In the world before, Aaron Anders had a different life with a different family…
Until the White Light washed them away.
A select few know the truth about our world: every time the calendar approached the year 2025, the world resets and creates a new Earth, with a new history for each of us. The Awakened remember their previous lives, and throughout history, many of them have done their best to ensure that the world proceeds on a particular path.
The lucky few.
Aaron didn’t feel lucky. Trapped in this loop, forced to live again and again in half-remembered lives, his current reality was spiraling out of control. His wife and his best friend thought he was losing his mind, and the worst part was they might be right. Another existence filled his head, mixing false memories with his real ones until he wasn’t sure of the truth.
And the only one who seemed to know anything was a stranger convinced “They” were after both of them.
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THE ECHO EFFECT
The shadow of Olympus Mons stretched beyond Lieutenant Aaron Anders’s sight. Its false darkness obscured the Martian soil beneath him, the rocks underneath his boots clicking and scattering while he surveyed the latest outcropping.
Identified to offer the easiest access to older samples, this area held many promising models. Coming to the end of a long day of collecting, he went to wipe away the trickles of sweat inside his pressurized suit. His hand tapped on the glass of his solar visor, and he shook his head at the wasted motion.
The helmet’s light illuminated an odd shape in the formation to his left. Of course, these rocks should be odd and alien to him, the result of millions of years of wind and sand having taken their toll. But while wind abrasion could provide some strange results, this was something else.
He ran his hand over the area, surprised by its smooth definition.
The crackle of static followed by a familiar female’s voice jarred his daydreaming. “Lieutenant Anders, what’s your status?”
Aaron paused in his excavation, pressing the radio control on his suit.
“Captain Reyes, location’s approximately a kilometer from the ARES site. Currently collecting the last of the Zone C samples near the southern base of the mountain. Found some curious formations.”
He continued to work on the flat area in front of him, bringing out one of his brushes to sweep away the dust and sand. The more he worked on it, the more curious he was to see if anything interesting lay beneath.
The radio popped again.
“Go ahead and make your final measurements, then return to the ship.”
A short pause and before he could confirm the order, she spoke up again. “You should make note that in two hours, we’re going to be ringing in the New Year with all the formality of an Earth gathering.”
“Sir, you do realize that we’re still the better part of a week away from that particular day? Unless I have my calendar dates wrong.”
“Understood, but the brass back on Earth wants to pretty us up with the help of a few of their Hollywood friends. They’re talking music to try and make people cry with a great edit. And really, who are we to deny them that privilege? Therefore, they want a little lead time on this. We can all look forward to seeing it for years to come. Regardless, if you don’t hurry up and get back to the ship, all the pretty girls will be taken for the midnight kissing, leaving you all alone on fake New Year’s Eve.”
Aaron paused. Was that an invitation? Not a question he was going broach.
“Copy. I’ll make this one my last.”
As the years of dirt began to clear off, his suit’s trail of light glinted off a piece of the rock. A brush revealed not stone, but what appeared to be metal.
Not ore—but processed.
That fact alone sent a surge through him, his brain overloaded with conflicting thoughts. At each new pass with the brush, he managed restraint, careful not to damage this find. Aaron kept a delicate hand with whatever it was he uncovered, even if it wasn’t possible it existed in the first place.
Searching for an edge, he began fingering the metal’s uncovered grooves. His gloved hand traced around the object, and then the brush slipped from his grasp and he stumbled backward. Aaron closed his eyes hard as if being so close to the item tainted his vision.
Yet the piece, its grooves and edges now revealed, remained. His light continued to shine off the metal. No, not just metal, something more than that.
It was a plaque.
A metal plaque mounted on the side of the Martian mountain, with indentations that ran across its face, forming letters and words. Those very letters and words he recognized as English, even when his mind assured him that it could not be. It was dehydration. It was exhaustion. His brain attempted to make sense of it. Even explaining a single piece would be enough to ground him.
It could not exist, and yet…
There it was.
No matter how many times he blinked in hopes it would disappear.
There it was.
KENNEDY SPACE CLASS OF 1979
FIRST STUDENT CLASS TO VISIT OLYMPUS MONS
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
He recoiled and almost toppled over, stabilizing in a half-sitting, half-crouch position. It was as if electricity leapt from the plaque onto his fingers. From this position, his eyes strained to read the message again.
It was beyond impossible. And then his insanity deepened.
“Base, this is Lieutenant Darlington. I have…”
Darlington’s voice cut out. Captain Reyes’ voice broke through the silence. “Lieutenant Darlington repeat that last statement. We were unable to read you.”
There was a moment before Darlington made his reply. “Sir… I’m not entirely sure what I have here.”
Base crackled through. “Lieutenant, what is your current position?”
“I’m in Zone D… at another landing site.”
“Say again, Lieutenant? We’re not sure we understood your last message. Something has happened at your site?”
“Negative, Base. We have found another landing site. I repeat. We have located an additional landing site.”
Aaron froze in place. Minutes before, he’d questioned his eyesight—and now, he worried about his hearing. None of this was possible. Surely, NASA would have let them know if someone else beat the United States to Mars. On the other hand, perhaps this was the reason they assigned their landing to this planetary point.
He needed more than just his eyes for proof and brought out his camera. Taking a myriad of pictures of the plaque, Aaron made sure to note his exact location and began uploading them to the ship’s computer. Once the last picture was complete, only then did he move out to the other landing site.
Their momentous landing had taken place only days earlier, the world watching them speed across the vastness of space. They’d called them otherworldly celebrities, but Aaron didn’t know anything about that. What little information they’d received from NASA concerned itself more with the instrument readings.
While “third man to walk on the red planet” hadn’t provided the ring the word first conveyed, the moment he’d first stood on the alien world’s surface had left him speechless.
In those seconds, he had found the order of descent no longer mattered to him.
Reaching the perimeter of designated Zone D, he’d spotted five members of the ARES crew. While it was possible the plaque was an elaborate hoax or even a sign of dehydration, this was neither. Its existence meant that now, six people were seeing something that should not exist. Therefore, it was either fact or some sort of crew-wide space madness. Neither thought reassured him.
The scientific side of his brain began to compartmentalize the sights before him. It was clear as he watched the sun’s movement across the sky that it was the area’s proximity to the Mons that concealed this position upon their initial approach. It was more surprising Darlington found it at all, as the years had not been kind.
The lander base lay buried under shifting sands. A large transmission antenna jutted out of the ground, but otherwise, there was very little visible. Random pieces peeked out from their tomb. Had the late afternoon sunlight not glinted off the lander base, it would have stayed hidden. The site itself felt much like the original moon landing must have seemed to conspiracy theorists: a hoax or a galactic trick.
With Aaron moving down the slight incline to join the ARES crew, he could imagine the looks underneath their helmets. Stumbling a bit on his descent, it was everything he could do not to scream. Their brains must have been doing the same level of gymnastics, attempting to process the information slapping them in the face, and endeavoring to reconcile their previous shattered reality with a new one.
Most shuffled about the area as if unsure of what their duty should be in light of this illumination. Ensign Janic stood like a statue, afraid to interact with the zone, almost as if touching it would break the last barrier to this new reality. Something he wanted to avoid for as long as possible.
Captain Reyes took a different approach. Her hands traced along the bits of the lander base. A piece flecked off, and she stooped to pick up the debris, holding it up to the sun’s fading light. Delicately, she rolled it in her hands.
Beside her, Aaron reached out to touch the antenna and found it to be as solid and genuine as anything else on the planet. Yet his mind screamed at the impossibility of it all.
“Theories, anyone?” Captain Reyes’s voice jarred Aaron from his nightmarish thoughts.
Silence greeted the Captain. The rest of the crew looked to each other, waiting for someone to offer a solution.
“Nothing? Surely someone has a theory?”
“Is it possible that this is just… uh, leftovers from one of the Martian Landers missions back in the nineties?” Ensign Janic’s voice had no confidence behind it.
Another voice chimed in. “How long has this been here, you think?”
Aaron knew part of that answer and could thank the plaque.
“1979. Nearly forty years.”
All five turned and stared at him through their sun visors. Captain Reyes asked the question for them. “And how do you know that?”
“I found an… oddity… as I gathered rock samples. Something that didn’t make any sense to me at all until I heard Lieutenant Darlington’s communication. A metal plaque… a marker proclaiming that some kind of class trip made it to Mars. Apparently, it was the first class to visit Olympus Mons.”
“I’m sorry, Anders. You say you found a plaque? Are you sure?”
Aaron pointed around them at the half-buried site. “I am as sure about seeing the plaque as all of you are about seeing all of this.”
The Captain failed to deliver any kind of answer to that thought, and everyone else remained stunned. After a good minute of silence, she began pointing at the five of them and at the site around them.
“Alright, we document this as best we can in the next hour. Our orders have been to avoid venturing out in the Martian night. The sun’s going down, and I don’t want anyone outside after that. Regardless of whatever all of this is, it’s been here for some time, so I think we can safely assume it isn’t going anywhere in the next twenty-four hours. Take as many pictures as you can and upload them to the ship’s computer so we can get the big brains back on Earth to start analyzing it, figuring out exactly what we have on our hands here.”
No one moved.
“Did you not hear me? Double time, people! Move!”
As they huddled around the radio and awaited Earth’s response to the strangeness, Ensign Janic noticed the time. A jittery young man, his dark hair pressed and matted against a head stuck with sweat. His body rocked in a constant rhythm, leg bouncing from excess energy. A contagious sort of nervousness enveloped him.
“Do you realize we’re two minutes from the planned New Year celebration? Or what would have been two minutes if we’d started on time. Now we’re probably a good ten minutes at least from getting to that point.”
The entire crew turned as one, glaring at him. Captain Reyes broke the awkwardness and said aloud what everyone else was thinking. Her shoulder-length jet-black hair was pulled back against her scalp by her perspiration, but it did nothing to conceal her sharp eyes. They pointed like daggers at the Ensign.
“After what we have out on the Martian landscape, you’re concerned with New Years? This is a completely new world we find ourselves living in. Whatever that is out there is far more important than staging a New Year’s bash for the sake of someone back on Earth.” She moved over closer to him, as if her proximity would make him understand. “Literally, everything we ever knew or thought we knew has been upended.”
“Mmm, sorry, Captain. It’s just…” Janic swallowed hard. “…the big balloon dropping on New Year’s Eve is the most normal, calming thing I can think of right now. And even though we’re a good ten days early, it feels like there should be something stable to focus on before everyone else’s world goes to shit.”
Her stern gaze cracked, and the shock on her face melted into a smile. She slapped the back of Janic’s head. “You are an idiot.”
Aaron could see that the moment of levity did exactly what the Captain had wanted. Everyone’s shoulders released a small measure of tension. Janic even stopped bouncing quite so fast in his chair. Aaron turned back to his station.
Increased solar flare activity had played havoc with their communications throughout the last day. NASA had warned them of as much in their preflight briefings, the head brass having debated whether it was worth it risking something going wrong with such a momentous occasion. Yet, if they’d waited for the flares to return to normal levels, they risked missing their departure window to return to Earth. Therefore, they had carried the ARES mission out. Since the initial landing a few days earlier, there had been sporadic contact with Earth. Even though it was unlikely they’d get through consistently for a few more days, the schedule served to keep everyone from freaking out at the isolation.
Their ship was as spacious as had been advisable by the suits back on Earth.
The main area was about the size of two large living rooms, while the sleeping area stood along the sides where their bunks were stacked on top of each other. Much better than anything man sent to the Moon, but a bit cramped when the entire crew was back at base and attempting to move around.
“Anders, any word from Houston?”
Aaron looked up from the radio and spun his chair around to face the crew’s leader. Always strong and in control of her surroundings, it was no surprise to anyone that they’d tasked her to lead this mission. She excelled at the physical stress tests and blew the curve in the mental challenges. Aaron thought he could sense something else behind those thoughtful looks.
“No, sir. We’re still in the dark.”
“Damn, we need to get them word of this.”
Aaron stood up to stretch and moved to near one of the portholes of the ship, taking a moment to reflect on the majesty that was the Martian sky at twilight. Like Janic, he needed to focus on anything other than what those pieces of metal meant. So instead, he concentrated on the mission itself. A short-term solution, his joy of being a part of the first manned voyage to Mars was a little dimmer than the previous evening. His brain raced with questions and possible theories for what he and the others saw.
Massive hallucination, Martian madness, or something even worse…
Still, he strained to see the bright-blue orb that resided out there. Were Samantha and Jacob looking back up at their sky through the telescope they’d bought Jacob all those months ago before Aaron boarded this ship? Today, he missed them more than on any other day so far. The separation sat on his chest even while he moved amongst the crew.
A handheld camera’s sudden appearance brought him back to reality.
Sergeant Tom Willis held onto it in a way that made it the opposite of a steady camera. With his more-and-more-mountain-man beard, he was the perfect choice for a proper director. Or at least, someone who should be behind the camera instead of in front of it, even if his technique sucked.
“Alright, Aaron, do you have anything to say to the good people back on Earth?”
Aaron forced a smile. “I thought we weren’t going to do this?”
Tom shrugged. “Janic’s an idiot, but he’s not completely wrong on this one. Plus, what else are we going to do? We can’t head back out until morning. Pending Houston sending a message, we can only speculate on what seeing that… stuff… means. Which leaves this camera. So, with all that said, Aaron Anders would you like to say anything to your family?”
“Hmm… Happy New Years to everyone back at home, especially my beautiful wife and great son, Samantha and Jacob. Dad will be home soon.”
Tom nodded and then moved on to interview the others while Aaron went back to staring out the viewport. Captain Reyes sat down next to him.
“So, on a scale of one to ten…”
Aaron did not wait for her to finish the question. “One million.”
Claudia smiled and nodded her head. “Same here.”
“You think the brass back at NASA are going to have any clue about what it is we found up here?”
Claudia began to answer and then stopped herself.
“I caught that. What?”
She leaned in close. “Odds are this information isn’t going to be something that’s ever broadcast out, even if they do figure out what the hell is going on. This is one of those things where you have to be on a need-to-know security clearance. And I’m pretty sure none of us will have that level of clearance in our immediate futures.”
Ensign Janic’s voice broke through the ship’s comm as he played the role of Dick Clark for the inhabitants of the ship.
Aaron looked over at his Captain and smirked.
“I remember something about a kiss at midnight?”
Claudia laughed. “I did say that, didn’t I? What will Samantha think?”
“I don’t think she’ll mind all that much when I’m home.”
“Well then, pucker up.”
“A little early, but what the hell, right?”
As their lips brushed against each other, Aaron noticed the blue star that was Earth growing a bit brighter.
The light exploded outward. Like a ripple on the water, it grew and grew, faster and faster.
Aaron broke the kiss. Claudia could see the fear in his eyes, but Aaron’s voice caught in his throat.
“What is it?”
He wanted to scream out, to warn everyone, but the light began to obscure the entire skyline.
Then his world burned white.