of which were featured most prominently, in some sort of conflict with blockier beings. The trio at the front were unmistakable, one holding a scythe, another a trident, and the third a jagged zig-zag that could only be a thunderbolt.
"These are the gods," I realized. "The Olympians. Hades, Poseidon, Zeus…I can never remember the others. Who are these they're fighting, though?"
"Titans, most likely," Stoker said. "This looks like a divine family tree, a lineage of Greek theology."
It seemed he was right. I was never much one for fantasy, but even I knew some of the old myths. Hercules and his Twelve Labors, Jason and the Argonauts, Theseus and the Minotaur, the Trojan War, the Odyssey…it was all here.
Eventually, however, we came to stories I didn't recognize. The Greek style began to look increasingly Romanesque, with tales of Roman conquest, gladiators, emperors, and all manner of other things. The Olympian gods were still all in play, though they seemed to have shifted into their Latin counterparts.
One god kept recurring more prominently than the rest. Judging by how he alone was always covered in armor whilst the others were sometimes armed and sometimes not, I guessed he was Ares, perhaps now better known as Mars. Quite ironic, really, that the very god this planet was named after secretly had his stories hidden away beneath its surface.
Still, none of this made any sense. Were the Martians really copying Earth cultures after all, or was it the other way around? Had these Martians been the gods of old? Of course I'd heard of conspiracy theories that mythology was secretly full of extraterrestrials meddling with human history, but like any sane person I'd never believed them. Seeing all of this, though, I was beginning to wonder which side of that debate had been saner.
At the end of the Roman saga, other beings I didn't recognize entered the fresco. Some looked vaguely Hindu, others were African, and others still looked to be from the Far East. They seemed to be in conflict with the Greco-Roman deities, and finally a small few of these new gods triumphed over the old. I didn't recognize nearly any of them, though there were a few who looked vaguely familiar, and one that was truly unmistakable to someone who'd lived my whole life as an all-American astronaut, even if I'd never been a proper follower.
Some looked like something out of an old Viking movie. Others looked more like abstract symbols than humanized beings.
One of them, however, was a young man carrying a cross on his back.
Gabriel stopped for a moment and placed her gloved hand on the image of what could only be Christ. Stoker said nothing, looking grim as ever, before the two of them moved on with me in tow. I hadn't the slightest idea what Stoker believed, if anything, but Gabriel wore a tiny wooden cross around her neck. I wondered what she was thinking at the moment.
Defeated by the new deities, the Greco-Roman gods escaped to the stars, leaving a depiction of Earth that was round rather than flat. Still focusing on Ares, the narrative showed him arriving on a nearby world. It was covered in odd spires and stranger creatures, none of which looked anything like the stereotypical little green men with huge eyes.
Ares was shown in conflict with these beings as well before finally conquering them, ruling over them. The last image depicted the very temple in which we were standing.
"Wait a moment," I said, stopping at the final piece of the fresco. "The Martians weren't copying Earth, but they weren't the old gods either. The old gods were from Earth, and they came here?"
"One did, at least," Gabriel said. "And I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't call them that. There's only one God."
Stoker snorted again, earning him a heated glance from Gabriel.
Leaving the long hallway, we entered another large, open space. The fresco had shifted from the wall to the floor, creating a vast if heavily faded, chipped, and dust-obscured picture of a massive battle. Soldiers from every human era I'd ever known about were in conflict, fighting with everything from armor and chainmail and swords to fighter jets and camouflage uniforms and automatic rifles. There didn't seem to be any rhyme nor reason to the fight; even in its faded form, I could see it was a bloody free-for-all, blood flowing from saber wounds and skeletons frying in nuclear bombardments.
"This is horrible," Gabriel said in disgust.
I had to agree. Even after all this time, the art was unmistakably done by a master, but its subject was incredibly grotesque. I'm no peacenik; many roads to being an astronaut start with being a military pilot, which is just what I'd done. Nevertheless, I hadn't reveled in conflict, hadn't seen any glory in war like this mural was clearly trying to depict.
As I scanned the picture with a sort of morbid curiosity, my eyes widened when I spotted the probe, or rather what was left of it, at the far end of the room. The man-sized winged machine was badly battered, with a hole in one side rimmed with scorched metal. It was half shadowed, just barely entering a patch of darkness even our suits' lights couldn't penetrate. For some reason, I didn't think much of that, and began walking towards the probe before Gabriel held out an arm to stop me.
"What is it?" I asked, confused.
"There are others in this room," she whispered.
My heart almost leapt out of my chest as a cold sweat broke out, and I quickly checked the suit's heat-imaging function. Thankfully I saw no signatures but our own.
"Are you sure?" I asked. "My suit's not reading anything—"
"Human technology hasn't been made to detect these stragglers," Stoker said. The way he said 'human' gave me almost as much of a chill as hearing my companions thought others were in the room. But if the suit couldn't detect anything, then what could they see that I couldn't?
A subtle vibration began stirring in the air, in my head, in my bones. It intensified, playing havoc with my suit's systems, nearly shaking me to the ground. I felt an urge to fall on my knees as images of the mural flitted into my mind, more real and intense than anything I'd ever experienced. I was storming the beach at Normandy, fighting the Germanic tribes in Rome, hurling stones at Neanderthals. I was terrified, and all about me was this untouchable, impossibly alien rage, pure and unadulterated, thirsting for blood and death like nothing I'd ever known.
The images finally subsided, but the sensation of that rage, that presence, did not. The darkness obscuring half the probe was receding now, illuminated by something from within, something that flickered like fire and was just as red as dying embers.
It had the shape of a man, but there was no denying that it definitely wasn't human. It was much, much too big, and everything about him, from his fiery eyes to his ancient armor to his spear to his very skin glowed with that fierce red.
Standing to either side of him were beings also unmistakably inhuman. Entirely covered in much more modern-looking armor but no less strange for it were tall, skinny entities with proportions that seemed twisted and out of place. Their limbs were too long, they only had three thick fingers that curved into claws, and the sharp point in the front of their helmets somehow didn't seem like decoration. Symbols that looked like variations on the Greek alphabet covered their armor, which itself was a rusty orange.
The inhuman humanoid spoke, snarling something in a language that sounded vaguely familiar but that I nevertheless didn't understand. His voice was like the blast of cannon fire or the striking of swords.
"He wants us to worship him," Gabriel said after the burning figure stopped speaking.
I didn't know how she could understand him, but I could feel that internal tugging sensation once more, attempting to draw me to my knees like some sort of gravitational force. I struggled to stand.
Gabriel and Stoker, however, didn't seem to be having that problem at all. The two of them stepped forward, placing themselves between the horrible figures and myself.
"You are done, Old One," Gabriel spoke. Her own voice sounded different, though it was far from the horror of the burning man. If anything, it sounded almost like music, like a chorus, or perhaps a choir. "Leave us be and die in peace."
The humanoid figure merely raised his hand. The two monstrosities at his sides began slowly shuffling forward, electricity crackling around their claws.
There was a flash of light, blinding in its brilliance, and I could feel the heat from it even from within my suit. When the spots stopped dancing behind my eyelids, I shakily opened them to see that Gabriel was gone. At least, the Gabriel I knew. In her place stood a radiant figure shining with a golden luminance, pearlescent feathery wings spread wide from her back. She was adorned in armor of her own, though it didn't resemble any culture I knew, and she held a sword at the ready.
She thrust out her sword in a wide arc, slicing clean through the shuffling armored creatures as if they were merely air. Their remains crumpled to the ground, oddly-colored fluids leaking from the husks as sparks danced around the metal.
If the burning man was as surprised as I was, he didn't show it. If anything, his angry expression merely devolved further. Her spat more in that strange tongue, raising his spear high as if to hurl it at the angelic being Gabriel had become.
Before he could, though, a mist coalesced out of the ether and covered him before solidifying into something which was somehow even more frightening than the armored creatures. It was a truly monstrous bat, hardly possessing any fur and distorted, exaggerated features. It sank its teeth into the red figure's neck and in an instant his color began draining. The room dimmed once more, the only light provided by my suit and the brilliance shining from Gabriel, but even in the growing shadows shrouding the monster and his prey I could see that prey crumble to dust and ash.
The whole conflict had had taken place in the space of a few rapid heartbeats, and mine was still racing.
"You probably have some questions…" said Gabriel's voice, once again sounding almost identical to the human I knew. The angelic figure turned to face me. I noticed that even though she wasn't flapping her wings, her feet never touched the ground. "We'll explain as best we can, and we're also sorry we had to drag you into this. We'd hoped the Old One was already dead, but it seems he held on longer than we expected."
I backed away from her in fear, not sure whether I should be more afraid of divine wrath or the shadowy monster straight from a horror movie shuffling to her side. They were working together, darkness and light in tandem? What were those other monstrosities—what was going on?!
"One of us is sorry," snorted Stoker's voice from the monster-bat's mouth, though far more raspy than I remembered. Glowing blood was still dripping from his oversized fangs. "I haven't tasted ichor in centuries. I'll be sated for years now."
"Fear not," said Gabriel, if that's who or what she really was, as she glided towards me. I supposed I should have tried to run, not that I'd outrun them in this clunky spacesuit, but instead I fell backwards into a rough sitting position.
"W-what are you?" I asked. "What just happened? I don't believe in angels or aliens or gods or whatever in God's name that thing is—"
"Please do not take the Lord's name in vain," Gabriel spoke, still kindly but with an edge. "Whether or not you believe in Him, you still know of Him, or else you would not use that blasphemous expression which has so unfortunately worked its way into your peoples' slang. You knew of Ares as well, but yet you do not swear by him. He is an ancient nothingness to you, a forgotten idea, and so he was dying."
"Huh?" was all I could managed.
"In the beginning," Gabriel spoke.
"There was darkness," Stoker interrupted.
"There was God," Gabriel disagreed. "But I don't mean that beginning. In the beginning of human history, your kind worshipped many false gods. They thrived on your worship. As the world changed, however, humans began to outgrow them, or shift their attention to others, or simply abandon them altogether. The gods could not survive without worship, and so those who could not maintain a presence on Earth either faded away or sought new worshippers elsewhere. It seems we have just now found what remained of Ares and his kingdom. A pity the Martians fell under his rule; humans could have learned so much from them. I assume Ares drove them to extinction with petty wars for his amusement."
"Everyone has to have a hobby," Stoker added, shrugging, which was very odd to see with massive bat wings. He turned to me. "They may have been on their last legs anyway. Keep in mind that not all of us agree with Gabriel's view of events."
"This is insane," I breathed. I didn't want to believe it—I sincerely didn't. At the same time, though, the proof was irrefutably being shoved in my face. It very well may have almost killed me! "But if all that's true, then what are you two? Wouldn't you have faded or left like Ares?"
"The Old Ones lost their place on Earth because they couldn't change with the times," Stoker explained. "Humans are a fickle race. Those of us who could adapt got to keep our places. Surely even you've seen a vampire flick? Besides, not all gods lost popularity with humans. Gabriel's lord is still doing business quite well."
"The Lord is eternal," Gabriel said, nodding.
"…Are you the Gabriel, from the Bible?" I asked. "I thought that was a 'he'."
She merely smiled and began floating out the way we'd entered.
"Of course, we're going to have to ask you to keep this our little secret," Stoker rasped as he passed by. "Or I might just take an interest in learning your blood type."
I shuddered and nodded.
"There are spare suits back in the M-plane," I said as I followed them out. "We can say yours were cut by jagged rocks. How are you going to cover up this temple, though? The maintenance team will find everything when we tell them we found the drone."
Stoker simply chuckled.
"I'm afraid we'll have to count this drone as a loss," Gabriel called back. "This whole area will be destroyed."
"Destroyed?" I echoed. "How?"
"I'm not one for the side of light," Stoker grumbled. "But I have to admit, it must be nice to have your boss send down a meteor strike whenever you need one."
As we headed back to the M-plane, I looked up through Mars' alien atmosphere, wondering what else humanity might one day find seeking refuge among the stars.