I wasn't fooling anybody.
The first time I laid eyes on the vessel, I remember feeling very uneasy. It was an immense, metallic disk drifting within a starless void, lit only by the high beams of the ship. Something about it bothered me on a fundamental level, as though someone had gutted the fabric of the universe and left it strewn about in some dark pocket of the cosmos for all our eyes to see. In my naivety, I pushed those fears to the back of my mind, appealing to the voice of reason that kept me clinging to life even when all hope had abandoned me, but as my eyes shifted from man to man at my side, drinking in their sullen expressions, that voice became little more than a whisper in my mind.
There were no toasts - no roars of celebration; only the subtle acknowledgment that our end had arrived. I remember seeing the structure move, if only for a moment; some rolling cascade of fins jetting out from the sides before darting back into perfect uniformity, shedding off a strange magnetism that demanded even the iron in our blood. A wrench struck me hard in the stomach, forcing the air from my lungs as several bolts and screws whipped past me across the deck, narrowly missing my face. The ship hurtled toward the disc, barely visible through the collage of metal that clung to the massive viewport.
I remember being thrown forward across the cabin as we rammed into the vessel, thinking mid-air that it would all be over, right then and there. A thousand images flashed through my mind as I imaged all the ways that I could die: knocked out by a concussion, sucked into space, cooked alive in a stray fire. As reality hit my mind, my body hit the window, and I fell to the floor in pain. A dread stillness overtook the cabin, broken only by the groans of injured men and the crackle of shattered implements. One of the technicians crawled to his feet as he gripped his mouth in agony, blood dripping out from between his fingers. Most fillings were made from a non-magnetic alloy after MRIs started ripping them out, but when you're born in the back alleys of Bolivia, you take what you can get.
Looking back at the captain, I could see right through his expression; I could see the subtle twitch in his features - the lifeless slack in his jaw as his inner-optimist slowly bled out on the floor. At that moment, I began to understand that there's a difference between being told that you're going to die, and actually knowing it. Unfortunately for us all, hope is the veil of denial.
I suited up and stepped into the airlock with Chris and Jose. The former didn't speak much, but I knew he was discharged after two tours in Iraq. His eyes were haunted and heavy-set, giving off that subtle, thousand-yard stare that never truly ended. The latter worked on the ISS for most of his life after his family was killed in a plane crash. He said it was struck by lightning. Misery loves company. As for myself, I honestly couldn't tell you why I came here. Curiosity may have played a part, but honestly, I just didn't have much going for me. The teachings of my father still had an anchor in me, but I knew that I was just too much a coward to pull the trigger. The average man never fears death until it's breathing down his neck. For others, it's bred into your bones.
The airlock slid open. Before us stood a welcoming, brightly-lit hallway, its walls adorned with silk curtains, and the floor covered with a flowing red carpet that trailed off into the distance. It was like a stranger with a sudden kindness, smiling and complimenting your every breath. You play along, but you know that it's only meant to lead you in - something to soften the blow.
A feeling of bliss washed over us as we stepped into the hall, putting our worries at ease and our hearts to rest. Upon the walls hung row after row of antique paintings, famous historical figures watching intently as we passed their sun-kissed forests and pastoral fields. Moving through the corridor, we soon emerged within a massive chamber that dwarfed us with its majesty. A shining crystal chandelier hung far above us, dispersing a chorus of light and color that danced merrily across the walls. In the center of the room stood an ivory table that held an extravagant spread of fruit and meat, begging us to partake. The utter silence of the world around me rang in my ears as I stared at the mural on the ceiling, tracing my eyes across Lucifer's face as Michael pinned him to the ground.
I heard Jose curse beneath his breath, backing away from the table in confusion. We watched as he reached forward to pick up an apple, but his hand passed through the fruit as though it were air. A feeling of unease began to creep through my mind as I tried to make sense of the situation. Slowly, I backed against the wall, only for my body to fade through the silk curtains like a shimmering mirage, the fabric spilling across my skin like light upon a pool of gasoline.
That was the moment we all expect, but never mention; when the stranger lets the illusion of niceties sink into the background, leaving the reality that only experience can help you anticipate. I stepped away from the flowing curtains, and moved toward Chris, only to trip on something and fall to the floor. The others screamed in horror at some unseen object. Turning around, my eyes met with the sunken, malformed face of a grossly disfigured corpse, a dozen vestigial limbs haphazardly splayed apart and messily fused with other parts of its body. I scampered back and crawled to my feet, staring down at the hundreds of eyes and teeth that poked through its withered flesh. Shivering in place, my heart pounded in my chest, paralyzed with fear. As the panicked shouts of Chris and Jose brought me back to reality, a flood of adrenaline rushed through my veins, and all I knew was that we had to leave.
When we fled back into the hall, what I remember most is that it wasn't the fear of death that crossed my mind - it was the fear of pain. The part of me that still wanted to die whispered slowly through the haze of adrenaline, but the coward in me feared the promise of agony - the thought that I might suffer. As we turned the corner, our eyes met only with a dark, steel corridor adorned with the sinews of the dead. The rest of the illusion slowly faded to nothingness, abandoning us within the harrowing void. Shivering in an icy sweat, I turned on my headlamp with the others, illuminating the bloodstained walls that surrounded us.
Slowly and carefully, we wandered through the vast network of corridors, working our way through the swimming darkness as it threatened to devour what little light we had left. Keeping my eyes locked straight ahead of me, something slowly crept into view. The body of a small, middle-eastern boy was nailed to the wall ahead of us, his mouth stretched from ear to ear in a macabre grin, and his limbs melted into his body in a bizarre tangle of flesh and bone. Chris backed away from us and leaned against the wall, hyperventilating within his suit.
The fear of physical pain is something shared by every species on Earth; it's a common thing, and you come to expect it from the moment you draw your first breath - but the agony of the body is incomparable to the agony of the mind. I could see the light die in Chris's eyes as he sank back into his memories. We had to leave, to die on our own terms, but no amount of pleading would move him from that spot. There are some troubles that words are powerless to fix. We left him there, sobbing against the steel walls that surrounded him.
It felt odd, stumbling back through the darkness of the maze, caught in a strange delirium as we trod upon the malign tapestries of flesh and bone that littered the halls. The dread labyrinth held deathly still as we moved, radiating an aura of evil and depravity that infected the very air that we breathed. We were not alone, and though neither of us knew what occupied the vessel, we could feel it thrum against our thoughts, boring into our minds as it spawned the illusory world that surrounded us. We soon emerged within a large chamber littered with dead bodies and discarded weapons. At the far end of the room stood a massive set of steel doors that opened into darkness. A crackle of static echoed throughout the room, and a lone PDA flickered to life on the ground.
"This is day twenty-six of expedition Alpha," a man's voice crackled with static. "We're running low on supplies, and several of our group have fallen ill. I'm afraid we won't last much longer. Know, travelers, that this place is a prison. Once exiled from time itself, it is now a door to many worlds; the silent manipulator of fates - a primeval horror that dwells in the minds of all men. Though you stand in the heart of despair, do not be swayed by the miseries of this place, travelers, for the soul can never be destroyed - only altered."
As the recording fell silent, I looked up at the open set of steel doors. Beyond them, a twilight garden of towering hedges and weighted mist shuddered into reality. Along the door's edges were columns of runes and impossible shapes, painted with the blood and bile of a thousand sacrifices. As I stared into the blue infinity, a sharp pain welled up in my head, forcing me to look away. A loud bang echoed throughout the chamber, and I saw Jose dead on the ground, his hand clutching a revolver. Beneath him lay a woman and child, their flesh burnt away by the fires of some distant tragedy.
My eyes panned across the sea of bodies that littered the room, noticing the telltale head wounds on each and every one of them, some with weapons in their hands, and some gripping nothing at all, their methods pried away from them long ago.
Sometimes I'll hear a whimper out in the distance, but I can't tell if it's Chris, or just my mind playing tricks on me. I could feel a presence in this place: something that followed in my every step. Something that swam with every twitch of my shadow, and lurked within the darkness of my thoughts. It had been with me for a very long time, now, since long before I ever came to this place. As a child, I didn't have a name for it, but I felt it all the same, forever unrealized until the day I asked my priest about death. Suicide is an unforgivable sin, he'd say; that thoughts of malignancy and malice were the domain of devils and demons unbound to the waking world.
I took Jose's revolver and found a place where I could hide, but I know that it's still watching me. I can't take the darkness - the silence of this place; this feeling that if I open my eyes, I might see something that I'd regret.
There's one round left in the gun. I don't know what else I can do.