The Invisible Ones by Alexis Ames

They said that if we talked about it, we would die.

It wasn’t that no one would believe us. You know how humanity is—we prefer the supernatural explanation over the scientific one, the conspiracy over the mundane truth. We could have talked about it and someone would have believed us, of course they would. There is always, always, someone out there who will believe that there is something more lurking in the shadows, something hidden just under the surface of what you think you know.

They said that if we talked about it, we would die, because that’s precisely what happened in quarantine.

Annette was the first of us to be debriefed after the mission was over, once we’d returned to Earth and were standing on terra firma once more. We’d been under a communications blackout from the moment of launch, and this was the first time we would be able to tell our story. We couldn’t communicate with ground control during the mission itself, not for any reason, not even if the mission went sideways and we were going to die. No one could know about this. If we died out there, well, no one would miss us.

Because that’s how we were chosen, wasn’t it? We were invisible; we wouldn’t be missed. No families, no children, not even a pet dog among us. We were unknown, unwanted, unloved.

We weren’t experts. We weren’t the best and the brightest. That’s not what NASA needed. They needed people who existed in the shadows, on the margins, in the empty spaces. They needed us, the people who your eyes skip over in a crowded room. The invisible ones. We were as unknown as the mission itself.

Splashdown in the ocean under cover of darkness. A boat that shuttled us back to shore with its lights cut, a bus that transported us back to the facility before dawn. No one saw us—no one who wasn’t supposed to, at least. Seventy-two hours we were in quarantine, mostly silent, because what words could adequately convey all that we had seen? What was there left for any of us to say? What words would do it justice?

Annette was our commander. They took her first. They never brought her back.

Originally, the plan had been to debrief us all separately, to detect any possible variations in our story. After what happened to Annette, though, they must have realized that it didn’t matter. I suppose that catching us out in a lie—and why would we lie?—paled in comparison to finding out exactly what had happened to us on the Moon.

We never did find out exactly what happened to Annette, but later, we were able to guess well enough. The rest of us, the ones who remained after she was gone, were one day taken to a room with comfortable chairs and a well-cushioned sofa. They brought us coffee, and I remember wishing for something stronger. Donuts, too, and little cakes, and I thought for a moment that I had slipped into an alternate reality. One where I was not a criminal who had been sent on a secret mission to save humanity from a threat that existed on our closest celestial neighbor because I was disposable. Rather, I imagined I was in a reality where I was sitting in the living room of a house that I owned, drinking coffee with friends who had popped in for the afternoon instead of my fellow outlaw crewmates.

But then the officials came in, dressed in their white short-sleeved button-ups and their neat black ties, and shattered that brief illusion. They asked Roger to recount what had happened. With pens at the ready, recording devices on the table that separated us from them, they asked to know everything.

Roger told them.

Or he tried to, at least.

It started small—merely a cough between sips of coffee. Thomas slapped Roger on the back, the coughing subsided, and Roger continued.

He got another sentence in, maybe two. Nothing of consequence, nothing that they could use, and he began to cough once more. A cough that forced itself out from the depths of his lungs, wet and gasping. He coughed, straining for air, wheezing with the lack of it. The mug fell from his hands, shattered on the floor. Roger brought his hands to his mouth, and they came away red.

Thomas leapt to his feet and away. All I could do was stare as gobs of red and black ejected from Roger’s mouth, coating his chin, splattering on the floor.

They told us later that his internal organs had liquefied. They couldn’t explain why.

Believe it or not, none of us made the connection at first. Annette and Roger both died before they could divulge the full story of what had happened up there on the Moon, but none of us understood that at first. NASA officials thought it might be a virus. We were put back in quarantine, monitored twenty-four hours a day. Thomas was questioned next, and then William. It was only when William died choking on his own blood and vomit that NASA stopped trying to find out what happened. They switched tactics—was it coming for us? Had we completed the task that we had been sent to do in the first place and neutralized the threat?

Beatrice tried to answer them, and blood filled her mouth and throat before she could get the words out.

Which left only me, and I was far too much of a coward to do something for the greater good. Still am. We had failed our mission, and it would mean the end of humanity—but not in my lifetime, so I didn’t give too much of a shit. Besides, I wasn’t convinced that we didn’t deserve it, somehow.

They questioned me for weeks. I told them nothing. And then they let me go. The message seemed to get across, either way: Don’t go back to the Moon. Seventeen missions were enough to catch their attention, their interest, and we do not want to encourage their interest. The message was clear: Don’t even leave this planet again, if you can help it, and we might just be able to survive as a species.

At this point, I know you have questions, and you would be right to. There couldn’t have been a secret mission to the Moon, you say. There’s no possible way that anyone would be able to keep that under wraps, not with the number of people involved in an operation like that. Humans are notoriously bad at keeping secrets—surely someone would have confessed. And even if they didn’t, the logistics involved would have been staggering. How do you manage to launch a rocket in secret, for a start? Everyone would have seen it.

Not if it was in the desert in the dead of night. Not if it happened in the decades before the Internet was invented and video cameras were rudimentary at best. Not if there wasn’t another human for miles and miles and miles. Not if humans weren’t so very good at explaining away those things that they did not understand. Our brains are built to seek out the rational explanation—that streak of light was a bolt of lightning, a plane, a figment of your imagination. That mysterious sound was thunder or the rumble of a far-off truck. The vibrations under your feet were more likely to be from an earthquake than a secret rocket launch, and that’s what you let yourself believe.

There is something surreal about strapping yourself into a rocket on top of hundreds of thousands of pounds of fuel, of riding an explosion beyond the atmosphere and hoping you don’t get burned up with it. Everything falls away when the gravity does, all the worries and terrors that claw at your throat and seem to eat you from the inside out. All at once, they are no more significant than the embers that fall away from the inferno behind you as the rocket propels you into space, and they also die, gasping, as the oxygen thins and vanishes.

Once you break the bonds of Earth, it’s three days to the Moon, stuck in a tin can with strangers who are as alone as you are, cut off from the rest of humanity. Nerves put you on edge; boredom makes you snappish. Nothing seems real—not the mission, not yourselves. The Moon itself doesn’t even register as real until it’s large enough to fill the porthole, until all you can see is its gray, craggy surface, and none of the black beyond.

It doesn’t fully sink in that you are standing on the Moon until you put first one boot, then the other, on the ground, and feel your feet sink into the dust. Until you don’t walk, but bound, across its surface. Until you look up and see nothing but stars among the black, and you’ll never see the Earth, not from this side of it. Tidally locked, they told us. A side of the Moon that no one from the Earth will ever see.

The Earth. The planet we were sent to save, to protect. Her fate sat in our hands, half a dozen misfits and criminals, and if we messed up—well, NASA would find more like us. It wasn’t like it was hard.

I’ll tell you what it is we found, what was so terrible that we never went back. What was so awful that NASA won’t send anyone there anymore, won’t even allow humans to go beyond low-Earth orbit, though Christ knows the billionaires keep trying. I’ll tell you, because what have I got left to lose?

Surely there must be logs from this mysterious mission, you’re thinking. Or what about the audiotapes? The hours of footage, the hundreds of pictures? Surely something physical exists so that we don’t have to say the words; so that no one else has to die trying to talk about what happened. It’s a fair question, and I’ll tell you where those logs and tapes and pictures are.

Gone. Erased, like they’d never existed in the first place. Everything we wrote down, everything we recorded, was erased by the time we splashed down in the Atlantic.

I can almost see the next question in your faces. What about after? What if we wrote down what happened after the fact, recorded ourselves talking about it? It wouldn’t have been the same, but conspiracy theorists wouldn’t have cared—they would have believed us. Someone would have believed us.

I did. I wrote everything down, wrote as much as I could remember from that mission, wrote until the blood from my fingers mingled with the black ink on the page. I wrote my story everywhere, in journals and in the margins of books and on napkins I’d stuff in secret places for someone else to find. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote.

It was always erased. It always disappeared.

The rest of those involved with the project—what happened to them, you wonder? The engineers and the flight controllers and the doctors, dozens upon dozens of people who had to know about the mission to ensure it went off without a hitch. They weren’t able to tell their stories, either—their tongues would get tied in knots, their notes would be erased as soon as they wrote them, they’d choke on nothing but air. Soon enough, they also stopped trying, and now they’re all dead. I’m the only one left, the only one who knows anything about it. Against all the odds, I survived. I refused to be a victim to it. I refused to let that be the way that I died. Not after clawing myself up to the stars, rising higher than almost every human has gone before. I didn’t crawl up from nothing to die, gasping, in a pile of my own blood and vomit.

Not yet, at least.

So why am I telling you this story now, you wonder?

The doctors don’t know how long I have left. It could be days, it could be months. Not long enough to do anything that matters, anything that’s worth something. I did one thing in my life worth talking about, and I’ve kept silent for over fifty years.

But I am dying, and since there is no future for me, I am livestreaming my final moments. I will tell you what happened on that mission. I will give you as many words as I am able, before my insides liquefy and the blood pours from my mouth. And all of you watching, the thousands upon thousands of you who have tuned in to this channel: You will either survive hearing these words, or the knowledge will be so unknowable that you will also die, choking on your own blood, with me.

Are you ready?

Alexis Ames is a writer living in Colorado who first picked up a pen when she was eleven years old and hasn’t put it down since. Science fiction is her preferred genre—more specifically, exploring the changing relationship between humans and technology. Her work has previously appeared in publications such as Pseudopod, Kyanite Press, and The New Accelerator. She can be found on Twitter, and a list of her current and upcoming stories can be found on her blog.