Captain Leonard Stone breathed hard in his space suit as he looked down on the turning red planet below him, his hands shaking slightly on the joystick of the lander. All I ever wanted to do was walk on Mars, he thought, and even though I’ve come all this way, I still won’t get to. He would have sighed and hung his head in thoughtful sadness, but the mission at hand had adrenaline coursing through his veins like molten metal and his heart pounded like a blacksmith’s hammer. Beads of sweat dripped from his forehead and his eyes were wide as the perfect sphere of crystal clear quartz the size of Texas finally showed itself, emerging from the dark side of Mars in a slow orbit. As it passed in front of the planet, it captured the burning red of the rocky surface like a lens and glowed with a swirling liquid rust appearance that Captain Stone thought looked like blood. It had appeared out of nowhere two years earlier, sending a signal to earth that experts said was “without a doubt” an invitation. Images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter had revealed what looked like an intelligently built black structure on the surface and so he and Dr. Audrey Collins, an anthropologist, were sent as delegates of Earth to make first contact with whatever race of beings had beaconed to mankind.
“You know I have to do this, right?” said Captain Stone as he pulled up the ship’s music files and selected Johann Strauss’ Opus 314, “An der schönen blauen Donau”, from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“I would have done it if you hadn’t.” replied Dr. Collins with a grin.
Captain Stone swallowed hard and pulled the release lever at his side. As the orchestra danced in the background, the craft detached from its mother ship, the U.S.S. Kubrick, and fell towards the glowing crystal orb, the thrusters firing like tiny blue glistening diamonds against the swirling ocean of red.
* * *
Captain Leonard Stone and Dr. Audrey Collins stood before the structure in awe. It was sleek and minimal, the size of maybe a two-story house, but only a cube, and built entirely from some unidentifiable shimmering black stone. Before them, was an obvious set of doors, but neither was ready to approach them just yet. Captain Stone looked down and through the glowing red crystal below his feet and then up at the alien building before him.
“Are you ready?” He asked Dr. Collins.
“As ready as I’ll ever be I guess.” She replied.
They stepped forward and the ominous doors slid open, acknowledging their arrival and welcoming them inside.
As the doors closed behind them, Captain Stone took one look around and stopped dead in his tracks just past the threshold. He had expected to ceremoniously walk into a room full of diplomatic alien beings and instead found himself in an empty and completely black room that seemed to absorb the light from their head lamps, making him feel like he was standing in the middle of a vast and empty part of the universe. In the middle of the room was the only object and only source of light: a large glowing red button on a pedestal.
“Well, this is not what I expected…” said Captain Stone.
“You can say that again,” Dr. Collins began, looking up from the data on her handheld computer, “The atmosphere in here is an exact copy of Earth’s!”
She reached up and unlatched her helmet with a hiss. Captain Stone watched her breathe and survive and then followed suit, pulling off his own helmet. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. It was the freshest, sweetest air he had ever taken into his lungs. Images of his home planet flooded his mind. This must be how the air smelled on earth before humans, he thought. It was intoxicating. He would have stood there with his eyes closed for hours had the voice of Dr. Collins not broken his trance.
“Um… Captain…?” she stammered.
He opened his eyes and found himself standing in the middle of a jungle, rain pouring down from above, soaking them both. He felt the ground beneath him squish under his boots and his heart raced as he reached down and touched a giant emerald fern and watched it retract from his finger.
“What the hell…” he said under his breath.
The red button remained, vines climbing hauntingly up the pedestal as it rested, waiting, among tall and ancient trees.
“We seem to have forgotten our towels…” Dr. Collins chuckled nervously.
“And the machete.” Captain Stone quipped back as he pushed through the dense, rain drenched foliage, making his way carefully towards the button.
* * *
The button was, what’s called on Earth, an idiot button. No touch screen, added dials or options… just one simple function… to be pushed or not pushed. Captain Stone’s blood ran cold as he read out loud the one word etched on top of it.
“I didn’t know you knew Russian, Captain…” Dr. Collins said.
He looked at her very strangely.
“What do you mean? That very clearly says Reset in English…” he replied.
“Captain… I’m reading that in my native language… it says ‘Sbros’.”
They stared at each other for a moment, partly confused and partly mesmerized, before Captain Stone hit the comms button, connecting them to the mother ship.
“U.S.S. Kubrick, this is Captain Stone. Is Jacques there?”
“Right here Cap.” replied Jacques Lemaire, the ships flight engineer.
“I’m uploading a picture to you right now… can you read for me the text in the picture?
“Sure thing Captain. Just got it… it’s uh…um… Captain, why is there a red button orbiting Mars with the word Réinitialiser on it? That’s the French word for reset.“
Captain Stone felt like the smallest being in the universe. There was so much that his infant civilization just didn’t know.
“I’m going to have to get back to you on that Jacques…“
The rain poured down on the Captain and the Doctor as they stood there frozen, not quite knowing what to do. They had just traveled fifty-five million miles to finally make contact with a new civilization that had greeted them only with one binary decision, of which the consequences they were not aware of. Whoever or whatever had called them there, expected them to simply make the decision to hit the reset button or not… but what did it do? The jungle suddenly faded away and they found themselves standing in the middle of a barren red desert, sand blowing hard in their face and stinging their eyes. The button remained. Captain Stone looked out across the empty, lifeless wasteland and then back down at the button.
“I think I understand…” he said. “This is our fate. It’s the same as the fate of the planet below us… we’re being given a chance to start over as a race before it’s too late.”
“I don’t think that’s our decision to make,” began Dr. Collins, “humanity has progressed over thousands of centuries and the lives on Earth right now are real… we can’t just take the lives of billions of people.”
“Who’s to say their lives will be taken?”
“Who’s to say they won’t?”
“Dr. Collins, this is beyond us. Beyond the lives on earth right now. We’ve been contacted by a civilization far more advanced than ours that can foresee our future and they are handing us the option to save our species from ultimate destruction. It would be grossly irresponsible not to push that button in the name of human kind.”
“You’re right about one thing Captain… we have an option. Shouldn’t humanity be allowed to play itself out, regardless of the outcome?”
“I think humanity was given a chance and we have failed to the point where other advanced civilizations are now intervening.”
“But Captain Stone, if they wanted to intervene, they would have pushed the button themselves…”
“And instead, they rightfully gave us the power to intervene on our own.”
“If you push that button, you will no longer be a man… you will be playing God with not only billions of lives, but with the outcome of our race in totality. Every evolution, every war, every peace agreement, every historical lesson learned…all for nothing. Maybe we wield that power right now, but who are we to act upon it? Captain, this is not our decision to make…”
“Dr. Collins, I respect your position, but I am nevertheless overriding your input. I was selected by our planet to face whatever truth we found here, and what we found is a button given to us by higher beings that could save human kind… I’m going to push it.”
“I’m sorry Captain… I won’t allow it.”
Dr. Collins unzipped a large pocket on her spacesuit, withdrew a .45 caliber pistol and aimed it at her Captain.
“What the….?! Why in the hell do you have a firearm on an interplanetary diplomatic mission?!”
“I am here to represent and protect the human race… I don’t walk into the unknown, unprepared. And now I’m glad I was. If you reach for that button, I have no choice but to shoot.”
The gun quivered in her hand as Captain Stone stared deep into her steadfast eyes, tears beginning to roll from their corners. The windblown sand swirled around them.
“Please don’t Leonard… please don’t make me do this… please.”
Captain Stone took a deep breath of the now dry and acrid air and reached for the button. Dr. Collins squeezed the trigger. The bullet tore through the Captain’s space suit and into his lung, stopping him cold. Coughing up bright red blood, he stumbled forward and fell towards the ground, reaching desperately with the tips of his fingers for the button… and pushed it. He hit the floor with a thud. The desert had vanished and his body found the solid ground of the empty black room again. He stared up at the ceiling, feeling like he was floating in space, as his consciousness slowly slipped and Dr. Collins appeared over him with tears spilling from her eyes.
“I’m so sorry Captain! I’m so, so sorry! I couldn’t just let you push it!”
She pulled him into her arms and held him crying as his lungs filled with blood. He gurgled something undiscernible and she leaned her ear close to his crimson tinged lips…
“I couldn’t understand you… say it again.”
“What… ha… happens… now?”
His mind didn’t have enough time left to hear an answer. The last thing he saw before everything went black, was a brilliant emerald light washing over him.
* * *
Captain Leonard Stone’s eyes shot open. He was laying on his back looking at a sky full of wispy clouds and the sound of a trickling stream nearby filled his ears.
“Good morning sleepyhead!” said Dr. Collins.
He looked over and saw her sitting a few feet from him in green grass beside the small stream. Remembering the gun shot, he reached for his chest.
“You won’t find a hole,” she said with a smile, “It’s healed.”
“But… what?? How?? Where are we??”
“Mars…” She answered. “Look…”
She pointed at the horizon where the quartz crystal moon was rising. It was brilliantly glowing that deep emerald green light he had seen before losing consciousness.
“It’s terraforming.” She almost whispered. “Captain Stone… have I got a story for you…”