“Ad Astra abyssosque” – the words cut through the Junction Hall terminal of the International Transit Station, echoing back in a hiss from the alloy walls that covered it. They never died away; the echoes continuously bounced off of the massive walls without any disruptions as she was the only person, sitting in the 1.5 million square feet mega structure floating in space, to make anything to produce them. The lights shone from the dark terrain like a million little crystal beads from Dublin, through London, Paris and Vienna, lighting all the way up to the old Moskova in eastern Europe, a view through the panoramic observation glass surreal enough to put anyone in a euphoric state at the sight of it. But the memory of the dark lonely station drifting in space is the last one Ishura will ever have of it, as the decommission process of the ITS would soon commence with its last docking and departure of the flight Ishura was waiting for: the flight that was bound for the dwarf planet of Ukrini – 1 of the Chandrasekar belt – from where it all began.
The light in the eyes of a once dreamer flickered in anticipation of what lies in front of her. Her life wasn’t the type that one would describe as a “smooth sailed” one; while still young, she lost two of her brothers to a novel yet deadly form of measles, a disease which she herself had struggled with for a good part of her younger life. Growing up, she never paid much attention to her studies, finding amusements rather in the most frivolous – yet somehow amusing to her introspective mind – of activities that she had the chance to lay her eyes upon. Glancing at the night sky lying around on the banks of the Mahaweli River, listening to Shostakovich’s meticulously composed symphonies while chasing birds in the meadows, almost always lost in her own world curiously wallowing in her thoughts. Evidently, such absent-minded behavior wasn’t tolerated at her school, which forced her to be of an attitude befitting her age and composure that of her gender – a norm to which her father – Dr. Sampath Seneviratne – had a complete disdain of, leading, from a very young age, a figure on which her trusts would never be misplaced.
A light tap landed on her shoulders
“Wake up, we’re almost here.”
An ominously glowing red marble against a star-lit background lazily grew in her window as their ship approached the planet. The words almost landed as a hazy string of sounds in her half-awaken stupor but she was able to decipher them before he could’ve gathered himself to repeat it. He continued nonetheless
“Estimated landing in one hour. We better start getting suited up.”
“Immediately?” she started picking her coat up “won’t there be anyone for us at the site?”
“It doesn’t seem to be so. The pilot did try to contact the control down at the base but with little success. We won’t be having any welcome parties it seems Ms. Seneviratne.”
She smiled. “Then we better get going.”
Dr. Rinoshan Antonov was a man of short stature yet always moved – almost gracefully – in such a way that such a conspicuous characteristic would be the last on the person’s mind when describing him. His face was that of a finely carved figure by the chisel of time, appeared almost as a congruent extension of his rather ageless physique. He was one of the leading experts on the Martian terrains – the family of terrains Ukrini – 1 belonged to – and was a natural pick as a subject–wise expert on the panel investigating the anomalies over Base – 1. As natural as that might’ve come to be, the circumstances under Ishura’s – with her expertise on forensic psychology – assignment was nothing short of unnatural: hers was the voice of dissent over Dr. Richard Winters’s cryptic stance on what happened over Base – 1 fifty years ago – of what lead to the death of all those scientists – relentlessly pursuing an answer befitting the magnitude of the tragic events endured by the first crew. Developing throughout these events were the strong convictions that doctor Winters himself would’ve had part of a twisted nature in the killing of all the scientists in the base, a conviction Ishura strongly made as a null hypotheses in light of all the absence of any other evidence that could’ve said otherwise. Her convictions could’ve never been thought as of a far-fetched nature for her intuition to trigger a sense of implausibility in her arguments she had used to convince herself because the said intuition itself – covered by the flair in her heart in search for answers she desperately needed – didn’t have the patience to uncover whatever that was going on in planet she ever so despised. The planet that took the life of her father 50 years ago, who was only trying to serve the wellbeing of humanity.
A voice emanated after a chime from the radio. “The pressure vents have been sealed, and are free to be opened from the outside. We have divided, among ourselves, between Base 1 and 2, so you guys would want to split between the two if you are in an absolute hurry. Thank you and sorry for the inconvenience.”
A wave of suspicion passed over Rinoshan’s face and without making any efforts to brush it over, he started “Not the way one would expect them to, but I guess it is excusable, given all the headaches they’ve gone through.”
Ishura nodded. “Their voice was as human as it could get. We should proceed with the investigations as they want us to.”
Rinoshan threw a surprised glance at her, “Is it necessary? Should we actually split into two between the base camps? We have all the time in the world!” shrugging and shaking his head as he was saying.
“A little better off if I could get some time with the researchers myself. It is how I have always worked with my cases. Besides, it could be easier, as they’ve mentioned, if you have an overlook over at the second base by the time I’m dealing with the first one – during which we could share some of our findings. It’s always flexible, if that’s what you are worried about.”
“If there aren’t any concerns, the idea seems fine by me.” Rinoshan let out a sigh, but his weariness immediately broke at the sight of the dome that signified the first base; the second base’s dome not too far from that.
“Ghosts can be real sometimes, you know? Sometimes we see things that simply aren’t there. Ghosts they say. It only has to be real enough for you to believe it.”
“You are saying that there are ghosts in here? Ghosts of those past researchers?” Ishura’s dull eyes widened with the raise of her eyebrows.
“There are a lot of things we don’t know about in this place, almost to a level of superficial beliefs are our only mode of understanding. You can never be too sure in the face of uncertainty.”
The dust mite – as they would call this small but capacious driving vehicle – stopped at the pressure-sealed vault of the first base, revving up its engines to hurriedly pick up its speed to go to the next one. It was where her assignment started. The dome glistened when she viewed it being in front of the pressure-sealed vault, a white glow typically ascribed to cis-Crysanapanol – or Chrissie- coverings that protected the domes from the Ukrini’s acid rains. Luckily, the forecasts had conclusively determined that such rains won’t be the case for the entire month.
The dome was this structure of complexity, yet had a simple design by heart: a central hall – one that would come to first once a person has traveled the pressure–sealed vault – leading to eight different rooms on either side of its diameter, where the rooms were divided for personal, research, storage and medical functionalities. The interior had an unusual smell of formaldehyde filling up the rooms. Ishura could’ve kept on examining the dome, but her inquisitiveness vanished at the sight of a stout man with a steady pace: Dr. Krieger.
“You must be Ishura, the psychologist. Always welcome for new faces around here” he said in a mocking tone, his hands clutched together to avoid any hand-shakes.
“I am. Pleasure meeting you.”
“Pleasantries aside, I hope that your investigations won’t last long. The last dispatch was around a year ago and so we are still waiting on the rations to come. I’m the head researcher of this facility, so if we could get this over with, I would be on my way.”
“A few hours wouldn’t hurt anybody, doctor” an unfamiliar yet cordial voice joined in; this was the voice of Priyan, the microbiologist aboard the first base. He continued
“After all, they did make a journey all the way from the home base just for this.”
Krieger averted Priyan’s gaze and retreated back to one of the rooms without commenting on his colleague’s retort, shaking his head.
“I’m Priyan Alexandrovich Vitasor, the microbiologist. Care to take a stroll around the base with me? Running in circles is the only thing we could do here besides sleeping or studying, but that’s only a matter of perspective.”
Ishura nodded and they started walking, taking little peeks into the rooms on their right and talking as they did so. Priyan gave her an overview of how their daily functions revolved around, with a particular emphasis on terrains expeditions and sample analyses, all in an excruciatingly detailed dissection. The conspicuous glow in his face prevented Ishura from interrupting him, hopelessly trying to make something out of the barrage of jargon that was being thrown at her at supersonic speed.
“….. and they call this the Chandra – Mars… MARS! Mars has never had any form of life on its surface, but this… this planet is everything! A recent meteor strike on the Kherso territory east from here has finally provided us with some evidence of panspermia – a breakthrough!” he was waving his hands in the air as to show the potential significance of the discovery “something we’ve never dreamt of observing.”
His voice died off. Ishura observed the marked change in his tone to lift her head up as to see what was going on.
“Yes. He had a panic attack a day ago. Screamed in the most shrilling voice I’ve ever heard. A sedative wasn’t simply enough for him……. that was the second time we’ve had to deal with this; a sense of craziness.”
They stood at the doorway of the medical room, observing an unconscious body in a ventilator. Ishura turned her head back to Vitasor.
“The first time…. was it the same person or was it different?”
“Different” he said after a contemplative moment “but he’s being taken care of at the second base.”
2 days had elapsed when Ishura noticed some peculiar behaviors on the part of the scientists; Krieger was wandering in the middle of the sleeping hours on the central hall, immediately rushing to her once he caught her sight. Ishura sealed her door of the quarters shut at the sight of it and confronted Krieger the next day, only to get rebuked without a single consideration of her complaint; Priyan’s – along with the other 2 researchers – wasn’t of any normal nature either; during the meal times, one even threw a bowl full of soup at Priyan, which he wiped off and countered with an equally ridiculous action: screaming at the top of his lungs and charging at the other two scientists with a clenched fist. All of this observations were enough to convince Ishura that she was in the middle of a downward spiral of insanity that will soon split the base into two. However it is not too far from that point that she realized that, given the patterns of their behaviors, the causes must’ve largely been extraneous, which she promptly noted down.
But all of it came to a decisive end 4 days after her arrival.
A figure with eyes hollowed by the ambient light stood at the doorway, the lips parting away to reveal the rotten gum and teeth underneath; it was the unconscious scientist at the medical tent 2 days ago when she had visited him, now staring at her viciously with his bloodshot eyes. Ishura leapt on her foot and grabbed hold of a shade, her heart pounding at the sight of the still figure, his eyes possibly following her. She waited for him – focused as she did so – to charge at her and timed her flexing arm to connect with his head. The researcher charged at her with his mouth viciously open. She paused, breathed and at the precise moment, bashed the shade on his head that knocked him unconscious.
An alarm that had been triggered flooded the central hall with its disorienting noise, leading Ishura to be fumbling on her way to Priyan’s chambers. She saw him unconsciously lying in the floor and tried to pick him by supporting his upper limb on her shoulders. The sirens were still blaring. Her adrenaline energy drained, leaving her legs weak and collapsing her to the ground with Priyan at the central hall; however, before she went out unconscious, a fleeting image of Rinoshan’s face made her let out a frantic laugh out of sheer desperation, praying, with the little bit of energy that she had got, that is not an illusion being played by her mind.
“Dr. Winters will see you now ma’am – oh! He’s right here.”
“Good morning, Ms. Seneviratne. How have you been feeling today?”
“I’m fine. Just got discharged from the unit. How about the others?”
“There have been an unfortunate one, John – who tried to attack you in your chambers – passed away this morning; the others have been fine; Priyan is under observation, Krieger is in good shape and the others are expected to be with no complications. Apparently base – 1 was the only place that got affected. Base – 2 seems to have been fine.”
“What seems to have caused this doctor? It’s almost as if they were possessed, because none of their normal behaviors were reflected while they were under – dare I say it – a spell….”
“Not a spell, but the observation was crucial. They were infected with an organism of extraterrestrial origin, possibly from the panspermic point that was discovered by the first crew. A curious investigation by our team as to resistance showed by you for the pathogen established that it was an organism resembling – albeit mutated – a form of measles – to which you seems to have had a built up an immunity from past affliction. A form that had some symptoms of hallucinations and in the extremes, insanity.”
“As was the case with John”
They were strolling through the botanical garden of the Colombo space launch station, the flowers being brightly lit by the light from EVA ceilings of the greenhouse.
“What made you change your mind to tell me as to what happened in that expedition? Now, of all times?”
Winters let out a sigh and started “I have always waited for the reasons myself, of what I’ve seen, to conclude with any shred of certainty before I would go on seeking for the next round of actions.”
“And what is that now?”
He sat down in a bench “I couldn’t believe when I first saw it, through the tapes, that your father – Dr. Seneviratne – killing all the other scientists before collapsing himself. A man I’ve known all my life……. a respected researcher in his field…… and so I damaged all the tapes, waiting for the proper time for the truth to reveal itself, for I know that someone of Seneviratne’s caliber could never bring himself to do this. A reason was all I wanted. And now I have it: the same panspermic site your father was researching 50 years ago.”
Seneviratne hugged Ishura tightly, to the point of which he could hear her heart beat uncontrollably. Ishura was shaken, her eyes welling up from the information she just had to unpack. She looked over his shoulders at the television broadcasting the first indigenous Srilankan rocket – Parakrama – II – being launched from the station she was standing and gently whispered, as if well-wishing to the crew, the words her father once said to her: “Ad Astra abyssosque.”
Dedicated to all my colleagues at UOC FOS, especially Rinoshan, Ehaparan, Jai, Abi, Priyavaran, Manidu, Yadhoo and everyone else!
Written by: Abeeshan Sridaran
Image Courtesy: https://bit.ly/3uI4O1R